Spokesman for science and na­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHAT are we to make of the pro­lific, en­gag­ing Aus­tralian of the Year? We have the latest ev­i­dence of what he would like us to make of him: a rich trove of his oc­ca­sional writ­ings, a daz­zling, flu­ent, pointil­list quilt. But, then, all Tim Flan­nery’s writ­ings th­ese days are oc­ca­sional and he is an oc­ca­sion, an event. Flan­nery’s rise to the po­si­tion of Aus­tralia’s most recog­nis­able man of science may be read in many ways: as the ar­rival of a nat­u­ral, as the emer­gence of a re­nais­sance poly­math or as the crash- through of a swash­buck­ling me­dia star per­fectly adapted to the mod­ern sound- bite age.

Flan­nery’s ver­sion of his ca­reer, which he presents in a pref­ace to this col­lec­tion, sees his as­cent as a kind of re­lent­less in­tel­lec­tual chain­re­ac­tion: Ex­plor­ing Aus­tralia’s fos­sil record and the evo­lu­tion of kan­ga­roos led me to re­alise that rain­forests were the an­ces­tral habi­tat of much of Aus­tralia’s flora and fauna. If I were ever to un­der­stand the con­ti­nent’s fos­sil record, I felt I’d need to study liv­ing rain­forests.’’ And where bet­ter to un­der­take this task than the wilds of New Guinea, where ad­ven­ture lurks and an­i­mals long ex­tinct in Aus­tralia sur­vive?

Do­ing this led me to an acute aware­ness of the power of cli­mate to in­flu­ence life on earth, and from there I felt a need to un­der­stand con­tem­po­rary cli­mate change.’’

This ac­count, though, leaves out some im­por­tant fea­tures of the Flan­nery saga. First, it ne­glects the ir­re­press­ible, ev­ery­thing- at- once qual­ity of his thought, his ca­pac­ity to throw off a hun­dred new ideas a chap­ter, a ca­pac­ity that was bril­liantly on dis­play in his com­ing- of- age man­i­festo, The Fu­ture Eaters , that syn­op­tic sweep through Aus­tralia’s past and land­scape, a book so fer­tile he is still can­ni­bal­is­ing its most sug­ges­tive pas­sages to­day.

Flan­nery also omits his ini­tial for­ma­tion in English lit­er­a­ture, a back­ground that doubt­less gives his best writ­ings their im­me­di­acy and drive. He is best un­der­stood as a writer about science and na­ture rather than as a pure sci­en­tist, de­spite his de­sire to see him­self as a fig­ure on the fron­tiers of hu­man un­der­stand­ing, peer­ing bravely into the murk of the un­fold­ing fu­ture; and the pieces in An Ex­plorer’s Note­book tell, some­what in­ad­ver­tently, this tale.

At the book’s core are es­says Flan­nery con­trib­uted to The New York Re­view of Books dur­ing the past decade or so: all stand the test of time and dis­play a near- mirac­u­lous ca­pac­ity to con­vey the ex­cite­ment of the sci­en­tific en­ter­prise, the beauty and variety of the king­dom of na­ture, and the strange­ness of the char­ac­ters en­gaged in its sys­tem­atic study. Al­most all th­ese re­views travel from the per­sonal to the gen­eral in the most dra­matic fash­ion. (‘‘ Sud­denly the whole build­ing shook and the air was filled with an in­de­scrib­able sound as the iron grille be­fore me was struck with the full force of a charg­ing male lion.’’)

They are pre­ceded by nar­ra­tives from Flan­nery’s field col­lect­ing years, in which we meet tame tree kan­ga­roos and the un­for­tu­nate, back­wards- fly­ing Bul­mer’s fruit bat, twice er­ro­neously thought to be ex­tinct. A gem- like cameo, reprinted from one of Flan­nery’s early books, dis­cusses modes of hunt­ing, the tech­niques of New Guinea’s Tele­fol ma­gi­cians as they in­fuse spir­i­tual power into their pur­suit dogs and the con­sump­tion in camp of for­bid­den foods.

What, though, in all the ad­ven­ture and lit­er­ary- ac­cented der­ring- do, of science, above all the science that has brought Flan­nery his latest rep­u­ta­tion as a prophet of cli­mate change?

An Ex­plorer’s Note­book closes with a long travel diary re­count­ing our hero’s progress through the cap­i­tals of the West­ern world, giv­ing speeches and dis­pens­ing wis­dom. He is the most fa­mous Aus­tralian in­tel­lec­tual celebrity and he has changed the cli­mate of pub­lic de­bate on cli­mate. This is a re­mark­able achieve­ment given that Flan­nery is not a sci­en­tist with any spe­cial ex­per­tise in the field. He may be right in all he says about the threat of ris­ing ocean wa­ters and global warm­ing, but if he is right, it is be­cause he has stud­ied and syn­the­sised the work of oth­ers. Global warm­ing is a field well suited to a man who likes fron­tiers, since it is by def­i­ni­tion a spec­u­la­tive, pre­dic­tive field, one that re­quires pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates rather than cau­tious em­piri­cists who re­main within the strait­jacket of ev­i­dence. It is, in short, the nat­u­ral ter­rain of the pub­li­cist of science, a role Flan­nery has made his own.

He be­lieves mankind has be­gun to face up to the grave threat pre­sented by cli­mate change’’, and if this sea change in global think­ing has in fact be­gun, it is some small part be­cause of the per­sua­sive skills on dis­play in An Ex­plorer’s Note­book .

He ends with a typ­i­cal flour­ish, as he sketches a pos­si­ble fu­ture in which hu­man be­ings take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fu­ture of the at­mos­phere.

By do­ing this,’’ he sug­gests, we will no longer be one species among many that in­flu­ences the planet; in­deed, we will be­come the ar­chi­tects of our planet’s cli­mate sys­tem. This may change us for­ever, for be­ing plan­e­tary en­gi­neers will pro­foundly al­ter the way we think about our en­vi­ron­ment and our­selves.’’

There are many in­trigu­ing as­pects to the mul­ti­plicit in­tel­lec­tual self- por­trait Flan­nery of­fers in th­ese pages, though none as strik­ing as the per­fect storm of fame that has swept him up and changed him from a mere lit­er­ary crafts­man into the evan­ge­list of a global cru­sade. Ni­co­las Roth­well is a se­nior writer for The Aus­tralian based in Dar­win. His most re­cent book is An­other Coun­try.

Pic­ture: Jim Trifyllis

Global evan­ge­list: Aus­tralian of the Year Tim Flan­nery has changed the cli­mate of pub­lic de­bate on global warm­ing

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