Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

From fossils to the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Flannery starts by explaining how the landmass formed and changed over time and how this impacted on the development and spread of species, or conversely on their isolation to single geographic areas. He explains the various climate changes over the aeons – why they happened and how they affected both environment and fauna. He describes the various land corridors that have existed at points between what are now separate continents, and the flow of species along these. I was reading a review copy without maps, but it indicated that maps will be available in the final version – I didn’t find the lack of them seriously affected my understanding of what he was describing, but they would undoubtedly be an enhancement.

Cretaceous Europe

Personally I’m very human-centric, so I found the sections where he discussed the early hominids, the Neanderthals and the early humans particularly interesting. Flannery seems to have a good deal of admiration for the Neanderthals, seeing them not in any way as a lower form of species to humanity. In fact, he often gives the impression that in some ways he thinks they were superior in terms of intelligence and innovation, and that humanity’s main advantage, and the reason why we survived and they didn’t, is that humans can exist on foods other than meat, which enabled us to adapt better to changing environments. There’s a fascinating chapter on hybridisation between pale-skinned European Neanderthals and the early black African humans to create the first European humans. He doesn’t specifically say so, but I got the distinct feeling that he thinks the infusion of Neanderthal DNA was advantageous to the humans. Certainly he suspects that female Neanderthal mothers may have passed tips to their hybrid offspring on how to survive in the cold European climate, such as cave-dwelling. Apparently indigenous Europeans (and their descendants throughout the diaspora) still have a small but significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Neanderthal Man, though I’m sure I’ve
met him up the dancin’…

Once into the human phase of history, he shows how man began to impact on the environment and on other species, hunting some to extinction, destroying the habitats of some through farming, and domesticating some as farm animals or working animals. He talks of the European reliance on the cow as a source of food, and how that advantaged those with high lactose tolerance. He discusses the domestication of dogs, horses, cats, and explains how repeated selection and breeding of those with the most suitable temperaments for living domestically eventually changed them fundamentally from their wilder forebears. And he shows how human activities led to the introduction of species from (and to) other regions of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and often with unforeseen effects on indigenous species.

As well as being a naturalist, Flannery is a renowned name in the field of climate change, so his final section looks to a future where change is happening so fast some species are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to survive without human intervention. However, it’s not all bleak – the warming of Europe allows scope for reintroduction of species who emigrated during the ice ages, and Flannery sees this as a possible means of survival for some of the species who will be under threat in warmer parts of the world. He makes a strong case for Europe reintroducing some of the large species from Africa, including the predators, arguing that it’s unfair for Europeans to expect a turbulent, growing Africa to have to bear all the risks and costs of preserving these species if we are all to enjoy the benefits of their survival. He’s less clear about his support for the reintroduction of extinct species, possible now with genetic science, but suggests that society should form a view on this (presumably, though he doesn’t say so, before the mad scientists make the decisions for us). Thankfully, he draws the line at the idea of reintroducing the Neanderthal, although the survival of Neanderthal DNA makes this possible, concluding that the genetic manipulation of humans is immoral. I can only hope the wider scientific community agrees with him on that one.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

As always with these science-based books, I feel I’ve give only a superficial flavour of this one, concentrating on the bits that most interested me. But I found the whole thing fascinating, bringing together lots of disparate bits of things I’ve read about over the years into one coherent whole. Flannery writes clearly and entertainingly, including lots of anecdotes about the scientists and naturalists who’ve contributed to the sum of knowledge over the centuries, which helps to break up the more sciency stuff. And he’s meticulous about differentiating things that are known from those that are theorised but not yet proven, and from his own occasional speculations. An excellent read, informative and enjoyable – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.

PS Although obviously Europe is the best continent in the world, for those of you from inferior other continents, Flannery has previously written similar books on the natural and human histories of Australasia and North America.

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Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery

A roller-coaster ride…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Atmosphere of HopeIn December this year, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Paris to make decisions on how to cap carbon emissions at a level that will ensure that global temperatures will rise by no more than 2° Celcius compared to pre-industrial levels. This book is a summary of where we are now and an action plan for the future.

The book is heavily polemical, very much Tim Flannery’s personal attempt to influence the decision makers. As a scientist and leading environmentalist of long-standing, Flannery is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, a member of the Australian Independent Climate Council and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council; so he’s certainly qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

This was a bit of a roller-coaster read for me, both in terms of style and content. In the introduction, Flannery lays out his stall. Taking as his starting point his own earlier book The Weather Makers, he sets out to show how things have developed over the decade since, where his opinions have changed over the years, and what he now thinks are the best ways forward if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. At this stage, I was concerned I might find the book unreadable. His style is abrasive, self-aggrandizing and arrogant and much of the introduction and early chapters read like a piece of self-advertisement. He mentions his previous book umpteen times, dismissing anyone who has criticised any aspect of it over the years, and spends far too long justifying his then conclusions. In fact, at times there is a sense almost of paranoia – as if he is the victim of a conspiracy of vested interests trying to discredit his work. He is vitriolic about the Abbott government in Australia – still in power when he was writing but now gone. Of course, as the cliché goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

Hard to believe people are still building them...
Hard to believe people are still building them…

However, having vented his spleen, Flannery then settles down into a series of well-written chapters where he lays out the current situation very clearly. He starts with a bleak picture of what may happen if temperatures are not contained to the 2°C target – to the Arctic and Antarctic, to forests, wildlife and oceans, and not least to humanity in those parts of the world most sensitive to rising temperatures. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, but brought up to date with the latest science. Flannery assumes throughout that by this time only those with vested interests in the carbon industries are still denying the link between man’s activities and climate change, and so is dismissive and even occasionally virulent about deniers. There is throughout a feeling of urgency – no time left to waste preaching to the unconverted, let’s just ignore them and get on with what needs to be done. Fine by me, but this is not a book to win over waverers with charm.

The next few chapters take us through individual aspects of energy production, starting with the dirty ones and moving on to the clean. This was the part of the book that gave me a sense of hope – assuming Flannery’s figures are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, then fossil fuels seem to be losing their overwhelming attractiveness as renewables become both more efficient and cheaper due to economies of scale. We’re nowhere near out of the woods, but Flannery made me feel as if perhaps we’ve spotted the path.

North Western Glacier Alaska - 1940 and 2005
North Western Glacier Alaska – 1940 and 2005

In the final section, Flannery discusses how he believes we should proceed. His position is that, even in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that we reduce fossil fuel use to zero over the next few decades, we will still have the problem of existing CO2 in the atmosphere to deal with. He discusses the difficulties of the task and goes into some detail on some of the schemes that have been put forward. To my unscientific mind, lots of these sound like pie-in-the-sky schemes, or actually poison-in-the-sky, to be more accurate. Flannery himself isn’t keen on the kind of geo-engineering scheme that suggests pumping other stuff, like sulphur, into the atmosphere in order to induce cooling, on the grounds that firstly, we can’t foresee all the possible implications and secondly, the underlying problem of too much carbon still remains.

Hope - Harnessing solar power in Spain
Hope – Harnessing solar power in Spain

He suggests what he calls a ‘third way’ – a mixture of preparing for climate change by making necessary adaptations at a local level while attempting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by a variety of schemes, from massive seaweed farms to storing carbon in rocks and plastics, that he feels could be effective without the risks of geo-engineering. To be honest, much of this sounded impractical and a bit like wishful thinking to me, but hey! Most of it was well over my head scientifically and he’s an expert, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s always been my opinion that it will have to be the scientists who solve this problem in the end, and the role of governments and the people should be to give them the finances and resources they need, while trying to stop any of them accidentally blowing up the galaxy in their enthusiasm.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

However, after cheering me up in the earlier chapters, I’m afraid this final section plunged me back into gloom – the sheer scale of the task and the short-termism of so many governments make it all seem pretty overwhelming. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps Flannery had done this deliberately, so that no-one would be approaching the Paris Conference feeling over-confident. Overall well worth reading – a good introduction for anyone new to the subject and a thorough update for those with a little more knowledge. Let’s hope the politicians attending the Conference will pay attention to the science more than the politics for once… the world will be watching. Won’t we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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