Elders for climate justice

14 October 2019
by Shannon Foster, D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper
We are undeniably in the middle of a serious climate crisis. We may even be at the end and (almost) everyone is searching for an answer.
Hayley Paterson at the climate strike

Hayley Paterson at the climate strike in Sydney

The younger generations have been inspirational in stepping up and leading the way, like young Indigenous Australian, Amelia Telford, National Co-Director of Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network.

We can thank the young ones for bringing the climate crisis to the forefront and keeping it there, but it doesn’t stop some people from feeling that it is appropriate to criticise them, saying everything from ‘They should get back to school’ to ‘They should do something constructive’. This has got me thinking though: maybe it’s not about what you do, but what you don’t do?

Years ago, I remember hearing Dr David Suzuki explain that we are not destroying the earth, the earth will live on without us, what we are destroying is our ability to live on it. And this is the reality that climate deniers don’t seem to get. There is this all pervasive, human-centric belief that we are separate from nature and the earth; that we don’t need to rely on the earth for our survival. The earth is treated as a commodity and as a resource, and not much else.

As an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper and educator, one of the first things I have to teach young students is that human beings are animals and that our food doesn’t begin its life in a supermarket – they are incredulous at the notion!

Putting the earth first, as our highest priority, would mean that we have to put the current highest priority to the side – and that priority is money. Money is an arbitrary and abstract concept that is incommensurable with the principles of protecting the earth. The wealthiest companies rely on the fact that their product is obtained virtually ‘free’ from the earth.

This entire capitalist system is built on free product and free labour (slavery of humans and of the earth) and it is not possible to sustain this system, let alone the earth, with these priorities. Money has no real value to us as humans, as a species, as living breathing animals on this earth. We cannot eat, drink or breathe money. Without the earth and its resources, we simply cannot survive.

More recently, David Suzuki has also stated that Aboriginal people are our best bet for protecting the planet and this is becoming a common sentiment throughout climate discussions. There is no doubt that Indigenous sustainable practices are the only way we should continue with (as opposed to on) the planet.

I am frequently asked to speak on concepts such as Indigenous fire management, seasons, climatic conditions, skin, kin and adaptive management strategies as sustainable practices, but none of this means anything if you don’t adopt the basic underlying principle of all Indigenous life, and that is, that the earth is an entity, a spirit, a person – she is our Mother.

As Indigenous people we know that if we look after the earth, she will look after us. We should act with respect and a deep understanding of interrelatedness and relationality; all things are connected, all moments are meaningful and have far reaching impacts and consequences. Whatever you do to another entity, whatever it may be, will also affect you. It’s that simple.

However, it is a complex and overwhelming prospect to try to explain Indigenous ways of being to other people. When words escape me and I just can’t find a way to explain who we are and how we feel, I follow my Ancestors and do what we’ve always done: I turn to my Elders – I want to say ‘for wisdom’, but my D’harawal Dad would laugh out loud if I said that about him.

So I really didn’t know what I expected him to say when I asked my father how he would explain his connection to Country. I guess I expected him to laugh or crack a joke or stumble on his words, but he just quietly and solemnly looked at me and explained:

“I am the land and the land is me. We’re one and the same, nobody owns either. Either one doesn’t own the other. The land gives and I give back”.