‘for the purpose of eliciting truth’
‘for the purpose of eliciting truth’ (Luther)
‘Let us weigh the gain and loss in calling heads, that God exists. Let us estimate the two chances; if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; gamble on his existence.’ (Pascal)
‘I refute it thus’ (Johnson).
‘It was brown, flat, and treeless, the grimmest landscape I had ever laid eyes on, like an immense beach of frozen dirt washed by an oily black sea’ (Theroux)
When Norman Tindale decided that Aborigines had extensively changed the Australian landscape by the use of fire, so extensively that there was no natural vegetation left, he caused a great shift in the belief systems of Australian archaeologists and those elsewhere. It was, at the time, a welcome corrective to the view of Aborigines as ‘parasitic’, a view that began with James Cook, and had continued in to the 1950s and even today. Terra nullius meant, in effect, not making use of the land, and here was a massive antidote to that description of Australia.
The general public makes a distinction between religion, based on faith and belief, and science, based on facts and experiments. While it is true that there are no facts and experiments in religion, it is emphatically not the case that there is no faith and belief in science.
A radical new theory, like that of Tindale’s, has the same impact in the scientific community as a new religion does in the religious community. Converts flock in, and what was once reformation becomes new orthodoxy. The converts, like Tim Flannery, see the whole world through the eyes of belief. Everything either becomes consistent or can be explained away. And eventually the new church closes in on itself, the doors are closed, and non-believers are treated with at best suspicion, at worst hate (and, in the world of religion, though not, yet, science, death to non-believers if the opportunity arises). It takes a challenge, nailed to the church door, to rattle the windows and shake up the doors, and get a new view of the world going.
The strong element of belief is dangerous in science as in religion because it prevents people seeing things. If you believe that people caused extinctions and that if they did the theory requires that it happened very fast and left little evidence, then the less evidence, the stronger the belief. If you believe that Aboriginal use of fire modified the environment and turned forest into parkland and woodland into grassland, then every explorer’s mention of trees more widely spaced than seemed natural to him becomes evidence for fire-stick farming. If you believe in fire-stick farming then any change in the pollen record becomes evidence for human arrival, at no matter what date.
So let us try to nail some theses to the door, though I think we can do it in less than Luther’s ninety-five:
• You can learn from the past, but anyone who professes certainty about the events of the past, their cause and meaning, including me, should be treated with as much scepticism as someone who professes to foretell the future.
• Aborigines haven’t been here forever. But at more than 50,000 years, they have lived on the same piece of land longer than any other human group on earth except the Chinese.
• Isolation, whether in Australia as a whole, or in Tasmania, doesn’t result in brain death. It does result in unique cultural and social attributes.
• Aborigines didn’t practice agriculture not because they were isolated and stupid, but because the linkages between religion, society, culture and the land were so strong that they could not be broken.
• Nothing, plant, animal, or human, is doomed to extinction by its genetic, taxonomic, social or cultural nature.
• The species of plants and animals, their abundance, their arrangement into ecological communities, and the form and distribution of those communities, as seen by William Dampier, Jan Carstenz, James Cook, Willem Vlamingh, Tom Cobley and all, would have been the same whether or not Australia was or was not also occupied by people.
• Aborigines did not cause the extinction of the megafauna (or the dinosaurs) and it is unlikely that they have caused the extinction of any element of the fauna and flora. The environment that present day Australians inherited when James Cook planted the flagpole, was the end result of millions of years of evolution and adaptation to a unique climate and land.
• The climate we have today in Australia is a part of a cycle that is perhaps a million years old. Aborigines didn’t change the climate, nor could they, but we certainly have the power to do so. This is the first period in history when humans have begun changing the climate of the whole world, and it will not be a change for the better.
• Aboriginal use of fire changed nothing in the environment except in the sense of the short term outcomes which follow any fire.
• Aboriginal interaction with the environment was not aimed at exploiting it by changing it to a simpler form but at maintaining the biodiversity at the highest possible level.
• If you want to see what the Australian environment looked like in 1787 take a look in a wilderness area. It won’t be exactly the same, because the effects of 20 million people and their baggage are all pervasive, but it will be pretty close. All other parts of Australia are now very much depleted.
• If you want to practice control burning in order to protect houses or farms then do it in the same way as you would use a bulldozer to clear a fire break, but don’t pretend that you are doing anything but damage the environment.
• Australian animals have gone extinct in the last 210 years not because Aborigines no longer practise ‘fire-stick farming’, but because of, in order of importance 1. Land clearance, 2. Feral animals (through both competition and predation), 3. Human predation
• If you commercialise an environmental resource you do so to make money. Don’t pretend that it also benefits the environment.
• The economics of hunting and gathering help to conserve species (and prevent extinctions), the profit motive does not (and can cause extinctions).
• Aboriginal people weren’t conservationists in the western sense. But the effects of their beliefs were so strong as to protect the environment for a very long time. If this is true of Aboriginal people, effectively isolated from the rest of the world for years, it is a fundamental part of being human. Pursuing agriculture means you must suppress this human trait.
• The Australian environment in 1787 was not an artificial construct of human making which needs to be constantly interfered with. It was a natural construct of a long history and the things we are losing now will not be recovered.
• You can’t construct experiments in the past or the future. Certainty of belief is dangerous because you can’t readily undo mistakes, and much will be irreversible.
• Such losses and changes in fauna and flora as Australia experienced in the past were the result of massive swings in climate. This is going to happen again with Greenhouse, particularly if this exacerbates the El Nino events. If we don’t succeed in stopping this change, then we will again lose extensive elements of the environment. We will no more be able to prevent this effect than Aborigines were 25,000 years ago.
• The more diversity we lose, the less chance there will be for environmental recovery to ever occur.
• Maintaining trees was a vital part of Aboriginal maintenance of the environment. Australia now has only a tiny percentage of the number of trees present in 1788, a number which had been kept at the highest possible level through years of climatic change. It is not just the loss of forest areas that has been critical, but the loss of trees in the woodlands of the slopes and plains, once an enormously rich and diverse area biologically.
• Societies which not only allow but encourage their citizens to slaughter each other are suicidal, those which allow people to slaughter animals are equally suicidal.
• There is nothing that is not related to the environment. We don’t have a choice between, say, jobs and the environment, or education and the environment. Whatever your cause, forget it unless you look after the environment.
• Until a future US Presidential candidate (or an Australian Prime Minister) puts a message on the wall to remind himself (or, hopefully, herself) of what the only issue of importance is which reads not ‘The Economy, stupid!’ but ‘The Environment, stupid!’, things are not going to improve.
The extinction of the Australian megafauna, the result of a climatic event, was a very loud early wake up call. Now it is high noon, have we heard the call? That change to a hotter drier climate caused a large number of extinctions, even though there were no exacerbating effects of human modification of the environment, and it will happen again. Aboriginal maintenance of the environment, the retention of trees and biodiversity is a greenprint for the future. If the effects of Greenhouse arrive when the environment is not equipped, then the effects will be greatly multiplied. We need to be in shape to weather the storm, just as, we are told, the economy needs to be in shape to weather the Asian economic crisis. The coming environmental storm will affect every aspect of society economy and culture, unless, to use a Costello phrase, we can fireproof ourselves. We also need to do what we can to diminish the effects of Greenhouse — arguing for an increase in our own emissions, and, having obtained it, refusing to ratify even that watered down agreement, is not a promising start.
Beware of the demand that the profit motive be the only motive applied to human affairs. The profit motive applied to the environment will destroy the environment. This is not just a matter for esoteric debate, the environment is where we live. It is devastating that after a long slow trudge up the hill, to where the public, and politicians, were beginning to understand the need for conservation as a matter of survival, the debate has been sent helter skelter back to the bottom of the hill again. We must once again start a slow climb, up the well-worn groove, but each time we do the clock has ticked on further, and there is less time to get to the top before disaster strikes.
There is a clear distinction between the Horton and Tindale (and Hallam, Jones and Flannery) views of the past, and a clear choice about their implications for the future management of the Australian environment. We need to gamble one way or the other. Whether I am right or wrong, action based on my view of the past provides a good chance of positive future outcomes for the Australian environment, action based on the alternative view does not — can we afford that gamble?
Will we learn the truth about the past, or will the future conquer us? Conquer the past and have a new future.
“‘Did Widmerpool increase his own speed?’
‘Not at first they told me. Then he began complaining again that they weren’t running fast enough. He started to shout “I’m running, I’m running, I’ve got to keep it up.” … Somebody heard Lord Widmerpool shout “I’m leading, I’m leading now”’” (Powell)