Good Reading : June 2007
18 goodreading ı JUNE 2007 The North American nature writer Henry David Thoreau (1817- 1862) penned the famous phrase ‘In Wildness is the preservation of the world’ in a lecture called Walking, deliv- ered in 1851. Walking was one of the earliest documents to advance the cause of environmentalism. Out of this tradi- tion of ‘nature writing’, a field which has a rich tradition in America and a growing one in Australia, grew the books that have influenced environmentalists, conservationists and, increasingly, ordinary Australians, to take a look at how they regard, treat and inhabit the natural world. Nature writing explores landscapes and places and the creatures that live in them. In America it has been flourishing for at least 150 years. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in the USA in 1962, coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement and further forms of environmental writing evolved, including science writing; environmental inter- pretation and advocacy; social ecology, focusing on the interactions between people and the environment; and visual books celebrating the beauty of nature. Stuart Hill and Martin Mulligan in Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action, classify Australian environmental writing into three tradi- tions: the romantic/Arcadian ecological tradition, which grew out of the work of Australia’s landscape artists and bush poets; the imperial tradition, started by Joseph Banks, which laid the foundation for the scientific study of ecology; and a recent third tradition in which the pre- colonial worldviews of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are beginning to have an impact on the consciousness of white Australians. ‘We still don’t have a great under- standing of how Australian ecological systems work, and there is an important role for writers to play in raising eco- logical literacy,’ says Mulligan. ‘Artists and writers have been at the forefront of our ecological awakening because they had the sensibility early on to become interested in the interactions between peo- ple and landscapes and because some of them became deeply fascinated by what lay “beyond the frontier of settlement”.’ Although Australia has not had the long American tradition of nature writing, it has made some important contributions to interna- tional ecological thought, including the develop- ment of the ecosystem design method ‘perma- culture’ which is now used around the world, the first coining of the term ‘green politics’, and innovative approaches to natural resource management, such as the landcare movement. Australia’s indigenous community is being heard more in fiction and non-fiction, contributing to international debates about relationships with place. ‘Because Australia’s landscape is ancient and in some ways worn out, Australians have had to address issues such as drought, climate change, soil loss and impacts on biodiversity,’ says Hill. ‘We’ve taken a leadership role in some of these areas.’ All of these innovations – and many more – have made it into books about the environment.While some are read only by limited or academic audiences, many have made the leap across the commercial divide and brought powerful environ- mental messages into the mainstream. Science writing and advocacy Tim Flannery is easily Australia’s best- known environmental science writer. The Future Eaters , published in 1994, was an ecological history of the Australian continent and its neighbours. But it is The Weather Makers that has brought Flannery firmly to centre stage. Professor Peter Singer called it ‘the book the world has been waiting for and needing for decades’ and Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain, said ‘All who read The Weather Makers will be left wiser and able to appreciate how fragile our climate is and how it is this generation who must act to protect it’. Flannery illustrated with The Future Eaters that he had the skill of taking Once seen as the preserve of ferals and greenies, books about the conservation of nature and the future of the planet are now mainstream and increasingly influential on government policy and individual action. JESSE BLACKADDER takes a look at the books that may just save the world. categorical how many books does it take to change the world?