Despite the rise of climate scepticism, it’s probably fair to say that the scientific community has reached consensus about global climate change. We’re warming up and that warming is the result of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide. Whether or not it’s happening is no longer the question. The question is how we’re going to fix it and how long we have. Here on Earth: A New Beginning isn’t really a book about climate change per se, although that comes out as the most urgent issue that the human ‘superorganism’ has to deal with. Instead it’s a book about the whole notion of what humanity is as a species, and how that relates to the world we live in.
Here on Earth takes the Gaia hypothesis as its starting point – the notion that we’re part of the entire living ecosystem of the Earth – including the biosphere, the atmosphere, the ‘commons’ of the oceans and poles, all integrated to form a system much greater and more united than our current political system of ‘nationhood’ would suggest. Written in such clear, scientifically cogent prose, what might have appeared wacky somewhere else, comes across as elegant and utterly rational. Although it must have been tempting for Flannery to write this in a polemical style — after all, there’s much to do and little time to do it in — the writing is never didactic or prescriptive.
Instead, Flannery uses evidence to suggest that we are at a major crossroad, and that we can either destroy ourselves, Medea like, or we can evolve to the next phase, recognising our unique power and our extraordinary capability to cooperate as a united organism working for the common good. Although there’s plenty of evidence for the former, the book, as the subtitle suggests, remains positive, beyond even fixing the immediate crisis of climate change and overpopulation:
“There is something magnificent about the idea of a wild and free plant, one whose functioning is maintained principally by that commonwealth of virtue formed from all biodiversity.” (277)
Here on Earth begins and ends with Darwin’s sand walk, and the notion of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ and moves through Dawkins’ selfish gene, proposing that, beyond the gene, there’s the mneme – as Flannery presents it, a kind of idea/association/memory that has a physical reality and that can be used in a way that goes beyond strict self-interest towards the greater good. It’s the idea of this greater good towards which this book leans – a ‘commonwealth of virtue’ that works in a grander way than self-interest:
“In such a commonwealth the various elements are sorted and stored in the most appropriate planetary organ. Non-living parts of the system are coopted for the benefit of life, and there is no ‘waste’ because species recycle the by-products of others. And there is a tendency, over time, towards increased productivity and interdependence. All of this is achieved I the absence of a command-and-control system, and with only limited ability to elicit specific, system-wide responses. The remaining question, as Hamilton realised, and which we shall re-visit towards the end of the this book, is whether a commonwealth of virtue so defined promotes its own stability: in other words, is it Medean or Gaian in nature?” (62)
Of course whether we’re Medean or Gaian is the rub, and clearly we have the potential to go either way. We could progress to the next level of cooperative evolution, perhaps through our fast evolving technology, and not only fix the planet, but also learn to live in peace with one another (yup, world peace), or we might just end up, as Flannery so eloquently puts it in a nod to Cormac McCarthy, ‘On the Road’. If there are no other superorganisms in the universe, then that would be that. It would be tempting to look around at the extreme and growing polarity, and persistent poverty so evident in the world today, and shrug. Flannery doesn’t do that, and in fact quite clearly eshews such negative “self-fulfilling prophecies”.
Instead he offers a range of solutions from electric vehicles, smart grids, and satellite surveillance of environmental trangressions, along with the suggestion that the ultimate answer lies in governments being willing to cede power for the common good. That might require maturity that the human race, still in its juvenile phase, isn’t ready for. But if anyone can create the kind of awareness that leads to growth, Flannery can. If so, perhaps there really is an argument for hope.