Scarcely more than 50 years ago, reputable figures in the international community were suggesting that nuclear weapons could be fruitfully deployed as a means of geo-engineering. Take the Arctic. The region is nearly too cold to be habitable by humans. The polar ice cap blocks valuable shipping lanes. And the expanses of frigid water up North contribute to uncomfortably cold winters in many countries. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just nuked the place?
In his new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, Tim Flannery, an acclaimed scientist and author, tells us that versions of such a proposal were advanced after World War II by the first director-general of UNESCO, by a top official at the U.S. Weather Bureau, and by Russian oil engineer Petr Mikhailovich Borisov. Scientific conferences debated the merits, while businesses contemplated the use of nuclear detonations in the extraction of coal and oil.
If we need any further evidence of humanity’s seeming propensity for hastening its own extinction, the fact that such insane atomic applications were ever considered should suffice. In Here on Earth, Flannery explores the roots of the human appetite for self-destruction.
Some people, he writes, argue this results from Darwinian processes. Named after the murderous anti-heroine of Greek lore, the Medea hypothesis holds that the ruthless competition encouraged by natural selection ensures that the most successful species will dominate their surroundings so thoroughly that they end up undermining their own wellbeing. In Flannery’s words, “species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse.”
But Flannery also holds out hope for humanity’s future. He champions James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis—the conviction that the planet should be regarded as a single, living organism and that “the living and nonliving parts of Earth are inextricably interwoven.” Gaians contend that, through the interactions of its atmosphere, oceans, geological shell, and biological life itself, the Earth is naturally self-regulating and uniquely structured to sustain life.
Unlike a Medean perspective, Flannery argues, a Gaian worldview offers a path to survival. He believes that humans can yet embrace their role as “indispensable elements in the Earth system” and thus join in the “commonwealth of virtue” that has allowed complex ecosystems on this planet to flourish for eons.
Flannery has enough clout to have his opinions taken seriously. In the 1980s and early 1990s, as a young mammalogist conducting research in isolated parts of New Guinea and its surrounding islands, he discovered 30 species more than Darwin did during his time traveling aboard the Beagle. More recently, Flannery has become well known as a popularizer of science. He was even named “Australian of the Year” in 2007. (Who knew one could aspire to such a title?) In 2005 Flannery scored an international bestseller with The Weather Makers. Filled with science, the book covered findings from a wide variety of disciplines that together presented a forceful case that international bodies should take action against climate change. It was An Inconvenient Truth told in an Australian accent.
Here on Earth is a different type of book, looser and more speculative. The pleasure in it comes not from seeing an expert make a narrow and closely defended argument. Rather it is in watching a prominent scientist engage in “holistic, planetary-scale” ruminations.
In the course of his broad “investigation of sustainability” on earth, Flannery offers asides on topics ranging from irrigation techniques to the causes of youth violence. He enters into Jurassic Park territory with musings on whether the woolly mammoth might ever be resurrected. And he ventures into political analysis by repeating the popular but unscientific conjecture that “there are two fundamental sentiments that decide an election—hope for the future, and fear of it.”
The Gaia theory previously made an appearance in The Weather Makers. But there, recognizing that Lovelock’s proposition carries more of a hint of New Age mysticism than many of his fellow scientists are willing to countenance, Flannery presents it less as a formal hypothesis than as a useful interpretive framework—as “shorthand for the complex system that makes life possible.”
In Here on Earth, Flannery aims to push it further. He defends Gaia as “being soundly based and profoundly important to our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth.” It represents, he states, a body of ideas “often studied [in universities] as ‘Earth systems science,’ perhaps because that sounds more respectable” than descriptions of the planet as “one entire perfect, living creature.”
Some readers may be disinclined to grant the Gaia hypothesis the level of respectability Flannery seeks. Likewise, followers of the late Stephen Jay Gould will find Flannery’s views about contemporary human behavior too deeply rooted in sociobiology— too heavily favoring nature over nurture—to deserve credence. Nevertheless, they will appreciate his arguments against those who reduce all evolution to selfish competition, overlooking co-evolution and mutual dependence among species as modes of successful adaptation. And they will respect Flannery’s insistence that our destiny is not predetermined.
Will humanity ultimately destroy itself or learn to adapt to a world full of interconnections? Flannery rightly acknowledges that the answer to this question has not been locked in by evolutionary processes. Instead, it hinges on those same sentiments that influence elections: our fears about the future, and our hopes for it.
Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet
By Tim Flannery
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages, $25)