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Scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery offers a history of the Earth and the life it sustains — along with a new perspective on climate change. Describing the evolution of the fire ant, he sees hope that that our interdependence can trump our self-destructive impulses and point the way forward for human civilization.
- Tim Flannery Author, "Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010)
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." When we talk about planet Earth's changing climate, we often look at what's happened in recent years or decades. But that is way too short term an approach, according to explorer and scientist Tim Flannery.
MR. MARC FISHERHe says we should be looking across the span of a few billion years. In the context of the natural world and the evolutionary forces that have shaped it, we are a mere speck on the Earth's timeline. Human beings have been around just for a couple of million years while the lowly ant has evolved over 400 million years and has successfully colonized every corner of the planet creating a system of living based more on cooperation than on competition.
MR. MARC FISHERThat's why our guest today suggests we might do well to take some lessons from the ant colonies. And Tim Flannery, the author of "Here On Earth: A Natural History of The Planet," is with us. He's going to be appearing at The National Geographic Society tonight.
MR. MARC FISHERThank you for being here and ants we know live in colonies and do all sorts of interesting work and so one and yet we don't really look to them so much as we look maybe to primates as an explanation of our behavior. What is it about ants that we can learn from?
MR. TIM FLANNERYWell, great to be with you Marc. And look ants, they represent a level of organization that's quite different from the way most animals live. It's what called a super-organism so all the individuals in the ant colony specialize in a particular job. They all become interdependent and they work more or less as one.
MR. TIM FLANNERYIt's like a society much more tightly woven than ours, of course, but still ant society has parallels with our own. And I think we can learn a lot from looking at the way the social intersects the ants and the termites and the honey bees actually go about cooperating to create their own civilizations.
FISHERYou know, in the book, you create this dichotomy between Charles Darwin's view of evolution or at least the way we've simplified his view of evolution to be survival of the fittest, what -- this sense of life as a competition as opposed the theories of Alfred Wallace and of James Lovelock who have this more cooperative kind of concept of how we evolve and how we live. What is it that's missing from that survival of the fittest approach that would help us figure out our future?
FLANNERYWell, you know, that term survival of the fittest was first coined within about five years of Darwin producing his ideas on evolution, in the middle of the 19th century in Britain. And that was a period of empire for the British people and Darwin, in his book, actually the subtitle reads, you know, "and on the preservation of favored races."
FLANNERYSo people were already thinking socially about evolution, you know, thinking about how it applies to their own society. And that unfortunate choice of words that Darwin used on favored races and prompted others, probably like Herbert Spencer, who, you know, coined survival of the fittest, to start applying Darwinian thought to those societies. And unfortunately it was -- they focused really on the mechanism, the fact that, as they saw it, only the fittest would survive.
FLANNERYAnd of course that's not a good description for the world around us. we know that now, we know that, in fact, Lovelock's ideas and Alfred Russell Wallace's ideas about the world that results from that evolutionary process being an immensely complicated set of interrelationships and interdependencies is much closer to the truth and is a much more solid foundation, actually, for thinking about our place in nature and our relationship with each other than any fantasy about survival of the fittest.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or e-mail at kojo, K-O-J-O, @wamu.org. And if you have thoughts about what insect or animal you find most fascinating in terms of how they've evolved, give us a call. Which do you think dominates the natural world, this sense of competition or interdependence, this cooperative approach that Tim Flannery is talking about?
FISHERAnd, you know, as I read through the book there is this sense of, almost of optimism that you have about the planet because of our ability to overcome problems through cooperation and yet the history of human civilization is really one of wars and of competition and of this sense of battle going on. Can you have both at the same time or does one have to win out over the other?
FLANNERYWell, look at human history is a history of both. Sure, there's been battles between civilizations, between rival groups and so forth, but through the whole of human history, there's also been adaptation to local conditions. You know, people have learned about the limits to their environment and have respected, otherwise we wouldn't have civilizations, you know.
FLANNERYSo when we look at that, it's easy to get distracted by the spectacular, you know, the empire building and all of the rest of it and not see the cooperative work that has underpinned all of that. And I just think that we need to reassess that, particularly in the context of what's happening now in the world.
FLANNERYWhere we are, you know, the days of empire and triumphs is slowly withering away and we're getting into this situation now where this an emerging global civilization and that's a fascinating moment for us. And I think that this moment, more than any other, we can learn from the social insects.
FISHERAnd let's talk about those ants. I mean, some species of ants, I guess, shifted from a hunter-gatherer mode to actually herding and milking the bugs that sustain them, just as we herd and milk cattle and sheep and other ants make their rivals into slaves.
FISHERSo obviously there are good and bad lessons from ants. But what is it that they show us about our ability to cooperate and what are we missing from their ability to cooperate?
FLANNERYSure. Well, look, the ants have got a great advantage over us, you know, that their genetic relatedness is such that there's no difference in the ant society between mine and thine. It's the same sort of thing. Now, for all of Karl Marx's efforts, we've never been able to create that in a human society and we never will because we're willful, selfish, upright apes. But the glue that holds our super organisms together is one of common interest. It's, you know, Adam Smith talked about it in the division of labor. The fact that the great resource we have is other people and that division of labor allows a great abundance of the things we require for a good life.
FLANNERYIt's also, I think, a common aspiration, a common ideology or common view. That's always been important in human history, to have that commonality of understanding. So we can learn from the ants, to some extent there are extraordinary parallels but we have to realize that we, the glue that holds our civilizations together is different and perhaps more fragile but still, I think, offering great hope. That we will create a global super-organism like the ants, which is a peaceful one internally because there's no conflict in gigantic ant colonies, they can't afford it. Just as in our interconnected world today, conflict is becoming more expensive.
FISHERYou know, we live in a time when a lot of the best-selling books about the future of the planet Earth are extremely dark and pessimistic. We, you know, movies and books like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which you make mention of in the book. These visions, we seem fascinated with the idea that we are spoiling the Earth to such an extent that we'll be among its last inhabitants. And, you know, the person I think of as, you know, serve the great purveyor of that notion is Bill McKibben, who's very book rails at all of us for destroying the planet and ruining life as we know it.
FISHERAnd yet the Earth seems quite resilient. Why, you know, is there any merit to this argument that we're among the last people on Earth? And if not, why are we so attracted to that vision?
FLANNERYWell, look I think it's pure laziness and as much I love Bill McKibben I hate the way people go from ignorance to despair, you know. It means you don't have to do anything. It's so irritating, where actually the truth's in the middle, you know. We do have serious environmental challenges that we have to rise to. But it means people actually acting to do something about it. And there is a good prospect we can go forward and honestly there's never been so much at stake, you know. This is the moment when we're creating this global civilization that might allow us to do extraordinary things in future.
FLANNERYAnd if we give that away simply because we're too lazy to create better democracies or to shift from a polluting resource base to a cleaner one that's an unforgivable sin in my view.
FISHERWhen you write a book about the future of the planet and consider all the threats to the planet, it's sort of like when you write about cosmology. I wonder why people who write about cosmology aren't just so overwhelmed by the vastness or by the smallness of our planet and of our lives. Is there, do you run across the same sort of extensional question when you're writing about the future of the planet? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?
FLANNERYNo, you know, what I do feel is an enormous sense of privilege because our generation is the most important generation ever to have lived on Earth. We're living at the moment when the global super-organism, the global civilization is taking shape. You know, we're living at the moment just before human population going to peak. So by 2050 there will be 9 billion of us, an enormous challenge but hopefully we'll go down after that. We're living in this transition from the fossil fueled economy to a renewable economy.
FLANNERYSo we're the deciders in a sense. It's this generation, this decade, next that are going to make a lot of the important decisions, that'll decide whether we have a prosperous future or whether we will succumb to these numerous challenges and threats that you've put forward. So I don't get overwhelmed by it. I'm sort of energized by the thought that we are the ones and it's an enormous privilege, but also an enormous responsibility.
FISHERAnd for those listening, please give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Do you think we're making progress on addressing climate change, and do you think that we really are that decisive generation? Tim Flannery, is there -- is there a contradiction really between perceiving ourselves as this decisive generation, and being kind of on the cusp of a very dark future, and having this much more optimistic outlook that you have in the book, where you do talk about the resiliency of the planet, and the resiliency of our civilization?
FLANNERYYeah. Look Marc, I guess my optimism comes from two things. One is the underlying resilience of the earth, and the fact that we know how to make this a more productive stable place. You know, we do it in our agriculture, the best agricultural practices manage it, and we just need to bring all the rest up to standard. You know, we can do that sort of thing. But the second thing that makes me very optimistic is the way that we are starting to cooperate more than ever before, and that is shown if you take the appropriate time scale.
FLANNERYI mean, just climate change is a really good example of the problems we face and how we're dealing with it. If you looked at the media day to day, or just looked at one country like the U.S., you'd be driven to despair on this, you know. But take a five-year view. You know, six years ago, no one had heard of "An Inconvenient Truth" and Al Gore, so the climate scientists were pulling their hair out with worry, but the general public didn't seem to care, you know.
FLANNERYSince then, we've had an enormous buy in globally on this issue. We've had the world's largest meeting of heads of state ever for our species dealing with climate change. We now have the Copenhagen Accord. We've had good meeting since then. We're two-thirds of the way where we need to be in terms of getting the emissions -- the pledges to avoid emissions to make sure we don't suffer from dangerous climate change. So while there's a lot to be done, on the five-year scale, we are making progress. And I think five years from now, it's going to look very different again.
FISHERTim Flannery will be speaking tonight at the National Geographic Society to discuss his book "Here On Earth: A Natural History Of The Planet. It'll be 7:30. That's at 1600 M Street Northwest, and tickets are $18 for the general public. We'll continue our conversation about climate change and the future of the planet after this short break. I'm Marc Fisher, and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Tim Flannery about climate change and the future of the planet. He's the author of "Here on Earth: A Natural History Of The Planet." And you talk about how the earth has a way of healing itself that too often we fail to give it credit for. After all of the apocalyptic talk during last year's BP Oil spill, and there was sense that the -- the end was nigh, and yet the ocean's vastness and man's efforts somehow combined to effect a cleanup that is at least somewhat more effective than what the experts had anticipated.
FISHERIs that typical of the earth? I mean, do we not give the planet enough credit for healing itself?
FLANNERYNo. Look, the -- the Gulf oil spill really, um, the fact that the impacts weren't as great was a result of good luck, you know. It happened in warm waters where the bacteria that degrade oil can operate very efficiently. If you compare the Exxon Valdez spill of Alaska with the Gulf spill, you know a quarter of million birds died in the Exxon Valdez spill. It was just a bad time of year in cold water, and the oil lasted a long time.
FLANNERYIn the Gulf, I think the total toll for birds was certainly less than 10,000 anyway, and it was a result just of those environmental conditions. So sometimes the earth can repair itself, other times it can't.
FISHERLet's go to Bruce in Gainesville, Va. Bruce, you're on the air.
BRUCEGood afternoon. Just a comment, and then perhaps a quick question. I consider myself to be, in general, a conservative when it comes to political issues, but -- but when it comes to the environment, I think I have a little bit different ethic than most people on that side of the political spectrum. And I'm wondering what points of agreement you might see developing between those on the left and those on the right?
BRUCEI get very frustrated with some of my friends, even those I agree with most of the time, who seem to think that either- -- whether or not you agree with all of the climate science that's out there, how it could possibly be benign to the planet to pump billions and billions of tons of pollutants every year into the air and into the water, to observe, you know, two or three hundred species a year, or maybe it's a month, I'm not sure, going extinct. Where is the humility?
BRUCEI mean, I would think thinking people of any political persuasion would say that what we are doing is unsustainable, and that there has got to be collective change. I like E.O. Wilson's point in his book "The Creation" where he says that there's this tiny little layer of life around this planet that we are not responsible for creating, but we can have a role in destroying. And humility seems to be -- and a little bit of erring on side of caution would seem to be in order.
FLANNERYYeah. No. Look, I couldn't agree more. And, you know, one of the sad things about recent political developments both in this country and in my home country of Australia, is that the -- the right wing has sort of lost that patriotic attitude that the environment is a source of immense pride and national environments, and it needs to be protected and cared for. And I guess that's gonna swing back eventually, but at the moment, that's lacking.
FLANNERYThe other thing as you say is lacking is some humility. If I want to know about my health, I go to an expert, a doctor who will tell me. If I want to know about the climate system, I listen to the American Academy of Sciences, or the Royal Society in Britain, and you know, those scientific bodies around the world are all saying the same thing, and I think we do have an obligation to listen carefully. No one wants to spend more on this than we need. No one wants to destroy their economy as they address it.
FLANNERYBut we need to learn from our experiences, quite a lot of experience around the world now about that, and we need to deal with it with some humility, you know. To say the experts are telling us we've got a problem, maybe we should do something about it. And let's get on with the job.
FISHERWell, you know, the flip side of humility can be arrogance and denial, and denial is a very useful psychological tool that human civilization has developed, but it can also obviously be destructive. I mean, how -- as you look at the history of human civilization or the comparison to ants, have we overdeveloped our sense of denial, and is that hurting us on this climate change front?
FLANNERYWell, I think what's happened is that when you whip up enough fervor and fear around a subject, and suspicion, people become irritated, and irritation is a mild form of rage. And when people are irritated or enraged, they're not very good at listening, and they're not very good at evaluating things. So, you know, in my job as chief climate commissioner in Australia, we go around to communities discussing which -- hot topic issues really, hot button issues, but try to do it in a very calm deliberative manner because I think that if you don't do that, people just are not very good at listening.
FLANNERYAnd we -- we need to engage in a proper respectful dialogue, I think, in this area, and it's not easy. But it has to be done.
FISHERYou have this very sort of holistic view of human civilization in which you talk about all of mankind potentially this -- this global super organism, and you fold into that conversation the Internet and technology that are challenging the way we've organized ourselves up to this point as nations. Do you see this rise of technology as something that could actually change the basic structures of human civilization?
FLANNERYI think it's already doing it, Marc. You know, I can see this enormous empowerment of the individual. I was watching the TV the other night with the -- the demonstrations in Syria, and there was these people dressed in very Arabic costumes, you know, the thawb, and the hijab for the women with their faces covered. And they were shouting in Arabic, and it looked kind of a bit weird and foreign to me until I listened to what they were saying, and they were saying, the people united will never be defeated.
FLANNERYAnd I thought at that moment, wow, this common humanity we all share. It doesn’t matter where we live, how we dress, you know. It's such a powerful thing. And I think that's what -- that's what this interconnectedness is liberating. Everyone wants a good life like what we enjoy here in the West, and they're striving for it now in the Middle East and North Africa, and good luck to them.
FISHERIt's interesting that you mentioned that. I was just in the Middle East for a few weeks and saw the revolutions there as I'd been in Eastern Europe back in the late '80s when the revolutions happened there. And in both cases, it struck me that revolution is something of a virus that actually spreads among people without their actually knowing it or really being terribly conscious of it. It has almost this supernatural force to it in the way it spreads.
FISHERAnd you talk in the book about the way we govern ourselves, and the increase in democracy around the world, the increasing number of democratic countries. Would you say that democracy is a virus?
FLANNERYLook, it is a virus. It's a virus that empowers the individual like no other. And I think unless you've lived in an authoritarian -- or under an authoritarian government, it's hard to understand how evil it is, because justice doesn't exist in a real sense under those sort of governments. People are disempowered. It's a world away from where we are today, and I, you know, that virus is spreading because it does empower the individual. And as Winston Churchill said, you know, democracy is the worst form of government ever invented by people, except for every other form that's tried from time, you know, time to time in this world of (word?) .
FLANNERYAnd it's very true. It's -- it has its own enormous difficulties, but I'm convinced that is the only system which ultimately people will tolerate living under.
FISHERYou had an example in the book about how we and animals adapt to new conditions very quickly. The stag story, can you tell us about that?
FLANNERYSure. Yeah. I was really fascinated to read about this research. It happened I think here in the eastern U.S. where hunters were put into a paddock -- fenced-off paddock a square mile in extent, and were hunting stags. There was a certain number in there, and researchers were watching to see what happened. And of course, the stags that ran away would be shot, but a number of stags just sat very, very still and hunters would walk within a few feet of them, or yards of them, and not see them.
FLANNERYNow, they had learned that from one another. And of course, if stags just do that when they're being hunted by wolves or cougars or whatever else, they'll be picked up because those animals hunt using scent. But humans are very visual hunters, and so staying still is the best defense you can get. So it was really interesting to me to see that shift, and animals do learn very quickly from each other these means or ideas which we share. And we don't -- you don't necessarily need language, as the stags demonstrate, to actually share those ideas.
FISHERThat's fascinating. We have an e-mail from Bill in Arlington, Va., who asks a question along similar lines about ants and their behavior. He says, "If a piece of food is left on the floor of a vacant room, ants will eventually appear." And he said, "Where do the ants come from and how do they know food is there?"
FLANNERYWell, you know, they -- an ant colony is like an octopus really, and the head of the octopus is gonna be hidden in some roof cavity or under the ground somewhere. And when you leave the food there, the ants sense that. They've got scouts out all the time, just one or two tiny ones you won't see. They'll locate the food, go back to the colony, tell the colony the food is there, and then the octopus reaches out an arm for the food, and that's when you see the ants in the sugar bowl.
FLANNERYAnd of course, we thoughtlessly kill those ants. It's a bit like just chopping off the tip of the octopus's tentacle. It does nothing to get rid of the ants. Because that cooperative approach at that super organism level is so highly developed among the ants that they do work seamlessly together. It's almost as if an ant colony is a sort of a body of -- it's a level or organization just below that of our bodies really.
FISHERFascinating. Here's Shibani (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Shibani, you're on the air.
SHIBANIYes. I have a question about if there is any correlation between the corruption that is going on in Africa, because we know, most governments there are corrupted and the environment. Thank you.
FLANNERYYeah. Look, Shibani, there absolutely is because the corruption often takes the form of illegal logging or illegal trading natural resources that devastates the environment. And interestingly enough, what we're seeing around the world now is that new technology, particularly satellite imagery of these forests, that we can see the logging going on. We've now got resolution that goes down to the individual tree. So there is absolutely no excuse for allowing that illegal logging to continue. It's only continuing as a result of government corruption.
FISHERAnd Elaine in Middleburg, Va. Elaine, you're on the air.
ELAINEOh, hello. This is a plea for people to be aware that the Endangered Species Act is in danger. The worlds was -- was recently delisted by a sneaky rider attached to the budget. It had nothing to do with science, no public comment but when the hands of ranchers and hunters who didn't allow any science to come in. Now, this might be the beginning of the domino theory, because once you delist the world, the polar bears and whatever else dig, powerful people want to eliminate. And so I just hope the public is more aware of it.
ELAINEI've talked to several people knowing you that this would happen. Because with these riders that are pulled -- pushed in, in the -- any budget bill, most of the people don't know this is happening, so please talk about this.
FLANNERYWell, Elaine, I'm fascinated by that example, because these non-germane riders on government bills here in this country are a relic of the distant past. The British got rid of them in the mid 19th century, and they clearly corrode democracy in this country. I don't know why they still tolerate it. You know, I think that although we live in a democracy both here and in Australia, our democracies are far from perfect. And when I talk to young people or even hear your sort of comments, I sense a frustration among people that the will of the people is not being expressed properly by our democratic structures.
FLANNERYAnd I wouldn't be surprised if eventually these sort of Internet mediated events we're seeing in the Middle East do come back to our own democracies, and people say we want a better form of democracy. We want to be heard. We want to be represented rather than the situation we've got at the moment where so many people feel disempowered.
FISHERYou know, there's an almost spiritual aspect to the view of evolution that you write about in the book where this notion that evolution can be an almost miraculous force that keeps life on earth in somewhat of a balance. Do you see it as being akin to a religious force? You write about how Darwin really rejects religion. But is there a spiritual nature to this definition of evolution that you use?
FLANNERYI don't -- well, there's not a religious basis to it. But can I say that there -- I have an immense feeling of respect for our planet, and also an immense feeling of respect for the messages, the key messages of the New Testament as well, although I'm not, you know, a religious person myself in believing there's a separate God. But that message of, you know, loving one another and loving a God or loving your planet, they're so profound. You know, we need to have that respect.
FLANNERYBecause after all, we are the earth. We -- all living things are animated bits of the earth's crust. Everything about organic chemistry and the chemistry of life tells us that. We started off over, you know, billions of years ago as bits of earth's crust, and we still are. We're part of the system. We're not separate from it.
FISHERTim Flannery is the author of "Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet." He's a writer, scientist, conservationist and explorer, and he's written several award-winning books including the best seller, "The Weather Makers." He'll be at the National Geographic Society tonight at 7:30 to discuss his book. That's at 1600 M Street Northwest, and tickets for the general public are $18.
FISHER"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Taylor Burnie with assistance from A.C. Valdez, Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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