WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

Commentary: Kim Peart on Flannery


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. If I am correct, then what we do now is catch-up with the past, to 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. 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.  Why mess with survival?

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Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope

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.

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(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.)

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