By R D Wood
At present many of our best natural features are treated as a resource rather than the precious environment they really are. That is to say, sites that are sacred are not seen as such. If one considers current regulation surrounding Indigenous sacred sites in Western Australia one notices the paucity of the system. If a site is declared sacred it enters a registry. This is determined through a bureaucratic process involving traditional custodians. Whether the site is worthwhile to begin with must come from Indigenous people themselves even as the government can veto this. However, if a mining company desecrates the site, the fine it pays goes to the state government. In other words, the state government accrues revenue based on a value system that it does not take entirely seriously, and hence is complicit with companies in neglecting sites of profound importance. It is not only that the fine is set too low to act as a deterrent against multinational entities; it is that there is no incentive to stop desecration because the state government does not sufficiently care.
As a comparison, imagine if the Buddhists, Sikhs or Muslims were the ones who gained a fee if the Sistine Chapel was destroyed? It would rely on their goodwill or economic self-interest to ensure they did not change it or simply knock it down. This means there is a mismatch in a system of value, which simply underscores the colonial tensions at the heart of Australia. We need to realise that Indigenous legal systems deserve better representation when administering their own affairs through prescribed body corporates, which includes the ability to set and manage boundaries, raise fines, and ratify sacred sites. This way we will get a better outcome for people in the community and manage to educate people about how sacred the place really is. That this is the only moral outcome needs not be restated.
This is also the case when it comes to recognising the importance of wilderness as wilderness be that James Price Point, Beeliar Wetlands or the Great Barrier Reef. How do we put a price on the great outdoors? How do we put a price on exploring beautiful places that interest us all? Our frontier needs to be there as a possibility for how we live our lives right now, and how we intend our children too as well. Why do we continue to pollute our oceans rather than see them for the deep wellspring of life that they truly are? To overcome this we need to elevate all sorts of collective action that already takes place such as Clean Up Australia Day and the Walkajurra Walkabout. We are doing OK, but we must do better.
In that way we often think of the whale and not the water. We fail to see the forest for the trees. A whole permacultural vision of Australia acknowledges that we need to integrate systems-level thinking into our environmental consciousness. That means understanding that a price on carbon is simply one beginning. We need to think through all pollutants as symptoms rather than simply blame one part of the system. We need to undertake a reorganisation that is sustainable through understanding the whole and not the part. This is not to say we cannot tinker at the edges, but that we need to keep going to encourage genuine structural change through legislation that encourages a better form of daily life. We know enough is never enough when it comes to protecting the places that matter to us.
It might mean turning our waste into a resource so we do not further encroach on places that are sacred. This is not only through encouraging the consumption of recycled products as a type of substituted good, but also about finding worthwhile things in our discarded piles. Why can’t a tip be mined? Why can’t water be recycled for toilets? Why can’t we have fruit trees on public property? At the level of re-using though, there is something to a society that does not pride itself on a cycle of fast consumption and inbuilt obsolescence, something to those old glass milk bottles, something to the fact that a car once lasted twenty years. The government can regulate in this regard. This is not only about banning pollutants, but protecting consumers from the harm that ails us all.
To read more about this I recommend Tod Jones’ article, ‘Separate but unequal: the sad fate of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia’, The Conversation, 7 December 2015.
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