Tim Flannery: “It’s Over to You”

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

David Finkel

The Weather Makers
How Man is Changing the Climate and
What It Means for Life on Earth
Tim Flannery
New York: Grove Press, paperback edition, 2006, 321 pages + notes and index, $15.

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY will be either the century of a “sustainability revolution” — extending the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 18th through 20th centuries, bringing their benefits to all humanity while eliminating massive global poverty and inequality, and in the process beginning to repair the massive damage wreaked on the environment by blind industrial expansion and capital accumulation — or else the century in which the progress of human civilization goes into reverse and faces the real possibility of collapse.

The good news is that these stark alternatives are increasingly understood well beyond small minority movements of radical environmentalists, ecological socialists and a tiny handful of scientific thinkers — as important a role as such vanguard elements continue to play.

The consciousness of a truly global crisis of humanity and nature is verified by the impact and popularity of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” project, by cultural phenomena like the July “Live Earth” concerts, and by mass media and popular-science coverage of the realities of global climate change.

Significantly, mainstream media in the last couple of years no longer seem to feel obliged to “balance” their reporting by drawing from the rapidly drying pool of flat-earth “climate change skeptic” types. And the Bush regime’s blatant censorship of government-issued environmental reports is now viewed as (yet another) scandal and abuse of power, rather than a source of comfort that severe and potentially catastrophic climate change remains “subject to further research.”

The bad news is that massive economic and political obstacles stand in the way of tackling the problem — obstacles thrown up by the daily operations and the disinformation apparatus of corporate interests addicted to, and literally dependent upon, profits generated from a carbon-fuel-based economy.

Consider, to take just one example, western Canada’s Alberta-centered boom, the key political base for the country’s current Conservative government, the very kind of development that “is sending us rapidly backwards. Making oil from Canada’s tar sands, for example, liberates three times the amount of CO2 [carbon dioxide] as does conventional oil extraction. Making oil from oil shales and coal are even more polluting…” (Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers, 321) You get one guess where the market for Alberta’s oil extracted from tar sands is located.

Meanwhile, notoriously, China’s economic growth stimulates the massive construction of new coal-burning plants that choke its population and contribute to cooking the planet; Amazon and Indonesian rain forests are burned to clear space for soy production or subsistence agriculture – and so on, in a carnival of destruction driven by both profit and inertia.

From a specifically Marxist point of view, we can say that the defeated project of the 20th century — the world socialist revolution that could have begun constructing a new society not dominated by the needs of capitalist accumulation — must now be accomplished under conditions of very finite time limits for humanity to restore conditions that will secure the longterm survival of our own species, and tens of thousands of others along with us.

A Magnified Wallop

The scale of humanity’s global crisis is framed, in my view, by two of the most important books recently published. Especially if read together, they pack a magnified wallop. One is a justifiably famous bestseller while the other is likely to reach a much more limited audience than it deserves.

Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis, is reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Ron Warren. It presents a shattering account of capitalism’s human ecology, under which a growing proportion of “surplus” humanity is shoved into unliveable conditions. For the first time in human history, the world’s urban population will shortly outnumber the rural — living in nightmare cities, under the global regime of privatization and market supremacy, as a resident of Nairobi explains:

“The state does nothing here. It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals.” (Quoted in Planet of Slums, 62)

It is a story of vast populations concentrated in the most earthquake- and flood-prone locations, in the closest proximity to toxic poisons from chemical plants to automobile pollution, and constantly subjected to fires, many of which are deliberately set by landlords.

The Weather Makers, by the prominent Australian scientist Tim Flannery, poses the prospect of human activity producing a planet becoming unliveable for civilization itself. His account, scary enough when the hardcover edition was published in 2005, takes on an even more dramatic aspect now as the drought in his own continent Australia, the “Big Dry,” at last catches international attention. The threat is at the point where no irrigation water may be available this year for the most essential farming region of the country.

At a time when fewer people were listening, Flannery was already warning that “I think there’s a fair chance that Perth will be the 21st century’s ghost metropolis.” Today, authorities Down Under are desperately hoping that a strong “La Nina” season will bring some of the rains back.

What connects these accounts by Flannery and Mike Davis?  Both the global market (“free trade” in agricultural products) and rampant soil depletion and spreading drought destroy native farming throughout the “underdeveloped” world. Climate change  reinforces in multiple ways the misery of “surplus humanity:” Consider, for example, the impact of spreading deserts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, or of rising sea levels on the crowded coasts of the Indian subcontinent, or of melting Himalayan glaciers on the fresh water supply for something like two billion people.

Where can dislocated farmers and pastoralists go? How can they survive?

At the same time, the explosive growth of slums vastly complicates the struggle for the sustainability revolution — an economy that meets human needs without destroying our topsoil, poisoning our water and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on a scale that cooks our goose and much of what we regard as “nature.”

In Flannery’s view, that revolution is well within the capacity of existing technology, assuming appropriate action on both an individual and governmental scale: “If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe…(w)e could save around nine out of every ten species currently under threat, limit the extent of extreme weather events so that losses of both humans life and investments are a fraction of those being predicted, and reduce, almost to zero, the possibility of any of the three great disasters occurring this century.” (297)

Those three potential global disasters would be a shutdown of the Gulf Current under the impact of freshwater ice melt in the north Atlantic; a collapse of the Amazon rain forest; and least likely but potentially apocalyptic, a massive release of methane from the oceans and permafrost into the atmosphere, which would push global warming to a level threatening a “mass extinction” on the scale of the Permian 250 million years ago.

Everyone pretty well knows by now some elementary “greenhouse gas” science of carbon dioxide — that its concentration in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million prior to the Industrial Revolution to 380 today; that concerted and drastic reductions in emissions are needed to keep it from rising beyond 550 parts by the end of this century, which in itself implies a 5-to-10 degree rise in global temperatures; and that beyond that level the likelihood of irreversible and catastrophic consequences becomes acute.

Although even before 1900 scientists were trying to calculate the impact of carbon dioxide concentrations on trapping heat in the atmosphere, the mechanisms were subtle and elusive, as Flannery explains in his chapter 3, “The Gaseous Greenhouse”:

“When scientists realized that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were linked to climate change, some were puzzled. They knew that CO2 only absorbs radiation at wavelengths longer than about twelve microns (a human hair is around seventy microns thick), and that a small amount of the gas captured all of the radiation available at those bandwidths. Increasing its concentration in experiments seemed to make no real difference to the amount of heat trapped. Besides, there was so little of the gas, it seemed inconceivable that it could change the temperature of an entire planet.

“What scientists did not commonly realize then is that at very low temperatures — such as over the Poles and high in the atmosphere — more heat travels at the bandwidths where CO2 is most effective. More important, they discovered that rather than being the sole agent responsible for climate change, CO2 acts as a trigger for that potent greenhouse gas, water vapor. It does this by heating the atmosphere just a little, allowing it to take up and retain more moisture, which then warms the atmosphere further. So a positive feedback loop is created, forcing our planet’s temperature to ever higher levels.” (27-28)

Some “climate change skeptics,” it may be noted, like to point to evidence that in ancient warming cycles, carbon dioxide concentrations apparently tended to follow rather than precede warming — acting therefore as a strengthening, but not causal, agent of warming. This should not be comforting at all: If humanity has produced, for the first time we know about, a “forcing” effect in which carbon dioxide itself precipitates a global warming trend, the feedback-loop demons it might call forth are too horrible to imagine.

Material Basis of Civilization

The technological challenges to a sustainable society and economy are by no means trivial, but not decisive – and not dependent on highly speculative solutions like “fusion power.”

It’s not only, as Tim Flannery shows, that techniques for conservation and conversion are well within reach. More broadly, speaking again from a specifically Marxist perspective, it’s not our view that social structures and the possibilities of creative innovation are determined by the levels of technology available at a given time.

Rather, we see the structures of society as resulting from social struggles – above all, the class struggle between exploiters and exploited over who controls, and who gets how much of, the surplus created by productive labor. In turn, those class structures strongly condition how well and for whose benefit existing technology is used, along with the possibilities of new scientific and technological developments.

Flannery, though not writing as any kind of socialist or political scientist, does touch on the fact that there are a variety of technological options — some of which would require heavy-handed central authority while others would be amenable to democratic and community control (see particularly chapter 30, “Nuclear Lazarus?,” 272-78). Which might be chosen will depend upon the clash of social forces — including, let’s not forget, popular movements arising from the slums that Mike Davis describes.

These centrally important points, however, also require an immediate qualification that there are rock-bottom material constraints: In particular, civilization of any kind depends absolutely on the ability to produce ample food. That means agriculture; contrary to some fools who salivate at the thought of trillion-dollar expenditures on human space travel, our species will not save itself by importing food grown on Mars.

The question arises, will we all be in Perth? Flannery concisely outlines the climatic conditions for the agricultural revolution of the past eight thousand or so years. It’s called the Holocene period, a time of mild and stable climate following the end of the last Ice Age. That’s what created conditions for the Agricultural Revolution, which in turn makes possible everything we take for granted, including the global economy.

Some theorists, Flannery tells us, suggest that a post-Holocene period has begun, to be called “Anthropocene” to indicate a new climate shaped by human activity. There’s even some fascinating speculation that a very slight warming impact of human activity might have smoothed out the transition from the Ice Age. After several phases of alternating glacial retreat and advance — melting ice sheets would disrupt the northward flow of warm-water currents, bringing about a re-freeze and a repeat of the pattern — it’s possible though unproven that a slight increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from human forest-clearing may have been just enough to break this cycle.

In this instance, theoretically, the human footprint would have had a fortuitous benign effect, while also demonstrating how even a tiny pre-industrial population could measurably affect global climate. Today’s human impact is qualitatively different — atmospheric changes on a scale unknown for hundreds of thousands of years, i.e. several times the entire span of modern human existence, destruction of natural habitat sufficient for a potential mass extinction, and other changes anything but benign.

Flannery’s discussion of the short- and medium-term implications convinces me that the term “global warming,” while accurate in itself, is inadequate. More appropriate would be “violent climate instability,” on a magnitude so great and time scale so rapid that it seriously threatens the ability of human society to adapt.

If the good news is that human beings are incredibly adaptable to practically every climate and diet available on earth, the bad news is that we’re at the top of the food chain, and therefore vulnerable to disruptive changes. Most obviously, reasonably stable temperature, rainfall and seasonal snowmelt are necessary for growing crops.

This reality affects not only farmers on the edge of subsistence in Africa, or struggling family farmers in the drought-stricken North American plains or Australia. It pertains even to corporate agribusiness, with all its vaunted capacity to produce genetically modified and irradiated frankenfoods for our supermarkets and 100% uniform nutrition- free potatoes for our McDonald’s French (or is it still “Freedom”?) fries.

Extinction Express?

Besides pondering our own survival, every decent human being ought to think about the future of species with which we share the planet, and on some of which we also depend. Flannery’s discussion touches on the threat to the oceans, once considered inexhaustible, due to a variety of factors including acidification, the effect of warming in reducing the critically important mixing of layers of water, and ultimately even the impact on life at the very depths of the oceans.

He describes in painful detail the bleaching and degradation of priceless coral reefs. And if nothing else, the threat to microscopic ocean life and plankton — the base of the food chain that supports the already stressed and overharvested fish populations  — ought to be a frightening warning. The Arctic ice on which polar bears depend is shrinking, resulting in incidents not only of drowning but cannibalism and one documented case of a hybrid “pizzly,” resulting from a polar bear breeding with a grizzly as it encroached into the latter’s habitat.

The broader threat to biodiversity is shocking. Perhaps the most stunning and heartbreaking account is the story of the complete disappearance of the entire golden toad population — tens of thousands strong — in the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, in the course of a single year (Chapter 12, 114-122). It is emblematic of rampant species extinctions among amphibeans. Years of research finally revealed the cause: a change of climate (a “magic gate,” in the language of climatologists) that lifted clouds just enough to eliminate the mist on which the golden toads’ survival depended.

Many more species, Flannery emphasizes, must even now be going extinct before we even become aware of their existence. It is impossible here to summarize the richness of detail, the clarity of scientific exposition and the passion Flannery pours into his account. You really do need to read the book. To be sure, however, not all species will suffer; indeed some will “benefit enormously:”

“These are the parasites that cause the four strains of malaria. As rainfall increases, the mosquitoes that carry the parasite will spread, the malarial season will lengthen, and the disease will proliferate. From Mexico City to Papua New Guinea’s Mt. Hagen, the mountain valleys of the world support human populations in high densities…Just below those communities — in the case of New Guinea around 4500 feet — are great forests where no one lives. This is because of malaria, which is so prevalent in parts of the tropics that it controls human populations. In the near future, global warming will grant access to the malarial parasite and its vector the Anopheles mosquito to those high mountain valleys, and there they will find tens of thousands of people without any resistance to the disease.” (177)

Now plug this reality back into Mike Davis’s account of 21st century human ecology, and you’ll get more of the picture.

Over to Us?

Both in his concluding chapter and in the new Afterword to the paperback edition, Flannery’s final words are “It’s Over to You.”

What he means by this is that it’s up to a concerned and aroused citizenry, above all in the developed countries that drive the carbon-emissions crisis, to take both the individual actions and political mobilizations required to change policy and direction. He cites, with some hope, initiatives in Britain and California as against the “climate change dinosaurs” George W. Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On the individual and community level, “If enough of us buy green power, solar panels, solar hot water systems, and hybrid vehicles, the cost of these items will plummet. This will encourage the sale of yet more panels and wind generators, and soon the bulk of domestic power will be generated by renewable technologies. This will place sufficient pressure on industry that, when combined with the pressure from Kyoto, it will compel energy-hungry enterprises to maximize efficiency and turn to clean power generation.”

Consequently, by making large-scale renewable energy affordable through our own initiatives, “the developing giants of Asia might even avoid the full carbon catastrophe in which we, in the industrialized world, find ourselves so deeply mired.” (306)

It’s a guardedly hopeful prognosis, and I think we should all follow his recommendations to the extent of our own abilities. But I believe it’s also necessary to go beyond the scope of this incredibly important book in at least two fundamental respects.

First, if the resources and political will necessary to save our environment are to be successfully mobilized, it is essential to break away from the United States’ addiction — economically and politically — to ruling the world by means of a Permanent War Economy and domination of oil and other resources.  It’s not only that war is a major polluter and environmental destroyer — which it is — but even more that the bloated war industry itself cannot be “converted to renewables.” It must be dismantled.

Second, all the moral and political pressure on corporate capital to clean up its act may buy a little extra time, but won’t solve the problem. It can be argued, in the abstract, that the capitalist market could promote a sustainability revolution, IF economies of scale for solar, wind and other clean energy could be achieved and IF the real costs of environmental degradation were levied on polluting industries and carbon-emitting fuels.

The market, unfortunately, does not operate in such abstraction. The political power wielded by corporations will prevent the rationality of human survival from triumphing over the rationality of capital accumulation for the existing corporate structure. We already know this is true from the real-life example of private U.S. insurance companies blocking the creation of a rational single-payer health system — even though much of industry would benefit from it!

In short, the struggle for socialism remains a necessity even as the urgency of violent climate instability imposes itself. But one can ask, even if the world revolution and construction of socialism had succeeded, wouldn’t there still be a global environmental crisis?

The reasonable answer, I think, is yes. In truth, it was only in the closing decades of the last century that the concrete implications of carbon dioxide concentrations were really coming into view. The point is that a socialist, democratically governed society would not have faced the corporate and government apparatus of obfuscation and plain lying about the realities that have cost the delay of two or three decades of “business as usual.” The longer the delay, the worse are the consequences and the greater disruptions required for halting the carbon emissions that threaten to choke our civilization.

In more ways than even Tim Flannery proposes then — not only as citizens and communities but as a global justice movement and ultimately as a movement for survivable socialism — it is indeed “over to us.”

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)