Live at the AM: HumanNature 2018 - Bruce Pascoe
Recorded in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum on 18 October 2018.
Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking research completely reconsiders the notion of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians as hunter-gatherers.
Explore and challenge the colonial myths that have often underpinned efforts to justify dispossession in this fascinating discussion. Reading the diaries of early explorers, both with and against the grain, Pascoe retells Aboriginal history and argues that it is time to take a new look at Australia’s past.
Sue Saxon: My name is Sue Saxon and I head up the Programming Department at the Australian Museum. I'd like to welcome you and acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I'd like to pay my respect to their elders past, present and those emerging.
And welcome all of you, and it's great you braved that torrential rain to get here tonight for the penultimate talk in the inaugural Human Nature lecture series. It's a landmark series that marks the collaboration of four major universities with the Australian Museum and with academics from around Australia and the world who are leaders in the environmental humanities.
Our collection here provides a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian and Pacific regions. Together with its 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 museum really is a place where the past meets the future, and where 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.
So we're almost at the end of this first extraordinary series of talks. But don't despair, we're putting final touches to next year's line-up of equally stimulating and thought-provoking speakers right now, and we'll share that with you as soon as we can.
Tonight's lecture, as all the previous ones have been too, will be available via the AM live podcast. So to introduce our very special guest this evening, I'll hand over now to Judy Motion, Professor of Communication in UNSW Environmental Humanities. Thank you, Judy.
Judy Motion: Good evening everyone. I'd like to begin, too, by acknowledging and paying respect to the Traditional Owners and custodians of this land, sky and waterways. We pay respect to elders past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are present here today, and we thank you.
The Australian Museum is located on the traditional homelands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. This place where we are meeting has been, is and will be a place of nourishment and inspiration to countless generations. We acknowledge all those beings—plant, animal and more—whose lives and deaths have shaped and constituted this place. In Deborah Bird Rose's words, 'We are called in to recognition of the shimmer of life's pulses and the great patterns within which the power of life expresses itself. We are, therefore, called in to gratitude for the fact that in the midst of terrible destruction life finds ways to flourish, and that the shimmer of life does include us.'
It is a pleasure to introduce and welcome multi-award winning author and researcher Bruce Pascoe. Bruce is from the Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian clans of the Kulin nation, and in the past he has worked as a teacher, a farmer, a fisherman and an Aboriginal language researcher. This rich background has informed his research and shows how Aboriginal people have found ways to flourish and shimmer in the midst of terrible destruction.
His recent book, Dark Emu: Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident? is a critically acclaimed success that writes Aboriginal agency and achievements back into history. Dark Emu won the New South Wales Premier's Book of the Year in 2016, and Bruce was awarded the Australia Council's Lifetime Achievement award in 2018.
He is an engaging and moving storyteller who draws upon settler accounts to undo and de-legitimise colonising histories that positioned Aboriginal people as 'only hunter-gatherers'. His work substantiates how these narratives formed a colonising rhetoric that justified and legitimised violence against Aboriginal people, the seizure of their land, the destruction of their economies, the suppression of culture and the separation of families.
Yet, at the same time, in Bruce's writing we see hope, resilience and shimmer at play. We learn just how significant Aboriginal cultural and economic interactions with the land were—the modes of careful attention, connectivity and cultivation that shaped this country. Rectifying the historical accounts of Aboriginal contributions that have been so significantly undervalued has vital political implications.
His research reminds us that we have much work to do, listening to Aboriginal narratives and building participation and partnerships into our politics, economy and social life. Bruce's work offers a foundation for us to foster reconciliation and reparation. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Bruce Pascoe.
Bruce Pascoe: Thank you very much. I'd also like to acknowledge the land, and I'd like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people who are in the audience here tonight.
Well, this is what happened in Australia in 2023. Australia was on its own. Now I'm trying to read my own handwriting, which is a trick of similar magnitude to a kangaroo applying nail polish while hopping and breast-feeding. I'm doing this not because I can't use a computer—I don't want you to think that. In fact I will text somebody now just to prove that I'm not incompetent. It's because my laptop is flat. So pardon me, you'll notice I'm using one finger just for accuracy's sake. I'm sending a text—bing, away it goes. Has anyone received a text? Ah, Sue. Did you receive a text from me? There you go, you see? Nothing up my sleeve; no tricks here. And it's lucky that my laptop is flat, because it makes it so much easier to slide into a briefcase.
Anyway, this is what happened…you mob need more wine? Anyway, this is what happened in 2023. Australia was on its own. It began in October 2018 when the Liberal National Coalition lost the Wentworth by-election to a woman who did not have HIV Aids. They were on their own because the loss of majority forced them to cave in to the demands of the far right of the Nationals, who amongst other things had forced the abandonment of environmental flows in the Murray Darling Basin, so that rice could be grown and later combined with sugar, salt, chocolate, preservative, colour and male hormones to make health bars.
As a result of this decision the Darling stopped flowing. Every summer from 2018 to 2022 the Murray was barely a puddle, Adelaide had to buy water for eight weeks in February and March most of those years. It was a stop-gap measure but the public had to have drinking water and sanitation. And despite loans from government and the International Monetary Fund, all public works ceased and the standard of living declined to something like the 1930s.
In Perth a right-wing government had signed a mineral sands agreement that had allowed previously untapped artesian reservoirs to be breached. Amazingly, polluted water from the operation was pumped back into the aquifer so that the company can meet an electorally tolerable level of public water usage.
It soon became obvious, as market gardens failed and cattle died, that the water could never again be used for anything except to wash mineral sands, a licence for which was granted immediately by the Hanson government, who claimed the pollution was sabotaged by Greenpeace. But Perth literally ran out of water. Those who could, fled to the southwest, but such was the impact on services there that rates skyrocketed and home owners abandoned their houses to live in caravan parks, to illegally pump water from local rivers in order to survive.
The cascade of failed mortgages and the impossibility of selling any real estate in Perth caused banks to collapse and public works stopped in Perth too. As trains failed they were simply left on the tracks until gridlock eventually stalled the whole system.
Farms on the outskirts of the city could no longer irrigate and turned into sand dunes. The expatriate South African farmers returned to Cape Town and Harare. The sand dunes crept into the city and began to engulf the eastern suburbs. Unfinished buildings were perfectly preserved, the plastic film on bench-tops, furniture and window glass never removed—a wonderful find for future archaeologists.
This cataclysm had swamped Hanson's Australia First party and it was replaced by a Greens government led by Whish-Wilson, which could do little but allow the city to collapse. Those who remained received Green government assistance to install solar power and catch their own rainwater. Independent sewerage systems called Ones and Twos Come Back to Youse (thank you) meant that everybody could grow vegetables, fertilised by themselves.
But there were no rates, so the Green government morphed into a community-led civic group called Perth or the End of the Earth, or Pee, for short. The big capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane suffered such severe financial crashes that this time all banks collapsed apart from some credit unions, who had to employ tellers to cope with the demand of customers from the failed corporates, the executives of which all escaped Scott free to the Bahamas—which, of course, were too small to cope with the tide of incoming bullion from the world's bandit bankers, and in a perfect pincer of gradual sinking and the acceleration of sea level rise, disappeared and were known thereafter as Batlantis. And schoolboys borrowed snorkels and flippers to dive there for gold bars. The only reason they were allowed to dive for gold bars without fierce competition from capitalists was because capitalism had died. Donald Trump had bombed Iran and the Saudis could see the tide of refugees surging into their cities, and a massive holy war erupted, complicated by America continuing to bomb the bejesus out of the whole Middle East.
A man at a desk somewhere thought to gain a moment's political opportunity by setting fire to all the oil fields. That man's message was 'Oil be your friend.' It was silly, but by then every Arab needed a friend, so he won. Of course Australia was embroiled in the war, trying to corner a market share of the unburned oil with the Americans and every other merchant banker not drowned in the Bahamas.
With most of our armed services distracted by that war, dubbed 'Trump at the Pump', soon realised that the decision to refuse recognition of the Palestinian state and to move the Australian embassy to Jerusalem had infuriated the Indonesians, who know quite a bit about spleen, having refined their holy revenge when they destroyed all schools and hospitals as they left Timor. This skill had been honed in Irian Jaya, where religious scruple insisted that they shoot all pigs owned by Papuans and raped their daughters.
Anyway, let it just be said that Indonesia was in no mood to help Australia and frustrated naval and air attempts to resupply troops in the Middle East. This accidental blockade of airways and seaways to our north meant that Chinese trade collapsed, and we had to make thongs out of old footballs, which were in great supply, the National Party drought having brought about the inability to water football ovals.
The grassy mound above Parliament House in Canberra turned into sand and could only be used by parliamentarians to practise sand-trap shots. There had been a window of opportunity to avoid some of this when a group of members from all parties tried to reinstate the Murray-Darling water-sharing design and scrap the trade in water. They lost the vote for that reform by one, and that was the Family First senator who, worried that if there was no water the returning Jesus would not be able to walk across it. He didn't understand the Labour/Green/Conservative bill for water equality, but voted against it anyway because he suspected they were all closet greenie, gay, free-lovers who drove Subarus just because of the air bags. Air bags were for those who didn't believe God would always intervene in road accidents to save the lives of Christians. (It's a joke, but you're welcome to take it seriously, depending on your mood.)
If he was right, there were a lot of Muslim taxi drivers about to lose theirs. But what matter? There was no oil anyway. And all of Australia's gas had been locked up in tankers bound for China but now zigzagging aimlessly around the Timor Sea, trying to avoid Indonesians in leaky boats, throwing pig livers at them. They were difficult times.
The National Party realises that without water there were no tax-paying farmers and without farmers they had no voters, so they joined forces with other right groups, the shooters, the fishers, the motor enthusiasts, the wife-beating legitimisation group, the I-refuse-to-pick-up-my-dog-shit-because-it's-an-insult-to-my-dog-Ginger group—or I Shit and I Vote Party. Anyway, the whole agricultural system collapsed, the board members of the Wheat Board took off their clothes and shot each other. The Beef and Burgundy Coalition elected Sam Kekovich as president, and he promptly went to sleep.
But people had to eat, and they had to eat things that grew without water, and as they had virtually no currency they could no longer afford to buy chemicals. This had already happened in northern Europe, where savage dust storms from abandoned cotton farms had turned cities around the Black Sea into desert. California and the mid-west of America were covered in the dark clouds of their own soil and the grapes of wrath revisited them.
The new conglomerate of Beyer Monsanto received a brief from their think tank which shocked them. The world was bankrupt. Nobody could buy chemicals even if they wanted them. By 2025 the Beyer Monsanto conglomerate bought New Zealand and set about pumping sand around the entire perimeter to form a moat from which they hoped to defend the land they renamed Pyjamas, after their sunken tax haven. The New Zealanders objected but their children were taken from them by the Pyjama government, and were went to mission schools. A treaty was struck between the New Zealand government and Pyjamas, but of course it was a fraudulent forgery and the Kiwis lost all their land and were refused permission to play rugby or eat pavlova, which they had apparently invented.
Incidentally, and I'm sure you'll excuse my interruption to clear up a small misunderstanding, but peach melba, another dish thought to be Australian, was actually brought to Australia, from California, where it was known as Peach Malibu Baby by a Greek restaurateur whose wife won a Women's Weekly world cruise in 1985. Not many people know that, but anyway it's just bad luck that the only thing Greeks know how to spell with any accuracy is Macedonia. So Peach Malibu Baby became peach melba, another brick missing in the identity foundation of Australian life. But that's just an aside—no points for noticing.
But the upshot is that the country, like many others, is in serious trouble. The lack of water is no laughing matter. The population is 30 million and climate change has made a jest of water resources allocations. Farmers react immediately; we all do, because this is not just a scare like the GFC; this is real. The taps of the poor just stop. The gardens of the rich become savannah. Beachside dwellings at Palm Beach are not just crept up on by the rising seas, they are crept up on from behind by the sand at their backs. This is when Australia realises the threat is serious. Not when the poor can no longer drink, but when the rich lose their holiday homes.
But elsewhere people are forced to consider what they might be able to grow in these drying conditions. Suddenly someone thinks of drought tolerant perennial Australian plants, domesticated by Aboriginal people a few years before Bennelong discovered the Thames—around 120,000 years ago. They immediately band together to protect their interests, only to find that disgruntled members of the Tent Embassy in Canberra and the Redfern Legal Service had got a copyright on the words perennial and Aboriginal.
ASIC had lost interest in the word perennial because everybody now thought nothing could last, and no-one had ever cared about the word Aboriginal in the first place. Still the farmers had a go, and copyrighted the perennial plants under the name These Plants Are Drought Proof and Grow Around Here, or TADAG. Those of you worried about the absence of Ps in the acronym must realise that the Ps are silent, as in swimming. It's a very sad statement of my psyche that I've waited 50 years to be able to say that in public. It's my father's joke, please honour my dad.
Anyway, the TADAG brand works wonders for a while, as it is also the name of an erectile dysfunction drug, and men began to eat more croissants and sourdough than they really want, until the realise the dough has failed to make their damper rise, whereupon they return to a diet of chops and Indian pale ale, and promptly die as a subset of the species. Thank God for the sperm bank, the only bank to have wriggled out of the Bank of Australia default recession. TADAG failed just as impoverished people learned not to drink Coca Cola once they realised that all the people in the advertisements were white and had refrigerators.
So Aboriginal people were left with some say in the development of their own foods—a scenario unimaginable in the days when food was in the safe hands of the World Bank and Monsanto.
People began to grow Australian grasses, like kangaroo grass and panicum. They turned ornamental ponds into bulrush and waterlily ponds. They turned the bulrush into salad vegetables and starch to make flour, and waterlily seeds for the same purpose. As it was now impossible to afford swimming pool chemicals people let them become interlinked swamps all over Wareemba. The magpie geese returned and brolga attacks on schnauzers became quite common. People grew murrnong tubers, just like the ones grown by Aboriginal Australians 120,000 years ago. The very same plant trampled by Governor Phillips' men when they were looking to cut off the heads of the people who had speared Phillips' gamekeeper who had been raping their wives while out looking for roots.
The sheep (that was a cheap joke, but you laughed anyway. You can see how I entertain myself) … the sheep did the rest, and speaking of sheep, in 2023 there was nothing to feed them because of the agricultural desertification epidemic proliferation trauma (or ADEPT). Sheep began to disappear and kangaroos, surprised at the renewed interest of humans in their flesh, became nervous. Emus do not become nervous because saying (emu call) repeatedly is a calming device. Try it now yourselves; I'm sure you'll agree.
The problem with the new crops was that you didn't need to plough the land or fertilise or irrigate, and there were no sheep so it made sense to pull down the fences and to work the crops cooperatively. At harvest festivals people drank wine made from the indigenous Australian grape, and drank beer made from Australian water and kangaroo grass mash. It became a custom to eat only bulrush flour bread at these festivals, where a great deal of levity occurred and people painted up themselves and danced. And you know, they kissed each other on the neck, and stuff.
By this time all the baby boomers were dead, but the bulrush festival babies became a voting bloc because of the wisdom of the Tent Embassy and Redfern Legal Service in copyrighting the words perennial and Aboriginal. Black Australians became a normal part of agricultural production. Indeed, recognised as the true originators of Australian cuisine. For it is true that the probiotic nature of these foods calmed the intestines of the people and bellicosity became a thing people had to listen to old CDs of Alan Jones to really understand.
It is hard to be ungenerous with a belly full of bull-rush bread and kangaroo beer, and someone who loves you has just kissed you on the neck. At the bulrush festival of 2038 the sozzled population formulated a treaty between the first nations people and everyone else—even refugees. And it was called the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Heroes Testament and Thoughtful Hansard Increment Negotiation Guarantee, or the acronym Do the Right Thing. Thank you.
Judy Motion: That's quite a scenario you've painted, and I'm sure the audience have questions for you about it.
Audience question 1: Thanks Uncle Bruce, my name's Dave Beaumont. I work at the City of Sydney. In basically our Indigenous narrative, our vision—and thanks for your colourful vision—I've got a question, and I've seen you talk many times and I love it, so I'm back. Where are you next?
One of the key things that we're striving to at the city is breaking away from those old, reductionist narratives, and we're doing that together. One of the things that I've observed is the way that we work to the Gregorian calendar, the way that we work to the school calendar, the way that we work to the financial year calendar. So my question to myself with relation to your amazing book and your philosophy and your observations; where is our cultural calendar here—the Gadigal, Eora and the surrounds? So we are embarking on this gift. I've got two questions: I would love you to be involved, and number two—the cultural intellectual property rights around that.
Because when we look back and we see, as you pointed out, the heads of industry and the people that worked in there—it's not what you see, it's what you don't see, and there was no Aboriginal person at the head of those industries, and the lion's share of those profits went to states and to individuals. So those are the two things that concern me, and I just wanted to ask what your opinion was on that.
Bruce Pascoe: Of course I'd love to be involved, cuz, and as far as intellectual copyright is concerned, you can't legislate for decency. Because every treaty ever made between indigenous people and non-indigenous people has been broken. Like the Treaty of Waitangi that is applauded all the time, but you have a look at what the people were told and what the British actually wrote. They're two remarkably different documents.
In the Smithsonian Institute in Washington there is a wall larger than the wall outside here in the auditorium which is covered in treaties, American treaties with first nations, American Indians. They were signed by people who had travelled hundreds of miles to meet the British, and they'd stayed there sometimes three months, through winters. They were on the bones of their behinds by that stage, because they'd lost their tepees, they had virtually no food, and yet their goodwill was such that they wanted to sign those treaties. All were signed; none was ratified by American Congress. We're talking about treaty in this country at the moment, and I don't think we can legislate for decency, because laws are made to be broken. Perhaps stupidly, I'm relying on the goodwill of Australians.
I'm glad that nobody laughed, because a lot of people do. Fancy relying on the goodwill of Australians. But I believe there's a lot of it there, and I was saying to Sue earlier that I don't think the preconditions for change have been better than any other time in the last 230 years. I meet a lot of non-Aboriginal people who are so devoted to making a change in this country's legislature, and the attitude to the land itself. Because as you know, bro, we believe that the Earth is our mother, and a lot of Australians now are not seeing that as a truism or a motherhood statement, but seeing it as a statement of environmental fact.
The Earth is our mother and should be treated as if she were our mother. I wish my mother was alive, so that I could treat her like that again. But it's not the case. But we need to do this incredible thing and treat the Earth like our mother. Like the old people for 120,000 years ago. And think back to that point in time where humans on this continent began to organise themselves into societies; and you will know, by the end of this year, early next year, that the oldest village on earth is in Australia, which means that Aboriginal people in Australia invented society. Not just the boomerang. Not just the first to invent bread. Not just the first to paint the human face, but the first to invent society. That's an incredible thing. And who were those people? How on earth did those people get other people to believe enough in the human soul that they would agree that everybody would have a house, everybody would have enough to eat, everybody would take part in the culture, and everybody when old would be looked after by the young.
How do you forge a document, a spirit like that? And why have we allowed it to be tossed aside so easily? We're Yuin, eh, brother. The soul of our country is Gulaga Mountain. And if you climb Gulaga Mountain and walk through the stone arrangements up there you will see that it is all about women and childbirth. It almost has nothing to do with men. Men are represented there, they are a third the size of the woman. And I delight in taking young men up there. Young women are taken up by their aunties and grandmothers, but I delight in taking young men up there and pointing out that their great ancestors thought so highly of women that they would dominate the culture. And this is essential for this world view, this world view where for 120,000 years you would be in a society of humans who had the predisposition to be cruel, to be avaricious, to be unkind, as well as loving, gentle and generous. This complexity of the human spirit.
And yet that law demanded that no clan would go to war against another clan for land. They would not go to war for land, and that they would look after each other. They would blue, they would harass, they would be jealous, they would be cruel and unkind. But they would not go to war for land—which makes it the only group of people in the history of mankind that I know of who never did that.
So we're being taught, in European universities that the natural condition of man is to be warlike. We're brought up with this belief that war is inevitable, that when there is disputation amongst people that they will go to war. That is what we're taught. We grow up with that idea. That is what Anzac Day is all about. I lost people on Anzac Day from my family. I cannot hear that bugle without being moved, but I refuse to glory in it, because the law of this country is so strong. And I revere that law. And I am in awe of people who could think of it, because I grew up through all of my education believing that such a thing was not the natural condition of people. And now, knowing that it is, what you've suggested is what we have to do.
We have to be adamant that we will always seek not to hurt children, because one of the factors of war, of course, is the easiest way to win the war is to kill women and children, because that will bring the enemy to their knees. Starvation and the killing of women and children are the two greatest weapons war has invented. That's a helluva long answer to a very succinct question, but I thank you for it, because it really goes to the heart of it. I hope you didn't think I was being frivolous, the way that I read what I wrote, but really, as Frank Hardy said to me once, 'If you watch the Channel 9 News and remain sane, you are insane.'
Audience question 2: In your book, I think the hardest part for me was to…it was the realisation of just how much Australia's lost, and I found that really hard to think about. And, as you say, recently there seems to be an appetite for change and for discovery and recognition of what we have lost—more so in society than there has been in the past. And there are researchers around Australia looking at what we have lost in terms of Indigenous knowledge. And I'm wondering about whether there's any capacity to share that knowledge and to also retain it in some form of even virtual institute or repository, so it's not discovered and maintained in isolated pockets around the country, but to start building a library of that knowledge again for future use, perhaps. In much the same way as you've delineated tonight. I think sustainable practices that were practised for more than 60,000 years in Australia are probably what we probably can learn the most from the first nations people of this land.
Bruce Pascoe: Thank you for the question. It's a fact acknowledged by scientists that Perth is the most vulnerable city on earth because of water supply. And come the crunch it will be a city that will be abandoned. We don't use the word lost in terms of languages or in terms of culture, because we can't. We can't afford to, because if we did that we would dwell in misery and a kind of pathetic sorrow. Pathetic sorrow is the way a lot of Aboriginal people have lived their lives, and it's totally understandable. But it's not very productive. We have to encourage our young Aboriginal people to be bold and to accept the fact that their ancestors were philosophers and heroes, and not to accept the word lost. And to be absolutely determined to collect their knowledge and rediscover more and employ that knowledge in the growing of plants in Australia—growing Australian plants, this incredible revolution of coming to a country like Australia and deciding to grow Australian plants. Who would have thought?
And this agricultural revolution, because that's what it will be, has one great fear for me, and that is that Aboriginal people won't be included in it. And I'll give you an example of this. I have been trying for three years to encourage the government departments whose express charter is to assist Aboriginal people into employment and to find land for Aboriginal communities—I've worked with maybe eight or nine of those organisations, most of which do not have an Aboriginal person on their board, and none of them, despite their incredible enthusiasm, enormous enthusiasm—pat you on the back, give you a cup of tea (costs them a fortune)—but despite that enormous enthusiasm they never cough up a dollar.
So my family and I bought a farm, a broken-down farm that had had its guts thrashed by overgrazing and six days ago I planted panicum seed on that ground. The day I left to come to Canberra yesterday I saw the first sprigs of green. Little hairpins of green coming up from panicum seed. And that panicum seed, I believe, apart from the ladies at Lake Mongo two years ago, is the first panicum seed to be grown in Australia for the production of bread. And to see those little brave, green hairpins was a thrill for me. But we've had to do this on our own.
And the reason why I hurried into it was because I'm being hounded by bakers, restaurateurs, organisations that are selling Indigenous food and under-paying Australian Aboriginal people as if they were Taiwanese hotel workers in Australia, because the lowest paid people in Australia are women, obviously; hotel workers are the lowest paid and kindergarten teachers are the next lowest paid. So we love our children so much that we will hand them over to the second lowest paid people in Australia. That is something for us to think about.
But Aboriginal people have been underpaid by these organisations selling bush tucker because the communities are so desperate that they will take anything in order to work on their own land and collect their own feed and to get something without the binds of government, without the intervention quarantining their wages, without people coming into their houses and opening up their refrigerators to see what kind of food is in them and then make a judgment about whether they keep their children.
These are the things that we have to change in our country, and we cannot talk about lost. We have to talk about gained. And we have to work on the good hearts of Australian people. Not governments. Because if we wait for government to do this—Liberal, Labour, Green—whatever it is, we wait for government we will be disappointed. There is no doubt about it. What governments like is successful ideas, ideas that have been proven to work, which they then say they invented. That's what government does.
We have to ignore government, accept the fact that they'll take credit for our work. Is it any skin off our nose? No. Accept that fact but come up with the ideas ourselves. Come up with the ideas that decency will prevail. That when these multi-millions of dollars are made out of growing Australian grains and Australian tubers, which will be sold to Australians in the next two or three years, there's no doubt. Some people are already paying exorbitant amounts of money to eat them in restaurants. That's okay, because that restaurateur that I'm talking about grew murrnong from seed that I gave him, because he was passionate that Australia will start to grow its own food again.
But while we're doing this, the mantra must be in the back of our brains: These are Aboriginal foods. And Aboriginal Australia is asking you—you can't eat our foods if you can't swallow our history. We have to learn and love Australian history because it is indistinguishable from Aboriginal history. It is the longest history of human development on earth. We should be so warmed to be part of that family on this land, and we should be so determined that that original family will be honoured for the genius of their social contract.
Audience question 3: In your speech you focused on the importance of water, and I was also really interested in your book about the thought process of Indigenous people taking only what they needed from the river, knowing that further downstream it would affect other people. I've noticed a trend of modern Australians, or just modern people in the world investing money into shares in water, in the ownership of water. The idea being that when water becomes more scarce it becomes more valuable and it becomes more profitable for the people who own the water. What are your thoughts on the moral implications of shares in water?
Bruce Pascoe: Well, it's amongst the most corrupt inventions of the human mind, to say that you can own water and then sell it to your neighbour. Sell it to the man and the woman whose door it runs past. There's nothing good to be said about it. But fortunately, capitalism collapses in 2023 as I suggested. And the ability to sell water disappears. The ability to get water is still a problem. But one of the things that we never talk about is population. There are far too many people in the world, and a portion of those people, 7% of them, us and the Americans and the poms, we dominate the demand for the world's resources. And every time we develop a liking for a super-food like quinoa or something like that, we demand that Africans grow it for us, abandoning the plants that they were growing for their own sustenance in order to grow what we will pay for. And the lure of our dollars is so great that they can't resist. Because we have impoverished Africa and Asia to such an extent that they will do anything for an American dollar.
I think…this is a helluva cheer-up, isn't it, I'll bet you're glad you came out. You could have been having a glass of wine over in the park, and here it's all gloom and doom. Never mind, that's the state of our world. But to sell water is an aberration, an abomination. And it's fantastic that the Australian Museum is pouring tap water into steel jugs, into recyclable glass so that people can drink it. Normally, everywhere I go you get a plastic bottle of water. Now the person—and it would have been a man—who sat down at an advertising executive's desk and thought, I reckon I can sell people water. I am returning to your question. I reckon I can get people to buy water in a plastic bottle. And the first thing they did was to start talking about contaminated water in the Sydney basin. I think it was about 22 years ago when there was an outcry about bugs in Sydney water. There were bugs in Sydney water; there've always been bugs in Sydney water, but this was taken up by the press and made into a horror film, that every baby was ingesting these terrible diseases and would die shortly.
And this serial planting of information in the media was the trigger for companies to start selling us plastic water. So that now at every public event you go to, whether it be a kids soccer game, you'll see people with plastic-wrapped slabs of water that we buy for $4 a bottle. Now that is genius. You have to agree. That's genius to be able to do that. And it's a sad case that we've already sold water to people who never should have been made to buy it. Because at the very time they were doing that, Melbourne water was rated the best in the world. And yet now you cannot get a glass of water in a Melbourne restaurant without asking for it, because you are sold water in a plastic bottle.
We can change all these things. I've seen it, it's already starting to change. Universities are starting to drop their devotion to plastic and non-recyclables. And we just need to persist. We need to kick up a song and dance. You'll be unpopular in the university staffroom for 34 years or so…it's only a little time. But you'll make a difference. There are many more important things to do, but that's one of them. And we can make change. It is vital that we make change.
That fella over there, he and I were in Tathra in a hotel a few weeks back and there was a bushfire burning. Tathra lost 40 homes the March before. I thought as I drove into that town, there is no way we will get people to talk about conservation and the environment in the Tathra pub tonight with a bushfire raging. The joint was full. I thought, there's no way they're going to listen to a grumpy old man talk about the environment—or me, for that matter, Costa. But you couldn't hear a pin drop. The people were there. There were so many people in that pub, that little town of Tathra was virtually empty apart from those in the pub. That's how enthusiastic Australians were. And there were Aboriginal people there—some of my young brothers, 30-year-old kids saying the most profoundly beautiful things in front of all those people. I was so proud.
And the thing about it was that all of us Australians were there together, wanting the best for Mother Earth. I think it's a movement that is possibly unable to be stopped. There will be people who will try to stop it for vested interest. We have to resist them. And we have to point out that their emperors have no clothes. We have to point out that their banality is self-interest, and that we as a people want better. We want the best for our country. We want the best for our kids. We want the best for our grandkids, and we want the Earth to be allowed to recover, because she wants to do that. She really wants it. You only need to give her a rest.
A mate of mine, Louise Crisp, a poet from Bairnsdale whose book is going to come out within weeks, Louise Crisp—remember that; buy her book please, because she's devoted her life to the country. She is penniless. It rhymes with poet. Penniless poet. But she is penniless and yet she is devoted to her Earth, and last week she said, 'I'm in the Grampians (Gariwerd) in western Victoria, and I have found a field of murrnong, bulbine lily and moth orchid growing through moss. 'What she had stumbled upon, that great Australian, was one of the old Aboriginal fields of murrnong, which had been saved by the freak of not having had sheep graze it or superphosphate spread on it—those two fundamentals of Australian agriculture had been missing, and thus the Aboriginal agriculture had been saved.
That field is going to be our future, because the murrnong tubers are so succulent you'll never want to eat any other tuber. It'll make parsnips taste like parsnips and these will be our staples. These will be the Australian cuisine and we'll brag about them when we go overseas. We won't have to try and trump up Vegemite anymore. What a relief…because it's impossible. We'll be talking about our own plants, our own cuisine. And you now, I know I said it before but I'm relying on the goodwill of Australians, because this is our opportunity. If we let this go in the next ten years, if we let this go, Aboriginal people will be dispossessed again and we'll become the 56th state of America or whatever it is. A fate which knowing how they elect presidents is not to be condoned. Anyway, thank you.
Judy Motion: Bruce, on behalf of us all, thank you so much. I don't know what I was expecting. I'm an academic, so that was wonderful; it was so far away from what we usually have. Not to disparage academics, but that was magical. You took us to the future, which I think we don't spend nearly enough time imagining. And to get that opportunity to think—this is not a future I want. And it helped us to look back to the past, and then to think, so what is this present that we're living in, and how can we make it really worthwhile.
I think that notion of the kinship that we have, both as Aboriginal people and as—I mean I'm a New Zealander, a displaced person, really, here in Australia—and reminding us that without the land we really have nothing. And I was so moved by what you talked about and to try and imagine having a history like that, completely taken away from you and yet to have you speaking here today so powerfully. I think we all need to take action, and we need to take on board what you've said.
The first thing that I would like to do is to buy all of my relatives your book for Christmas, I would like to buy my colleagues your book for Christmas, and I'd also like to send it to some politicians as well, because I think that we have to get these stories out there, that stories are what make us human. And the way you told the story tonight was so powerful and so moving, and so important. Thank you, Bruce.
Bruce Pascoe is Bunurong/Tasmanian Yuin man and an award winning author and story teller. His most recent book is Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books, 2014), which won both the Book of Year and the Indigenous Writers Prize (joint winner) in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His other books include Night Animals, Fox, Ruby Eyed Coucal, Shark, Ocean, Earth, Bloke, Cape Otway, Convincing Ground, Little Red Yellow and Black Book, and Fog a Dox. Bruce is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and First Languages Australia and a past Secretary of the Bidwell-Maap Aboriginal Nation. He lives in Gipsy Point, Far East Gippsland with his wife, Lyn Harwood, and two children and three grandchildren.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.
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