Scientist-conservationist Tim Flannery

Scientist, conservationist and best-selling author Tim Flannery compares U.S. environmental efforts to those of other countries and explains the link he makes in his new text, Here on Earth, between poverty and the future.

Scientist, explorer and conservationist Tim Flannery uses innovative approaches in solving environmental problems. His views are often provocative and his pioneering work, which includes a number of major discoveries, has received international acclaim. His books include the landmark works The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers, an international best seller that's been translated into more than 20 languages. Currently a professor at Macquarie University in his native Australia, Flannery's most recent text, Here on Earth, explores the planet's evolution.


Tavis: Tim Flannery is a renowned scientist, explorer and author who previously appeared on this program for his acclaimed text “The Weather Makers.” His latest is called “Here on Earth, A Natural History of the Planet.” Tim, good to have you on the program.

Tim Flannery: It’s great to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start our conversation where you closed the book, in fact, with a line that got my attention. I quote: “But I am certain of one thing – if we do not strive to love one another and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth.” So I ask, what’s love got to do with it?

Flannery: Well, love is an integral part of us. It’s one of the things that binds us together. It’s a product, a result of the evolutionary process and it is integral to our ability to cooperate. It’s not just love for each other, but love of country, love of our planet, our environment, and that is important.

If we don’t have that love I don’t think we’ll be able to be motivated to do the right thing for future generations and for ourselves.

Tavis: When you suggest that the tension has to do with whether or not we love the planet as much as we love ourselves, unpack that for me.

Flannery: Well, we cannot exist without this planet, yeah? We are an integrated part of it, we always have been, we depend upon it for every breath of air we take. So we need to be very aware of that relationship and that dependency and treat the planet as we would our body, in a sense.

The skin is a permeable membrane, yeah? A lot of things from the planet can go through us, go into our body. We need to live in a clean, healthy environment if we hope to prosper.

Tavis: So does the evidence suggest that we’re making progress on this – that is to say, taking these climate issues seriously, or regressing, as it were?

Flannery: I think we are, we are making progress, and look, it’s not fast enough and there are many more things we could be doing. But following the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, the countries that signed up to the Copenhagen accord made various promises and we’re on our way to keeping those promises, by and large.

In this country, the United States, you committed to reduce your emissions of greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020. You’ve already reduced them by 9 percent, and that’s a great start, despite all the rubbish that goes on in Congress and so forth.

You’ve got some good programs in place, and they’re often supported by both sides, particularly when it comes to energy security related programs that help reduce greenhouse gases.

Tavis: How are other major polluters – China comes to mind, for example – how are other major polluters responding around the world to this challenge?

Flannery: China is doing exceptionally well. It has probably the most aggressive program of anywhere for a large economy dealing with this. They are on track to stabilize their emissions and will be reducing sometime I think towards the end of this decade, so that’s a great change.

It was only a few years ago China was building a coal-fired power plant every week. That era is now finished. But even the poorest economies, even India, are doing things. They’ve got a great energy efficiency program and a new carbon tax on carbon on coal burned in the country.

Tavis: How does “A Natural History of the Planet,” to go to your subtitle, how does “A Natural History of the Planet” help us wrestle with the challenges that we face in a contemporary setting?

Flannery: Sure. Well, look – nothing is changed in terms of our dependency on planet Earth, right, and we need to understand that mechanism that supports us, that gave us life four billion years ago, in order to really understand our impacts on it and then to start doing the right things.

So the reason I wrote a biography, that book really came out of questions people asked me, like what chances have we got of overcoming a climate program? Will our civilization survive? The only way I had of answering that was going back to the beginning, to the evolutionary process, to our Earth and our relationship with it, to see if I could sort of unpack a bit what needed to be done, what the impacts had been and where we go from here.

Tavis: You talk in the text about super-organism, global organism. Let me take them one at a time and have you explain them to me in brief terms.

Flannery: Sure. A super-organism is really a civilization, if you want. Ants have them as well. Ed Wilson, the great scientists, said that ants and humans have one thing in common – we’ve both created great civilizations without the use of reason. That’s entirely true.

So we are forming a global super-organism now where each individual in this great global civilization of ours becomes ever more dependent upon one another and ever more in contact with one another through the new social media. You can see the result of that now around the world.

So that is a super-organism, where the individuals become very interdependent. As the power of the super-organism grows, each individual becomes less autonomous within it, less free, because we all depend on others. A lot of us don’t even cook our meals anymore in our modern society because of that interdependency.

So that’s the super-organism. The global organism is the planet Earth, and nothing much comes into it but sunlight, nothing much goes out but heat energy, and in the middle, all of the processes occur that keep the planet habitable for life and the life system itself creates that. There’s an enormous energy budget goes into that.

Plants capture about 4 percent of the sunlight that hits the surface of our planet. That gives us an energy budget of around 100 terawatts, an enormous budget, and that is put towards keeping the planet habitable. So as we destroy life, we destroy the capacity of the global organism, really, to maintain the conditions that we require.

Tavis: You make a direct and interesting link between poverty and the future, as it were, or the lack thereof, poverty and getting a handle on climate change. Make that link for me.

Flannery: Yeah. Well, look, if you’re poor, you can imagine what it’s like just trying to find enough food for the day. Are you really going to care about the longer-term future? You will do anything to get that food. So poverty is the enemy of the longer-term security of a civilization, it really is, and there’s no way we can insulate ourselves from it.

These people who try to put up gated communities and live within them are living in a fool’s paradise. We are all part of this great global super-organism now, not only within this country but across the planet, and if we allow poverty to persist, what can we expect but people who will destroy the common wealth of all of us.

They’ll cut the last rainforest down, they’ll harvest the last fish, they will promote socially disruptive means to get what they need. We have to actually give people something to lose and that is the most important thing.

On top of all of that, of course, the growing population problem. The only way we’ll solve that is by giving women in the poorest countries on the planet an education and to increase their standard of living, because that’s how we see family sizes reduce.

Tavis: Do you think anybody other than you working on this issue understands those links? I say anybody – is there anyone of power, authority, do leaders, to presidents, do heads of state, do they understand – is there any evidence that suggests that the understand the link that you’ve just made now between how the poor are treated, how women are treated, the standard of living for them, and the future of our planet?

Flannery: Well, look, I spent three years in the Copenhagen process and met many world leaders, and I can tell you they’re as varied as any of us are. There’s good ones, bad ones, smart ones, dumb ones. People do understand this, but leaders will only do what they’re licensed to do by their people in democracies. So it’s the people that need to change.

We need to understand that we are not alone in this, that we cannot survive alone. This is not a survival of the fittest world, right? This is a world where cooperation determines who will survive and who will not, and that’s why I wrote the book.

Ideas are powerful. They are what will determine our fate in the end, and I think if we have the right sort of ideas about a certain generosity of spirit and about working together to achieve ends, we can do anything. If we don’t, we will fail individually.

Tavis: To your point of a moment ago about survival of the fittest, am I hearing you suggest that we have misread or misinterpreted Darwin’s notion?

Flannery: Very, very profoundly, yeah. That idea of a survival of the fittest world, they weren’t even Darwin’s words. They were a social scientist who came up, and the society in 19th century Britain used or misused that one, really, to justify the unjustifiable.

To justify inequality, to justify empire, and we saw in the 20th century those same Darwinian views give rise to national socialism and eugenics and other abhorrent practices. That is not the sort of world I see around me. The world that I see is immensely cooperative.

Even our own bodies are made up of thousands of species. I have thousands of species of bacteria and fungi on my skin. I do wash, but they’re there and they need to be there to keep me alive.

I’m a little ecosystem of planetary complexity myself. So that cooperation runs all the way from my skin through to our forests and the global organisms through to our great global super-organism that’s forming, and that’s what evolution’s legacy is.

So to think about this as a survival of the fittest world is wrong, because in a survival of the fittest world, nobody can survive. Imagine a football team survival of the fittest competition. You’d have a winner at the end of the year, but you wouldn’t have a competition anymore.

Tavis: So what’s the reason to be hopeful? What’s the reason to believe?

Flannery: The reason to be hopeful is I think that evolution has just loaded the dice slightly in our favor by giving us this great empathy with each other and this great ability to communicate with each other and work together.

But that takes really hard work and commitment, and the worst mistake we can make is to go from ignorance to despair. That’s the lazy person’s option and that will really end us up in serious trouble. Every step we take along the way has come at great cost and great sacrifice in terms of trying to create this cooperative entity, whether it be a country like the United States or whether it’s something bigger. So we need hope to take up that challenge.

Tavis: The new book from Tim Flannery is called “Here on Earth, A Natural History of the Planet.” Tim, thanks for you work, and good to have you back on this program.

Flannery: It’s been great. Thank you.

Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm