Flannery’s new book Here On Earth reads like a cross between Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond, which is reassuring given it has the title of a Leelee Sobieski film. It also sort of makes sense; both of these authors have read and commented on the book, and Diamond is referenced throughout. Flannery has clearly read their work and is borrowing from their styles, which I enjoyed.
The book talks a lot about the Gaia Hypothesis and essentially argues for it throughout. For those unaware, the Gaia hypothesis states that the world as a whole tends to act as a singular organism and has many feedbacks and other mechanisms to maintain a given state. I personally am not a fan. I believe the world does a lot of things we don’t understand and certainly has all sorts of negative and positive feedback models going on, but I find both the name of the hypothesis and many of the people claiming to adhere to it irritating. It’s all a bit hippy-pie-in-the-sky from where I’m sitting, and I was surprised to find Flannery advocating it.
That said, he makes a lot of good arguments for the ability of the planet to maintain itself, and then moves on. He refers to the Gaian hypothesis in opposition to a Medean mindset; if I caught the gist of it, one is about working for a common good while the other is about fighting for individual goals. His argument is that one will lead to the saving of the planet – because we’ve succeeded in doing it before – while the other will lead to slowly deteriorating lives or dying in the event of climate change. It’s uplifting reading, particularly the statistics on the expected death tolls from climate change.
Being Flannery, the book ranges far and wide. He considers the development of Darwinian and Wallacian views of evolution and their social impacts, and asks what would have happened socially had the survival of the fittest view not prevailed. He also looks at many of the unknown and unexpected impacts of the lives we live at the moment, with a particularly fun section on PCBs and hormone disruptors, and non-prescription medications. Suffice to say that if Australia had vultures, I’d need a new muscle relaxant.
It’s an enjoyable book but I got to the end wondering what it was meant to achieve. Certainly, arguments for compromise and cooperation are always valuable, but I don’t feel it particularly shifted my worldview or offered any prescriptions for action. Still – it’ll make a great Christmas present for my Dad.