Tim Flannery on fossils, adventure and Indigenous mentors

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

TF              Tim Flannery


TF               As the Climate Commissioner, my job is to go out and talk to average Australians about this. So we held town hall meetings around the country. And I would’ve met 10,000 to 20,000 Australians face-to-face in audiences and answered their questions and engaged with them respectfully. And I came away with a very, very deep respect for the common sense of the average person in this country.

                   And that’s something again, it was a bit like meeting these indigenous leaders, these great people, something that changed me forever, and I really do have great faith in people and their ability to discern what needs to be done and what’s right.

AL               My name is Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.

TF               What kind of mammal do you get if you cross Crocodile Dundee with Charles Darwin, Indiana Jones with David Attenborough? Why, it’s Tim Flannery, of course. Mammologist, palaeontologist, environmentalist and Australian of the Year, Tim began his career as an adventuring researcher. He’s discovered dozens of new kangaroo species in Australia and mammals in Melanesia. For seven years, Tim served as Director of the South Australian Museum.

                   Then, at the turn of the 21st century, Flannery made the transition from studying fossils to looking at the impact of fossil fuel. With his 2005 book, The Weather Makers, he began to focus on the urgent challenge of climate change. In 2007, he moved to take up a Professorship in Climate Studies at Macquarie University and then headed the Federal government’s Climate Change Commission and then, after it was scrapped, the non-profit Climate Council.

                   Tim has written around 30 books and starred in a series of adventure documentaries with John Doyle, ranging from Two Men in a Tinnie to Two Men in China. He now lives in Melbourne, where he works at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute. He is, quite simply, Australia’s greatest environmentalist. Tim, welcome to the podcast.

TF               Thanks so much, Andrew, and thanks for that very generous introduction. It was a big call at the end. I think there’s many, many great Australian environmentalists, but nevertheless.

AL               Well, and we will get to some of your mentors in that field, but I wanted to start with your growing up here in the city of Melbourne. How would you describe your childhood?

TF               Well, it’s interesting. I’ve just read Tim Winton’s memoir about Western Australia and growing up on the edge of Perth. And my childhood was very, very similar, but I was growing up on the edge of Melbourne. So I was taken home from the Jessie McPherson hospital, not a stone’s throw from here, down to a little house in Sandringham, which was then a sleepy bay-side village really, on the edge of Melbourne.

                   And my earliest memories were of these beautiful tea tree scrubs and making little cubby houses in them. I must have been three or four, I don’t know. And then, when I was a bit older, going to the heathlands and catching frogs in these beautiful flowering heathlands.

                   But by the time I was nine or ten, that was all gone. It had just been bulldozed away with seemingly no regret. And I think it had a big impact on me, that whole thing. I remember, from the age of about eight or nine, my refuge was the bay because that was the area that wasn’t subject to development as such. And I’d snorkel there, watch the bay through the seasons, and it was a great refuge.

                   But I remember asking people, why is all of this happening? Why are people dumping rubbish on the Red Bluff cliffs? Why are they filling in these beautiful swamps? And the answer I always got was, well, that’s progress. And I decided at that stage I didn’t want to have anything much to do with progress if that was what it was.

AL               And at that stage, the 1950s, you’re growing up in a Melbourne which is, I guess, about 120 years into European civilisation, a little bit like the experience of my children now growing up in Canberra, which is at a similar stage in European civilisation. How did that feel?

TF               Well, at the time, of course, I didn’t know anything different. That was simply life. But looking back on it now, I can see that we were still at a very raw frontier stage. Five, six, seven generations was about as long as it went back for Europeans in Melbourne.

                   The thing that I still remember so strongly was the absolute lack of Aboriginality, the lack of an Aboriginal presence. There was no acknowledgement. You rarely saw Aboriginal people in the streets of Melbourne in my childhood, at least ones I recognised as Aboriginal people.

                   And as a child, it was very strange for me because I was always interested in rocks, looking at the soil, looking at fossils. I remember finding these layers of middens where, Aboriginal people, you’d see the stone tools and the mussels and so forth that they’d gathered, and only at the very surface of the soil almost, and wondered how old they were, what happened to the people.

                   And it was one of the big things for me. I remember the first big road trip I did was when I was, it must have been 17 or 18. I’d just got my motorcycle licence and I decided to go around Australia and went up into the Kimberley. We didn’t get all the way around Australia on the trip.

                   And just seeing that Aboriginal presence and becoming engaged with it was one of those enormously influential experiences for me. I met an old man called Lawrence Williams, an Aboriginal man, who took me under his wing really, I think, and spent a lot of time with me. And I found that huge. It was just a massive impact on me.

AL               And that was up in… You met Lawrence up in the Kimberley then?

TF               I did, in Broome. And back then, Broome was a little pearling town really. There was nothing to it. And there was only two pubs, a black pub and a white pub, I remember at the time. And I ended up going to the black pub with Lawrence, to many disturbed looks. But I stayed in a caravan park for about a month there, just hanging out. And, as I said, it was something that changed my sense of being Australian, I think.

AL               You must have had parents who were very comfortable with the adventuring side. Having an eight or nine-year-old snorkelling in the bay, letting a 17-year-old jump on a motorbike and ride around Australia. How has that shaped your view of how much freedom you give your kids to roam, knowing that they’re of course the most precious thing in the world?

TF               Yes, well, that’s one of the great tensions, isn’t it? My father left our home when I was about 13, so it was my mum who was bringing us up. There were three of us. I guess she was busy. I know that I probably caused her more heartache than I should’ve at that age, but she was very good at just letting me go and do my own thing. My oldest son, who is now 33, we had a house on the Hawkesbury River… In fact, we still have, which is a boat access only house. And when he was 12, I remember getting him a boat, because you get your boat licence at 12.

                   And he went off and I experienced some of the heartache that my mother did when he went off. And never phoned, never came back, out of mobile range. What’s happened to him, at the age of 14, with his friend? They had just got stranded by the tide on a beach somewhere.

                   So it’s important. I think that a big part of parenting is self-management. And you have to let kids explore, you have to, and make mistakes. And they will make mistakes and you hope that they’re not going to be mistakes with serious consequences. Sometimes they are. But I think to pack children in cotton wool and to limit their experience of the world is ultimately more dangerous than letting them experience it, and experience the limits of their own capacity.

AL               How old were you when you found your first fossil?

TF               I was about eight, and it was again one of those transformative experiences. As I mentioned earlier, I had spent a lot of time in the bay. That was the wildlands for me. And I remember it was low tide. I was walking along a little exposed sand riffle at Black Rock and there was this very strange-shaped stone there. And I can still see it in my mind’s eye. And I remember picking it up and looking and thinking, what is this thing with these marks on it?

                   And I took it to a library in Sandringham. And the librarian said to me, I don’t know what that is, you’d better take it to the museum. And I’d been to the museum before as a kid but never thought there was anything more to it than just the exhibits. And he explained you could have the fossil identified there.

                   So I remember going in after school one day on the train, taking my fossil in my hand and going through those great doors. The museum used to be in Russell Street, and there were these magnificent doors that could… You could get a blue whale through them, as I guess they needed to do on occasion.

                   And there were guards there in the old days, with the peaked hats and things, and they called up. And I sat on a chair, waiting. And eventually, a man in a white lab coat came down and took me up to the collection. It was amazing. I went up this stairway that was out of bounds for the public and past an Egyptian mummy and past a skeleton of something.

                   And I remember going into the collection and there were just hundreds and hundreds of cabinets with these drawers. And he opened one of the drawers and pulled out a fossil that matched my one pretty much, and said, this is what it is. It’s a sea urchin fossil which is X number of years old, ten million years old.

                   And he could see I was interested. So he said, are you interested in dinosaurs? Of course, I said very interested. And he opened up this other drawer and there was this bone about, oh, the size of my thumb. And he said, this is the Cape Paterson claw. It’s the only dinosaur bone ever found in Victoria. And he asked me to put out my hands and he put it in my hands. And it was again this moment of, my god, I’ll never wash my hands again, this is incredible.

                   So I went out, and just on fire about fossils. And I never found out whether the bloke in the white coat was the curator or just a cleaner or a janitor of the museum. Whoever it was, I didn’t meet them again, but they changed my life anyway.

AL               What do you love most about fossils?

TF               Oh, it’s the opportunity to travel in time, an adventure in time. That fossil sea urchin that I found, I realised had come from a deposit of fossils that had formed in an ancient Port Phillip Bay that was there 10 million years ago. And that bay was such an exciting place.

                   I found out eventually, you could find bits of extinct whales and the teeth of gigantic sharks, and all sorts of other creatures that swam in that bay, you could find them as fossils on the bottom of the existing bay. So for me, it was a marvellous thing to dive under the water, look around on the rocks at the bottom of the bay and find these bits of this ancient bay, which for me, in my imagination, that’s where I was, with these gigantic penguins and whales and sharks and things. So it was an escape, I suppose.

AL               So you go off to university, and based on everything you’ve said so far, I would’ve assumed you’d gravitate towards studying fossils. But you didn’t. You went to Latrobe University and studied English. Why was that.

TF               Well, yes, a very good question. I ask myself sometimes. Look, it really was due to the fact that I was a very mediocre student at school. I attended a Catholic boys’ school on the edge of the bay. It was a very difficult environment for me. It probably suited some kids, but for me, it wasn’t a great place to be, an all-boys environment, quite strict, quite religious and obsessed with sport, none of which was me.

                   So I didn’t do very well. I didn’t learn a language. I did miserably at Maths. And so there were no options really for me but to go and study Humanities. So I decided, oh, I’ll be a schoolteacher. That’s the only thing I knew. So I went to Latrobe, did four years of studying English and History, which I must say I look back on now as a time of wonder.

                   When you think of… You know what I was able to study? It’s incredible. I was able to study Chaucer, Old English, ancient Greek tragedy, the Portuguese and Spanish colonial histories, these wonderful subjects that are just no longer taught. Where can you go to learn Middle English these days in an Australian university? So I just loved that as well.

AL               So you got the canon basically.

TF               Got the canon, yes, exactly, but also got a love of reading good literature.

AL               Yes.

TF               Which again I think is just a gift. Imagine being… In those days, thanks to Gough Whitlam, it was free. You could go there and read good literature for four years, which is what I did. At the end of it, I realised I was not cut out to be a teacher.

                   And I was volunteering at the museum and the curator there said, look, why don’t you apply to do a Geology degree? Because the country is in great need of geologists and they may accept you. So I went to Monash and applied and, lo and behold, was accepted. So I did a Master’s in Geology and then did a PhD in Biology. And so I shifted.

AL               And then your work as a biologist then goes into tracking first kangaroo species around Australia and then mammals in Melanesia. Is that right?

TF               Well, that’s right. My very first paid job actually was at the Morwell open-cut coal mine, believe it or not.

AL               Really?

TF               Yes, where the workers there had uncovered what they call a fire pit, which is a big deposit of clay which had formed in a hole that had burned into the clay, into the coal, sorry, some millions of years ago. And that clay preserved the remains of kangaroos that had fallen into that fire pit.

                   And the mine, in their little visitors’ centre, wanted to have a little display of these fire pits. So I helped prepare the skeletons and clean them, and helped put them on display. And those skeletons formed the basis of my Master’s project as well. So that was interesting. They were incredible skeletons. There were impressions of skin preserved, little joeys preserved in the pouch, stomach contents preserved from 2 million-year-old kangaroos. It was unbelievable. Anyway.

                   So I studied palaeontology, did a PhD at the University of New South Wales. And during that time, I realised that the fossils that I was studying in fact had close relatives still alive in the rain forests of New Guinea. So that was where I needed to go.

                   Having made one trip to New Guinea though, it was a bit like meeting Lawrence Williams in Broome those years earlier. Here were effectively what are Australian Aboriginal people, they’re all part of the same group, but living traditional lifestyles, with their own languages, still living pretty much as they have for such a long time.

                   And it was such a privilege being with those people. Yes, it was difficult and dangerous and whatever else, but it was just an immense privilege looking at the world through the eyes of a culture and people that haven’t been part of our trajectory for 60,000 years. It was extraordinary.

AL               Did you have that sense sometimes that you were intruding, that you shouldn’t be there? Or did you always feel that there was an obligation to record the stories of these ancient mammals?

TF               That’s a great question. I’ll tell you a little story. I think we all fool ourselves at times about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And I remember, I was working with a man called Lester Seri, who was with the Department of Environment of Papua New Guinea. And he’d come with me. We’d go into a village. And the first question is, why are you here? And we had this little patter.

                   And I’d say, look, we’re here to record the mammals in your area. We want to learn about your knowledge of them and what is here, because in the future, there may be a development. There may be a mine here or someone may put a road through or something, and the wildlife could be impacted. So we want a baseline. We want to know what’s here.

                   And I remember one old man in a village meeting where we said this just put up his hand. And he said in Pidgin English, he said, you’re not here for that. He said, you’re here to put your name up. And of course, I took great umbrage at this at the time, but it stuck with me because he was absolutely right.

                   I was there to build my career. And I should’ve been much more honest with people and said, I’m here to build my career, and then we would’ve had a real partnership, a real basis, because people understand that. So it taught me a big, big lesson. And as I said, I owe so much to those people, not just my career but something deeper.

AL               It was pretty brave. I mentioned Indiana Jones before. You’ve had arrows pointed at you in anger in those environments, haven’t you?

TF               Yes, I have. Yes. Though I guess that’s part and parcel of being in those environments. And I should just tell you, I worked there for more than 20 years, and twice over that 20-year period, I was in some sort of danger, physical danger from the people, both as a result not of my doing, but of circumstances around me.

                   So the guy that pointed the arrow at me was out of his mind with anger because his wife, he felt, had slept with another guy. And I just happened to be in the way. So yes, those sorts of things happen, but they’re not my… Probably, over a 20-year period, you and I could’ve been in a near car crash or something else. So these things happen, yes.

AL               Yes. So during that period, you discovered a giant rat, and then also, you were exploring tree kangaroos as well. What were the defining limits of what you were looking for? Were you looking for whatever new mammals you could find?

TF               Well, initially, I was there with a palaeontologist’s mindset, looking for these species that were present in Australia’s past. But I soon realised that even though there had been 100 years of biological exploration in New Guinea by the time I got there, that there was much yet to be discovered. And what was yet to be discovered was extremely surprising.

                   Because in the past, the pattern was this, that people would come from Britain or from the US or even from Australia, go into a village, be rather fearful of the local people, and just use their own techniques to census and conduct their survey. So they would use rat traps or nets or shooting or whatever, and they always stayed in the village environs and didn’t go far out. So the small mammals were quite well known. The small rodents and bats and so forth were fairly well documented. The things that were undocumented were the large mammals.

                   Because to go out and find a tree kangaroo in New Guinea, you need to go with a very, very experienced hunter and you need to go out into the most remote areas of their territory, which are sometimes dangerous because there’s an opposing tribe nearby.

                   And you need to sit there for weeks with that person, imbuing yourself in what they’re saying, in the environment, until finally you find evidence of this animal. So in the past, people, I think, were too fearful to do that. Even as late as the late 1930s, biological expeditions into New Guinea carried guns and were shooting indigenous people who opposed them. So it was a very confrontational situation.

                   My situation by the 1980s was different. I was actually able to go in, perhaps I was naïve enough not to worry about that, try to find that fellow who was always a loner and a bit of an odd bod, who enjoyed being by himself out in the bush, following tree kangaroos, and go with him and be…

AL               A kindred spirit then.

TF               Yes, exactly. Be an apprentice to that person.

AL               Yes.

TF               And I found they really opened up because they were loners in the village. They weren’t interested in growing pigs, and the kids, and everything else in the village, all too much trouble, but they liked being in the bush. And they found that I was someone they could talk to.

                   And sometimes, it was quite strange. People would lead me up into the bush and they’d say, oh, the old fellow will be here in a day or two, you just wait. So I’d wait by my campfire. And finally, a day or two later, this old man would turn up, sometimes in the middle of the night. First thing you’d know was his dogs coming in, and then an hour later, he’d arrive.

                   And you’d find he speaks no Pidgin, no English, only the traditional language. And I used to arm myself with a list of names of the animals I was interested in. So I’d ask the locals about them. So first thing I’d do is cook some food or have some food for this fellow. We’d sit down by the fire and I’d read out the names.

                   And it’d be Dubol, the tree kangaroo. And all of a sudden, hearing the word, the man would transform himself into a tree kangaroo, not just the sounds of the animal, the way it held its body, but the way it moved, the way its eyes looked around. And we’d go through the list. Bogol, the eagle, the harpy eagle. The guy would become a harpy eagle.

                   These people knew everything there was. It was like opening an encyclopaedia. And I think, looking back, one of the values of the work I did was I recorded that information before it vanished, because now really, there are very few people of that calibre, that nature in the parts of New Guinea I worked.

AL               It sounds an extraordinary experience, not only to be able to have those conversations, but to have that time. I feel we’re in such a structured environment, with so many demands on our time, that the freedom to allow to wait a day and a half… I can’t think of when I’ve waited a day and a half in Australia for anybody to turn up. But it must change you a little.

TF               Well, I just think about the value of spending four years in an academic institution, having lectures, as opposed to the value of having a couple of hours with a master like that, and it’s worth the wait.

AL               Yes. And you, of course, spent a huge amount of time in the Australian bushes as well. I know, in The Future Eaters, you’ve talked about the extraordinary efficiency of the Australian natural life, given the poor quality of the soils.

                   Indeed, I’m not sure whether it’s you or somebody else talks about the fact that Australian plants need to be much more careful about being eaten, and so therefore need to contain many more poisons. So when you walk through the Australian bush with all its wonderful smells, really, you are smelling the poisons of plants that are desperate not to be eaten.

TF               That’s right.

AL               Are there other observations you have as you walk through the Australian bush that might shape listeners’ views as to how they engage with it?

TF               Well, yes, sure. Boy, where do you start? For me, walking through the Australian bush is a bit like someone who is really interested in classical music hearing a great symphony. They would be able to pick out all of the musical notes and instruments and know the history of the piece of music and the conductor and everything else and enjoy it as a whole, whereas other people listening to that just hear a bit of sound.

                   So for me, I look at each individual tree and think, oh, that’s a member of the myrtaceae family and of this genus and its fossil record goes back this far, and it grows in that shape because it was eaten by diprotodons 50,000 years ago or whatever, or it flowers in this way at this time of year because it’s competing for pollinators to be able to pollinate it. And so you have this deeper appreciation, I think. I don’t mean to say that my knowledge is privileged in that way. It’s just the way my mind has turned.

AL               You’ve just spent an incredible amount of time thinking about the bush.

TF               Yes. And I do take a very deep satisfaction from being in it at any one moment and realising this is a moment of privilege, that you were there.

AL               Do you have favourite spots to go for even day hikes?

TF               Look, I do. I must say, I love the Sydney sandstone because it’s been able to preserve a relic of a much older Australia and an Australia that’s not much changed. It’s such an infertile place, there probably wasn’t diprotodons in it. There were very few megafauna. So when the megafauna went, the sandstone just continued on. And it’s those environments that are less compromised that I think I find more satisfying.

AL               Whereabouts in Sydney? Is it typically around the Hawkesbury or do you think at Royal National Park?

TF               Oh, look, anywhere there is sandstone, it’s the same. Because you walk around a great block of sandstone, the stuff weathers in these blocky shapes…

AL               Yes.

TF               That you can see along the coast with these fishes in it. And you’re on the north side of it, you might as well be in North Queensland. There’s very dry sclerophyll flora with a lot of reptiles and things. You go to the east side of it and you’ve got those very typical smooth-barked angophoras and things. The west side, you’ve got another harsh environment. The south side, you could be in Tasmania. It’s this shaded, ferny, amazing place, with waratahs and things.

AL               And fossils are quintessentially about the past, climate change is ultimately a challenge about the future. Your transition from one to the other is quite a marked point in your career. What caused that? Was that the experience of being overseas as the Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard, or was it something else in what you saw that made you make this quite significant shift in your career?

TF               It’s a really great question, one I haven’t analysed perhaps like I should. But I think it was a growing understanding that humans are a very powerful element in the earth’s system. And even prehistorically, we were quite powerful. We caused extinctions. We changed ecosystems by the use of fire and so forth.

                   And I think working with Aboriginal people and the New Guineans really helped teach me that, because you can see the impacts. Particularly in New Guinea, where those societies were substantially intact and still living a hunter-gathering life, you could see the impacts and understand.

                   So it wasn’t a big leap for me then to say, well, here we are in this highly industrialised society. What sort of impacts are we having? And clearly, they were absolutely substantial. And once I learnt a bit about the atmosphere and the size of the atmosphere and looking at the Keeling Curve and that ever-increasing CO2, and knowing the palaeontology of past climate change, it became totally compelling.

                   And I realised that, the way I put it now really is that we humans are the mind over the land and we’ve been doing this mindlessly, this damage. We now need to assume responsibility and grow up and make sure that we act in a responsible manner as the mind over the land. Otherwise, our earth system simply won’t tolerate us because we become too expensive.

AL               So your career had known some controversy beforehand. Certainly, there was some generated by your writings about the impact of indigenous Australians on the land, but nothing like what happened when you dived into the climate wars. How did you deal personally with the level of vitriol that began to be directed at you, I guess even beginning with your time as Australian of the Year, but certainly during your time in the Climate Commission and then the Climate Council?

TF               Look, yes, I think that what really sustained me through all of that, and continues to sustain me, is a really deep sense that I’ve thought through this stuff, I’ve looked at it from every angle, and I’m convinced I’m right. So if I had any doubt about whether I was right or not, I think I would have a very different approach. But I really do think that I’m right and this is very important for the future of humanity.

                   So, happy to have a debate with people. The personal stuff initially concerned me, the personal attacks. But then I realised, I thought, well, if they’re not attacking my argument, they’re attacking me, maybe they haven’t got such a strong case. So that again was a source of strength for me.

                   And I started to think about it as it’s a bit like a game of rugby. I’ve got possession of the ball, I’m running for the try line, and that they are desperate to stop me. They’ll do anything to stop me. So my job is just to keep going despite the fowl tactics. You don’t turn around and slug someone who is trying to hold you back. You just run for the try line. So that’s the way I started looking at it. And I became, I guess, a tougher person. And that’s not always a good thing, but you have to have that to survive, I think.

                   But can I just say one other thing that the experience taught me? As the Climate Commissioner, my job is to go out and talk to average Australians about this. So we held town hall meetings around the country. And I would’ve met 10,000 to 20,000 Australians face-to-face in audiences and answered their questions and engaged with them respectfully.

                   And I came away with a very, very deep respect for the common sense of the average person in this country. And that’s something, again, it was a bit like meeting these indigenous leaders, these great people, something that changed me forever. And I really do have great faith in people and their ability to discern what needs to be done and what’s right.

AL               And one of the things I’ve admired about how you’ve spoken about that experience is when you’ve told the stories of folks that have surprised you. Can you recount for us the tale of the Queensland meeting, when a man stood up with coal dust in his skin?

TF               Well, that was one of the more difficult meetings that we held. It was in Mackay, I think, in Queensland. And we had George Christensen in the audience in the front row and about 150 people. And there was clearly a bit of a hostile vibe in the air. George and his colleagues were just forming a bit of a hostile block at the front. So we gave our presentation, which was about 15 minutes, and explained to people this was really their night and please ask anything they want and engage in any way that they want with us.

                   So the first hand to go up in the audience at that point was this big, burly guy. He was way over six foot, a big bloke. You could see the coal dust, as I said, in his skin. And he stood up and just said, look, well, thank you for your presentation. I understand now.

                   He said, I used to be a farmer and I understand now that my farming business was destroyed by climate change. He said, I’ve got two children, eight and ten, two daughters, and I had to find work. So he said, I’ve gone to work in a coalmine. And can you tell me, am I doing the right thing? And it was just this incredible moment of, wow, how do we deal with this?

                   And of course we all said, look, your first responsibility is to your family, you have to put bread on the table, you have to keep going, but that we as a community need to move forward to create better opportunities and cleaner opportunities that won’t compromise your children’s future.

                   But it was one of those moments where you just… It’s again lifechanging, I think. And you realise that these people aren’t the enemy, we’re all in this together, and that given the opportunity to engage and understand and think and debate, we will come up with good solutions to this and many other problems that beset our society.

                   One of the things I feel so strongly is that the political system treats us like children, to be ruled over and to be imposed upon. People, at elections, bring out policies which they may or may not stick by but which people have very little influence on, when what we need as adults is an opportunity to engage at a deeper level and a more meaningful level. I think that really is the key thing now. It’s what I feel so strongly and think we need to foster.

                   There are two pre-conditions to getting that engagement. The first is that you must give away some power to gain authority. So you must empower the people. And holding a citizen jury, as was done in South Australia recently with the nuclear issue, and then deciding you don’t want to be part of the answer is just corrosive to the thing. So you give away power to gain authority.

                   And secondly, pay people for their time. You as a political representative are paid for your time to represent us. So if you are facing an issue where you want some real engagement, you need to empanel a jury of people, whatever you consider a good representative cross-section of society is. Maybe it’s 100, maybe it’s 150 people. Empanel them, pay them for their time, give them the power to hear from anyone they want on the issue, but set a deadline by which they must make a decision.

                   And I think that way, you would get some real engagement with community. And as that becomes embedded in a way of thinking for all of us, we’d find that we’re all in a position where we rule and we are ruled over, ultimately, and we understand and respect the nature of power and the nature of societal decision-making.

AL               Do you think that has the potential to take some of the scratchiness, the anger, the hostility out of politics?

TF               Absolutely. The reason people are angry is that they are alienated and they don’t believe the system represents them anymore. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to complain. It’s what children do when mum says the light has to go out at night or the TV has to go off. But you need to empower. Empower people.

                   And my experience is that we as a species, when we work together and we’re exposed to each other’s scrutiny, are magnificent. We as individuals who whinge and complain in a powers position are miserable. So we just have to change that dynamic.

AL               Yes. You’ve got so many dimensions to your full and busy life, but one of them, I suppose, is adventure. How do you build adventure into what must now be a pretty frantic existence?

TF               Less frequently. Look, once a year, my family get together, usually around my birthday, my older kids get together, and we go and look at the geology of some area, down the Otway Coast or whatever. And that’s wonderful because we time travel together, back to the age of dinosaurs and to a time when there were volcanoes erupting on the Western Plains or whatever it is. And we enjoy some good food and some good wine and whatever. But that’s adventuring for me at the moment.

                   I also am running two community conservation projects in Melanesia at the moment, in the Solomon Islands. Well, not running, but facilitating really, because the community is running them. And they’ve come about really because I’ve felt, ever since I went to New Guinea in the 80s, that I’ve owed a debt to those people.

AL               Yes.

TF               So I managed to get some funding from a European foundation and we are empowering these communities to set their own rules, to set aside areas, to train a workforce of people who can look after a monitor the biodiversity in those areas as well as provide some facilities like schools and so forth in these places.

                   So I do get up to New Guinea still with those areas, but it’s under a very different power relationship now. I’m no longer the white guy coming in just to do that. I’m visiting the community to see them empowered and see them do things. So it’s a great change really.

AL               That must be very rewarding.

TF               It really is. It’s fantastic. And to have that, it’s much more a feeling of equals, whereas before, I would just drop in. But that was what it was in the 80s. It was a different world. Now people have got mobile phones wherever and it’s different. But it’s great having that chance to preserve some biodiversity.

                   And the areas we’re working in, in Bougainville and the Solomons, really don’t have effective national parks or conserved areas. So we’re really trying to build something from the ground up that hasn’t existed before. So I find that immensely satisfying.

AL               Now, you’re a prolific writer. Do you have particular rules, approaches, styles when you write? Do you do it first thing in the morning? Do you have a word target?

TF               No. No, I just… It’s interesting, actually, writing a big book. I’ve just completed the draft of a big book, which is an ecological history of Europe. And I’ve been wanting to do that for 15 years but haven’t had a way in. And I finally found the reason for writing the book about three or four years ago, and since then have been doing it.

                   It’s funny the way your mind works because if I’ve got a spare moment, I’ll be researching the book. And somehow, in the back of your mind, the cogs turn. And then at some moment, it could be 2:00 in the morning, it could be 6:00 in the morning, it could be 3:00 in the afternoon, something comes out on the computer, some paragraphs, some stuff. So it’s as if you’ve got a little bit of your mind that’s always working away on this stuff, and then it’s downloaded whenever you get the chance.

AL               Do you find writing easy?

TF               Well, put it this way, writing a book is a bit like building a house. First of all, you’ve got to have the concept and the plan. And that I find difficult, that the reason for writing a book is slow to come to me sometimes. Even though I know generally I want to do it, the conceit, if you want, is not easy to come by. And then you’ve got to gather all your materials, and that’s okay.

                   The bit I find hardest is the construction, putting up the frame, if you want, because that’s just this pounding bit where you’ve got to get everything structured and organised. And I do have to do that fairly intensely. So I need a month or a six-week period to do that.

                   But then, afterwards, the decoration, painting it or making every sentence sound great, I love doing that. And that can go on forever. And that’s where you’ve got to be pulled back and someone says, no, you’ve done enough, you’ll wreck it if you keep painting over this bit.

AL               I’ve heard you say in the past that you came to the realisation that most of the great thinkers in the world that have existed are now dead and that the way of engaging with them is through their books. Do you also think of yourself as engaging in a conversation with those people through your own writing?

TF               Yes. Yes, I do. It’s interesting, just that whole idea of democracy, the thing that we were just talking about. Reading that rich history of thought about democracy is so fascinating because there is that platonic view that we should be run by oligarchs, a group of experts who are the wisest and best of us, who should represent all of us. And that whole history of politics, for me, I do engage in a debate with all of that literature in my own mind. So yes, I think so.

AL               I think it’s Chesterton who says that tradition is the democracy of the dead and it’s how we give votes to our ancestors.

TF               Yes. Well, it’s so true, isn’t it? Tradition in democracy is. And it is so important, that if you break that traditional link with a revolution, you end up throwing out, I think, the capacity of us all to work together.

                   And I think that’s why incremental change has been so important. As frustrating and painful as it is, it seems to be the way we work best as a species. Yes, so I’m not really a fan of revolutions as such. I’m not a Marxist in that view. But I do want quick change. I want it to be as quick as it can be.

AL               Yes. There is that tension between the Burkean view that those institutions we have now are the result of the accretion of wisdom of generations, but also the notion that sometimes we do need to act speedily on an issue like climate change in order to save the planet.

TF               But they’re also not just the accretion of wisdom, as Burke would’ve put it, but the accretion of privilege.

AL               Quite. Absolutely.

TF               So if you look at the trajectory of democracy, it’s been one of a few people sharing in it, the nobles, and then the franchise widening and widening and widening, until today, we’re in a position where we have a democratic system where privilege still holds to power because money is allowed to speak in our system, and the idea of all of us having an equal-valued input is not yet there. But that has to be the next step, doesn’t it? That has to be. And how you do that, how you divorce money from political power is the challenge that this generation faces.

AL               Yes. We talked before about parenting and about some of the aspects around adventure. But I’m also curious. You’ve got two children over 30, but then you’ve got another child under five. What’s it like to become a parent for a second time around? And what do you do differently this time around, as an older dad?

TF               Wow. That’s such a great question. For me, what I’ve learnt, having done it twice, is that parenting is about self-regulation. Kids grow themselves up really. They will find what interests them. And you can help them, you can hold their hand, you can expose them to interesting stimuli, interesting things and so forth, but the one thing you need to give them is that, I can only call it unconditional love. If you give them the security that comes with unconditional love, they will grow themselves.

                   Now, they probably will do things you won’t like, or they certainly will do things you won’t like, especially when they get to be about 15, I remember very well. And self-management is important. I remember my son, for a while, he went through a period where he just grunted. Speaking was gone, and it was literally the physicality of old bull, young bull, would shoulder me out of the way if the testosterone surge hit.

                   And I thought, I could say something, I could be really rude, I could put him back in his place, or I could go down to the bottle shop, buy the best bottle of wine they have on the shelf, take it home, drink it and say, well, sonny, this is out of your inheritance. And that’s what I did. That was my… So it’s much easier the second time around, the self-control bit of it, but really, just that self-control is mixed with the wonder of seeing the unfolding of this person, and realising, just get out of the way, let it happen.

AL               I imagine you would be a little more gentle, a little less worried perhaps the second time around, knowing that you’d raised two children successfully into adulthood and that probably things were going to go all right the third time around as well.

TF               Well, exactly. All of that anxiety about what should I do, am I doing it right, I don’t have that much anymore, because I realise it’s actually they’re doing it for themselves. I’m there to create that bigger picture, just the security and so forth, but they do it themselves. And all the little stuff, it’s all just a phase, it doesn’t matter. You just let that go and you just…

AL               So finally, Tim, let me close on a couple of standard questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

TF               Be a bit more serious in terms of learning about girls, listening to what they like and what they want, I think would be good. Going to an all-boys school, what else can I say? You’re totally thrown in the deep end.

AL               Yes, which presumably is not a challenge that youngsters face so much in a world of ubiquitous internet.

TF               Well, exactly, and they would know. I think it’s a changed world. But for me, it was something. I really wish I’d had a wise uncle who would have taken me aside and said, now, Tim, here’s what you should do, here’s what it’s all about.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

TF               Well, I was deeply religious till about the age of 14, and I’ve given that up. Let me think.

AL               Was there a single moment, a realisation?

TF               Yes, there was. Yes, I was at school. I read the Gospels and then I said that this couldn’t possibly be true. Well, there was a whole lot of things involved in that, but there was a period where I just thought, no, Catholicism is such…

AL               But your reverse epiphany came out of Catholic School.

TF               That’s right, yes.

AL               Catholic Boys’ School.

TF               Yes, exactly. Yes. What else that I don’t believe that I used to? I think I used to believe that Australia was a better, more gentle place than it actually has become.

                   I think when I look at the torn fabric of our society, and particularly as we’re nearly at Australia Day now, tomorrow is Australia Day, and you look at the way that this day, that should be a celebration of us as companions, companions of this order of Australia that we are in a way, all of us are, has been torn by people with particular views of history trying to be heard, and maybe Australia Day can’t ever be that again, but you hope that there is something which can bring us all together and display some generosity, some forgiveness, a determination to do better for all of us over the next year.

                   I guess I thought that was part of what would naturally happen. It’s not, and it’s something I’d dearly love to change.

AL               And you feel that more strongly than you did 11 years ago when you were being announced as the Australian of the Year.

TF               Certainly, yes. Yes, I think back then, I had a more optimistic view than I have now. I think Australia has got a lot of growing up to do. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I just think that we are yet to realise that we’re all in this together.

AL               When are you most happy?

TF               Well, through my life, I’ve had varying, I guess, degrees and moments of happiness. One can be ecstatic. One can be content. I’m ecstatic when I discover something new. I’m content when I’m contemplating Australian nature, something wonderful about Australian nature, or being with my family. But I don’t know. I don’t know whether either of those states actually is the way we should really be. I think probably a bit of discontent is good for us. Yes, anyway.

AL               I think you’ve said before that your decision to engage in the climate debate didn’t make you happier but was still a worthwhile decision.

TF               Yes, I think that’s right. It didn’t make me happier but it taught me a lot. And I’m glad I did it. I think really, I am an idealist in some ways. And perhaps human nature doesn’t always conform to the ideal. But I’d love to be part of creating a solution that allows us to at least step a little bit closer.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

TF               Oh, definitely, for me, it is looking after myself physically. I’ve gone through periods where I haven’t done that, and I realise my mind doesn’t work as well and I’m not as happy. So remaining physically fit is really important to me.

AL               What do you do? Swim or…?

TF               I do weights at the gym. So I just find that’s the thing I’m good at. And I play a bit of squash and…

AL               I cannot imagine you as a gym rat. That is the most surprising thing you’ve said to me this entire interview. I assumed it had to be something in the outdoors.

TF               No, it’s the intensity of just lifting that iron is very good for me somehow, mentally and physically. So that’s what I do. Whereas I can walk, I love doing bush walking and I use my fitness when we go out with the kids and we’re climbing cliffs or we’re looking into a boulder to find out what’s in it. Of course I use it. But to maintain that, I have to do that weekly. And I live here in the city of Melbourne, so there are not as many options.

AL               Absolutely. And mentally, do you find you need to stay off social media? Or do you have ways of managing that input into your life? Which it’s a great platform for ideas, but it’s also potentially a source of stress.

TF               I don’t use social media very much and I find that the unconsidered throwaway remark that is so easy to make over social media is really about giving vent to the worst of us. Considered decisions.

                   So you just look at the way people interact face to face in indigenous communities, where you will know that person for a lifetime and their parents knew each other and their children will know each other. The consequences of being an asshole, if you want, are so profound that people simply never are. It’s all about valuing other people. And you might think differently, obviously we all do, but we have to maintain that civility.

                   So I think social media is, for me, not where I want to be with that. In a meeting with people, discussing things, yes, that’s where we need to be, because we monitor each other, we create that civility. It’s very hard to be an absolute prick when you’re in a room where you have the common scrutiny of people around you. Sorry to be using language that’s not appropriate probably, but it’s true.

AL               No. Do you have any guilty pleasures?

TF               Probably too many to list here.

AL               We’ve got time. Let’s start running through them.

TF               Oh my goodness. What are my…? Well, I don’t know how guilty they are. I love classical music, I love baroque, I love Jordi Savall, I love the Recital Centre here in Melbourne. What else do I enjoy? I probably eat too much meat. I do enjoy cooking roasts and things like that. That’s probably a guilty pleasure. I enjoy travelling by car. Even though it’s a hybrid, I know it’s burning fossil fuels, but getting out into the bush with a vehicle is a guilty pleasure. What else? Apart from a nap in the middle of the day occasionally, increasingly…

AL               Naps are a wonderful thing.

TF               The other ones, I’ll leave, I’ll turn the light from, draw the veil of modesty over them so they…

AL               Well, finally, Tim, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

TF               Oh. Well, there have been so many, I think, that have pushed me in the same direction. But meeting Aboriginal people and seeing the way they view the world and each other has been hugely influential, but even more so in New Guinea, in that village situation, where you see what we can be if we’re respectful of each other. They’re hugely influential on me.

                   And again, being Climate Commissioner and not just having to sit in an office and answer emails or whatever, but engaging with people, that has been hugely influential. I think without those experiences, I would have really lost faith or been at risk of losing faith in what we are potentially capable of as a species. So it’s, yes, those things that are important.

AL               Tim Flannery, thank you for sharing your thoughts on who you are and what we can be on The Good Life podcast today.

TF               Thank you. Thanks, Andrew.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.