Spokesman for science and nature
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.
Global evangelist: Australian of the Year Tim Flannery has changed the climate of public debate on global warming