During a beautiful trip to Darwin a few years ago, I heard an officer from the Fire brigade lamenting the increase in spontaneous wild fires in the region, and the lack of control that human agencies, such as the Fire department, truly had over this ‘natural’ events. Intrigued and puzzled by his statement, I asked him why they did not engage with local Aboriginal people. After all, fire-stick farming – and fire control – has been a distinctive feature of Aboriginal cultures all over Australia for tens of millennia. The reply I received launched me into the most interesting intellectual journey I have ever embarked upon. The problem, he stated, was that while prior to European occupation of the area the short and thin local grasses burned rapidly, too rapidly for the earthed trunks of the trees to catch fire. But things changed with the introduction of cattle. In order to feed the ever more numerous grazing cattle introduced in the region, two non-local grasses were introduced, imported from Africa and South America. They are thicker and larger grasses that take much more time to burn, increasing the time that fire covers the land, slowly creeping through the creaks and crevasses where trees found shelter, burning down forests and slowly transforming wetlands into savannah and, eventually, deserts. A light bulb suddenly switched on in my head, I felt a ‘eureka’ moment, as Archimedes did in his bathtub. It became so clear to me that two cultural models co-existed in the same eco-system, shaping human interactions with the environment in two profoundly diverse (and quite divergent) ways. I later discovered that Daniel Quinn, in his masterpiece Ishmael, termed these two models the leavers and the takers, whereas an Aboriginal biologist defined the two models as ‘local’ and ‘global’ ecological perspectives. Of course, dividing the variety of human perspectives simply in two distinct blocks is rather simplistic, but for the sake of the argument it is indeed a good approximation. On the one side, there exists a cultural model – the Aboriginal one – that has developed over time extremely refined social mechanisms of interaction with larger eco-systems, mechanisms capable of guaranteeing social and cultural continuity across centuries, mechanisms designed to change in rhythm with environmental changes. On the other side, there exists a model – the ‘scientific’ or ‘global’ one, to use an approximate definition – perfectly designed for an extremely rapid adaptation to environmental demands at the cost of long-term sustainability. Is it cold? Turn on the heater. Is it dark? Switch on the light. Although perfect in providing immediate responses, the ‘scientific’ model has never been designed for long term sustainability but rather depends on the heavy consumption of non-renewable resources for its very existence (it is certainly possible to theorize a future technology based on renewable and sustainable energy sources, but that is not the case at present nor it has been historically). On the other hand, the long-term cultural model has been developed in accordance with rhythms of environmental change that spanned over long periods of time, whereas we are currently facing environmental changes unprecedented in human history. As a result, neither model, alone, is capable of guaranteeing that we will prevent the cultural collapse Jared Diamond warns us about. It is only through a combination of ‘scientific’ responses to unprecedentedly rapid environmental changes and long-term cultural adaptation to the specific contexts of each bioregion that will allow us to respond our present predicaments. Once this need for an articulated combined response became so clear, I also realized that this response is not possible as long as one model exerts dominance and sovereignty over the other. Until the two models can discuss issues and plan strategies as equal, no combined response can be truly envisioned. This is the space where the words of Vandana Shiva truly resonate, the space where no distinction exists between environmental sustainability and social justice. In this space issues of Aboriginal sovereignty and environmental adaptation are not, and cannot be, distinct. And so, the emerging rights of nature discourse is a truly powerful tool, indeed. But this is true only insofar as the definition of ‘nature’ is the result of a dialogue involving all perspectives, only insofar as the concepts of Pachamama (or Mother Earth) and of Nature can truly become one. And this dialogue must be one of the central pillars of a new Ecological Jurisprudence.
Posted in: Alessandro Pelizzon– March 12, 2012