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Will the Human Global Superorganism Secure Our Place in the Universe?

Timed for Earth Day 2011, a powerful new book provides a fresh perspective about Earth and the odyssey of perhaps its greatest achievement, humans, from the beginnings of the planet to the critical crossroad of today. What is our destiny? Collapse of civilization brought about by our inability to live symbiotically with our planet? Or...

Timed for Earth Day 2011, a powerful new book provides a fresh perspective about Earth and the odyssey of perhaps its greatest achievement, humans, from the beginnings of the planet to the critical crossroad of today. What is our destiny? Collapse of civilization brought about by our inability to live symbiotically with our planet? Or do we come to our collective senses and thrive on Earth long enough to seed our species across the universe?

A former Australian of the Year, scientist Tim Flannery (in the photo on the right) is National Geographic’s representative in Australasia and a best-selling author. His new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (Hardcover: 288 pages; Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; U.S.$25), begins with the Big Bang and the conditions that set up life on Earth. He explores different theories of evolution and ponders whether humans have arrived at the point of beginning to form a global human consciousness.

After reading a review copy of the book sent to me by the publisher, I interviewed Flannery by phone.


I was struck by what you set out so eloquently in Here on Earth: the processes of how life regulates and perhaps even shapes Earth. On the eve of Earth Day 2011, at what crossroad do we stand in the natural history of the planet?

We stand at a couple of really important crossroads. One of them is that for the first time ever in the history of our species we are inter-connected to the point where we’re arguably beginning to form a global human consciousness. And in terms of our relationship with the planet that is extraordinarily important, because we can act as one to do what’s required, preserving the productivity of the Earth, its biodiversity, and so forth.

But there are other critical moments stealing up on us. One of them is the climate issue. We know that the remaining carbon budget that we have to make sure that we don’t tip ourselves into a period of dangerous climate change is very, very tight. It’s going to be very hard for us to come in as a species under that carbon budget, so that we end up with less than two degrees of warming on the planet.

The human population is growing. This month we reach seven billion people. About forty years from now, there will be somewhere between eight and ten billion of us, most likely around about nine billion. But again, we will influence that outcome if we manage to help the most underprivileged, and particularly educate women in the poorest countries, then we may end up closer to eight than ten [billion].

So there are just a few of the critical moments that are stealing up on us.

The subtitle of your book is An Argument for Hope. Why are you optimistic that we will go down the road of a positive outcome?

I really wrote the book to answer the question that I was being asked all the time, which was whether there was any hope that we would overcome the multiple crises that are facing us. I realized that to answer that question I had to go right back to the beginning of the evolutionary process, and that I also had to take into account the appropriate timescale.

So just to look at some of those issues that we outlined:

The human global superorganism is shaping up with extraordinary rapidity. The events just in North Africa and the Middle East this year testified to that.

In terms of the population issue, if you take the right timescale, it’s extraordinary that the entire human species will have gone through the demographic transition in just 150 years.

[In his book, Flannery explains the demographic transition as the process in which death rates and birth rates decline as a country becomes industrialized and its population becomes more affluent. And he references the debate among demographers over whether the next phase of the demographic transition might produce an even lower reproductive rate than is seen in developed countries today.]

No species in the four-billion-year history of the planet has ever gone through a demographic transition, and we’re doing it in such a brief period of time. So that’s a cause for hope.

In terms of dealing with the climate issue, we have to remember that six years ago no one had heard of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. We have come a long way in the last five years or so, and if we make progress at that rate then I am hopeful that we will overcome this problem.

If you just look at the news everyday and try to work out whether we’re making progress or not, you’ll get confused. It’s like investing your pension money and looking at the stock exchange on a day-to-day basis to see if you’re going to retire wealthy or poor. So you’ve got to pick the right time frames in which to address those questions.

It would appear to most people that the policymakers, and perhaps even the media, aren’t paying as much attention to addressing some of these problems. We are so fixated on wars and the current state of the economy, that taking action to address climate change seems to not be a priority. Do you think in time the governments will come together and actually do something meaningful to remedy what’s happening to the planet?

Policymakers have to deal with multiple issues simultaneously. I think that that’s a bit of an American federalist view that they’re not paying much attention to the issue. If you go elsewhere in the world you’ll see that this is the No. 1 issue. Places like Australia are having an enormous debate about whether to institute a carbon price or not. In China, the focus is on clean energy. In South Korea likewise, with 2 percent of GDP going to foster green energy growth. Europe is pursuing its emissions trading scheme, and it’s quite possible that in future China will join that scheme, to create a massive international market for carbon.

So there is a lot happening. We have to take the broad, long-term strategic view to see the progress.

Is there an unconscious process going on? You talk about humans becoming a superorganism, developing a global human consciousness. Could we be in the process of evolving to start collectively correcting what we have done to Earth, in response to the effects of our impact?

It’s a really profound question, and it’s a bit of what scientists would call teleological. It’s a difficult one to approach. What I can say about it is that life is really an information system. It’s shaped by DNA, which is a digital information system, and information systems organize matter. My DNA has made my body. It’s the blueprint for the body. Likewise, life has shaped the planet very profoundly.

I think that DNA, the digital information system, tends to follow the same sort of patterns over and over. So in my case, I’ve got a brain which helps regulate my body. It’s just the most efficient way of doing things. At the planetary level, Gaia has its own way of regulating things. But in terms of the global superorganism, as it is shaping up, it does seem to me to make sense that we are going to become, if you want, the intelligence of the planet, in the same way that our brain is the intelligence of the body. It seems to me that similar patterns are being thrown up.

I imagine that will depend a lot on our base of scientific knowledge and our technology. If that is so, how important is it that we retain our traditional knowledge of how to live on the planet. After all, we developed our traditional knowledge over a much, much longer period than the industrial age.

Traditional knowledge is hugely important. Traditional knowledge represents the collective wisdom of people who’ve been living on a piece of land in some cases for tens of thousands of years.

We in the West, particularly in the colonies or frontier, built our cultures by exploiting what appeared to be an unending resource base. That philosophy is really at an end now. There are no more frontiers left on Planet Earth. The sort of neo-Darwinian view that this is the survival-of-the-fittest world, and whoever grabs the most resources on the frontier ends up the winner, ends up just being destructive.

In the current situation we’re in we need a different paradigm. We need a different understanding of the evolutionary process and who we are. I think we’re starting to gain that, and traditional knowledge is a very, very important element in regaining that, because those people by and large have a sense of limits and of give and take, and the delicate poise that our planet maintains. They understand how to keep it productive, what the right sort of relationship should be. I think we’re going to be dipping ever more into that traditional knowledge pool as we try to reorient our own global culture to a more sustainable model.

So it is important to preserve that pool of traditional knowledge in those cultures wherever possible?

Important to preserve, but incredibly difficult to do, because in a globalized world we’re losing languages more rapidly than ever, we’re losing our genetic diversity. Everyone aspires to the sort of quality of life that we enjoy in the West. So it is important to try to preserve traditional knowledge and culture, but I must say that in this globalizing world things are changing incredibly rapidly.

You are at heart hopeful about our future on Earth, but you also acknowledge that we may fail. How do you see the world ending for us and how quickly could it happen if we don’t manage to pull it off?

When I look at the failure of previous civilizations, they by and large tend to happen quite quickly. There are some exceptions, where there is a gentle decay, but often they happen quickly because the civilization has over-reached its resource base.

My nightmare scenario for the world is that we get to that point of over-reaching the resource base, that we still haven’t formed a global superorganism at that point, and the various power blocs that exist, nations and so forth, will fall to fighting over the remaining resources, whether they be water or food or whatever else. What effectively will be tribes armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. You can see the danger.

We could destroy the productivity of our planet, we could destroy our global civilization, and I think the 1,500 years that passed between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of equivalently sophisticated societies in Western Europe, would be a very optimistic timeframe for recovery if we blow it this time. We would do so much more damage to the planet.

Could that scenario cause our extinction?

I don’t think it would lead to our extinction. People are resilient. We are one of the most abundant species on the planet. But the “us” that is civilized humanity will vanish, most likely. We’ve spent at least 10,000 years building this civilized, affluent lifestyle we all enjoy now. For that to vanish would just send us back to a world of brutality.

It sounds like that at least the Earth itself would survive whatever we throw at it.

Earth is incredibly resilient. With the base of the systems being the little blue-green algae, bacteria, and so forth, and that they can live without oxygen, in the rocks, at below freezing temperatures or above boiling temperatures, life is going to be pretty hard to exterminate from Earth.

But intelligent life, if we destroy that, Earth may never see its likes again. It’s a series of amazing flukes that has brought us to this point. And of course what we stand to lose is the possibility of carrying life well beyond the bounds of this planet.

Populating the universe?

Yeah, that’s right. One of my favorite scientific heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1904 wrote a book about this topic–perhaps it is man’s destiny to perfect his spirit to put it in the vastness of the universe.

When you think about it, if you think in geological timeframes, even with the speeds of travel we have at the moment, it would take us only 5 million years to colonize the galaxy. On the evolutionary scale that’s not a long period of time. But that’s what we stand to lose if we blow it, simply because we can’t shift to a clean energy base or we can’t agree on how to share wealth and cooperate.

You end your book on a note of faith in the human capacity to love and to do the right thing. It’s interesting to note that you talk about love in a situation that begins with the harsh realities of natural selection and evolution and all the giant cold forces that brought us here.

It’s one of the things that astonishes me more than anything else, that this kind of brutal process called evolution by natural selection, which really has only death and diversity as its two tools, has created the capacity to love. It’s an amazing fact: Love and everything we are was created by that process. Our global civilization was created by that process.

It’s one of the great paradoxes that lie at the heart of the book. While the evolutionary mechanism is brutal, evolution’s legacy is endlessly wondrous, complicated, interconnected, and sometimes even loving. It’s amazing.

Is that capacity to love ultimately the ace in our hand?

I think it really is. Our capacity love each other, to empathize, to reach across civilizations is amazing. It came to me just the other day, when I was watching the situation unfold in Syria. There were thousands of people dressed in traditional robes, with their long beards, but what they were chanting in Arabic was, “The people united will never be defeated.” I thought, what a demonstration of common humanity that is.

So on Earth Day 2011, and with all you’ve shared with us as context, what is your message to all of us?

The message is we can never lose hope. We have to maintain a generosity of spirit, despite it all, and just keep pushing on. A great friend of mine gave me a bit of advice years back, something I’ve always cherished. He said, “never get angry, just get even”. That’s right, we just need to keep pushing on, despite all of the selfishness and political spin and everything else that tries to derail us from what we know needs to be done. Our victory will be in preserving the good in humanity and giving future generations a chance to experience that wonderful future that Russel Wallace first glimpsed.

If there was one thing that all of us could do on Earth Day for the Earth, what would that be?

Just do an act of leadership, whether it’s in your own home deciding whether you’re going to switch off the lights to save some energy or whether it’s buying green energy, or getting involved politically. Whatever it is, an act of leadership is what’s needed at the moment, and probably no more than in the political realm.

And if all 3 or 3.5 billion of us adults on Earth were to do this one thing it would make a difference?

It would. The power of the people is formidable.

Tim Flannery is a writer, scientist, and explorer. His many books include The Future Eaters, Throwim Way Leg, The Eternal Frontier, and The Weather Makers. He is the National Geographic Society’s Australasian representative and a director of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and was named Australia’s first Chief Commissioner for Climate Change. In 2007 Flannery was named Australian of the Year, and in 2010 was awarded the Joseph Leidy Award by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn