Ecophilosophy in Australia

This paper was first published in Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Nature, vol 3, no 2, 1999 as the Introduction to a Special Issue on Australian Perspectives; The White Horse Press, Cambridge, UK.

Ecophilosophy in Australia

Freya Mathews

Recently, in the course of my teaching, I revisited Simone de Beauvoir, and the Existentialism of The Second Sex. De Beauvoir's world is pervaded by the ideal of 'transcendence'. Her intense scorn for the merely given, for the encumbrances of materiality, for the apparently mindless repetitiveness of nature, provides the energy which drives her book. Hence her call to women to shake off the coils of immanence and join men in their ascent into the realm of the possible, the freely chosen, the as-yet-undetermined. Such transcendence is, from her point of view, the very telos of human subjectivity, the condition for the realization of the sovereignty of the human self.

It struck me, for the first time, as I re-travelled this familiar philosophical path, that such a fantasy of human supremacism could only have originated in that crucible of urban modernity, Europe, where nature has been thoroughly and finally routed by civilization. (It is especially inevitable that it should have originated in Paris, the world - if not the galactic - capital of human narcissism!) Such a view could never, I mused, have emanated from Australia. Here in Australia, 'nature' is still bigger than 'culture', and on a subconscious level we Australians accordingly have no choice but to defer to it, however reluctantly. A settler society, like ours, set down arbitrarily in country bigger than itself, under the mute but appraising gaze of an indigenous people who did not share Western fantasies of transcendence, could never have become as deeply and unselfconsciously anthropocentric as the society which expressed itself through de Beauvoir's Existentialism. This is not to say that Australian culture is not anthropocentric, nor that settler society has not imprinted itself everywhere and in every way on the face of this continent, but only that we have not yet succeeded in dwarfing the huge expansiveness of our country; here we have not yet walled in the sky and thoroughly domesticated the land, as has occurred in western Europe.

Our anthropocentrism is accordingly ambivalent. Loud and brash as our national persona is, insistently masculinist as our posturings to the wider world are, there is a vulnerable underside to this culture, an introspective and self-doubting subconscious, that is manifest in our habit of understatement, self-deprecation, irony and reticence. We are split between 'transcendence', a conscious commitment to modernity, to the certainties of our European heritage, on the one hand, and a subconscious surrender to the authority of a landscape that patently exceeds us, on the other.

Although this split between an attitude of bravado-and-dominance and one of tristesse-and-surrender creates a certain unease in the settler psyche, the undercurrent of surrender works to defuse the characteristic anxieties of modernity, giving rise to that distinctively Australian equanimity expressed in the signature sayings, 'no worries' and 'she'll be right, mate'. "She'll be right, mate' represents a tacit relinquishment of control that is, as I argue in my own contribution to this special issue, profoundly Taoist in flavour - and that would have appalled de Beauvoir.

In light of this ambivalence between culture and nature, transcendence and immanence, control and surrender, it is not surprising that, in addition to the chest-beating, more-reductionist-than-thou masculinism of its post-war philosophy, to which Val Plumwood points in her contribution, Australia should also have thrown up some of the earliest critiques of human supremacism. It was such critiques that marked the beginnings of the current international wave of radical ecophilosophy. (Plumwood was herself, in the early 1970's, amongst the originators of this wave.) Positioned as it was on the very periphery of Western civilization, with an environment that refused to be 'transcended', Australia (like Norway, one of the other cradles of ecophilosophy) was an inevitable site for the re-valorization of nature.

Indeed, as the most ancient of continents, immersed since time immemorial in a distinctive meditative entrancement, known as the Dreaming, Australia seems to many to this day still to be pervaded by a spirit of wholeness which the hierarchies of civilization have fractured and divided in other parts of the globe. With its spare soils unstained till historically recent times by large-scale war or predation, this country emanates a deep sense of peace that has largely disappeared elsewhere. Still in the grip of a preoccupation of its own, it communicates a presence so powerful it is palpable even in city blocks. Add to this the fact that the terrain is richly inscribed by one of the oldest, most spiritually-minded yet at the same time thoroughly earthed of peoples - a people uniquely resistant to both the blandishments and the shackles of the modern cultures of materialism - and it is perhaps not too much to hope that Australia might, to the extent that it can free itself from the blinkers of colonialism, have a special role to play in the world-wide environmental project of reconnection with land and place.

The papers in this special issue consider Australia's contribution to this project from various perspectives. Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose takes us on a walk with her Aboriginal mentor, Jessie Wirrpa, and offers us a glimpse of land through indigenous eyes, eyes fixed not on horizons of transcendence, but on the detailed particularities of the given. Writer, lecturer and Aboriginal advocate, Mary Graham, offers a meta-level sketch-from-within of the system of thought that informs such an indigenous gaze, drawing contrasts between this system and that which underlies Western thought, and bringing out counters to Western presuppositions that these contrasts suggest. In my own paper I outline a philosophy of letting-be that in some respects parallels traditional attitudes of indigenous Australians, but transposes them to a post-traditional urban-industrial context, thereby, I hope, pointing to a new direction for contemporary ecophilosophy. Literary theorist, Veronica Brady, explores the tristesse-and-surrender side of the white Australian psyche, and its subconscious capitulation to the land and to indigeneity, in the context of recent Australian literature. Philosopher Val Plumwood offers a lively first-hand account of the struggle to give birth to environmental philosophy in the context of the bravado-and-domination side of Australian culture, evidenced in the recent history of Australian philosophy. Ultimately she too, like the other contributors to this Special Issue, looks to a collaboration between non-indigenous and indigenous cultures as a way forward for environmental thought in Australia.


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