Have decided to post the original manuscript of my book ‘The History Conquerors’ here. It was published as ‘The pure state of nature’ by Allen & Unwin in 2000 but is now out of print (although available as an ebook). So here it is, available on line, as originally written.
Paved with good intentions
‘Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.’ (Thoreau)
‘I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.’ (Thoreau)
‘Only through time time is conquered’ (Eliot)
‘In all our stations there is a uniformity of culture only modified by the availability of different materials for manufacture … It is to be feared that excavation would be in vain, as everything points to the conclusion that they were an unchanging people living in an unchanging environment’ (Pulleine)
It is the most horrifying single paragraph I have read about the Australian environment. Horrifying for what it tells us about attitudes in the bush, to the bush, and for its description of just a single small episode of the kind of casual destruction that has so badly damaged this country in 210 years. Horrifying also for its vision for the future, as economic rationalism, having irreparably damaged employment, health, education, the arts and many other areas of Australian society, turns its attention to the environment. My keyboard melts as I transcribe these words:
‘Five years ago, Top End farmer Bill Moon bulldozed a square kilometre of eucalypt forest to plant more rice … Among the bigger eucalypts knocked over were about thirty nesting hollows of red-tailed black cockatoos. At the time, Moon wasn’t overly concerned about the habitat of the shrieking black birds with the flashing red and yellow tail feathers. However the 30 nesting hollows knocked down at Mount Ringwood proved to be one of the most populous nesting areas ever recorded for the red-tailed black cockatoo, and now Moon has some regrets about his actions. Red-tailed blacks, it seems, may eventually bring him far more return than the rice ever did.’
Imagine this kind of procedure repeated thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of times every year for 210 years over most of the continent, and wonder no more at the state of the Australian environment. Australia is a country, like other ‘settler countries’, that pays homage to its settlers, seeing them as triumphing over great odds, enduring great hardship, with great strength of character, forging Australian national characteristics. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, Gallipoli and the Kokoda Trail were created on a hundred thousand bush blocks.
But a country which sees triumph over the environment, the conquest of Nature, as defining its national character, is a country which will have a future in which the environment becomes more and more degraded and destroyed, until the settler ethos makes a country which is unfit for settlement. Instead of seeing the ancestors as heroes, the settlers should be tried retrospectively, in a kind of Environmental War Crimes Tribunal, for crimes against the environment.
Mount Ringwood is a microcosm for the uncomfortable history of European conquest not just of the Australian continent but the Australian environment. It raises many of the themes that are dealt within this book — the destruction of trees, farming practices, attitudes to wildlife, attitudes to the Australian environment. Indeed it raises indirectly the question of attitudes to Australia itself. There is a very old stream of thought among some scientists, intellectuals, the media, and the public generally, that Australia is a place of the second rate. It includes a contempt for the indigenous people and their culture, for the plants and animals, and for the landscape, and incorporates a contempt for locally produced art, literature, films etc in comparison to those of America and Europe, the ‘cultural cringe’.
Mark Twain said of the people of India — ‘It is a curious people. With them all life seems to be sacred except human life’. It could be said of Australians ‘It is a suicidal people. With them no life is sacred except human life’.
Farmers would probably see themselves as not being part of such views, and indeed are likely to be of the ‘my country right or wrong’, ‘love it or leave it’, ‘greatest country on earth’, ‘keep this our flag forever’ nationalist mould. However when examined more closely, what such people tend to revere is the successful transplant of British ideas, economy, agriculture, plants and animals into Australia. The farmer reveres great Merinos and Herefords, he doesn’t revere kangaroos or possums or cockatoos. Indeed indigenous animals are likely to be regarded as vermin, and the trees and shrubs referred to as scrub, good only for clearing. Indigenous people, having failed to invent the wheel, the plough, barbed wire and the gun, are also held in contempt, attitudes that have emerged again after years of being partly hidden (at least from mainstream media) before the rise of Hanson and the Wik debate gave them a focus.
Finally Mount Ringwood shows the emergence of ‘economic rationalism’ as new force in environmental matters, an emergence that could do as much damage as any of the destruction wrought by the application of British farming practices, and British attitudes, to a land that deserved better.
One aim of this book is to show the way in which past and present and future combine with history and prehistory in forming current politics and philosophy. Once an esoteric study, archaeology is a powerful tool, when used or misused to promote the political agenda of various groups. This is not a new phenomenon world wide, Nazi Germany among many other nations, used an invented history to romanticise the Nazi party and provide propaganda about Germany’s destiny. Australia has its own myths about the past, some harmless, some not so harmless. Recently, ideas about the past have been used to promote particular environmental views. In a time when every month (most recently the frightening disaster in Central America) brings evidence of the ecological disaster facing the world, such ideas must be carefully examined and challenged on every point. We have enough problems without basing environmental programs on mistaken ideas about prehistory.
I live in the country, on a block partly cleared, probably last century, by intrepid pioneers. In the part that was cleared I can see the effects, in the part uncleared I see what once was, in the recovery of the land I see the potential. My small piece of land is a microcosm for the continent, like Mount Ringwood, and I will return to it again and again. In this book I aim to observe locally and think globally.
As I write this I look from my window to the east, above the fog, I watch the sun rising over a pair of high rounded hills. The first rays shine through distant branches, an irregular fringe of angular forms and dark green foliage. Anyone sitting on this hill waiting for the sunrise to bring warmth to the morning would have seen the same view at any time in the previous fifty thousand years.
The rising sun begins to move the fog, the solid greyness beginning to shift and flow. Then it starts to thin, and as it does dimly seen shapes of trees can be seen closer at hand. This Australian landscape viewed close up is quite different to that of the distant hills. Here is a park, with a few large box and stringy-bark dotted across the low rolling hills, and as the mist thins more, other shapes emerge, in the middle distance young Hereford cattle, and closer to the house, Wiltshire Horn sheep, both animals and names resonant with their British origins. Occasionally among them though are what in this context seem quite alien shapes, shapes which change as the animals move, from four legged sheep to bipedal beings mistakeable for humans, then bounding away and becoming identifiable as grey kangaroos, their strength and agility turning what to the sheep and cattle is a grassland divided into rectangles by barriers, into a much older open landscape with no impediment to movement.
Still the sun rises, putting light directly on to the pasture, and at once the difference between a distant landscape dominated by botany, and a near landscape dominated by zoology, becomes apparent. Not some quirk of soil or aspect or rainfall, the animals have grass to eat in this place because this land was cleared. We know this because scattered through the grass, like tombstones, are the bases of trees. In most places the process was completed long ago, and, house proud, the evidence removed in a tidying up operation where stumps were pulled and burnt, and a smooth greensward soon looked as if it had been that way forever.
Here though it is like a burgled house, drawers open and contents spilt, giving clear evidence of what has happened to the land. Several thousand trees were cut down, ring-barked or poisoned in a few weeks a century or more ago. It is possible that in those few weeks, more trees were cut down on these few hundred acres than were cut down on the whole Australian continent before 1788.
The last hundred years is the only period in the last 50,000 when it would have been possible to sit on a bare hill in this place. In the last 50 years, the opportunities to sit on hills covered in trees have become fewer and fewer, in another 50 years they are likely to have gone.
There are other differences that I and my alter ego of 300 years ago would see as we looked around. At the bottom of the hill ground is now bare that is unlikely to have ever been bare before. It is bare because of the light dusting of salt, an indicator of the upward movement of salty groundwater. I imagine a story:
‘Long long ago the land was covered by sea. The snake searched and searched and couldn’t find any dry land where he could rest. So he dived down and down and hit the bottom of the sea. He opened his mouth and began to drink the saltwater. He drank and drank until the level of the sea fell so far that the sea bed was dry. Can I stop now, he said to the koala who had walked out on to the new dry land. No no, said the koala, the land is too salty for anything to grow, and you and I will be hungry. So the snake kept drinking. He reached further and further down into the soil. He reached down so far that he turned into a tree, and his tongue became the roots and his tail became the branches, and other good plants grew around his body which was now the trunk. Thank you, said the koala as he climbed the tree and began to eat the leaves, but you make sure you stay there so the sea never comes back again. And from that day on the Aboriginal people, who ate the other plants and hunted the animals who lived in the forest, never chopped down trees, for fear the sea would return’.
With the baring of the ground comes erosion, at times into massive gullies. An erosion gully is something that my alter ego may never have seen, or seen only rarely, as a noteworthy and temporary feature of the landscape, following an unusual combination of circumstances such as drought followed by a major fire, followed by days of rain followed by drought.
Finally, not only had a land dominated by plants become a land dominated by animals, but the proportions of those animals had changed. My friend would comment on the abundance of kangaroos and parrots and birds of open space like magpies and pipits (the pipits, looking like an Australian sparrow, but, pleasingly, not one, feed and play all round the house). He would notice the few small birds, and the virtual absence of small wallabies and possums and other small marsupials. He would probably say, noticing the lack of understorey, and the absence of hollow logs, ah, their homes are gone.
Here we sit, side by side, separated by 300 years of history and 50,000 years of differing world views. Neither of us can claim to be a conservationist, both of us want to see the land healed. How did we come to this damaged landscape, this uncertain future?
Aboriginal society and culture and religion combine to try to ensure that Aboriginal society and culture and religion stay the same for all time. They also combine to try to ensure that Aboriginal use of the environment results in that environment staying exactly as it is for all time. When I was studying farming I was taught that at the end of every year I should be able to look back and know that I had effected improvements, made changes, constructed objects — there should never be a year with no progress.
There are many misconceptions about the relationship between Aborigines and the environment on the one hand and the subsequent occupation and agricultural use of the country. It was a misconception that began early (the wise hand of providence removing the megafauna to make way for cattle and sheep) and has continued (fire stick farming clearing tracks and land for farmers).
For many years it was both politically correct, and anthropologically sound, to argue against the proposition that Aborigines had made no impact on the Australian environment. Politically correct because it supported the proposition, still heard today in the native title ‘debate’ that if you don’t use it you lose it — if you owned a whole continent and you weren’t using it productively, you deserved to have it taken away from you by someone who would. (Interestingly the same proposition is heard today from the hard right ‘develop at all costs’ group, the anti-environment ‘knock down all the trees’ brigade, the religious ‘every sperm is precious’ there must be no population control mob, and the anti-immigration ‘if we don’t rapidly build up to 100 million people the Chinese will come and take this continent away’ nasties).
There were gradual shifts in the attempts to rationalise the fact that a small group of British people had taken a whole continent away from a very large number of Aboriginal people. The first archaeological work, an excavation within a year of landing, was an attempt to see whether Aborigines had any belief in afterlife and therefore whether they were human or not. For many years physical anthropologists have contributed to an evolutionary belief that Aborigines were somewhere down some scale. For many years too, archaeologists contributed to a belief that Aborigines had been on the continent only a short time, and therefore, having only just unpacked their bags, as it were, had no more right to it than the British. (It is interesting that similar propositions were put in southern Africa, leading to absurdities like the depiction of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe as being recently built by slavers. In Australia there has been a comparable line of thought, from the moment that some of the art of the north and north west was first seen it was portrayed as being too sophisticated for Aborigines, and clearly the remains of a lost civilisation, or visitors from other continents, or even outer space).
When the great length of time of occupation was gradually unravelled and recognised it was logically clear that occupation of the place for thousands of years (eventually growing to 50,000, probably the right figure) must give some right of ownership. This had to be countered and it was first countered by trivialising the length of time — essentially the argument was, to paraphrase Philip Adams’ immortal words (‘we haven’t had 30 years of television we have had one year of television 30 times’), that it wasn’t so much 50,000 years, but one year 50,000 times. They were an ‘unchanging people in an unchanging land’ (although the user of this phrase didn’t mean it in the way it has been misused) starting in the stone age and ending in it, starting with primitive rock art and finishing with primitive rock art, couldn’t even invent the wheel, as one recent vested interest expressed it, after the Mabo case suggested that length of ownership did indeed bring some rights with it. Finally they hadn’t even had the nous to wreck the environment, although god knows 50,000 years should be long enough for even a simple people to pretty well devastate the place.
The proposition also had academic respectability. It was hard to escape the evidence that Aborigines still used stone tools and that they were hunter-gatherers. In terms of both technology and economy they were on the face of it equivalent to early developmental stages in Europe. The lack of local development of anything considered essential in a civilised society — the wheel, writing, houses, clothing, gunpowder, cat-o’-nine-tails — confirmed the view that, unlike the case in Europe, here development of society had been arrested at the Palaeolithic stage. The Aborigines were to the anthropologist, it was famously pointed out, what the platypus was to the biologist — a means of studying living fossils.
It was all a happy conjunction of science and politics and common sense. Aborigines hadn’t had land taken from them, they hadn’t owned it (not having used it) in the first place. No, settlers had simply arrived and taken up land, a home not only among the gum trees, and the kangaroos, but, so many stage props, the Aborigines. The beauty of it was, in another well known fact, the Aborigines, like other primitive races, would simply melt away. The mechanism was ‘unknown’ but when up against civilisation, they just couldn’t compete, a good example of practical Darwinism in action.
It took a brave man to stand up against all this. Orthodoxy in science, particularly when it has economic and legal consequences, is hard to argue against. Norman Tindale was a brave man, and one with a grand vision. There were three points where the orthodoxy could be attacked: you needed a mechanism to powerfully affect the environment (since it was clear, or reasonably so, that Aborigines hadn’t been clearing or fencing or making roads or dams or earthworks or monuments) — fire; you needed a clear example of environmental damage — extinctions; and you needed new ways of looking at the Aboriginal economy in order to suggest that it wasn’t just parasitic in nature but actually quite like farming if you squinted a bit.
Tindale put forward all these propositions — Aborigines had caused massive change by the use of fire — ‘Man, setting fire to large areas of his territory … probably has had a significant hand in the moulding of the present configuration of parts of Australia. Indeed much of the grassland of Australia could have been brought into being as a result of his exploitation. Some of the post-climax rainforests may have been destroyed in favour of invading sclerophyll, as the effects of the firestick were added to the effects of changing climate in Early Recent time … Perhaps it is correct to assume that man has had such a profound effect on the distribution of forest and grassland that true primaeval forest may be far less common in Australia than is realised’.
Tindale believed Aborigines had set out deliberately on a strategy to create grassland because people living in the grassland areas were on the way to becoming cereal farmers (The ‘Panara Culture’ he called it) and wanted more grassland, in a way exactly analogous to the early settlers, and recent developers, who therefore (Tindale didn’t make this point himself) were no better and no worse than Aborigines. One side effect of all this change was the extinction of the megafauna (and Tindale also thought the introduction of the Dingo had had an impact as well). So, really, it was no use looking to Aborigines for ideas on how to manage the environment, they were just like us — change the environment for economic gain, introduce feral animals, cause extinctions. If they were just like us, then maybe the developers who arrived in the ship with the spaceship name Sirius shouldn’t really have taken the land away from the developers who were in situ. The appeal of this latter argument resulted in the adoption and expansion of the Tindale theory throughout the Australian archaeological community, and in an amazingly short time it became and remained the new orthodoxy. Tindale the rebel becomes Tindale the establishment figure.
The new orthodoxy showed that Aborigines had been able to wreck the environment. The fact that they hadn’t meant that they could be claimed as the first true conservationists, and their methods hailed as the way to proceed. If you are just living in harmony with nature you aren’t much of a role model, but if, like us, you have powerful tools at your disposal, and refrain from using them to ultimate capacity boy are you a good example. There was a little logical fly in the ointment — the extinction of the megafauna. It was all very well to say on the one hand hey look environmental vandals, they do fit into the Australian ethos and have as much right to the land as any bulldozer driver or chainsaw operator, On the other hand, wiping out a great chunk of animals that look like the sort that bring masses of tourists to Africa (at least for another year or two), isn’t really the act of a good loyal citizen. The way around this has been to argue that it was really all a very long time ago (and therefore no need to say sorry) in a time when Aborigines were new to this conservation business and megafauna were new to these funny two legged beings with spears.
The idea that Aboriginal people had originated elsewhere began, probably, with the children of the first Aboriginal people who had arrived in Australia, by boat or raft from somewhere in south-east Asia, some 50,000 years ago. Where did we come from father? We come from over there, from far over the sea. For some generations the stories would have been told and retold, the folk memory remaining alive as in New Zealand, where the epic travels of the Maori ancestors are well known.
Gradually the ancestors took their places in the Dreaming. The tracks they had travelled became Dreaming tracks across the sea or under the sea. The fact that ancestral beings had travelled by sea is so well known in northern Australia as to be a major feature of claims for sea rights.
In southern Australia too, there were no doubts that ancestors had travelled and come from other places to the present place that a particular group lived in in recent times. These are origin stories, common to all human beings (and probably a significant feature of being human) in all parts of the world at all times.
From the moments of the first encounters between Aborigines and Europeans, speculation about origins began and has continued ever since. Initial speculation was framed of course in biblical terms (Australia being unknown in biblical times, the origin of people living there, or the Americas, was difficult to fit into biblical accounts of the peopling of the known classical world) but later became part of evolutionary speculation. Whatever the details, it was absolutely clear that since there were no human hominid ancestors in Australia, humans had not evolved on the continent but had come from elsewhere. The scientific and linguistic tools which could be thrown at the question of where and when improved over the years, both pushing back the time of arrival (or times of arrivals) and, by eliminating close relationships elsewhere, obscuring the point of origin.
Ignoring the precise details however, Aboriginal history and the scientific method were in total agreement that Aboriginal people had arrived on the continent a long time ago, that they had come from overseas, and that they had moved around Australia in various patterns.
This agreement broke down a few years ago when archaeologists, talking about rival theories of colonisation, or linguistic relationships, or physical anthropology, suddenly began to be told by some Aboriginal people that this was all nonsense, Aboriginal people had always been in Australia. They had always been here and had not come from anywhere else. The author of a recent book tells how she was apprehensive, for this reason, about discussing ideas on origin and colonisation with an old Aboriginal man. She explained her dilemma and he said, it’s all right, we have stories like that too. Indeed they do, and this impasse is therefore puzzling — how and why has it come about?
Well it has come about for a variety of reasons, many of which will be explored in the pages to follow. In brief, an Aboriginal view that things had always been the same, and a view of time as being cyclic rather than being unilinear, meant that there is no chronological basis to the Dreamtime, and therefore a sense that it is infinite in length. In addition I think, in a kind of escalation, while the known length of occupation of Australia (as assessed archaeologically) has been steadily increasing for the last century, the increase has met with no recognition by the dominant white culture that such incomprehensibly long occupation carries rights with it. If even 50,000 years is not enough to recognise prior ownership then let’s make it forever.
I grew up in that retrospectively golden age of the 50s and 60s. It was a time when the leaders of the country, and I, formed our personal views about the environment, or rather, were given views by society which echoed the attitudes of 150 years earlier. The Australian bush was rubbish, there to be knocked down and cleared to make way for grass and European trees and houses. If it moves shoot it, if it doesn’t move chop it down. Some people leave such received wisdom and mores behind them as they grow, others retain and strengthen such attitudes, seeing in them almost a religious certainty. Religious certainty is something else best left behind. There is no problem anywhere in the world so bad that religion can’t make it worse.
As a child I too had the belief, shared with millions of my British predecessors on this continent (including my mother, a belief she still retains), that Australian heaths and woodlands and forests were ‘scrub’, rubbish vegetation which existed for no reason other than that it had not yet been cleared to make way for houses or factories or farms or some other useful development. It is a belief also shared with millions of my fellow citizens. It has its origins in three cultural constructs. First, the biblical saying that humans had dominion over the earth and all its contents to do with as they wished. Second was the British and European mindset that did not view Australian plants and animals as being first class, and viewed Australian landscape as being distinctly second rate. Third was a belief that this continent, like Africa and the Americas, had a potential that was wasted by its indigenous inhabitants — hands of industry with a strong work ethic needed to buckle down and lick this continent into shape and make up for lost time.
In Manning Clark’s first volume of autobiography he talks of going to England for the first time and the reaction of the English to him being like being set an exam that it was impossible (being Australian) to pass. I was reminded by the Tim Flannery theory recently of the long history of scientific and anthropological opinion that not just Aborigines but the plants and animals of Australia were inferior to those of Europe. In a more general sense, there is a long held view too that southern hemisphere plants, animals and people are inferior to those of the north. Jared Diamond is the most recent exponent of this. This idea that Australia’s animals are primitive, stupid, inferior, is one that has occurred at intervals over the last 200 years. The evidence for it is poor at best, but it keeps being trotted out, and has been damaging in two respects — the mistaken idea that it could explain animal extinctions, and its use as a metaphor for the inferiority of Aborigines to western civilisation. The plants and animals being inferior is seen as proof that Aborigines were also inferior, and the two topics are intimately entwined. For example the lack of agriculture is seen by some as the result of animals being unsuitable or that Aborigines were incapable. The whole thing is a more subtle (slightly ) example of the colonial mentality on the one hand, and the trained cultural cringe on the other
This belief that the potential of the continent was wasted by its indigenous inhabitants was based on the idea that the Australian landscape had been unaffected by human activity until 1788, and that Aborigines were merely ‘intelligent parasites’ upon the land. It was a curious phrase, and the analogy it invoked with, say, lice or tapeworms was not only insulting, but put in place quite the wrong image of economy and society. This was a belief with strong political approval, which it retains, because it reinforced the idea of terra nullius. If you didn’t farm the land you didn’t deserve to keep it.
The politics of the situation was crystallised when anthropologists and archaeologists, on the side of the angels in the fight for Land Rights for Aboriginal people, began to see Australian hunter-gathering as a form of farming, and the Australian landscape as a managed landscape. That is, the form of management may not have been clear to European eyes, and the resulting landscapes not obviously man made, but they were as much an artefact as the rolling parklands of, say, the Duke of Bedford.
A people who had nurtured the land in this way could no longer be ignored as rightful claimants to the land, with a title in land use as valid as that of any Queensland grazier or Victorian wheat farmer. It was a view of a new reality eventually to be confirmed by the High Court. A new orthodoxy, success crowned by Mabo, was going to be as hard to shake as the old orthodoxy, rooted in terra nullius, had been.
But there was another element involved here, and it caused some serious dilemmas and conflicts. The conservation movement had seriously developed at the same time as the Land Rights movement and the growth of anthropology and archaeology. It had embraced Aboriginal environmental ethics, and love of the land, and their apparent failure to damage the continent in any way in 50,000 years in contrast to the mayhem caused in just the last 200 years. Aborigines were, in a retrospective adoption (like posthumously enrolling an ancestor in a religion), the first true conservationists. Anthropologists, Aborigines and Conservationists were natural political allies. The natural outcome of this, which continues to be enacted now, is the involvement of Aboriginal people as park managers and rangers, people who will know best how to look after that country.
The idea of being true conservationists is a powerful one, and people who were natural political antagonists of Aborigines, Anthropologists and Conservationists picked it up in such absurdities as farmers as the only true conservationists, followed by even more bizarre and absurd claims as true conservationists by cattlemen of the high country, fishermen, duck shooters and foresters. I recently saw a news item, prefaced by the statement that farmers were conservationists, about a farmer who, having cleared almost all the trees off his land, was complaining bitterly that he was not allowed to clear the last few trees. This seemed to be part of a new push by people like the National Party and the NSW Farmers Federation to get rid of any regulations concerning the protection of the environment . A similar campaign is being waged to eliminate the regulation of water use on the Murray-Darling river system. Just when we seem to be making progress, back we go again, down the hill.
The absurdity became less, and political alliances changed as the implications of the new views about Aboriginal manipulation of the environment became apparent. If it was true, as Norman Tindale believed, that there wasn’t a single habitat in Australia that hadn’t been created by Aborigines, then the question by Rhys Jones as to what we wanted to preserve, the environment of 200 years ago, or one of, say, 70,000 years ago, was a good one. If the answer, as Jones pointed out, was 200 years ago, then we would need to use fires like Aborigines had done. That is, if the Australian environment was an artefact of human behaviour, there was no reason why it couldn’t be manipulated by farmers, cattlemen and foresters. The campaign to change public opinion has focused on apparent changes to the environment caused by cessation of burning, the risk to property caused by bush fires (and the need for controlled burning), changes to vegetation (and the need for forestry practices to rectify things). A concept that Aboriginal burning practices may have kept woodlands relatively open, and that therefore a particular spot of ground may (or may not) have more trees now if it has not been burnt than it would have had 20 years ago, has been extended into the ludicrous suggestion that there are more ‘trees’ in Australia now than there were 200 years ago.
If the extinctions of large fauna were caused by humans, then a few more unavoidable extinctions caused by modern activities are just too bad. Extinctions happen, and if Aboriginal use of the environment resulted in extinctions then who are we to try and stop them. In fact, it has been argued, anything nearly extinct is not worth saving, nature should be allowed to run its course (perhaps with a pillow to soothe the dying race?). Furthermore, if Aboriginal action caused extinctions, then it irrevocably, and very early on, set in train events that mean that not only should we follow Aboriginal practice in manipulating the environment by fire (and operations of comparable effect like thinning trees and grazing), but it is essential that we do so. Those practices, it has been argued, were essential in order to try to maintain in balance an environment put out of balance, inadvertently, by a big mistake that Aborigines made 50,000 years ago. It is a marvellous concept of original environmental sin in a Garden of Eden, besides which the ravages of the last 200 years are just a surface scratch.
With this final piece in place, the game set in motion by the opening gambit of Tindale has apparently ended in checkmate for the conservationists. Anthropologists have become the political allies of farmers and foresters and big business in an unholy alliance that couldn’t have been contemplated 30 years ago. Economic rationalism has little place in society, it should have no place in managing the environment, but this has been the outcome of the original good intentions of Tindale and many others subsequently.
The most recent exponent of the views of Tindale and the others has been Tim Flannery . More worrying than the actual theory (theories are fine, they are how science proceeds, as new ones are formed and old ones discarded) is the reaction to it among the media and the general public. Suddenly it seems, theory became fact, and there were obviously many people out there for whom someone purporting to know the truth about the past would be seen as a hero. Indeed, the reaction to Flannery is more akin to a religious movement where a charismatic leader speaks and his words are beyond question .
Flannery’s theory seems to be this. Australian animals are dumb, therefore when humans arrived they were easy to kill, so easy to kill that many went extinct very rapidly; because they were no longer eating grass, the grass grew long and there were many fires, so many in fact that the vegetation changed; when the vegetation patterns changed, this caused a change in climate; Aborigines, in order to deal with all this, learnt to use fire themselves to ‘manage’ the environment; therefore we to should use fire to manage the environment. In this book I will show that every aspect of this theory, and the chain of ‘logic’ that connects the pieces, is wrong. Aborigines didn’t cause extinctions, and these didn’t in any case happen soon after human arrival; extinctions don’t cause changes in length of grass, so fire wasn’t the result of extinctions; fire doesn’t cause vegetation change, vegetation change causes fire change; vegetation change doesn’t cause climate change, but the reverse is true; Aborigines did, to some extent, attempt to manage the environment by the use of fire, but they fitted into the natural Australian fire regime, and their use of fire has had little if any effect on vegetation; we shouldn’t use ‘control burning’ to manage the environment, though we may wish to use it selectively to protect property, wherever it is used it is not good for the environment.
This book looks at the way archaeology works, at the things we can learn from the past, and at some possible interpretations of the evidence which has been found. It also presents views about what useful meanings we can draw from the past to help us through what is a very uncertain future. It does so I hope with a healthy dose of scepticism about how much it is possible to write history in the sense of knowing what ‘really happened’. While I don’t totally subscribe to the Henry Ford view that ‘All history is bunk’, it is certainly a better starting point than those who believe they know the truth about the past and act accordingly.
The strongest message in this book is to beware of gurus, whether religious or political or scientific. No one has all the answers, no one is worth following with a mind in which all disbelief has been suspended. If we fail to question everything we will soon forget how to question anything.
Just a few years ago the subject matter of this book, including Pleistocene extinctions, fire, Tasmanian prehistory, origins of agriculture, and first occupation of Australia, were the stuff of seminar and university tea room, matters of esoteric academic debate. Conversely subjects such as land rights, conservation, drug laws, control burning, exploitation of wildlife, and gun control, were matters for political debate. In recent times, all of these topics and more have become blended into a political discourse.
The nature of the protagonists in this discourse has also changed. Until the 90s you could predict which players would line up to contribute to any discussion, and, in advance, what they would say. On matters related to the environment, ecologists, other biologists, archaeologists, conservationists, left wing politicians and Aborigines would argue for conservation of the environment, protection by government legislative action, preservation of wilderness, and against mining, farming and forestry activities involving development which threatened sites and habitats and endangered species, hunting and other exploitation of wildlife, and so on. On the opposing side would be conservative and populist politicians, foresters, miners, farmers, talk back hosts, and big business.
In summary, the left included scientists and believed in conservation and protection, the right included businessmen who believed in development and exploitation, and had no time for conservation and protection. In the 1990s a new phenomenon has arisen, right wing scientists who promote the idea that you can conserve and protect the environment by developing and exploiting it. This proposition, that you can have your cake and eat it, like the idea that a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven, is immensely appealing to the right. It is an appeal given added relish by its apparent scientific respectability. Look, the right can say, scientists agree with us, this is not just greed and ideology. It is a similar phenomenon to that seen in which religions which see the need to ‘disprove’ the theory of evolution, find scientists willing to argue that impossible case. Or religions which have an ideological objection to birth control finding population biologists and economists to argue that the population of the world must be allowed to grow and grow and grow. Rude things are said about lawyers, but you can find someone to argue in favour of any ludicrous or dangerous proposition these days.
It is in the development of these ideas about exploiting the environment to save it that the amalgamation of scientific and political discourse has taken place, and the relationship between what were formerly unrelated topics and attitudes has become clear. This book explores that relationship.
The new ‘economic rationalist’ approach to the environment can only be sustained, I believe, by a misreading and misunderstanding of history. It this misunderstanding continues, the support of powerful political, economic and media forces will increasingly ensure that this approach holds sway. Unfortunately it is an approach which will cause enormous environmental damage, damage that will be increasingly impossible to correct or reverse. This book also aims to combat the economic rationalist approach to the environment.