Saving the Great Barrier Reef through a marriage of arts and sciences

They were an unlikely trio, but together poet Judith Wright, artist John Büsst and forest ecologist Len Webb waged a campaign that saved the Great Barrier Reef from being mined, culminating in its 1981 World Heritage listing.

For Iain McCalman, author of the award-winning The Reef—A Passionate History, their story showed not only that ordinary people can take on powerful forces and win, it demonstrated that a union of the arts and sciences—of sensibility and intellect—can have extraordinary impacts.

… a union of the arts and sciences—of sensibility and intellect—can have extraordinary impacts.

The Barrier Reef itself is a product of both nature and the human imagination, notes Professor McCalman, a cultural and environmental historian at the University of Sydney. And understanding that duality is crucial, he believes, if we are to combat the modern perils now threatening the Reef’s very existence.

His book tells the story of human engagement with ‘this colossus of nature’, and with the communities it sustains.

Beginning with Captain James Cook, whose ship Endeavour came to grief on a coral outcrop in 1770, McCalman reveals how different eras, ideas and values—economic, scientific and aesthetic—have shaped the Reef’s multiple identities.

For Cook, the vast coral kingdom was a ‘labyrinth of terror’. For Indigenous peoples, it was a ‘nurturing heartland’. For scientists, an engrossing mystery. For divers, a place of wonder and beauty. For artists, a source of creative inspiration.

Incorporating a mass of original research, the book presents characters such as William Saville-Kent, a distinguished marine scientist with a dreadful secret, and Ted Banfield, author of the early 20th-century bestseller Confessions of a Beachcomber.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.