Can Our Species Escape Destruction?

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Toby Smith/Reportage by Getty Images
Drax Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in Yorkshire, England, 2008

Here is the anguished cry of another distinguished scientist distressed by our collective incapacity to grasp the enormity of the earth’s looming environmental crisis. It has been obvious for a long time—many decades—to legions of individual scientists, and to prestigious scientific organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of Sciences, that the global human enterprise is on a collision course with the physical and biological limits of the earth.

Estimates of how bad the situation is, of course, differ, but various assessments agree that the global economy is consuming resources at a rate equivalent to 1.3 to 1.5 times the earth’s capacity to supply them sustainably. The only way this can happen is for us to be consuming the resource capital from which we should be harvesting only the interest. The consumption of resource capital is evident in the sluicing of millions of tons of topsoil into the oceans, the drawing down of underground aquifers, the salinization and desertification of erstwhile croplands, the depletion of fisheries stocks, the overharvest of forests, and on and on. We, the prodigal sons of the modern era, collectively seem powerless to stop any of this. Efforts to date, such as international fisheries commissions, the Rio biodiversity treaty, and the Kyoto Protocol have been feeble and ineffective. The much-anticipated Copenhagen summit on climate change of December 2009 flopped.

On top of this already dire situation we face the added stress of climate warming, which promises heat waves, droughts, torrential flooding, forest fires, Class-5 hurricanes, coastal inundation, and the melting of the glaciers that serve as the vital water supply for millions of people. Can it get any worse, one wonders? It can, and worse will be our reward for disregarding the warnings of a generation of scientists.

In Here on Earth, Tim Flannery softens the frightening reality of these inconvenient truths by resorting to an overzealous use of metaphors to engage the reader and create a sense of the individual’s connection to nature. The subtitle, “A Natural History of the Planet,” would have been apt for one of his earlier books, The Eternal Frontier (2001), but fails to suggest that this new book is a galloping history of man’s relationship to the environment with chapters on overpopulation, financial discounting, the role of markets, global governance, and other topics far afield from natural history.

Flannery is a consummate storyteller who has written a series of fascinating books on human prehistory and the history of life. His earlier works, including The Future Eaters (1994), Throwim Way Leg (1998), and others are rich in detail and drama, and leave a lasting impression. I wish I could say as much of Here on Earth. Flannery describes the book as “an investigation of sustainability—not how to achieve it, but what it is.” The subject matter is wide-ranging, encompassing human history …

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