Filmed on Tuesday May 3, 02011

Tim Flannery

Here on Earth

Professor of Science at Macqarie University in Sydney, a mammalogist, paleontologist, conservationist, and explorer, Tim Flannery wrote The Future Eaters (1994), The Eternal Frontier (2001), The Weather Makers (2005), and Here on Earth: A New Beginning.

Humans now engage the Earth at Gaian scale. How did Earth and humans get to this state? Given how we got here, how should we proceed? Tim Flannery finds that the evolutionary perspective of Alfred Russell Wallace offers better guidance than the more familiar Darwinian version of evolution.

Australian biologist Tim Flannery is the renowned author of The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters, and a great ecological history of North America, The Eternal Frontier. His book Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet was published in 02011.

Wallace beats Darwin

The great insight of natural selection was published simultaneously by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858, Flannery pointed out, but their interpretations of the insight then diverged. Darwin's harsh view of "survival of the fittest" led too easily to social Darwinism, eugenics societies, neo-classical economics, and an overly reductionist focus on the "selfish gene." Wallace, by contrast, focussed on the tendency of evolution to generate a world of complex co-dependence, and he became an activist for social justice.

At the age of 80 in 1904 Wallace published a book titled Man's Place in the Universe, which proposed that Earth was the only living planet in the Solar System. Flannery regards it as "the foundation text of astrobiology" and, with its view that the atmosphere is an instrument of life, a direct precursor of James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis and Earth System Science. The study of Earth systems, in turn, revealed that the atmosphere is 99 percent an artifact of life (minus only the noble gases), that the makeup of the oceans is life-driven (toxic heavy metals were concentrated into ore bodies), and that the whole, in Flannery's terms, constitutes a "commonwealth of virtue," using "geo-pheromones" such ozone, methane, atmospheric dust, and dimethyl sulfide from algae to regulate the stability of a livable planet. It acts like a loosely connected superorganism.

The first tightly connected superorganism came 100 million years ago when cockroaches invented agriculture and the division of labor and became termites, building complex skyscrapers with air-conditioning, highways, and garbage dumps. Only 10,000 years ago, humans did the same, inventing agriculture and the division of labor in cities, becoming the most potent superorganism yet. One cause of that, Flannery opined, may be our astonishing genetic uniformity, caused by a near-extinction 70,000 years ago, when only 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs of humans survived. The 7 billion of us now alive have less genetic diversity than any random sample of 50 chimpanzees in West Africa.

Flannery finds cause for hope in the increasing pace of global agreements to manage the global commons. There was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001, and worthy of an annual holiday on September 16, the 1987 signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Flannery, who now works full time on climate issues, even takes hope from the last-minute Copenhagen Accord that emerged from the UN climate meeting in 2009, because it brought developing nations into the global project to reduce greenhouse gases.

In Flannery's view, Gaia is an infant still. Even if it is the only Gaian planet in the galaxy, with growing skills and rudimentary space travel, it could invest the whole galaxy with life in just 5 to 50 million years---an instant in light of Earth's 4.5 billion years and the universe's 14 billion years.

Tim Flannery is the author of Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet.

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