Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

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When you came back from overseas, why did you choose to come to Sydney University rather than Melbourne, or Adelaide, your old stamping grounds?

I had no choice. It was a case of where the jobs were and there were very few jobs in 1948, yeah, 1948. And I was very lucky, there was one available in Professor Deakin's department, in the zoology department in the University of Sydney. So I was quite happy.

Had you had much contact with University of Sydney before?

None at all. No.

Why did you not stay overseas? Was there a possibility ...

Oh, I had a two-year assignment to go overseas on the scholarship I was on. I didn't want to stay any more.

You didn't feel drawn to stay with some of people that had stimulated you?

Not at that stage. I did later on.

Later on you almost became part of the brain drain, but not in 1948?

No, that's right there.

So coming back to Sydney, what did you think of living in Sydney then?


What was it that attracted you?

Oh, the thing that attracted me was, first of all I was amongst students again because I took up residence in a college, in the University of Sydney, Wesley College. And straight away I was made Vice-master so I had responsibility with students in addition to what I was doing at the university. And that was very pleasant company. Then I thought Sydney was a wonderful city because you could get so easily to national parks both to the north of the city and to the south of the city, and the Blue Mountains in the west. There's nothing like it in Australia. You know, to have this huge city in proximity to such wonderful places, as well as, of course, the Asians. I thought it was wonderful. This'll do.

And it was the access to nature that appealed to you most?

That was certainly one of them, yes.

Do you use that much? In the course of your life have you used that proximity for recreation ?

Oh, yes. I think very frequently in the weekends I go down to national park or somewhere like that.

And what do you get out of that?

Oh, it's fun.

And what is it that you like about it?

Oh, about nature? Oh, I think it's ... I have a relationship with things that are natural. I love rainforests. I mean, it seems to me one of the most diverse environments on earth, and you get that down on the south of Sydney. I like having picnics.

And this was all something you started to enjoy, particularly when you came to work at Sydney University?

Oh, sure. I had, you see, I was very closely associated with students and we had lots of excursions. We eventually established a field station just a little north of Sydney on the central coast. So there were lots of good reasons to bring students out to these places.

Now what about your scientific work? How was your research developing once you'd commenced at Sydney University?

Oh, I went ahead straight away.

Doing what?

Oh, I was working with the same insects that I was working with in Adelaide when I worked at the Waite Institute. And I was trying to get more information on the sort of things I'd learnt in Oxford on how to handle the sort of information I was getting, see, in terms of rates of increases and so on. So, it was laboratory work. Fairly straight-forward stuff.

And what was happening in the science of ecology at this time?

At that time, not very much really, because by 1948 there was hardly any teaching of ecology even in Britain. The person I'd worked with there, Charles Elton, had established a course in Oxford on animal ecology. It was regarded as a little bit suspect. You see ecology was — is this a hard science or not? And people wondered whether, you know, it was really a part of biology. And when I got to Australia, Sydney had more ecology probably than the other cities because Sydney had Professor Ashby, later Lord Ashby, who was Professor of Botany. And he taught the first, I think, the first course in plant ecology in Australia. And I was interested in trying to develop a course in animal ecology at Sydney. But Professor Deakin wasn't too enthusiastic about it, because he said, 'You're appointed to teach comparative physiology,' about which I knew almost nothing. So it was a job just to keep one step ahead of the students. But, I said, 'Well you know, I really want to make this more an ecological course.' And he said, 'Okay, but be careful about it.' And that was because ecology was not really accepted in 1948. It was a funny subject. Natural History, you see. Okay, that's fine. But it's more than those questions.

The fact that you were so interested in it, how did that affect your relationships with your colleagues?

Oh, that was all right because ... you mean my scientific colleagues?


Yeah. Well, I had to pick out the ones who were tolerant. But most of them were very old-fashioned zoologists. See, comparative anatomy, all this sort of stuff had been taught ever since Darwin got into the picture. And, there was very little at that time in Australian biology departments on either ecology or genetic ecology. Very little genetics, that was a new subject. But there was some taught at Sydney. And no evolution. Nobody taught anything about evolution in the sense of how it happens.

I suppose what I'm asking, from the scientific establishment at the universities in Australia at the time, was there excitement and enthusiasm about this new way of looking at things? Or was it, and you therefore, regarded with a bit of suspicion?

Oh, I think the latter.

Why do you think they weren't enthusiastic about the possibility of new horizons?

Oh, because biology established itself after Darwin by trying to get as much evidence as possible to support the fact of evolution. And that was through comparative anatomy. It was through studying the different species, the differences between them. You know, morphological differences. I thought pretty dull stuff. People would be studying bones and muscles and all this sort of stuff. And that was what biology was thought to be. And if you're a biologist what you needed to be able to do was to know all plants and all the animals from A to Z. I didn't know that. So I was not really part of the culture, you see. I came in through the back door. I'm sure if there had been somebody who was willing to teach the old-fashioned stuff, who applied for the job, they would have got it more. But that was okay. I mean, I wasn't — in a sense I wanted to challenge the citadel. Or actually, stronger word than challenge, I wanted to sort of really attack the citadel of old-fashioned biology. It took a long time to get there.

And your interest was how all those things from A to Z related to each other and where they fitted in the scheme of things?

Well, yes. You see my prime interest was what is now called population ecology. And that really is — you take a single, any particular, species like a rabbit, I took various beetles: What is it that determines whether they're common or rare? What can make them extinct? What determines their numbers? What determines where they are when they are? So it's very important if you want to know how to get rid of rabbits to know those sorts of details. What limited them from going halfway through the tropics? There they stop when they get halfway through the tropics. How far, low down, will they go in terms of cold? That sort of thing.

I suppose I'm interested in why it is that scientific establishments are so conservative. Because it seems on the face of it that what you were interested in, and the questions you were asking, were so obviously in need of asking, that people would have been interested?

Oh, I think the scientific establishment is interested, I mean, if you want to get ahead fast in the scientific establishment, you dig your roots into areas which are already well-established; they're recognised. The scientists are very reluctant to accept something from outside that established area. And it's particularly at that time when the established area had been set by what was taught in England.

And what made you different from the others?

Oh, the fact that I had done research in this new area, that I'd gone to a department which was very much involved in ecological thought. That I'd been in England in a department which was in fact a frontier department in an ecological work. So, I was fascinated by that. And I'd never had much enthusiasm for the old-fashioned stuff. I hadn't done it, you see. I really hadn't studied it. Perhaps it was my way around an outfit that was dedicated to something else.

So if you had, do you think you might have been as conservative as the rest of them?


You don't think it had anything to do with the mind that was more willing to embrace new ideas?

No, no. I don't think so. I think that I got on to something which interested me. And I wanted to pursue that. And that I wasn't excited about these other things. Nothing very complicated about it. The only complicated thing was trying to do it in essentially an old-fashioned structure. That had its problems.

Now, you'd chosen to go to a university where you could do both research and teaching. And you felt more drawn to the teaching side of things. Do you think that you are the sort of person who is better at communicating ideas and popularising them than doing original research?

No, no, no. I was interested in both. And the reason I didn't want to be 100 per cent in the research area was that I thought I'd go nuts. Because you see research is very demanding, personally and emotionally, because you might spend a month, two months, three months, doing something that turns out to be a blank. Well, what satisfaction do you get out of that. It's very, very distressing. Whereas if during that time you'd also been doing something else, like teaching, well at least I've communicated something, I think, and I certainly needed the two together. In fact, I think that's fairly well-recognised. I remember the director of the institute in Adelaide saying to me, 'You know, if you're doing the research you either ought to have associated with teaching, or else extension work.' In other words, that meant going out to farmers and advising them what to do. Well I wasn't interested in that.

Did you have any companions in your interest in this new area of ecology in Australia?

Oh, yes, the person I worked with in Adelaide who was my supervisor, Professor Andrewartha, I kept in constant touch with him. And I wanted to have that, to make sure I was still on the right track. See, I was dependent to some extent, to a considerable extent, on him. And we wrote a book together a little bit later on.

That was called?

Distribution and Abundance of Animals. It became a sort of classic.

And did you maintain your contact with people overseas?

Oh, yes. I had, in fact, more contacts overseas than in Australia. Still do have.

And how were you able to pursue that? How were you able to keep yourself abreast of what was happening in the rest of the world?

Oh, I went abroad very frequently, at least once a year. I never paid my own fare. You know somebody, there would be some conference or something, some teaching, some lecturing engagement. So that was not difficult, not at all. And the other thing was, the people that I knew came out here. Later on, Professor Dobzhansky at Columbia University, whom I'd worked with there, he came here for a year. And then, one of his graduate students who's now the leading professor in Harvard, he came here, Professor Lewontin, and Professor Moore from Columbia University, so these friends that I'd established they were very interested in Australia. You see, frontier country, like America was in the west, before anyone got there, to California. So it had a fascination to these people.

How important was this contact for the growth of your ideas?

Well, terribly important.

So when people question whether academics should travel abroad as much as they often do, how do you feel about that?

Oh, I have no problems about that at all, provided it is not just a long holiday. My visits were on the whole, not that long, you see. Three or four weeks, except for the occasions when I went away for two years. More or less two years.

But when you went you actually worked quite hard?

I worked very hard, oh, yes. Well, when I was at Columbia University for a year, I remember the very day in which I had to catch a flight out of New York, I was still looking at stuff under the microscope at Columbia University to tie it all up. I said that I think this is ridiculous. I ought to be doing something else. But the professor said to me, 'Well if you're doing it now, that's the thing that will make your career,' you see.

Now you've been credited by someone like Paul Erhlich as being one of the founding fathers of ecology. Do you think that's a fair accreditation?

Oh, that makes me sound pretty ancient, doesn't it. I mean, a father. No. Look, the founding father, one of the founding fathers of ecology, was the guy I worked with then in Oxford, Charles Elton. Very famous. You know, he really is very important. In the United States there were ... founding fathers came a little later. And I came a little later still I think. Now, I think what Paul Erhlich was getting at, is that he was not very enthusiastic about the traditional ecological way of approaching things. And it was pretty crummy, I think. You know, way back in the '40s and '50s. And he came across this book that Andrewartha and I had written and he thought that this was opening up a new area that was in fact very attractive to him. He thought, 'Oh this is what I really want.' And he very shortly afterwards met me at an international congress of zoology in Washington and said, 'Now look, can we arrange that I come to Australia.' He came to Australia for a year. So that's, I think Paul was stimulated by that book because it was a different sort of a book at the time. And the people who published it, you see this University of Chicago Press, they were not convinced it was going to be a success because it was out of the run of things.

Now, of course, Paul Ehrlich himself is one of a handful of people who were leading a huge political movement based on a new way of looking at the environment. At what point in your career did you get involved in this sort of thinking?

Oh, I find it a bit hard to put that down. But it was partly that the students became very concerned about the environment. And in the University of Sydney the students put on lunchtime lectures, believe it or not, I don't know whether they do that now or not, in the huge Wallace Theatre which held about a thousand students. And they'd pack them. And I remember that on one occasion, and Professor May, who was a physicist who became a biologist, he was on another. And the whole issue of population, this would have been in the late-'50s, I think '60s, and it was round about then ...

Late-'50s it was.


That the first movement started.

Yes, we got involved fairly quickly. I was pretty strongly criticised for that because I was not an expert in human ecology. That really didn't exist to any extent. I was not an expert in human populations. The word people call demographers. But they were not interested really in the sorts of impact of human beings on the environment. And it's a bit like wildfire from then.

And so what was going on in your mind as this all began to emerge? What was happening to Charles Birch at the point where political implications began to emerge from your scientific world view?

I don't think anything happened to me.

Well, did you feel that you had an obligation to participate?

Oh, I just participated because I was enthusiastic. And I had people, you know, gradually people gathered around you, which gives you confidence that this is the thing that's important to deal with. I think it was like that. I didn't have any problems.

So where did it lead you, this involvement? Did you start to speak publicly a lot, did you start travelling internationally over it? What, how did that evolve, and develop for you as a theme in your life?

Well, I suppose the most important development was [that] the Club of Rome was established as this sort of super-organised, very small organisation, but by business people who had a lot of clout. Like Peccei who was head of Olivetti and Fiat in Italy. So he was a big industrialist. Now he established, with only about half a dozen people, the Club of Rome. And they produced this world-rocking book called The Limits to Growth. I think that was 1972. And it sold over a million copies, very quickly and they had no idea it was going to sell like that. It was just, you know, the climate of opinion was appropriate for that book to take on.

How did they a group of businessmen produce the book? Could you tell us the story of Club of Rome?

Yes, well, the reason why Peccei was interested was ... he was concerned about the disappearing resources on the face of the earth, and the impact that industry was making through pollution. This is in the early '70s. And he saw it as a threat to his industries. which he was also developing these industries in South America as well as in Europe. And the important thing was: What can we as business people and industrialists do about the threat to the whole Planet Earth?, you know, to the environment. And he was saving his own skin in a way, but he also had a very altruistic sort of concern. I mean, he was a leading citizen in Italy, had turned down an offer to become the President of Italy. But you know, he was a big bloke.

What were his industries?

The ones I mentioned, the Olivetti, the typewriters, and Fiat Motor Cars.

So how did he see pollution as a threat to those industries?

Oh, no, he was thinking of industry as a whole. Industry as a whole. He was interested in the future of the world. And then, I actually knew about Limits to Growth before the book was published, because in 1970 I became involved in the World Council of Churches' program on science, technology and environment. And we got along ... one of the authors delivered a paper to talk at one of the earliest of our meetings. And that happened to be in Italy. And we were absolutely rocked by this guy. A young chap from Norway. Not only a very good presenter, but he also had all these wonderful graphs in which population [was] going like that, going to collapse. Pollution going like that, resources disappearing; we were very impressed. So as a group we decided we were going to try and find out, how real was this? I mean, is this just a mirage, some sort of guess at the future, or is it real? I mean, these were models. And so, he enthused us to begin to do something about it. The next step was that Peccei came to Australia, he was going all around the world, and he wanted to try and establish a group in Australia which was concerned about Australia's environment, population and so on. And it was at that stage that I was made a member of the Club in Rome as were two others at the same time. And we, through the Club of Rome, we had a sort of international platform. And then I was in the World Council of Churches, that was an international platform.

What were you doing in the World Council of Churches?

Well, Margaret Mead, in must have been 1969, so just before 1970, she had made a very impassioned speech, I mean all her speeches were impassioned, but this was particularly impressive. Here was the World Council of Churches, this big organisation, mass organisation, it had nothing on its program, no speakers on science and technology and the future of humanity. And she said, 'This is ridiculous. This is a disgrace. You must do something about it.' And I always take notice of Margaret Mead. And so, they established a program on science, technology and the future of humanity. And I got on the program very early in the piece. I had nothing to do with the council before that. But that was 1970.

Why did they ask you to be on it?

Oh, for the same reasons that anybody gets onto anything, in other words, somebody knows me you see, who was actually an Australian —what is he called, he's called the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia — David Gill was on the staff at World Council. He said, 'This guy in Australia is in science and the future. Why don't you try him out?' And I think it was for that reason. I don't think they would have heard of me before. So, everything operates like that. You know, little contacts here and there that bear fruit sometimes, sometimes they don't.

Now, out of the Club of Rome, what do you think your contribution affected in terms of the goals of Club of Rome? What were you able to do through that?

Oh, I don't think I did very much in the Club of Rome, actually. I learnt quite a lot because they had all these industrialists and business people that I had never met before. So I was listening rather than doing something. I think I was probably a very ineffective member of the Club of Rome. Where I was more effective was in Australia because there were relatively few people who had that sort of concern. So, as you suggested, I did more, I accepted lots of invitations to give lectures and so on in different places.

Did your membership of the Club of Rome give you a bit of clout?

Yes, it certainly did because whenever I was referred to in the newspaper I was always referred to as the prestigious Club of Rome member, which was ridiculous, you see. But it gave quite a bit of clout, yes.

It's a good name, isn't it?

Oh, wonderful, really sounds as though you're up on the top echelons. And they were a bunch of dedicated and wonderful people. I mean, there were a few politicians in it and there were a few scientists. But mostly they were business people and industrialists. So it was an interesting bunch of people. They of course knew nothing about the details of the effects of industry and what-not on the environment, what was happening to resources. So they commissioned a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT for short, to do the study which ended in The Limits to Growth. So it was a commission thing. Nearly all their activities were commission things to write this book for the Club of Rome. But, that's what happened. And then, you see, after I got into the Club of Rome, I thought, well what we need is a Limits to Growth thing for Australia, dealing with the Australian detail. That's why I wrote the book Confronting the Future, which is essentially pretty well everything that was on the Club of Rome agenda. But I put it into an Australian context.

What year did you write that?

Oh, gosh, I wrote it about 17 years ago, whatever that would be. And the only reason I remember, I can't remember dates at all, but it would be about 17 years ago because two years ago I revised it, and that was revised after being 15 years unrevised.

So it was something you wrote in the '70s?




And what sort of impact did it have?

Oh, that was very good, I'll tell you why. It came out the same time as the Democrats were establishing, you know, the political party, Don Chipp and company. And Don was very interested in my book and Don more or less made it the bible of the Democrats. All their groups, the groups that were establishing around Australia, used Confronting the Future as a source of information. And the second thing was that schools took it up. 'Cause once you get it into schools you sell lots of copies. And the colleges of advanced education and those sorts of things. And yet again, you see, the climate of opinion was ripe for information, people wanting to know: Is this just a fantasy that some people have? or Is it a reality about what's happening to population and environment? That came out at just the right time by chance. Luck.

What were the essential principles that you really wanted to get across there?

Oh, that was quite simple, though I didn't have this little formula then, which was invented by Paul Ehrlich later, but essentially the idea in Confronting the Future was that the environmental impact, which they used to call EI, equals population times the amount of resources used per person: we call that A for affluence times the negative effects of technology, let's say, pollution per person. So you have three things you're studying: population, resources and things that deteriorate the environment, soil erosion, pollution, and so on. Those are the three critical things. Now I didn't have them quite classified like that. But I had chapters on population, on water, on soil, on forests, that way of looking at it. But it's very difficult to know when you're writing a book which is for general purposes, you know, for anybody to read, to get the framework that's going to appeal to them, and the interesting thing is that when Paul Ehrlich established this ER = P x A x T, T for technology, he dropped it after about a few years. But then in the last few years it's come back again, saying, 'This is really the best way of looking at it,' and it caught on then.

But you also were trying to get to catch on notions of thrift and restraint in an affluent society ...

That's right, yes.

How successful do you think you were in relation to that?

Well, I really didn't have any success for a long time, but things changed.

You were there fairly much at the beginning and then it was taken up by some powerful political forces?

Well, politicians became interested in the possibilities, and the Club of Rome actually aimed at politicians first. And one of the ... I suppose the biggest meeting they ever had, there were about 30 heads of state, 30 prime ministers at a meeting in Europe, and they talked about all these things. And, Pierre Trudeau, who was then Prime Minister of Canada, said that yeah, he agreed with all this. But if he went back preaching that in Canada he'd lose his seat in five minutes, you see. I mean the population was not ready for it. And this is very interesting because it means that the politicians realised there was no possibility of them putting forward something that was cutting across traditional pathways, unless they had support from the grass roots. And, it was the realisation of that, I think, that led to the formation of lots of grass root movements around the world. So that in Australia today there are over 30,000 grass root movements. What I mean by that, a group down at Botany Bay who's looking after the quality of water at Botany Bay, that sort of thing. Hawkesbury River, what have you. Forests. And, I think that's the political scene really, that the politicians will not act on any of these things, be it forest, soil, erosion, what have you, unless there is a grass roots movement supporting it, who's going to vote for them.

At what stage did the notion of sustainability enter the picture?

Exactly, I can even answer that question. In 1974. In other words, that was two years after the Limits to Growth book came out. And that happened in a rather unexpected way. It was a World Council of Churches conference of the group I was in, on the limits to growth. Well, it was more than the limits to growth, it was the whole of technology and future, but limits to growth was part of it.

Where was that held?

That was held in Bucharest. And I was put in charge of a working program on the limits to growth. And I had with me the young author who had spoken earlier to us about limits to growth, the chap who was an author of Limits to Growth called Jorgen Randers. He was a Norwegian. Very charismatic young man, he was, you know, really, you've probably got to listen to him. Well, we had this workshop and after the first meeting Randers said to me, 'Charles, we're getting nowhere with this Limits to Growth stuff because the Third World don't want limits to growth.' They all said, 'You had your turn, the rich countries, it's our turn to grow now. Don't stop us from growing.' And Randers said to me, you know, 'It's too negative, limits to growth. We want something positive.' And he said, 'Instead, state society, equilibrium society,' and he said, 'Oh that's too abstract.' He said, 'Let's try, the ecologically sustainable society.' In other words, the society that's going to be sustained indefinitely into the future because it's using its resources and industries appropriately. So we went back to our group after coffee break. We put over this notion of a sustainable society and all the Third World crowd said, 'Yeah, that's great. We all want to have an ecologically sustainable society.' And it caught on. A very important phrase. And we then had it accepted by the plenary, big plenary session, Margaret Mead and all these people were there. And it came out as the number one new thought, you see, for the World Council of Churches. And they took it on board. So that the program from that moment on became, of the World Council of Churches, for the just, participatory and sustainable society. So it had to be just, it had to involve people, that's fair, and then it had to be ecologically sustainable. And for seven years they had that as their masthead, you see. So it really got places. And people began to think about these issues. Now that taught me a lesson that, I really knew, already knew, that you had to have good images and they're very hard to get, parables. But you also have to have good descriptive phrases and 'ecologically sustainable society' caught on. Now that was, the World Council of Churches in world terms is not such a big outfit, but in a very quick way, people started writing books about the sustainable society. They never acknowledged where it came from. In fact, when the head of the World Watch Movement in Washington produced a book called The Sustainable Society, I wrote to him and said, 'Do you know where that phrase came from? You don't mention it.' And I told him. And he said, 'Oh that's great, I'd expect Randers to produce something good like that.'

If Randers had been an American rather than a Norwegian, he would have been a star?

Oh, probably. Though he did all this work at MIT.

And, at this point in time in Australia, sitting where you sit now, after watching this movement develop, find its feet, get its grass roots support, get its slogans and its images, this enormous and amazing growth in the movement ...

Yes, fantastic. Yes.

Does this make you feel optimistic about ...

Oh yes. I'm always optimistic because any alternative attitude is destructive. You know, if you don't have a hope for the future, if you don't see the little things that could be lights at the end of the tunnel, then you're just reinforcing the present situation.

And what in the present system and what in the present situation do you feel is negative and needs to be dealt with?

Oh, well, the most difficult aspect in Australia is convincing politicians that they'll get votes on anything to do with population control, anything to do with conserving forests and grasslands and things like that. Now we've won some things. I mean, Bob Hawke when he was Prime Minister, was very effective in concentrating on soil erosion. Two-thirds of Australia was disappearing down the drain because of soil erosion. And he said, 'Yeah, that's very important.' And the Greens voted for him. And he knew he had a Green backing there. There's been some progress. Forests hasn't been anything like as successful because of the far more vocal group of people who are defending the right to chop down forests. In soil erosion, the farmers just had to leave the places where the soil was disappearing. But the foresters want to say,'These forests are ours to cut down.' Now that battle hasn't been won yet. The battle every year that was fought in Australia. I think a lot has been achieved in water conservation, that sort of thing. A lot has been achieved. And particularly in public concern about these things. I used to go round to lots of high schools and I used to get tremendous response, particularly in Sydney in the northern suburbs. But when I went down south, and west, there's much less enthusiastm because it suggested to them that I was proposing a future where there'd be less economic growth and fewer jobs, you see. And they wanted jobs. They wanted to improve their situation. That is a hard one to deal with. Except that I would now claim that what you've got to say is the ecological sustainable society is one which may not have more goods in it, but it's going to have a higher quality of life.

And jobs associated with sustainable ...

And jobs associated with trying to work out new sustainable ways of producing energy, such as from sunlight and from wind. Oh, there are lots of good positive things to deal with.

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