Stuck in the Mud: How Colonialist Oppression is Keeping Australia Bogged Down in Climate Crisis

by Emily Byrnes


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the unceded land upon which this paper was written, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples of Mianjin (alternatively, Meanjin), and pay my respects to Indigenous elders, past, present and emerging.

Bogged down in the heavy sludge of climate crisis, the Australian government has failed us in its sustained perpetuation of the colonialist structures of nature-centred oppression which has been responsible for driving our country—people, culture and land—into the mud in the first place. In this essay, I argue that since the hierarchical reason-nature dualism upon which colonial Australia was established conflates Indigeneity with nature in a mutual construction of inferiority, the complete emancipation of nature necessitates the liberation of Indigenous Australians. Thus, only through decolonisation can we begin to navigate the muddy depths of climate change. In response to the common Liberalist objection that effective environmental action can only be achieved within our current anthropocentric paradigm, I argue that such action, inherently short-term and superficial, will leave us wallowing helplessly in denial. Instead, we must address the root cause of climate change, namely the reason-nature dualism, and work to remove the shackles of colonisation fastened upon nature in all its forms. Only then can we hope to lift our heads above the mud and find the way forward for our people and planet.

Stemming from anthropocentrism, the hierarchical reason-nature dualism underpinning Western colonial thought has spread disease throughout our peoples, politics and planet. Australian Ecofeminist Val Plumwood argues that this colonialist notion of reason as superior, belonging exclusively to the rational human mind and in direct opposition to the inferior irrationality of nature, is the conceptual foundation of modern Western society.[i] Furthermore, she argues that from this dualistic foundation developed the construction of a “rational meritocracy in which those considered ‘more rational’ acquire[d] the right to dominate those… [considered] less rational”,[ii] with our natural environment at the bottom of this heap. Thus, the interconnected modes of oppression which plague all forms of nature, both human and nonhuman, can be traced back to reason-nature dualism. Since reason is severed from nature, the body, and emotional or instinctual being,[iii] only the elite upper class, educated, white, Western, colonial, male Homo Sapien is afforded the status of “rational human being,” along with the right to dominate all Others.[iv] Social inequality and widespread environmental degradation are the direct (and interconnected) consequences of this hierarchy.[v] In the words of Plumwood, “the most oppressed and dispossessed people in a society are those who are made closest to the condition of nature,” a condition best encapsulated by the single word, “expendable”.[vi] Indeed, within the context of Australia, James Cook—the upper class, well-educated, white, Western, colonial man that he was—nullified the entire Indigenous population as mere flora and fauna under the Terra Nullius[vii] legislation, which was then used to justify the mass genocide of Indigenous Australians during colonisation.

Clearly, ending the heinous crimes committed against both human and nonhuman nature necessitates dismantling the reason-nature dualism at the core of all nature-centred oppression. To this end, Plumwood argues that the “anciently divided spheres of nature and culture [must be] reconcile[d]”[viii] within all aspects of political, societal and cultural life. Since coloniser dualisms have stripped nature of its inherent value, clothing it instead in inferiority, I argue that reconciliation must begin with the universal recognition of nature’s intrinsic value. Since nature has also been constructed as a passive nullity,[ix] there must also be an acknowledgement of nature’s active being and responsibility taken for the abuse to which nature has been subjected. Furthermore, I argue that these weapons of colonisation, namely the devaluation and nullification of nature,[x] were also wielded with brutal efficiency, alongside physical violence and mass destruction, against Indigenous Australians. Indigenous genocide and decimation of the land were one and the same in the colonial campaign. Moreover, Indigeneity and nature continue to bleed as one under that same oppressive regime established by the Invasion[xi] which we now celebrate as “Australia Day.” Therefore, the reconciliation of humanity and nature in contemporary Australia must engage in the conscious decolonisation[xii] of the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, alongside those between people and land. Only by learning through these new connections can we hope to adequately address the climate crisis. 

Liberalists argue that our current political and societal frameworks of anthropocentrism are, in fact, the most suitable for addressing climate change. Liberalist philosopher, Marcel Wissenburg, termed this environmentalist stance “Green Liberalism,”[xiii] which, in its categorical separation of social and environmental spheres, constitutes a direct denial of the Ecofeminist claim that there is a common root cause of all human and nonhuman nature-centred oppression;[xiv] namely, the reason-nature dualism. Indeed, by advocating for the segregation of humanity and nature into separate spheres of society and environment,[xv] Green Liberalism rejects the problematisation of the reason-nature dualism altogether. Beyond merely recognising the anthropocentric basis of this separation, Green Liberalists argue that such an approach is the most efficient and effective means by which to combat climate change.[xvi] Justification for this anthropocentric approach lies in Wissenburg’s argument, which he supports from both purely analytical and Liberalist political perspectives. He argues that nature cannot logically hold intrinsic value but only external value as judged by humanity.[xvii] Therefore, Green Liberalism dictates that nature is valuable only insofar as it is instrumental to the needs of humanity.[xviii] Since the natural environment is undeniably the most valuable “resource” that humanity has at its disposal, Wissenburg argues that the strongest form of environmental protection is that based on the instrumental value of nature as an asset which humanity cannot afford to lose.[xix] Green Liberalism is ultimately the belief that sustained human domination is the best strategy for protecting the helplessly passive natural environment from disaster.

My response to Green Liberalism is based on the straightforward idea that a problem cannot be solved by the same thinking which created it in the first place. Liberal environmentalists propose solutions to the climate crisis that are based upon the very same colonialist dualisms responsible for it. Therefore, whilst these solutions have the advantage of speedy implementation, the approach of “warmed over ‘green’ Liberalism”[xx] produces only superficial short-term solutions to a problem that runs much deeper than this shallow theory is capable of grasping.[xxi] Moreover, such an approach will inevitably exacerbate the underlying issues of social and ecological oppression, since Green Liberalism is itself a project of colonisation. Wissenburg’s argument for the hyper-separation between the strictly human social sphere and the nonhuman environmental sphere is a dual nullification of both the nature within human beings, and the active being of the natural environment. Furthermore, he blatantly devalues nature in arguing against its intrinsic value. Within colonialist Australia, “nature” encompasses all that came before white settlers, and “humanity” all that came after.[xxii] Whether in the form of the ancient Bunya Pines who once towered over the “Brisbane” river, the pregnant Bilby mothers who suffered the drawn-out death of starvation, or the Indigenous custodians of this land, nature was raped and pillaged by colonisers. Bearing this in mind, Wissenburg’s argument for the social-environmental divide and instrumentalisation of nature is not only utterly absurd, but it is also inherently harmful because it perpetuates the very coloniser logic that serves as justification for such horrific abuse of nature.[xxiii] Therefore, positive environmental action depends heavily upon the rejection of Green Liberalism.

Alternatively, Ecofeminism is a fertile breeding ground for new ways of thinking which are free from the harmful constraints of coloniser logic. My argument for the reconciliation of humanity and nature through the conscious reversal of the devaluation and nullification of nature is as much an argument for the liberation of Indigenous Australians. Long overdue and immeasurably valuable in and of itself,[xxiv] I argue that Indigenous liberation would also have major implications for environmentalism. However, it is not for me, nor any other non-Indigenous Australian, to determine the shape of Indigenous liberation. Indeed, such an act, which Australian political history shows us is conventional procedure, constitutes a gross epistemic injustice,[xxv] which further reinforces the structures of colonialist oppression.[xxvi] Nonetheless, as non-Indigenous Australians we can listen and help to magnify the strong Indigenous voices that call for liberation on their own terms, such as those behind the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, and those of the Garma Youth Forum, who voiced the 2019 Imagination Declaration. I will now focus on these two calls for liberation and the new avenues of decolonised thinking they open up.

The Uluru Statement is a call for “Makarrata… the coming together after a struggle” of First Nations people and Australian governments, in order to develop an honest relationship. Furthermore, it is a call for empowerment and cultural recognition through a constitutionalised First Nations voice in parliament and a call for the acknowledgement of rightful Indigenous sovereignty, defined as “the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘Mother Nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.[xxvii] The Prime Minister’s dismissal of the Uluru Statement as worthless poetry, rather than the rational prose he sought, is an appalling debasement of nature-centred ways of knowing,[xxviii] in favour of “master rationality”[xxix] and thus constitutes a shocking exemplification of the sustained prevalence of hierarchical reason-nature dualism within contemporary Australia. In contrast, the Australian government’s cooperation in Makaratta would necessitate the recognition of the intrinsic value of Indigenous Australians as free peoples of a rich heritage and culture, rather than merely as subjects of colonisation. This would entail recognising the intrinsic value of Indigenous ways of knowing and expressing, of the Indigenous cultural identity as profoundly connected to Mother Nature, and of the sacredness of the land. Therefore, recognition of the intrinsic value of Indigeneity would also manifest deep appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature.

The Imagination Declaration speaks directly to the nullification of Indigenous Australians, by which Indigenous voices have been constrained to muffled silence. Coloniser logic dictates that Indigeneity, conflated with nature, is something wild and unruly, a problem to overcome.[xxx] Genocide was the colonisers’ initial solution, followed by rape, slavery, kidnapping, indoctrination, and now, mass incarceration.[xxxi] The young voices of the Garma Youth Forum urge us to think differently, declaring: “We are not the problem, we are the solution.”[xxxii] Working to reconcile the horrific vilification of nature and Indigeneity would release land and peoples from the shackles of colonisation, allowing both to flourish in their own active being.[xxxiii] Moreover, this reconciliation would develop a deep, collective appreciation of the wellsprings of cultural knowledge poured forth from the proud voices of Indigenous Australians. The Declaration is an appeal to government leaders to reform and decolonise Australian education, with particular emphasis on the value of Indigenous environmental knowledge and ethics,[xxxiv] which are undoubtedly our best hope amidst climate change.[xxxv] Indeed, the students of Garma proudly asserted, “[w]ith 60, 000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can… transform the future of life on earth, for the good of us all.”[xxxvi] Importantly, “Indigenous Australian philosophy is more than just a survivalist kit”[xxxvii] for environmental interactions and should not be reduced to a means by which to address climate change.[xxxviii] Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that Australian land flourished spectacularly throughout more than sixty thousand years of Indigenous custodianship and yet little more than two hundred years of colonialist settlement has culminated in environmental crisis. Indigenous worldviews recognise the land as “a sacred entity… the great mother of all humanity,” from which all meaning arises and which is thus inherited with a long-term ethos of care.[xxxix] Our government has no right to ask for help from the Indigenous population it has brutally oppressed for so long; however, we cannot effectively address the climate crisis without the wisdom of Indigenous Australian philosophy.[xl]

In closing, I would like to express my hope that these words have carried you beyond the narrow confines of rationality to give you a sense of poetry alongside prose. I have illustrated how the intricately woven tapestry of nature-centred oppression continues to bind Indigeneity and nature together in mutual subjugation within contemporary Australian society. The multitude of Indigenous calls for liberation provide ample guidance as to which threads we must pull in order to unravel this colonialist tapestry, behind which lies freedom for Indigenous Australians, freedom for our land, and the path along which we may find our way out of the mud.


Emily Byrnes is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Philosophy, at The University of Queensland. With a special interest in Environmental Philosophy, particularly in topics within Indigenous philosophies and Ecofeminism, Emily aspires to be an author of radical change and societal transformation. Ultimately, her goal is to breathe life back into the ecologically centred philosophies which have guided human beings for eons, but which have been marginalised by the onslaught of colonialist capitalism in the Western world.


ENDNOTES

[i] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, (New York: Routledge, 1993), 42.

[ii] Val Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology: An Ecofeminist Perspective,” Environmental Politics 4, No. 4 (1995): 162. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644019508414231.

[iii] Greta Gaard, “Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature,(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 5.

[iv] Nancy Hartsock, “Foucault on Power: a theory for women,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson, (New York: Routledge, 1990), 161.

[v] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 140.

[vi]  Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 139.

[vii] Irene Watson, “The Future is our Past: We once were Sovereign and we still are,” Indigenous Law Bulletin 8, No. 3 (2012): 12.

[viii] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 163.

[ix] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 149.

[x] Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature ,69.

[xi] Irene Watson, “Settled and Unsettled spaces: Are we free to roam?” in Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, (New York: Routledge, 2007), 29.

[xii] Throughout this essay, I use the term “decolonisation” to refer to the process of dismantling the structures of coloniser logic upon which Australian society is built and the systems of colonisation which continue to oppress Indigenous Australians. I recognise, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have argued, that decolonisation is a literal process of the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples; decolonisation as a metaphor is highly problematic and whilst the kind of decolonisation I am arguing for exists in relation to societal structures and cultural belief systems, it is ultimately, the very real and literal return of the land to Indigenous Australians. See Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, No. 01 (2012): 1-40.

[xiii] Liberalism is the product of a long “master story of colonisation” and it constitutes the political vehicle through which structures of “aggressive colonising… logic of the master rationality” are sustained (Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 195). Thus, my argument is as much against Liberalism as it is against colonisation.

[xiv] Marcel Wissenburg, Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society, (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1998), 59.

[xv] Karen Bakker, “The limits of ‘neoliberal natures’: Debating green neoliberalism,” Progress in human geography 34, No. 6 (2010): 717.

[xvi] Wissenburg, Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society, 89.

[xvii] Wissenburg, Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society, 92, 102.

[xviii] Wissenburg, Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society, 106.

[xix] Wissenburg, Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society, 88.

[xx] Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 17.

[xxi] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 154.

[xxii] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 148.

[xxiii] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 139.

[xxiv] It is not my intention to discount the intrinsic value of Indigenous Liberation; however, the scope of this essay is limited to the interconnectedness of nature-centred oppression and our response to the climate crisis.

[xxv] Developed by Miranda Fricker in her 2007 book, Epistemic Injustice, this term conceptualises an insidious form of oppression wherein the epistemic contributions of oppressed groups are systematically devalued and thus ignored within society. Here, I am referring specifically to a form of testimonial injustice used politically to silence marginalised groups, whereby a speaker is afforded an unjust credibility deficit by the hearer, based on the hearer’s prejudice. (Susan Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” Hypatia  30, No. 4 (2015): 795.

[xxvi] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “Introduction,” in Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, (New York: Routledge, 2007), 4.

[xxvii] First Nations Constitutional Convention, “The Uluru Statement from the Heart”, 2017, Available Online: https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement.

[xxviii] Megan Davis, Mark McKenna, et. al., “After Uluru: Australia’s Politics of Contempt Threatens the Soul of the Nation,” ABC, 2017, Available Online: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/after-uluru-australias-politics-of-contempt-threatens-the-soul-o/10095186

[xxix] Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 194.

[xxx] Feilberg, The Way We Civilise; Black and White; The Native Police: A Series of Articles and Letters Reprinted from the “Queenslander, 1880, (from Week 10 “Treaty” Lecture Slides, Slide 2), 3.

[xxxi] Commissioner Elliott Johnston (Queensland Commission), Chapter 6: “The Interrelationship of the Underlying Issues,” in “Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: National Report Volume 4,” 1991, Available Online: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/national/vol4/4.html, 8.

[xxxii] Garma Youth Forum, “The Imagination Declaration,” Read out by Siena Stubbs at the 2019 Garma Festival, Available Online: https://nrg.org.au/events/imagination-declaration/#:~:text=The%20Imagination%20Declaration%20clearly%20shows%20that%20young%20people,Statement%20from%20the%20Heart%20and%20the%20Imagination%20Declaration.%E2%80%9D

[xxxiii] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology,” 163.

[xxxiv] Garma Youth Forum, 2019.

[xxxv] Simone Thornton, Mary Graham and Gilbert Burgh, “Reflecting on Place: Environmental Education as Decolonisation,” Australian Journal of Environmental Education 35 (2019): 247.

[xxxvi] Thornton et al., “Reflecting on place,” 247.

[xxxvii] Mary Graham, “Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology 3, No. 2 (1999): 105.

[xxxviii] Non-Indigenous learning from Indigenous philosophy always carries the potential for cultural appropriation and assimilation; however, these can be avoided by the simple act of refraining from taking any action beyond listening with respect. (Dianne Lalonde, “Does cultural appropriation cause harm?”, Politics, Groups and Identities 9, No. 2 (2021): 342).

[xxxix] Graham, “Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews,” 106.

[xl] Thornton et al.,“Reflecting on place,” 247.


WORKS CITED

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Brigg, M, M Graham, and L Murphy. “Towards the dialogical study of politics: hunting at the fringes of Australian political science.” Australian Journal of Political Science 54, No. 3 (2019): 423-437.

Commissioner Elliott Johnston (Queensland Commission). Chapter 6: “The Interrelationship of the Underlying Issues.” In “Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: National Report Volume 4.” 1991. Available Online: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/national/vol4/4.html

Davis, M, M McKenna et. al. “After Uluru: Australia’s Politics of Contempt Threatens the Soul of the Nation.” ABC. 2017. Available Online: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/after-uluru-australias-politics-of-contempt-threatens-the-soul-o/10095186 

Dieleman, S. “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy.” Hypatia 30, No. 4 (2015):  794-810.

Feilberg. The Way We Civilise; Black and White; The Native Police: A Series of Articles and Letters Reprinted from the “Queenslander.” 1880, 3 (from Week 10 “Treaty” Lecture Slides, Slide 2).

First Nations Constitutional Convention. “The Uluru Statement from the Heart”. 2017. Available Online: https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement 

Gaard, G. “Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature.” In Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Garma Youth Forum. “The Imagination Declaration.” Read out by Siena Stubbs at the 2019 Garma Festival. Available Online: https://nrg.org.au/events/imagination-declaration/#:~:text=The%20Imagination%20Declaration%20clearly%20shows%20that%20young%20people,Statement%20from%20the%20Heart%20and%20the%20Imagination%20Declaration.%E2%80%9D 

Graham, M. “Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology 3, No. 2 (1999): 105-118.

Hartsock, N. “Foucault on Power: a theory for women.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Lalonde, D. “Does cultural appropriation cause harm?” Politics, Groups and Identities 9, No.2 (2021).

Moreton-Robinson, A. “Introduction” in Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 1-11. New York: Routledge, 2007. 

Murray, H. “Terra Nullius.” Teach Indigenous Knowledge. N.D. Available Online: https://teachik.com/terra-nullius/#:~:text=Terra%20nullius.%20In%201770%2C%20when%20Captain%20James%20Cook,that%20Britain%20could%20take%20possession%20of%20another%20country%3A 

Plumwood, V. “Has democracy failed ecology? An Ecofeminist perspective.” Environmental Politics 4, No. 4 (1995):  134-168. 

Plumwood, V. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge. 1993. 

Thornton, S, M Graham,  and G Burgh. “Reflecting on place: environmental education as decolonisation.” Australian Journal of Environmental Education 35 (2019): 239-249. 

Watson, I. “Settled and Unsettled spaces: Are we free to roam?”, Chapter 1 in Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 15-32. New York: Routledge, 2007. 

Watson, I. “The Future is our Past: We once were Sovereign and we still are.” Indigenous Law Bulletin 8, No. 3 (2012), 12-15.

Wissenburg, M. Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1998. 


Featured image: Uluru Statement from the Heart, May 2017, Aboriginal Convention, Central Australia

1 Comment

  1. Hi Emily, thanks for writing this. First a recommendation: based on this post, I think you would like Jason Hickel’s work (fair chance you are already familiar with his writing), especially his latest book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.
    I share your commitments to climate justice and decolonisation. It is great that currently there’s is such synergy between the two, eg between Frontline Action on Coal and W&J traditional owners in the anti-Adani struggle. I worry about what will happen if and when the interests of these two distinct movements come apart, however. Eg if a massive solar farm is proposed and receives pushback from traditional owners, these two groups may no longer be so aligned. A troubling thought, for me anyway.
    Also, I am concerned about the vilification of reason and rationality in some circles, echoed in this piece. I think just because rationality has been misapplied and some groups excluded from the circle of mutual debate and understanding, doesn’t mean we should throw out reason. The world is a complex place, and without reason we have no hope of understanding it, let alone working to improve it. For an example of the confluence of reason and environmentalism, see eg https://www.effectiveenvironmentalism.org/

    Like

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