Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, by Tim Flannery

Grove/Atlantic, ISBN 9780802119766, April 2011

Flannery gives us an overview of life on our planet and of our species, with an eye to making us see the importance of being a cooperative part of our planet's ecosystem (the Gaia hypothesis) rather than the rulers and exploiters of the ecosystem (the Medea hypothesis.) There's a useful and interesting review of the different paths and perspectives of the two creators of the theory of evolution--Charles Darwin and the less-remembered Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin held off on publishing for years, in part because he was disturbed by some of the moral implications of his theory. Wallace, in contrast, saw in evolution the beginnings of something like the Gaia hypothesis--that Earth's ecosystem is ultimately an interdependent whole, and the picture of nature as "red in tooth and claw" is at best half the picture.

Over the intervening century and a half these competing visions have played out, with the harsher Medean viewpoint more often prevailing. Now, though, we have reached a point where we potentially endanger the survival of the ecosystem we depend on for our own survival. Flannery makes the case that we both must, and can, become in effect the brain and nervous system of a Gaia that will nurture us along with all the other diversity of life on Earth.

Along the way, he tells some fascinating and illuminating stories. I was enthralled by the account of how mammoths made the Russian steppes more productive and life-diverse by acting as an ecological "banker," controlling vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil, and making it possible for the steppes to be far more productive than they are today--and how their extinction, at least in part due to human over-hunting, ecologically impoverished the steppes. Even more fascinating is his account of how the Australian aborigines first eliminated much of the diversity they found on arriving in Australia, hunting to extinction most of the megafauna of the continent, and then, struggling to survive in the impoverished landscape, effectively took their place as "ecological bankers." Carefully controlled firestick farming took the place of the large grazers; strict cultural rules on when, where, and how to hunt, along with restriction of hunting rights to the clans resident in particular areas, allowed Australia to be preserve much of the productivity the elimination of the megafauna would otherwise have eliminated. European colonists, on their arrival, began pushing the aborigines off their lands and exploiting the land in  ways based on their experiences in Europe, and once again severely damaged the productivity of the land. Now, Australians are once again attempting to modify their behavior to preserve their environment and unique fauna, and restore the productivity of the land.

All of this is in support of a discussion of how humans worldwide are now, on the one hand, exploiting the world in ways dangerous to our survival, and groping towards more sustainable practices. Some of the discussion is specifically about political systems: it's easier for democracies to start to lessen their environmental impact, because everyone has some degree of a say in what happens, and everyone has something to lose, making a "take the money and run" approach less attractive. Likewise, modern views of equality of rights and opportunity means that women, who bear most of the biological burden of reproduction, can and do choose to limit their child-bearing in favor of devoting more of their lives to professional, artistic, and volunteer activities. The spread of these rights and opportunities creates the possibility of escaping the Malthusian trap of outrunning our resources by limiting our reproduction to a sustainable level and even reducing the total human population a bit without resorting to China's harsh and oppressive measures.

Unfortunately, while I like the information and the viewpoint of the book, and learned some useful and interesting things from it, I do think that too much of it is preaching to the choir. In some of the chapters where I would most like him to be making a convincing case, Flannery is in fact offering arguments and examples that  I fear will convince no one who does not already agree with him. And the final, summary chapter waivers between hope and gloom in a repetitive and uncompelling manner.

An interesting book, but I can't recommend it if you're not already sympathetic to the Gaia hypothesis.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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