Auntie Mary, an Aboriginal elder, said: “Aboriginal comes from the Latin word ab origine or ‘from the beginning’ for we were always here” (Graham, 2019). The etymology doesn’t lie, Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 45,000 years, and some argue up to 80,000 years (Britannica, 2019).
They lived through ice ages, intense droughts, and other hardships by having one of the most sustainable lifestyles. Sustainability was built into Aboriginal ways of life by a strong sense of place and a custodial land ethic. These ideas are often missing from Western cultures. If we integrate these concepts into our lives, we can strengthen our connection to the land and our motivation to be sustainable.
Terra Nullius or “nobody’s land” was used to remove Aboriginal people from their land or “Country” when colonizers arrived in Australia. But the truth was that all of Australia was occupied by proud nations with their own language groups. Each mob had its own foods, cultures, and traditions. Each Aboriginal person intimately knew their Country, every hill, valley, or creek. They felt as if “the land had thrown them up” and that they were inseparably tied to the land (Graham, 2019). To this day, Country is still considered family, life-giver, and home.
Think about where you feel most at home. Maybe it’s a place where you feel connected to nature? Think about your community and all the people in it. Imagine if we integrated a strong sense of place into our lives. We would know the native natural ecosystem and be involved in our town councils, current issues, and anything else that affected our local area. When we reconnect to the land and nature, it's easy to see the ecosystem we are protecting with our positive actions and gain motivation to be more sustainable!
Aboriginal people are deeply connected to the land. They have a life calling to “care for Country” (Butler, 2019), known as a custodial ethic. Auntie Mary Graham explained custodial ethics in this way: “the Earth birthed us, fed us, clothed us, sheltered us, and so we must return the care” (Graham, 2019). A typical act of stewardship practiced by Aboriginal people was controlled burning. They would cultivate the land around them by creating a mosaic of different landscapes that would allow for easier hunting and foraging while reducing wild bush fires. A custodial ethic involves long-term thinking, in which conservation of the land for future generations is essential.
If we all adopted a custodial ethic, we would preserve the ecosystem as much as possible for future generations. We are already seeing this ethic being implemented through World Heritage areas, marine protected areas, and national parks. Think about all the people, creatures, and plants that call your neighborhood home. What are the best ways you can help care for them? When we are invested in caring for our environment and home, making sustainable choices doesn’t seem so hard!
Aboriginal culture and worldview can be vastly different from the current dominant worldviews of Western 21st-century society. To create a more sustainable and just society, we can integrate the wisdom cultivated in Aboriginal culture into our lives. We can connect with our natural environment to regain a sense of place. As soon as we learn about our impacts on our communities and natural ecosystems, we can begin to make positive changes to reduce those impacts. These ideas are all intimately connected and not out of reach. Planting trees, protecting natural ecosystems, buying local, recycling, and composting are all solutions that are a part of a more sustainable world and embody these Aboriginal principles.
Note: This article was written by Planet Ark intern Serena Rivera-Korver as part of her studies in Sustainability and Environmental Action. The following are her words:
With this article, I wanted to share two concepts from Aboriginal culture and how they can be applied to Western society to enhance sustainability. I'm not of Aboriginal heritage and do not claim to understand fully or speak for this rich culture and proud people. I want to acknowledge the Gadigal people, the traditional custodians of this land now called Sydney and pay my respects to the Elders past, present, and emerging. I also acknowledge Dr. Mary Graham of the Kombumerri and Wakka Wakka peoples for her research into the Aboriginal Worldview. I also acknowledge Elder Russell Butler of the Bandjin people and his family. His wisdom and knowledge about Aboriginal life is unprecedented, and I am endlessly grateful for the time I spent in the bush learning from him.
- Australian Aboriginal peoples. (2019). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 21st, 2019, from http://search.eb.com
- Butler, R. (2019). Aboriginal Elder, Bush Tucker, and Storyteller. Personal Communication via face-to-face conversation, from October 16th to 20th.
- Graham, M. (2014). Aboriginal Notions of Relationality and Positionalism. Global Discourse: An Interdisplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought. Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 17-28.
- Graham, M. (2019). Aboriginal Worldview. Lecture presented as a part of Aboriginal Worldview
- Workshop, 14 October 2019. SIT Study Abroad, Byron Bay, NSW.
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