Terra Nullius and Ecology

The Green movement has built a concept of wilderness, without consultation with Aboriginal people, we have generalised that concept, politicised it and it is now a significant issue on the Australian political landscape. Yet the way we have described the natural environment bears no resemblance to its ancient reality.

Modern Australia began with the legal principle of Terra Nullius, meaning a land with no law or government, no sovereign population. The British declared this continent to be Terra Nullius after Captain Cook “discovered” it, which allowed the British Crown to claim possession of the land in accordance with international law. Terra Nullius of course is a lie and was found to be such by the Australian High Court when Eddie Mabo proved that his family had owned their block of land since before Captain Cook.. Anthropologists and Aboriginal people assert that there was, prior to Cook and up until today, a complex and sophisticated system of law, government, economy and language, all the defining points of a sovereign nation.

Despite the high courts findings, Terra Nullius remains as the legal foundation for the sovereignty of the crown in Australia which in turn is the foundation authority for the parliament, courts, police, military and every other migrant legal institution.

Modern Australian conservationism dovetails with the legal fiction of Terra Nullius. Both deny the reality that this country was and still is occupied by a large complex Aboriginal society.

The conservation values of the Australian Bush are usually articulated in terms of species of plants and animals, geological considerations and often last and least, cultural heritage; usually a description of the history of the European colony and, occasionally, a reference to native title holders or Aboriginal place names (with little understanding of the meaning of either).

The principles of ecology and biodiversity have made us aware of the devastating consequences to an eco system if a particular species of plant or animal is removed. For example if a particular bird becomes extinct, the seeds it used to carry do not propagate and the insects it used to eat swell in numbers. Insect plague and reduced propagation in turn affects an infinite number of other organisms, radically degrading the systems of the ecosystem. The balance of bio-diversity has become an accepted principle in green ideology, yet how much have we considered the devastating consequences of removing the human species from wilderness eco-systems? For thousands of years humans interacted with the bush which provided them with all of the resources of daily life.. Human society and the natural eco systems evolved as one. Today we protect places in national parks and nature reserves and pretend that we are preserving their ancient integrity. Yet the form of bush that is protected in the national parks of today, places without the human species, are a phenomenon of the last hundred years, younger than many Australian urban centres. The removal of human beings from the bush in the last two hundred years has turned our wilderness areas into overgrown untended gardens.

Bushfire management is one example that highlights our misunderstandings of the bush. Conservationists have often argued that preventative burning strategies threaten eco systems; and they are right. Many farmers and fire authorities say the only way to avoid super-fires is to burn forest litter, and they are right also. In the old days the landscape was scattered with sacred campfires burning twenty-four hours a day providing a wide range of functional and spiritual purposes. These fires, along with hunting and cleansing fires, were fuelled solely by forest litter, gently and gradually cleaning the bush in a way that does not disrupt the sacred ecosystems that sustained the fire makers.

It has been a long time between sacred fires in many of our protected areas and as such they have degenerated into dormant infernos awaiting ignition.

Environmentalism tends to subscribe to the notion that the natural habitat of the human species is towns and cities, this is our territory and we should stay out of the territories of the other species. Centuries old notions of the evolution of humanity identify a progression from living in the bush in a savage and unsophisticated consciousness, through the epoch of barbarism into civilised society. This Darwinian notion conforms to the idea that the habitat of the modern human is urbanity. The inherent contradiction of this is it is the city structure that is doing most damage to the habitats of all species, including human. As a product of feudalism, industrialisation and capitalism, cities have grown as ever extending cancers, totally destroying the ecosystems of Europe and almost completing that process in Australia. By the simple evolutionary imperative of survival of the species, industrial civilisation represents a failure, it is our greatest threat as a species. the development of urban civilisation has been a process of ignorantly shitting in our own nests for millennia. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of years or more of sustainable human society in the bush, urban society is a dysfunctional devolution and disintegration.

If we are serious about preserving the Australian environment and indeed the human species we must take direction from Aboriginal people, their traditions of are the only record of the true history and nature of the bush, including how humans manage it. Aboriginal culture itself is a working example of a social ecology, including law and the individual and collective consciousness’ that have been created by the interrelationship between human society and the wilderness.

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One response to “Terra Nullius and Ecology

  1. Pingback: “Living on Aboriginal Land” - background links « unlearning the problem

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