Killing of Gondwana
Essay by Harry Nankin published in The Age newspaper, December 17, 1994 reviewing book The Future Eaters: An ecological history of the Australian lands and people by Tim Flannery
Less than two generations ago most people saw nature in Australia as inexhaustible, simple, resilient, safe and unaffected by human beings before the First Fleet. That our environment is now commonly perceived as finite, complex, fragile and endangered is in no small measure due to the wide dissemination of natural history knowledge by writers such as Judith Wright, Alan Marshall and William Lines.
Yet, the image of Aborigines as largely passive actors in that landscape persists. Stephen Pyne’s scholarly 1991 opus on the history of fire tentatively linked Australia’s human and ecological past. In this groundbreaking book, Tim Flannery synthesises the most recent discoveries in paleo-ecology and archaeology to construct the startling hypothesis that ecologically sustainable human behaviour (“future eating”) is not a new problem. It began with the first Australians.
His scenario is this: when, about 60,000 years ago, people first entered Australia they encountered few dangerous carnivores in a land teeming with large herbivorous marsupials such as the diprotodon. Freed from the ecological “straitjacket” of co-evolution with prey and predators in Africa and Eurasia that had hitherto kept human numbers and impact in check, these ancestors of modern Aborigines ultimately overhunted the megafaunal herds to extinction.
Its principal protein supply lost, an exploding human population soon crashed. The under-grazed vegetation fuelled vast lightning-lit fires that in turn threatened to devastate the remaining food sources. What we know as “fire-stick farming”, nomadism and restrictive hunt practices codified in tribal lore, were sophisticated long-term cultural adaptations for managing a destabilised ecosystem. People, not climatic change, converted a land of fire-sensitive rainforest and grassland to one of fire-loving eucalypt, acacia and heath.
For Flannery, the Australian story is a template for man’s impact throughout the south-west Pacific and across the globe. Around this proposition, he confounds Eurocentric prejudices with provocative speculations. He believes Aborigines would have developed agriculture if it had been a viable survival strategy: in a continent with the most infertile soils and erratic climate of all, farming always has been and remains a usually foolhardy and destructive enterprise.
He posits human agency as influential in shaping nearly everything we casually regard as “natural”, including the wariness of untamed animals: in a sweeping inversion of Biblical narrative he asserts that “long ago we humans made the savage beast”. And, he suggests, opportunities wrought by the “escape” from Asia to Australia possibly facilitated humanity’s technological “great leap forward” as the “dominant species” everywhere: that is, seafaring relatives of today’s indigenous Australians could have been the true parents of civilization.
Despite its didactic content, this is a lucid text, peppered with humour and much emotion. The extraordinary bio-physical genesis, evolution and character of the Australasian “family” of lands are revealed in the richly detailed tones of an expert and empassioned ecologist. Data is employed as much to up-end antipodean cringe as to inform: we are told that European holly is descended from Gondwanan relatives and that there are more plants in the Sydney basin and more ant varieties on Canberra’s Black Mountain than in all the United Kingdom.
The author’s sadness wandering a New Zealand forest once full of birdlife (“I heard nothing but the whisper of leaves blowing in the wind”) is unabashed. A report of the gentle encounter between the explorer Peron and Tasmanian Aborigines is 1802 is poignant in the extreme.
Against the background of its long history, Flannery sets out to delineate how we might comfortably and indefinitely occupy this land without further compromising biodiversity.
Australia’s profound ecological constraints and the calamitous “maladaptions” of the current phase of “future eating” – modernity – are discussed with convincing clarity, but many of the suggested solutions are not. In identifying population growth as the key policy issue, Flannery largely avoids the equally urgent but more complex questions of technological, economic and lifestyle change in ameliorating environmental impact.
Flannery celebrates suburbia while overlooking the resource-saving efficiencies of urban consolidation. He condemns mindless boosterism yet condones the spread of mining. He justifiably argues that most contemporary efforts resisting the tide of extinction are piecemeal and ineffective. But, by advocating meddling in our disturbed ecosystems to recreate conditions modelled in those of pre-human Australia, he inadvertently undermines the legitimate stewardship claims of indigenous communities.
As an educational tool, this book makes a valuable contribution towards fulfilling the author’s call for national identity to be tied more closely to an intimate understanding of our environment. As a normative document defining an ecologically sustainable agenda, however, it is deeply flawed by politically naïve and counterproductive prescriptions.