TIM FLANNERY CHEERS UP
WHERE TIM FLANNERY ONCE SAW ONLY DOOM AND GLOOM FOR HUMANKIND, HE NOW HAS A MESSAGE OF HOPE. WHAT HAS CHANGED?
TIM Flannery is a good news, bad news kind of guy. He has some bad news for Danish men – environmental factors mean their sperm count has halved in 50 years – but good news for lovers of the extinct mammoth. We can and should resurrect them for the good of the eco-system. He has bad news about human brain size – smaller than it was 10,000 years ago – but good news about our brain power: we can probe the secrets of the universe with an organ running on the energy it takes to power a 25 watt globe. He even produces good news for brunettes, bad news for blondes. (Male animals prefer blondes because they are more visible and therefore easier to monitor.)
And right now, after a decade of his forecasts of climatic Armageddon brought on by a warming planet and human foolhardiness; in the midst of headlines about the rage over the plan to save the Murray Darling Basin; with news of toxic sludge threatening the Danube, bickering mining companies and federal politicians’ debates on carbon pricing, Flannery has very good news about the planet’s future. Things are not only looking up, people are becoming better, kinder too.
But I have some bad news for fans of Flannery: It isn’t clear that this engaging, generous, kind man with umpteen scientific discoveries under his belt always knows what he’s talking about. Wallabies, macropods, yes. The history of our early settlers and explorers, yes. The future of the planet? I’m not so sure, and that’s a pity because Flannery’s new-found optimism is as refreshing as spring water, especially when explained by him on a warm day in Sydney’s harbourside Botanic Gardens, the air heady with the scents of spring.
Now 54, and with the appealing intensity that has drawn people since he was a Melbourne kid hunting fossils, he believes that with his latest book, Here
On Earth, he has discovered a reason for hope. “It really excites me,” he says. “I feel as if I’ve stumbled on something . . . that I’ve understood something very fundamental about the nature of life.”
Here On Earth is a biography of our planet – and our species. His good friend Robyn Williams, from the ABC’s
Science show describes the venture as “astoundingly bold”. Flannery explains: “I had a genuine question for myself: what sort of creature are we? What sort of world do we live in? Are we so destructive and selfish there’s no hope for us living sustainably?” He worried people were falling prey to doomsday despair. “If there’s no hope, why aren’t I sitting on a beach in Queensland drinking a pina colada?”
But it turns out we may not after all be condemned to be the selfish, ruthless creatures of Charles Darwin’s imagination, destined by evolution to compete and eventually destroy our resources and then our civilisation. Instead, there is a theory from another 19th century scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who believed life has only survived for as long as it has because it is based on co-operation. (Like football, Flannery says: it seems to be about competition but is actually “a miracle of co-operation”.) What’s more, our world depends on co-operative systems. Tropical rainforests produce vapour that generates the rain they need; coral reefs increase cloudiness which protects them from ultra violet radiation. Eureka. If we can stop getting in the way of these co-operative systems; if we harness our own technology that can monitor the tiniest changes in the sea and atmosphere; if we can use our developing global consciousness, nirvana may be ahead.
It will resemble, says Flannery, the ancient Greek idea that Earth is Gaia. It will be a self-regulating system, a living organism with a nervous system created by our own “extraordinary” technology. Like a hive of bees or an ant colony, we will have become a super-organism.
It sure beats the hell out of the apocalyptic future that has been predicted for us – often by Flannery himself – until now. “This is like the culmination, in some ways, of everything I’ve learned,” he says. “It’s sort of a grand synthesis. The most important message of the book is that we are on the brink of a profound transformation of the planet . . . a lot’s at stake. That process could be interrupted.”
FLANNERY has always known how to hold an audience. When he speaks, he concentrates on his listener, his bright eyes focused, his smile ready. In 1998, his third book, Throwim Way Leg, a riveting account of his adventures in New Guinea as he tracked the marsupials that would make his scientific reputation, landed the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Fellow mammologist Dr Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe, who once headed CSIRO’s marsupial biology group, says of Flannery, who started university as an English literature major: “He can tell a story that anybody can read, and that’s a real skill that few scientists have.”
Flannery is, above all, an enthusiast, a trait that once led former La Trobe chair of archaeology Jim Allen to remark: “I wish I could be as sure of anything as Tim is of everything.” That sureness gets Flannery into trouble as he vehemently advances one theory or argument, then changes his mind. Nuclear power: for, then against. The ideal size of Australia’s population: between six and 12 million, now not sure. Campaigns to save Tasmania’s forests: once a waste of energy, now he sees the need. Flip-flop Flannery is one nickname.
But paleontologist Stephen Wroe, of the University of NSW, says: “That’s good science. Scientists are always changing their position as new data comes to light.” And Wroe is someone who once castigated Flannery over his controversial book about the impact of humans on Australia’s ecology, The Future Eaters, and called him an opportunist. Now he sounds rueful. “In hindsight, I was being a little ungenerous. Tim has an excellent way of popularising science and that does help.” Flannery always tells a good story. In one passage in Here On
Earth, he describes how the mammoth had a “platesized stopper that fitted snugly over the anus, a heatsaving device that was lifted only when nature called”.
In his field – animals – he commands enormous respect.