This final episode of Moreton Bay Online featured Cameron Costello, and I’m really happy it did, as it gives me a chance to circle back around to the reason for this program, and to share some moments of my learning over the last 8 years that changed the way I see the world, particularly how I view marine conservation.
(NB: You may have seen that Cameron / QYAC have been the subject of a number of posts related to developments at Toondah Harbour and on Minjerribah. If you’re looking for responses from him about these current events, you won’t find them in this episode. I have no doubt he’d have been happy to answer questions about it if I’d asked, but I didn’t, consistent with the nature of the podcast, the reason it exists, and the research goals.)
Have a listen:
This is a long post, and there’s some stuff I have to say first. As with all posts attached to the podcast, this is a space where I blather on about some thoughts and ideas that matter to me, that are related in some way to the content of the show. This post should NOT be taken as any representation of Cameron’s, QYAC’s or Quandamooka people’s experiences, beliefs or views. I am not Quandamooka, or a member of any First Nations culture. These communities have rightfully had a gutful of outsiders representing them without permission, without context. I do not want to do that here.
If you’ve heard the podcast you know we only touched on local knowledge briefly, and nothing I say here should be taken as referring to Quandamooka knowledge. It may or may not be the way Quandamooka understand/experience the world – I hope to discover where it intersects, if I’m lucky, in the future.
If you want to get to know Quandamooka people, in other words, the best way to do it is totalk to them. And then talk to more of them! 😎
Okay? So. The thoughts below are vastly simplified, generalised, and relate to some information shared by First Nations people either through their own lectures or authorship, or through partnerships or co-produced research, that I’ve been exposed to in the last 8 years of study in marine conservation and capacity. I find them powerful, and they’ve transformed my own thinking about the environment, the community, and conservation.
I only wish I had been exposed to them sooner.
Knowledge – Practice – Belief
Let’s begin with the part that really shows how different cultural understanding of the world can be. I highly recommend Sacred Ecology, by Fikret Berkes, to really get your head around this, but I’ll do my best to describe it. In what we sometimes call “Traditional Cultures,” knowledge about people, the environment, and the world itself exists not just in peoples’ minds. Knowledge is something that is exists in practice, and it is practiced as part of an understanding or belief about universal laws of how the world works.
This knowledge-practice-belief system is common to many traditional cultures, all around the world.
It might help to contrast with our more familiar “Western” culture. In this culture, concepts such as economic development and conservation are usually opposing ideologies, and people who hold these ideologies may be deeply polarised. We have to jostle for our ideologies to make it into the media, and into law, in the hope our values are upheld and entrenched and spread to others, in the march of progress. In this way we create winners, and winners create losers.
Here’s a few examples:
- You would understand me if I said something like “it’s legal, but it’s not right.”
- It’s possible (even common!) for one government body to be doing directly opposite things, like one enforces renewable energy offices, while another touts coal-mining.
- We might teach kids not to be cruel to animals, but not know if the food on our table was sourced cruelty-free.
In other cultures, traditional cultures, these situations would not be logical. They wouldn’t be feasible, or accepted. In a culture where knowledge, practice and belief are congruent and inseparable, different governance structures would work coherently toward common good, and actions would only be taken if they bring benefit to all the elements – human, environment and spirit – within the society. (NB: This is why I got inspired when Cameron described healthy outcomes for environment and people from the same activities. To me, it sounded like he was describing a concrete example of one practice with a vision that encompasses environment, people and economics. I like this vision of the world a lot.)
All three of these aspects of experience – knowledge, practice, and belief – hold the environment and humans as equal and necessary to the world we live. Humans hold no more rights than trees, and trees no more than humans. Prey are not more, or less, valued or sacred than predators. Our surroundings and ourselves (and the way we act and interact) are balanced.
How this plays out is simple: We as humans respect we our surroundings, and our surroundings provide in return.
Here’s another analogy taken from what might be familiar: we know many marine fish stocks have been fished to exhaustion, even to the point where extinction of species has happened, or is likely. Some might suggest “oh, well, the world has a far greater population than these small cultures, and they never developed the technologies that enabled such large scale extraction”.
Sure. That’s actually true. But the argument actually misses the point.
These things wouldn’t happen because the lore/law of the culture would prohibit them. Not because the culture wasn’t successful enough to grow in population, and it’s not because they weren’t intelligent enough to develop such technologies. Actions that would result in draining resources would throw the balance out. They would be a deep transgression of the way the people believe (know) the world works, and such transgressions would put the future of the environment (and us) in doubt. (Sound familiar?)
I can’t emphasise this enough: real traditional cultures are not based in some hippy-dippy, peaceable, tree-hugging ethos. They are based in tens of thousands of years of careful observation and experiment. Cultures got this wrong and they disappeared. Others learned from close calls. Any culture that survives for tens of thousands of years is responsive, strong, and ever-evolving.
Kincentricity vs conservation ethos
It kind of blew my mind when I discovered there is no “conservation” ethos in most traditional cultures. When the environment is so intrinsic to the belief and practice of a people, as described above, how can there not be a strong motivation to protect it?
Think about it this way: “protection” implies humans have a higher status, one of power over their environment. “But look what we’ve done to it!” I hear you cry. “Of course we have power over it!”
Do we though? Imagine we progress as we have been – what will be here 10,000 years from now? Life on this planet will come back even if, for example, we let climate change progress to its worst outcome – but will we still be here? Traditional knowledge exists on a scale much longer than Western knowledge. Traditional knowledge-holders know the world around us will bite back in the future if we don’t treat it with respect now. Their generational knowledge recorded it, and it was passed down in their practices, in ceremony and narratives and behaviours.
Not to suggest humans are eternal adversaries with the environment. Far from it. Instead, the incentive for practicing respect today for the environment of tomorrow is, in part, engendered in the cultural belief that’s been termed kincentricity – the idea that the plants, animals, the country itself, have power and agency, and that they are in fact kin. They are family.
Kincentricity is found in cultures all around the world. See if you can pick it up in this (lovely!) video:
“My land must be missing me, better go back”
Here’s a rather distressing thought we all should have: if you know your country, and what lives there, is in reality your family (not an inanimate home) what would it mean to you to be taken forcibly from it?
Kincentricity isn’t the same as anthropomorphism. It’s not simply imagining there are human personalities to animals, plants and country – it’s recognising the right of these things to be, and to live, without us. By extension, and related, it acknowledges the responsibilities we have to ensure we are tolerated, even welcomed, to exist with and use them.
It is the constant interplay we have with our own family members: sometimes they give, sometimes we give, sometimes they take, sometimes we take. But we LOOK AFTER each other. Kincentricity is a belief that leads to deeper and more accurate knowledge of the world around us.
We have wasted so much time
Every First Nations’ people experience the world in ways that is unique, but they are far more similar to each other than to what we call “Western” culture. This rather large distance between understandings is reflected in the outcomes of first contact – these differences didn’t just result in polarisation between individuals, they resulted in colonisation, suppression, sublimation and genocide. It wasn’t physical differences that have caused colonisers to become so overwhelmed with fear or contempt they have to wipe a people out. It’s fear and anger that their own belief/worldview just might not be the One Truth, or universal law.
Our history books are filled with moments in time when substantial bodies-of-knowledge that had been held in these cultures were simply wiped out, because new arrivals couldn’t conceive of the idea that realities – knowledge – could be plural.
How can this be? Isn’t knowledge just knowledge? Isn’t data universal? Actually, no. I’ve talked a little about the different ways we understand the world on another post but here, I’ll note that our Western learning systems have only recently understood and acknowledged that knowledge doesn’t have to be recorded on a page or a book to be valid.
So we’ve got some epistemological deafness, along with some strong doses of race and cultural bias and bigotry and genocide, and then add in too the difference in the way we even understand the world (above), we really have/had a lot to walk back from.
We now have many examples of Western knowledge validating elements or events in Traditional Knowledge – finally, and one hopes humbly, catching up on what we’ve missed. Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have built that understanding decades ago? If we’d asked instead of told? If we’d asked, and tried to understand, rather than assume we knew better?
Thankfully, there are entire fields of study in our Western tradition now that recognise the damage done and the huge wasted opportunity to build a shared, positive, mutually beneficial vision for communities and environment. Fields like ethnoecology and ethnobotany are dedicated to the study of how different cultures understand the world. Best practice research in these fields respects ownership of knowledge. When new understandings are reached, they are recognised as co-produced. #BetterTogether
The key to working together is respect and understanding of the differences, to find ways they complement each other to complete a big rich tapestry of the world. And heeeeeey at long last you see what I meant by coming full circle back to the point of the MBO podcast 😄
Right, this post is already long enough. Just a few more short concepts I’ve come across in my travels and would like to share:
“Traditional” is a terrible word, and we need another one: The word traditional implies a photo in vignette – an idealised still-frame of the way things were, once. Don’t be fooled! The stereotypical depiction of a traditional culture as a nirvana where everyone was in harmony with each other and the land until our dreadful western culture arrived to mess it all up is deeply patronising, offensive, and a barrier to our connection with each other.
As Cameron noted in the podcast – what we sometimes call traditional cultures are better understood as societies. Societies change, they grow, they feud, they jostle, they dissent. They make mistakes and they discard information. These are things that active, passionate, clever and alive people do! (NB: Hearing that Cameron welcomes this diversity of opinion and views it as a positive sign that Quandamooka culture is vital and alive is pretty great, actually.)
Societies learn. That’s why the Quandamooka people have been here for tens of thousands of years, and why so many Indigenous cultures have lasted many times the length of our current, “modern” one.
Indigenous cultures have always, always managed their resources, they didn’t just passively live in their country. The idea of traditional cultures being only hunters and gatherers is long disproven. (If you need evidence, just pop over to Dunwich and see a rock fish trap straight off where MBRS is. That right there? That’s managing your environmental resources.)
When a culture manages their resources while evolving and changing to meet conditions over tens of thousands of years, as our Australian First Nations cultures have done, they are doing something right. To me, this alone is a reason to throw our full support behind Indigenous self-determination, and in fact to humbly hope that we can learn from each other. It will give all of us the best hope of addressing the ecological pressures of the current day that we must now face together.
Protecting and restoring multiple cultures (and languages) might just help us avoid biodiversity loss.
When I hear it suggested that it would be great if we were all one people, or we all spoke the same language, I think of the following image. This image shows correlation of diversity in culture and biodiversity across the globe. It doesn’t imply causation, but knowing what we do about the methods of management practiced by traditional cultures, most of which actively promote biodiversity and retention of species, it’s very suggestive that when we respect and protect cultural diversity we also protect environments.
Monocultures in the environment are not a positive thing. They are less resilient to change, they are easily wiped out by a sudden shock. Maybe multiculturalism (in society) is as good for humans as it is for the environment – we have greater capacity to resist change, to recover from external pressures, if we have more tools at our disposal: different knowledges, ideas, and approaches from the diverse communities around us.
Speculation aside, the importance of language is proven, and absolutely necessary to the continued existence of the culture itself. Languages link us to our community, they join us to the past, they empower us through shared understanding. Words themselves contain meaning and highly specialised knowledge.
There were 250 languages in this country before settlement – now more than half are completely extinguished, and only 13 are actively being passed on. To understand why this matters, imagine one global medical library. Now imagine that one day, a fire ripped through and we lost everything the world ever knew about (eg) heart disease, skin cancer, and allergies? That’s the level of knowledge we’ve let slip through our fingers.
Let’s NOT lose any more.