Canberra, like other urban centres, has a big range of cultural institutions. They include a National Gallery of Art, a Portrait Gallery, a War Memorial, a National Museum of Australia, a Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archives, the National Institute of Sport and a range of churches, temples, theatres, arts centres and concert halls. There are also some public institutions focusing on non-human forms of life, like the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the National Botanic Gardens, the Arboretum and the National Zoo; and there are a great number of vigorous NGOs and community and student groups concentrating on a wide range of environmental or human health issues.
Yet, strangely, there is no public institution in Canberra or, as far as we know, in any other Australian city, that focuses on life as such – on life in its entirety – microbes, plants and animals (including humankind). This is curious because we humans are living organisms, products of biological evolution, part of the living world and entirely dependent on the processes of life, within us and around us, for our wellbeing and continued existence.
There is no institution in our society that provides a venue for learning about and celebrating life, and for exchanging ideas about the way forward to a society that is truly in harmony with nature.
This deficiency is especially pertinent at the present time, because human activities on Earth are now on a scale and of a kind that they threaten the integrity of the living systems that underpin our existence.
It is proposed that a National Biocentre be established in Canberra.
The core theme of the Biocentre will be the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature, and the meaning of this story for human wellbeing and for the future of civilisation. This story is of overarching significance for every one of us, and for society as a whole. Yet at present it is understood by only a minority of the population. If it were understood by the majority, the prospects for humanity would be much brighter. We refer to this story as the bionarrative.
The bionarrative is important because it:
- tells us about the coming and going over many millions of years of myriads of different life forms and about the fundamental evolutionary, physiological and ecological processes and principles on which all life and human civilisation depend
- reminds us that we are living beings, products of biological evolution, and entirely dependent on the processes of life within and around is for our wellbeing and survival
- tells us about the evolutionary background of our own species and of the emergence of human culture as a new kind of force on the living world
- tells us about the principles of health and disease
- leads to the inescapable conclusion
that, if present trends in human activity continue unabated, the collapse of
civilisation is certain.
The bionarrative also helps us create a vision of a different kind of society of the future that is truly sensitive to, in tune with, and respectful of the processes of life and that promotes health in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the natural environment.
The National Biocentre will be a physical entity, eventually with its own building(s) and parkland. In the short term, it could begin operations on a small scale in rented or loaned premises. The building(s) of the Centre will be human-friendly and biosphere-friendly.
The National Biocentre will be for people who are interested in life on Earth and who care about the future wellbeing of humankind and the rest of the living world.
activities of the Biocentre will consist of two main thrusts:
(1) Life on Earth – spreading understanding; (2) The way forward – exchanging ideas
- Life on Earth – spreading understanding
Displays, exhibitions, courses and workshops will focus on important and interesting biological and biosocial themes. Themes might include, for example: biodiversity; our dependence on biogeochemical cycles; healthy soils, climate change; population perspectives; biology and the quality of life; disparities in human health and wellbeing; economic health without increasing resource use; lifestyles, health and sustainability; the four ecological phases of human history; 60,00 years of Homo sapiens in the Australian ecosystem.
Some displays will feature biosensitive devices, technologies and building techniques.
- The way forward: exchanging ideas
The National Biocentre will encourage a vigorous exchange of ideas in different sections of the community about the meaning of the bionarrative for individuals and families, and for governments and society as a whole.
Workshops will be convened in which different interest groups discuss and debate the social changes that will be necessary to achieve an effective transition to an ecologically sustainable and healthy of the future. Topics for discussion might include, for example: what it all means for: urban planning; governmental priorities; the economic system; primary, secondary and tertiary education; local food production; people’s lifestyles.
The outcome of these activities will be widely publicised online and in the press.
The National Biocentre will be much more dynamic than a conventional gallery or museum, with a great deal of community involvement. There will be an important input from local universities and research institutions. The Centre will constitute a two-way bridge between scientists and the rest of the population.
The National Biocentre will be a hub for interaction between NGOs, government agencies, the private sector and community groups concerned with the promotion of human health and ecological sustainability.
Community groups, NGOs, commercial organisations and governmental agencies will be encouraged to mount displays consistent with the aims and objectives of the Centre.
We can envisage an ongoing series of luncheon meetings, rather as we see in the National Press Club today, but focusing on human place in nature, the health of human populations and of the living systems of the biosphere, and the social changes necessary to achieve survival and wellbeing.
There will be an important social dimension to the Centre, with comfortable meeting rooms conducive to convivial social interaction. It will be a place for celebrating life on Earth.
National Biocentre could make a significant contribution to the transition to a
healthy and sustainable society of the future. It might well become a prototype
for similar institutions in cities around the world.
A NOTE ON THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THIS PROPOSAL
The above proposal is, in essence, an updated version of an earlier proposal. In 1965 a group of scientists in ACT proposed to the Federal Government that there should be a new kind of public institution in Canberra which they called a Biological Centre.
The proposal was based on the view that the prevailing culture at the time suffered from a serious deficiency. It had lost sight of the fact that we are living organisms, part of nature, products of biological evolution, and totally dependent of the processes of life within us and round us, for our health, wellbeing and very existence.
This reality was simply not reflected in the prevailing worldview and institutional structure of society, much to the disadvantage of humans themselves, and of the living systems on which they depend.
The group argued that there was a pressing need for a new kind of public institution to help counter this cultural void – a new kind of institution to stand alongside other public institutions like art galleries, museums, war memorials, botanic gardens, and cathedrals. They called this institution a Biological Centre. It was later referred to as a Biocentre.
The Biological Centre would be all about life – its history, how it all works, how we humans emerged through the processes of evolution, about our own biology and about how our species is now impacting on the rest of the living world. It would be a place for learning about it all – and for thinking and talking about its meaning for individuals and families and for society. There would be much more community involvement than in a conventional museum or zoo.
The proposal was strongly supported by some overseas scientists, including Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Tinbergen; and it was supported by every primary and secondary school in the ACT. We were invited to write an article describing the concept in the International Zoo Yearbook. This was published in 1969.
So, in May 1965 the proposal was formally put to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. It took the government seven years to make up its mind, and when it did so, it was positive. Canberra would have a Biological Centre.
However, just at that time, in 1972, a federal election was called, and a new government came into power, and one of the first things that the new Minister for the Environment, Moss Cass, did was to knock back the decision to establish the Biological Centre. So there is no Biological Centre in the capital today.
In later years, after his retirement from politics, Moss regretted his decision, and indeed for a while he was chairman of a committee attempting to revive the project.
Over the years there have been several interesting efforts to rekindle the proposal, although the later versions differed significantly from the original concept, with less emphasis on understanding life and the human place in nature, and more emphasis on ecologically sustainable technologies and building practices. I was not involved in most of this work after about 1995.
For further information, see: Robin Libby, Boyden Stephen (2018) Telling the Bionarrative: a Museum of Environmental Ideas. Historical Records of Australian Science 29, 138-152. https://doi.org/10.1071/HR18007
 The group of scientists behind this proposal included R. E. Barwick, E.C.F. Bird, S. V. Boyden (Convener), J. H. Calaby, R. Carrick, D. G . Catcheside, A. B. Costin, M. F. Day, A.H. Ennor, F. J. Fenner, O. H. Frankel, H. J. Frith, S. B. Furnass, E. H. Hipsley, I. M. Mackerras, W. L. Nicholas, M. Oliphant, L. Pryor, F. N. Ratcliffe, R. Slatyer, J. D. Smyth, D. F. Waterhouse, W. K. Whitten.
 I say ‘lost sight of’ because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past have embraced a profound respect for the living world, based on appreciation that we humans are part of nature and completely dependent on other forms of life for our existence and wellbeing.