Monday, April 25, 2011

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

"As our experience with social Darwinism illustrates, we need to be eternally on guard against the siren song of self-interest if we wish to live in a fair and equitable society."

"In sports, winners can survive only if losers do too; otherwise, there'd be no game. Our planet is similar. If a sufficiently superior and arrogant species arose and pursued a winner-take-all philosophy, it would be game over for all of us."

"The tendency to discount the future helps explain why people sometimes act to destroy their environment, whether by cutting down rain forests, continuing to pollute the atmosphere or destroying biodiversity. And people without prospects are created in a number of ways - through grinding poverty, through greatly unequal societies and through war, famine or other misfortunes. If you're concerned about our future, it's not just desirable that we eradicate poverty in the developing world, create more equal societies and never let ourselves fight another war; it's imperative, for the discount factor tells us that failure to do so may cost us the Earth."

Three quotations at the beginning of a book review is a bit much, I know, but I found Australian naturalist Tim Flannery very quotable in his latest book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet. There are still more purple post-its hanging from the book, but I will spare you having to consider more for the moment. Ironically, the title seems somehow inadequate. Flannery's definition of "natural history" is not just about water, air, earth, and wildlife. He scrutinizes our whole way of life and the way it effects our environment, and he seems as concerned with social justice as water purity. Only if we live in a just society, he reasons, will we work together to become a healthy superorganism.

Flannery explains the idea of the superorganism in the third section of this wide-ranging book. In biological groups, whether it be insects, fish, birds, or mammals, individuals who remain solitary or in small groups must perform many functions to survive, including find or grow food, find or build shelter, and procreate. Some species, however, work together in mass, such as termites, bees, and some fish, and the members all specialize. Flannery holds that humans began showing superorganism tendencies when we adopted agriculture and formed cities. In our global modern economy, we all specialize, and it is now not possible for us to really fend for ourselves without others in the community. We would be particularly out of luck if the people who keep us supplied with electricity disappeared. We have not as yet reached a societal accord as regulated as a beehive, however. As a result, we have many problems, particularly because there are so many of us.

Flannery comes close but never says that there are too many of us. What good would it do to just complain? There are seven billion of us, and we have to cope. He is an optimist by necessity. If we do not find a new way to accommodate all of the excess people in an environmentally sound way, we are doomed. He does point to the rich as a problem, for they are using more than their share of resources, often demanding unsustainable products for their sole consumption.

As you can see, Here on Earth is not your typical "we have to reduce global warming" book. Flannery argues that we have to end war, save endangered species, end poverty, and find sustainable methods to power and feed the world, too. It would be a great choice for book discussion groups.

Flannery, Tim. Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. ISBN 9780802119766.

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