JUST AS I WAS FINISHING Iain McCalman’s The Reef: A Passionate History, the state government of Queensland announced its approval of a rail line to carry coal from the inland Galilee Basin Carmichael mine to the Abbot Point terminal 300 kilometers away on the Australian coast. An estimated 100 million tonnes of coal will be carried each year to the sea and then make its way through the Pacific and Indian Oceans to fuel India’s thirst for electricity. Before reaching open water, the huge ships carrying mountains of dusty black gold will have to thread the Great Barrier Reef. Coal meets coral: what could possibly go wrong?

The Reef is over 2,200 km long and extends over almost 350,000 square km: it is now a cliché to say that it is visible from space. One of the world’s great natural marvels, it is also one of Australia’s biggest economic assets, generating an estimated AU$4 billion a year in tourist revenue. McCalman has written an innovative history “from Captain Cook to climate change,” through biographical sketches of Indigenous, European, and Australian actors who encountered, navigated, scrutinized, surveyed, promoted, and protected the Reef. His approach is at once episodic and kaleidoscopic, as a dozen chapters depict it “variously, and sometimes simultaneously, as a labyrinth of terror, a nurturing heartland, a scientific challenge, and a fragile global wonder.”

The Reef’s subtitle, “a passionate history,” is artfully ambiguous. McCalman’s own passion for the Reef informs the book throughout, whether in his engaging account of sailing through it in a replica of Cook’s HMS Endeavour, or in his concluding laments for its environmental degradation. The Reef is in this sense an impassioned book, an admirer’s argument about what needs to be cherished as much as a scholar’s history of how the Reef came to be understood. Yet it is just as much a book about the passions — the emotions, the enthusiasms, the conflicted feelings — of its nearly 20 biographical subjects.

For a work about such a vast topic — big in scale, big in its implications for how we hold a planet in trust — The Reef is a compellingly intimate account of human interaction with this slice of nature. Self-described as “a historian, a social scientist, and an explorer,” McCalman began his distinguished career crashing through the tangled brush of the late-18th- and early 19th-century radical underworld in Britain. An Enlightenment historian’s sensitivity to sentiments consistently illuminates his account of how “human minds as well as coral polyps” constructed the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef did not need to be discovered — for millennia, Indigenous peoples had inhabited its shores and islands and fished its waters — but McCalman shows that its full extent and complexity had to be pieced together over time. The first part of his book — ominously entitled “Terror” — traces emerging knowledge of the Reef from Cook’s voyages to the work of the post-Darwinian geologist Joseph Jukes. Cook and members of his crew were the first Europeans to describe what his companion, the gentleman-scientist Joseph Banks, called “a Labyrinth of Shoals.” Their peculiar terror was the fear of shipwreck, starvation, and death, as the labyrinth snared his ships in 1770 and threatened to terminate his mission to navigate Terra Australis. Cook’s equally intrepid successor, Matthew Flinders, led not only the first circumnavigation of what we now know as Australia: he coined the term “barrier reefs,” was the first to write of “Great Barrier Reefs” in his Voyage to Terra Australis (1812–’14), and was the first observer to see the Reef whole, as a single, dynamic entity.

If Flinders surveyed the Reef as if from above, others, less fortunate than he, experienced it from below. McCalman showcases the early captivity narrative of Eliza Fraser, a sea captain’s widow shipwrecked at the southern end of the Reef in 1836 who lived with three Aboriginal groups before being rescued and returning to Britain. He unpacks the political uses in Britain of her ordeal and reveals how her story “congealed into a core cultural myth” for filmmakers and artists, most notably the Australian Sidney Nolan, whose images inspired by Fraser paralleled his more famous Ned Kelly sequence.

Later castaways on the Reef — among them the Scottish teenager Barbara Thompson, the young English sailor James Morrill, and the French cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier — provided some of the first ethnographic accounts of the Indigenous peoples of the Reef in the mid-19th century. These, too, inspired art. David Malouf’s great novel of the Queensland frontier, Remembering Babylon (1993), starts with an emaciated creature stammering, “Do not shoot, I am a B-b-british object!”: words taken from Gemmy Morrill’s narrative of 17 years among the Aboriginal clans.

The bulk of the second half of The Reef treats the ironies of its scientific discovery and its emergence as a pressing cause for ecological protection. The key figures here are each a gift for McCalman’s literary skills. William Saville-Kent, likely an accomplice as a child in a famous Victorian murder, fled England and his past for Australia, and in 1893 published “the first complete biography of the Reef,” richly illustrated with photos and chromolithographs which entranced generations of later Reef enthusiasts. Ted Banfield, romantic son of a newspaperman and author of The Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908), escaped to Dunk Island only to find his starry-eyed reports helped to destroy his island paradise by inspiring early waves of ecotourism on the Reef.

Alex Agassiz, loyal son of Louis Agassiz, the great American opponent of Darwin, tried for decades to validate his father’s theory of coral formation; he failed, but his long-running dispute with fellow Harvard-man Alfred Mayor rendered the Reef a cause célèbre among geologists and a source of contention with biologists. Not all of them found the Reef awe-inspiring. “It is the greatest pity in the world [that] there is a Great Barrier Reef … a great nuisance to navigation” that destroys huge areas “of most admirable trawling ground,” thought the Cambridge Professor of Zoology, J. Stanley Gardiner in 1925.

The collision of visions of the Reef became most acute in the 1970s and 1980s. In “Australia, 1970,” the poet and Reef advocate Judith Wright wrote accusingly, “we are conquerors and self-poisoners / more than the scorpion or snake / and dying of the venoms that we make / even while you die of us.” That same year, the Commonwealth of Australia had claimed sovereignty over the Reef and its waters after a concerted campaign by Wright and others to prevent its commercial exploitation under Queensland’s right-ring government.

From that point forth, Australia became the Reef’s guardian and the world watched its fate with mixed admiration and alarm. In 1981, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage site, “the most impressive marine area in the world”; that same year, Charlie Veron — the marine biologist who is the hero of McCalman’s final chapter — found evidence of the first global mass bleaching of the Reef. “Catastrophic global warming had arrived,” notes McCalman.

The Great Barrier Reef, along with other reefs around the world, has been among the most sensitive barometers of anthropogenic climate change. In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated that half of the Reef’s coral cover had died in a little over a quarter-century, “through bleaching, cyclones, pollution, and crown-of-thorns starfish,” McCalman notes, before asking with concern, “what will happen to this figure as the effects of acidification take hold?”

McCalman strives mightily to end his tragic tale on a note of hope. He movingly relates “the resilience of the human heart” among those dwelling along the Reef in the face of seemingly unstoppable environmental catastrophe. And he takes courage from “the magical, reef-creating symbiosis between microscopic algae and a tiny polyp.” This may point the way both toward human cooperation to save or salve the Reef and to the endless evolutionary adaptability of the “myriads of tiny architects” Darwin marveled at in his account of coral formation.

By mid-century, as greenhouse gases dissolve in the oceans and make them ever more acidic, carbonate corals could simply melt away. Emissions from India’s coal-fired power plants will speed up the retreat of the Reef and its eventual dissolution. The reader’s head hangs heavy with the evidence of destruction even as one’s heart is with McCalman. The Reef may yet take its revenge by ensnaring one of those coal freighters heading for India. But that would be cold comfort for anyone hot under the collar about the fate of the Reef and what it betokens about the future of our planet.

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David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University. His books include Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People (co-edited, 2014) and (with Jo Guldi) The History Manifesto (2014).