essay: Thank Gaia for Tim

Thank Gaia for Tim                                                                                    25.10.2010


Climate change – such a big, scary idea; it’s not just that we humans have fouled our nest as if in late dementia, but that those  cherished notions of progress, growth and development are, paradoxically, pushing us rapidly towards oblivion.

Are we, as some say, approaching those terrifying tipping points, those points of no return – with polar ice melting irretrievably, sea levels rising, changes in the great ocean currents, and areas of major population, including some of the world’s great cities, going under?  Droughts, bushfires, floods, loss of food crops, unprecedented rates of species extinctions – all seem to be occurring as we argue about what to do. With these and other catastrophes exacerbated by a burgeoning world population, it seems we’ll need another planet – wherever that might be.  We’ve stuffed this one already.

It’s on the scale of the threat posed by a nuclear winter, except that the climate change crisis doesn’t need a nuclear war to trigger it – it’s already happening.  All the credible science and scientists are pointing in one direction, with differing opinions as to whether there’s enough time to turn it all around.  Lovelock, the British scientist who early on warned us of impending doom with his “Gaia hypothesis” (the earth is a unified organism which is in the process of getting rid of us, putting it very baldly), seems convinced that it’s too late – we’re just ‘shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic”.

There’s a further paradox, of course, raised by the question of whether science can save us.  Science is devised by humans and its applications are in part responsible for getting us into this mess.  Opponents of gun control say that humans not guns are to blame, but guns – arguably a flawed application of science – must share some blame for the much larger number of gun-related murders in countries with weak gun controls.  So science has to take some responsibility for its nasty applications, and the runaway industrialism that has caused the bulk of global warming.  Scientific argument is reductive and only poorly approximates the branching complexities of the natural world; nor is science very good at understanding totality – the big picture.  For me, the important question is whether ‘good science’  can solve the climate crisis, or whether the really necessary changes are political, social, and even emotional.  I suspect that science will contribute a modest amount to the solution of such an enormous threat to the biosphere: recycling and renewable energy systems are two obvious positive examples.

So it’s easy to get depressed, to suffer individual and collective paralysis of will when faced with the enormity of the task.  This is akin to the ‘nuclear denial’ that occurred particularly when the doomsday clock ticked close to midnight, as at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.  And it’s reasonable to invoke the ‘boiled frog syndrome’, to which our species seems equally prone.  International summits of scientists and national leaders fail to agree on significant actions to stop the rot, while population growth escalates – especially in developing countries where people aspire to similar standards of living and consumption to us.  In rich countries like Australia, we still have troglodyte corporations and a loony redneck fringe clinging to dangerous old ideas of growth and progress.  Some unions can’t get over the hurdle of job losses, or see that green solutions create more employment.  Dark greens might say we deserve what we are facing; but the wonders of millennia of human thought and culture must surely not be lost for failure to correct a mistaken notion of progress.  And of course we bear a heavy responsibility to all other species and their right to exist.  This crisis presents surely the best of all cases for political bipartisanship, but that would require a brave government and a mature opposition with progressive, visionary leadership – not   unremitting adversarial behavior constantly trawling for votes; and certainly not a leader who doesn’t even believe in the problem.  And do we really believe that nuclear, the doomsday industry, can save us – or that that is what those corporations and their politician acolytes are on about?

Having said all that, there’s hope – and that wonderful word is part of the title of Tim Flannery’s latest book.  True leaders like Flannery are pointing to a way out of the crisis, and indeed some wealthier nations like Britain have shown individual national leadership in the face of international stagnation.  I haven’t yet read Flannery’s big new offering, but it sounds like a wonderful tonic for despair, with an historical basis for ideas of cooperation to cling to and build on.  Many, many people and a number of governments across the world have grasped the notion of creating a smaller ecological footprint, and sections of industry are awakening too.  Here in wealthy Australia, we have some moral, ethical (and self-serving!) duty to show leadership, but are our major parties brave/smart enough?  Could the federal opposition embrace a bipartisan approach?  It’s democracy’s little problem that pursuit of power can be placed above all else, even the survival of all – especially when power is balanced on a knife edge.


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