The end of the world

Here on Earth: A twin biography of the planet and the human race

Tim Flannery

Penguin Books Ltd, €10.75

Review: Dan McCarthy

Citing various examples of population collapse including the drastic decline of the Australian rabbit population, Tim Flannery asks if homosapiens are headed for a similar disaster.

A population standing at 7bn could hit 9bn by 2050. With its finite resources, pressure on water supplies, ever greater demand for fast food and commodities, Flannery asks if the earth can hack it? Populations that over-extend routinely self-regulate, allowing only certain groups procreate, for example — witness the attine ants which have developed into a ‘super-organism’.

Without being overly neo-Malthusian (the 18th century writer who said societies are regulated by wars and disease which carry away huge numbers), Flannery says humanity can reach that target but many changes would have to be made. Malthus argues that overpopulation was inevitable as population growth is exponential while the means of feeding people increases only arithmetically.

Adapting an inter-disciplinary approach Flannery comes from the angle of a geneticist, a demographer, a paleontologist, and a statistician. Widely embracing the theory of Earth as itself a living force, the Gaia hypothesis expounded by James Lovelock is counterbalanced by the Medean hypothesis (“deeply dismaying”) which posits that life itself periodically brings about destruction of life and that long-term ecological stability is impossible.

Post-Second World War, the West found itself with huge chemical stockpiles, most of which were developed by the Nazis. Flannery shows that scientists, mostly in the US, realised that with just a few tweaks these chemicals could be adapted for use in the extermination of pests in agriculture. Thus was DDT born and thus was unleashed on the unsuspecting earth and unsuspecting population some of the most toxic substances that have ever existed on earth.

The substances were of two main types — organochlorines (including DDT and nerve gas) and organophosphates. The legacy of this use is to this day 42,000 cases of severe pesticide poisoning reported annually in the US. Needless to say, the insect numbers actually increased as their predators were also killed.

One of the more fascinating chapters in this riveting book deals with the superorganisms, principally ants which evolved from cockroaches sometime between 120m and 170m years ago. Like humans, ants began life as hunter gatherers but adapted into expansive social structures which were highly developed. Then around 50m years ago they changed again and began to herd certain other insects. Thus was born the concept of the super-organism. How it contests its place on the planet has deep lessons for earth and mankind. A hugely important book.


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