TIM FLANNERY Sunlight and Seaweed: An argument for how to feed, power and clean up the world. Reviewed by Tom Patterson
Tim Flannery sends us an urgent but optimistic message in Sunlight and Seaweed.
Out of the ashes of investigative newspaper journalism little books have arisen: non-fiction, novella-length essays on topical subjects. Tim Flannery isn’t a journalist, but he has been writing in the little book format since 2002 on subjects such as ecology, climate change and sustainability. His latest work, Sunlight and Seaweed, touches on all of these areas.
It’s an important subject and Flannery gets straight to the point:
There is no doubt that humanity is nearing a crisis point. Old ways of doing things, from growing food to providing energy and manufacturing the countless things we feel we need, have proved to be so damaging to human health and the environment that within a few decades they must be no more.
He follows this with an overview of the current ecological health of the planet, examining the Earth in four parts: soil, water, the atmosphere and the biosphere. Each of these is described in clear terms and supplemented with direct observations, so we get a feel for what the numbers look like in the real world:
I saw the damage caused by the most recent bleaching first hand in May 2016 […] the warmer water had killed about 90% of the reef’s delicate staghorn and plate corals and had damaged even some of the hardier massive corals. The abundant reef fish, particularly those which feed on live coral, were starving.
Much of this book is a description of ways to fix problems that he describes. Flannery’s background isn’t as a climate scientist, but he has worked at a high level in this field over a long period of time. His knowledge is detailed and he has the confidence of the professor he once was to convey meaning with well-chosen images and ideas. It is a joy to be guided through the science by someone who understands it and can explain it.
Of all the issues Flannery raises, he identifies the supply of cheap, clean energy as the most pressing. He discusses many solutions and concludes that, while there is no single answer, it appears that solar power will be a large part of a future energy mix. He argues that this will not take the form of the solar voltaic cells we are familiar with, but newer schemes that focus on large-scale collection systems that store energy as heat. His analysis of technologies that are under development is a fascinating account of problem-solving. Scale, investment, time and human resources are all considered. It’s engineering at its most clear-headed and daring. Men and women doing the hard work of research and the demoralising slog of trial and error, to create solutions that don’t yet exist.
The second part of Flannery’s title is seaweed, and this part of the book describes a method by which carbon dioxide is sequestered using kelp. Flannery discusses clearly and succinctly how this could be done and his vision of thousands of square kilometres of seaweed farms is an arresting one. He also takes a systems approach to his analysis, suggesting additional benefits to food supply and improvements in water quality. This is at a conceptual stage and there are many problems to address, but the science is promising.
Flannery commands his subject, but he can also be read for style alone. One of the remarkable things about this book is that he has referenced more than 120 journals, books and articles, and his prose has not been infected by the turgidity of scientific writing. Interesting, too, is how his manner has varied over the years. The lyricism and sense of adventure of Throwim Way Leg and the poetic descriptions of Australia in The Future Eaters have made way for a plainer style here. Sentences are short and there are no tangents of interesting knowledge. Flannery’s message in Sunlight and Seaweed is urgent and his spare prose reflects this.
His style also reflects how he approaches his material. In particular, Flannery avoids the journalistic habit of describing past events in a way that reads like a first draft of history. To only try and understand what has happened. That this book does not follow that structure is refreshing in a number of ways. Firstly, by suggesting solutions to the problems identified, there isn’t the same feeling of powerlessness that characterises so much journalism. Secondly, the proposed solutions aren’t changes to political or economic methodology which rely more on good intentions than actual results. Instead, the issues are directly addressed by technical methods. Thirdly, by describing science in an engaging way, Flannery doesn’t need character to drive his story or explain cause and effect. Character can be important, but too often we blame the personality of our leaders for poor results, too often we play the opponent and not the ball. We also have a tendency to argue in the same way that we follow the footy: the game is secondary to the team that we barrack for. Flannery doesn’t fall into these traps. Not once in this book are the political parties in Australia mentioned. Not once is the failure to act ascribed to character flaws. This means that it is much easier for all readers to understand the current state of play. It also shows us a way to put our differences aside and find the common ground that helps us reach our common goals.
Little books, like newspapers, have a short life. The affairs and science they describe move on. But while Sunlight and Seaweed is current, it gives us a well-researched and readable guide to the problem of, and potential solutions to, climate change. Though Flannery’s message is urgent, he is ever the optimist. He points out that there have been rapid changes in our recent history where new science and political philosophy have radically altered us and our planet. The scale and pace of those changes are not dissimilar to what is required now. It’s an important observation that finishes this fine little book with a flourish.
Tim Flannery Sunlight and Seaweed: An argument for how to feed, power and clean up the world Text Publishing 2017 PB 192pp $19.99
Tom Patterson lives in Sydney. He also writes for Neighbourhood.
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