Saturday, 20 February 2016

The Big-daddy of population limitationists in Australia reconsidered.

In the light of recent bleatings about Australia's rate of population growth I thought I'd post this (somewhat critical) review I wrote of the biography of the big daddy of "small Australia". Originally published in the Canberra Times.

Griffith Taylor – visionary environmentalist explorer
By Carolyn Strange and Alison Bashford
National Library of Australia. 283 pp.

By any measure  Griffith Taylor had a fascinating life: he studied geology at Cambridge; went on Scott’s last Antarctic expedition; founded Sydney University’s school of geography and became a controversial public intellectual; later he taught in Chicago and Toronto. A building is named after him at Sydney University. And yet he is largely forgotten. His books are out of print and the Griffith Taylor Building is a mediocre example of the International style.

But life is long and Griffith Taylor is enjoying something of a renaissance. Timothy Flannery in The Future Eaters describes him as ‘one of the greatest and most courageous scientists Australia has ever produced’ praising him for his opposition to the “Australia Unlimited’ boosters of the 1920s and to the White Australia policy.

In Griffith Taylor Strange and Bashford revisit their protagonist’s well documented life and retrofit him as a visionary and environmentalist by emphasizing his early careers as a geologist and meteorologist. Considerable space is devoted to his participation in Scott’s last expedition where he served creditably. The book’s thematic organization means however that his early career – up until the mid 1920s – is rehearsed in a number of different contexts and this tends to obscure the fact that Taylor, while enjoying a successful academic career in the United States and Canada from the late 1920s had by that time ceased to be a significant public figure.

But even as an academic geographer Taylor’s achievement was questionable. The version of human geography espoused by Griffin Taylor and known as  ‘geographic determinism’ is neither hard science nor humanity. While it is indubitable that humans live in and are affected by their physical environments it is far from clear why primacy should be given to the physical environment (any more than, say, economics, culture or history) as an explanatory factor in human affairs. If this is in doubt then the rationale for geographic determinism becomes somewhat murky.

The problem goes deeper than mere methodology. Following Scott’s expedition, Taylor returned to Australia, a made man, and worked in the Bureau of Meteorology where he became fascinated by the relationship between climate and race. This is deeply unfashionable territory these days and rightly so. But by the 1920s western culture was saturated with concepts of race and social Darwinism and Taylor found a receptive market for his ideas on human evolution and geography. He became known as an advocate of geographical determinism – the idea that the physical environment has a decisive role to play in the formation of human culture and evolution. Taylor exhibited a talent for self promotion which, combined with his large literary output and facility for presenting ideas diagrammatically, secured him plenty of space in the newspapers and a significant public profile during the 1920s.

Taylor was always something of a maverick. He went to the Kings School but didn’t like rugby and later in life his ideas were not all popular. Above all Taylor considered himself a scientist and if scientists thought that a particular skull shape was the most highly developed form of human then so be it. In 1927 he published Environment and Race the basic thesis of which was that the more advanced races had taken control of the most desirable portions of the earth, pushing their less advanced cousins to the periphery. The most advanced race however was not the ‘European’ but the ‘Mongolian’. This conclusion, by the way, led to considerable interest in his work in imperial Japan.

Taylor was relaxed about intermarriage between Europeans and Asians and maintained that the concept of pure race was absurd. He also wrote however that the ‘negro peoples…stand on a lower plane than white or Mongolian. Racial mixture with them may be a deterioration for the other races’. But not to worry: one of his predictions, which receives less publicity than his pessimism about Australia’s carrying capacity, is that negroes will ‘ultimately disappear’ – bred out by half castes; just as was happening to the Australian Aborigine. ( refer p340 of Environment and Race, Oxford U.P. 1927).

So Taylor’s ideas on race were quirky but hardly cuddly. What really got him into trouble in the 1920s (and what Dr Flannery applauds now) was the suggestion that the Australian continent had a limited capacity for population growth. He predicted a maximum capacity of about twenty million people. Many considered this unpatriotic at a time when Australia was thought by many to have the potential to be another America.

Taylor’s work in fact has little bearing on whether the population limitation environmentalists such as Dr Flannery are right or wrong. Taylor predicted a maximum number which is close to the present population but his assumptions were idiosyncratic. He thought for example that Europeans would not live in the tropics. He thought much of Western Australia to be useless; not forseeing that we could one day dig it up and sell it to China (and use the proceeds to pay for desalinated water).

But what Taylor’s career does show is that the certitudes of intellectual fashion change over time. Taylor was a talented man who invested his considerable ability and energy in areas of study  which today are considered frankly embarrassing. Geography goes on because there is something informative in seeing humans in the context of their environment but the lessons we draw from that study have changed radically. In Griffith Taylor Strange and Bashford have given us a detailed and handsomely illustrated account of a man who is almost forgotten and probably rightly so; but fascinating all the same.


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