In considering Country I recognise that I approach it as both a settler and outsider-inside. I also acknowledge that my existence as a settler is enabled by the Country in which I live and work and that I am enveloped by this Country. I am not initiated and lack the cultural permissions and knowledges to articulate the depth and intricacy of relationship that specific ‘Country’ embodies. In considering Country as an outsider, I engage it partially as a concept. This is problematic as a mode of approach that implies both a knowability and a distance which I am not afforded. This tension will be addressed critically within the essay along with crucial issues concerning ‘cultural’ appropriation and environmental management.
The opportunity to engage with Country is a generous gift from Indigenous ‘Australia’, which is continuously offered even in the midst of ongoing colonial adversity that threatens the very hands that hold out this gift. Country then is strong, dynamic, and robust enough to offer an understanding and appeal against the Western structures of thought that propagate colonial violence and socio-ecological degradation. In this way, Country fundamentally de-centres the Western paradigm while simultaneously and continuously enunciating alternative Indigenous realities. This essay will explore the particular implications of Country for ‘environmental’ management in the ‘Australian’ context.
Before Country can be understood at the depth required here, we must articulate the Western conceptual base with which it contrasts. Country is not merely an element of an opposing Indigenous ontology, one that is merely differing. Instead, Country embodies an opposition to ontology itself as a category particular to the metaphysical tradition of the West. Discourses framing Indigenous world-views as ontologies then could be understood as attempts to subsume Indigeneity into a “larger” Western metaphysical taxonomic program of ontology. This is particularly problematic where metaphysics as a particular frame of thought can be foundationally derived from the Institutions of imperialism, colonialism, industrialisation and capitalism, variously responsible for the production of the anthropocene.1
Metaphysics is a particular and contingent Western conceptual project that some theorists have located as stemming from the advent of particular modes of agricultural practice.2 Metaphysics is not then a super-organic framework for contextualizing different ontologies within and alongside the Western ontology, the study of being, is a Western metaphysical concern that can be problematised within the heritage of dualism as necessarily implying an external category of that which is not being, non-being, as an outside, a domain which may be exploited, colonised or polluted.
By constructing a category for “being” as rational agents with minds in the cartesian tradition, we simultaneously produce a distinction for that which isn’t being as non-rational.3 Philosophy as metaphysically instituted then, has always had a ‘view about nature’.4 It produces this exterior domain necessarily. In platonic thought, for instance, the metaphysical concern for Ideal Forms, inversely produces a domain of non-being, the worldy domain that is not-contingent, extrinsic to being, and corrupted. 5 ‘Nature’ then, as a domain, is a recent and highly contingent conceptual production of the metaphysical concern itself, and not a universally understood category.6 Metaphysics is then the foundation for Western hierarchies and problematic categorical dualisms.7,8
The concern for being produces a differential categorization and the external ‘not-being’ is rendered as extrinsic or outside. But as being is permeated by non-being, these categories have to be constantly rearticulated to retain differential meaning, resulting in an ongoing violence of exclusion. Inversely, through the violence of inclusion, this system could be seen as structurally enabling the inherent violence of mass domestication.9
As such, this metaphysical difference is systematically deferred to some future posited point of separation. For example, in the platonic concern toward death, this metaphysical difference would be realised and the spirit would move finally into the world of Ideal Forms.10
The possibility of being is maintained through orientation toward some future point of realised transcendence. This is epitomised in Elon Musk’s Mars One project, wherein terrestrial transcendence of Earth’s ecological conditions would constitute a kind of teleological realisation of humanity, a separation, and realisation of “nature” as an actual discrete domain.
This process of categorical differentiation is also embedded in language. Since the Roman institution of private property, self as the ‘I’ that owns property comes into existence negatively through this assertion of ownership.11
In the settler colonial encounter with Indigenous Sovereignty, this ‘I’ is produced negatively through the structural marginalisation of newer migrants. The national ‘Australian’ ‘I’ as in the ‘this is mine’ proclamation, is inferred negatively through an unendingly violent announcement to newer-comers, ‘this is not yours’.12
Country is well described by Deborah Bird Rose in Nourishing Terrains as “multi-dimensional” and “consisting of people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, surface water, and air.”13
People say that Country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place, such as one might indicate with terms like ‘spending a day in the country’ or ‘going up the country’. Rather, Country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, Country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.14
Unlike in the Western tradition, Country does not refer to a categorically exclusive domain like ‘Nature’ or ‘Environment’, and so, neither enables or requires a differential category of self as in the Western metaphysical tradition. Country exceeds metaphysics in referring to an unfolding process of which one is part, but through which things cannot be totalised.
Differing from the Western metaphysical categorization of being (self) and non being (nature), Country doesn’t generate an arbitrary fenced boundary between the sentient categorizer and external category, ‘Country is also sentient, communicative, relational and interactive’.15
In this way the evaluative onus is not on the ‘environmentally’ encompassed subject. Instead, management decisions are informed by a dialogue with Country encompassing spirits, landscape features, places, plants, and animals. This is articulated in Dreamings passed through Country, learned, and by listening and talking to Country.16
People say that Country is aware, it knows what’s going on, it knows who’s there, and It knows if they have a right to be there. Other animals also watch, laugh at our mistakes, and take notice of our better actions. So too do all the people who have passed away who are still there in their own Country, taking care of it.17
The Dreamings of Country are told by Country and are passed on through Country. This process continually ties people to place, in a process of mutual becoming. Self is grown up relationally within Country18 following behind the ancestors.19 This is different to the Western system of selfhood which is generated via exclusion and distinction from a projected exclusive domain. One cares for self as they care for Country, as these are not exclusive categories. There is then what could be understood as an intrinsic ethical relationship embodied in Country. There is less difference between acting on behalf of oneself and on behalf of Country, especially in the long term. The value based judgements of Ethical problems don’t necessarily ‘fit easily into an Aboriginal world-view.’20
One illustration of this is that, for Indigenous Peoples, Country that has been cared for and lived in is considered healthy and quiet, whereas Country without this entwined relationship is considered wild.21 This directly contrasts with the contention in the Western nature-culture duality wherein human presence in nature is corruption, while the untouched ‘wilderness’ is pristine.22
The encompassing field outside Country is guaranteed in its incapacity to be totalised, outside this Country there is another Country, and so on, everything is situated relationally.23 In this way Country is radically dynamic, and new occurrences actually validate this non-totalisable quality of Country, new things belong necessarily, and soon assume situated relational meaning.24
The metaphysical world view attempting to generate Colonial ‘Australia’ in this sense is subsumed within Country. The Gardiya (whitefellas) are subsumed and situated within Country even while wandering around asserting their self through differential property logics such as is illustrated in this quote from Anzac Munnganyi: “White people just came up blind, bumping into everything. And put the flag; put the flag.”25
Another example of the radical nontotalising openness of Country is given by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, where he recounts from Charles Sturt’s journals how, near Cooper’s Creek, Sturt’s exhausted party encountered a large group of Aboriginal people. Sturt quoted in Pascoe:
Had these people been of an unfriendly temper, we could not in any possibility have escaped them, for our horses could not have broken into a canter to save our lives or their own. We were therefore wholly in their power … but, so far from exhibiting any unkind feeling, they treated us with genuine hospitality, and we might certainly have commanded whatever they had. Several of them brought us large troughs of water, and when we had taken a little, held them up for our horses to drink; an instance of nerve that is very remarkable, for I am quite sure that no white man (having never seen or heard of a horse before, and with the natural apprehension the first sight of such an animal would create) would deliberately have walked up to what must have appeared to them most formidable brutes, and placing the troughs they carried against their breast, they allowed the horses to drink, with their noses almost touching them. They likewise offered us some roasted ducks, and some cake. When we walked over to their camp, they pointed to a large new hut, and told us we could sleep there … and (later) they brought a quantity of sticks for us to make a fire, wood being extremely scarce.26
Whereas in the Western metaphysics of exclusion such an event would surely generate an initial hostility toward the ‘alien’ outsiders, in this instance the radical openness of Country as nontotalisisable and non-excluding enables relational empathy as a primary inclusive response. In this way Country can be understood as regenerative, dynamic, adaptive and open. This quality directly problematises discourses concerning a ‘cultural’ authenticity of Indigenous peoples, which is projected onto them by the demands of institutions like Native Title. ‘cultural’ discontinuity actually arises as a function of inflexible Western systems of thought, which, premised on exclusion and difference, are closed and rigid.
Country then presents a fundamental critique of the Western metaphysical world-view. In this sense, Caring for Country would be inadequately equated to the Western ideas of ‘environmental’ management. This mistake is especially important considering that governmental programs of ‘environmental’ management usually consider Indigenous ‘cultural’ values as a mere component of their assessment.
Consider the phrase: ‘The environment that “We” are in.’ The ‘We’ as narrator is the witness of a separate Environmental category, simultaneously producing a differentiated category of self. The self as We comes into being differentially, it is extrinsic and so may implicitly function in spite of or against that ‘environment’, as anything not We. ‘Environment’ then as extrinsic from self, provides the possibility space for capitalist processes of extraction and pollution to occur by only providing an indirect contingency, and even despite our better judgement and benevolent intentions.
The ‘environment’ is also a metaphysical totality that can be considered problematic in the same way as nature in that its normativity demands a continuous repetition of violence of exclusion.27 In this way it is intimately related to the linear procedure of time.28
As such there are fundamental problems in enunciating it in terms of management. The use of ‘environment’ in terms of management negatively generates this separated categorical ‘self’. This differentiated self must then establish an ethical device in order to reconcile its interests with the extent of that ‘environment’, to negotiate the distance implied by the fence as such. environmentalism arises to pursue these ends but through the structure of the terms it employs serves instead to reproduce violence.29
The ethical project as directed towards the ‘environment’ is a demanding field for Western philosophy.30 It is problematic as a project attempting to establish a norm, or uncover an inherent contingency between two metaphysical categories that are reliant on their difference. In attempting to reconcile ourselves with the environment we generally utilize the institution of objective knowledge. This process is often problematically retrospective, as the observational method requires effects in the first instance to observe a proven contingency, thereby implying a default non-contingency that must be disproved objectively. Action on global heating is deferred by this onus on objective evidence of proof that humans are even responsible. Within this system our understanding and management of an ‘environment’ requires degradation in the first instance, as it is premised on categorical exclusion.
An example of this is the concept of ecological services. They are ecological functions that can be objectively shown as existentially necessary to ‘Us’ as humans. The concept inversely implies that only certain ecological functions are necessary. While we are implored to act in particular instances according to this value for our discrete selves, the categorical distinction is simultaneously reinforced.
Indigenous ‘Cultural’ Values of the ‘Environment’
Considering the ‘environment’ in this way, as a fundamentally problematic Western metaphysical construction, we can accordingly see the colonialism inherent in the Australian context of ‘environmental’ management in regards to Indigenous interests and agendas.
The ‘environment’ isn’t a concept necessarily shared in Indigenous world-views, and it isn’t equatable with Country. Therefore, in supposedly addressing Indigenous concerns within a ‘larger’ framework of environmental management we are propagating yet another project of assimilation. Instead, we should be deferring to the ecological expertise of Indigenous stewardship of Sovereign Country over millennia.
The concept of ‘culture’, as a discrete category and the other half of the nature/culture dualism is just as problematic. The concern for Indigenous ‘cultures’ then is premised on a Western dualism in which ‘culture’ itself is a discrete category in opposition to ‘nature’.
Like nature, culture is an idea that integrates by dividing.31 By compartmentalising aspects of life as culture we imply that only some aspects of life are meaningful and so generate elsewhere a nihilistic plane for capitalist extraction, transaction and pollution to occur on. This plane is then subsequently populated with small - often elite - institutional ghettos of cultural production, which are then continuously further marginalised through the categorical demands of this exclusion. The arts then in this sense act as a vehicle for meaning to be removed from society at large. Consider this example from Tyson Yunkaporta:
Art is an economic weapon of war when it is named ‘art’ and separated from life. Art mines the margins because that’s where the value is. As minority artists we think ourselves radicals talking truth to power, but we are in fact the shock troops of gentrification, social fragmentation and our own ongoing dispossession. Collective imagination, not labour, is the only source of value - the arts industry co-opts that power.
We perform our unique individual connection to land and community while destroying the collective knowledge of these things. I say to hell with art. We need to reabsorb this previously nameless process into our lives and reclaim our status as humans, as the custodians of creation.32
Country is not like the practice of environmental management as engaged via distanced hierarchical evaluation. Rather, Country exceeds and subsumes this framework. When utilizing an ‘environmental’ framework to address Indigenous Country we attempt to project onto it a problematic Western metaphysical scheme, and in doing so, enact further colonial violence.
In addressing Indigenous perspectives as ‘cultural’ values in the ‘landscape’ within a program of ‘environmental’ management, we simultaneously act to elevate the Western metaphysical system as a universal while attempting to limit and subsume Indigeneity into a settler metaphysical paradigm, again performing a further colonial violence under the guise of inclusion.
In engaging ‘environmental’ issues ‘Australia’ needs to reconsider how its metaphysical foundations and frames of reference, particularly those embodied in our governing structures, unwittingly propagate the socio-ecological problems they seek to address. Do National Parks provision for the protection of the ‘nature’ within or do they provision for the larger ongoing capitalist exploitation of land without?
By engaging Country while reflectively focusing on re-framing settler worldviews in terms of their deficits as structurally implicated in colonial socio-ecological degradation, locally and globally we afford opportunities to reverse a colonial power dynamic and reorient ourselves to the success and authority of Indigenous peoples in stewarding Country over many millennia. In our circumstances of global capitalist ecological degradation, extinction, and global heating, this gift which Country offers us for reflection, reparation and diversion is paramount.
- Morton, T 2016 Dark Ecology For a Future of Coexistence, New York, Columbia University Press.↩
- Ibid 1.↩
- Plumwood, V 1990, Plato and the Bush: Philosophy and the environment in Australia, Meanjin, vol 49, no 3, pp 524-536.↩
- Ibid 3.↩
- Ibid 3.↩
- Descola, P, Lloyd, J & Sahlins, M 2005, Beyond nature and culture, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.↩
- Mathews, F 1995, Community and the Ecological Self, Environmental Politics, vol 4, no 4, pp 66-100.↩
- Mathews, F 2004, Land Metaphysics Dialogue, viewed 2 June 2015, http://www.freyamathews.net/downloads/LandMetaphysics.pdf↩
- Ibid 1.↩
- Ibid 3.↩
- Niccolacopoulos, T & Vassilacopoulos, G 2014, Indigenous Sovereignty and the The Being of the Occupier; Manifesto For a White Philosophy of Origins, Re-press.↩
- Ibid 11.↩
- Rose, D 1996 Nourishing Terrains, Canberra, Australian Heritage Commission.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Rose, D 2013, Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: attentive interactions in the sentient world, Environmental Humanities, vol 3, pp 93-109.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Rose, D 2004, Reports From a Wild Country Ethics For Decolonisation, UNSW Press.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Rose, D 1998, Exploring an Aboriginal Land Ethic, Meanjin, vol 47, no 3, pp 3-387.↩
- Ibid 21.↩
- Ibid 15.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Ibid 13.↩
- Pascoe, B 2014, Dark Emu, Broome, Magabala Books.↩
- Morton, T 2009, Ecology Without Nature, Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.↩
- Morton, T 2012, Ecology without the Present, Oxford Literary Review 34(2) pp 229-238.↩
- Ibid 27.↩
- Ibid 3.↩
- Mitchell, D 1995, There’s No Such Thing as Culture: Towards a Reconceptualization of the Idea of Culture in Geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol 20, no 1, pp 102.↩
- Yunkaporta, T 2019, Online: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/tyson-yunkaporta04a9b969_art-is-an-economicweapon-of-war-when-it-activity6561730120837672961-HCb6 viewed 12/08/2019.↩