Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review of Don Garden by Ruth Morgan

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Droughts, Floods and Cyclones: El Niños that Shaped our Colonial Past

Don Garden, Droughts, Floods and Cyclones: El Niños that Shaped our Colonial Past, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2009; pp.414 RRP $44.00, paperback ISBN: 978 1 921509 38 4.

Don Garden is a man who knows the full force of the weather: he lost his home and possessions in two separate bushfires in the space of two weeks in February 1983. Extreme weather events such as these jolt us from our complacency to remind us of our vulnerable place in the world. And, as Garden argues, such extreme climate events are expected to increase under anthropogenic global warming conditions. Guided by this concern, Garden explores the social and environmental impacts of late nineteenth-century El Niños on eastern Australia, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Garden’s book complements similar research by Mike Davis into the horrific impacts of this global phenomenon on India, China, Brazil and elsewhere in Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2001). Garden’s work not only describes the nature and history of the phenomenon but provides an examination of how Europeans experienced these strange weather events in the antipodes.

Although the El Niños of the late nineteenth century affected the three regions differently, the responses they provoked from the European colonists share strong similarities. Garden emphasises the vast changes that European agriculture and mining wrought on the colonised landscapes and how these changes exacerbated the effects of the El Niños on these areas. The severity of these climactic events prompted a closer European examination of the climatic processes affecting their colonies, as their familiarity with northern hemisphere climates proved to be of little use in these strange southern lands. Becoming accustomed to these ‘new’ climes involved the growing meteorological sciences and, what Garden describes as, ‘folk climatology’, the combination of scientific weather knowledge with human memory and faith (p. 149).

Garden helpfully provides accessible introductions to the complex climatic processes that affect eastern Australia, New Zealand and the islands of the South Pacific, focussing particularly on the workings of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Droughts, Floods and Cyclones spans a vast geographical area over fifty years, from the 1860s to the early twentieth century. The unconventional landscape format of this book lends itself well to the extensive illustrations and maps that decorate it. Combined with excerpts from newspapers and diaries, these pictures serve to enliven the text and soften the meteorological statistics and descriptions. The episodic structure of Garden’s book offers insight into a period when meteorological data and European weather experience in these areas was scant. His sources are what climatologists call ‘proxy’ records, qualitative materials such as newspaper reports, diaries, letters, colonial records and so on.

In this book, Garden shows the importance of undertaking his documentary approach to understanding past climates. For instance, he questions the scientific view that the 1876-78 El Niño resulted in catastrophic drought in south-eastern Australia. Garden suggests instead that human changes to the landscape increased the vulnerability of certain areas to rainfall deficiency. In the book’s closing chapter, Garden addresses a concern facing many environmental historians, regarding the use of their research. He worries that those who doubt the theory of anthropogenic climate change will interpret Droughts, Floods and Cyclones as evidence for their arguments that the climate has always been variable (p. 341). He shows the flaws of this argument, tracing the intensification of El Niño events and the worsening impact on human settlements over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Garden provides an extensive and meticulous study of the impact of a powerful phenomenon that has shaped our colonial past and looks set to feature increasingly prominently in our future.

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Updated 8 Jul 2014

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