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review: non-fiction

Tim Flannery

Here on Earth

A Natural History of the Planet

By Tim Flannery

HarperCollins, 316 pages, $34.99

If you know what science is telling us about the planet, you know that this is a hinge moment for human civilization. It's one of those rare times in history - the nuclear-arms threat and the discovery of the ozone hole were two recent others - when everything really is at stake, when civilization will swing one way or another but not both. Will we continue to thrive as a species? Or will we die off by the billions, scattering to the winds our 50,000 tumultuous years of work and play here on Earth?

Such an essential moment calls out for a special, ambitious response, one that can both explain the true nature of the hinge and prophesy the future. Australian biologist Tim Flannery's Here on Earth is that response. Just as his previous big book, The Weather Makers, appeared uncannily at the right time to explain global climate change, Here on Earth has shown up at the perfect moment.

Yes, it explains, elegantly. More important, this bravura synthesis spanning scientific disciplines and billions of years tells us why we can hope.

Flannery could as easily have called his book Alchemy, because it is at base about transformation, about a paradoxical process that takes one thing and unaccountably metamorphoses it into something else. So, it is the surprising story of how the Earth itself came to be, how life came to be on Earth, how our species sprang up, and then our civilization, and how we started to become alchemists ourselves, transforming the planet's balance and elements into something new and dangerous and unexpected.

Here's a taste of his recurring transformation metaphor, clothed in a liturgical account of photosynthesis, the alchemy that laid down the foundation for life as we know it by using carbon dioxide and making oxygen.

"A leaf is a small miracle, for through it a transubstantiation occurs - of a lifeless gas into a solid, living being. It's a sort of resurrection of CO2, the gas given off with death and decay, the gas that enshrouds dead planets. Yet from it plants forge beauteous forms that support all the hosts of earthly life, ourselves included."

This pervasive theme foreshadows Flannery's even larger point, the overarching alchemy that the book is really about. That has to do with transforming a death-dealing idea into a life-giving idea, in creating a new mneme (from the Greek word for memory) that will reproduce among our species in the same way a gene does and convince us to save us from ourselves by restoring the Earth to balance.

The critical point: What we believe will determine our fate.

For Flannery, the hope lies in our very genes. And the mneme to be altered corrects a mangled interpretation of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories. Do Darwin's theories tell us that we are genetically programmed to destroy at will, that only the fittest should survive?

Flannery is clear that they do not, and the whole book pieces together the evidence to support him. Instead, he says, successful evolution mandates an interplay of species that evolve together, responding to each other and co-operating with each other. He calls this the Gaian way of life, after James Lovelock's Gaia theory of the planet as an interconnected living organism.

It's the opposite of what Flannery calls the Medean way of life, named after the ruthless and ultimately genetically suicidal character in Greek myth who, after her husband leaves her for another, kills their own two children, her rival and her rival's father in bloody, take-no-prisoners revenge.

Flannery's question: Is it to be Gaia or Medea? Life or death? This is the choice our generation must make. Which way will the hinge swing?

The new mneme is not enough and neither is hope, not even if it's built into our DNA. The alchemy must spread to action, to realizing possibility. For, as Flannery describes, humans have stepped outside our Gaian birthright. Now, we are finally able to get back to Gaia, perhaps ultimately becoming the first intelligent superorganism to make up the loving brain of the planet. It will only happen if we believe it can and, once believing, swiftly act, drawing from a menu of remedies he outlines.

And if we cannot believe? Here's Flannery's chilling final sentence, the reason for the book's title: "But I am certain of one thing - if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth."

Alanna Mitchell's 2009 book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis won the $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment.


New books for those concerned about the future of our planet.

Deep Future

The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth

By Curt Stager, HarperCollins, 270 pages, $31.99

Paleoclimatologist Stager examines the likely very long-term consequences of the short history of human activity. It's not a pretty picture, but Stager does believe that we still have the power to stave off disaster.

Powering the Dream

The History and Promise of Green Technology

By Alexis Madrigal

Da Capo, 365 pages, $32

Though green technology seems to be in its infancy, Madrigal, a senior writer at The Atlantic, finds that the search for breathable air, drinkable water and renewable energy has been going on for 150 years. He considers how the failures of the past could prefigure the successes of the future.

Life of Earth

Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged Stressed-Out World

By Stanley A. Rice, Prometheus, 255 pages, $35

An accessible portrait of the planet Earth, and our role on it, at what biologist Rice says is about the mid-point of its existence. He stresses symbiosis, sexual selection and altruism as the three key determinant's of our marvellous biodiversity.

Climate Capitalism

Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change

By L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Hill & Wang, 390 pages, $32.50

Using case studies of corporations, small businesses and NGOs, the authors argue that the future of capitalism will be built on innovations and technologies geared to producing new forms of energy and a cooler planet.

Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout

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By Patrick Moore, Beatty Street, 387 pages, $34.95

Moore, B.C.-based co-founder of Greenpeace, left the organization to pursue what he thinks is a more practical, less fearful course. Among his recommendations is the use of clean nuclear energy, not a popular option these days.