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Kangaroos to Climate Change
An Interview with Dr. Tim Flannery

by Catherine Petruccione

#73, 17 July 2006

Dr. Tim Flannery's achievements bring to mind the great 19th-century adventurers. In fact, Sir David Attenborough is quoted as saying "Tim Flannery is in the league of the all-time great explorers like Dr. David Livingstone." One particular accomplishment stands out: Thirty new species of mammals, including two types of tree kangaroos, were discovered and named by him.

This intrepid explorer is an ardent conservationist who has won international acclaim as a scientist, writer, and engaging public speaker. You may be familiar with his regular contributions to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, or you may have heard him on NPR or the BBC.

Tim Flannery is one of Australia's leading thinkers and writers. He currently serves as director of the South Australian Museum, chairman of the South Australian Premier's Science Council and Sustainability Roundtable, director of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and is the National Geographic Society's representative in Australasia.

His writing is intelligent, honest, and thought-provoking and can also be delightfully humorous. His books span subjects from the ecological history of Australia and North America, to descriptions of rare and extinct mammals, to the causes of - and solutions for - global climate change. Through his lucid writing and public speaking, he helps us understand the very real danger of global warming and encourages us to be optimistic and action-oriented.

I confess that I am in awe of this man, but I was not surprised to find that he is a delightful person to talk with and humble in spite of his many accomplishments. After all, he has experienced the company and culture of primitive people in the most remote environments, and in the course of his explorations, he has crawled through dark bat caves, slept in rain soaked lean-tos, suffered odd food and disease, yet written about it all quite cheerfully.

I would like to think author Sharon Vanderlip for introducing me to his work and his writing. For more information on Vanderlip, see this BookThink's Author Profile.

As I spoke with Tim, he was nearing completion of a U.S. speaking tour.

BOOKTHINK: First of all, thank you for sharing your knowledge and your life of adventure and exploration through your writing. Let's start with a little bit about you. When did it first occur to you that you could have such an extraordinary life and career? Did anyone ever discourage you from this path?

FLANNERY: They did. I was one of those kids who was always interested in nature. I was not the world's best football player or the world's best academic, but I was very interested in the natural environment. I couldn't think of what to do at the end of school, so I thought I'd go to university and study to be a high school teacher. Back in those days, the state government would offer you a scholarship to pay your way through university if you pledged to teach for three years. I got to the end of my university time and was thinking about going to the classroom, and I thought, "I can't do this." I trooped up to the education department and talked to this man. I said, "Look, I just can't do it," and he said, "You are making the biggest mistake of your life. This is a meal ticket for life if you become a teacher. If you don't become a teacher, you'll have to pay it all back, you know." And I said, "Yes, I know, I'll pay it all back." And I did.

I went on and did my MSC in Geology, and I was really much more interested in that. Then I went on to do a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and was just lucky enough to get a job in a museum. I was very fortunate that a Californian, Dr. Tom Rich, had sort of taken me under his wing when I was a student and allowed me to do volunteer work in Melbourne where I grew up. He was really my mentor, the person who made it possible for me to think I might have a career like this.

BOOKTHINK: It is great to hear a story like this. I work in the Career Services Office at a local college, and so many times I'll hear a student say, "I want to be an anthropologist" - or a zoologist, or a similar career - and someone, somewhere, will usually try to influence them against it, saying it's not practical, it won't take you anywhere.

FLANNERY: Some of us do jobs that don't really have a name. You've just got to follow your style. That's what I've learned through life anyway. Follow your style, do what you really want to do, and that way you'll at least be a little bit good at it.

BOOKTHINK: In reading your books, I begin to realize how many areas of knowledge and understanding have to come together to form a picture of life on earth: environmental science, zoology, anthropology, climatology, languages -and I wonder how you do you do it all? It strikes me that you must be a very curious and resolute person, with a mind like a sponge, to have acquired all this knowledge.

FLANNERY: That's one thing my brain has always performed a pattern of doing. I've always tried to build up a big picture, a satisfaction of how it works at that level. I'm very, very happy chasing down information, even if it feels a bit foreign, even if it means I've got to learn by asking a lot of questions. I'm thick skinned enough that I don't mind asking stupid questions of my colleagues. I've got to admit to them, it's not my field, but can you tell me or teach me what the significance of this is, even if it sounds a bit dumb. I've always been a bit like that I suppose. Nothing gives me satisfaction like that moment when you suddenly see the links between things and understand how something works.

BOOKTHINK: You must have incredible energy. I was looking at your lecture schedule, and that alone is daunting.

FLANNERY: It's beating me! I'm running out of energy. But part of the enjoyment is meeting all these wonderful people. I've just been to the South Carolina state legislature, where they've got a committee dealing with climate change. And it was just so wonderful interacting with those people because you feel you can give something to them. They were very interested in what we are doing in Australia in terms of our energy policy and everything else. That sort of thing energizes you because you feel you are doing some good.

BOOKTHINK: Does it give you hope?

FLANNERY: Oh, yes, it does. There were a huge number of people of good will there that day. What we really need now is some good information and direction and energy.

BOOKTHINK: Have you had time for any of the more regular things in life - like a family - or has your life been dedicated pretty exclusively to research, exploration and writing?

FLANNERY: I do have a family. I've got a son who is 21 and a daughter who is 19, and it's been lovely - I have all of that. To be honest with you, this last year has been the toughest year of my life in that I've spent more time away from my family than ever before because of the demand for information. That's the price of doing this, I suppose.

BOOKTHINK: I guess the one good thing is that we have technology to keep in touch with people. It's not quite like when Sir Richard Burton when off into the wilds.

FLANNERY: Exactly true. It's a great blessing that we can do that. And we can get home quite quickly. It's not a six-month sail to Australia anymore.

BOOKTHINK: The first of your books that I read was Throwim Way Leg - a delightful journey with you as you introduce the reader to remote creatures and people of New Guinea.

It left me with a feeling of optimism, that the age of exploration on earth is not finished.

FLANNERY: Well, you see when I was doing that (early 1980's), it was like Sir Richard Burton. There weren't satellite phones or GPS systems when I started there - we were just there, in the bush! It was wonderful. It came home to me when my student recently went to a very remote area that I'd always wanted to get to, but we just couldn't when I was in the area because we couldn't get the helicopter time. He went there and called me from a mountaintop using a satellite phone - which was incredible.

BOOKTHINK: Can a young person today still look forward to being an explorer, to making new discoveries on earth?

FLANNERY: Yes, well, we've got a museum full of them in South Australia. We've got one guy who has just come back over the last twelve months from exploring the last unvisited mountain range on earth, which happens to be a submarine one, in the South Pacific Ocean - it is south of Easter Island. He goes down in Alvin, the submersible. Imagine being the first person to see that mountain range, you know? The images he brought back were incredible, the photography was amazing.

When I first started doing all this work, I thought the age of exploration was over. I thought, "Well, there've been so many people working in New Guinea, maybe I'll be lucky to be able to describe some new kind of rat or something that someone's overlooked." It turned out to be completely the opposite - there was a whole world out there that no had looked at.

BOOKTHINK: You have discovered and named many new mammal species. What has been your most exciting or personally satisfying discovery?

FLANNERY: I think the discovery of that black and white tree kangaroo, the Dingiso (Dendrolagus mbaiso), was the most amazing thing for me. An animal the size of a Labrador dog, as strikingly colored as that - that it could have remained undiscovered until 1995 seemed incredible. That was quite something to think, "I'm the first European to see this thing." Having the pleasure of describing it and figuring out a bit about its ecology and studying it was wonderful. That really was the high point for me - of my biological career anyway.

BOOKTHINK: Any intriguing places you would still like to explore?

FLANNERY: Oh, yeah. Just from a strictly scientific perspective, some of the mountains of west Papua still beckon. The trouble is, when you get past 40, the mountains just keep getting taller and taller and steeper and steeper.

BOOKTHINK: I'm curious about the recent discovery by an Australian team of the bones of a species of small, hobbit-like human beings that lived in the islands of Indonesia. What do you know about this?

FLANNERY: That was the most amazing discovery! One of my very closest friends made that discovery. He told me about this when they made the discovery and I thought, "Well, I'm sure it can't be what he thinks, that it's just something a bit odd." Then, well before it was published, he sent me a copy of the findings. It was about April, and I remember thinking, "Is this an April Fool's Day joke? It's too elaborate. It can't be." But as it turns out, this is one of the most amazing discoveries made in the 20th century. And when it was published, of course, it was amazing to see the reception it got. Those little people, they were less than a yard high and weighed only as much as a 3-year old child. Can you imagine them living on an island alongside Komodo dragons and pygmy elephants and giant rats?

BOOKTHINK: It's fascinating to read about the indigenous people and tribes you have come across in your travels. I loved the story in Throwim Way Leg about a man you came in contact with who was familiar with flashlights, but was amazed at the sight of a candle because it was an innovation that had passed them by.

FLANNERY: That's true for those people. They think nothing of getting into a light aircraft and flying, yet when they see a bicycle they always fall over with surprise.

BOOKTHINK: How important is it that the world still is peopled with human beings who have different cultures and world views - and is that doomed to be a thing of the past? Are we all going to be completely homogenized?

FLANNERY: That depends on a great deal. There's been a process of homogenization so far, but the world is full of forces that drive that homogenization and also serve to break it up. I just feel enormously privileged that I've lived in a time when I could contact people whose ancestors last had anything to do with mine over 60,000 years ago; where we've had 60,000 totally separate years of evolution. Nothing like that will ever occur again. So what we are seeing is the outcome of what it really means to be human. Those people who come from as different cultures as we could imagine still recognize a smile and a frown and can still communicate even in the absence of language. I find that miraculous. It is a strong testimony to the essentials of humanity that we all share.

BOOKTHINK: You have seen many changes in regions you have explored during your career. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen - for the bad and the good?

FLANNERY: Goodness. Well, I've seen some of the people of the world go from basically sort of a Stone Age existence fully into the modern world. I suppose it came home to me at the Ok Tedi Mine when I was there in 1985. I worked with an extremely knowledgeable old hunter a very traditional man called Serapnok. There's a picture of him in the book [Throwim Wayleg]. He was very distinctive looking, with a big hooked nose, and I became very fond of him. I visited the mine again later and couldn't find Serapnok. He was out in the bush. But I was getting a helicopter ride - the helicopter pilot was a young Papua man, and I looked at him and saw the nose and asked, "Do you know Serapnok?" and he said "Yeah, he's my dad." "You are a helicopter pilot for the mine?" "Yeah." In one generation, they'd gone from absolutely traditional bush hunter to helicopter pilot.

BOOKTHINK: I've just finished reading your latest book The Weather Makers, which, although you offer the reader hope and possible solutions, is an alarming wake-up call to all of us.

It is a straightforward and highly readable education on the earth's climate and what climate change holds in store for us. What alarms me most is the lack of focus on this issue by the media and seeming lack of concern by most of us as individuals. Scientists emphasize that we must act now. What is holding things back?

FLANNERY: The lack of good information. That's why I wrote the book. Just to make sure the information got out there. But also, there's been a number of forces at work in Australia and in the U.S. that have really deliberately tried to mislead people. And it's been partly because our societies have done so well from fossil fuels. There's a lot of vested interest, and disinterested people can hardly think beyond it in some cases, and so they don't want to move forward. The same thing was done by the tobacco industry - to try to confuse people about the emerging bad news. It's a counterproductive thing to do.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think people feel powerless in the barrage of challenges, perhaps, just throwing up their hands and saying, "We can't do anything"?

FLANNERY: Maybe, but I think it's really important that we don't feel that way. Goodness. Never get mad, just get even - that's what makes the way forward. There's no point in wallowing in self-pity or hopelessness; we know we have to do something. And I'm really confident we will, once we understand. The decisions will be made in the next decade. There's no time to waste on this. The way forward is very clear. We know what we have to do. I was really shocked when I realized how far things had gone with climate change - how dire the situation was. You know, I was a trained scientist, and I still hadn't properly prioritized climate change. So if I hadn't, what's the chance that the average person had properly prioritized it? So it's important that we try to take all this science and make it intelligible to people.

To me, what will move people is really a moral sense, that we know it's wrong to degrade our children's quality of life to enrich ourselves - and that's what we're doing really at the moment in this issue. It was the same sort of thing I suppose when the abolitionists realized that slavery was wrong because it degraded some people in order to enrich others.

BOOKTHINK: That's a very good comparison. I never thought of that before, but what a hard time we had giving it up.

FLANNERY: Imagine a world where whole colonies existed just because of the institution of slavery, and where shipping companies, and banks, and ruling classes were getting richer by the year on the back of this iniquitous institution. No one in the street was even thinking about it, I'm sure - the average bloke in the 18th century never gave it a second thought. And no one was really freeing the slaves because it would cost them too much. And yet somehow, it was forced to die, through pure force of moral argument.

BOOKTHINK: Sometimes I think we've convinced a generation or two of people that consumption equates with happiness. We no longer build things that last. Instead of buying quality of craftsmanship, we have a throw-away society. How big a part does that play in the problem?

FLANNERY: It's a huge part. Do you know, I think it's at different levels all around the world - we are all pretty consumerist. But the fundamentals of the way American society is put together make it even more consumerist than some other societies. And I don't want to be negative at all about Americans, because I love the place, and I have dear, close friends here.

Even the medical system here - it seems to me that human health has turned into another means of consumption. When you see the ads on TV for different drugs and things - we just don't have any of that in Australia. We have sort of quarantined human health - we've socialized it, so we all pay for it through our taxes and therefore there's no advertising for it. It's been taken out of the capitalist system to some extent.

The free market is very important to us in the way we live; there's no doubt about that. But we have to somehow insulate a few parts of our society from that, and health care is very good one. And many countries around the world have socialized it for that reason.

If you put money too much at the sacred, if it becomes too important to you, other means of exchange diminish. So you don't have the social means because money is only one way of exchanging things between people. There's a whole lot of other things that are social means of exchange and involve trust ... the willingness to put money into the government pot for pensions or unemployment and that sort of thing and take the edge off of the worst of consumerism - which probably doesn't do much for climate change, but reorients the philosophy slightly.

BOOKTHINK: How has the global economy affected our atmosphere? I think of goods being shipped long distances all over the world instead of being made and consumed locally. Would localized economies be healthier?

FLANNERY: That's a big cause of the problem we're facing - just shipping food. If you go into any supermarket, you'll see produce shipped from all over the world, out of season for your local area. So as I've become more aware of climate change, I've started to buy more local and seasonal food, which I think is healthier and good anyway. Why can't you wait for the season to enjoy what you want? I try to buy local at farmer's markets when I can.

BOOKTHINK: If there is one thing any of us can do today to help cut back on carbon emissions and resultant global warming, what would it be?

FLANNERY: I think the first thing is to always keep this issue at the front of your mind. So when you are shopping, when you're using electricity, when you are driving or traveling somewhere - think about that - 56% of the carbon dioxide that you put in the air today will be hanging over your grandchildren's heads in a century's time, will still be hanging over their heads in the atmosphere. To remember that is the single most important thing because that will change behavior.

BOOKTHINK: How important is it for us to vote with our pocketbooks by doing things like purchasing green power, hybrid vehicles, solar water heating, and the like?

FLANNERY: I think it's extremely important because that makes you a champion of the cause. People can see the solar panels on your roof, or the solar water heater, or the hybrid car. You are sending a message to the marketplace. It may seem that you are only making a small contribution yourself, but the nature of our marketplace magnifies that; it's the nature of our society. And what we really need now is visible champions of the cause. People who will, if they are a member of a church group or a sporting group or whatever - say, hey, let's see about getting solar hot water panels up or having an energy audit done.

BOOKTHINK: Do you see any technological break-though on the horizon that could really help as far as our environment is concerned, or do you think it will take a combination of many technologies?

FLANNERY: It's going to take a combination of many things. Every location is a little bit different and can use different technologies effectively.

BOOKTHINK: Stephen Hawkings has recently said that man must look to colonizing space as a way to survive. Do you agree?

FLANNERY: No, I don't. Because where would we go? Everything would have to come from earth anyway for the foreseeable future. I don't see it as a possibility. We are of the earth, and have evolved with it. It would be amazingly difficult to think about colonizing the moon or Mars or wherever else.

BOOKTHINK: I know you are currently on tour giving lectures in the U.S. Where do you see yourself concentrating your future work - in further exploration, or in getting the word out on climate change, or in some combination of these?

FLANNERY: Probably climate change. You know, I've had twenty wonderful years doing all that exploration. Then I took on the responsibility of running a museum so a few other people could have that opportunity to do the exploration, and now I see my role as doing a little bit at least to secure the future of the planet so that future generations can have a chance to do something. Knowing what I know, I can't just go back.

BOOKTHINK: Your website has excellent links as well as a realistic personal action list to help reduce global warming, with links to other sites.

Are there any other websites or books you would like to recommend to readers interested in the global warming challenge?

FLANNERY: I would say look up carbon neutral solutions and look up geodynamics - energy options that are a bit underestimated at the moment.

BOOKTHINK: Do you see any change of attitude in our leadership in the U.S. on the global warming issue?

FLANNERY: No, I think President Bush needs to make a clear statement of where he stands on it - what he believes and what the path forward is. I haven't seen that at all yet, and in the absence of that, you don't have a policy and you don't have commitment. If he doesn't believe it, we need to hear it very clearly. We need to actually know what he thinks, given the current situation.

BOOKTHINK: Are you optimistic? Do you think we can do this?

FLANNERY: Yes, I think we can - I'm sure we will. Whether it's in time, who knows? But I've seen amazing changes even in the last twelve months.

BOOKTHINK: Tim, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I hope we continue to hear from you for a long time to come through your writing and public speaking. It has been an honor to have the opportunity to talk with you.

FLANNERY: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure for me.

Tim Flannery's books are especially powerful vehicles for transporting readers on true adventures to far-away places, and along the way they give us the scientist's perspective on life and exploration on planet earth. Collectors and booksellers take note: Some of his early books command high prices and may be difficult to find.

Books By Tim Flannery

Mammals of New Guinea. Robert Brown & Associates, 1990; Cornell, Ithaca, NY 1995.

Possums of the World: A Monograph of the Phalangeroidea (with P. Schouten). Geo Productions, Chatswood, 1994.

Mammals of the South West Pacific and Moluccan Island., Reed, Chatswood, Sydney, 1995; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY 1995.

Tree Kangaroos: A Curious Natural History (with R. Martin, P Schouten, and A. Szalay). Reed Books, Melbourne, 1996.

Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds - On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne,1998; Grove Press, NY, 1998.

The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne, 1998; Grove Press, NY, 1998.

The Birth of Sydney. Edited and introduced by Tim Flannery. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne, 1999; Grove Press, NY, 2000.

Two Classic Tales of Australian Exploration. Edited and introduced by Tim Flannery. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne, 2000.

John Nicol, Life and Adventures 1776-1801 (ed.). First published in London, 1822. Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 1999.

A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals (with P. Schouten). Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2001; Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2001.

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its People. Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2001; Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2001.

The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People. Reed Books, Australia, 1994; Grove Press, NY, 2002.

The Birth of Melbourne. Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2002.

Astonishing Animals: Extraordinary Creatures and the Fantastic Worlds They Inhabit. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004.

Country: A Continent, A Scientist & A Kangaroo. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne, 2004.

The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2005; Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2006.

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