The catastrophic bushfires invite deeper reflection on life in Australia and its history and future this Australia Day, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.
Discussion of Australia Day generally focuses on whether the date is appropriate, in the light of the disastrous consequences for Indigenous Australians and cultures that followed the arrival of the first fleet. This question is important because it involves due respect for Indigenous Australians today and particularly for recognition of their unique place in Australia.
This year, however, Australia Day invites even deeper reflection on life in Australia and its history and future. The catastrophic fires are the prelude to an age in which the effects of climate change will dominate the way we experience and live in Australia. It impels us to reflect on the way in which Indigenous Australians and the European settlers have related to the world and on what we might learn from them for our future. Australia Day would be wasted if it were devoted simply to self-congratulation about our technological wizardry. It is a time for hard thinking about both our Indigenous and our European heritage. This also ignores our Asian heritage which while not significant before 1850, is still not far behind European influence.
Such thinking needs to overcome the prejudice that the settler culture is far superior to that of Indigenous Australians.
If we compare the operative values, forms of association and rituals of the two cultures rather than the values their adherents claim for them, the picture becomes more complex. The Indigenous cultures are communal. In them individuals find meaning through assimilating their received place in society and in country. The growth of the individual was tied to the well-being of the community which, in turn, was tied to the care of the earth and its flora and fauna. This world-view and the rituals that embodied it were carefully passed on from one generation to another and governed people’s behaviour. Fire was used to prune and promote growth, but not allowed to destroy it. The effect of this care was to conserve the earth which supported human life.
Western culture as displayed in Australia puts a high value on individual initiative and the amassing of wealth. It was competitive and saw land as something for individuals to take possession of and to exploit, not to preserve and sustain for the good of the community. Central to the public culture was the development of technology to exploit the environment, and of financial systems to underwrite the exploitation. Morality was understood to govern personal and interpersonal behaviour, but it did not apply to relationships to land or to social justice.
These admittedly inadequate summaries invite us to ask whether the dominant expansionary and individual culture in Australia has reached a point when it will destroy the world that it exploits. And whether Indigenous cultures offer, not technological solutions, but a more mature way of imagining our relationship to the natural world. These are rich and pressing questions to entertain on Australia Day.