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Robyn Williams, science journalist, presenter and author, 16 November 2009

MARGO NEALE: We are going to proceed now with the Public Lecture [for] which we’re very honoured to have Robyn Williams here, who is, as you know, a science journalist – or should I say a super science journalist, presenter and author. We listen to him every day, don’t we, on Radio National’s Science Show – he’s been doing that since 1975, so he must love his job – Ockham’s Razor and In Conversation. So, as we all know, he’s a very fascinating and engaging presenter, and he infuses his presentations with wit and humour, and he has a sort of enviable ability to make science interesting and fascinating to almost everyone.

Now, that’s sort of the description of this symposium, I hope, that it’s also going to be with humour, engaging, informative and all of that. Thus, it was very appropriate to have Robyn Williams be our Public Lecture for this evening to set it all off.

I’d better not steal his thunder like I stole Mick Dodson’s, so I won’t tell you a thing about what he’s going to do except [laughs] it’s called ‘Terra incognito no more’. Robyn … [applause]

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you for coming. How kind. ‘Terra incognito no more – reflecting on change’ – my instructions were to cover the whole of science since 1948, [laughter] seriously. So, here goes. It said: finish at about nine o’clock – tomorrow – and then we go walkabout. Barks, Birds and Billabongs: one of the last great expeditions in Australia. Expeditions to Australia, now that sounds very much like Joseph Conrad or Kipling, doesn’t it? Going to some steamy area in the Congo where no European has been before; but this is 1948. An expedition; how remarkable that so many plants and animals, and aspects of human culture, were hardly known to science, to the Top End [northern Australia].

Even today in 2009, how many people know – and this gets me to the billabongs – that 70 per cent of our fresh water is in the Top End; 70 per cent, with a population not much bigger than greater Hobart’s. How many people realise that this country is 38 per cent tropical, a full third, with all that that implies? So, we might think we know Australia reasonably well, but scientifically we don’t.

It may be a surprise that the first major expedition to the Great Barrier Reef was, in fact, 1928 to ‘29, and it included an enormous number of women. So, we owe our first scientific insights of the Great Barrier Reef to women’s brilliance in science even at a time when it wasn’t fashionable. However, today in 2009 we still are unsure that we know enough about the reef’s ecology to save this gigantic icon from possible extinction.

When I was growing up in, actually Austria of all places, I paid my 10 pounds, and they sent me somewhere. I thought I was going to Austria but it said Australia on the ticket, so I turned up blinking. Anyway, I was there in Austria.

In about 1948, at the time of the expedition, Hans and Lottie Hass had their film about underwater marine science – because the technology had been developed so that you could see what was going on under the waves. And this was [as] exciting and stunning for kids and grownups as seeing those pictures from space that we did in the ‘60s. That thrilled me beyond belief, also knowing I was going to a country where marine science was really going to be so spectacular.

In 1988 Professor Andrew Goudie from Oxford led an expedition to the Kimberley. That’s only 21 years ago; a huge part of tropical Australia still virtually unexplored biologically. Scores and scores of new species were discovered on that trip.

His daughter, Kim, was conceived in the Kimberley, and when I saw Andrew Goudie, an old friend of mine at Oxford, I said, ‘How is she, you know? Growing up a bit?’ He said ‘She’s 21.’ She’s got her own degrees, and she’s got her own career.

So, as recently as 1988, there was an expedition to your district, Mick, and I think that gives you an indication of the range, really, of the biological expeditions. Since that time, science has been completely transformed.

I arrived in 1964 as a boat person. They let me off the boat, mainly because the food was so incredibly lousy on the Castel Felice – ‘Castle of Happiness’ – that I had to leave the boat. I recommend that as policy. If you want to get rid of people on boats, give them the kind of food that we had to endure for six weeks coming from London.

When I arrived, I was quite curious. I hadn’t done a degree yet in science, but I was fascinated to find the official version of human occupation of Australia was about four or five thousand years. Now, it’s between 50 and 60,000, due to the brilliant work of the great John Mulvaney, a friend of mine from way back.

When I did a degree in London and came back again in 1972 and joined the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], one of the first people I met was Tom Haydon, who shortly afterwards produced a film called The Last Tasmanian, which reminds me a bit of some of those retro films that you see, the [television] series which you could be watching tonight and you may still yet catch it: ‘Ashes to Ashes’, which is a bit like life on Mars, which is a bit like ‘Mad Men’ which shows you what life was like only 20 years ago. And you can’t believe it, the way they talk to women or smoke or run around being completely retro beyond belief.

The Last Tasmanian: there wasn’t a question mark in that title, and it included the Welsh pixie, my friend, Rhys Jones, with whom I used to have drinks just up the road here, and Jim Allen, also from this parish, talking in ways about human occupation of Tasmania and Australia as they were still being discovered.

So, 50 to 60,000 years. Astonishing discovery, and the consequences of understanding really the history of human beings in this country made us feel as Australians completely different. It changed the law. Wik, Mabo [Indigenous land rights cases] made us feel different as people. Science made a gigantic impact in that regard.

What other science can I mention? Well, one of them is medicine, the whole of medicine. Why do I mention that? Because we now assume medicine is very clever. It isn’t quite. When you go to the doctor, they’re still fudging an explanation for what’s going on with your pain in the belly. They hazard a guess. The only way they get it absolutely right is when an autonian called Greg House does it on television with five assistants costing who knows what gigantic sums of money. And that is why it’s only since the war that medicine became a really modern science.

There’s a fabulous book by Lewis Thomas which describes modern medicine beginning just after World War II. The title of the book, for which he won a Pulitzer [Prize], is The Youngest Science. And it’s perfectly true, because understanding the nature of our bodies and how they work, explored by brilliant people like [Howard] Florey, who did brilliant work during the war; penicillin: four years – these days it would take the committee about 15 years to decide the policy to do the work. Four years, they turned it around, using bedpans and whatever.

[Lawrence] Bragg, [Frank MacFarlane] Burnet – [Peter] Medawar actually shared the Nobel Prize with Burnet. Sir John Cornforth; how many people know Sir John Cornforth’s name? Australian who got the Nobel Prize in 1975, for doing work on macromolecules. He is an astonishing Australian, because he went to the University of Sydney, and as he was growing up, he became deaf. Imagine studying chemistry when you can’t hear what the lecturer is saying. His wife became a brillant translator. She could lip read and translate for him. He got the Nobel Prize in 1975. He is an Australian.

Barry Marshall, of course, and Robin Warren, for their work on Helicobacter [pylori] and the astounding Liz [Elizabeth] Blackburn getting it in October just now, for her work on telomeres, how cells divide. Tremendous tradition in Australia in medicine, but it is the youngest science, truly.

Space: well, when I joined the ABC in 1972, I covered two events which seemed totally anachronistic. Way back in 1972, blokes [men] walked on the moon! Four blokes in 1972 in Apollo 16 and 17. Imagine doing that now! How quaint! Well, frankly, we couldn’t do it now. They didn’t have the technology that would make it work, and they haven’t got the money to send the rockets up, and presumably they don’t have the health and safety rules to allow the astronauts to go there. [laughter]

It couldn’t happen – 12 blokes walked on the moon. However, one of the most fascinating things for me is the year before 1969, when they started to walk on the moon, for Apollo 8 in 1968, they took that fantastic picture of Earthrise. Do you remember that? We suddenly saw that we were alone in the sky out there, and it’s not a coincidence that just four years later in 1972, the Stockholm International Environmental Conference was held, which kind of launched our concerns about ecology and how all those plants and animals and human culture work together. The subject of that expedition in principle in 1948 – what does it all mean when you put it together to try to get the large picture?

Another push that came environmentally was, of course, Paul Ehrlich’s [book, The] Population Bomb in 1968. Paul Ehrlich is a friend of mine. He tells the wickedest jokes you can imagine. Some people like Phillip Adams think he’s a Stalinist, and he’s not. He’s a lovely, warm – he’s a mensch of a man. But he was extremely concerned about population and about contraception, and I was fascinated, given what he was saying in 1968.

A publication came out just a month ago from the London School of Economics, talking about the value of contraception and its connection with climate change. Let me just give you a couple of indications. Contraception is almost five times cheaper as a means of preventing climate change than conventional ‘green’ technologies, according to research of the LSE. For every eight bucks spent on family planning over the next four decades, it would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a tonne, whereas a maximum of 40 bucks would have to be spent on low-carbon technologies to achieve the same result.

The report, ‘Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost’, concluded that family planning should be seen as one of the primary methods of emissions reduction. The United Nations estimates that 40 per cent of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended. If these basic family planning needs were met, 34 gigatons of CO2 would be saved, equivalent to nearly six times the annual emissions of America, and almost 60 times Britain’s annual total.’ I hope they’ll remember that in Copenhagen.

I mentioned some of the scientists. DNA: Nobel Prize happened in 1962. Up on stage to get some of the prizes next to [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick and [Maurice] Wilkins – people forget Wilkins – were [John] Kendrew and [Max] Perutz, and the novelist was John Steinbeck.

Who’s the boss of all those scientists? I mentioned his name before very quickly. His name was Lawrence Bragg, and he was born in Adelaide. Youngest person in history to get the Nobel Prize. How many Australians know that? He went to the University of Adelaide at the age of 15.

Fortunately, he’d broken his elbow falling off his bike when he was tiny, and [Wilhelm] Roentgen had sent some of the [x-ray] technology to his father, William Bragg, and so he did the first ever x-ray in Australian history on this poor boy when he fell off the bike.

That inspired their line of research, and they developed x-ray crystallography. They invented two new fields of science. Lawrence Bragg set up a team in the bike shed in Cambridge, out of which came 11 Nobel Prizes. One place, 11 Nobel Prizes. And from Lawrence Bragg’s work, 30 Nobel Prizes have been produced, more than the whole of France combined. One Australian. How many people know his name?

With any luck, we’ll know his name a bit more, because the Bragg Initiative was launched just a couple of months ago in Adelaide by Mike Rann, the Premier of South Australia, and is based in what’s called the Science Exchange, which used to be the Stock Exchange. It’s a wonderful conversion, stock exchange into science exchanges; it should become a trend. And the whole point about the Bragg Initiative is to bring science to the people in a way that he, Lawrence Bragg, represented so wonderfully well.

The story of science really this century, and certainly since 1948, has been the story of people doing basic research, which everyone thinks is a bit weird, and when are they going to find a Max Perutz? ‘13 years, you’ve been doing it all that long,’ said one son of one scientist that I know. ‘You’ve got to get it right one day, but you’re pretty slack, aren’t you?’ The point about the research, however, is you never quite know where it’s going to lead.

Let me give you two examples. On one occasion I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, I think it may have been in Washington, and they have a big exhibition hall. And a bloke over there was carrying a Macintosh, and looking at a massage machine, because he had a bad back. He sat on it, and it gave him a bit of a rub, and that was nice.

And he went off to get his credit card, and I said to the person running the booth, ‘Do you know who that was?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t know who that was.’ I said, ‘That is Charles Townes. He developed the laser. Do you know how his credit card is going to work? Lasers. Do you know how your CD player works? Lasers. That guy over there who’s about to pay you.’

They had no idea that that was going to happen when they’re working on this basic stuff.

Again, the Prime Minister’s science prize a couple of weeks ago. The guy who got the top prize, John O’Sullivan, working in Narrabri [in mid-western New South Wales], looking for little black holes somewhere in space, developed a technology that refined the signals. They thought, ‘That’ll work on laptops.’ WiFi was invented. As a result, 800 million people are using Australian technology.

And as you probably know, the announcement came out just days ago that a fund of 150 million is being put aside by CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] for research. To be promoted in Australia. They had no idea when they were working on black holes it would lead to a revolution in laptops.

Viagra. I’m sorry, that’s in Ireland, of course, they produce it. But, they were doing work on cardiac transport. And they gave all these guys pills and they wouldn’t give them back. [laughter] Unexpected results from basic research.

I mentioned billabongs, let me just mention [them] before I talk about something else. Birds, billabongs, birds. When you go out there into the wild of Australia, where you go to various places and you just see crows, magpies, ordinary birds, you think, ‘Ah well, nothing.’

A revolution in science has happened in the last few years, which I find one of the most thrilling, is what happens with birds’ brains and how they think. One of the most sensational experiments happened, overseen by a professor of zoology at Oxford. Actually, the guy comes from Argentina.

And the experiment was simply this: they thought that crows used tools. And so they left crows unfed in a sort of big cage, with a video running and lots of hooks lying around and the food, the supper for the birds, in tubes. And, yep! The birds picked up the hooks, put them down the tube, eventually, got the food out, and went off and had a postprandial.

Meanwhile, the video kept running; wasn’t supposed to. And when the guys came into the lab the next morning, they saw a picture they didn’t expect. Betty the crow hadn’t had dinner, and there weren’t any hooks left. They had all been taken away somewhere. But she found a straight piece of wire. So, she looked at the tube, she looked at the wire, did some calculations, bent the wire, put it down the tube, got the dinner; and the paper in nature went round the world on front pages: ‘This is not supposed to happen!’ They repeated the experiment. It happened again.

Oddly enough, I happened to be wandering around the rainforest in New Caledonia, with a guy who’s been living there for a long time showing me the plants. To some extent, the animals. And I said, ‘Look. I’m terribly sorry. I do not know the indigenous plants of New Caledonia. But, fascinating stuff. What I do know is the story of Betty the crow.’

‘Oh yeah’, he listened to me, ‘yeah, well, I know. Do you know why Betty does that? She didn’t just make it up. If you come along to this plant, you’ll see a big, fat plant with a razor edge. Now, you peel the edge off, and here comes, what’s eventually a string of barbed wire. Betty, if she’s living here, takes that, puts it down a hole in a tree, and hooks out a caterpillar and has lunch. It’s called tradition.’ [laughs]

Now, that’s fine. But, when I went back to Cambridge, not Oxford, and I talked to the latest guys who were doing work on this with rooks, who don’t do this in the wild, they put some food in a particular part of the cage. In fact, it was maggots lying in water that was too low. And, all of the rooks saw that there was food there. And they didn’t quite know what to do. And then, some pebbles were pushed into the cage. Immediately, they took the pebbles, put them down the tube, raised the water, had their food.

This is planning, it’s conceptual work. We have revolutionised our understanding of the animals with which we live. Common ones. Two weeks ago, I saw a video of marine life – Mark Norman from the Museum of Melbourne, showing how an octopus uses half a coconut, obviously something that’s been thrown off a boat, as a tool for protection. There it is, walking along the ocean. You can see it on his film, walking along the bottom of the ocean, and when a fish comes along that might eat it, puts it over like kind of a protective shield.

It’s unbelievable! This is the use of tools by octopuses. That’s why I always refuse squid and octopus in restaurants, because I don’t eat things with a higher IQ than myself. [laughter]

I’m trying to give you a view of the sort of science that’s happened in recent times. I’m also concerned about the ways in which we are developing knowledge from these expeditions, in ways to protect our plants and our animals.

Just one statement of our concern, it comes from the University of Western Australia, Don Bradshaw, who was the chair of zoology for many, many years. And he said recently, ‘Australia urgently needs more research on the protection of the habitat of our unique wildlife if we are not to be mute witnesses to their rapid extermination in the next 20 to 50 years.’

Don Bradshaw is a very conservative person. He is not the kind who will sound off. He’s extremely concerned about the habitats of the areas like Arnhem Land, of areas such that we don’t understand as complete ecologies. I’m also concerned – and this, if you like, is my serious bit – about our overall understanding of climate change.

My remit was to talk about the whole of science; it was also to consider the whole point of change. The rates of change and reflecting on change. I will quote, first of all, Steven Chu, whom I’ve met just once. It just takes once to be deeply impressed by an extraordinary man. He’s the US Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate in physics.

He says in an editorial in the [American] journal of Science: ‘Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels have caused the climate to change and a dramatic reduction of these emissions is essential to reduce the risk of future devastating effects.’ Steve Chu.

The science of climate change, not the politics, is what I’m talking about. Because nature is either doing something or it isn’t. My job is to report what’s being discovered and not to make it up. Not to say how I’d like it to turn out, as if I’m commenting on some football match or Australian Idol contest. Science is about truth, about evidence, about experiment and discovery.

You can have scoundrels in science, but they tend to get found out. You can get liars and frauds, but these days, they’re exposed rather quickly. You can get old men going to their graves, refusing to change their minds on their favourite theory, but science is pitiless and if it’s wrong, out it goes.

So what to make of the statements in Australia reiterated last week on Four Corners [television show] that the science of climate change is wrong? That it’s the outcome of some religious frenzy that’s gripped hundreds of thousands of scientists simultaneously in this country and around the world? That we’re in some global conspiracy that would make a Dan Brown novel look like Possum Magic [children’s picture book]? That I and thousands of science reporters and top researchers everywhere are bent on wrecking the Australian – and of course the American – way of life, especially its way of enterprise?

Because we’ve given up on Marx and Lenin and now have to try [Al] Gore and [Tim] Flannery. This is the ‘bark or barking’ part of my talk. [laughter] Suggesting that as the Berlin Wall began to crumble, exactly 20 years ago, we got a message from Moscow and immediately set out to invent an entirely spurious scientific theory, and to conspire in a scheme to demolish civilisation as we know it, and convert everything to a hippies’ colony circa 1968, singing ‘Kumbayah’ as we went. [laughter]

I find this both insulting and preposterous. I’m also often stunned by some people’s willingness to remain deaf. A couple of years ago, I was at the Lowy Institute [in Sydney], that you know, and I went to hear Lord [Robert] May, who’s an ex-president of the Royal Society of London, an ex-chief scientist in the UK, and he gave a brilliant lecture on global warming and our prospects.

He marshalled the evidence with his customary flair and precision and then gave his assessment: If we did not act with dispatch cooperatively across the globe, we could risk losing not only our familiar plants and animals, and comfortable weather, but also – and this is interesting – the civilised modes of conduct we’ve cherished since the Enlightenment.

Straight after Bob May’s lecture – and he’s an Australian, I remind you – at drinks, a leading banker came up to me and my friend, the deputy director of the Australia Museum, as she still is, and said, ‘Well, of course, the science isn’t settled. It’s all just conjecture.’ I was actually gobsmacked. And my friend, well, she nearly dropped her glass.

And she said, ‘Well, according to who?’ I asked the money man how one hour’s superb exposition had made absolutely no impact at all on his viewpoint. And he simply shrugged. Could it be selective deafness? Now, I’m not presenting an argument from authority. Yes, Bob May is as eminent as you can get without being embalmed. [laughter] Lord May of Oxford, Order of Merit, et cetera. But, that’s not the point. His job as President of the Royal Society, and Chief Scientist, and the jobs of people who head academies, many of the academies I know, and all the top editors of science journals, all the Chief Scientists I’ve worked with from our own Penny Sackett here in Canberra, and the brilliant Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Lyn Beazley, to Sir David King in Britain and the great doctor John Holdren in the United States – all of them are skilled at assessing the worth of science across the board and reporting on its merits. They are all concerned about global warming and our role as human beings in accelerating it.

In July, I interviewed Professor Bruce Alberts. He was formerly the president of the American National Academy of Sciences; now, he’s editor of the top journal of science. I asked him, ‘Out of a thousand papers you’ve published on various aspects of climate, how many of them go against the received view?’

‘None’ was his answer. Now, of course, you may interpret this as proof of a global conspiracy by the Comintern and the red people’s collective to distort the evidence or as a plot to strain funds from state coffers to pinko scientists so they can all pig out like bankers.

But, I prefer to apply Ockham’s Razor. In other words, we do have a problem with ecology and with climate. No science is certain. There you are; I’ve given a hostage to fortune. But the research on climate is overwhelmingly convincing, as Steve Chu said. As convincing as much I’ve ever covered in my 40 years as a science journalist. Because it comes from so many sources. Just like evidence for evolution by natural selection, Darwinian selection. Maths, physics, oceanography, ornithology, soil science, hydrology, glaciology, meterology itself, ichthyology, astronomy, all telling the same tale.

Like a good plot in a crime novel, the clues from dozens of disparate sources point to the same villain. Yes, we did it. It is us. We now have so much convincing science to give us concern that it would be frankly criminal to put it aside with just a shrug and a sneer. Those who do so in Australia may include fair-minded critics, such as Don Aitkin here in Canberra or Freeman Dyson in the United States. But the rest? They are usually a mixture of strangely retired uncles, disgruntled geologists – that’s a tautology [laughter] – members of barefaced lobby groups, and politicians who should know better. Especially, if they’ve once been ministers of science. Someone has said that we have 100 times more evidence justifying concern about climate change than we had to justify the invasion of Iraq. I’d multiply that figure by another thousand.

What does all that reflect on the legacy of the expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948? Well, there are many parallels. Both climate science and the expedition to Arnhem Land tried to unify an immensely complex subject. Both require many branches of science: botany, zoology, geology, anthropology, statistics – but, also other subjects, like history, photography, cultural studies.

Both involve close cooperation between this country and America. I’m reminded that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, where Dr [Charles] Keeling first did his measurements on CO2 nearly 55 years ago, has an Australian as director: Tony Haymet.

Both climate and the expedition involved film making, controversy, even politics. And both, of course, are fundamental to our future, both our scientific and human future. By 2048, the world will be changed beyond recognition. Let us hope through scholarship, international cooperation and goodwill, it will be for the better. Our heritage, natural and cultural, is too precious to be put at risk.

Some selections from some aspects of science and some change in the last 60 years; there’s an awful lot of science. It might be uncertain in many respects. But the scientists are more and more clear about getting complexity and making it work. It’s exciting the way they do so.

I actually would like tonight to salute Charles Mountford and the expeditioners from 1948. I’d like to salute the National Museum for its work on uniting science, the arts and our heritage. I try to do this in my programs every week. Poetry, music, rock and roll, who knows? Put them together, and prove they’re not two cultures. There are hundreds and they’re all together and they’re human.

I salute the internationalism you represent. Science is, in fact, the most international human activity. It’s even cosmic. More than sport, more than politics. Science has helped reveal the magnificent history of our Indigenous people, and your symposium does so again this week. And I salute you, and thank you, for inviting me. [applause]

MARGO NEALE: Now, he’s fair game and he’s all yours. Question and answer time. This is a mic, and I have to thank you very much. That was fabulous. It was very much what you said. It was eclectic, and took everything in at every leap and turn. It was fantastic. It was exactly how the Museum likes to work, how the symposias you mentioned works, and done with, again, such deep knowledge base of so many things. So, I have to thank you. That was really great. Thank you. [applause] Anyway, I think it’s actually time for questions or comments.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Someone could ask the second question. The first one’s always impossible. Kim.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: I am not a climate change skeptic. I am a total believer. But, I have the attributes that, I suppose, all Social Democrats are advised to have by Anton[io] Gramsci. That is, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Gramsci said that, didn’t he?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes. Now, the thing that troubles me about where we’re at in the debate is that the next generation of massive admitters basically sees in their heart of hearts that the argument about climate change is a conspiracy against them. When the Chinese are opening a new coal fire power station every week, and are going to accelerate that process; are we caught, those of us in political life, who have to make decisions, really just de facto frogs in boiling water? We suffer from that syndrome in the end as you thrash about unable to actually impose or get a solution. You just live with a point until you boil to death.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: One of the main reasons I mentioned those television programs, which you can see tonight – ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Mad Men’, and so forth – is how dramatically you can actually change in a relatively short time. And you look back and you think, ‘Did we really live like that?’ I have what I call my night soil list. Night soil is what you threw out of the window that was in your potty from under the bed. And you went, ‘Oy!’ so people could either duck or move. We don’t do that anymore, like we don’t smoke in here anymore. And, I think what’s going to happen, if we’re lucky, is that people in South-East Asia where the air is unbreathable and where the total cost of fixing damaged lives, and ruined crops, and non-existent supplies of water from what used to be glaciers will convince people they have to act very swiftly and do things which are compelling anyway.

On my list of night soil things is the fact that Sydney and Los Angeles have got 40 per cent of their surface area given to the motor car. It doesn’t work! The loss of productivity due to traffic jams in the United States is a billion American dollars a year. And that’s not accidents. It just doesn’t work. It’s ridiculous.

So, it seems to me that what we are stimulated by in terms of climate change is the same sort of stimulation from that expedition in 1948. You discover a country that you didn’t know was there. And through the understanding, realise what a fantastic heritage you’ve got. And then you protect it. And it’s a very selfish thing. You preserve the Barrier Reef because it’s worth to Australia in just sheer turnover something like $85 billion a year. You’re not going to give that away.

Similarly with rainforests, the production of useful weather from forests – because they change climate, if they’re big enough – is of such importance to the country that knocking them down is madness. And you find out fairly quickly. By the time we get to about five, ten years time, I’m convinced that the evidence will be overwhelming that we need to stop doing those things.

And I think what is happening in China and India already … OK, in exclusive circles, but big enough; you know, a million science graduates in China. 400,000 engineering graduates in China. Each year! That’s a very, very educated … and they see what’s going on environmentally, whether it’s due to climate or not.

So, I think those things will change, as dramatically as anything in our culture. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m an old man.


MARGO NEALE: State your name, and your bank account …

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. Today in the Canberra Times, there was the most extraordinary letter that I think I’ve ever seen. It was the most jealous, vindictive letter concerning those people that had waterfront lands. And they said, ‘These bastards are going to suffer a capital loss.’


AUDIENCE MEMBER: I would like to get your opinion, if I may, on the poor people that live in the delta regions of the world – of Burma, and of Bangladesh, and various other areas where the poor congregate because they do have at least rich soil, and they have fish. But, they also have tsunamis and global warming.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, indeed. Well, it was my pleasure in the aforementioned Scripps Institution of Oceanography to do some interviews on the ways in which coastal areas are affected. And, the science of coasts is just remarkable. And a report from Bruce Thom on our own coastline came out last week from the people who study our coasts. The areas you describe have for some decades been terrible to live in. The cost has been unbelievable. If there’s a chance that they will be affected by sea level rise as some people suggest, then, in terms of boat people, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You know, one geographer said, ‘You can expect 40 million to be heading south.’ I can only quote; I have no opinions, I work for the ABC; all I can tell you is what people say. But, yes. The contrast between people with ace frontage versus those who have got to live in deltas, which are flooded constantly – it’s such a huge problem. I don’t know how to solve it. I know that there are a lot of scientists working on this. And there are ways of ameliorating the problem.

I’ll give you one prosaic example. A friend of mine called John Clarke, who appears on Thursdays, on television, being Kim Beazley, being Kevin Rudd, being John Howard, with Bryan Dawe – he is very worried about Western Port Bay, because things are happening on a small scale there, which really are devastating. An area right next to Melbourne. What do you do? They galvanise the kids. The kids rush out, and they love this science. They get covered in mud and stinky poohs and they plant hundreds of trees. The mangroves then grow up, they stabilise the area, the fish come back, the nurseries. The kids have done that, and they’re proud.

Some maniac dug up about 40 of the trees. I don’t know who it was, but the kids went back and ameliorated the place. You know, those are the kinds of simple things you can do when you’ve got lots of people and lots of willingness. Science has some answers. Just talk to John Clarke.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Alan Brown. I’ve just recently arrived in this country.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: But I was reading recently in the Wired magazine about the rainforests that you mentioned, and the sort of statistics were like the condoms that you mentioned – a very small expenditure, but way above controlling petrol emissions and carbon emissions from other areas. Just stop cutting down the trees. The concept was, pay the indigenous people in South America not to cut down the trees, and what a wonderful savings. Way above anything else.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: However, I reflected from a time I lived in Indonesia, not so far away, and the smoke from Kalimantan seeping into Singapore, and said ‘Now, why aren’t they paying the indigenous people here? Who owns the land?’ Which gets us rather back to Barks, Birds and Billabongs.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: I know, right back there. Well, my friend and producer David Fisher arrived back from South-East Asia. He had just been to Vietnam, and he says you cannot breathe walking around some of the big towns there, because the season has come to burn off the remains of the crops. You don’t dig them under, you just burn them. And you’ve got such pollution in the cities that the kids are getting symptoms at a very, very young age. The cost of that madness is such that they will at some stage realise that it’s cheaper to do it effectively. The whole point about ‘green’ answers – I don’t mean ‘Kumbayah’ – I mean ‘green’ answers is that they are so much more efficient than the …

I’ll give you one little example. My flying to Canberra today is nuts. It’s just down the road from Sydney. I work next to Central Station. If I were in London – even bloody London, which is usually a hundred years behind anywhere – you go to St Pancras station, and if you want to go to Paris, two and a quarter hours later on a very fast train, there you are. 25 per cent less in the way of CO2 footprint than going to an airport and not catching a plane, because it’s late again, and having all that sort of expenditure.

What I would like Qantas to do is to go into the very fast train business. And that is possible. There was a supplement in the Australian two days ago. Why shouldn’t an airline … [Richard] Branson is an idiot, but he does one thing right: he runs trains and planes. We could do it better.

There are lots of ways in which you can combine stuff, and the whole point of our climate, is it’s asking you to look at the whole problem, the whole system, just like as you said they did on the expedition. They looked at human culture, human history, plants and animals, water, geology, art – the lot. Put those things together and you’ve got the answer to what separately seems unlikely. And that’s our challenge.

MARGO NEALE: We have time for a few more questions and comments.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Or we can go and a have a drink. [laughs]

MARGO NEALE: [indecipherable] [applause]


MARGO NEALE: Okay, thank you very much. That was great. How he keeps all those figures in his head … Integration is the theme of the night, I was through the integration of everything, and I’d just like to close by saying thank you to everyone for being here, and to Mr Daniel Gilbert, Matilda House, who’s now gone, the performers, Professor Mick Dodson, Robyn Williams, and of course thanks to all of you for coming out this evening for basically a talkfest! But it was, I’m sure you would agree, colourful and dynamic and provocative, and it’s just a taste of what’s to come for the following week.

So I really thank everyone very much for planting the seeds for what augurs to be an exciting week ahead, as we really go on an archaeological dig, if you like, to do some deep coring into all of these topics, and their interrelatedness through a whole range of speakers from a whole range of disciplines. And a whole range of generations, I have to say, and of course, Mr Ray Spector’s still with us here this evening, so we look forward very much to that, and all I can do is thank you very much for coming here tonight.

I’m just seeing if I have any housekeeping to do, and I don’t, but there is one thing. If you heard those sounds earlier this evening, those little twittering bird noises out there and a little bit in here, they’re not just incidental. They have a relationship to the symposium. They are the sounds that were recorded by Colin Simpson, who was the ABC presenter in 1948 who went to the Third Camp at Oenpelli for a number of weeks, and recorded these sounds, which has enormous impact on the future of sound recording in Australia, as it was the first of what was called the Actuality Recordings.

We already gave you the birds and billabongy sounds and a few other things, but we also have Tony MacGregor, the current arts editor of the ABC, [who] will be talking about that tomorrow, and Colin Simpson, as you may also know, wrote Adam in Ochre, so he too, like many who were involved with this expedition, were very moved in lots of ways. It’s defined their lives, interestingly enough, lots of the people who were there.

So just to remind you that there are a couple more public events. Coming up tomorrow night is the ‘American Clever Man’ stories, with some elders on footage who were too old to come, who are telling the stories of the embedded oral tradition of their memories of some characters on this expedition. And also, after that is the Manikay song cycle, and that is a mob of Yolgnu people from Elcho Island, some of the fellows who were here tonight, who will perform, again, a series of song cycles that actually talk about interaction with outsiders, with Macassans and others, so it’s also very relevant to what we’re doing this week.

And on Wednesday night, well, you know, you might not be invited, so I’d better mention that. That’s the dinner. We’re not having flowers, we’re having fish tanks on the tables.

And on Thursday night, is films – [Charles] Mountford’s films, and we’re showing that at the National Film and Sound Archive up the road, so we can see some of the old ‘48 footage, so you’re all perfectly welcome to attend, and tell all your mates.

Other than that, we haven’t got much to do, really, so we will release you all. Thank you once again for coming, and for all the people who spoke here this evening. Thank you.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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