What a privilege to hear from Professor Sörlin from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. The professor works in environmental history and gave us a fascinating insight into some of the early Swedish naturalists that travelled on Cook’s two voyages into this part of the globe. Daniel Solander and Anders Sparrman were both pupils of the famous Swedish scientist Linnaeus who is best known for devising the system of naming life on Earth.

Daniel Solander was on the first voyage with Captain Cook and gathered many specimens alongside Banks. The collection formed the basis of an initial body of knowledge of the botany of native plants here and in Australia. Cook’s second voyage had Anders Sparrman as an assistant naturalist. Both these scientists were enlightened for their time and had an appreciation for indigenous knowledge and an innate understanding of what we would now recognise as environmental science.

We learned from Professor Sörlin about the origin of the word “environment” and its gradual change to the word we understand by it these days. The word was originally from French and meant surround or a demarcation. We were taken on a journey of discovery by the professor to see how over time many authors contributed to the way we have come to understand the role humans play in the environment around us.

William Vogt wrote “Road to survival” post war and the word “environment” appeared with its new meaning here. Until Vogt, it was generally thought that nature worked on humans. Vogt realised it was often the other way around. He saw us destroying nature through our greed or clumsiness. Every chapter in his book addressed problems like overpopulation, erosion and poverty.

Professor Sörlin introduced the word “Anthropocene” as a proposed new epoch dating from the time of significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosystem. Recent human activity has altered the environment so much that the Earth is quite different from the planetary system that typified the Holocene epoch.

It’s apparent the work is not yet done in shifting everyone’s understanding to believe the impact we have on our planet. Professor Sörlin explained that the wealthy cross the limits often and the poor have limited effect. The question time at the end indicated the audience understood there was work to do, both locally and globally. Big business, politicians and individuals. All of us – standing together on the shoulders of enlightened early naturalists, along with Greta, trying to effect good change.

Angela Gilbert, Member Friends of Te Papa

Feature image (left – right): J Wellings, Friends of Te Papa Vice-President, Professor Sverker Sorlin, Guest Speaker, Heidi Meudt, Te Papa Science Researcher. Photo by E.Kay, 2019.