Monday, October 16, 2006

Black and white lies

It is high time we debunked the myth of the ecological Aborigine, writes Australian environmentalist William J. Lines

At a rainforest symposium in Cairns in 1987, Ian Lowe, head of science policy at Griffith University, argued that "there are general principles of resource management [that hunter-gatherer] societies embody, and from which we can learn if we have the perceptiveness and the humility to do so". Lowe attempted to elaborate. "Some of these lessons," he claimed, "were spelled out over a century ago by Chief Seattle: 'The Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know: The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."'

Fine sentiments. Except Chief Seattle never proclaimed them, nor did any other Native American. The entire speech was a concoction, written by a modern, non-Native American scriptwriter, Ted Perry, for a 1972 film about ecology and falsely attributed to Chief Seattle. Despite their counterfeit, modern provenance, Chief Seattle's words won disciples all over the world and appeared on T-shirts and posters, were reproduced in books and articles, and were frequently cited as the epitome of traditional wisdom and the true and authentic expression of the beliefs of indigenous peoples. In Australia, they provided the template for platitudes about Aborigines living in ecological balance with the environment.

Some commentators who cited Chief Seattle's phony words went further. Economist Clive Hamilton claimed that "much of the inspiration for the philosophy of environmentalism comes from the spiritual outlook of indigenous peoples such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines". As an example, he quoted Chief Seattle and observed that "it is apparent that these words express a powerful sense of unity between ourselves and the Earth". Like the belief in the authenticity of Chief Seattle's speech, these comments rested more on projection and wishful thinking than on fact. And perhaps there was guilt.

The myth of the ecological Aborigine elevated Aborigines to positions of moral and spiritual superiority and disparaged people ofnon-Aboriginal background. They would never belong in Australia. Their ancestry rendered them incapable of acquiring a sense of connection. After a visit to Kakadu, Michael Krockenberger, Darwin Environment Centre co-ordinator and Australian Conservation Foundation councillor, observed: "In country like this, white people feel like strangers. There is also a sense of incongruity, a feeling that white people cannot easily belong. Only the Aboriginal people are truly at home." These were extraordinary claims: racist, self-scourging and, for conservationists, self-defeating. After all, conservation sought to encourage people to feel at home in Australia, not condemned forever to be outsiders. They could change and identify with the land. Otherwise, what was the point? Who else would support conservation except patriots?

Many prominent conservationists, however, declared that for non-Aborigines, connection was impossible. According to the tenets of racial thinking, non-Aborigines could never and would never feel comfortable living in Australia. If true -- if non-Aborigines were inherently incapable of attachment -- then conservation was doomed. Indeed, the subject tested people's commitment to conservation. Rock singer Peter Garrett -- who became ACF president in 1989 -- campaigned as much for land rights as for conservation. Ensnared by the myth of the ecological Aborigine, many conservationists displayed a perverse unwillingness to accept Aborigines as members of the human race. Land rights advocates couched their arguments in terms of them and us.

Individual human beings disappeared, replaced by a generalised Aborigine and a generalised white. This was fantasy, a fantasy about the other. The fact was, there is no them and no us, only benighted individual human beings, each with their own foibles, traits, infirmities and delusions. All humans share the same biology and endure the same existential anxieties generated by common flesh and blood in a common material world. All humans came out of Africa and all are indigenous to planet Earth. All are capable of alienation and of belonging. Race thinkers, however, insisted on discrimination. The 1991 Queensland land rights bill allowed Aborigines to claim land rights over all the state's national parks, or 2.7 per cent of the state. Aboriginal groups had already indicated they would seek rights over Green Island and Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Iron Range and Archer River Bend on Cape York, Mossman Gorge, Fraser Island and other parks. The Kuku Yalanji clan said it would apply to hunt cassowary and other wildlife in the Mossman Gorge and Daintree national parks.

Some conservationists applauded the legislation. Others said it was inconceivable that Aborigines should hunt rare wildlife with modern firearms in the relatively small proportion of land protected as national park. In a letter to Garrett, ACF member Harry Dick of Cooktown described the ACF's and other groups' support for the Queensland land rights bill as treachery. He said he would work to reverse the ACF policy and would resign if he failed. "No other group in the community has the right to hunt in national parks and it is just not on with Aborigines," he wrote. "The ACF leaders have gone about this with no consultation with their membership. Members are afraid to speak out because they'll be branded racists."

Not all conservationists were cowed. Bill Fisher, north Queensland director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the government had rushed into a land rights policy without informed consideration. Changing the protective status of national parks, he said, had "very serious potential to weaken the status for all time". Jill Thorsborne, president of the Cairns branch of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, backed Fisher and led a campaign to pressure the government to exempt national parks from land claims.

Judith Wright viewed this dissent with alarm. With a dogmatism deriving from her blinkered view of justice for Aborigines, she would not tolerate any questioning of the myth of the ecological Aborigine. She resigned as WPSQ patron and, in an open letter, condemned the society: "I must disassociate myself completely from any organisation opposed to land rights and I therefore have no option but to resign the patronship," she wrote. And, in a display of the race thinking -- dividing the world into them and us -- that had come to characterise her conservation advocacy, she continued: "If it hadn't been for the Aborigines' systems of management, their respect for the country, their self-control, we would never have had these areas (wilderness) to take over in the first place. They are a darned sight better at managing than we are."

By the end of the 20th century, protected areas -- national parks, wilderness, and flora and fauna sanctuaries -- formed the cornerstone of Australian conservation. The outcome of decades of defending the country's natural heritage, they were, nevertheless, limited. Island-like parks cannot meet the needs of wide-ranging species, or maintain natural disturbance regimes, or enable the dispersal and re-establishment of wildlife following events such as fires. Only a continent-wide network of core wild areas, wildlife corridors and intact lands can protect the continental-scale flows of nature. This insight had already activated conservationists in the US who, in 1991, founded the Wildlands Project.

The Wilderness Society campaigners urged a similar program for Australia. In March 1997, the society endorsed wilderness-wildlands as its new campaign framework. Yet this initiative occurred against a background of criticism of the idea of wilderness. In The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery described the concept as problematic; it kept alive the notion of terra nullius. Wilderness, he claimed, did not exist in Australia. Thereafter, attacks on wilderness escalated.

For Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton there was no such thing as wilderness, only "cultural landscapes". Furthermore, "the term wilderness was a mystification of genocide" because: "The popular definition of wilderness excludes all human interaction within allegedly pristine natural areas even though they are and have been inhabited and used by indigenous people for thousands of years. Like the legal fiction of terra nullius which imagined us out of existence ... popular culture also imagines us out of existence ... The national park is an institution of power which governs and commodifies nature and thereby culturally constructs an imagined wilderness and can be understood as a part of the colonial repertoire when (it is) understood as the further delineation, naming and categorising of terra nullius incognito. It is a further conquest."

This ill-reasoned, chaotic argument rested on a terrifying ignorance of history, language, biology and ecology. Wilderness defenders had been among the first activists in Australia to acknowledge Aboriginal presence and had never defined wilderness as a place that "excludes all human interaction". Even proponents of terra nullius did not deny the presence of humans in Australia, only their ownership of the land. Ideological inhibitions, however, prevented other conservationists from speaking up; for example, for the dugong, hunted to near extinction by what at least one euphemism-friendly environmental journalist referred to as "unregulated indigenous cultural harvesting".

Only the fearless Mary White put the matter forthrightly: "A major problem in conservation in northern Australia is the difference in the laws which govern Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal behaviour. Aborigines may burn where and when they like on land they own and lease; they can range over country held by others as well as over that which they own in the course of their hunting and foraging; they are allowed by law to kill animals which are protected, even endangered, and which non-Aboriginal Australians are prohibited from killing, and they use high-powered modern guns, not traditional methods to do so. This situation has to be addressed. It creates a divided nation and a great deal of resentment."

White's candour affronted many people. Fantasy more perfectly satisfied their multiple needs. Several impulses, for example, upheld the myth of the ecological Aborigine. Some people sought to recover habits of thought they imagined prevailed during a past era, before the disruption of the human and natural worlds by heedless agriculture, runaway industrialism, loss of faith, galloping modernity and reductionist science. Others, driven by guilt, overcompensated for past wrongs by designating Aborigines possessors of superior wisdom. Still others wanted a story about the natural life against which they could contrast the modern world and expose its ills.

By the beginning of the 21st century, this endemically patronising view of Aborigines as moral lessons for effete Europeans became an overriding, unchallenged cause for left-wing intellectuals. Furthermore, many intellectual conservationists presented their belief that indigenous people enjoyed a fundamentally different relationship to the land as the only starting point for critiquing Western society. This decree prevented conservationists from examining the multitude of critical possibilities inherent in Western culture. Conservation commentators who ignored the polemical diversity of the Western inheritance favoured a narrow and conformist outlook. Truth never penetrates unwilling minds, and commentators pursued the ecological Aborigine dogma with an infatuation that defied consistency and sense.

Scientist Mike Archer and conservation writer Bob Beale began their 2004 book Going Native with a defensive, reverential and romanticised account of Aboriginal occupancy. After fashionably dismissing the idea of wilderness, they suggest that while Aborigines walked every square metre of the continent, invested every feature with spiritual significance and managed the entire landscape intensively for at least 60,000 years until it was "just as much a human construct as it is a natural one", they had no impact, caused no extinctions and kept Australia's biota intact.

Such claims stagger belief and outrage coherence. But Archer and Beale persist. Aborigines were model conservationists and we have much to learn from their "sustainable land-management strategy". The authors did not elaborate. Instead, their main recommendation featured the economic valuing of "ecosystem services": a program dependent on premises and principles utterly foreign and contrary to Aboriginal cosmologies.

The myth of the ecological Aborigine became a dogma because conservationists failed to call one another intellectually to account, to question myth-makers and to rigorously and ruthlessly evaluate evidence. Even sceptical conservationists remained silent, either out of fear of being branded racist or because they lacked the forensic skills necessary to unpack the myth. Their silence complied with the country's general intellectual timidity. As in other areas of social inquiry, intellectuals in conservation disparaged dissent and discouraged critical oversight.

In their 1999 history of the environment movement, Queensland Greens leader Drew Hutton and fellow academic Libby Connors noted approvingly: "Many in the Australian movement welcome the lack of philosophical dispute, which they see as debilitating, consisting largely of labels and purity." Conservationists trapped in wishful thinking about the wisdom of the elders and disdainful of dissent cannot see the truth: there are no models, no templates for living sustainably on this continent or on this planet. We're on our own and must make our own way.


Anger about school's homosexuality for kids plan

Education authorities have been accused of instructing all Victorian government school teachers to "celebrate" homosexuality in the classroom. Furious family groups claimed the Department of Education and Training was "foisting" sexuality on children as young as prep. The outcry was sparked by the department's anti-homophobic bullying policy which, referring to sexuality, states: "The most important thing teachers can do is create and continually model a school environment that respects and celebrates diversity." School curriculums and teaching should be inclusive of the needs of same-sex-attracted and transgender students, the policy states.

Australian Family Association Victorian vice-president Angela Conway lashed out at an instruction to celebrate homosexuality in the classroom. Ms Conway said the policy would have the reverse effect and, by highlighting sexuality, encourage bullying. Discussion of sexuality could also confuse young children who were experiencing close childhood relationships with peers of the same sex, she said.

Australian Family Council spokesman Bill Muehlenberg said a pro-homosexual agenda was "trying to hijack the bullying programs to push a pro-homosexual policy on children. Younger kids are not worried or thinking about various sexual orientations." Opposition education spokesman Martin Dixon said focusing on differences in sexuality could have a negative impact. But Education Services Minister Jacinta Allan said the instruction was part of a strategy to prevent bullying.


Australian Leftists mimic the Royal Society

(Britain's Royal Society attracted widespread condemnation for writing to Exxon and asking them to stop funding Greenhouse skeptics)

Religious bigots are dangerous in politics. Just see what federal Labor frontbenchers Kelvin Thomson and Anthony Albanese will do in the name of their green faith. Thomson, the human services spokesman, has written to business chiefs declaring "global warming is happening, it is man-made, and it is not good for us." But, he sighs, "propaganda and misinformation" is being spread by "sceptics."

"I am writing to ask if your company has donated any money to the Institute of Public Affairs . . . or any other body which spreads misinformation or undermines the scientific consensus concerning global warming . . . If so, I request that your company cease such financial support."

This bid to shut down debate is scary enough in a likely minister in any Labor government. But it's worse when you see what Albanese, Labor's environment spokesman, considers to be the truth about global warming. This week he claimed Tuvalu, a Pacific island, "is expected to become uninhabitable within 10 years because of rising sea levels". In fact, our South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project has found the seas there have risen just 4.3mm a year recently, and a much longer record kept by the University of Hawaii shows an even smaller rise -- just 0.9mm a year. The project's report concludes: "Hence, even with 22 years of data the trend cannot be established without sizeable uncertainties."

No doubt this fact "undermines the scientific consensus concerning global warming". So what would Labor do to a scientist who says such a thing, or a business that publishes it?


School passes 'illiterate' boy

A schoolboy will soon start Grade 11 despite failing almost every test he has sat for the past four years. The father of "Anthony", 15, who struggles with basic literacy and numeracy, says education officials have ignored repeated pleas to keep his son back. He said it was an indictment of Queensland's state education system that his son was elevated each year despite his failing grades. Anthony would finish senior school at Albany Creek State High with little or no understanding of what he had been taught. "He should have been held back in Grade Seven. He was not ready for high school. I pleaded with the school . . . but they pushed him up," the father of four said. "It has been the same every year since. He does not understand what he has been taught in 8, 9 and 10, yet the school is happy he is going to 11 next year." Anthony recently sat the Grade 10 literacy and numeracy benchmark exams and scored five out of 40 in each.

The school contacted his father but the news was not what he expected. "I thought they might be telling me it was best he repeats Grade 10. But, no, they said he would be going up to Grade 11 next year. I could not believe it," the father said. "He doesn't know his times tables. His spelling is shocking. He is totally lost." The boy's father said he had asked school officials for remedial help but was told to get private tuition. "I am a single dad bringing up four teenagers. I can't afford private tuition. The school says it doesn't have the funds to help me," he said.

Anthony told The Sunday Mail he enjoyed being at school with his mates and would like to get higher marks than his usual D, E, and F scores. "I have a problem with school work. I just find it difficult," he said. "I like school, it's better than sitting around at home. I just wish I was better at it. "It's going to be tough next year. I don't know what subjects I am going to do."

His father said Anthony wanted to work with cars when he finished Grade 12. "But I don't know if he will ever get the chance. I don't blame the school. I know they are under a lot of pressure, their hands are tied. "I blame Education Queensland. The system has failed Anthony. "In my day, we learned everything by repetition. Today, they tell me repetition is bullying. I think they need to get back to basics."

Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan said the school had made every effort to help Anthony. Mr Ryan said that while Anthony was in Grade 10, he was doing a modified program that included work from a much lower grade. "The school has quite a specific amount of work in terms of supporting this student . . . the school has done the caring thing in providing a modified program," he said. Mr Ryan said parents could insist on their child being held back a year, but there were other factors taken into consideration, including a student's age, size and maturity.

An Education Queensland spokeswoman said the school would work closely with the father and son to help Anthony through his final years, including the possibility of a school-based apprenticeship. "Given the parent's strong views, the school will arrange to meet with the parent to further discuss his concerns and options for the future," the spokeswoman said. "The school is committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for this student." She said Anthony had been part of a learning support program since Year 8, with particular focus on literacy. "The school strongly believes he has made progress through the years and they have faith in his abilities to continue."

Opposition education spokesman Stuart Copeland attacked the State Government for failing students. "We are seeing far too many people come out of school barely able to read or write. We are hearing about university students who have to take remedial English courses," Mr Copeland said. Education commentator Christopher Bantick said schools were promoting students beyond their ability. "Students are promoted, regardless of results because schools are number crunching," Mr Bantick said. "A student who fails year after year is not benefiting from this promotional policy. The problem is compounded." He said parents had every right to ask for their child to be held back - although it sometimes led to peer pressure and ostracism.


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