In his new book, the Australian scientist Tim Flannery uses Leopold's words to express the agonising sense of being aware of a terrible threat while all around are blithely unconcerned. His ambition in this sweeping survey of the planet's damaged past and its endangered future is to make every one of us see those wounds in all their grim detail. It is an educational project worthy of Flannery's great talents.
Flannery is a wonderful writer, an original scientist, and a gifted populariser. He emerged fully formed, as it were, from the jungles of New Guinea, where he did major research as a biologist some 25 years ago. An extraordinary adventurer cum intellectual, he was to radically transform Australia's understanding of itself and its history.
He did this by situating that history in geological time, showing how the continent was formed, how it was reshaped by man – first aboriginal man, then white man – and how its life systems, none too secure to begin with, had been impoverished and made more fragile by human intervention.
His discovery of new species, some alive in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, some long extinct, available but unrecognised in the paleontological record, was like something from the annals of 19th-century exploration, and his account of the role of fire in Australian history was one of those ideas which illuminate and enliven debate even as it is questioned.
The political impact of Flannery's work was great, since his view of the Australian past undermined the proponents of "Big Australia", who imagined for the country an American future of more great cities, widespread agriculture, intensive industrialisation and a burgeoning population.
That future had always been illusory, but the possibilities to which people could look forward, in Australia as elsewhere, were shrinking even as he wrote. The title of his book on Australia, The Future Eaters, told the story in three words.
Although Flannery was not the first by any means to question the mistaken vision of "Big Australia", he undoubtedly drove one of the final nails into its coffin. Nobody, after reading Flannery, could retain it. There was not, and could never be, enough water. There was not, and never would be, enough energy. There were not, and never could be, enough nutrients in the soil. The continent's deterioration could be checked, by good management, but it could not be made into something other than it was.
Australia, he announced to a still incredulous Australian public, had probably reached its carrying capacity at around 20 million people, and might already have exceeded it. Flannery went to the United States, where he offered a parallel, if not so dramatically striking, interpretation of the American ecology.
Source: Review by Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, 26 March 2011 - ‘Here on Earth: A New Beginning’by Tim Flannery