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Healing the web of relationships that sustains us

We all rely on healthy land, water, and air, not only for our survival but our ability to live fulfilling lives. Many of us find joy and replenishment in spending time in Australia’s natural spaces: our bush and desert, grasslands, rainforests, beaches, coral reefs, and even our local parks.

But in the two centuries since colonisation, increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction have led us down a grim path. According to Australia’s recently released 2021 State of the Environment report, the health of our environment is poor and deteriorating.

Our environment is in a dire state

The State of the Environment report highlights declining plant and animal species, habitat loss, and coasts under threat. At least 19 ecosystems are now showing signs of collapse or near collapse. Australia has bulldozed hundreds of thousands of hectares of native forest, now has more invasive plant species than it does native plant species, and has lost more mammal species than any other continent, with more than 100 mammals listed as extinct or extinct in the wild.

The report’s lead author, Professor Emma Johnston, said “in previous reports, we’ve been largely talking about the impacts of climate in the future tense. In this report there’s a stark contrast, because we are now documenting widespread impacts of climate change.”

Climate change is affecting all aspects of the environment, increasing land and ocean temperatures, creating changes to rainfall patterns and driving extreme weather — such as fire and flood — that affect the soil, water and vegetation that we rely on to survive.

Environmental justice and social justice are inseparable

The 2021 State of the Environment report is the first to include Indigenous people as co-authors. Previous reports focused specifically on the impacts on plants, animals and landscapes, but the influence of Indigenous authors means this iteration is also the first to speak to the reality of our interconnectedness: that the wellbeing of Country is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of people.

Jesuit Social Services recognises that social and environmental justice are intertwined and inseparable. The health of our environment affects us all, but it is those who are least responsible for environmental crises who are often most impacted by them.

Our 2021 Dropping off the Edge research into locational disadvantage across the country found that communities experiencing higher levels of social and economic disadvantage were also disproportionately affected by environmental risks and harms such as extreme heat and poor air quality. We know that it is people already experiencing inequity and marginalisation — such as those living in low-income housing, remote Indigenous communities and incarcerated people — who are among those hardest hit by the economic and environmental impacts of climate change. Our Prisons, climate and a just transition discussion paper, released earlier this year, highlights the overlapping social and environmental impacts of the prison system of some of Australia’s most marginalised people.

The transformation required

Deep sadness is a natural response when confronted with our current trajectory. At a time when we are being asked to take urgent action in our personal lives and as citizens, many of us are struggling with grief that can be paralysing. More than ever there is a need to foster connection and care for ourselves and each other in order to be purposeful in the face of a very uncertain future.

While some of these devastating changes are already a reality, there is hope for our future. We are deeply privileged here in Australia to be living on lands that have thrived for millennia under the custodianship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the longest continuing culture in the world. Indigenous traditional knowledge, practice, ways of relating and being are essential if we are to shift our trajectory.

The State of the Environment report includes a section on how Indigenous knowledge and management are helping deliver on-ground change, including through traditional fire management. Indigenous rangers now manage 44% of the national protected area estate, and more than 2,000 rangers are funded under the Federal Government’s Indigenous rangers program. Legislation and policies enabling Indigenous people to manage their Country and exercise their right to self determination is key to healing the environment as well as promoting Indigenous health and wellbeing, the report finds.

In his recent opinion piece, Jack Pascoe, a Yuin man living on Gadabanut Country and working in conservation ecology and land management, wrote about his discussions with a senior Yuin man who wanted Australian society to deepen its understanding of the principles and values underpinning Indigenous cultures. Pascoe says “Unk wanted Australians to feel as we do, that Mother Earth is our kin. It is our responsibility to care for her like she was flesh and blood. In return for this care of Country, she will care and provide for us as she always has.” Only then will incorporating Indigenous knowledge into land management systems succeed, says Pascoe.

As Pascoe shares, and the findings of the State of the Environment report make clear, the changes that are required are nothing short of transformational. Rapid decarbonisation of our energy system, expanding Indigenous land management and effective protections for biodiversity and waterways are essential. But the transformation required to shift our trajectory calls for something deeper for Australian society, transforming the way we see ourselves in the world and the systems we live within. To see ourselves not as entitled to the earth and its resources, but as part of an interconnected and reciprocal web of relationships making up an ecosystem that we rely on to survive and thrive. It requires us to foster systems that are relational, collaborative and regenerative, in the place of old untenable social, economic and political systems that are transactional, competitive and extractive.

Jesuit Social Services is committed to pursuing ecological justice, which is both social and environmental justice. In 2021, we established the Centre for Just Places to enable and support place-based, community-led approaches to building thriving communities, with a focus on the intersect between social and environmental justice.

For us, ecological justice means working towards a transformation which nurtures healthy relationships of exchange, sharing and co-creating. Ecological justice builds and promotes healthy relationships between interconnected ecosystems of people, place and planet which, when damaged, lead to disadvantage, poverty, inequality, prejudice and exclusion.

This latest report is yet another call to embark on this transformation, walking alongside each other to heal Country.

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