Dyason Plenary Session

Professor Libby Robin

Soil in the Air

The post-war era of the 1940s is known for the birth of global governance, a time when western nations united in efforts to reconstruct the war-torn world and reflected on the role of science in society. History and Philosophy of Science was one of the early projects that emerged out of the war years, and Ding Dyason, whose name is honoured by this annual lecture, headed the first HPS department in the southern hemisphere. Thomas Kuhn’s influential lecture in Oxford in 1961 inspired her work on the history of scientific entanglement with social concerns, and the directions of HPS at the University of Melbourne.

Post-war reconstruction was both a local and a national project for every nation, very much in the air in the 1940s, and influential until the 70s. The Australasian Association of Scientific Workers (AASW) brought together scientists too old to serve or in reserved occupations, to undertake their own ‘war effort’ on the question of “What comes next?” AASW held a planning conference in Sydney in 1944 to ‘formulate a policy on the organization of science necessary to meet the demands of post-war Australia’. They set out to consider the role of the ‘the scientific method’ in the welfare of society. In particular, they recognised their existing international scientific networks and connections could become valuable for post-war collaborations between different sciences and different nations of benefit to Australia and the world.

The idea of “the environment” was one of many that emerged internationally in these “world-minded” times, an idea that focused on the management of nature for the benefit of people using the scientific method. National Parks were a crucial discussion point, bringing together amateur naturalists and professional environmental managers of all sorts in discussions about landscape planning along with international comparative work on reserving places for wild animals and plants.

This lecture will explore the emergence of “integrated science”, of science in the service of society, that later included natural resource management, Big Science, environmental science, Earth Systems Science and climate science. It began with the tragedy of the “dirty thirties”, when soil was in the air, and the scientific response to concerns about feeding the world.

Libby Robin is a graduate of the HPS department established by Ding Dyason, and has worked in universities and museums in Australia, Sweden, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Estonia. She has published widely on the history of environmental science, including the book The Environment: A History of the Idea (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). She now works as an Independent Scholar and Curator at Large, researching the role of science, humanities and the creative arts in museums and in climate policy. She was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2013.