Books: two views of the planet

Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth and Mark Lynas’s The God Species skilfully explore science’s role in averting ecological catastrophe. But reading them in parallel, Sam Geall found both stumble on the political route forward.

Here on Earth
Tim Flannery
Penguin Books, 2012

The God Species
Mark Lynas
Fourth Estate, 2012

Václav Havel
, the playwright and former Czech president, who died late last year, observed in a remarkable speech that humans’ “relationship to the world”, as it had been fostered by modern science and technology, appeared to have “exhausted its potential”. Man is now helpless, he said, unable to operate as a “single planetary civilisation” when confronted with “global challenges”. Still, Havel argued, “science has paradoxically returned, in a roundabout way, to man” offering him “his lost integrity … by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.”

Havel cited the transcendent potential of the Gaia hypothesis: the environmentalist James Lovelock’s suggestion that the thick network of interactions on Earth, between living and non-living objects, form “a kind of mega-organism”. He concluded: “the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos.”

In a not-so-distant echo of Havel’s thoughts from 1994, two books recently re-published in paperback, Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth and Mark Lynas’s The God Species, raise the question of how humans might transcend the cultural, political and national boundaries that stymie collective, planetary thinking. While the background to Havel’s speech was shifting geopolitical forces – the end of imperialism and, more immediately, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe – the wider context in the Flannery and Lynas books is the ecological crisis, and the more immediate collapse of the Copenhagen climate change conference in late 2009.

As Lynas puts it: “Here was humanity, meeting together in all our cultural and political diversity … pooling its collective intelligence in an effort to protect its only home. The only problem was, it wasn’t working.”

Both authors staked a lot on that multilateral process designed to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions. Flannery, a scientist and explorer who started his career as a mammalogist in Papua New Guinea, was chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, which aimed to unite business leaders, policy-makers and scientists in the run-up to the UN conference. Lynas was, until the recent coup in the Maldives, adviser on climate change to president Mohamed Nasheed. Lynas is best known in China for his explosive account, published in The Guardian, of the last-minute talks at COP15. (Headline: “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room”).  

Lynas revisits and fleshes out this narrative of the negotiations in The God Species, but he finds – a sentiment echoed by Flannery – that the “really big story” today is that China leads the world in investment in low-carbon technologies and has proven it is “deadly serious about dealing with climate change”.

Disappointment at Copenhagen seems to have led both authors to revisit environmentalism and adopt more holistic perspectives on ecology than were common in the carbon-centric moment that led up to the summit. But the two authors’ paths soon diverge.

The God Species
starts with the tale of J Craig Venter, scientist and entrepreneur, whose 2010 breakthrough in synthetic biology – the creation of a new bacterial strain using man-made DNA, complete with an email address encoded in its genome – Lynas puts forward as a symbol of the Anthropocene: the new geological era in which “pristine nature – Creation – has disappeared for ever.” To deny our dominion over living things, as an earlier generation of environmentalists may have done, is only to embrace “human victimhood” and relieve ourselves “of any inconvenient burden of responsibility.”

Enter Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the scientist-star of The God Species, whose concept of “planetary boundaries” undergirds the book’s structure. In brief, this identifies nine thresholds for key Earth-system processes – climate change; rate of biodiversity loss; interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; freshwater use; change in land use; toxic chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading – which together determine what Rockström calls the “safe operating space for humanity”. (The first three boundaries we have crossed, on the others we are safe for now.) As an introduction to this influential concept, The God Species is invaluable and clearly written.

However, for Lynas – a well-known, if sometimes divisive, figure among British greens – the concept also does another kind of work: this level of planetary knowledge could form the “organising basis for a new kind of environmental movement”, he writes, one that leaves behind “some of the outdated concerns of the past”. Examples include: concerns about genetically engineered crops (“opposed by almost all Green groups worldwide, for ideological rather than scientific reasons”); nuclear power (“environmentally almost completely benign”); and industrial agriculture (“it may be preferable to focus on improving high-yield mechanised agriculture on the most fertile farmland to feed the new urban residents, whilst allowing mountainsides and other marginal lands to revert to forest”).

Lynas isn’t afraid of explaining the technical details either: there’s a lot to get your teeth into here. But it is during a discussion about carbon offsetting (he supports it) that Lynas sums up his philosophy best: “pragmatism beats purism”, he writes. “Every time.”

Here on Earth
also starts out with a biologist at a similar point of breakthrough, but the contrast with the Promethean Venter is interesting. It is Charles Darwin walking in circles, pondering the outcomes of his theory of life. “He came to realise that he must eventually tell the world that we are spawned not from godly love, but evolutionary barbarity. What would the social implications be?” From this point, Flannery embarks on an ambitious journey that he bills as “a twin biography of our species and our planet”, marked by the serious consideration of some troubling questions raised by evolutionary biologists. Are we destined, asks Flannery, to “destroy most other life, condemning our descendants to a new dark age, or outright extinction?” He does conclude there is a possibility “that we will use our intelligence to avert catastrophe and secure a sustainable future”.

But there is also a scepticism of technologies about which Lynas is optimistic; and particular worries emerge, like the effect of toxic chemicals (Flannery calls them “Gaia-killers”) on human fertility, one of a number of claims that Lynas is keen to debunk in his book.

Flannery is a skilful and wonderfully engaging writer. The reader learns, for example, that fire ants in North America, thanks to the change in frequency of a single gene, have created a superorganism the size of a modern human nation. Since the ants now have now “ceased to defend colony boundaries against other fire ants”, they have effectively formed a federation. An individual ant “could theoretically walk unchallenged from Virginia to Oregon”. Like Havel’s, Flannery’s hope is that “human cultural evolution” could drive us in a similar direction as those boundary-defying, transcendent ants.

But here Flannery’s book ultimately falls short, as does The God Species. Both books deal with the role of science in helping to avert global catastrophe, and are interesting to read in parallel in this respect, but neither clarifies sufficiently the ever more intimately entwined relationship between science and politics. The weakest chapters in both are those that deal with governance: making multilateralism work; protecting rights while defending the environment for future generations; ensuring public participation in decision-making about resources. Ascending to a superorganism and operating on a safe planetary level both seem like necessary, desirable and perhaps more discernible goals after reading these books, but the route there still doesn’t look much clearer.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of