Sublime: Do you think it’s inevitable that we would be heading towards a climatic catastrophe, with key movements such as the industrial and scientific revolutions shaping the way we live?
Tim Flannery:As a species, we’ve developed intelligence before we’ve gained understanding and wisdom. But we learn quickly, and I’m confident that we are capable of averting a climatic catastrophe.
S: What infuriates you about the current state of things?
TF:A lot of the public debates I see around climate change or the various options to deal with it are very well informed, and often people you debate with simply do not hear what you’re saying. There’s no real meaningful exchange of information, which can be very frustrating. We need to be a bit more respectful of each other, and listen more carefully to what the other is saying, and have open dialogue in a way that leads to solutions.
S: Your foreword mentions a great misreading of Darwin – why do you think there has been so much?
TF: Darwin’s theory is so embracing and brilliant that we’ve tended to concentrate – as Darwin himself did – on c omprehending evolutionary mechanism. The message that evolution resulted in the ‘survival of the fittest’ suited the elite in the 19th and 20th centuries. The co-founder of evolutionary theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, had a different view. He focused on evolution’s legacy, in particular the power of co-evolution to shape cooperative and stable systems. His message has particular relevance to the 21st century.
S: How do we correct this notion we have that human intelligence is the highest pillar of knowledge?
TF: It’s difficult because there’s a whole philosophy of life that goes behind that. I was recently speaking to a woman who believed quite literally that the earth was created in seven days, and that people were created specially by God – that God has a very special interest in her personally. To convince someone who thinks in that way that we are a part of the earth, and the result of a long evolutionary process, is quite difficult. It would take a long time to have a sufficient discussion, and lay out a clear alternative view.
The book is an inversion of the old view, in some ways. People think the earth is there to serve us and our needs, and my argument says that we are a part of earth, and it’s our destiny in some ways to be earth’s intelligence. We can see that transition occurring right now.
S: You said that you wrote Here on Earth at a time where the hope of humanity saving itself is draining away. At what point do you think people will make greater efforts to act to sustain our world?
TF:Since I wrote the book, we’ve seen great progress. The UN climate meeting in Cancún, Mexico resulted in significant advances, and now China, India and Brazil have all embarked upon the shift away from fossil-fuel based economies. We have a very great deal to do, but the transition has begun.
S: You could argue that our growth plays a part in the environmental crisis. Have we reached our peak in terms of our evolution?
TF:There is a bit of a mix, really. We’re in a moment of crisis where environmental deterioration is gathering pace, particularly as far as climate change is concerned. But we’re also making significant progress in other areas. I outlined a few of those in the book. Things have happened subsequently that I would have put into the book, such as the role that the internet is playing on bringing democracy to the Middle East. That is very much in line with the kind of achievement I thought the internet might bring.
S: Do you think more harm is being done now than any good?
TF:If we look at climate change and what’s happening there, there is no doubt that emissions and greenhouse gases continue to proliferate, so there is an enormous amount of harm being done. At the same time, we have to balance that against the slow progress that’s being made at an international level, and in individual countries such as China. Without the effort that the Chinese government has made to reduce greenhouse gases, we wouldn’t have a hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. Now their efforts make it appear possible, but the rest of the world has to play its part as well.
It’s not a simple equation – is it getting worse, or is it getting better? I prefer to see it more as though things are coming to a head. This next decade is going to be key in terms of seeing which way things are going to go.
S: Do you think the corporations will take notice of the importance of the environment?
TF:Slowly, many corporations are realising that they can’t have sustainable profits without a sustainable society. What many of them would like is the creation of a level playing field, where all of the them have to abide by the same sort of environmental rules. At the moment, the sole motivation for a corporation is to make a profit, and if a corporation can make a profit in a country by abiding by the maximum enforcement of the environmental laws, they will do it or else they will lose out competitively.
The message running throughout the book for governments, corporations and all sorts of entities is that they can be enormous engines for good, but they have to be well regulated. We have to agree on the rules by which these bodies will be allowed to operate, and that’s why the push towards a more democratic future is incredibly important. No change is going to be made by politicians without a strong voice coming from the people. That’s my role in life, in some ways: I’m trying to give a voice in society to that desire for a more sustainable future.
S: Along with people demanding change for the environment, what role would defining ecocide play?
TF:The defining and outlawing of ecocide – the wilful destruction of an ecosystem or environment – is a very important move. If we succeed in that, then we will be able to bring those who break the law to justice. They may be large corporations, they may be corrupt generals in an army, they may be corrupt governments, but at least there would be a means to bring them to justice.
The way science is developing, the role of the courts is going to become ever more important. We now have this fantastic surveillance capacity, where we can look at forest cover from a satellite and see where illegal logging is going on. Signs of climate change are making it more and more feasible to link extreme weather events, such as a major flood or drought, to greenhouse-gas emissions. That is potentially a powerful tool in the hands of lawyers. How we frame laws against ecocide could play a very important role in our future.
S: What makes you optimistic about the future?
TF: First, the realisation I had while writing the book is that evolution is on our side. Then it’s just taking a bit of a longer-term view. We can all get involved with the day-to-day news cycle, but ten years ago no one had really heard of climate change outside of a special group of scientists who were deeply concerned about it. Then the Iraq War started in 2003, and we began to learn more about it. Since then, we’ve had some moves backward and some moves forward, but by and large we have come quite a long way in those eight years towards addressing the problem.
In five or ten years from now, we’ll look back and marvel at how much progress has actually been made.