A review of Libby Robin’s ‘How a Continent Created a Nation’

by Emily O’Gorman

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If you drive along a certain street in Canberra you come to cross-roads. To the right is a street lined by eucalypts. To the left, one hemmed in English oak. The adjacent roads present an alluring contrast. One street celebrates the beauty and practicality of Australian trees in the national capital and the other the majesty and familiarity to many Australians of European avenues. Visually, they do not sit easily with each other (seeing eucalypts in orderly rows is itself confronting). There is a hint in these streets of a deeper uneasiness about how white Australians have understood their continent and how they inhabit and identify with it. These themes guide Libby Robin’s engrossing new work, How a Continent Created a Nation. Robin’s book is grounded in her work at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (now the Fenner School of Environment and Society) at the Australian National University, and with the National Museum of Australia, and draws on her vast experience as a researcher in environmental history.

Robin brings environmental history to a subject matter, Australian identity, which is more usually located in the realm of social and cultural history and cultural studies. Robin directs her analysis at science, and to a lesser extent natural history, in all their institutional and consultative guises. Science, as a formaliser of environmental knowledge, is a significant filter through which Australians comprehend their environments at a national and local scale. It is an information source and way of understanding. Science ‘speaks’ for nature while, somewhat contrarily, providing the means by which natural resources are understood (pp. 170, 203). In tracing the historical dimensions of science in Australia, Robin not only explains how Australian environmental understandings have been shaped, but how science, cemented in northern hemisphere institutional frameworks and attitudes, and largely attached to government projects, has struggled with a ‘strange nature’.

Robin’s explicit premise is that science in Australia has in many ways been shaped by the land, as, for example non-annual cycles ruptured previous assumptions of rainfall and river flow, affecting changes, for example, in understandings and management of wetlands (pp. 153-5). She seeks to explore the connections between nation, nature and science, and to bring ‘non-human actors like mountains and deserts’ in as active agents in the formation of a uniquely Australian identity (p. 2). Robin reviews the controversial rise of the golden wattle to national flower and the protection of native birds (Chapter 1); the environmental and cultural impact of sheep (Chapter 3); the hunting, discursive use and dismissals of Australian icons such as kangaroos (esp. pp. 183-5); the development of ‘gap analysis’ (like vegetation mapping) in conservation science (esp pp. 164-166); and changing relationships with the arid continental centre (Chapter 5).

The title of the book is based in part on the work of another great inquisitor of the environment’s influence on Australian identity: Russel Ward. Robin inverts the title of Ward’s book, A Nation for a Continent, which explores Australian social and political distinctiveness. In addition, Robin inverts Ward’s focus, as, she points out, J. M. Powell also did in 1998, to examine environmental contributors to Australian identity (pp. 5-6). As they are defined against a single book by Ward, Robin’s arguments might have been bolstered by an engagement with more of Ward’s work, particularly his highly contested (by Graeme Davison and others) The Australian Legend, which addresses the formation of a pioneering identity of stoicism and ‘battling’ the environment in rural Australia.1 This theme is, for example, relevant to, and to an extent taken up in, Robin’s chapters on ‘Desert Nationalism’ and ‘Home Truths’. There is a history of debate over the extent to which experiences ‘on the land’ have moulded a ‘battler’ identity, marked by disappointment in unproductive, poorly watered, soil and economic stress; or whether urban imaginings of ‘the bush’ created such an identity around the turn of the century. As she takes up, for instance, the later point, it is surprising that this body of Ward’s work is not mentioned and some historiography not included (pp. 208-9).

Robin’s book, however, is an important contribution to science, history and the national conversation about Australia ‘s environment. Her purpose is political, cultural and environmental: ‘Cultural histories of national identity seldom allow the land a role as a partner in constructing a nation, yet the partnership between cultural identity and natural possibilities must underpin the search for sustainability’ (p. 5). For Robin this means reconciling Australian identity with the continent’s variable environments, and more so, developing greater public understanding of its environmental distinctiveness (p. 218).

How a Continent Created a Nation positions science in a cultural and political framework through explorations of scientific collections in the National Museum of Australia and the role of government science in settlement and national development. One of the most gripping stories is that of attempts to settle ‘the Empty North’ (Chapter 6, pp. 123-51). Focusing on the Daly River, Robin describes ongoing and often disastrous government-backed settlement schemes, attributing their failures to a series of decisions by a government located far away – a lack of place-informed understanding. It is a story that resonates across Australia ‘s large distances where many government and scientific institutions have been located in the State capitals on the coasts or in Canberra. Regional environments can become simplified into cartographic documents and managerial units, which do not always sit well with those who live in these areas. As James C. Scott has argued, this kind of environmental dislocation and simplification is symptomatic of centralised government, but is by no means inevitable.2 Robin argues that greater incorporation of other environmental knowledges, particularly indigenous knowledge, into government-science policy can better inform the understandings and practices of white Australians (p. 119).

As an environmental history, Robin’s book does two especially important things. Firstly, it brings history into conversation with science in constructive and fruitful ways. It links science back to people and place, drawing attention to its cultural roots and struggles. Robin explains that, ‘[s]cientific stories have a history and cultural ramifications’ (p. 9). Histories can tell these stories. In dialogue with science this book also seeks to make room for history in its own right, as well as for farmers, communities and Indigenous peoples (p. 216): ‘While engaging with the sciences in action, particularly as they inform a national vision, this book seeks to allow alternative voices that might also speak for nature’ (p. 10).

Secondly, Robin’s book has been published at a time when environment and politics have come together inextricably in planning the future more crucially then ever before, and histories are needed in these (and of these) debates. Robin asks Australians to look at how they inhabit their continent and how they see ‘Australia in the world’, personally and as a nation. They are questions that now, more than ever, are pressing.


Emily O’Gorman
RSSS History
Australian National University

How a Continent Created a Nation was published in Sydney by University of New South Wales Press in 2007 (272 pp. ISBN 978 0 86840 891 0 $39.95)


1. Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958); Graeme Davison, ‘Sydney and The Bush: An Urban Context for The Australian Legend’, Historical Studies, 18, 71 (October 1978), pp.191-209.

2. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

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