Who Made This Mess of Planet Earth?


The Australian paleontologist and biologist Tim Flannery has earned his broad-brimmed field hat. Flannery is the discoverer of dozens of mammal and dinosaur species, extant and extinct, across Australia and Melanesia. In books like “The Future Eaters” (about the devastation wrought by the settlement of Australia) and “The Weather Makers” (about climate change), he has won accolades as a vivid chronicler of ecological history with an uncommonly broad sweep and an increasingly activist bent. Now, in his fascinating, sometimes exasperating but ultimately valuable new book, “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet,” Flannery moves to the widest possible view, swinging between a loving invocation of our home planet and its astonishing cloak of living things and a blistering portrayal of modern Homo sapiens as fuel- and chemical-addicted “Gaia-killers.” Our self-centered resource binge, he writes, is exacting irreparable damage to Earth’s biological patrimony, “undoing the work of ages.” An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that humans have upended hosts of ecosystems and are exerting a growing and potentially calamitous influence on the climate. Some, perhaps in response to public indifference, have a tendency to push beyond the data in arguing for action. “Here on Earth” places Flannery in this group. I had a moment, about halfway in, when I was ready to give up in the face of overheated descriptions of environmental problems. But I stuck it out and was heartened to see Flannery abandon the rhetoric of shame and woe and turn to a more reasoned assessment of a young, intelligent species that finds itself in quite a predicament. After all, it’s not easy being the first life-form to become both a planet-scale force and — ever so slowly and uncomfortably — aware of that fact. That awareness is in its early stages and, as Flannery notes, “infancy is the most dangerous period of life.” “Here on Earth” begins with the deepest biological context, as Flannery pits what he sees as the mechanistic, soulless conceptions of Charles Darwin against the more holistic, even hopeful, vision of Alfred Russel Wallace, the English naturalist who discovered evolution independently. Whereas Darwin “sought enlightenment by studying smaller and smaller pieces of life’s puzzle,” Flannery writes, Wallace “took on the whole,” envisioning a transcendent human future in which evolutionary fitness is determined by more than simply the ability to out-reproduce — or, according to the Social Darwinists, out-earn — one’s competitors. Flannery cites, too, Wallace’s denunciation of the “criminal apathy” behind the choking urban pollution of the late 19th century, which stunted and killed the poor in particular. Tracking the rise and spread of the human species, Flannery contrasts two more contemporary visions of the processes in play. The “Medea hypothesis,” developed by the paleontologist Peter Ward, holds that natural selection drives species to exploit resources to the point of ecosystem collapse, and thus ultimately to destroy themselves. While Flannery agrees that this theory describes some extinctions of species and civilizations, he instead embraces the “Gaia hypothesis,” developed by the ecologist James Lovelock, which sees evolution as “a series of win-win outcomes that has created a productive, stable and cooperative Earth” — at least until human selfishness got in the way. Flannery zooms in on our mutually beneficial relationships with species like the greater African honeyguide, which uses a distinctive call and display to lure people to beehives, which then become a shared food source. Such relationships, he laments, are breaking down, as “lazy humans” have shifted to abundant, industrially produced sugar, and technology has more generally eroded our connection with nature. Flannery’s call for us to re-embrace that connection is cogent and appealing. He runs into trouble, however, when he turns to describing the “toxic climax” of industrialization. Here, he too frequently draws stark, portentous conclusions that go well beyond the underlying data. It’s fine to revisit the story of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and note that many developing countries have done little to control the use of dangerous insecticides and other chemicals. But Flannery slides too easily from discussing pesticide-related deaths and reproductive problems in birds (notably bald eagles) to citing a 2007 global estimate of 220,000 human deaths annually from acute pesticide poisoning. Global health impacts from pesticide exposure, while serious, remain dauntingly difficult to chart, and Flannery does not note that most documented deaths, according to the World Health Organization, result not from use (or misuse) in the field, but from the widespread habit, particularly in South Asia, of drinking pesticide to commit suicide. This is an appalling situation, but it has more to do with cultural, regulatory and mental health issues than with impending environmental Armageddon. Source: nytimes.com