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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fingers crossed
This book is about the vision of Tim Flannery, an author I've enjoyed in the past. It doesn't seek to examine evidence of the state of the planet and our impact on it, the book is very much about the conclusions Tim has come to about the planet's fractured ecosystems. On the whole it makes a for a fascinating read as he guides us through evolutionary ideas and the...
Published on 4 Jan 2011 by C. Barnes

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, but in places contradictory and ultimately unconvincing
**The good bits**

Flannery has written an inspiring account of the evolution of life on earth, human evolution and the evolving impact that humans have on the rest of the natural world. He has brilliantly brought together Darwin's and Wallace's theories of evolution, Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and Dawkins' selfish gene theory, taking elements from each to...
Published on 31 Jan 2011 by Max


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fingers crossed, 4 Jan 2011
By 
C. Barnes (UK) - See all my reviews
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This book is about the vision of Tim Flannery, an author I've enjoyed in the past. It doesn't seek to examine evidence of the state of the planet and our impact on it, the book is very much about the conclusions Tim has come to about the planet's fractured ecosystems. On the whole it makes a for a fascinating read as he guides us through evolutionary ideas and the concepts of Gaia as he understands them, and talks about the impact of humans from the first day that they stepped off the African continent. Research into the concept of the 'super-organism' that is the modern human civilisation I found particularly interesting and has prompted me to search out more reading on this interesting subject.
The book fades towards the end though. I had hoped that it would be bursting with insights and trends that would give hope for the future, instead it tends to drift a little, struggling to find concrete reasons to believe that we'll make it. In the end after a really good few days of reading the conclusion seemed to be no more than 'fingers crossed!'
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Provocative and Absorbing. An interesting addition to the debate, 9 Jan 2011
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Ghostgrey51 (Wales) - See all my reviews
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Tim Flannery has some impressive credentials and a worthy reputation to his name, so what ever he has to say should be read dispassionately or with an open mind, otherwise you might miss some of points he is making.
Having said that for certain readers of this book will divide off into those agreeing, those inspired to come off the fence and those annoyed. To start off with Tim Flannery has a sympathy with the Gaia view of the world, although maybe more as one large interdependent community that one single organism. He refers to civilisations as superorganisms, and draws some comparisons between our communities and those of the ants. He is not comfortable with Richard Dawkins' selfish gene thesis, nor does he embrace the idea of Darwinian `red in tooth and claw' to be the only explanation for the development of Life on Earth.
Filled with fascinating details on the history of Life and the interaction of Humanity with other species and new eco-systems he is making the classic environmentalist plea for Humanity to be more careful, sympathetic and empathetic with the rest of the world otherwise it will out very badly for everything; us included. Of course this is not a new theme, but the depth and clarity of his explanations involving a wide and colourful number of examples makes this a most instructive read. Even if you are set in not agreeing with him (and there are aspects I would tentatively question- those superorganisms actually) I am sure you will find facts you were not aware of in the board spectrum of Natural History, which doesn't mean you will be won over, but gosh it's interesting!
And we are spared an inevitable apocalypse some authors resort to, which tends to negate the reason for their writing; Tim Flannery believes the damage can be healed by using our own accumulated intelligence, but it is up to us. Our choice.
I reckon this to be one of the better contributions to the number of the environmental debates currently active and would recommend it to anyone with a genuine concern from any side of the argument, because as well as being informative this is such an entertaining read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An education and a necessary corrective, 17 Mar 2011
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F. M. Muse "headspace traveller" (Leicester, Leics United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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Reading the reviews to date, I'm somewhat intimidated by them, so much so that further comment might seem redundant, given their comprehensive nature.

I like the idea of mnemes, regardless of spelling, and I would suggest that this book ought to be required reading for every child over the age of 11, not just in the west, but anywhere the book can be distributed. This is also a book that ought to be read with Ian Morris "Why the West Rules" and Susan George's "Whose Crisis, Whose Future". Taken together these books make for a more unified narrative than can be expected of any one volume.

The spirit of optimism, the cornucopia of ideas, of possibilities, and the simple belief in our better selves, make this book a powerful antidote to many of the doomsayers and a very necessary corrective to the Darwin-Dawkins settlement. Having said that, we are running out of time, and just as power generation now and into the future needs to embrace a mix of fossil and nuclear fuels together with renewables, so any attempt to rein in existing environmental instabilities, needs to include and engage with techniques of population management as part of the mix. This appears to be one of the last great taboos in our society and we need to get over it and start to act. Tim Flannery speaks of a projected declining global population from 2050 onwards, yet acknowledges the uncertainties inherent in these projections. If the projections are wrong and there is no substantive change in human reproduction, world population will stand at a little over nine billion. Long before then, I would suggest that life as we know it, in the west, will have become largely untenable. To the extent that I have understood them, neither James Lovelock or Jared Diamond appear believe that we can emerge from the current situation with global civilisation intact. We have it seems, already run out of time, particularly with respect to the climate change tipping point.

Crucially, Tim Flannery scarcely takes account of both the power and the intellectual inertia of the people with the means to implement the many good ideas presented in the book, never mind the blind self-interest, outright hostility and determination to adhere to the winner takes all philosophy of this group. To all practical intents and purposes this includes bankers, the very rich and politicians, pretty much all of whom subscribe to various flavours of social Darwinism. Susan George is very strong on the influence of these groups and the global institutions that are their creatures, institutions that militate against a fairer, more equitable social paradigm for a global society.

As I suggested at the beginning, Flannery's ideas constitute a new and vital mneme in themselves and if we can introduce this book to the worlds children, they will be in a much stronger position to both influence and deal with the outcomes that inevitably lie ahead.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, but in places contradictory and ultimately unconvincing, 31 Jan 2011
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**The good bits**

Flannery has written an inspiring account of the evolution of life on earth, human evolution and the evolving impact that humans have on the rest of the natural world. He has brilliantly brought together Darwin's and Wallace's theories of evolution, Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and Dawkins' selfish gene theory, taking elements from each to explore how we as a species have got to where we are today. In particular, Flannery's is the first account of the Gaia hypothesis that I have found to be sensible and persuasive.

Another reason to laud the book is that it manages to talk coherently and convincingly about climate change, without becoming a book about climate change. Instead, Flannery expertly weaves this discussion into his wider argument, a relief given how climate change has recently dominated all ecological discussions.

**The 'but...'***

Despite these strengths, I can only give the book three stars. The reason is that I think Flannery's conclusions are unconvincing, and in places he seems to contradict his own argument. I'll mention a couple of minor flaws, and then what I see as a big one.

1. Flannery is inconsistent in his view of both technological advances and global political institutions. At one point he writes:

"...our modern cities are so brittle that far less spectacular attacks could bring them to ruination...Today's cities rely on highly sophisticated and easily disrupted technology..."

which he argues threatens civilisation's very existence. But then, just ten pages later, he argues for the expansion of computer use in agriculture, saying:

"...[with] the deployment of computers in agriculture...we now have tools that allow us to relate to living ecosystems with an efficieny and speed of response that we have never before possessed..."

In other words Flannery is arguing that we should extend the very brittleness that he sees in our cities into our agriculture systems, exposing us to further risks of catastrophic disruptions to those technologies.

His discussion of political institutions is little better - at one stage he is decrying the limitations of global institutions such as the UN, but a few pages later he is arguing that global treaties such as the UN Framework convention on climate change are a crucial aspect of our future prosperity. He doesn't explain how this sort of framework would come about without global political institutions such as the UN.

2. In several cases the evidence Flannery uses to back up his arguments is shaky. Just one example: he talks about the dangers of the radioactive substance Polonium-210 to sea creatures, stating that a krill was found with 856 picocuries per gram of radiation inside it. He compares this to the death of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, also using Polonium-210, but neglects to tell us how much Litvinenko had in his body. As a result, the reader has no way of knowing whether 856 picocuries is a dangerously high figure or whether it is nothing to be concerned about.

**The BIG 'but...'

However, the biggest flaw I can see in Flannery's arguments is in his blind reliance in the final chapter on global 'mnemes' as the route to future prosperity and averting an ecological crisis. Whilst I think he is right about the importance of mnemes, he offers the reader almost no thoughts on how to propagate the cooperative, nature-loving mneme that he argues we need. Even worse, he goes on to suggest that as this cooperative, nature-loving mneme becomes dominant, we'll lose much of our global cultural diversity, instead developing a common global language and a universal mode of government.

But it is exactly this cultural diversity that creates the space in which the global mnemes Flannery wants to see can develop and propagate. A homogenous global culture pushing a small number of dominant mnemes is likely to be competitive and individualistic (as well as being many positive things, such as democratic and rights-based). This is because a homogenous global culture will by necessity develop out the models of advanced capitalist societies that are dominant in America and Europe, and increasingly in China.

All of which means that if Flannery wants a less competitive, less individualistic sort of mneme, we need to leave the door open to diverse cultures, including diverse languages and modes of thought and governance. Doing so will ensure that mnemes that are less competitive and less individualistic continue to exist in cultures around the world, holding out the prospect that they may become dominant mnemes in the future. Despite a book that relies heavily on the concept of mnemes, Flannery does not seem to have considered this flaw at all, which is why I can't share the slightly desperate note of optimism on which he finishes the book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, informative, but is it sufficiently inspiring?, 4 April 2011
By 
Sebastian Palmer "sebuteo" (Cambridge, England) - See all my reviews
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To answer the question posed in the title of my review: not enough for me, sadly.

For it's intended aims and ambitions, and especially for the earlier (and to me most inspiring) part of the book, I'd like to give this book five stars, but for it's actual overall impact on me as a reader, especially in relation to the claims made on it's behalf - "a change of perspective ... to inspire us ... a revolutionary dual biography of the planet and of our species" (As a fairly voracious reader the fountains of hyperbole showered on authors and their works can frequently annoy, especially if the book in any way falls short of the readers heightened expectations.) - I'd be more likely to score it as a three star affair. So four stars seems like a fair compromise.

Quantitatively the majority of this book is given over to the "dual biography" aspect, which was highly informative, and, especially in the earlier parts, exciting and enjoyable, even inspiring. Sadly, one reaches a point where, through no fault of the author - it's the nature of the subject - the catalogue of woes resulting from human behaviour starts to pile up, and, frankly, it's depressing. And, as is so often the case these days, the big central issue is the idea of humanity as 'weather makers': i.e. will we be our own undoing through climate change?

One area where the author's views felt like they should've chimed with my own, but somehow curiously still didn't, was his enthusiasm for Alfred Russell Wallace. In contrasting views of the world and our place in it, he discusses the 'Medean' axis, on which he locates Darwin and Dawkins, and the 'Gaian', with Wallace and James Lovelock on the latter line. The former view tends towards, in Flannery's version of things, a more brutally mechanistic view of nature (think of Darwin's 'wedges' driven into the 'face' of nature: the brute struggle underlying the apparent tranquility and beauty of the natural world), which is also ultimately more transparently pessimistic (or is that just realistic?) about our place in nature, whilst the latter fosters a more positive view of our interconnectedness. I'm not sure if I quite buy into this polarity; I think it's a lot subtler than that. But, all things considered, it may be what Flannery might see as my own predominantly 'Medean' views that lead me to think in this way.

To my mind what Flannery's argument boils down to is this: we are products of evolution, even our culture is an evolutionary by-product, and yet we now have, in our culture, the means to effect and control the evolution of 'Gaia'. Whislt this is demonstrably true - especially so in its negative aspects - does that give us grounds for hope that we can harness this development? I would say, even on Flannery's own evidence, that the outlook is pretty bleak. And, having read this admirable book, I only feel more convinced of that. In this respect, the book signally fails in its intended aims.

Nonetheless, this is a welcome and intelligent addition to a debate that needs to be happening, and is informative and thought-provoking. But, if we are truly at the 11th hour, especially in respect to human-produced climate change, is that enough? Or is it just the case that, to misquote Bob Dylan, 'the answer, my friend, is p***ing in the wind'?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice ideas..., 23 Jan 2011
By 
Diziet "I Like Toast" (Netherlands) - See all my reviews
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Tim Flannery's new book provides an interesting introduction and overview of his views regarding the current state of our species in relation to the planet and its possible future.

He does this, initially, by considering an alternative interpretation of Darwin's theory of evolution - namely that put forward by Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace who, of course, also developed the idea of evolution.

Darwin's interpretation, Flannery suggests, was applied by Victorians and later thinkers in the development of such concepts as eugenics and 'Social Darwinism'. Visions of 'nature, red in tooth and claw' and 'survival of the fittest' have been used to support the 'laissez-faire' ideas of Neoclassical economics, or Neoliberalism. Flannery includes Richard Dawkins amongst these thinkers as, Flannery suggests, Dawkins' Neo-Darwinist' idea of 'The Selfish Gene' implies the overall survival of the species even at the expense of the individual.

Flannery also takes the concept of 'Memes', but goes back to an earlier formulation of this idea proposed in the late 19th and early 20th century, preferring the original spelling of 'mnemes'. He describes mnemes as being central to a 'grand unified theory of reproduction - both physical and mental' (P18). The point to emphasise here is 'unified'. And this idea of unification supports the concept of 'Gaia' as proposed by James Lovelock.

Flannery characterises the difference between the holistic approach of Wallace underpinning the concept of Gaia with that of the 'Medea Hypothesis':

'...which states that life itself periodically brings about the destruction of life, and that long-term ecological stability is impossible.' (P204)

Taking Wallace's and Lovelock's ideas, Flannery re-interprets the development and evolution of Earth's biosphere and the evolution of the human race. Humanity, he suggests, has developed into a 'superorganism'. Looking at the success of other 'superorganisms' such as ant colonies (in particular, leaf-cutter or Attine ants), he considers how they manage their long-term survival. He rightly stops short of any direct comparison between the spread of the human superorganism and ant societies, pointing out that ants can hardly be said to have a 'culture' in the mnemic sense. But whereas ant colonies finally reach a point of stability, human society has yet to do so.

Flannery develops these ideas to suggest how mnemes may save us from ourselves, countering the effects of any simply Neo-Darwinist imperative to breed. For example:

'With cheap and convenient contraception widely available, the mnemes of a large proportion of humanity have immense power, and it seems that they've engineered a profound reversal of evolutionary principle as it's understood in brutal Neo-Darwinian terms. At its heart the demographic transition represents the triumph of the individual against the tyranny of the selfish gene. A stabilisation followed by a decline in human numbers makes a sustainable future possible, and if we achieve it then Wallace's vision of a perfection of the human spirit may eventually be realised.' (P 209)

At another point, Flannery suggests how the relation between social (mnemes) and biological imperatives may actually reinforce each-other. He suggests that people (and other creatures) that have severely limited 'life chances' tend to breed earlier and more prodigiously. To put it another way, if you are poor, live in a high crime area and are excluded from wider society for reasons of wealth, education etc., you are likely to feel that you have nothing to look forward to, nothing to loose and so 'live for the day.' Thus a stratified and divided society becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Neo-Darwinists.

Following this discussion, Flannery moves on to 'Greed and the Market' (Chapter 18). It should be clear by now that an unbridled market economy is not in the long-term interests of the human species. He castigates the neoliberal Chicago school of economics and goes on to draw parallels with Dawkin's 'selfish gene' theory:

'Both describe idealised frameworks which can be powerfully explicatory. But when they become universally dogmatic, ideologies have the power to erode our capacity to value one another, and so threaten to destroy the common endeavour that is our global superorganism.' (P 218)

To be honest, these ideas are hardly new. Although Flannery's book is highly readable, nothing is particularly novel. Similarly, his solutions do not present any huge leap forward. Although he refuses to be swayed by the pessimists, his answers seem to be largely based on the hope that countries and people can start seriously cooperating together to reduce and reverse environmental degradation. He hopes, in fact, to go beyond nation states, UN resolutions and the like, to reach people directly, via the internet or other means, to form radical democratic movements to promote Gaian 'mnemes' and thus to rebalance our superorganism. Although I admire his optimism, I do not share it, nor do I see his solutions as practicable. If you like, the capitalist or Medean 'mneme' still has a long way to run. The material reality of an economic system that requires annual compound growth of 3% based on finite resources is simply and obviously unsustainable, and yet it is still 'the only game in town'. I wish I could share in his optimism.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very big scope, 9 Jan 2011
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A John (Uk) - See all my reviews
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Broadly speaking, the book looks at the evolution and future of the planet in it's ability to sustain life. It took me about 7 - 8 hours to read.

Several major theories are looked at, from Darwin's Theory of Evolution, Richard Dawkin's Selfish Gene, and James Lovelock's Gaia. Flannery argues with the idea that selfish genes are the sole driving force behind evolution, arguing that the mneme, or idea, also has a strong role to play in human civilisation. He then goes on to expand on this, talking about civilisation as a super organism. This was where I began to have some problems with the book. My issues weren't with the central idea, but with some of the arguments used to back it up. For example, Flannery states on page 114, when drawing a parallel between humans as a super organism and ant colonies "as with our bodies, part of the organism are made up of non living matter. In our case its our skeletons and the dead outer layer of our skin". Any doctor would point out that a skeleton inside a living human body, is very much alive.

Large swathes of the book are given over to this argument that humans and human civilisation, are, in effect, a super organism. But the arguments flit from one fact to another, often skimming over valuable research, and entirely missing the point in its effort to make it fit into the super organism line of thinking. For example, on page 145, he describes the end of Rome as the start of a long period of time without a large political entity. But the Byzantine Empire grew out of the Eastern end of the Roman Empire, and continued for over a thousand years. And I felt that Flannery's throwing in of random facts, which weren't all referenced, and without stopping to back them up, left his arguments wobbling slightly on its foundations.

Would I recommend the book? Difficult. On one hand, there is much to commend this book, and I would like to see it widely read, and subject to counter argument and comment. It is a very interesting book, and very readable. I was particularly impressed with his discussion of Dawkin's Selfish Gene. But overall, I'm not convinced. To me, the arguments felt breathless and rushed, and I would have liked to have read something a little more considered, and with more solid arguments underpinning the central idea.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Here on Earth, 7 Sep 2012
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This review is from: Here on Earth: A Twin Biography of the Planet and the Human Race (Paperback)
Thought provoking and at worst life changing, but hopefully world changing. An book which is impossible to put down sickening to read, made me feel profoundly guilty of the way I live and sad to be human, I am a pessimist with hope with the rug pulled out from under me. If everyone who mattered read this book and took action we might make it, as this book leaves no room for sceptics, business men politicians wriggle room.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I have read it twice already and look forward to reading it again... and again!, 15 April 2011
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bomble "bomble" (Cambridge, UK) - See all my reviews
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Just occasionally I come across a book that strikes a resonant tone pulling threads together and weaving something extraordinary out of the web of interconnected ideas. What a rare and memorable treat such a book becomes. Tim Flannery's "Here on Earth" achieves that magic on every page.

I must confess immediately that I have long been a subscriber to the systems approach to understanding, leaving reductionism to more single-minded souls. Since my teens I have been fascinated by James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and Daisyworld models; grew up through the time when fractals and chaos theory were becoming popular science and subsequently make a living out of analysis of complex systems. Despite this, and despite reading frequently on these subjects, Flannery's book held plenty of novelty for me and does a superb job of presenting the core ideas passionately, carefully and lucidly. It's a triumph of popular science writing that I will be recommending unequivocally to friends and family.

If I have one criticism, Flannery does have a tendency to present 'debatable' theories as facts but he references his text frequently for those who wish to take his views skeptically. In my copy (proof) the references section was incomplete so I can't comment on their validity. In a way it doesn't matter for a book set at this level. The key point is that Flannery's book contains all the starting points to form a different world view from those presented by neo Darwinists (Dawkins et al) but which is built on similar scientific foundations and has no need to resort to faith-based interpretations. As I already held such views it is a delight to me to have so wonderful a reference to present to anyone who wishes to understand them.

There are moments of deep gloom and tragedy in this book when Flannery reminds us of the still-unquantified destruction we have dealt out on our beautiful planet through the 'Gaia killer' chemistry set of pesticides, heavy metals and petrochemicals. But there are moments of hope too for all who might believe that the Earth system (us included) is ultimately Gaian not Medean in nature. I honestly can't remember a lay science book that took me to such emotional extremes.

Truly outstanding.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A recipe for world harmony ..., 17 Feb 2011
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kingg (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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I must admit that I felt slightly cheated by this book. It markets itself as a "dual biography" of earth and the human race but upon finishing the book it is clear that this is not an accurate description. Here On Earth gives a good introduction to the origins of life of earth but mid-way through turns into a plea to save the world from climate change. Not to say that I didn't find both interesting but the structure of the book feels disjointed and unsatisfactory.

The author espouses the Gaia hypothesis over the Dawkins Selfish Gene theory. For me it makes little difference - the theories anthropomorphise and attribute will or desire to either genes (for Dawkins) or the earth as a whole (for Gaia) as a means to articulate and understand how life on earth operates. Where Dawkins depicts the competition between genes as the driving force behind life on earth, Flannery paints the earth and its inhabitants as striving for equilibrium and balance. The reality is, however, that life is the product of one group of molecules reproducing at a greater rate than another in response to their environment, spurred by that all important element - chance - chance that leads to the creation of combinations of molecules that are better equipped to survive in their particular environment. For me, the Selfish Gene and Gaia are simply two perspectives on the same thing - once you gain an understanding of the fundamentals, there is no longer any need to dress it up in a flowery theory of earth harmony, as I consider Flannery does in this book.

I do not mean to be overly critical - I enjoyed the book and certainly consider it worth reading - but it worth being aware that the book is not quite what it is made out to be.
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