Tim Flannery Lecture—“Here on Earth”

BY BEN HABIB.

 

 

 

2010 Jonathan Mann Memorial Lecture

“Here on Earth”

Presented by Professor Tim Flannery

La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus

Thursday 14th October, 2010.

 

 

 

Not many academics have the star pulling power of a rock star, but Professor Tim Flannery is one of them.  The distinguished academic and 2007 Australian of the Year did not disappoint in this regard, drawing a huge crowd to La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga that packed the main lecture theatre to capacity, along with three other rooms into which his speech was video conferenced.  Whether his presentation lived up to his star billing is another matter.

 

Achieving Global Consciousness

 

The essence of Professor Flannery’s presentation revolved around a fundamental question about human beings: can we achieve sustainability, or are we as a species suicidal?

 

This question stems from the paradox of humanity posed by Italian thinker Enricho Fermi.  Fermi wondered if intelligent civilisations could not avoid destroying themselves.  If the answer is yes, then there may have been numerous intelligent civilisations across the cosmos that have flamed out through self-immolation.  If the answer is no, then we may be the first intelligent civilisation in the cosmos, which means life on Earth is a precious and rare thing, which implies intelligent civilisation as a linear progression of life whose destiny it is to succeed.

 

This is a far cry from the Darwinian view of intelligent life as an evolutionary accident.  For Flannery, Darwinian evolution is not the whole story.  Evolution may be the mechanism governing the distribution of life on this planet, but it requires a holistic view of life to describe evolution’s legacy.  Drawing on the ideas of nineteenth century scientist George Wallace, Flannery described life on Earth as complex and inter-dependent, where species have cooperated and co-evolved for mutual benefit.  He cites the human body as an example, which acts as a “vehicle of biodiversity” supporting millions of other life forms such as bacteria and mites.  At a planetary level, he finds sympathy with James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that conceptualises the entire planet as an integrated living system.  This holistic worldview, Flannery lamented, is not part of the academic mainstream.

 

Flannery indicated his hope that a singular human consciousness is the endpoint of the cooperation and co-evolution of life.  He suggested that we are indeed progressing in this direction, suggesting that human societies are in the process of eroding tribalism and giving birth to a cosmopolitan world, a transformation driven by globalisation and information technologies like the internet.

 

Flannery rightly argued that human intelligence can’t achieve a singular consciousness in a world divided by nation-states and power blocks.  Unfortunately, I fear he has over-estimated the unifying power of the internet and demonstrated a limited comprehension of the yin and yang of information technology and globalisation.  For all the ways in which globalisation brings people closer, they equally push people apart as diverse groups react against the imposition of a singular global culture and the exploitative economic relationships that underlie it.  In short, tribalism is alive and well around the globe in reaction to the Western consumerist monoculture.

 

The Evolution of Human Civilisation

 

The problems that a singular human consciousness would help to solve are the very obstacles that prevent this singularity from coming about: climate change, population growth, water shortage, toxic pollution etc.

 

To solve these problems, Professor Flannery rightly argued that all of us will have to give something up.  However he did not make this assertion in the context of establishing good faith in a complex bargaining process.  Rather, he made the point that we all need to sacrifice some individual autonomy as a means of increasing the autonomy and adaptability of our human civilisation.

 

Professor Flannery gave the increasingly complex social organisation of ants as an example of a species evolving its social structure to adapt to challenging conditions, to illustrate that as a civilisation becomes larger and more complex, the individuals within it sacrifice autonomy and become more specialised.  They increase their technical proficiency in one specific niche in order to benefit the society, at the cost of narrowing their individual skill set.

 

The same specialisation has occurred in industrial societies; think of all the practical skills our 18th and 19th century ancestors had in comparison with the narrow set of technical competencies we have today as participants in the 21st century industrial workforce.

 

Professor Flannery seems to posit this increasing specialisation as a positive development in the quest for global consciousness.  This would seem to fly in the face of many others today, environmentalists included, who suggest that over-specialisation is a chimera when complex societies break down, because individuals lack the broad skills necessary to adapt to changing circumstances.  In this context, increasing social complexity makes a society less able to adapt to external shocks, not more adaptable.

 

We see this problem today in debates about economic transformation in the context of climate mitigation and water allocation.  Narrowly skilled workers across all sectors rightly question how they will adapt as the industries they work in change or die.  In this context, over-specialisation is an adaptive noose.

 

Responses to Questions about the Murray Darling Basin Plan

 

Professor Flannery answered several questions from the floor related to the Murray Darling Basin Plan during the Q&A segment of the presentation.  From his perspective, the plan will involve economic and social impacts but will not necessarily destroy riverine communities.  He foresees a long and difficult consultation process that will eventually yield an imperfect but useful result, after a great deal of muddling through.  Either way, Flannery is clear that doing nothing has consequences, with the status quo being an outcome in which everyone loses.

 

This discussion paper (a guide to a draft of the final plan) is only the beginning.  Flannery urged people in regional communities to get educated on the various policy options available in order to make an informed contribution to the policy consultation process, in contrast to angry outbursts at town meetings which he believes are unlikely to achieve anything.  In addition, he argued that political hubris from any of the political parties will make it increasingly difficult to implement a complex public policy reform program such as the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

 

Indeed independent MP Tony Windsor has suggested that the hung parliament may be a blessing in disguise in that it may make good-faith policy negotiation more feasible than under the adversarial two-party dichotomy.  Circumstance has not waited long to provide a grand test for the “new paradigm” of Australian politics.

 

Flannery believes that the basis of the prosperity of river communities can change through staggered structural adjustment, with government financial assistance to affected parties.  The key points here are staggered implementation and active government financial support, giving communities, businesses and families the time and financial buffer to adjust.

 

Summary: Evolutionary Enlightenment or Techno Hubris?

 

I am entirely in agreement with Professor Flannery that human consciousness needs to evolve if we are to meet the existential challenge of climate change and ensure the long-term perpetuation of the human species.  Because this task requires us all to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationships to the environment we are part of and the living organisms we share it with, all of us will benefit from developing spiritual and philosophical anchors around which we can build this new consciousness.

 

However, I have to diverge from Professor Flannery in my pessimism over the ability of the internet and globalisation to overcome the deep scars left on humanity by 500 years of the modern nation-state system.  What I sensed in Professor Flannery’s presentation was an unwarranted optimism in some internet-driven techno-rapture.  Forgive me, but I have to laugh at anyone who suggests that Facebook is anything more than a procrastination tool for students and bored white collar employees in developed countries.

 

If we’re looking for a transformation of consciousness, it may be more fruitful for us to examine the core doctrines of humanity’s oldest religions, which suggest that transformation of consciousness begins within the mind of the individual.  This is indeed sagely advice, because if we wait for some kind of external actor or phenomenon to bail us out of trouble—be it the government, the corporate sector, globalisation, the internet, God—we may end up waiting a long time.

 

To sum up: hubris is not a basis for hope.

 

________________________________________________________________

 

 

Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.


Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at politicsalburywodonga@gmail.com.

 

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

 

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3 responses to “Tim Flannery Lecture—“Here on Earth”

  1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking it. I love the internet but I don’t see it as really helping to create a beneficient homogeous world view that is going to help us solve climate change. I was also left scratching my head about his view that the travel habits of todays young people would also help create this new global conciousness. Beats me what he thinks is fuelling all of this travel. The last time cheked it was mostly jumbo jets carrying overseas travellers to and from our shores.

  2. Kim Peart

    kimpeart@iinet.net.au

    I think deeply about the future and how we will deliver solutions for our problems. For instance, there may be more air travel in the future, but this could be with air ships that could travel to any location on Earth. We need a slow future on Earth, where we learn to step gently with Nature. If we fail to figure out the steps, we cannot begin to make the transition.

    My review of Tim Flannery’s ‘Here on Earth’ follows this introduction:

    This is the first book on climate change that I have read that raises the question of space development. Flannery says yes, but not yet. I say yes and fix the Earth at the same time. I also suggest that our failure to move on space development in the 1970s, when the vision was strong and the experienced people with an iron will to solve any problem (Apollo 13) were in place to act, has led to the climate change crisis that we face now. Why? Simply because serious space development involves accessing the unlimited energy of the Sun and if we had acted on this in the 1970s, we would not have been burning all that naturally sequestered coal and oil. What we could do now would be to catch-up with the past, connect with our future and fix-up the problem caused by inaction in the 1970s.

    With dangerous climate change we face a question of survival, let alone our future prosperity and creative opportunities. With space development we have a way to secure a confident survival position beyond Earth, from where we could deal with any problem on Earth.

    Without survival, no other activity is possible.

    Why mess with survival?

    See the end for errors found by Professor Ian Lowe and myself.

    Book Review
    ==========
    ‘Here on Earth – an argument for hope’
    Tim Flannery, Text publishing, 2010

    Review by Kim Peart

    Tim Flannery has become a mythic figure in the Australian landscape, emerging from the mists of palaeontology and the mountains of New Guinea with a view of our past and a vision for our future. After being made Australian of the year in 2007, he has shifted gear from a career as a scientist to become a climate change activist on the world stage. Published in the wake of the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, Flannery’s latest book is attempting to steer his tin boat of optimism against the tide of despair that many works on climate change now openly spread, like Clive Hamilton’s ‘Requiem for a Species’, when their authors look into the pit of the science and come away shaken.

    Flannery wants us to believe that we can turn the tide and even offers the hope that one day humanity will expand into space. This is the first book on climate change that I have read that introduces the prospect of humanity launching a star-faring civilization. However, like a prophet of old, he stands on the mountain of scientific authority and issues a commandment, “During this critical period in the evolution of the human super-organism all focus needs to be on the Earth.” (page 279), that “the frontier” is closed (page 275).

    But what if the prophet is plain wrong?

    Flannery makes this declaration at the end of his journey through the evolution of life on Earth, the emergence of consciousness, human progress and our potential failure, but does not explore the arguments for space development, the immense amount of work that has been done in this field since Dr Wernher von Braun opened the way to the Moon with the mighty Saturn V rocket and Professor Gerard K O’Neill presented his vision for orbital space settlements in the 1970s, proposing to pay for the venture by building solar power stations in space and beaming the energy to a power-hungry Earth. O’Neill’s ideas received hearings in Congress and studies by NASA, as well as forming the basis of the Princeton Space Studies Institute. In the light of the oil price shock of the early 1970s, serious space development came very close to happening.

    If O’Neill’s vision had been pursued in the 1970s, instead of pouring money, blood and agent orange into the soils of Vietnam, Flannery might have been writing another book on New Guinea, because solar power collected in space could now have become the main energy source for Earth, allowing us to leave all that coal and oil in the ground and avoid the spectre of dangerous climate change. We may now have avoided the perfect storm of catastrophes that are rising up before us and the prospect of losing the lot as spaceship Earth becomes a hot and windy desert hulk.

    Could we catch up with the future we missed in the 1970s and use space technology to save our hides on Earth? As we fight to save the Earth, should we also invest in a survival insurance policy in space? Could the very problem that Flannery seeks to solve in fact be fixed by a giant leap in space development, so that our species is no longer trapped on Earth and at risk of sliding into extinction?

    To put a glass ceiling on the space option and declare that the frontier is closed is to keep the problems in a fish bowl. This may be scientifically convenient, but not considering the dynamics of all options, or the implications of leaving any option out of a working solution, is a very risky trail to follow. In this dangerous age, is it wise to keep all our eggs in one basket, where if the Earth goes bad, all eggs go rotten? This approach is cross-fingered gambling that may in fact run counter to evolution, where the emergence of the Internet and the dawning robot revolution reveals the potential of a whole new era of natural diversity that may find it’s full potential in space and among the stars.

    Flannery does not follow James Hansen in warning about the Earth becoming a second Venus, or the view of James Lovelock that we could be heading toward a survivalist future with a 90 per cent loss of human life, a future where we may need to live on Earth more as if we were living in space. He prefers to lead us into the future that we could build with the tools of science, cooperation and compassion.

    Love is a theme that rises through this book, along with hope, but like space development, it is given no context, other than with Biblical quotes. Flannery does not claim to be a Christian or an atheist. In a world where reductionist science has carved life into tiny fragments of matter and fuelled an economic mainstream that measures existence in dollar sized particles, it is not enough to drop the word “love” into a grand vision and trust that the concept will be universally understood.

    In the story of love in action in the Bible, the art of fearless compassion described in the parable of the Good Samaritan, love is framed in the context of a lawyer asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10: 25-37). Love was given a context for life’s action to deliver results in a larger pageant of life. In an age when cosmologists speculate about our universe happening in a vaster realm that they call the multiverse, there is an opportunity to use science to frame a larger, deeper and higher context for love, hope and the transcendent qualities of life, including sublime happiness and our experience of beauty, whether in the arts or in the presence of Nature.

    Flannery points out that our cities are fragile and could grind to a smelly stand-still within days if the power were cut. He also reveals a tender nerve when describing how angry young men with nothing to live for in Somalia become pirates and despite billions of dollars invested in naval prevention by many nations, there is little that can stop this plague, especially as more dangerous weapons become available. In this theme Flannery makes an impassioned plea for the young men of Papua New Guinea, that we must “empower their societies and families, and so give them something to live for,” (page 232). In this context Flannery is walking the same talk as Nicholas Stern when he declares in ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’ that climate change and poverty must be dealt with together, that one cannot be solved without fixing the other. This concept was raised by conservationists like Charles Birch in the 1970s with statements such as “an ecologically sustainable society living a globally equitable lifestyle.” Flannery states that “poverty has to be everyone’s enemy in a globalized world,” (page 232).

    Amnesty International gain a mention in this book, as seemingly the villains of Copenhagen, because “they called on Denmark to arrest President al-Bashir of Sudan over breaches of human rights, Sudan set out to wreck the negotiations.” This is the world of Realpolitik, or power politics, where perfect plans will be sunk by emotional demands. The fate of the youth of Papua New Guinea, for instance, cannot be separated from the fact that West Papua was handed over to Indonesia to buy a pro-West peace, at a time when Holland and Australia were working together for the independence of the whole island. Instead of a strong independent island of New Guinea, there are now ongoing problems in both parts of the island. The youth of Gaza are mentioned, but can the problem of angry Palestinian youth be separated from Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, even though this is illegal in International law?

    If we are to solve the climate change challenge and send poverty into history, we must also address geopolitical issues, or as with Sudan, the problem returns to bite deeply into our political rumps when we least need it.

    Professor Flannery also includes the fascinating fact that since we stopped being hunters and gatherers our brains have shrunk, by 10 per cent in men and by 14 per cent in women (page 126). I wonder if this relates to the prolific memory required before reading and writing replaced oral traditions, when all stories and law were preserved in the mind and the landscape was read in fine detail like an encyclopaedia. In Iceland the Viking Sagas were passed on for hundreds of years in this fashion, until being written down and preserved into the age of pens.

    Why there is a discrepancy in the loss of brain mass between men and women is not explained in this work.

    The exploration of ant communities and how they form super-organisms is fascinating. He goes on to describe our global civilization as the biggest and most complex super-organism of them all. In this way Flannery makes the connection between Nature and human society. He suggests that, “If we take too small a view of what we are, and of our world, we will fail to reach our full potential,” (page 272). In this expansive approach to science and life, he claims that there are “rules that guide the development of civilizations,” (page 137).

    If there are rules guiding the development of civilization, then those rules can only be part of the natural laws that govern evolution and the emergence of life into ever greater diversity. Flannery does not confront the question of why human consciousness and our civilization exist in Nature and what purpose we could have for the planet. He suggests “that our environmental problems ultimately stem from having escaped coevolution’s grip,” (page 68). Did we escape, or were we released? If we were released, what did we do with our liberty? Did we develop space technology? Did we fail to act on our ability to expand into space when we had the chance? Is our survival as a species now at risk because we failed to act on serious space development when we had the chance to act? We didn’t appreciate the problem in the 1970s, but we are learning about it’s consequences now.

    Flannery wonders if we are alone in the Universe. He points out how it takes three generations of stars to produce enough carbon for intelligent life to exist. Our Sun is a third generation star. Perhaps we are the first born. Perhaps other conscious species have emerged across the Universe to be released from coevolution’s grip and like us, failed to act when they had the chance and went into the night as their planet died. If we were to wake up to ourselves and lift our game beyond the Earth, would we one day find the ruins of failed civilizations around distant stars, conscious species who failed to act on investing in a survival insurance policy beyond their planet and paid the ultimate price?

    Tim Flannery has taken us on an amazing journey in this book, up the river of evolution in his tin boat of hope to where we are now, but if we have incurred critical tipping points that will take us inevitably into dangerous climate change and potentially, a dead Earth, our reality could already be up a smelly polluted creek in a barbed wire canoe and no paddle available.

    Flannery suggests that “Hope is a powerful tonic”, but we will need more than hope to solve our present crisis on Earth.

    As the prophet, he has brought back only one slab from the mountain. He may wake up to this detail and go back to fetch the other slab and if he does, the final pages of this book may become the beginning of his next work, exploring how we can deliver a safe future on Earth as we build an amazing Solar civilization among the stars. This could be the hope that will get humanity mobilized on Earth, a challenge that we can get our teeth into, to actually save the Earth as we secure the liberty of the celestial realm.

    Errors found
    =========
    There are some errors in the book that the reader may like to watch out for:

    Writing for Readings, Professor Ian Lowe, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, found a couple of errors. “There are a few uncharacteristic slips that should not have escaped the editing process. One unfortunately worded sentence blurs the components of Australian population growth and could reinforce the widespread myth that the increase is solely due to immigration. The discussion of the success of the Montreal Protocol is oversimplified; it was only after the agreement was strengthened at subsequent meetings in Stockholm and London that the treaty finally banned production and release of CFCs. The costing figures for Borisov’s ambitious geo-engineering scheme are clearly wrong.”

    I also found a couple of errors. On page 23 Flannery refers to sulphur dioxide as contributing to the great extinction event at the end of the Permian period. The gas involved was actually hydrogen sulphide, produced by sulphur bacteria, that killed life in the oceans and on land directly and also destroyed the ozone layer, which led to further extinctions of life from the effects of radiation. Tim also gives the date of the end of the Permian period as being 195 million years ago, but all other references on the matter state that it happened 251.4 million years ago. Another error in dates concerns the last Apollo mission to the Moon. On page 279 the year is given as 1971, but the historic date for the last explorer to walk on the Moon is 14 December 1972.

  3. I listened to Tim Flannery dump all over Canada as many other Enviro’s like to do. He compares Canada to Australia and how Australia has done such a magnificent job of transforming from fossil fuels to wind or solar power while those dirty rotten Canadian’s continue to spew out emissions from the TAR SANDS!!!! I personally am growing tired of Canada being the whipping boy of the environmental movement. For starters, on a cold day in Australia you may have to dawn a sweater where as a cold day in Canada the temperature plunges to minus 40 Celsius. In Canada we get 9months of winter followed by 6 weeks of 20 Celsius and 6 weeks of crappy weather. I dare that thin skinned Australian to live here through an Alberta Winter and maintain the same opinion about our use of fossil fuels. I would like the Tim Flannery’s of the world to suggest something radical. How about placing a carbon tax on people? Over population is the largest threat to the collapse of the worlds Eco system. The Earth cannot sustain the 6 Billion people yet we continue to breed like mice. Mathematically speaking you could march the Chinese into the ocean 4 abreast and never put a dent into their population. Yet we 33 million Canadians are responsible for the global climate problem. What a load of bunk. I like to take solace in the fact that within a couple hundred years humans will destroy themselves and the Earth will begin it’s healing process.

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