Australia’s energy transition has been hotly debated for a decade, and it doesn’t look set to cool anytime soon. Blackout: How is energy-rich Australia running out of electricity? offers readers the chance to be an informed participant in the debate. For more than a century, decisions about our electricity system have been left to the experts – the electrical engineers and policy wonks who knew the grid best. Today the electricity system is a matter of public debate. If decisions about the grid are going to be made by a popularity contest, then energy experts need to engage with the public and help inform the debate. Matthew Warren steps up to this challenge with Blackout.

Warren explains why electricity prices have been rising, why heatwaves increase the risk of blackouts, how places like King Island are leading the way in renewables integration, and why rooftop solar requires a rethink of the grid. Part history, part science, and part economics, Blackout explores the early experiments that enabled electricity to be harnessed and the events that shaped the development of Australia’s electricity ‘archipelago’.

‘The real coming of age for Australian electricity was in 1879, when half-a-dozen arc lamps were used to light the Melbourne Cricket Ground for two night games of Australian Rules football,’ Warren writes. Australians immediately saw the potential, and Melbourne, flush with cash from the gold rush, became one of the first cities in the world to build an electricity grid.

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  • Custom Article Title Kate Griffiths reviews Blackout: How is energy-rich Australia running out of electricity? by Matthew Warren
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    Australia’s energy transition has been hotly debated for a decade, and it doesn’t look set to cool anytime soon. Blackout: How is energy-rich Australia running out of electricity? offers readers the chance to be an informed participant in the debate. For more than a century, decisions about our electricity system have been left to the experts ...

  • Book Title Blackout
  • Book Author Matthew Warren
  • Book Subtitle How is energy-rich Australia running out of electricity?
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Affirm Press, $30 pb, 304 pp, 9781925870176

When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics. The review noted that although Tompkins and Bird made a fascinating case for plant sentience ‘suspended in the aspic of their blarney, it all looks equally improbable’. In the ensuing decades, more books have been published on the life of trees and their relationship to humans, some of which have sold well and been enthusiastically received by critics. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate – discoveries from a secret world (2016) topped bestseller lists and earned him a flattering interview in the profile pages of The New York Times.

While an interest in trees has certainly emerged among an educated readership, Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays could be viewed as a heartfelt and timely postscript to much of this tree talk. It’s all very well to read books on trees, but what are we doing to save them and the animals and ecosystems that rely on them for survival? What will become of the groves that cannot replace their felled compatriots fast enough? What irreparable damage will climate change do?

Naturally, it’s a political book, but it’s also touchingly personal, tracing Cunningham’s encounters with trees as she moves across continents and her hometown of Melbourne. Cunningham’s wide roaming acts as an entry point into stories on the trees, gardens, and plants she discovers during her lengthy constitutionals and sojourns. In ‘Escape to Alcatraz’, Cunningham volunteers as a gardening worker over two bird-breeding seasons on the San Francisco Bay island of Alcatraz. She photographs the snowy egret colony and takes a particular interest in ‘survivor plants’, those two hundred or so species that grew defiantly through the forty-year period between the closure of the prison and the start of the garden’s maintenance program. In ‘Tourists Go Home’, she touches on the deleterious consequences of travel for the trees and the broader environment. Cunningham used to preference travel over everything else – superannuation, sensible purchases, meaningful savings – but now she isn’t so sure. Almost nine million people visit Barcelona each year, and it’s getting harder to find places where the locals don’t want you to leave. Tourists, of course, also come in the form of animals and plants, which can sometimes have a severe impact on the biodiversity of the region. In ‘I Don’t Blame the Trees’, Cunningham displays a talent for great observational detail, noting that the debate as to whether eucalypts should be removed from California’s Angel Island is loaded with inflammatory phrases such as ‘immigrant’, ‘invader’, and ‘refugee’. She resists championing the cutting down of non-native species simply because they don’t support local flora and fauna, wondering instead, quite astutely, what will replace the old trees after they are removed and pointing out that these days all of us are from somewhere else anyway.

Cunningham leavens her firsthand stories with summaries of scientific research and interviews. The result is an intriguing mélange of personal journey and journalism. The giant sequoia, we learn, are among the world’s oldest trees and their final numbers can be found along a belt of the western Sierra Nevada. When Cunningham walks through a grove of them, tears streaming down her face, she thinks, ‘I would lay down my life for you’. Indeed, language often fails Cunningham, an accomplished prose writer, when she would like it the most. Standing before old-growth trees, reaching for description, her mind stalls before their majesty. She sketches the trees instead, but even this proves challenging, with Cunningham left to wonder, ‘Is it possible to draw, or write, a forest?’

Sunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in CaliforniaSunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in California (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a range of statistics deployed throughout the essays to emphasise the threat that trees face, but a handful stand out: almost all of the baobabs from Africa – many of them more than two thousand years old – have died; and it’s estimated that koalas will be gone from the wild by 2050. Australia fares especially poorly in looking after its habitats, with thirty-five per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 occurring in Australia, yet we have not listed a critical habitat for protection for more than a decade. Furthermore, less than two per cent of the mountain ash estate in Australia is now old growth, prompting Cunningham to ask, ‘In what universe would a reasonable person think it was okay to cut down an 800-year-old tree and reduce it to a few hundred dollars’ worth of woodchips? Ours, apparently.’ Trees do grow again, Cunningham notes, but climate change is accelerating climate variation, making it more difficult for organisms to adapt.

While researching the essays, Cunningham experiences a succession of personal traumas, which become a way of framing the persistent grief she feels for the loss of global species and habitat. Cunningham and her wife, Virginia, return from living in San Francisco at the height of the internecine debate over gay marriage in Australia, ‘which seemed to devolve into the right of LGBTQI teachers to teach and the right of bakers to refuse the supply of wedding cakes’. While she is writing many of these essays, her father, John, who was originally her stepfather before adopting Cunningham and her brother, is in a high-care ward in Melbourne with frontal lobe dementia. She flies home to be by his side at the end, and he dies surrounded by family. Not long after John dies, her biological father, Peter, dies from Parkinson’s disease.

Following these two losses, Cunningham experiences months of insomnia; she takes comfort in animals and the living world. She opens windows around dawn to hear the birds, or rain, or building works, ‘anything other than the sound of nothing at all’. Biologist E.O. Wilson has described the post-extinction landscape as the Eremocene age, or ‘The Age of Loneliness’, and this is what Cunningham really fears: the emptiness that follows when a vital connection – be it with a father or the natural world – is severed.

In this sense, these fine essays convey what factual reporting on the threat of climate change and the loss of habitat cannot: something beautiful is dying, something precious and monumental may be lost forever. The temptation these days is to look away from the sadness, to rant on Twitter about the threat to old growth rather than to visit extant forests, but Cunningham is doing nothing of the sort. The final essay, ‘Mountain Ash’, ends with a visit to ‘Ada’, who has no surviving old-growth companions around her. Cunningham is aware of scientists’ aversion to overstating the consciousness of trees, of how this leads people to jump to conclusions about their supposed personalities. She is, however, unapologetic, telling Ada, ‘I will drive, I will wade, through fields laid waste by clear-felling, through ancient and perfect rainforest, to stand before you, my queen.’ The effect of this highly confessional approach is oddly mesmerising, and while Cunningham’s essays are accounts of her intimate encounters with trees, her gift is in making them feel like they are our stories as well.

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    When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics ...

  • Book Title City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest
  • Book Author Sophie Cunningham
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $24.99 hb, 312 pp, 9781925773439
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Night Parrot by Penny Olsen is more than a biography of a bird that spent most of the twentieth century successfully hiding from people. It is a historical biography of human determination and obsession, and of the ways in which this bird has acted as a catalyst for transitions between those two psychological states.

Indeed, the book itself is a product of extreme determination: the preface that acknowledges the number and diversity of sources and people consulted is extensive and impressive. The rediscovery of a live population of the Night Parrot in 2013 triggered the decision to produce the book. Much of it is apparently based on material put together for a historically focused work that was set aside. This background now serves as a slow-burning fuse to a clear challenge to the integrity of some recent observations and claims. This is a thorough, brave, and important book. Its impact has been extensive and swift.

Readers may be familiar with Dr Olsen’s similar book on the (some would add ‘supposedly’) extinct Paradise Parrot. The current book, copiously illustrated, follows much the same integration of history based on European explorers’ diaries, Indigenous information (historical and contemporary), museum specimens, letters and publications from ornithologists, and occasional police records. She also includes contemporary art works and some recent poetry by John Kinsella. Even without the renaissance of the species, this would have made an entertaining and enlightening read.

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    Night Parrot by Penny Olsen is more than a biography of a bird that spent most of the twentieth century successfully hiding from people. It is a historical biography of human determination and obsession, and of the ways in which this bird has acted as a catalyst for transitions between those two psychological states ...

  • Book Title Night Parrot
  • Book Author Penny Olsen
  • Book Subtitle Australia’s most elusive bird
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio CSIRO Publishing, $49.99 pb, 368 pp, 9781486302987
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To a weary and frightened people, fatalism does offer the consolation of lethargic peace ... anger and alarm still signal life.

Yi-Fu Tuan (Landscapes of Fear, 1979)

 

Be afraid. ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, the viral article published in New York magazine (2017) that was both fêted and scorned for its visceral bluntness, has grown out and up. A scary, 7,000-word portrait of a near-future Earth razed by climate change has matured into a deeper, darker treatise on environmental injustice, or what author David Wallace-Wells calls ‘ethics at the end of the world’. ‘And how widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another,’ he writes, ‘and the politics that emerge from those impulses, is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelops.’

The way this book sounds the climate alarm is no mere lyrical feat. Wallace-Wells, a deputy editor at New York, heard his detractors yet did not repent. Be very afraid. For fear is now at the crux of the story.

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    Be afraid. ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, the viral article published in New York magazine (2017) that was both fêted and scorned for its visceral bluntness, has grown out and up. A scary, 7,000-word portrait of a near-future Earth razed by climate change has matured into a deeper, darker treatise on ... 

  • Book Title The Uninhabitable Earth
  • Book Author David Wallace-Wells
  • Book Subtitle A story of the future
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen Lane, $29.99 pb, 310 pp, 9780241400517
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On 6 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning of the dangers of surpassing a 1.5° Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels in average global temperatures. They are many, and dire. To halt at 1.5°, carbon emissions need to fall by forty per cent globally by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. There had been other reports, but this one, according to seasoned Washington Post climate reporter Eugene Robinson, struck ‘a different tone’, blending ‘weary fatalism’ and ‘hair-on-fire alarm’ as it pointed to failing fisheries and crops, thriving diseases and disasters, and rampant displacement and political instability.

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  • Custom Article Title James Dunk reviews 'The Environment' by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    On 6 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning of the dangers of surpassing a 1.5° Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels in average global temperatures. They are many, and dire. To halt at 1.5°, carbon emissions need to fall by forty per cent globally by 2030 ...

  • Book Title The Environment: A History of the Idea
  • Book Author Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Johns Hopkins University Press (Footprint), $59.99 hb, 253 pp, 9781421426792

A few years ago I walked through a burning landscape with a young archaeobotanist, Xavier. We were in Arnhem Land, and the local Indigenous landowners had lit a low-intensity fire – a cool burn – to encourage new growth and reduce the fuel load around nearby settlements. The newly blackened landscape looked clean, even beautiful.

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  • Custom Article Title Billy Griffiths reviews 'Burning Planet' by Andrew C. Scott
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    A few years ago I walked through a burning landscape with a young archaeobotanist, Xavier. We were in Arnhem Land, and the local Indigenous landowners had lit a low-intensity fire – a cool burn – to encourage new growth and reduce the fuel load around nearby settlements. The newly blackened landscape looked clean, even beautiful ...

  • Book Title Burning Planet
  • Book Author Andrew C. Scott
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $40.95 hb, 256 pp, 9780198734840

Afew years ago, while taking a tram through Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs, I decided to visit the Northcote factory – an industrial laundry – where my father worked as a storeman between 1973 and 1982. Or rather, I thought I’d check to see whether the business was still there, for I hadn’t been anywhere near the place in the more than thirty years since his death.

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  • Custom Article Title Frank Bongiorno reviews 'City Life: The new urban Australia' by Seamus O’Hanlon
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    Afew years ago, while taking a tram through Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs, I decided to visit the Northcote factory – an industrial laundry – where my father worked as a storeman between 1973 and 1982. Or rather, I thought I’d check to see whether the business was still there ...

  • Book Title City Life
  • Book Author Seamus O’Hanlon
  • Book Subtitle The new urban Australia
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 241 pp, 9781742235615

The eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist François Huber (1750–1831), who is still credited with much of what we know about bees, was almost completely blind when he made his acute ‘observations’ and significant discoveries. Huber studiously recorded the queen bee’s ‘nuptial flight’ and method of impregnation, her reproduction of very useful worker bees when inseminated and less useful drones by parthenogenesis (i.e. without insemination), and her violent, stinging duels with rival queens. Wrought from painstaking experiment, his findings inadvertently challenged common associations of the queen and her commonwealth with chastity, virgin conception, and peaceful government.

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  • Custom Article Title Keegan O’Connor reviews 'A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A year of keeping bees' by Helen Jukes
  • Contents Category Environmental Studies
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    The eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist François Huber (1750–1831), who is still credited with much of what we know about bees, was almost completely blind when he made his acute ‘observations’ and significant discoveries. Huber studiously recorded the queen bee’s ‘nuptial flight’ ...

  • Book Title A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings
  • Book Author Helen Jukes
  • Book Subtitle A year of keeping bees
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Scribner, $35 hb, 293 pp, 9781471167713

Of all the forms of life historically divided into kingdoms, only two – plants and animals – have attracted large bands of human followers. Entire organisations and university departments are devoted to understanding, controlling, and conserving plants and animals, and our cultural domains are saturated with their likenesses. Two of the other kingdoms, Protista and Monera, have arrived on our radar more recently and most often in the guise of pathogens, though recent advances in microbiology have seen the microbiome take on a whole new cultural salience. That leaves Carl Linnaeus’s ‘thievish and voracious beggars’, the fungi.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrea Gaynor reviews 'The Allure of Fungi' by Alison Pouliot
  • Contents Category Environment
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    Of all the forms of life historically divided into kingdoms, only two – plants and animals – have attracted large bands of human followers. Entire organisations and university departments are devoted to understanding, controlling, and conserving plants and animals, and our cultural domains ...

  • Book Title The Allure of Fungi
  • Book Author Alison Pouliot
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio CSIRO Publishing, $49.99 pb, 280 pp, 9781486308576

Sunburnt Country is a fascinating, timely, uneven book. Consisting of forty-one short chapters, it is written by climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, who explores the matter of climate change through an unusual mix of genres: colonial history, popular science, scientific autobiography, and advocacy. The first two of these dominate the self-representations of the book. In particular, it is framed as filling a gap in our (Western) understanding of the Australian continent’s climate history by reconstructing earlier settler colonial climates. Going beyond the official climate records that commenced around 1900, the book reports on innovative Australian research that has combed through settler diaries and other written records for climate-relevant information.

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  • Custom Article Title Lauren Rickards reviews 'Sunburnt Country: The history and future of climate change in Australia' by Joëlle Gergis
  • Contents Category Climate Change
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    Sunburnt Country is a fascinating, timely, uneven book. Consisting of forty-one short chapters, it is written by climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, who explores the matter of climate change through an unusual mix of genres: colonial history, popular science, scientific autobiography, and advocacy. The first two of these dominate the ...

  • Book Title Sunburnt Country
  • Book Author Joëlle Gergis
  • Book Subtitle The history and future of climate change in Australia
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Melbourne University Press, $34.99 pb, 320 pp, 9780522871548
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