Paul Monk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Monk

Sun­light and Sea­weed: An Ar­gu­ment for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World By Tim Flan­nery Text Pub­lish­ing, 181pp, $19.99 Cli­mate Wars By Mark But­ler MUP, 180pp, $27.99 The Long Good­bye: Coal, Coral and Aus­tralia’s Cli­mate Dead­lock By Anna Krien Quar­terly Es­say 66 Black Inc, 145pp, $22.99 Th­ese three short books are con­tri­bu­tions, from dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent an­gles, to the long-run­ning and so far not par­tic­u­larly pro­duc­tive cli­mate de­bate in this coun­try.

They are all easy reads. They are all lively and pas­sion­ate. Of the three, Tim Flan­nery’s Sun­light and Sea­weed is by far the most in­ter­est­ing and con­struc­tive. He en­gages the imag­i­na­tion by first sketch­ing a pic­ture of Malthu­sian en­vi­ron­men­tal apoca­lypse, then ar­gu­ing that by 2050, with wis­dom and de­ter­mi­na­tion and lots of in­no­va­tion, we could live in a much bet­ter world than we do now.

Cli­mate Wars, by Mark But­ler, is a lu­cid and in­ter­est­ing po­lit­i­cal pam­phlet by the fed­eral op­po­si­tion en­vi­ron­ment spokesman. It is marred by its bla­tant po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship in as­sert­ing that La­bor and only La­bor can save the coun­try from cli­mate catas­tro­phe, or at least put poli­cies in place con­sis­tent with our in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions as he un­der­stands them and the coun­try’s eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity. The ar­gu­ment is worth hav­ing, but he presents only one side of it. It would be in­ter­est­ing to see a con­sid­ered and dis­pas­sion­ate re­sponse from Green and Coali­tion per­spec­tives.

Not the least in­ter­est­ing as­pect of Anna Krien’s The Long Good­bye is that she fires more than one broad­side at the ALP, fed­er­ally and in Queens­land, in ways di­rectly at odds with But­ler’s at­tempt to de­pict the party as the white knight of en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics.

Krien’s pri­mary con­cern is the Great Bar­rier Reef and, if her anal­y­sis is cor­rect, we are bid­ding it not so much a long good­bye as a rapid farewell. Her es­say suf­fers from a flaw com­mon, un­for­tu­nately, to quite a few of the Quar­terly Es­says — much as one may en­joy read­ing them — which is a ten­dency to em­bed a se­ri­ous ar­gu­ment in a highly dis­cur­sive and of­ten per­son­alised nar­ra­tive that ob­scures more than it il­lu­mi­nates the cen­tral points at is­sue.

Flan­nery is a celebrity en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist be­cause he writes books that pop­u­larise and drama­tise the geo­phys­i­cal and eco­nomic chal­lenges we face in the 21st cen­tury, given our huge num­bers and our soar­ing ap­petites for ma­te­rial con­sump­tion, food and water, with all the strains this clearly is putting on the eco­sphere.

This new book is among his best. Parts of it are first rate in draw­ing at­ten­tion to the pol­lu­tion of the Earth and the fas­ci­nat­ing in­no­va­tions that are aris­ing in re­sponse to our prob­lems. His chap­ters on so­lar en­ergy tech­nolo­gies and aqua­cul­ture and the uses of kelp are won­der­fully thought pro­vok­ing. His ob­ser­va­tions con­cern­ing the shock­ing con­di­tion of China’s soil, air and water as a di­rect con­se­quence of its hec­tic and poorly reg­u­lated in­dus­trial and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the past few decades are well in­formed and sober­ing.

But China’s en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems were se­ri­ous even be­fore this. As Ju­dith Shapiro pointed out in her 2001 book Mao’s War Against Na­ture, even un­suc­cess­ful ef­forts at de­vel­op­ment can cause grave harm. The longer per­spec­tive was sketched out bril­liantly by Mark Elvin a gen­er­a­tion ago in a long es­say called Three Thou­sand Years of Un­sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment in China, which looks like a droll oxy­moron. His mag­is­te­rial 2004 book The Re­treat of the Ele­phants: An En­vi­ron­men­tal His­tory of China showed there was noth­ing at all droll about the mat­ter.

Flan­nery’s open­ing chap­ter is called The Pop­u­la­tion Bomb. He en­dorses Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome on the pop­u­la­tion “bomb” and the “lim­its to growth”. Yet he goes on to pre­dict not only that the global hu­man pop­u­la­tion will sta­bilise in the 21st cen­tury some­where around nine bil­lion but also that in­no­va­tion, imag­i­na­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion will en­able us to feed all th­ese peo­ple at a pleas­ant stan­dard of liv­ing in a greener and more pleas­ant world than now by 2050.

A pes­simist will em­brace the first claim and dis­miss the sec­ond. An op­ti­mist will em­brace the sec­ond claim and dis­miss the first as merely Malthu­sian, with an as­ser­tion that tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and global mar­kets will give us this out­come — pro­vided utopian so­cial­ists and eco­log­i­cal en­thu­si­asts don’t de­rail growth in the mean­time.

Flan­nery wants to have it both ways. What’s in­ter­est­ing is to con­sider that he may be right. At least he is not sim­ply pre­dict­ing doom and dis­as­ter. What is not clear is how, ex­actly, he thinks the utopian vi­sion he sketches out is to be achieved by 2050 and what he means by “de­ter­mi­na­tion”.

Across the spec­trum, the cli­mate and en­vi­ron­ment de­bate is too of­ten char­ac­terised by ex­tra­or­di­nary vague­ness and even com­plete ig­no­rance of cli­mate sci­ence. All three of th­ese au­thors take the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change’s warn­ings as a bench­mark. None of them dis­cusses the deeper back­ground to the mat­ter.

Yet that deeper back­ground is vi­tal if we are, col­lec­tively, to get a han­dle on this omi­nous and con­fused con­tro­versy and act in ways that may, if not by 2050 then within this cen­tury, get us to some­thing like the world of Flan­nery’s dreams: clean en­ergy, green cities and abun­dant, nu­tri­tious food.

We need to re­mind our­selves that al­most ev­ery­thing we know about the geo­phys­i­cal his­tory of the Earth and the eco­sphere has been learned very, very re­cently. This is par­tic­u­larly true of the long-term his­tory of Earth’s cli­mate. Across the past sev­eral mil­lion years, as our hu­man an­ces­tors evolved, the global cli­mate was highly change­able and for long pe­ri­ods highly volatile, with abrupt and dra­matic al­ter­ations in global av­er­age tem­per­a­ture much greater than are be­ing fore­cast even by alarmists for the 21st cen­tury.

The prob­lem was not green­house gases but other things. The Holocene, which is the pe­riod since the end of the most re­cent ice age, has been un­usu­ally sta­ble. That sta­bil­ity — a kind of cli­mate home­osta­sis (as Krien ob­serves in a neat lit­tle foot­note) — has been the pre­con­di­tion for the flour­ish­ing of our species and the de­vel­op­ment of agri­cul­ture, cities and trade. Brian Fa­gan’s The Long Sum­mer: How Cli­mate Changed Civ­i­liza­tion (2004) is a good in­tro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. This “long sum­mer” has seen nu­mer­ous fluc­tu­a­tions in global tem­per­a­ture, both warm­ing and cool­ing, and th­ese have had ap­pre­cia­ble con­se­quences.

Our present con­cern is about whether we are gen­er­at­ing the largest shift seen within the Holocene — and also a mass ex­tinc­tion. The pre­his­tory of all this is beau­ti­fully set out by Wil­liam J. Bur­roughs in Cli­mate Change in Pre­his­tory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (2005). If you are se­ri­ous about un­der­stand­ing cli­mate sci­ence, read this book as a mat­ter of pri­or­ity.

The pri­mary prob­lem we have had in gen­er­at­ing agree­ment about what is hap­pen­ing, what it sig­ni­fies and what to do about it is that the mat­ter has only in re­cent decades come into sci­en­tific fo­cus, it is highly com­plex and the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of peo­ple sim­ply do not grasp the sci­ence at all.

The con­se­quence has been a slang­ing match be­tween in­ter­est groups and ad­vo­cacy groups that has failed to ad­vance the de­bate in en­light­en­ing ways. But even if we had over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus on the sci­ence — as it is widely claimed we do — get­ting clar­ity and con­sen­sus in public pol­icy in short or­der is an­other mat­ter again.

It would have been good to see But­ler re­flect on this. A good in­tro­duc­tion to the prob­lem is David G. Vic­tor’s Global Warm­ing Grid­lock: Cre­at­ing More Ef­fec­tive Strate­gies for Pro­tect­ing the Planet (2011). To get your mind around the eco­nomics and risk anal­y­sis ques­tions, a good place to start is Wil­liam Nord­haus’s The Cli­mate Casino: Risk, Un­cer­tainty and Eco­nomics for a Warm­ing World (2013). And re­gard­ing the over­all at­tempt of our lot to man­age the Earth, as dis­tinct from feel­ing de­pen­dent on its nat­u­ral cy­cles — and as dis­tinct from reck­lessly plun­der­ing it — a fine start is Richard B. Al­ley’s Earth: The Op­er­a­tor’s Man­ual (2011).

The pol­i­tics of all this is vi­tally im­por­tant. In a pas­sage at the end of his lit­tle book, the vi­sion­ary in Flan­nery looks back a cen­tury and asks who, in 1916, when “there was not a sin­gle com­mu­nist coun­try on Earth”, would have an­tic­i­pated that by 1950 there would have been such a spread of com­mu­nism, as well as mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, in­clud­ing the invention of jet air­craft and nu­clear weapons.

He refers to all this sim­ply as “tech­no­log­i­cal and so­cial change”. He does not pause to re­flect on the fact the com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tions, born of utopian vi­sion and ruth­less po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, were cat­a­strophic. Their ap­proaches to public pol­icy, to his­tory, to sci­ence and above all to eco­nomics were reck­less and de­struc­tive. The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment must not see them as in any way a model for rapid and rad­i­cal change. Joseph Stalin’s forced col­lec­tivi­sa­tion (1929-31) — un­der­taken at speed against the ex­press, cau­tious ad­vice of his state plan­ning or­gan­i­sa­tion, Gos­plan — caused a man-made famine that took mil­lions of lives and im­pov­er­ished the Soviet agrar­ian econ­omy for gen­er­a­tions.

Mao Ze­dong’s so-called Great Leap For­ward (1958-61) was even more calami­tous. It caused the largest man-made famine in his­tory, tak­ing the lives of 35 mil­lion to 45 mil­lion peo­ple, all be­cause Mao thought he could over­take the West in five to 10 years.

As­sume, for the sake of ar­gu­ment, that the ba­sic sci­en­tific pic­ture of cli­mate and en­vi­ron­ment right now is ac­cu­rate; get­ting to any­thing like what Flan­nery hopes for by 2050 will re­quire highly in­tel­li­gent poli­cies.

Given the present rate of in­no­va­tion and grow­ing aware­ness of the scale of the prob­lem, we would do well to heed the po­lit­i­cal lessons of the 20th cen­tury and go by the old maxim “more haste, less speed” in ris­ing to our col­lec­tive chal­lenges. That will re­quire steady nerves and im­proved ca­pac­ity for fruit­ful, com­plex de­bates.

is head of cus­tomer so­lu­tions at Dys­rupt Labs and the au­thor of The West in a Nut­shell: Foun­da­tions, Fragili­ties, Futures.

Tim Flan­nery pre­dicts in­no­va­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion will cre­ate a greener and more pleas­ant world by 2050

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