Why is it that Aboriginal attitudes towards land differ so greatly to non-Indigenous, Western attitudes? In recognising these differences, are there lessons to be learnt from such a cross-cultural comparison? In examining the notion of environmental communication, it’s clear the ways in which we communicate with and listen to the natural world around us is fundamental to how we interact with and understand the environment. However, there are greatly differing ways in which particular cultures relate to and perceive the natural world. In understanding these fundamental differences, we could begin to understand how and why we have entered the age of the anthropocene.
A non-Indigenous, Western attitude towards the environment perceives the land as an extractable resource to be tirelessly profited off. This attitude tends to focus on pursuing economic growth, encouraging consumerism and normalising greed. The perception is founded on anthropocentric, individualistic values with the belief humankind is the most important being on earth and land is a seperate entity that humankind can use, abuse and capitalise on for their own benefit. As the essay ‘Beyond Denial’ explains, “‘economic growth’ is…a reassuring biological metaphor that diverts attention from what it actually describes: the rate at which humans convert land once occupied by ecosystems into coal-pits and industrial technomass” (2013). Furthermore, the neo-liberal economic system the global North has founded itself upon is unsustainable in nature and inherently tied to climate change. In neoliberalism’s focus on an ever expanding economy fueled by consumerism, capitalism and greed, the environment has begun to respond to the unsustainable nature of such an economic model in an attempt to save humanity from its own self-destruction. As Naomi Klein explains in the documentary ‘This Changes Everything’, “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature” (2014).
Like the body that tells us it’s in need of iron through physical symptoms, the environment too has its own and unique way of communicating meaningful and important messages. As Linda Hogan said, “there is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks, most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” As the world becomes increasingly industrialised, with 85 percent of Australians now living in urbanised environments (Population Australia, 2018) and with the rise of social media, humankind has never been more environmentally disconnected. This disconnect and the effect living in densely populated cities with little access to green spaces has on an individual’s well-being should not be overlooked. As this disconnect grows, politicians continue to prioritise the economy over the environment, mental health rises, Aboriginal connections to land are forgotten and natural disasters become ever more frequent. The irony is humankind will be the ultimate loser with its own life on earth at stake.
Comparatively, Aboriginal attitudes towards the environment see humankind and nature inherently linked, of equal importance and entirely connected. The land is alive, to be taken care of, to be listened to, to be respected and to be valued for all the wisdom, nutrients, lessons and guidance it provides. This attitude sees the land as something humans are a part of rather than against. As Nyikina Traditional Owner Dr. Anne Poelina explains, “the country is alive, it has a power, it has an energy system and so we are totally connected to the country, the earth…we must listen to the land, we must listen to the river because within that system, that is giving us the knowledge for why this place…is so special, so important, for all of us” (2014).
In examining the practice of cultural burning, Aboriginal customs and attitudes towards land offer a far more sustainable, respectful and rewarding way to connect to the environment. As the Koori Country Firesticks website explains, “For thousands of years, Aboriginal people have used fire to preserve and manage the landscape… to gain better access to country, to clean up important pathways, control invasive weeds or to maintain cultural responsibilities” (2017). The cultural practice has been passed on by elders and knowledge holders. There is a sense of connection not only to the land but also to ancestors underpinning such a practice. In contrast, the non-Indigenous practice of ‘hazard reduction burning’ involving large fires has the potential to kill life, cause more harm than good, disable natural regrowth and is an ecologically unsustainable practice.
Short-term fixes are relied on with a disregard to learn from the original peoples of Australia who have the most extensive knowledge and understanding of how the land operates and what methods are most sustainable and ecologically conducive. Western attitudes continue to interpret the land as something to be controlled, monitored, used and taken advantage of. However, if this anthropocentric approach was to be replaced by a biocentric worldview, more in line with Aboriginal attitudes, could the environment begin to restore its health independently?
Simultaneously, could the Western world reflect on the health, or rather sickness, of its economy and ultimately change such an unsustainable model, realising the rise of capitalism and climate change are inherently linked? George Monibot encourages the notion of rewilding which allows some minimal interference “but otherwise standing back…It’s about abandoning the biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world” (2013). What would our world look like if non-Indigenous, Western attitudes towards the environment began to learn from Aboriginal cultural practices and beliefs and adopt ecocentric values? If the global North no longer saw the environment as something to govern but rather to learn from? If neo-liberal beliefs were replaced with more sustainable, selfless, collective and environmentally connected values?
Although these questions may run the risk of imagining an idealistic utopia, as the effects of climate change worsen, natural disasters become common, food production more unsustainable and population growth to reach unprecedented levels the world can’t cope with, they may indeed become and it could be said to some extent already are questions of necessity and of survival.