Essay: Tony Birchon caring for Country

Climate Change, Recognition and Social Place-Making

This essay was first published in Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia, ed. Eve Vincent & Timothy Neale, UWA Publishing 2016.


Recent scientific studies in Australia have reached alarming conclusions regarding climate change and the rapid acceleration of unpredictable and damaging weather events. A joint University of Queensland and Griffith University study found that Australia is on track to reach a 2°C average temperature rise by 2030, a date a decade or more earlier than previous predictions.

The figure is also above the 1.5°C rise in temperature agreed to as ‘the preferred limit to protect vulnerable island states’ at the United Nations global conference on climate change in Paris in December 2015. As a consequence of the predicted temperature rise, the authors of the research have warned, ‘we have a choice: leave people in poverty and speed toward dangerous global warming through the increased use of fossil fuels, or transition rapidly to renewables’. A similar study, analysing temperature rises in the Northern Hemisphere over a similar period, produced an equally dire prediction. A 2°C rise in temperatures, the research concluded, would result in the planet ‘breaching a terrifying milestone’:

As of 3 March [2016] it appears that the average temperatures across the northern hemisphere breached 2°C pre-industrial levels for the first time in recorded history, and probably the first time since human civilization began thousands of years ago.

The research, while not dependent on scare tactics or apocalyptic narratives to get its point across, produced alarmist media headlines that will likely elicit increased levels of anxiety and fear amongst people – itself a condition likely to foster a sense of hopelessness amongst some. In order to allay fear, or direct it productively toward the hopefulness of action in response to climate change, frameworks supporting knowledge exchange, community education and connectivity between individuals and communities must be developed. Likewise, places or sites of connection where productive and ethical dialogues can be nurtured are also necessary. The manner in which information about climate change will be presented, discussed and shared within communities will be a key component for action and change. While the current situation we face at both a local and global level may legitimately be described as urgent (as it often is), a state of desperation will be counter-productive. Ironically, a perceived or genuine sense of urgency may produce panic and an inability to respond.

Strategies to deal with climate change require both immediate action and long-term policies. Although it may appear to be a counter-intuitive statement, it would be a mistake to rush to action in some instances when more thoughtful consideration and time are actually required. This is not to underestimate or disregard the dire situation that some communities face right now. It is self-evident that particular nations and communities are subject to catastrophic weather events now, and face the immediate realities of environmental degradation, the destruction of human life, species, habitat and physical and social dislocation. Across northern Australia and throughout the Pacific, Indigenous communities may soon be displaced from country and suffer forced relocation.

The loss of country will have a devastating impact on the spiritual, physical and social wellbeing of affected communities. Vulnerable communities able to remain in place will not escape the dramatic disruption to life. Rob Nixon, in his influential book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, makes the point concerning the impacts of climate change on those subject to such violence, reminding us that economic, social and cultural displacement will also occur within homelands, producing dire outcomes for many:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in place stripped of the very characteristics that made it inhabitable.

A leading environmental activist and thinker on climate change, George Marshall, has in recent years turned his attention to the communication – in lay terms – of the physical and social science underpinning climate change and our collective inability to face its consequences and address the changes we need to now make as a global community. His recent book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, attempts to challenge the dilemma underpinning the title of the book. Marshall begins his book with a deliberate provocation:

How is it possible, when presented with overwhelming evidence, even the evidence of our own eyes, that we can deliberately ignore something – while being entirely aware that this is what we are doing?

There is no simple answer to Marshall’s question, of course. The human species is more than capable of refusing logic and common sense via a range of intellectual, political and economic inhibitors. Additionally, external to our emotional and intellectual inertia, capitalism itself is a seemingly unstoppable force driving our reliance on damaging fossil fuels.

There is some optimism that so-called ‘market forces’ will eventually shift from fossil fuel energy to renewables. But we can hardly rely on or trust the market to budge us from our state of collective psychological paralysis. The more coal and other fossil fuels that remain in the ground, the better off we will be. While a move to renewables is welcome, it will not produce the necessary shift in our social or psychological relationship with the planet required to live more equitably with each other and non-human species. I agree with Jedediah Purdy that ‘changes in consciousness are a necessary precondition for big and material changes in the human relation to the changing world’.  I also agree that such changes are of themselves insufficient. Purdy is asking something more of society, with a provocation of his own:

What kind of world to make together – should be taken as a challenge to democracy. The test is whether citizens can form the kind of democracy that can address the Anthropocene question, the question of what kind of world to make. A democracy that cannot do this will have marked itself as inadequate to its most basic problems.

Western ‘first world’ democracies must accept the necessary changes required to confront a looming environmental and social disaster of our own making and accept responsibility for the severity of the impact of climate change on communities that have produced the smallest carbon footprints on the planet. Indigenous communities in Australia are currently dealing with the injustices of such impacts. Ironically (or not), recognition of the challenges faced by Indigenous people as a result of climate change offer a beneficial outcome to the wider Australian community. Innovative strategies to deal with climate change must engage communities maintaining knowledge and experience capable of assisting a shift in mindset sought by thinkers such as Marshall and Purdy.

‘A stronger presence for Indigenous peoples in ecological protection and ecological management’ is acknowledged as a central component for equitable ‘agreement-making’ between Indigenous people and government more generally. For Deborah Bird Rose, an anthropologist who has collaborated with and gained an education through her association with Indigenous communities in Australia for more than thirty years now, new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy:

The really scary thing about the idea that our past is now racing toward us from the future is the way in which it forces us to abandon the illusion of immunity, and confront seriously the processes we have been triggering…with western mainstream time concepts losing their hold on reality, perhaps the hubris of modernity will falter enough to allow us to open new conversations about time, place and action.

Caring for Country

[I]f Will Steffen’s predictions about dire and inevitable species loss associated with climate change prove correct, then surely deploying the precautionary principle we should recognise the extraordinary importance of Indigenous estate to the nation’s ecological future. The relationship between colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation and a consequent link to climate change is unambiguous. In Australia, the usurpation of land not suited for wide-acre agricultural farming had led not only to the appropriation of Indigenous land, but also the destruction of local ecologies and the wasteful use of natural resources such as water and soil. Jon Altman’s assessment that ‘the brutal colonisation and political marginalisation of Indigenous Australians can be understood as a conflict over land and resource rights’ accurately reflects the extent of violence utilised by colonial forces in an effort to dispossess Indigenous people of country. This is not a conflict located in the past. The consequences of colonialism reverberate in contemporary Australian life. Inequitable socio-political and economic structural frameworks dominate relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, entrenching the marginalisation and disempowerment of Indigenous communities:

Operating in an environment of considerable socioeconomic disadvantage, of extremely recent colonisation and displacement, and where the invading and now dominant culture’s language and world views are so vastly different presents enormous challenges.

The degrees of incursion of colonisation into Indigenous nations and country in Australia varies, dependent on factors such as where and when ‘first contact’ occurred and the strategic geographical location of the site of occupation, including the material and/or strategic value of country to the coloniser. In parts of the north of Australia, particularly the Northern Territory and ‘remote’ sectors of Western Australia, sustained contact between Indigenous people and white Australia did not occur until the twentieth century. As a result, relative to other parts of Australia, more Indigenous communities in these areas continue to live on country, while continuing to deal with difficulties of external interference that often prevent communities ‘from undertaking their responsibilities to care for country, and in many cases unable to enjoy being on their country’. The legacy of colonisation also continues to foster ‘inequitable power relationships between Indigenous people and government agencies’, stifling or extinguishing Indigenous autonomy.

These same Indigenous communities maintain a wealth of knowledge of ecological systems invaluable to the development of our collective understanding of the historical underpinnings of the current phase of climate change. Such knowledge is invaluable, also, to understanding how national and global environmental challenges might be dealt with in both a contemporary setting and the future. In recent years, informed engagements with Indigenous communities by outside interests have attempted to address the historical impact of colonial imposition on those communities, including disruption to and, in some instances, the destruction of local ecologies. Simultaneously, Indigenous communities are increasingly articulating a desire to link aspects of cultural, economic and social wellbeing with environmental issues generally and climate change specifically. As Roston, Campion and Namarnyilk argue:

We are all facing some big challenges with the changes in the climate. Over the last few years in particular we have seen how the changes to animals and plants in our country are not happening at the right times…this is a big worry for us. Rain is changing, wind is changing and the life of our country is changing.

This assertion, expressed within Indigenous communities, that we are all facing challenges is a generous offer to strengthen conversations and connections with other communities across Australia – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – in the interests of ecological and environmental maintenance within a changing climate. We could use the terms such as ‘equitable dialogue’, ‘cross-cultural awareness’ (or ‘exchange’) or ‘two-way learning’ to describe these conversations. In basic terms we need to find new ways and places to talk, to give recognition to the wealth of knowledge of climate, local ecologies and the environment more generally held and practised within particular Indigenous communities. While the richness of this knowledge and the potential for productive relationships is evident, unless cultural and intellectual exchange is genuinely equitable, strategies for dealing with climate change within the wider Australian community will remain limited.

The experience of Indigenous people ‘caring for country’ in partnership with non-Indigenous interests offers a cautionary tale when considering the models for collaborative relationships required if the impacts of climate change are to be mitigated in the future. Such a shift will require an additional change; a shift in the collective psyche of white Australia will necessitate an acceptance of, and a subsequent ability to embrace the realities of living on and in Indigenous country. Contemplating this challenge, I am (perhaps surprisingly) attracted to a simultaneously innovative, naive and practical ‘thought experiment’ recently suggested by the environmental humanities scholars Stephen Turner and Timothy Neale.

Turner and Neale propose that we (being them, settler societies in Australia and New Zealand) need to re-imagine our own place in place, open to the provocation that ‘there is no outer settler space. There is only someone else’s country’ – Indigenous country. They explain that their thought experiment is no frivolous act of ‘“wishful thinking”, or an Avatar-like affection for indigeneity’. With climate change described by the authors as ‘our shared (global) endangerment’, they are attempting to nudge the collective thinking of nominally postcolonial societies, not through a utopian proposal (although the idea may appear as such) but through a refreshing proposal that makes ethical, intellectual and common sense. Living in Indigenous country rather than attempting to assimilate both it (country) and Indigenous people into a Eurocentric model of occupation could produce a realisation of what both care and country mean in a dynamic sense; one that is both educative and achievable. As Kerins, an anthropologist with extensive experience with Indigenous ranger programs, states:

Caring for country constitutes something far greater than a person, or group of people having a job and physically managing a geographic area by dealing with problems created by weeds or feral animals. Caring for country encompasses being spiritually bound to country through intimate connections with ancestral beings still present in the land and waters.

In his analysis of state-funded ‘Caring for Country’ programs within Indigenous communities, Altman reminds us of one of the unexpected benefits of colonial expansion in Australia: the lack of material attraction to particular country by settler communities has protected an asset of benefit to Indigenous people and the wider Australian community. As a result of certain tracts of Indigenous land ‘having low commercial value’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (hence their availability for land claims), the same land now yields ‘high environmental, fresh water, carbon abatement and biodiversity conservation values’.

Country referred to by Altman as ‘the most ecologically intact parts of the country [being] Aboriginal owned’, offers a shift in approaches to ecological maintenance in an intellectual and physical environment where ‘Western scientific expertise alone was failing to deliver outcomes’. An opportunity for the due recognition of Indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge of country is obvious. Non-Indigenous society has failed to fully grasp this value, and build relationships based on mutual recognition and trust. As is often the case, Godden notes, ‘partnerships’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous interests are contingent on burdensome bureaucratic frameworks and outmoded colonial models of service delivery that undermine change:

While there have been strong calls to create more participatory frameworks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many trends to involve Indigenous peoples within mainstream environmental and NRM management regimes have been criticised as occurring within an assimilationist framework.

If such partnerships are not limited enough in their ability to recognise the potential for genuine cross-cultural knowledge exchange, the notion of care in relation to country took on a new and unfortunate meaning as an outcome of the federal government’s ‘Intervention’ in the Northern Territory in 2007. Altman expresses understandable regret that a ‘brief policy era of self-determination’ has been replaced with a ‘re-imposed and paternalistic regime of normalisation or recolonisation by the state’. As Indigenous communities are drawn into government initiated, legally enforced and regressive programs (as is the case with the Intervention), autonomy and the value of Indigenous cultural knowledge is replaced with governance and the imposition of metrics. Anthropologist Eloise Fache argues that:

Community-based natural resource management programmes are a locus where rationales of empowerment and neoliberal principles, although distinct or even mutually exclusive in appearance, are intrinsically entangled, and that these entanglements can be described as a phenomenon of ‘bureaucratic participation’.

As a direct result of the Intervention, ‘Caring for Country’ programs have shifted from a cultural and intellectual focus to the bureaucratically controlled and instrumentally informed slogan, ‘Working for Country’. This is not a subtle shift in language. It is, rather, a linguistic disguise masking a more profound shift. Sean Kerins informs us that with the removal of a single word and its replacement with another, an underlying intention becomes a dominant motivation. As Kerins explains, caring for country is a multilayered and complex expression of Aboriginal English, whereas working for country is an externally enforced bureaucratic and restrictive definition. It is also purposefully narrow in scope. The use of neo-colonial language inhibits Indigenous self-determination and, consequently, the potential for a genuine exchange of ecological/environmental ideas and strategies. Kerins writes:

By defining what is possible to think [through discourse] and suppressing others, those with institutional power –like Government agencies – do not need to draw on coercive force to change people’s behaviour because the dominant discourse has established a framework, or ‘rules of the game’, that individuals and groups must ‘play to’ in order to be recognised and participate.

A Difficult Space

Deborah Bird Rose has written of the ‘difficult space of simultaneous critique and action’ with regard to the environmental humanities as an academic discipline. I want to borrow the concept of difficulty she raises and consider it in relation to conversations around climate change in both a general sense and the specific context of the potential for an ongoing dialogue between Indigenous and other communities in Australia. But first we need to recognise the risks at stake for Indigenous people entering into these conversations. Not only are Indigenous communities subject to knowledge appropriation, the concept of inclusion itself, however meaningful, can be debilitating and disempowering for Indigenous people.

Gilbert Caluya, in a critique of the recent Anthropocene discourse writes of ‘concerns with the universal conception at the heart of the Anthropocene because it has the potential to be used to reinstall the white liberal human subject of the Enlightenment’. The enlightened white liberal concerned about the environment is also likely to harbour an unhealthy attraction to ‘the native’. He/she desperately wants to belong in Australia, and in the spirit of reconciliation, needs Indigenous people to give recognition to this desire for attachment. In situations where Indigenous people refuse to give recognition to ‘enlightened’ Australians, the likely outcome is a sense of rejection. The concept of belonging, along with that of reconciliation (bureaucratically endorsed with a capital ‘R’) became a populist and intellectual buzzword around the year 2000 (the year of the lauded reconciliation marches). But the notion of belonging itself is also a projection of white privilege. As O’Gorman summarises:

[Australia] is a nation with a long history of problematic conceptualisations of belonging. Belonging is still mobilised, often in violent acts of exclusion, and means life and death.

Andrew Schaap persuasively argues that governmentally driven reconciliation strategies are integral to ‘anti-political movements’ enacted to maintain order and moderate conflict. He cautions not only against the formation of populist reconciliation movements in ‘divided societies’ such as Australia, but also ‘the risk inherent in the politics of recognition’ itself, which is likely to further disempower Indigenous communities. In consideration of such a view, the recognition of, and genuine respect for, Indigenous ecological knowledge that could form the basis of new and enriched relationships between Indigenous and nonIndigenous communities remains hampered by colonial baggage. Regardless of, or perhaps as a response to, this legacy we could offer ourselves another challenge, our own thought exercise, being that difficulty, or even impossibility, is as good a place as any to begin a new conversation. If we truly desire to commence what Rose calls ‘an ethical dialogue’ between Indigenous and nonIndigenous people – if recognition is to carry serious weight – it will involve risk for all parties. Rose values the concept of risk, channelled through open conversation:

One does not know the outcome. To be open is to hold one’s self available to others: one takes risks and becomes vulnerable. But this is also a fertile stance: one’s own ground can become destabilized. In open dialogue one holds oneself available to be surprised, to be challenged and be changed.

Rose is one of several non-Indigenous scholars in Australia who have, through proactive social and intellectual engagement over many years, produced a template for connectivity, mutual respect and knowledge exchange. She has worked closely with Indigenous communities for several decades, from the position of student as much as the university-trained researcher and intellectual. In her research she refers to her Indigenous teachers with no trace of paternalistic affection. Her place is informed by social interaction and learning through experience, rather than white deference to the ‘native’, either feigned or self-flagellating. Subsequently, an open dialogue, with all the risk involved, is the potential reward. Her approach refuses dominant models of engagement with Indigenous communities, located within a ‘western critical theory and philosophical analysis’ that Rose refers to as:

A monologue masquerading as conversation, masturbation purporting to be productive interaction; it is a narcissism so profound that it claims to find a universal knowledge when in fact its violent erasures are universalizing its own singular and powerful isolation.

In contrast to a position of Eurocentric narcissism and ignorance, humility offers us a starting point. And it is not as if we do not have working models where ‘outsiders’ have given due recognition and respect to Indigenous knowledge. In Jonathan Lear’s important work, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a study of the life of the First Nations Crow chief, Plenty Coups, Lear begins with the guiding and universal ‘principle of humanity: that we should try to interpret others as saying something true’. He asks that contemporary (North American) society seek out and hear ‘a new Crow poet’, not only as an ethical gesture, but as a challenge to a history of colonisation that relies of the comforting mythology of total conquest; an unstable psychic confidence predicated on unhindered acts of dispossession and extermination. Lear’s aim is to undermine this fragile confidence, for the better, within the energy located in the ‘vibrancy’ of the poetic voice of Indigenous culture:

Here by ‘poet’ I mean the broadest sense of a creative maker of meaningful space. The possibility for such a poet is precisely the possibility for creation of a new field of possibilities. No one is in a position to rule out that possibility.

It is neither surprising nor coincidental that particular scholars working with Indigenous communities in Australia have located the creative/intellectual potential and principle of ethics in a similarly broad definition of poetry. Nor is it surprising that the same scholars have developed mutually beneficial and trustful relationships with Indigenous people due to a sustained commitment to an ethical cross-cultural dialogue.

The year 2014 witnessed the celebration of the book, Reading the Country, written in 1984 by Stephen Muecke, in collaboration with the Moroccan-born artist, Krim Benterrak, and the late Nyigina elder, Paddy Roe. Muecke has written many books since Reading the Country and his association with the Roe family continues. In 1984, Muecke’s introduction to the book stated that ‘it was Paddy Roe initially who had this desire to speak, to tell the story of his country once again’. The occasionally nomadic Muecke had gone in search of a particular sense of poetry that would productively challenge and unhinge the status quo of colonial authority:

One cannot imagine that the book is guided by any poetic unity or harmony. On the contrary, the poetry is of a different sort, one that responds to our times. It is a poetry of fragmentation, contradiction, unanswered questions, specificity, fluidity and change.

Concepts such as fragmentation and contradiction may not immediately conjure the optimism that one might hope for with relation to the pressing issues of environmental degradation and climate change. But it is only through an energetic acceptance of the risk inherent to shifting from the restrictive framework of colonialism to genuine postcolonial relationships that change will materialise.

In a similar manner to Muecke, Rose came to understand that pre-determined cultural barriers required a fresh approach if she was to begin a dialogue of understanding. In Dingo Makes Us Human, she recognised the necessity for new ways of interaction and learning; ‘Coming to Yarralin took me out of the indirect world of books, and brought me straight to one of the most basic of all human questions: who are you?’ After living at Yarralin for two years, Rose left the community and took with her an education delivered through a principle, both direct and profound, that could serve contemporary Australia well when thinking about developing collective ecological values:

My primary purpose is to bring clarity to a set of issues which I understand to be those which most concern the Yarralin people…[to] understand that life is a gift, and that respect for life’s manifestations is the only form of reciprocity worthy of such a gift.

The Essentialism of a Bush University

In order to accept the place of human society in place, Jessica Weir suggests ‘an expanded connectivity is needed to (re)position humans within a web of life sustaining relationships’. She further argues that a possible framework for a more informed sense of connectivity to place is utilised by Indigenous communities in Australia. Within country aligned to the Murray River, Weir writes, ‘the traditional owners speak of a connectivity that encompasses, and goes beyond, food web dependencies to include stories, histories, feelings, shared responsibilities and respect’. While Weir advances a practical and philosophical way of thinking and acting that could shift our relationship to non-human species and the planet, we must question white Australia’s collective psyche and its capacity to listen to Indigenous people, particularly when the nation has shown itself to be culturally deaf in the past. And while Weir is certainly not suggesting so, we must also caution against Indigenous ecological knowledge being branded and packaged as a quick fix solution to climate change by retro-fitting it to suit Western society.

The challenge to white Australia is to address a question. How does the nation move from a state of colonial anxiety that refuses genuine recognition and engagement to a concept of locating ‘Indigenous theories, methodologies, and methods at the centre, not the periphery’ of our society? While such a shift could ultimately produce ‘an ecological philosophy of mutual benefit’, getting there will be a serious challenge. This political and cultural mind-shift would appear seismic, perhaps beyond realistic expectations in a nation where the shrillest voices continue to dominate popular discourse on Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations. Colonial denial, manifested in a variety of forms and locations, is at the heart of cultural ignorance in Australia. With climate change a crisis that can no longer be denied (regardless of the worn-out mantras of denialists) both illusion and elusion must become redundant, if the inherent damage of denialism is to cease. Ghassan Hage suggests that:

The more a colonizing nation can shield its citizens from realities, carving out spaces where they are not exposed to the colonial conditions of their good life, the more civilized it appears.

Hage (among others) articulates a clear link between ‘colonial and ecological crises’, in particular ‘how the two experiences work together to accentuate the feeling of colonial besiegement and to give it its particular intensity today’. Settler colonialism, ‘in which outsiders come to make a new home’, is dependent on the expropriation of Indigenous land and culture, followed by targeted forms of denialism and amnesia ‘designed not to consider place – to do so would require consideration of genocide’. A thoughtful, ethical change of consciousness is too difficult a challenge for those for whom the cost would be the dismantling of a colonial fantasy. As Tuck and McKenzie argue:

Turning toward place necessitates acknowledgement and reparations based on these histories: of settler colonialism, capitalism…separations of mind from body, body from land. As humans make our planet increasingly toxic, unlivable, and at the same time increasingly inequitable, at what point might these cleavages be sewn back together, might we account for our pasts and to future generations?

A second colonial legacy inhibiting the value of something like mutual recognition between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia is an essentialist view of what constitutes a legitimate Indigenous identity in the colonial mind, manifested in both a physical/biological identity, in addition to a narrow view of what constitutes a legitimate connection to place and country. An understanding of what constitutes ‘country’ is too often essentialised by white Australians. It therefore disenfranchises both the land on which the majority of Indigenous communities live and Indigenous people ourselves. If there is legitimacy in the belief that ‘according to geographers and environmental psychologists, questions of “who we are” are often intimately related to questions of “where we are”’, most Indigenous people are rendered suspect at best, living overwhelmingly in suburbs, cities and regional towns. Where we are has a negative impact on how outsiders perceive who we are. The consequence of such a view also impacts directly on the legitimacy of the intellectual and cultural knowledge held in urban Indigenous communities. Engagement and consultation on ecological and environmental matters with the 70 per cent of Indigenous people living in urban areas is typically given little attention.

Despite being a relatively large population, Indigenous people living in cities ‘have historically been afforded little visibility’ except as the dependent, threatening or tainted (with the menace posed by the ‘half-caste menace’ remaining self-evident, even if the language has changed over time). According to the Indigenous scholar Larissa Behrendt, ‘the non-indigenous imaginary’ remains fixated on a connection between Indigenous people and ‘nature’. Those of us not attached to this concept of ‘nature’ are of little value beyond relationships fixated on welfare, criminal and various social dependency industries.

The collective action required to deal with climate change must dispose of such ignorant views. A shift in mindset is required in order to produce meaningful and valuable interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, regardless of where Indigenous people live. Key thinkers in the area, such as Rose, ask that non-Indigenous people begin a conversation that respects Indigenous self-determination while considering the value of relationships built on ‘connection’ rather than ‘unity’. For Rose ‘unity’ is too often code for assimilation and appropriation. A leading educator and thinker linking education and ecological concerns, Chet Bowers, argues that a framework of ‘eco-justice’, incorporating a philosophy of mutual recognition, is necessary in order to deal with the environmental concerns we face. He defines eco-justice as:

Understanding the relationship between ecological and cultural systems, specifically between the domination of nature and the domination of oppressed groups; addressing environmental racism, including the geographical dimension of social injustice and environmental pollution; revitalizing the non-commodified traditions of different racial and ethnic groups and communities, especially those traditions that support ecological sustainability; re-conceiving and adapting our lifestyles in ways that will not jeopardize the environment for future generations.


In her recent book, Decolonizing Solidarity, Clare Land writes that ‘the paternalism and tension in relationships between nonIndigenous and Indigenous activists are, at heart, generated by colonial conditions’. If the Bowers manifesto, linking environmental and social justice, were to gain traction in settler societies such as Australia, the colonial conditions that continue to both haunt and influence relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people must shift, dramatically so, both within defined localities and communities and on a national scale. While a shift in attitude, behaviour and dialogue should not be afforded undue optimism in Australia, considering the levels of racism and xenophobia that continue to infect the nation, the opposite, of journeying forward with blindness and ignorance is untenable for all of us, human and non-human.

In the future, ecological and environmental maintenance will require collective thinking, commitment and effort on a global scale. Solutions to climate change will remain elusive without such an undertaking. Solutions will not come from a reliance on government. In fact, progress on climate change will remain stifled if governments dominate discussion. Gatherings of the ‘world leaders’ of politics and business have delivered limited outcomes (at best), with discussion rarely moving beyond non-committal communiqués that provide little more than a media opportunity. Rather than wait for governments to act on climate change in a sustained manner we could do worse than invest in the old slogan, ‘act locally – think globally’ and translate it into meaningful and sustained outcomes. Through an intellectual, cultural and, for some, a spiritual attachment to place and country, we can produce productive outcomes.

Footnotes have been removed from this online version of ‘Climate Change, Recognition and Social Place-Making’. For complete notes, see the essay as originally published in Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia, ed. Eve Vincent & Timothy Neale, UWA Publishing 2016.


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