Darling River past the Menindee main weir
Darling River past the Menindee main weir Image: Jeremy Buckingham
© Creative Commons

This talk was presented on 26 February 2019 as the first in the Australian Museum's 2019 HumanNature series.

HumanNature: Connection and cooperation in a time of climate change

In his urgent call to action, Birch identifies the powerful roles that First Nations ecological knowledge, environmental activism, scholarship and creativity can play in addressing the impact of climate change, particularly on vulnerable and disempowered communities suffering human rights abuses as a direct result.

No less pressing, he argues, is the acceptance of personal responsibility towards forming respectful and humble relationships with country and the planet.

Sue Saxon: Good evening everyone and welcome to the Australian Museum, and the very first of our 2019 Human Nature lecture series. My name is Sue Saxon and I'm a creative producer here at the Australian Museum. But I'd like to begin by calling on Gadigal elder Uncle Chicka Madden to welcome you all to country. Thank you Uncle Chicka.

Charles Madden: Thank you. Good evening, folks. My name is Charles Madden but known around the inner city of Sydney as Chicka. Now that's a nickname that I got many, many years ago, going to Redfern public school, which is now NCIE, the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence.

Folks, I'm from Gadigal land, Aboriginal land, that's the land we're on at the moment. For many, many years I've lived and worked around the city of Sydney. I've been involved with many a different Aboriginal organisation over the years. I've been a director with the Aboriginal Medical Service at Redfern for over 40 years. Also a director with the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Company, Aboriginal Hostels Australia, and the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, where I'm still a very active member. I've got to mention it, folks—also a life member of the Redfern All-Blacks Rugby League Football Club.

For many, many years I've lived and worked around the city of Sydney. I'd like to take this opportunity this afternoon to extend a warm and sincere welcome to all of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters, non-Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Do we have any brothers and sisters here from the Torres Strait, or further, or far across the seas? Welcome. Welcome to Gadigal land.

The Gadigal clan is one of 29 that makes up the Eora Nation. The Eora Nation is bordered by three distinctive landmarks. We have the Hawkesbury River to the north, Nepean to the west, and the Georges River to the south. Those three rivers form the boundaries of the Eora Nation. Folks, if you've travelled across this great city of ours today, the states, or this great country, welcome. Welcome to Gadigal land. Enjoy your stay. Have a safe and trouble-free trip home. Once again, welcome, welcome, welcome. Thank you. Enjoy the evening.

Sue Saxon: Thank you, Uncle Chicka. And welcome all to first of what promises to be another very challenging and thought-provoking Human Nature series. This landmark lecture series, in collaboration with our five major university partners, brings academic leaders in environmental humanities from around Australia and the world to the Australian Museum. As you may have seen upstairs in the fascinating Capturing Nature exhibition tonight, the Australian Museum's collection provides a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian and Pacific regions.

Together with this ongoing research the museum informs and promotes understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our region, including the loss of biodiversity, a changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.

So the past meets the future here at the Australian Museum, where our understanding is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists; by our exhibitions and by events like this Human Nature lecture series, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture and the natural environment.

Tonight's lecture is a galvanising launch of the series that stimulated, informed and deepened our perspectives on environmental change in 2018. This year our speakers explore different horizons: from the polar icecaps to the astronomy observatories and titanium dioxide mines of South Africa, to the Mekong River in Cambodia, and the forests of Eastern Ecuador and Southern Chile.

But let's start at home, and hear from Professor Anthony Birch, or Tony, who considers tonight the multilayered strategic and altruistic relationships required to combat climate change. So please join me now in welcoming Dr Anne Jamison, who's the deputy director of the Writing and Society Research Centre in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, to introduce Tony Birch to you. Thank you, Anne.

Anne Jamison: Thank you very much. It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be invited today to introduce Professor Tony Birch to you all this evening. And it's wonderful to see so many of you here in this lovely historic venue. On behalf of the multiple organisers of this event, and also the many universities that have been involved, I would like to extend our collective appreciation to Professor Birch for giving us his time this evening and for kicking off this lecture series.

Professor Tony Birch is a multi-award winning author. He is a respected curator. He is a renowned community activist, and he is very humble and someone with deep sincerity, a public intellectual. I think we need more of them in today's society, certainly. He is also currently the inaugural recipient of the Dr Bruce McGuinness Research Fellowship at Victoria University in Melbourne.

His books include Shadow Boxing, published in 2006; two short story collections, Father's Day and The Promise. His novel Blood, published in 2011, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2012, and Ghost River won the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

In 2017 he became the first Indigenous writer to receive the prestigious Patrick White Literary Award. His research interests centre on Aboriginal history, on climate change and on Indigenous knowledge systems. And his work reminds all of us, I think, of the important and fruitful conversations that can and need to be had between the hard sciences and the humanities. Indeed, he is a brilliant advocate, I believe, of the liberal arts degree and the humanities more generally. He has stated that the humanities are 'the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge.' And it is with his words and with that sentiment that I introduce Professor Tony Birch.

Tony Birch: Thank you very much. First thank you very much for that really warm invitation. I want to thank the museum for inviting me up here to Sydney, and also thank the organisational work of Thom van Dooren and the collaboration between Sydney University and University of Western Sydney. I feel humble and grateful to be here. I also of course want to thank Uncle Chicka for his wonderful and warm introduction, and clearly to pay my respects to him and the Gadigal people. We were talking, Chicka and I, about the person who shares the office next-door to me at Victoria University, a long-time friend of mine, Gary Foley, an old trouble-maker from Redfern. And Chicka was bemoaning the fact that Foley came down to Melbourne in 1973 and never came back. So Melbourne's a good place to escape to when the police are chasing you. Head south, head south.

And I'd say that I'm not going to do this in a lazy fashion, but I am tonight going to speak conversationally. I could deliver a formal lecture. I could deliver one of the many papers that I've published on this work, but the reason why I want to deliver it in the way that I shall, is that I want it to be an intimate and more of an informal conversation, and certainly one that will encourage you to ask questions and have a discussion. We'll make sure that we have time for that. But also, give you time to reflect I think on some of the people that I've been heavily influenced by who I will refer to in this conversation.

I always start with this slide, though, of Seed: Indigenous Youth Climate Change Coalition. Often people will ask me questions, you know, what can we do for Aboriginal people, or what can we do to save Aboriginal people. Well, there's not much you can do to save us. We don't need saving. But if you ever want to literally support a group of young Indigenous people who are doing remarkable work to save the environment, save Indigenous country, and to work on behalf of the planet, Seed are a wonderful group of people and quite literally you can go onto their website and see what they're doing, including some important political actions that have taken place in the last week in the federal parliament building, and quite seriously as well if you feel a need to, they're a group that you could give some financial support to because they operate on a shoe-string. They go out into regional and remote communities, they empower young Aboriginal people in mainland Australia to be active around climate justice. So I want to make sure that I give you a sense of that value.

The second thing I want to say—and I want to start with a couple of things that we could actually end on—we could make this lecture about 10 minutes long and there wouldn't be any need to do anything else, because I want to make the most important points at the outset. These group of kids that are in this photograph are a group of school students who are at the time were about 15 years of age. This is in 2014. So these are young adults now, they're 21 years of age. And I was very fortunate in 2013 and 14 to be invited to take part in a global project called Weather Stations. And the project was essentially based in Europe, with a southern hemisphere outstation, which was this school that I worked with, Footscray City College in Melbourne.

The other four groups that I worked with were students who I worked with in Europe. So I spent time teaching kids in Dublin, in Berlin, in London and in a school called Hel in Poland. And it struck me that working with these kids, I was thinking about that statement that we often make which I think is a bit of a misnomer when we talk about, 'We have to save the planet for our children and our grandchildren.'

Now, if you don't have children and grandchildren you've got to think of someone else, of course. A cousin or something. But I think it misses the point of the intelligence and the wisdom of young people. Because what I found in working with these kids across the globe and spending 18 months with them and then taking them to Berlin with some other people—and we engaged with the Berlin Literature Festival in something called the Youth Climate Change Summit—was that one of the things that we think about is that we think that young people are naïve. We think that young people might be idealised in a negative sense.

And what these young people were talking about is, one, they understood the value of place as a collective. There were no dissenters in the sense that they thought that where they lived, the places they grew up in, whether it be the Baltic Sea, which was being poisoned, whether it be a paddock at the end of the public housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin that had been hammered by the global financial crisis, that they understood that that place mattered, that their place was entitled to survive, their place was entitled to be protected, and they were unanimous in their sense that they didn't want to see their place desecrated, they didn't want to see their places damaged.

And what I thought then and what I think now is that in fact what these young children were expressing was not naivety, not idealism, but wisdom. And I've since thought about why is it that as we get older we might think we grow wise—and I think it's a very dubious claim when we consider some of our political leaders—but in fact that I think we lose wisdom. And what these kids taught me in the way they expressed their feelings about climate change, was in a very wise manner.

So that one of the things that I've been left with, and one of the things that is a constant driver to my work is what happens to us? What happens when we become pragmatic, when we become realists? What do we lose in that sense of who we are? And I think we could do a lot worse than focus on what young people are saying about the planet, because I think many of them are much wiser than many of us.

The second point that I could make that we could leave and go home on is this. There are a couple of people here who will know this story, and they will know the context that I've used it in. But I just want to in a way say how this frames everything that I've done, or it's central to I suppose my sense of thinking around climate justice, around Indigenous knowledge, around Aboriginal protection of country and what we could do.

So this story, 'The Lifting of the Sky', is a story from Wurundjeri country of the Greater Kulin Nation. It's a story many, many thousands of years old. So I'm going to move across so I can read it; you can read it, but I will read it.

'A long time ago there was no sky as there is now, for it lay flat upon the earth and covered it like a blanket. It rested so hard upon it that the people were not able to move, and were in dire distress. At last Goruk the magpie managed to prop up one corner of it and some of the people were freed and enabled to come to his assistance. Between them they lifted the sky to where it is now.'

So one of the things that I started to think about when I was on this fellowship was to think about Indigenous ecological knowledge, or what might be called traditional ecological knowledge, which is a body of work particularly in North America which talks about the validity of Indigenous ecological scientific knowledge, the need to have that knowledge recognised by western science, but also as I'll talk about in a moment the problematics of how that knowledge might be shared. And what I found in the first two years of the fellowship is that I was in a sense writing in a very—what we might call adversarial way—of trying to say, in a way, you've got to recognise this knowledge. This is vital knowledge, it's important that science recognises it.

There were two problems with that. One is that, as I talked to Thom about before, while there have been historic problems in the relationships between indigenous people globally and indigenous ecological knowledge, and its reception or in some ways it's what's called bio-piracy, the theft of this knowledge by western science. I didn't even contemplate another factor and that is that there are Aboriginal people in Australia, there are indigenous people across the globe working very effectively with science, very effectively with other disciplines of the humanities and the sciences and doing it very well across the globe.

So if I was going to make a claim about a need to be heard, about a need for our knowledge to be respected, I'd have to do a lot more work about seeing what was happening on the ground. And while there are historical legacies of very bad relationships and neglect of Aboriginal knowledge and the misappropriation of Aboriginal knowledge, one of the things I found very quickly is that these remarkable projects that are taking place across the globe are ones that I needed to be more aware of and pay more respect to.

But the other thing that I started to think, and I think it's become central to my way of thinking and why I think so much about how we can cooperate, how we can work together, is I love this story. Now this is a story that we could give scientific fact to. Because what we know is that when Europeans arrived in what becomes Australia, Indigenous people who witness the use of smoke and fire by Europeans cannot believe the level of extravagance. That there is so much smoke in the air. Very early around here, around Port Jackson, the Gadigal people when they witnessed the way that Europeans used fire, to keep warm, to cook, they think it's a very extravagant and wasteful use of fire. And in Wurundjuri country where I live, where I come from, there's talk very early on by Wurundjuri people in the Greater Kulin Nation about what this smoke is doing in the air. The problem of this smoke in the air. It's a wasteful use of a technology.

So we can make very strong arguments that this statement is one of those statements where you say, well here's an example of a warning of what excessive carbon could do, the excessive use of fossil fuels. But in a way to me that's a sort of given. I don't want to have to argue that because to me it's fairly obvious. What I found more profound in this is the notion of what happens here. So Goruk the magpie has to save people who would otherwise die. But as soon as he saves one of those people it is their obligation to help him to save the others. And I think this central notion of Indigenous philosophy of place, Indigenous philosophy of collective support is what is more important to me. And that is the obligation that we have to others, the obligation that we have to save and protect others, and of course relative to that then what is the objective and what is the obligation of us who have been assisted by others.

So it's in a way the driving force of my work. The other thing that is important about this is the whole notion of what we might call Indigenous philosophy. Now one of the things that you'll see as I mention other people, I'm not here suggesting that the knowledge that Aboriginal people have is exclusive or that we think of place, we think of the value of the environment in ways that non-Aboriginal people don't.

But there is a clear distinction. If I were to go into the northern suburbs of Melbourne, in very poor public housing estates, and talk to Aboriginal kids there, I don't have to convince them of the importance of protection of country. Those kids could have limited formal education. Those kids could be marginalised in the education system. Those kids could be in a youth detention centre, where I do some teaching. But if I say to them, 'What's the importance of place to your mob, to your people?' They have no doubt about that. It's not something I have to convince them of. And yet when I've read great teachers and great philosophers of what we call the western philosophy, I'm intrigued at the extent to which people are individualised, or exceptions, and sometimes in a very negative way.

People may know the work of Rachel Carson. I'm sure many of you do. Think about how Rachel Carson was marginalised. To think that Rachel Carson was regarded as suspect because she wasn't married. Rachel Carson wasn't a man, so she couldn't have the knowledge that men had. The way that she was ridiculed. You find particularly women who are working in what we might call philosophical ecologies are often seen as a bit mad. Now you can be mad in a good way, but in a very negative way.

So what I'm trying to argue for is the notion about attachment to place and the value of place is something—in my community and in Aboriginal communities—that is understood as a collective idea, even if it's not articulated by everyone in that way. But what we're doing in a country like Australia today is that people are still having to argue for the environment. Still having to argue for the value of protection of country. And if we don't think that's the case, look at what happened on television last night when Scott Morrison was interviewed by Leigh Sales. His response to what he's going to do in relationship to carbon, you would have thought that he was in fact talking about a football match. The way that he said, 'We're gonna do it in the can and we're going to meet it and beat it.' And it was like a sort of heroic act. This is not the way to talk about the protection of country.

So the other issue, and I suppose the one that has stuck with me is about climate justice and the protection of country. And one of the things I learned very early on—and this is about language—how do we talk about country? How do we talk about climate? And what I found very early, again, to my naivety, is that you don't go out and talk to Aboriginal people: 'What are you going to do about climate change?' Or 'What are we going to do about climate change?'

Aboriginal people understand when you talk about country, when you talk about protection of country, when you talk about justice. They are much more legitimate terms, and also they go to the heart of the way we think about country in a holistic way. Again, when we think about climate change, and climate change solutions in mainstream, it's as if it's a compartmentalised idea, a compartmentalised problem or a compartmentalised solution that we might offer, rather than regard climate or regard the environment as something which we need to understand in a much more holistic way.

So just a couple of things that I think you will all know, and this is to think about climate change and injustice. So people know the term 'we're all in the same boat' and this has been ridiculed over recent years both as being put by humanity scholars and politicians. Well the first thing we need to do if you're going to work cooperatively is to realise, well we're not all in the same boat. That there are people who have committed gross abuses against the environment. Western consumption has a very negative impact on the way that climate will change in the future. There are many, many communities, many indigenous communities and poorer communities worldwide who contribute nothing or very little in the way of a carbon footprint—who have already suffered because of environmental degradation to their land whether it be because of dispossession or the misuse of their land by corporations or by colonial forces such as agriculture.

So we have to understand that and we have to accept that. This is not a struggle that we think we're all in it together. This is a struggle where people have to take particular responsibilities. It's interesting, when I talk to a room full of mixed crowd, if we're going to effectively as a collective confront climate injustice, I say we all have to give something up. Now you imagine when there's Aboriginal people in the room they say, 'You're kidding, aren't you, what else do we have to give up?' And what I say to them is, why don't we just park our mistrust to one side, why don't we park our wariness to one side, and why don't we, when these white fellas come into the room and say 'We want to work with you, we want to cooperate with you,' why don't we say, 'Okay, we'll hear what they've got to say.' And then if we think, no, this is a bit of humbug, we can say no we're not interested.

But to say to Aboriginal people let's hear what people have to say. Now again I'm being a bit patronising, because we know that Aboriginal people are doing that all the time. That there are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working on the ground effectively together because Aboriginal communities have made that decision. Regardless of what has happened, we're going to work with these people because it gives us each an opportunity to work forward in the future. But it can only begin from a sense of understanding the injustices that have occurred.

The other thing, of course, is to think about what I was talking about in relationship to holistic understanding of country. This is a wonderful statement from an essay by Ellen van Neerven, who's a young Aboriginal woman, both a novelist, poet and essayist. And when you think about, again, the impact of climate…you cannot isolate something around weather, you have to think about every aspect of an Aboriginal person's life.

One of the things that we know: if you as an Aboriginal person living in a community and your community is affected by a dramatic weather event, you're already living in a community which is more likely to have substandard utilities such as sewerage and running water. And if you're living in a community where you already have substandard facilities it is far less likely that when the recovery teams come in, when work is done to repair damage, that your community will get repairs even to the state that it was in beforehand.

So the more marginalised, the more deprived a community is, the more likely that community will end up more deprived after a dramatic weather event. And what we know in Australia and globally is that this is affecting Aboriginal people more and more.

Okay. So thinking about caring for country constitutes something far greater than a person or a group of people having a job and physically managing a geographic area by dealing with a problem created by weeds and feral animals. Caring for country encompasses being spiritually bound to country through intimate connections with ancestors being still present in the land and waters.

So imagine the problem here that we have. So Aboriginal people possess knowledge that we know is invaluable to protecting the environment and there are many, many examples that we could give but we don't have time to. We also know that the ability to maintain that knowledge in relationship to your kinship obligations to other people in relationship to your kinship obligations to non-human species, in relationship to how your community operates in a holistic manner is predicated on that knowledge being both protected and that knowledge being accessed with proper protocols.

So if we think about the notion of Aboriginal knowledge and its ability to inform the greater community or society as to how we might deal with issues like climate change, there is so much at stake for Aboriginal people to even engage in that relationship. And if proper protocols and ethics are not rigidly kept in place, the likelihood of that knowledge being abused, misappropriated or what's called cherry-picked is enhanced. And for people here who are again working with Aboriginal people or Aboriginal people working with white fellas, it's so important that we get this right, because if we don't get it right, it's very difficult to grow that relationship.

And this is one of the strongest apprehensions. When I'm talking to Aboriginal people in Victoria, the real apprehension is around this issue again of trust. Who can we trust, how can we build trust, and how do we know how people are going to utilise the knowledge that we have?

So, Leanne Simpson, who's a really important figure in my work, who's a First Nation scholar in Canada, or Turtle Island, one of the things that Leanne Simpson writes about is that very point. What's happened to First Nation communities in places like Turtle Island is that often they find that the particularities of knowledge, so women's knowledge, men's knowledge, it can show up in places where it simply shouldn't be after a conversation, after an engagement with a non-aboriginal scientist. And it not only destroys those relationships, the knowledge that goes out of that community, it's the same as a desecration of a very important sacred site. It's the same as the desecration of people's relationship to country. So again, there's so much at stake here.

Now, the other two things I want to end on this section, is that the other thing that we have to come to terms with is what we call failure. Now people might see failure itself as a negative. So when I worked as a historian I used to do a lot of work in the western district of Victoria about the refusal to recognise colonial histories including violence against Aboriginal people. Many of the farmers who I talked to in fact weren't farmers. They lived on land that had once been farmed that had completely failed as agricultural land. They lived on land that had been part of soldiers' settlement blocks that had failed because the land was not suitable for European agricultural farming. But they still called themselves farmers. And if they talked about the failure of their farm they did it in whispers.

Now I understand that. I understand that sense of someone's humiliation. But unless we understand that the colonial project, the aspect of colonialism not only about the invasion and desecration of Aboriginal land and people, but the so-called science and knowledge that replaced it as being unsuitable for many landscapes, it is very difficult, again, to move forward in a trustful way. So people have to admit that the colonial project in many parts of Australia is a project of failure. And what we need is new ways of thinking about how we engage with landscape and country.

The other person who's so important on this is one of my heroes who has since passed, the wonderful Deborah Bird Rose, who I think spoke here last year, who makes a similar point. Any conversion we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our base in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harm we have done and continue to do.

So, again, we cannot build these relationships unless there is a recognition of what has been done and what has been done that is wrong, and to accept that—not as simply a criticism—as a challenge to do something different. So the ethics of that, the potential maturity of that, I actually think are invaluable, which will allow us to start these new relationships.

So I want to talk a little bit about the damage of denialism, and then just think about what we could do, or what we should be doing. So there's the usual suspects. Donald Trump, this is during an interview. He was asked, 'Who's going to protect the environment?' Trump said, 'We'll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can't destroy business.' Now he's a soft target, I know. But he's not as soft as this bloke. [Tony Abbott]

So people may remember back to the climate change argument is absolute crap. Now again, we could be dismissive of this, and you think well Tony, you're doing that cos you're putting him there in his togs. It is interesting that he made this statement when I was working in Europe, and when I was in Berlin people could not believe that a political leader in Australia would say such a thing, and what it said about our level of intelligence and the damage it does to your relationships.

But I'm actually going to say something a bit different. I think we shouldn't get fixated on the extreme statements that people like Trump and Abbott make, and we should think more about what it does to our thinking to engage with denialism, and what it does to our thinking in the way we use language.

So a very influential figure in my work is the American philosopher Elizabeth Minnich. Here she talks about the damage of the denial of thinking through climate change denialism. Power lies in the ability not to hear what is being said, not to experience the consequences of one's own actions, but rather to go one's own self-centric and insulated way. And what Elizabeth Minnich says about climate change denialists, denialists around colonial violence—all forms of denial by so-called political leadership—its impetus is to shut down thinking. See I don't know whether Tony Abbott believes in climate change or not, and I don't think that's the issue. Strategically the issue is to create a climate of fear, to create a climate of uncertainty, which closes down our thinking. Which doesn't promote us to think about the consequences of these issues.

What Minnich offers in opposition to that is what she calls 'teaching thinking.' 'Thinking is neither coerced nor coercive. It's explanatory, suggestive, emerging as a more thoughtful people who will continue to seek meaningful lives.' And what Minnich says, she values thinking to the extent that if we promote it, if we set up the environments where people are encouraged to develop ideas, that generally most people will make the right decisions. They will make good decisions. And I think the greatest damage the climate denialists do to us is that they inhibit our sense to gather collectively and to act and think collectively.

So a couple more things that I want to talk about. One is how we speak when we speak about country. And this is a wonderful map—yeah, people think the European discovery, greater Port Phillip was Aboriginal country. This is a very early 20th century map where the boundaries of Aboriginal nations were in fact recognised even by some colonialists.

So this is your premier. 'I care more about people.' When asked why she didn't make the trip to the site of the fish kill on the Darling River, she said, 'Of course I care about fish. But to be honest I care more about people.' Now again, we could be dismissive of that but I want people to think about what is it that would bring someone to use this language as opposed to this language.

If shore birds disappear a whole aspect of our imagination and spiritual wealth also disappears. The birds carry our imagination and if they die, so does our imagination. This is by a wonderful woman, Mimi MacDonald, who unfortunately also passed away late last year, a novelist.

Now, as much as it might seem like a grand attempt at change, what I started with tonight with that discussion of Goruk is to say, regarding climate change, there are two timeframes, minimum. One is the urgency of now. We need to act now. We need to act now in Australia, we need to act now in the Pacific, we need to act globally now to stop the devastation that could occur. I have no doubt about that.

But what I also believe is that we need generational change in our thinking. So when Mimi MacDonald talks here about imagination and spiritual wealth, that's something that we need to work together to accept as a collective, as a society. The way that Aboriginal people wouldn't doubt that. It mightn't be in the terms that we would talk about, but explained about what Mimi is interested in, we as Aboriginal people wouldn't doubt the validity of that. And until as a society we don’t doubt the validity of that and understand that as a much more important and profound statement in relationship to a statement by a politician, we won't live in a way that gives equality to non-human species and the planet.

Imagine that, these are the lawyers for the Adani corporation who are trying to stop the Wangan and Jagalingou people from protecting their country. People would have seen this in the press. 'Like a well trained police dog, our litigators know when to sit and shake and when it's time to bite.' I mean, it's outrageous that educated people in a country like Australia would use that language against people who are doing nothing more than trying to save their country. The indignity of that, the vandalism of that sort of language should cause social outrage to the scale that we don't hear.

I know there was some negative press for this but most people just move on. And when you think about what is being said here in relationship to protecting of country, if we allow statements like this to be made, if we allow statements like this to go unchecked, we are not where we need to be philosophically as a society. Think about that in opposition to Virginia Robinson, an elder who's fighting for the protection of the Murray Darling Basin. 'Our totem animals are dead. Their bones are everywhere.' So, who does she care more about, fish or people? She doesn't differentiate between fish and people, animals and people, because this Aboriginal elder, this wonderful woman sees the interconnection that's absolutely vital to the coexistence and survival of human and non-human and country.

Until we understand that we cannot, we cannot think of ourselves as superior to fish or more important than fish, we have no ability, or we have a very limited ability to enact the change that we need to make.

Or Darren Perry who's engaged in this also, an Aboriginal man: 'We're southern First Nations, and we've been managers of our water resources within our traditional country for many thousands of generations. So it goes without saying we should be partners, not stakeholders, in the water management in this country.'

So if people like Virginia Robinson and Darren Perry are not centrally engaged in any mechanism to save that river, the river will not be saved. Because if you don't have the attitude that they have, you are not equipped to do the work that needs to be done.

So, let's finish up with a question. And the question is put by Jedediah Purdy: What kind of world to make together should be taken as a challenge to democracy, the test of whether citizens can form the kind of democracy…this question, the question of what kind of world to make. A democracy that cannot do this will have marked itself as inadequate to the most basic problems.

So if we don't have a genuine sense of inclusion and a democratic value system and a truly democratic value system that incorporates the equity of voices—and this is from his book After Nature—'there is no ability that we will stop climate change.' We will not stop it by geo-engineering, we will not stop it by some carbon offset plan that Scott Morrison talks about, or the Labor party's continuing support of the Adani coal mine. We will not stop it unless we have a genuinely democratic outlook on how we engage with the planet. And again, to Debbie: 'The challenge here then is to be open. To hold oneself available to others. One takes risks and becomes vulnerable.' That's a wonderful, wonderful statement. 'But this is also a fertile stance. One's own ground can become destabilised. In open dialogue one holds oneself available to be surprised, to be challenged and changed.'

So the point here is obvious. One of the things I know about Deborah Bird Rose is that she spent 30 years or more with Aboriginal people and built not only a trustful relationship but a lifelong relationship of brotherhood and sisterhood. And what someone like Deborah Bird Rose would have had to go through is to accept those challenges of possible mistrust. Possible suspicion. The possibility of Aboriginal people saying what does this academic want, what does this woman want? And Deborah Bird Rose has seen that as the necessary challenge that she had to engage with.

So for all of us, all of us, when we want to do the hard work of working together, the first thing is to know it is hard work. We are going to get knockbacks. We are going to face difficulties.

I worked with a group of Aboriginal elders in Melbourne around climate justice. These were all people who were Stolen Generations people. None of them had lived on their own country. They were all taken from their country as children. And now in their 60s and 70s. They were working in a suburban community centre in the west of Melbourne. Our objective was to do writing workshops with these wonderful people to talk about country that they'd loved and missed, or the country they'd moved to. And then we said and what we're going to do next is that in the other room there's a group of old Maltese women—because this is the western suburbs of Melbourne—and some Italian women. There's some Italian blokes playing bocce and we want to bring you all together and talk about your love of country. And they were so excited.

I used to go in on a Tuesday. On the Monday night I watched a Four Corners program of the Don Dale torture of Indigenous youth. I go in to that room the next morning, those people are just devastated. They have family with experiences of imprisonment and incarceration. What ability would I have to say to those people let's go and talk to those women in the next room. They were so gutted. So every time there's an external force of racism that impacts on Aboriginal people, or other people, it's such a knock to your system. And we have to know when we're trying to work together, we have to work against those forces and it is going to be, and is, a very difficult challenge.

I'm just going to finish with this man. He's another one of my heroes, Dwayne Donald. If you have the time, go on to Vimeo and find a lecture, 'On What Terms Can We Speak'. It's a 45-minute lecture he gave as a First Nation scholar from Canada. He says, 'Decolonisation can only occur when we face each other across these historic divides. When we deconstruct the past and share, and begin to imagine the different relationships, ethical and respectful.'

So what Dwayne Donald is saying, and what he says in this lecture is that we in this room are all the products of colonialism. Whether we've benefitted from it or whether we've suffered because of it, we are all the products of colonialism. Whether you have families that have been in this country for time immemorial, Aboriginal families; whether you have First Fleet ancestors or whether you came last week. And I don't mean beneficiaries. I'm not one who subscribes to the idea that everyone is equally a beneficiary of colonial violence. You would hardly put that to a refugee who'd just arrived in the country. But we are all the products of colonialism. And what Dwayne Donald says, if we are inhibited from working together, if we don't have the conversations that are necessary to have, we are fulfilling the colonial fantasy of the extermination of Aboriginal people, or at the least the total marginalisation and the separation of people into white colonial society, Indigenous society.

So in other words, what Dwayne Donald says, the challenge that we face and the productive challenge we face is to talk to each other. To find ways to talk, to find ways to cooperate, to find ways to work together, because then what we will have done, we will have broken that nexus. We are the ones, and the ones that have come before us and will come after, who have the potential to change the society, to change that situation that we were born into.

Now, I know that's a big challenge, but I think it's one that we can all be invigorated by. When I started this fellowship I was so depressed about what's happening. I've probably looked at those photos of Tony Abbott too often, I don't know. But what I've found in the five years that I've been doing the project is that there are people doing remarkable work and I feel very invigorated by that and I hope that people in this room—and again, I don't want to patronise anyone, because I'm sure that there are people in this room doing remarkable work. You need to continue to do it and please make others aware of what's happening on the ground, because sometimes the only pictures we see are those nightly headlines. If you're doing stuff at a local level around climate justice and climate change, try and find ways to get that information more widely disseminated. So thank you very much.

Anne Jamison: Thank you very much, Professor Birch. That was indeed very invigorating, your approaches to climate justice and issues around climate change are very hopeful, actually, in a time when it often feels that we're sleepwalking over the edge of a cliff. So thank you for that, for your conversation this evening.

It's up to me now, and a couple of people on the sides with microphones to open the conversation up to our audience. Professor Birch has kindly agreed to take some questions, so if you raise your hand, wave around, the microphone will reach you. Yes.

Audience question: Thanks very much for that. I'm just wondering, what do you think are some of the best examples you've seen or heard of where Indigenous ecological knowledge is helping current management of that environment.

Tony Birch: Yes. Look, and I know it's almost like the obvious here, but I've done a lot of work with Bruce Pascoe, and people know Bruce's work from his book Dark Emu. Now that book, its afterlife probably answers your question more fully, because that book is about what early colonialists missed or what they wrote about and then didn't fulfil or didn't in a sense recognise. What I think is one of the great examples of this in a very contemporary setting is the Seed Bank project that Bruce has been involved in.

So one of the things that we know with drought and weather. The current drought system, how much is climate change, how much is a historical event—I'm not going to talk about tonight, but one of the things that Bruce's work has done is that if you look at the way the Indigenous seed is applied to soils, you're talking about seed that doesn't need the amount of water that introduced agriculture needs. The systems that Bruce and others use to both plant that seed and then to harvest it is showing remarkable outcomes.

It's a very strong local example of the way that plant sources work. Now that's a global phenomenon. The First Nations scholar in America, Winona LaDuke, people may have heard of, she tells a remarkable story about the Pawnee and the seed bank that they took from where they had lived in Nebraska. They were pushed off to Oklahoma. Their seeds did not take to that soil, and their seed bank, over many decades, reduced dramatically.

What happened was that the community that they'd been dispossessed of, the land they'd been dispossessed of, current day settler farmers said, 'Bring your seeds back here and we will plant them here.' Now it was one of those great exercises where she talks about how those First Nations people, that was something of a big risk for them. Why would we take our seeds back to this land that was stolen from us and is now occupied by these settler communities? They made a decision that they had to work on behalf of the seed. The seed was more important than their own mistrust.

The seed went back to Nebraska and it flourished. And she makes this remarkable comment, she says, 'Seed has a memory. Seed knows where it came from in the ground.' So just in regard to agriculture, one of I think the global examples would be the use of agriculture in an indigenous way, not just the technologies, but the actual plants that are utilised.

One that I was reading on my way here is about in First Nations communities in parts of North America, when the fishing of salmon and the returning of the salmon bones to the water. It actually produces nitrogen which assist the salmon to increase, or assists the fertility of the salmon for the next season. When Europeans saw the success of that, what's happening now, scientists are actually using salmon bones to replenish waterways which have seen the loss of salmon.

So there are many examples. They are only two. Again, it requires goodwill and a trustful relationship to get that to happen.

Audience question: Thank you, Tony. I just wanted to ask you about your view on the role of fiction. I think we have so many facts, and fiction is so powerful and is an interesting tradition in North America and in First Nations writers, Indigenous science-fiction as well as amazing Aboriginal novelists here. So how do you see the role of fiction?

Tony Birch: Well, it's interesting. I write fiction, so I write novels and short stories. One of the issues that have come out in literary criticism is that more people should be writing about climate change. We all should be, because it's the issue. One of the problems with that is that people think well you can just shift into this—there's a genre called cli-fi, I don't know if you've heard of it. James Bradley in Sydney, his book was very good around this. But people need to understand that you can't simply move into a genre or an issue-based work of fiction unless you really are embedded in it in a way that allows you to produce good work. So I haven't done any what we might call fiction around climate change, although my novel Ghost River does look at the desecration of the Birrarung Yarra River in 1970 through the eyes of two very poor boys. But the point being that I think it's a very important genre to be addressing these issues, but it's got to be done well and it's a false claim to say people should be pushed into it.

The other issue around fiction, but I'll get to your more specific point, is that I actually have maybe, as a sort of someone who still unfortunately believes in the value of humanism. I actually think that if you're reading fiction, and I think fiction is very powerful, if you're writing a book about the value of relationships, the value of the community, I don't think necessarily that you have to be writing about climate change for people to understand the value of community through that. But I think the more specific point here is the relationship between fiction and what we might call Indigenous storytelling. So there's a great crossover here.

One of the problems with that is that that story of Goruk the magpie is told as a parable. That was in a book about Aboriginal myths and legends. So you can read Aboriginal stories in books of myths and legends that you can see have important ecological knowledge in a philosophical sense if not in a physical science sense. Aboriginal knowledge has always been dismissed because of that. Okay, that's a story but it's just a story. And Alexis Wright, my friend, who has certainly written in this area, her wonderful essay that she did in 2016 for Meanjin around story, is that our stories are essentially about who we are holistically.

So any time you look at whether it be a fiction work in a book or Aboriginal or Indigenous storytelling, what we need to understand is what else is embedded in that work, and what else is embedded in that work is essential issues around science, and essential issues for me more importantly now around philosophy.

Now, I wouldn't say that they are not also important tropes in fiction generally, but they're not given that credibility. Although it is interesting, as an aside to this, it's not surprising that western fiction books that romanticised the colonial frontier are often people's basis for understanding history. So people have grown say, what do you know about this country? I read such and such a book. Seven Little Australians, that's where I got my history from. So when western knowledge has utilised fiction to legitimate something like colonialism, it's not so much of a problem when Aboriginal people tell stories. So there's a disconnection there.

Audience question: Hi. Thank you very much. I am a Pakeha New Zealander who's been here only 11 years, so I don't have the deepest understanding of how Australians think as most people in this room will. But it strikes me that the growing desire on the part of non-Indigenous Australians to progress towards reconciliation as Aboriginal people are asking for, but I do know there's a growing desire for climate change to be activated or environmental degradation. So I wondered what your thoughts were and your experience of where you had seen those two things coming together. It just seems to me it's framing for the zeitgeist now.

Tony Birch: I'll preface this with a closing remark. One of the problems of giving this talk is one, time limitation, and always wanting to do more than I should be doing. So it gets a bit messy. It is interesting that in the…you think this PowerPoint is death by PowerPoint. It was bigger than this. I usually take two hours and just bore the shit out of everyone, but I did have a slide up about the constitutional recognition issue, which goes to the heart of the issue of reconciliation.

Now, I should be honest here and say that I've written about constitutional recognition, the bogus notion of a treaty in the sense of how it's framed by the commonwealth and issues like reconciliation in a fairly critical way. So in Victoria, and people may or may not know this history because history is lost so quickly, the only reason a treaty got on the agenda with the Uluru Statement is because we in Victoria demanded that treaty be discussed in a real, meaningful way.

So when Stan Grant—and I love Stan Grant—was brought to Melbourne by the constitutional convention group, he came to a community meaning to talk to us about why we should support constitutional recognition, and there were t-shirts and badges, and we said, 'No, we don't want to talk about constitutional recognition. We want to talk about treaty in a real, meaningful way, and if you want to talk about that, Stan, please stay and facilitate that. And if you don't want to talk about that you can have a free couple of days in Melbourne.' So Stan, to his credit, said, 'Okay, we'll talk about treaty.' And it was the driving of that discussion from Victoria that got that issue on to a national agenda. So I need to sort of say where I'm at with that. So I'm very suspicious of a whole lot of symbolic gestures. But there's something in…why I put it up is to be honest.

What I would say about something like constitutional reform is to say this: it might seem odd; it's not whether it's a good or a bad thing; it's what sort of society does it land in? And it goes to the heart of the issue that…why I'm interested in Elizabeth Minnich. She wants us to think. So if someone says to me here's this statement from the heart, the Uluru Statement from the heart. Or here's a framework for constitutional recognition. And what we want now is Australian society to have time to think about it, to discuss it, to have all those difficult discussions. And if it takes a long time in European sense, let's take a long time. And what people would realise, with the constitutional recognition program, it was on a timetable of which we have to get to an end point sooner than we want to get there.

So my view would be to say reconciliation? I'm not against reconciliation, because I could say there's a man called John Green who was a manager of Coranderrk Reserve in the 1880s. He was a great friend of an Aboriginal man called William Barak who was a resident there. When the Aboriginal community of Coranderrk were sick and tired of not being paid a proper wage, when they were sick and tired of being treated like children and there was a royal commission, John Green, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, stood up in the parliament of Victoria during the royal commission and said, 'These men are my brothers'. And there was an audible gasp in the room because a white man had just said these Aboriginal men are my brothers. And he said, 'They must be treated justly.' And he was sacked because of that. He was sacked because of his honesty and his bravery. That's reconciliation in action. So we should all say reconciliation in practice occurs and has occurred historically in Australia many, many times. But as a government policy, we need to say well what sort of society does it land in. And to be honest, if someone said to me, 'Is Scott Morrison committed to a genuine sense of reconciliation, is Bill Shorten committed…?' I'd say no.

So I don't think white Australia, or I don't think the country is ready to deal with reconciliation in a full and proper way, and if we are to do that, we need to take a long time to think about it and discuss it. And I would rather that take a decade and get it right and be really honest with each other than try and make it a bureaucratic exercise. And I think that's the problem with a lot of these symbolic acts, that they don't have any basis. And they're sort of 'move on' acts. We do and then we move on.

Questioner: I guess I was just looking at discussions around dealing with the environmental degradation and climate change as a way of enabling Australians to have the varying conversation you're talking about. Rather than it be just a government…

Tony Birch: Yes, sorry you're right. I missed that point. And that is really interesting, because what I think you're saying there, it's about imagine if Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have the experience of sharing ideas and as part of that sharing ideas they fulfil the protection of a wetland, or they work together to genuinely save a river. Clearly that experience of both trust and outcome would equip both of those communities better to then think about…so you're right, exactly, it's about socialism is much more important than having something handed down to you.

Anne Jamison: I hope you will join me in thanking once again Professor Tony Birch for his passion, his enthusiasm.

About HumanNature

This landmark lecture series offers a range of talks by leading international and Australian scholars in the Environmental Humanities. It will draw on insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and related disciplines and explore the important role humanities can play in addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our day.

About Tony Birch

Poet, short story writer and novelist, Professor Tony Birch is the current Bruce McGuinness Professorial Research Fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University, and in 2017, became the first indigenous writer to win the Patrick White Award. Tony has published key academic articles and essays concerning Climate Justice, Protection of Country and Indigenous Rights, and is currently researching and writing a book titled, The Dead are the Imagination of the Living: Climate Justice and Connectivity.