This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
I read recently an article published by Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the United States, entitled ‘Pulling down our monuments’.1Michael Brune, ‘Pulling down our monuments’, 22 July 2020, The Sierra Club, accessed 14 Sep. 2020. In this article the club, one of the United States’s foundational conservation organisations, acknowledged the racist attitudes and support of white supremacy by its founder, John Muir. The article came as somewhat of a shock and surprise, as I clearly remember that in the 1990s, while I was studying environmental science, he was viewed with reverence. The article made me curious to consider the origins and trajectory of what we commonly, and righteously, call conservation.
In 1889, Muir pushed his pencil across a map of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to propose a grand, sweeping conservation measure, which resulted in the formation of Yosemite National Park. In the early 1900s his passionate advocacy captured the imagination of the president of the day, Theodore Roosevelt, who agreed to Muir’s request for additional protections for the park. Yosemite, the site of unparalleled natural wonders – geological and ecological – would thus become an international symbol to governments and civic society, a moral calling to preserve exceptional natural sites for generations to come.
The formation of Yosemite must have come as a foul blow to the Ahwahneechee people who had lived in the valley for generations, as the new national park, which some celebrated as a divinely American gesture of eternal preservation, did not consider ongoing access to ancestral lands to be of concern. To Muir, the conservation of pristine wilderness and indigenous cultural rights and beliefs were clearly mutually exclusive.
The article I read clarified and apologised for the fact that for the SierraClub, and the white upper-class conservationists that would form its early membership, exclusive, high-quality mountaineering and connection with the sacredness of nature (resulting in the exclusion of others) was the goal.
Fast forward to 2020. I read with interest the story of a proposed mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, on the site of a vast copper and gold deposit with an estimated value of US$500 billion, known as the Pebble Deposit or Pebble Mine. The tensions between mining, or other extractive commercial practices, the rights of indigenous peoples and the ecosystems themselves are common and ongoing, as easily gleaned at Pebble Mine. In this area of pristine ecology, with enduring indigenous cultural connection to the land, the intrinsic ‘value’ of ecology is being weighed up and negotiated by decision makers and lobbyists far away in Washington, DC. In this situation, ecological value is merely subjective and animals are generally ascribed no legal rights – nor are mosses, rocks, salmon or rivers.
There is hope on the horizon. The international legal and jurisprudential theory of the rights of nature is having a growing influence in some nations. This theory posits that there are inherent rights associated with ecosystems and species; it is similar to the concept of fundamental human rights. There are now precedents for this in New Zealand, Ecuador, India, the United States and even closer to home, where the Yarra River (Birrarung) is treated as a ‘living and integrated natural entity’ under the Yarra River Protection Act 2017.2‘Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017’, 7 Jan. 2020, DELWP, Victorian Government, accessed 14 Sep. 2020. Despite this, attempts to discuss or defend the unalienable rights of the land in the face of economic progress, especially when led by indigenous peoples, are often ridiculed and rebuffed as anti-growth, radical far-left propaganda or New Age fantasy.
Instead, the value systems at play in Bristol Bay are defined by a much more common set of reductive factors – economic benefits, jobs and potential tax revenues are weighed up against the risk of pollution, resilience rates within salmon ‘stocks’ or calls for hunting and tourism to be protected. Voices are heard on both sides. Tweets come out. And as they speak, pro or against, the fate of another ecosystem is parsed and negotiated, a pie to be sliced.
Whether the vast open cuts of Pebble Mine proceed or not, what is apparent here is that conservation is a negotiation of perceived and ascribed value, and this has been and will continue to be the case over and over, throughout history, across geography – from the Alaskan wilderness to the recently exploded Juukan Gorge rock shelters of the Pilbara, from the slash-and-burn beef ranches of Brazilian Amazonia to the palm-oil plantations of Madagascar. Wherever there are cities, farms, fisheries or factories there are trades to be done, decisions to make about which species or places we will direct our conservation efforts towards, or otherwise. This means that the ‘baseline’ for the natural world, living with us, is simply one of gradual decline.
Life and death decisions about what will live and what will die, what is conserved and what is not, are not only about money and power. These decisions speak to a far deeper belief system – human primacy, and our control over nature. How is it that we feel allowed to, empowered to and capable of making decisions on behalf of other species and ecosystems? Where and when did we receive this permission? And is it in effect the same permission that John Muir granted himself? Perhaps these are stupid questions, but they are worth asking and reflecting upon. Harm seems to have been rationalised as part of a ‘greater good’.
The answers are both obvious and complex. At its heart, the dominant Western view – that humans sit at the apex of a natural order, in a role of dominion, is of course foundational within Christianity and reductive science. But when viewed through the twin lenses of religious expansionism and European colonialism it takes on far more troubling hues.
Throughout history, by divine decree, those in power – monarchies, courtiers, bishops, parliaments and their bailiffs, vice-regals and armies – legitimised and normalised the seizure of land and the exploitation of peoples, plants and animals, as hunting park, estate, quarry and colony. Within this rubric, extraction for the accumulation of wealth was (is) normal, proper and wise. It gave birth to the major colonial mills, mines and trading companies, the precursors to the Industrial Revolution, which begat today’s multinational leviathans. It cemented within modern society the fundamental (perhaps foundational) notion that the environment consisted of a set of natural resources or assets to be tabulated and traded – commodities. Forest, ore, soil, fur, fish and flesh. Tools and treads of human actualisation and economic progress.
These extractivist systems are not unique to Western civilisation. Indeed, the near total dominance today of the global economic systems of multilateral commodity trading, supply chains and neoliberalism clarifies that we all – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jedi and Buddhist – now effectively ‘drink from the same cup’.
But let’s be clear. In many cultures the notion of power ‘over’ nature was or is anathema. For many of the world’s peoples, society is largely defined by a capacity to live successfully, over generations, as culture, within nature.
Viewed in this way, the normative hierarchy in use today – government, corporation, citizen, ecology – makes little sense. Take, for example, Australia’s Darling River (Baaka). For the traditional custodians around Menindee in New South Wales, the Baakandji, the health of the river is inextricably and directly related to the health of their culture. Not only does the river offer food, fibre and shelter, but also a central proposition around which to structure culture. This river is thus emblematic of the scenario I describe. It is sadly only one of Australia’s ‘Pebble Deposits’.
Water within the vast interconnected catchment of the river and its estuaries flows across state borders, across significant areas of waterintensive farming, and through a complex system of dams and weirs constructed over generations by government and corporations to manage the successful extraction of water as an economic ‘resource’. Within this word is the dilemma – while the resource is valued, the source it seems is not, so when the politics and economics converge with climate change and drought, it is the river and its ecologies that come last.
Looking at the writing in this chapter it could be easy to get depressed. To write and think about conservation today is often, sadly, to write about struggle and loss. But it is through the appreciation of loss, such as confronting the realities of species extinction, oceanic pollution or ecosystem decline, that we are able to think creatively and with clarity about the tasks ahead.
What is profoundly clear to me is that the whole notion of conservation needs re-examining and redesigning. The idea that some things are aggressively protected while others are left to decline requires us to ask: upon what evidence and permission are these decisions being made?
Biologists and environmental scientists increasingly ‘prove’ what countless indigenous peoples have already said: that all life, all species and all ecosystems are deeply entangled and interdependent – from the humble microbe to the planetary climate and everything in between. Evolution together over billions of years has made it so.
So, as we reflect on our role in this situation, illuminated by an awareness of history, we can speculate together on what the next priorities or accomplishments of conservation might be. But before we do, we should stop to ask ourselves this: is too much power held by too few hands, and do those hands actually know what they are doing?
Is there a chance that, as in the case of John Muir, we will realise at some point in the future that what looked like great ideas or wise decisions were in fact further exercises in unethical control?
Wouldn’t it be wiser to agree that we are in fact part of nature, and that we are immensely vulnerable, because of our fundamental interdependency, within this beautiful and complex world of increasing fragility?
Michael Brune, ‘Pulling down our monuments’, 22 July 2020, The Sierra Club, accessed 14 Sep. 2020.
‘Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017’, 7 Jan. 2020, DELWP, Victorian Government, accessed 14 Sep. 2020.