“Beings are not things, they are processes” - Tim Flannery on climate change and the fate of the world

On October 7, 2010, I had the chance to attend an evening with environmental scientist Tim Flannery and journalist Virginia Trioli at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre.

While his earlier work The Weather Makers: the History and Future Impact of Climate Change (2005) describes the problem, he has used his latest book, Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope (2010), as an opportunity to constructively, and optimistically, discusses the possibilities before us.

Flannery discussed the Copenhagen Summit and played-down the significance of the West’s failure to reach an environmental consensus. He instead highlighted the growing and progressive role of the People’s Republic of China, as illustrated through its environmentally-flavouredmoon shots’ that includes “$15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry.” He argued that we could safely credit this positive development in China - a country that was previously in the habit of placing the entire responsibility for climate change on the West - to the efforts of the Copenhagen Summit participants. He also played-down the importance of the Climategate by pointing out that only one piece of evidence mentioned (the glacier factoid) turned out to be faulty, and was not even applicable to the IPPC.

He commended former Australian president Kevin Rudd as an internationally recognized hero who was highly respected, but acknowledge that domestically, Rudd never managed to deliver ‘the goods’. He criticized the current admission by pointing out that it has handicapped its environmental protection agenda by separating the Minister for Resources and Energy and the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. He also proposed that an independent federal group should set the immigration quota, just as Reserve Bank of Australia determines the interest rates. Flannery pointed out that the cost for Australia to reduce its carbon emissions to zero would cost less than the National Broadband Network. Whether we could get to that without conflict, Tim concedes, is the big question, but that the role of government is after all to manage structural transformations.

Flannery elucidated the theories of fellow environmental critic James Lovelock, whose Gaia Hypothesis - that the entire planet is a self-regulating organism - provides a useful counterpoint to Flannery’s own focus. While British-born Lovelock is concerned with the ‘biology’ of the earth, however, Australia’s Flannery is interested in its sentience. Flannery sees the development of the planet’s ecosystems as parallel to the development of an individual, and argues against Lovelock’s view that the earth is old. Instead, Tim proposes, we are only just entering puberty, on the verge of being able to reproduce – for instance, by carrying sustainable life systems to other planets or, through species resurrect a la Jurassic Park.

Tim suggested that we would very soon become Gaia’s brain: our observatories, satellites, and oceanic stations area already Gaia’s senses and we are becoming its nervous system, building a universal conscience with the help of the Internet. Rather than the solution to the world’s problems lying in community farming and getting to know our neighbours, Tim sees the real game changers as Facebook and text messaging. He acknowledges that all of this makes his new book a generational book, which pessimistic ‘tribals’ such as Lovelock will find themselves at odds with. New generations are, on the other hand, much more likely to embrace his latest work.

As demonstrations of our emerging role as the earth’s sentience, we are predicting danger, and furthering our awareness of the threats posed to the Earth – though it is we, by Flannery’s description, that appear to be the very source of that threat.

As for the source of his optimism:
“My children - my children and China, as paradoxical as that might sound.”