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What, you might exclaim with book in hand, is this Zealandia? Is it a symbolic female personification of colonial New Zealand? Is it the name of a naval ship, the title perhaps of a patriotic song? A butchery in Timaru? It is all of these but most pertinently it is the label applied to a continent that is ninety-four percent submerged, with New Zealand as its largest inhabited landmass. This book is the geological narrative of the complex and dramatic half-billion-year history of continental creation. It is also an imaginative plea for Zealandia to be recognised as ‘the seventh continent,’ and a description of the benefits attendant upon recognition.
The first four chapters of Zealandia deal expertly with the processes that have led to continental definition and the methods used by humanity to geologically and geographically define their home, Earth. The authors are scientists with GNS, experts in their fields of petrology, tectonics and palaeontology. Though the book has been written for a general audience, the subject is complex, the terminology specific. The text is therefore quite challenging and requires concentration. If the reader is prepared to invest the time, he or she may absorb conceptual knowledge of continental crust, hypsometry, subduction and bathymetry. The absorption is aided by what has become de rigeur in publications seeking to communicate science – exceptional visual material in the form of photographs, graphs, diagrams and maps, including underwater, seismic and satellite imaging to illuminate features perhaps previously unseen by most readers. To my mind, this is how a specialist book becomes accessible: with skilful synthesis and intelligent design cohering a panoply of relevant source documents.
The situation then is this: Zealandia is a mostly submerged continent, with relatively shallow waters over continental rather than oceanic crust separating the island land masses (New Zealand, New Caledonia, Howe, Norfolk and Chatham Islands) that constitute only six percent of the continent. This moves us along to Chapter Five: Society, in which the authors outline their central thesis and expand upon the question and answer supplied by them in the preface: “So what? Does it really matter? It matters enormously… to be island nations is one thing but to grow suddenly in stature and take on a continental identity changes everything.”
The authors wisely preface their comments regarding the social, cultural and economic consequences of living on a continent by conceding that they are “geologists, not social or political scientists and so have to tread carefully in this territory.” They then tread quite heavily.
For whilst it is very likely that continental recognition would open up unchallenged access to a greater range of economic resources, it seems less likely that the benefits would be unifying, or that “the geography and geology of Zealandia will lead the people of Zealandia to sustainable living standards and cultural, environmental security well into the foreseeable future.” History has not provided examples of this kind of unity.
These comments about sustainability and environmental security are further weakened by a certain dismissive tone when discussing the preoccupation “these days (with) the rare and threatened nature of various native plants and animals,” lamenting the lack of long view of most discussion regarding conservation and modern biodiversity. The authors are also fairly sure that a “so-called ‘green’ future has to involve just as much mining as at present,” and that “what makes or breaks nations and allows them to celebrate, preserve and promote their culture and environment instead of simply surviving off them, is largely to do with access to resources, to energy, minerals, agriculture and water.” This is true, but there is a paradox here, that ready access to energy, minerals and agriculture, within the prevalent methodologies of consumption, supply and demand, is likely to be incompatible with universal access to (decent) water. There is no acknowledgement either that using a land’s natural resources to accumulate wealth that allows us to celebrate and promote culture and environment is akin to, for example, using a country’s tax income from dairying and mining to fund advertising campaigns to project to the world a ‘100% Pure’ image.
However, it would be misleading to focus on the relative merits of this foray into ideology. For if Chapter Five’s conclusions are at best tenuous and at worst highly subjective, the bulk of the book’s material is definitely neither, and, in addition to digesting a detailed explanation of the evolution of a continent, an undaunted reader may experience the paradigm shift of perceiving New Zealand as simply the visible aspect of an enormous submerged continent. A speculative map on page 257 is the conceptual coup de grace, synthesising the geographical with the geological viewpoint by sketching how the landmass might have appeared to and been named by Kupe or Cook if the continental crust had been above rather than below the shallow ocean waters.
Zealandia closes with the prediction that Zealandia will in the near future be as commonplace a named fact as Antarctica and Australia. When a geologist refers to the near future, one cannot be sure of the inferred time scale. However, with a bit of luck, books are still relevant and unifying cultural artefacts in this near future, so that the predictions of the authors can be corroborated by the inhabitants of a freshly minted continent. In the meantime, the authors, publishers and scientific contributors behind Zealandia deserve accolades for their excellent research, collation, imaginative faculty and book design. The past, present and future of Zealandia is bright.
by Aaron Blaker
Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed
by Nick Mortimer and Hamish Campbell
Published by Penguin