Robyn Williams, 2007—a true story, waiting to happen

Robyn Williams, 2007—a true story, waiting to happen

Review of Robyn Williams, 2007 – a true story, waiting to happen (Sydney: Hodder, 2001, ISBN 0 7336 1424 8)

There are plenty of futuristic literary utopias and anti-utopias – in English, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 are amongst the most enduring. A few have environmental themes – again, in English, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia was one fine example, now almost forgotten. Of course, the Japanese manga and anime genre has many examples – most notably Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaa. But not many take the logic of humanly-generated stress on the environment very seriously, and fewer still do so in a funny way.

Robyn Williams, a well-respected Australian science journalist, is best known for his weekly radio program, The Science Show. For more than a quarter of a century Williams has shown that no-one is more interesting talking about science than scientists themselves, once they are coaxed out of their self-imposed academic isolation. Williams’ skill is in both getting people to talk about their enthusiasms, and in getting them to explain what they are doing in words the rest of us can understand. The result is prize-winning radio. Week after week, year after year, biologists, physicists, molecular chemists, astronomers and ecologists have been telling their stories to top ratings.

In 2007 – a true story, waiting to happen, Williams has playfully turned his hand to fiction. To be sure, it is fiction with a message, but also with its tongue firmly in its cheek. As we are now just beginning to understand, climatic change is not linear, but rather, catastrophic in character. In other words, when the earth’s climate changes, it does not alter bit by bit in gradual shifts, but rather in huge dramatic flips. 2007 begins after a decade of increasingly erratic and abnormal weather patterns. Abruptly, it seems, some kind of system-limit has been reached, and some very strange things start to happen in the animal world. Birds start to occupy the runways of airports. Horses and cows close freeways with their shit. “`Cows close Melbourne` was the headline of one newspaper, followed in other newspapers with the headline `Has anyone noticed the difference?'” Docile pets abandon their loving owners. And, in the icy waters of the Antarctic, a Japanese research ship peacefully carrying out scientific research on a whale and its calf with the aid of an explosive harpoon is overturned and sunk by a group of whales, coordinated by a squadron of albatrosses.

All over the world, birds and mammals have taken matters into their own hands, and rebelled against the humans trashing the environment – their environment. The apparently coordinated attacks bring the life of industrial society to a halt within days. How is this done? How have these animals communicated and decided upon these complex actions? No-one can say, but then as one of Williams’ characters (actually a friendly but sharp caricature of David Attenborough) says, we can’t even explain the coordination required to for the cells of our own bodies to develop, so we can’t be surprised at our ignorance here.

But the animal attacks are not total and aimless. Apparently deliberately, they have left open the means for the leaders of the world to communicate with each other. In other words, they seem to be offering humans a last chance to get their act in order. But of course, this takes time for the politicians and generals to recognize. Where is the enemy? “Am I supposed to negotiate the future of the world with a border collie?” whines one president. “Well, yes, actually”, is the answer.

Three heroes – no, four – and one superb villain emerge to move the novel along as the world’s non-plussed leaders gather at the United Nations. Julian is a sandal-wearing climate scientist from the most remote part of Tasmania; Louise is his 12-year-old smart daughter; Jez is their smarter still border collie; and the delicious and brainy Kate is a foil for Julian’s occasional self-righteousness. Julian, plus Louise and Jez, is brought to New York to advice the assembled wise men and women, as is Kate, a cool corporate analyst.

After some deliciously drawn affectionate portraits of some of the world’s best known environmentalists – especially the three Davids – Attenborough, Suzuki and Bellamy, all Science Show regulars – Julian finds himself up against both the profound scientific ignorance of politicians and the machiavellian plotting of Kate’s boss, Senator Breen. Seeing the chance to profit from his corporation’s patented genetically engineered plants, Breen boldly proposes faunicide as the solution – killing off all of the world’s large mammals. Why not, Breen asks. They’re all on track to become extinct anyway, so let’s do it rationally and quickly and humanely. And think of the benefits – no more viruses like HIV and the plague transmitted by animals; no more cows boosting the greenhouse effect with their methane farts; and no more competition with humans for use of arable land. (I have to say that when I read this last recommendation, I was convinced that Williams must have been interviewing Japanese Fisheries Agency officials who justify the killing of whales because they are taking marine foods out of the mouths of humans.) And of course, the profits from genetically-engineered replacement crops will be huge.

When it looks like the politicians may not have the stomach for the faunicide option, Breen launches the plan himself. Needless to say, the fauncide option is thwarted, but only after ingenious cooperation between the birds of the world, children who love their pets, and some maverick molecular biologists who get the inspiration to design new molecules with pencil and paper while playing Bach on the violin.

That inhuman disaster averted, the world’s powerbrokers reluctantly accept a plan drawn up by Julian and Kate that balances sustainability and common sense, environmental values and optimum use of genuinely efficient technologies, resulting in a kind of Natural Capitalism.

“If I let you have nuclear power stations, will you give me worm farms instead of sewage outflows?”, Julian asked.

“I would have given you them anyway. Outflows are Stone Age”.

“What then?”

“I’ll let you ban crops genetically engineered to tolerate herbicide if you give me ones that don’t need tilled soil. Keeping earth intact reduces greenhouse and stops topsoil blowing to kingdom come.”


“Now if I give you ….”

With a two-year moratorium on industrial business as usual, and a commitment to Kate and Julian’s natural capitalism, Gaia is offered a chance to re-establish a more benignh equilibrium. Needless to say, smart kids and smarter dogs play their part, before the animals call off their siege.

Williams is not going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he tells a good story, and there are plenty of jokes, including a lovely piece of sexual revenge in the post-Clinton White House. But for all the fun and the gentle mocking at the all-too-common self-righteousness and self-imposed isolation of environmentalists, Williams is deadly serious. The joke at the core of the novel is a logical development of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – that the earth and its biota are a single inter-connected – and most importantly, self-regulating – system. Gaia’s self-regulation may indeed end up with rebellion against the idiot humans.

We know almost nothing about how the millions of species (most still not even named) of non-human species animals – let alone plants – organize their amazingly complex growth and behaviour. And we know still less about their interdependence – and our own – with the totality of the global eco-system. Who is to say the joke about the rebellion of the animals is not entirely serious? Like so much else, we simply do not know what we are doing to the earth, any more than a three year old fiddling with the controls of an aeroplane.

So far, 2007 – a true story, waiting to happen has not been translated into Japanese, but, the odd subtleties of a joke aside, Williams’ English is not difficult. Highly recommended.

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