Cultural responses to environmental disaster in Australia

Symposium at Centre for Australian Studies organized by Distinguished Visiting Professor Anne Collett

Friday 19 September 2014, 1-5 p.m.

Room: 27.1.47


Anne Collett (Centre for Australia Studies, Copenhagen University / University of Wollongong, Australia): Amateur Knowledge and Activism: The Legacy of Botanical Illustrator, Kathleen McArthur

Tom Griffith (Australian National University): Remembering and Forgetting Bushfire

Kate Rigby (Monash University, Australia): Remembering Kinglake: Reframing ‘Natural Disaster’ in the Anthropocene’

Sue Thomas (La Trobe University, Australia): Making Landfall: Towards a Critical Tempestology of Cyclones in Colonial Australia, 1850

Lars Jensen (Roskilde University, Denmark): Undermining the Climate? Mining as National Discourse, Climate Change as National Discourse



Anne Collett

Australian Studies Centre, University of Copenhagen & University of Wollongong

Amateur Knowledge and Activism: The Legacy of Botanical Illustrator, Kathleen McArthur

Not all disaster has sudden and obvious impact; disaster can take slow and silent form that nevertheless can have impact on a large scale and bring about change that has ramifications beyond what we might ken. Kathleen McArthur (1915-2000) was a self-educated “botanical illustrator” whose life was bent on sharing her passion for and knowledge about the wildflowers of Queensland that were threatened by the degradation and in some cases, destruction, of their native environment. McArthur believed this was a disaster that could be averted through the education of the eye, mind and heart. In her introduction to Queensland Wildflowers: A Selection (1959) McArthur, observes that ‘this little work is apparently the first popular book on Queensland wildflowers… The State has been known for its fine botanists whose technical publications serve the specialist, yet little has previously been done to bridge the gap between scientist and the public. It is the general public who, in the end, are responsible for the preservation of our floral heritage, and the delay in serving them could be vital.’ McArthur here makes the point that responsibility for a flourishing world lies with ‘us’, that is, ‘we’ must ensure that love and knowledge are shared. Her claim is that the professional only speaks to the elite few where the amateur can speak to the many. Amateur here does not necessarily mean less knowledgeable; rather it is a question of dissemination – the amateur speaks in a language that the many can understand, the amateur speaks in venues to which the public have ready access, the amateur is not afraid to speak of love. Kathleen McArthur is exemplar of what the dedicated amateur can achieve.

Tom Griffiths

Australian National University

Remembering and forgetting bushfire

The Black Saturday 2009 Victorian firestorm made Australians think critically about their relationship with nature and the challenges of living on the fire continent. Drawing on the experience of working as a historian with a community that suffered in that fire, I will explore the cultural and psychological pressures working against the memory of such overwhelming natural events – and thus against adaptation.

Kate Rigby

(Monash University Australia)

Remember Kinglake: Reframing 'Natural Disaster' in the Anthropocene

This paper addresses the role of cultural assumptions, values, and narratives in the interpretation of those geo-physical extreme events that have become known in modernity as “natural disasters”. The de-naturalisation of “natural disaster”, I argue, has become imperative in order to better understand and respond to the complex entanglement of human and non-human agencies and processes in the aetiology, unfolding and aftermath of such calamities in the era of the Anthropocene, when human activities are so profoundly transforming Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, soils, and ecosystems on a global scale. Focussing on the framing of weather-borne disasters in Australia, I will consider the way in which certain non- and pre-modern interpretations of geo-physical extremes as indicative of human wrong-doing are being recalled in the medium of contemporary literature to challenge the modern secular paradigm of ‘natural disaster’: specifically, Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent narratives in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and biblical narratives in Jordie Albiston’s “Kinglake Undone”.

Sue Thomas

(La Trobe University)

Making Landfall: Towards a Critical Tempestology of Cyclones in Colonial Australia, 1850

The term cyclone was first introduced into meteorological discourse in 1848 by Henry Piddington in The Sailor’s Horn-book for the Law of Storms as a generic name for ‘circular or highly curved winds’. Based in India, he wrote ‘memoirs’ of hurricanes and storms in the Indian Ocean region and drew extensively on written sources to establish authoritative knowledge of hurricanes and typhoons over time, distinguishing them from other kinds of storm activity. The kinds of sources on which Piddington drew have again been brought into the purview of scientists working in the field of paleotempestology: the study of past tropical cyclones, especially before 1851, when instruments began to accurately confirm that a weather event was indeed a cyclone, using ‘geological proxy techniques’ and archival documentary sources. The survey of historical sources by paleotempestologists is designed to elicit information about the incidence, intensity and tracks of cyclones and the material damage they have caused. In this paper I turn to Australian colonial newspapers before 1851 which carried local and overseas reports of hurricane activity; poems, letters, and excerpts of travel narratives which represent hurricanes; and local and overseas commentary on ‘current affairs’ of state. The research questions that animate my critical tempestology are different from those posed by paleotempestologists. How have hurricanes (the general term in use before 1848) entered and shaped the Australian colonial literary and discursive imaginary? What are the genres or narrative arcs of cyclone writing, and how do they project a sense of place and environment? How does the representation of cyclones imaginatively invent the Australian tropics (the Northern Territory, Queensland, northern Western Australia)? What is the metaphorical reach of the hurricane in early colonial public discourse? How might this history help us unpack the metaphorical use of the cyclone in Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey’s recent assessment of Australia’s current economic and social climate as being in emergency need of more ‘Responsible Government’ (National Commission of Audit): ‘We can’t keep heading into a cyclone and expect everything to be OK’.

Lars Jensen

Roskilde University

Undermining the Climate? Mining as National Discourse, Climate Change as National Discourse

My presentation grows out of two separate articles written three years apart. The earlier piece looked at the Australian discourse on climate change in the context of whiteness studies in the aftermath of COP15 hosted as most will remember by Copenhagen, and a Danish Prime Minister whose lack of international skills and bad English may have been partly responsible for its failure. Some may also remember that the Australian zoologist, Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers (2005), but probably more famous for The Future Eaters (1994), headed the Copenhagen Climate Council. Three years on, no more Rudd, no more support for the replacement of the expired Kyoto agreement with another ambitious treaty. ‘Direct Action’ surprisingly obscure given its agency laden phrasing has replaced what always remained a struggling Australian commitment to do anything that might compromise its relationship with the coal industry. Which brings me to my second article about to be published on mining as national narrative ‘Giving Diggers’ a Rest or Resurrecting Them? (Under)Mining the Australian National Narrative’, where I analyse the SBS documentary series, Dirty Business, which aired in the beginning of 2013. While this doesn’t obviously deal with climate change, arguably mining as national discourse, alongside ‘carstralia’ and the endless sprawl caused by the quarter-acre-block epidemic, represent the three singular biggest obstacles to actual – direct action. If anyone wonders why unsustainable farming practises are not included, it is because, I optimistically predict lack of water will look after this. What I will be addressing in my talk, and what I am interested in as a topic for the general discussion, is how dominant forms of national discourse produce narratives of climate change, and ways in which such discourses are either undermined or supported.