Learning from Indigenous Cultures in the Anthropocene

by Sam Altman – originally posted at: Learning for a Change – 01.10.2016


In the Anthropocene the old simplicities are gone. We are no longer human subjects acting upon an objective nature ‘outside’ us. Nature and human are now bound together. Free nature is over. Free humanity is over. They are relics of the Holocene. In our new age, Earth and Human are entangled irrevocably together. Welcome to the era of Earth-bound responsibility! The assumptions, the myths, the illusions of the Holocene no longer apply…

The Holocene gave rise to all the great civilisations of human culture, the philosophies, and the great religions. How can we possibly re-think all of this in the little time that epochal change offers us to adjust and adapt? Because what is at stake could not be clearer. Either we adapt to the reality of the Anthropocene or we collapse into the perils of extinction as yet another mal-adaptive life-form. (From” Living in the Anthropocene – a Frame for New Activism” by M Garavan at https://markgar.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/living-in-the-anthropocene-a-frame-for-new-activism/)

A key part of this proposal is to be clear that there are human societies around the world that always saw themselves as deeply entangled and part of nature. They not only accepted their mutual responsibility to the earth and its life-forms but developed systems of values and worldviews based on that responsibility that have developed and lasted many 1000s of years, despite the ravages of colonialism and racism. Indigenous peoples’ knowledges should be seen as a GIFT to the rest of us as we start to come to terms with our new circumstances.


Here are some key principles that should inform our activity to access this GIFT.

• Indigenous people have never relinquished their sovereignty over Australia. This fact needs to be kept in mind as a way of assessing every struggle and issue involving Indigenous people and concerns.

• For thousands of years Indigenous people have observed and adapted to climate change and managed biodiversity. Perhaps we can say they had more time than seems available to us but the fact that whole communities survived and thrived for immense lengths of time means that there should be principles and experiences we could learn. Learn from and respect Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

• Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change, due both to direct environmental impacts and to pre-existing social and economic disadvantages.
Yet, if given free rein, Indigenous peoples’ diverse value systems and worldviews give them advantages to adapting to life in the Anthropocene. Learning from their experience should become central pedagogic content for a curriculum for the Anthropocene

• In the Anthropocene every struggle is a climate struggle. Extreme inequality and environmental degradation are two sides of the same coin. These struggles all take place in a hotter world that is increasingly interconnected, uncertain and fragile; but more importantly that the material conditions for what would count as success for any and all of these struggle is existentially threatened.


Indigenous Values help us all transform for life in the Anthropocene:
1. Foreground connectivity with peoples, creatures and places;
2. Give up human-centrism and learn to live beyond binaries, e.g. learn to blur the boundary, the hyper-separation between humans and other creatures, between mind and matter, etc;
3. Invest (some would say re-invest) all resource use with spiritual and emotional significance;
4. Read the world as sentient, as a fully communicative world, as a way of training up our attentiveness and building up our deep knowledge;
5. Exercise our responsibility to people, non-human others, landscapes and food production and learn to see how it can be reciprocated; and
6. Foreground affective actions and reactions – learn from and express your emotions. Physical and psychological wellbeing is inseparable from healthy ecosystems.

Regeneration vs Appropriation

• Indigenous Peoples have kept a regenerative way of seeing the world alive in the face of the extractivist worldviews of colonialism and corporate globalisation. It is not surprising that Indigenous people are often both the first victims as well as most passionate defenders of forests, waters, lands etc.

• Given the existential crisis caused by the currently dominant extractivist value-systems, many people are learning about and are inspired by Indigenous knowledges and attitudes. Seeing in them as a way (perhaps the only way) of being able to adapt to our changing world in ways that are localised, in sync with natural systems, and fair.

• As people become more familiar with the dimensions of the crisis and associated disasters, and with regenerative principles, they “remember their own cultures’ stewardship traditions”(2). (Klein 2014, p444)


Six Mapuche women have taken the risk of putting their bodies on the line to stop the drilling rigs from further endangering their community. Indigenous women are central to the continent-wide resistance against extractivism, and the story of these women from the Campo Maripe community in the Argentine Patagonia is a solid example of their ongoing contribution, and the importance of indigenous resistance for social movements worldwide.

Cognitive Challenges: Indigenous and Western worldviews and associated Values

The Anthropocene is big in almost every sense and it will last a very long time. All social, political and economic scales, from the individual, family, community, locality, region, nation to the global are being affected. The changes have started and will last for thousands of years.

Non-Indigenous people often have difficulties in taking on Indigenous points of view and value-systems. They may find it disturbing to think:

1. Holistically i.e. learning to resist reductionism e.g. Everything is alive, related & participatory;
2. That Country is seen as kin and so invoking two-way responsibility;
3. That Country and personal identity are linked, that the self is essentially and importantly local or place-based;
4. In terms of a multi-species ontology i.e. humanity is de-centered; and
5. Beyond binaries such as nature/culture, animal/human

A key realisation here is to see that the cognitive difficulties derive from western values and ways of thinking that are deeply associated with capitalism as it has developed in the last 200 years. Features include: communities are often transient, employment is more and more precarious, most of us feel we are time-poor, nuclear families are ‘natural’, etc.

Respecting Aboriginal traditions values and Leadership

A key feature of settler colonialism has been the need to denigrate Indigenous people and their knowledges. All of us grew up in this anti-Indigenous, racist context and dominant ideology. So it is not surprising that we need to consciously train ourselves to recognise and reject it. The following are some of the less than direct ways that racist attitudes of western superiority over Indigenous people and knowledges show themselves:
• Trivialising
• Over-romanticising
• Under-criticising.
• Lack of proper attribution (to particular Indigenous people and communities as well as to particular geographic locations)
• Inaccurate representation
• Pandering to stereotypes – both positive and negative
• Encouraging a consumerist or acquisitive approach to Indigenous knowledge, stories or ideas.
• Misunderstanding Aboriginal leadership – Aboriginal groups are very diverse and are often divided.

How can Indigenous values and worldviews inform CC activity?

Active Indigenous people, organisations and communities have identified many crucial issues and struggles and have decided on their own priorities which may not gel with our own ideas of what is important.

We also need to be aware of the history of clashes between Indigenous Peoples and various conservationist groups.

There is no one magic way of learning to operate with more Indigenous values or integrating their worldviews into our work. The local-specific aspect of both Aboriginal knowledges and climate change adaption give us a clue.

One important way for activist organisations is critical and reflective involvement in action and struggle with Indigenous people and groups. It is a question of building critical consciousness or conscientization in ourselves and from those we want to work with and learn from. (Conscientization: The process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action. Action is fundamental because it is the process of changing the reality. Paulo Freire says that we all acquire social myths which have a dominant tendency, and so learning is a critical process which depends upon uncovering real problems and actual need).


An anecdote from the Bentley Struggle…

The 2014 Bentley Blockade was successful in stopping gas company Metgasco from drilling for CSG coal seam gas. Wide community support for the blockade forced the government to buy back all gas licenses in the Northern Rivers during 2015.

The blockade community was diverse, holding a range of political views, but united around a consensus that clean air and water is more precious that money.

A camp next to the blockade site – Camp Liberty – supported the locked-on protectors. It was also the base for additional protectors ready to actively join the blockade when the drilling trucks or police arrived. Camp Liberty was coordinated by a team of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal elders. Camp Liberty was sophisticated and contained some reception and gathering tents including an Aboriginal Elders tent near the main fire place, kitchen, and café.

The camp was established for 4 months before the gas company planned to arrive, and grew. The long occupation of the country created a sense of connection to that place and obligation to protect it in particular, strengthening the resolve of the protectors to not allow the company access to drill.

Ceremony was conducted every dawn around the sacred fire at the blockaded gate. For the most part Bundjalung elders led the ceremony, connecting everyone strongly with country. Musicians and the blockade choir led a morning sing up, dancing, mediation and all sorts of activities occurred at the gates. This assisted in forging strong community bonds.

Every evening the camp would debrief around the fire and share food, led by elders both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Every night sleeping in tents on country.

In May 2014, 7,000 protectors were prepared to assemble at Bentley to face 800 riot police. The protectors were so fierce in their connection to their country and their community in the end it was the government who blinked.

Some current areas of Aboriginal concern and struggle


• Forced Closure of many small Aboriginals communities and outstations esp in WA, NT and SA. Note: These are State-based struggles but stemmed from an Abbott government decision to devolve responsibility and funding to the States.

• Defense of Country – Ongoing Aboriginal struggles against extractive industries especially fracking, coal mining and other fossil fuels, exploring for and mining uranium and other minerals, and waste dumps. These are all struggles for land, cultural integrity and self-determination. They also often link in with climate struggles. Here are some current issues with key Aboriginal spokespeople:
Adani coal mine – Adrian Burragubba, Wangan and Jagalingou, (Qld)
Delisting of sacred sites – Clayton Lewis, Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance, (WA)
Protection of cultural heritage, country and lands – Steven Wantarri Janpijimpa Patrick, Walbiri, (NT)
Regional gas development, fracking – Dr Anne Poelina, Nyikina Mangala, (WA), NT Frack Free Alliance. [ABC Lateline: The three sisters leading the fight against oil and gas exploration in Arnhem Land]
Protection of cultural heritage, country and lands – Paul Spearim, Gamilaraay, (NSW)
Exploration for Uranium – Curtis Taylor, Mardu, (WA)
• BP Drilling for oil and gas in the Australian Bight – SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network

1. The ‘Anthropocene’ is a term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. These include changes in: erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes, including colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals, environmental conditions generated by these perturbations; these include global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic ‘dead zones’. The biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical and chemical changes noted above.
From Working Group on the Anthropocene at http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/
2. Naomi Klein also points out the crucial coming together of local Native American tribes and settler descendants in “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” 2014.

Sam Altman has worked for over 30 years in Indigenous education. He developed working links with Indigenous people and communities across most of Australia. During that time he was involved in teaching, curriculum design and program coordination focusing on Indigenous education, community development and management. Sam is an active member of the Search Foundation whose vision is: “To promote greater understanding in the community of the main factors affecting social life, influencing social development and advancing social well-being.”


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