Re-thinking sustainable thinking

27 July 2020

Many of us aspire to live more sustainably. Cutting waste, using resources responsibly and buying ethically are common resolutions, which can make a big difference to our environmental impact. But can we also enrich our individual commitments by embracing a more holistic philosophy?

Exploring the evolution of ‘sustainability’, alongside Indigenous Australian concepts of Caring for Country, could help us expand our thinking around what it means to live and act sustainably.

Sustainability: a short history

‘Sustainability’, itself, is a relatively new term in the environmental lexicon. The United Nations is generally credited with bringing the phrase ‘sustainable development’ into common use when it published the Brundtland Report in 1987.

Although the United States had introduced similar ideas in its landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Brundtland Report globally recognised that ecological, social and economic challenges were intertwined.

Only by understanding and nurturing these relationships will humanity develop lasting, impactful solutions for people and for the planet, the report argues:

“In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.” (pg. 43).

Since then, the global thinking has continued to evolve, culminating in the release of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, which span poverty, education, clean energy, infrastructure, economic growth and climate action, among other categories.

UQ supports the Australian Government’s implementation of the SDGs and many of the University’s current research projects align to these goals across UQ’s five research impact themes.

Yet these ‘new’ ideas align to a far older and richer Indigenous Australian narrative.

Caring for Country

The concept of integrated, proactive environmental protection may have been newly articulated at the United Nations in the 1980s, but it has been understood by the First Nations peoples of Australia for thousands of years (Are we looking after country right?, North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), 2017, pg. 4).

Often referred to in contemporary contexts as ‘Caring for Country’, the Indigenous Australian philosophy embodies the idea of interconnectedness between the environment and other factors.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies (AIATSIS) completed a benchmark literature review in 2011, which summarised the concept:

“The description of caring for country as ‘Indigenous people’s land and sea management’ logically draws attention to the environmental and landscape management outcomes of this activity, but caring for country also has benefits for the social-political, cultural, economic, and physical and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous people.” (pg. 1).

The review looks at a diverse body of research that examines the benefits of caring for country, commonly highlighting the “reciprocal relationship” between people and country. It draws upon examples from several high-profile Australian regions including from Kimberley through to Cape York, the Murray River and Arnhem Land.

The NAILSMA report similarly considers a range of case studies, comparing “Indigenous and non-Indigenous conservation, cultural, social and economic priorities and aspirations” to evaluate the returns delivered by these approaches. It seeks to describe the value added when non-Indigenous companies, investors and project managers engage in long-term environmental partnerships with Indigenous peoples.

As more and more researchers publish studies analysing the diverse benefits of Caring for Country, we are increasingly seeing these ideas inform ‘mainstream’ national sustainability thinking.

Learning from First Nations thinking

Cities around Australia are taking steps to incorporate ‘Caring for Country’ into their sustainability strategies.

In 2016, the City of Melbourne partnered with sustainability institutions to produce an extensive literature review looking at applications of Caring for Country in an urban context. It considered case studies from as far afield as Japan and South Africa, as well as Australia, taking learnings from indigenous sustainability practices around the world.

These findings fed into the City’s Nature in the City Strategy, which incorporates Caring for Country principles into its priorities, as a way of helping connect people to nature. It gives examples of how current urban practices could be improved, such as “recognising Melbourne’s true seasons [to] help fine tune irrigation regimes, annual pruning, or species selection”.

It also looks at how Caring for Country can inform policy and planning:

“Healthy Country can be created by investing in programs, projects, and initiatives that help restore natural systems in the city … Multi-layered planting and allowing ‘wild’ spaces to flourish can significantly increase biodiversity, as well as creating a more interesting landscape.”

The Melbourne strategy also captures how citizen science initiatives and biodiversity engagement can be connected to Caring for Country collaboration.

Less tangibly connected to outcomes, but with a similar goal of conveying the depth of meaning inherent in ‘country’, ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose captured firsthand observations in her 1996 essay, Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness. In that essay, she noted:

“People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country … Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.”

Perhaps it is from these reflections that we can draw immediate inspiration for our day-to-day lives. How would it change the way we treated the environment, if we thought about it as a living being?

It’s not always easy to connect carrying a re-usable coffee cup to keeping plastic out of the oceans, but if we considered all of our daily choices through this lens, we might radically re-think how we care for our country.


Preview image by Ben Carless on Unsplash