BY BEN HABIB.
2010 Jonathan Mann Memorial Lecture
“Here on Earth”
Presented by Professor Tim Flannery
La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus
Thursday 14th October, 2010.
Not many academics have the star pulling power of a rock star, but Professor Tim Flannery is one of them. The distinguished academic and 2007 Australian of the Year did not disappoint in this regard, drawing a huge crowd to La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga that packed the main lecture theatre to capacity, along with three other rooms into which his speech was video conferenced. Whether his presentation lived up to his star billing is another matter.
Achieving Global Consciousness
The essence of Professor Flannery’s presentation revolved around a fundamental question about human beings: can we achieve sustainability, or are we as a species suicidal?
This question stems from the paradox of humanity posed by Italian thinker Enricho Fermi. Fermi wondered if intelligent civilisations could not avoid destroying themselves. If the answer is yes, then there may have been numerous intelligent civilisations across the cosmos that have flamed out through self-immolation. If the answer is no, then we may be the first intelligent civilisation in the cosmos, which means life on Earth is a precious and rare thing, which implies intelligent civilisation as a linear progression of life whose destiny it is to succeed.
This is a far cry from the Darwinian view of intelligent life as an evolutionary accident. For Flannery, Darwinian evolution is not the whole story. Evolution may be the mechanism governing the distribution of life on this planet, but it requires a holistic view of life to describe evolution’s legacy. Drawing on the ideas of nineteenth century scientist George Wallace, Flannery described life on Earth as complex and inter-dependent, where species have cooperated and co-evolved for mutual benefit. He cites the human body as an example, which acts as a “vehicle of biodiversity” supporting millions of other life forms such as bacteria and mites. At a planetary level, he finds sympathy with James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that conceptualises the entire planet as an integrated living system. This holistic worldview, Flannery lamented, is not part of the academic mainstream.
Flannery indicated his hope that a singular human consciousness is the endpoint of the cooperation and co-evolution of life. He suggested that we are indeed progressing in this direction, suggesting that human societies are in the process of eroding tribalism and giving birth to a cosmopolitan world, a transformation driven by globalisation and information technologies like the internet.
Flannery rightly argued that human intelligence can’t achieve a singular consciousness in a world divided by nation-states and power blocks. Unfortunately, I fear he has over-estimated the unifying power of the internet and demonstrated a limited comprehension of the yin and yang of information technology and globalisation. For all the ways in which globalisation brings people closer, they equally push people apart as diverse groups react against the imposition of a singular global culture and the exploitative economic relationships that underlie it. In short, tribalism is alive and well around the globe in reaction to the Western consumerist monoculture.
The Evolution of Human Civilisation
The problems that a singular human consciousness would help to solve are the very obstacles that prevent this singularity from coming about: climate change, population growth, water shortage, toxic pollution etc.
To solve these problems, Professor Flannery rightly argued that all of us will have to give something up. However he did not make this assertion in the context of establishing good faith in a complex bargaining process. Rather, he made the point that we all need to sacrifice some individual autonomy as a means of increasing the autonomy and adaptability of our human civilisation.
Professor Flannery gave the increasingly complex social organisation of ants as an example of a species evolving its social structure to adapt to challenging conditions, to illustrate that as a civilisation becomes larger and more complex, the individuals within it sacrifice autonomy and become more specialised. They increase their technical proficiency in one specific niche in order to benefit the society, at the cost of narrowing their individual skill set.
The same specialisation has occurred in industrial societies; think of all the practical skills our 18th and 19th century ancestors had in comparison with the narrow set of technical competencies we have today as participants in the 21st century industrial workforce.
Professor Flannery seems to posit this increasing specialisation as a positive development in the quest for global consciousness. This would seem to fly in the face of many others today, environmentalists included, who suggest that over-specialisation is a chimera when complex societies break down, because individuals lack the broad skills necessary to adapt to changing circumstances. In this context, increasing social complexity makes a society less able to adapt to external shocks, not more adaptable.
We see this problem today in debates about economic transformation in the context of climate mitigation and water allocation. Narrowly skilled workers across all sectors rightly question how they will adapt as the industries they work in change or die. In this context, over-specialisation is an adaptive noose.
Responses to Questions about the Murray Darling Basin Plan
Professor Flannery answered several questions from the floor related to the Murray Darling Basin Plan during the Q&A segment of the presentation. From his perspective, the plan will involve economic and social impacts but will not necessarily destroy riverine communities. He foresees a long and difficult consultation process that will eventually yield an imperfect but useful result, after a great deal of muddling through. Either way, Flannery is clear that doing nothing has consequences, with the status quo being an outcome in which everyone loses.
This discussion paper (a guide to a draft of the final plan) is only the beginning. Flannery urged people in regional communities to get educated on the various policy options available in order to make an informed contribution to the policy consultation process, in contrast to angry outbursts at town meetings which he believes are unlikely to achieve anything. In addition, he argued that political hubris from any of the political parties will make it increasingly difficult to implement a complex public policy reform program such as the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Indeed independent MP Tony Windsor has suggested that the hung parliament may be a blessing in disguise in that it may make good-faith policy negotiation more feasible than under the adversarial two-party dichotomy. Circumstance has not waited long to provide a grand test for the “new paradigm” of Australian politics.
Flannery believes that the basis of the prosperity of river communities can change through staggered structural adjustment, with government financial assistance to affected parties. The key points here are staggered implementation and active government financial support, giving communities, businesses and families the time and financial buffer to adjust.
Summary: Evolutionary Enlightenment or Techno Hubris?
I am entirely in agreement with Professor Flannery that human consciousness needs to evolve if we are to meet the existential challenge of climate change and ensure the long-term perpetuation of the human species. Because this task requires us all to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationships to the environment we are part of and the living organisms we share it with, all of us will benefit from developing spiritual and philosophical anchors around which we can build this new consciousness.
However, I have to diverge from Professor Flannery in my pessimism over the ability of the internet and globalisation to overcome the deep scars left on humanity by 500 years of the modern nation-state system. What I sensed in Professor Flannery’s presentation was an unwarranted optimism in some internet-driven techno-rapture. Forgive me, but I have to laugh at anyone who suggests that Facebook is anything more than a procrastination tool for students and bored white collar employees in developed countries.
If we’re looking for a transformation of consciousness, it may be more fruitful for us to examine the core doctrines of humanity’s oldest religions, which suggest that transformation of consciousness begins within the mind of the individual. This is indeed sagely advice, because if we wait for some kind of external actor or phenomenon to bail us out of trouble—be it the government, the corporate sector, globalisation, the internet, God—we may end up waiting a long time.
To sum up: hubris is not a basis for hope.
Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.