Review: Libby Robin, How a Continent Created a Nation, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007, 258 pp., ISBN 978 0 86840 891 0.

Tom Brooking

Paul Star, Lynn Lochhead, Julian Kuzma, James Beattie and David Young, amongst others, have tried to relate the growing desire to preserve and conserve New Zealand’s landscape, flora and fauna from the late nineteenth century, to the search for a more distinctive New Zealand identity. Other scholars, including Peter Gibbons, Francis Pound, Michael Dunn and more recently Mark Williams and Jane Stafford, have described and analysed the way in which writers and painters attempted to relate their increasingly strong attachment to this place and its particular landscape in their poetry, short stories, novels, paintings, sketches and photographs. Gibbons summarises writing relating to landscape and scenery as constituting a ‘literature of occupation’ which assisted colonists in appropriating Mäori land for settlement. The art historians Pound and Dunn, like literary historians Williams and Stafford, have been a little gentler in their interpretations and judge the artistic outputs of this era as being of significant worth, but all agree that artists of the time attempted to come to terms with a new land in the process of colonisation.

In her excellent new book, How a Continent Created a Nation, historian of science Libby Robin pushes such analysis much further by connecting the search for national identity with shifts in scientific and ecological understanding. And she brings the story right up to the present rather than abandoning the subject in the late 1930s. She thereby manages to connect environmental and cultural history in a manner which would have delighted C.P. Snow. Perhaps because she works in an institution peopled largely by scientists, she realises better than those of us located in the world of humanities, that the gap between science and the arts desperately needs bridging at this time of environmental crisis.

Robin begins by suggesting that Australians need to get over their ‘biological cringe’ and learn to live with and celebrate the limits of their island continent, rather than try to remake it into something it could never be. She moves on to trace the development of those sciences which most closely observed the Australian natural world: geology, botany, zoology (especially ornithology), and, from the 1930s, ecology.

Starting with Federation and the search for a national flower she reveals that Australians of the early twentieth century realised that their landscapes, fauna and flora helped make the place distinctive and tried hard to inculcate that idea into children’s minds through tree planting on Arbor Day, undertaking trips to the bush for nature study, promoting the wattle as a national symbol and introducing ‘Bird days’ (an innovation unique to Australia). From 1909, The Gould League encouraged bird watching rather than egg taking as practised designed to make Australians proud of their natural heritage. Founders of this organisation hoped that they would thereby counter negative British publicity about Australia’s ‘odd’, primitive and inferior animals and plants. Whereas the wattle lost currency despite its strong associations with the horrific losses of the First World War, Bird Day went from strength to strength, except (perhaps predictably) in Queensland.

Robin then moves on to show how scientists like Jock Marshall at Monash University in Melbourne from the 1960s, and earlier pioneer zoologists such as William Hay Caldwell at Sydney, in association with museums, helped Australians better understand marsupials. Concerted research in the field and display in museum enabled the public to appreciate the special qualities of kangaroos, wombats and platypuses et al., instead of dismissing them as primitive examples of failed biological experiments. Before returning to this story, though, Robin looks at a counter point to the growing engagement with and celebration of the indigenous: the obsession with using the empty outback which persuaded governments to assist pastoralists in moving merino sheep into marginal farming areas, often with catastrophic results for local flora and fauna.

Australians, including the famous historian Keith Hancock (who seemed to ignore the environmental lessons of the 1890s), took much national pride from this attempt to create a neo-Europe in a hostile and alien landscape. By the late 1990s, however, just as had happened a century before, more frequent drought and falling prices made this activity unviable. The powerful romance associated with it, as in New Zealand, lingers on in film and tourist promotions, but remains mismatched with this ancient land of degraded soils and frequent droughts.

Robin returns to the indigenous by examining the collection of unusual and unique specimens for museums. Sir Colin Mackenzie in the 1930s proved instrumental in developing his comparative anatomy collection into the basis of the new Commonwealth museum collections in Canberra. This enterprise languished until the 1970s when the need to conserve rapidly diminishing numbers of plant and animal species became urgent. Only then could ecologists, botanists and zoologists begin to turn their attention away from ‘useful’ and applied research. In the process of redesigning the museum so that it did not separate science from society as in say the Museum of Science in Kensington, London, overtly scientific displays of specimens and technology have been removed. Principles rather than artefacts are displayed in addition to exhibitions on the relationships between people and the land, much to the chagrin of conservative critics like Keith Windschuttle.

Robin switches back to understanding the natural world of Australia by showing how a greater appreciation of both the vast interior desert and the tropical north, have been integrated into a more broadly defined national identity. In each case greater understanding of these distinctive environments has made some of the public aware that these vast areas are not truly empty and, in their unaltered state, serve invaluable environmental functions. Robin then discusses the attempt to sustain what is exceptional about Australia through the development of conservation biology, a field in which Australia leads the world.

Congratulations seem in order at this point but Robin desists from comforting celebration by pointing out that the modern conservationist perspective has its limits too, especially its tendency to reduce its focus to microscopically specialist levels; a propensity which often leads to an obsession with individual species and neglect of the broader good of the environment. Like other sciences, conservation biology is also inclined to suffer from dogmatic certainties and needs to be subjected to doubt and critical thinking like all forms of knowledge. Robin acknowledges that much of this new understanding is being made available to a wider audience by successful popularisers like Timothy Flannery, but suggests that far too little conversation occurs between conservation biologists and historians. Too often scientists remain uninterested in human history with its many examples of sustainable and unsustainable practice. Too often, she notes, conservation biologists talk in terms of ‘new’ crisis when most crises have occurred earlier in Australia’s human history. Because such conversations do not occur, conservation biologists often end up reinventing the wheel unnecessarily. On the other hand, she points out, many historians are equally culpable in deciding that it is simply too hard to bridge the gap between such specialist fields replete with their impenetrable language and reductionist agendas. These criticisms pertain as much to New Zealand as Australia.

Robin finishes her discussion by moving back to the time of Federation and the popular children’s story, Dot and the Kangaroo. Its author, Ethel Pedley, hoped to induce a love of country in Australian children which would enable future generations to feel more comfortable in their new ‘home’ and so treat the land with more care. Robin moves on to suggest that because Australia’s natural world continued to be contrasted with a European ‘other’, the construction of Australian nature thereafter became somewhat ‘unnatural’. Simplistic environmental determinism emerged as nationalist sentiment deepened in the late twentieth century. Overweighting the indigenous at the expense of the exotic led to the demonising of all introduced plants and animals. In some ways Robin suggests that arguing Australian plants and animals are ‘superior’ to those from elsewhere is not so different from Nazi doctrine about the superiority of everything German. In viewing the world in this way nature easily becomes disconnected from society. This alarming tendency, she notes, has been worsened by some conservationists who employ militarist language like that used by earlier scientists in their ‘fight against nature’, to condemn anyone who does not defend the indigenous. As conservationists come to occupy the high moral ground they have replaced the idealised folk hero, the ‘battler on the land’, with the ‘battler conservationist’.

Robin concludes by pointing out that Australians have always lived on the coastal periphery of their island continent and turned their backs on their vast interior. When they have thought about the outback it has been in romantic and unrealistic terms suggesting that it was some kind of magical place where a distinctive, tough ethos emerged in opposition to harsh nature. Not surprisingly Aboriginals have been largely excluded from such master narratives even though they have been in Australia long enough to have lived through many major natural cycles and are able to humanise geological time scales. Instead of learning from these long-term residents, however, Australians glamorised the white settler on the land, thereby eschewing countless millennia of environmental learning. The settler story is one of war with the land rather than living in harmony with it. Consequently, Australians have struggled to feel at ‘home’ in an environment very different from Britain and Europe. Only by developing a ‘natural nation’ can this disjunction be overcome. Australians, according to Robin, must learn to live at peace with their distinctive natural world and draw inspiration from it as well as from sport and military prowess. Impending environmental crisis, hastened by chronic drought and water shortage, may force such a rethink as caring for the environment becomes crucial to economic and social survival. Australia will have to become sustainable before other places if human settlement hopes to continue at some level of comfort. The key to finding a truly ‘national’ voice on the global stage lies, therefore, in developing a ‘deep, locally grounded understanding of its variable and uncertain environments.’