The Road to Sustainability: 4.5 billion years in the making

Australian sustainability professor Tim Flannery wants to solve the many crises humanity is facing (environmental, economic, resource, health, nutrition, social inequality). One way he did this was by writing Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (the Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2010), which explains the need for taking a holistic approach to climate change problems. But since its inception, this book had numerous challenges to overcome.

Flannery’s idea that Earth is an interdependent living organism demanded that he weave together many academic areas of study in order to build a timeline that included the 4.5 billion year history of the planet, the 1.5 billion year history of human evolution, the 50 thousand year development of human migration, the 20 thousand year history of human civilization, and the 200 year history of industrialization. And then discuss how humans relate to their environment today and what things we could do moving forward to avoid climate change catastrophes.

Did Flannery succeed? Yes and No.

Even though the title mentions natural history, Flannery explains the subject matter of his misleadingly named tome in the first paragraph of his Foreword this way: “This book is a twin biography of our species and our planet. At its heart lies an investigation of sustainability – not how we achieve it, but what it is […because] I believe that as we come to know ourselves and our planet we will be moved to act. Indeed, provoking that action is the purpose of this book.” Natural history is the foundation of his theories, but it’s not what the book is about. Getting a broad audience to understand the basis for his holistic approach to climate change is what the book is about.

The first third of his book actually deals with the natural history of the planet and human evolution, and tries to answer the question: What is life? To Flannery, Earth is one large organism and everything is interconnected: we are a living system (human) within a living system (Earth). “Another way of thinking about life is that we are all self-choreographed extravaganzas of electrochemical reaction, and it is in the combined impacts of those reactions, across all of life, that Gaia itself is forged. Thinking of life as something separate from Earth is wrong.”

The second third of the book deals with “superorganisms”, which are communities that “comprise individuals whose degree of integration and organization sits between that of an ecosystem and a multi-cellular creature such as ourselves” and that Man is “the ultimate superorganism”. This section is as dense and foreign-sounding as the quotes used above imply. Flannery is comparing one successful superorganism (an ant colony) and the human superorganism, which is singularly focused on destroying the environment it lives in, in order to highlight the necessity of creating positive feedback loops that strengthen the earth instead of poisoning it.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the current state of the world and Flannery’s suggestions on how to restore the planet’s “life-force” through whole-earth solutions. “…[W]e must be capable of influencing Earth’s organs – its crust, oceans and atmosphere – in order to help maintain the planet’s thermal balance. That’s a high bar for a species just emerging from a tribal age, for it requires unanimity of purpose, informed by a profound scientific understanding, and intelligent and responsive tools for management.”

Throughout the book, the author shows the scientific underpinnings of how humans have interacted with the world and highlights the ways our actions need to change in order to lessen the impact of climate change.

In tackling such a complicated subject, Flannery tried to do too much on too few pages. He alluded to over 104 scientists, economists, witnesses, writers or thinkers in the text while citing 249 sources in his endnotes. And he expected the reader to know their context and their relationship to Flannery’s work, which was not always evident. Without Google, a layman cannot get through this book.

But to a history buff, a policy wonk, an earth scientist or an environmentalist, this book can be a treasure trove of information. Let me add one personal statistic to the two above: I found 90 instances in this book where I was surprised to learn something totally new. It might not be an easy book to read, but it is packed with knowledge and good references.

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