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?

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS SHELLEY GARE

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.

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