Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident

CaptureBruce Pascoe is one of the most confronting Aboriginal writers active. I support his cause of re-evaluating the legacy of pre-invasion Australia but I was a little annoyed by his book Convincing Ground (2007), which was mainly about the way the land was stolen in Victoria. I have no arguments with his history (Convincing Ground is a massacre site near Portland) but the frequent editorialising and sarcastic anger, however understandable, hampered his important message and diluted its impact. So while I’d heard much about Dark Emu (2014), I’d resisted it until this year.

While the editorialising tendency is still there in Dark Emu, Pascoe has kept his anger, sarcasm and moralising mostly in check and instead compiles a well-researched and persuasive account about the little known human building activities in Australia before 1788. This account is important because a subtle (and sometimes blatant) racism still exists in Australia predicated on the notion there was no civilisation or agriculture on the continent before Europeans arrived and the land was “there for the taking”, terra nullius or not.

Dark Emu’s evidence proves this was nonsense. Pascoe is inspired by two books written since he published Convincing Ground: Rupert Gerritsen’s Australia and Origins of Agriculture (2008) and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate (2011). Both works challenge the stereotype Indigenous Australians were all nomadic hunter-gatherers, Gerritsen through his study of food production and Gamadge through his study of fire management regimes.

Pascoe explored the journals of explorers and early colonists who invariably believed in British superiority and the right to occupy supposedly empty lands. They downplayed the significance of what they saw. But the evidence from their journals seeps out in repeated references to dam and well building, the planting, irrigating and harvesting of seed, storing surpluses, and building warehouses, homes and even cemeteries, none of which fit the hunter-gatherer stereotype.

Settlers disguised the war by which they took possession of a land and it suited them to deny the existence of a prior economy, so it was written out of the Australian story.  But it remains in explorer Thomas Mitchell’s diaries. In the Darling Basin in 1835 he saw how the Bagundji people harvested native millet: “the grass had been pulled and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hayfield … we found the rick, or hay-cocks, extending for miles.” Nearby, Mitchell saw large village huts “made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre” which housed a thousand people.

In Western Australia explorer George Grey found a village on the Gascoyne River “built of large-sized logs”. Grey found deep wells, huts plastered over with clay and turf, and land planted with yams. He said it was the result of hard manual labour. “I could not believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish”. Yam daisy or murnong farming was spread across Australia with First Fleet captain John Hunter saying people in Sydney were dependent on them and “Protector” GA Robinson seeing women digging for them in Victoria.

But their techniques of good soil management were ended by war and occupation and yam farming disappeared in a generation. Settler Isaac Batey noted “another factor of destruction in the soil becoming hardened with the continuous trampling of sheep, cattle or horses”. Ethnobiologists found pre-colonisation yam farming techniques included a systematic tilling process which aerated the soil, loosening it for seed germination and incorporated ash and compost material.

Grains were a crucial staple. White bushie Walter Smith noted how Central Australians carefully spread grains by hand, then spread dirt and waited for rain. Domesticated grains were a precious commodity traded in sealed parcels. There is evidence at Cuddie Springs, Walgett, of seed grindstones 30,000 years old which Pascoe says makes “these people the world’s oldest bakers by almost 15,000 years”.

Another native food plant was nardoo. Burke and Wills died because they did not know how to use it but nardoo was crucial in inhospitable areas because it could grow on the beds of shallow lakes. Aboriginal people swept the seeds in stockpiles and processed it into flour stored in vermin-proof vessels. The bush tomato became dependent on Central Desert people for its propagation and spread, promoted by selective burning near campsites. Surplus was ground to a paste and rolled into balls lasting a year or more. For thousands of years Aboriginal people harvested rice known for its drought-surviving qualities and its ability to be planted in brackish water.

Irrigation was also used. Walter Smith remembers seeing Aboriginal people build a dam and irrigation trenches. People dug in a line and scooped out the earth to form a bank, before trampling the clay base and using ant nest material to firm it up. One dam on the Bulloo River in Western Queensland was 100 metres long capable of holding 700,000 litres of water. Explorer Ernest Giles found a 1.5m high dam in the Nullabor capable of watering seven men and 22 camels for a week.

Aboriginal people also targeted kangaroos sometimes with 2000 people driving game 30kms to a dispatch point using netting and kilometres of fences and walls. They were herded into holding pens with narrow apertures which could direct the males to be slaughtered and others to escape. Fire techniques were also used to herd roos.

Pascoe looked at two large-scale aquaculture projects at Brewarrina in NSW and Lake Condah in Victoria. The Brewarrina fish traps may be the oldest human structures on earth, possibly 40,000 years old. Witnesses who saw it in operation in the 1800s were astounded by the efficiency of the trap, the number of people involved and the enormous harvest. The rocks were arranged into patterns and fish were herded in through small openings. The stone locking system with arch and keystones was engineered to fix the trap to the stream bed. Breeding stock could pass through and families managed each pond in an integrated and sustainable way.

At Lake Condah, the main catch was eels. The fish traps there are 8000 years old. There are hundreds of metres of excavated channels and dozens of basalt block dam walls. Nets and weirs were used to impound fish for a largely sedentary population. At Condah there is evidence of eel smoke houses. Condah and Brewarrina both supported large populations, but similar smaller scale fishing systems existed across Australia, even in parched areas like the Strzlecki Desert.

Adroit use of fire was another tool of Indigenous Australians. Early pre-historians assumed the firing of the bush was a simple method of providing green pick to attract game but is now seen as wholesale land management. Low-level burns were done in mosaic patterns with better soils used for production while inferior soils were left for forest. Aboriginal people burned land in a rotating mosaic at a time of year dependent on the weather, the type of country and its condition. They avoided certain plant growing seasons and advised neighbouring clans of planned burns.

Gammage wrote fire shaped the land and noted the park-like conditions early settlers observed. When Aboriginal people were prevented from their usual practices the countryside was overwhelmed with understorey species and what had been productive agricultural land became scrub in a decade. Pascoe says infrastructure like buildings, fences and power lines complicate similar methods today “but does not prevent it”.

Pascoe says Aboriginal architecture, agriculture and aquaculture remains stubbornly outside Australian folklore. The determination of colonial Australia to discount Aboriginal achievements has passed into contemporary society.  It suits too many people to claim Indigenous people were “nomads” with no concept of land ownership. But they did own the land, using natural conditions – no matter how harsh – and developing endemic grains and tubers. They farmed, they lived in villages and built houses, they harvested cereals, managed complex fisheries and led sedentary agricultural lives most Australians still imagine was not possible before 1788. As we move further into climate emergency, we need to cast aside this structural racism. We must proudly embrace this startlingly ingenious ancient culture and learn what it has to offer about how to survive in this land for millennia.

Moving to prosperity without growth

downloadThe idea that growth is essential to prosperity is almost holy writ in modern market economies. Growth leads to higher incomes and increased choices and an improved quality of life. This is measured globally by Gross Domestic Product per capita, where GDP is a crude measure of economic activity. Increasing GDP still makes some sense for the three billion people in the very poorest countries (though even then only if GDP growth outstrips the population growth) but is it still relevant for rich countries where more consumer goods add little to material comfort?

That’s the question posed by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth (written in 2008 and updated in 2017). Jackson challenges the assumption that consumption growth without equity and sustainability can deliver global prosperity. Our society is hooked on growth but it places us in a dilemma between economic stability and the need to remain within ecological limits.

Introducing the 2008 edition of the book, former UN commissioner for human rights and president of Ireland Mary Robinson refers to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which set a “common standard of achievement” to measure the progress of nations. Our world has failed to meet that standard in economic and social rights with the number of people in chronic poverty and daily insecurity as high as ever, women and children suffering disproportionately.

Jackson begins with a definition of prosperity, things going well “in accordance with our hopes and expectations”. This is a hope things get (and stay) better not just for individuals but for all around them. But he says our technologies, economy and social aspirations do not align with that fundamental expression of prosperity. The continual expansion of material wants is untenable and Jackson’s book seeks to find other ways of flourishing within ecological limits.

Jackson says we tend to think of limits as inconvenient or even illusory. Ronald Reagan once said “there are no great limits on growth because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination and wonder.” These things inside us may well be limitless but the idea we can overcome all external material limits is foolhardy. Reagan’s quote was in response to the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) which looked at how affluence was curbed by the physical limits of the planet. As resources decline, it becomes more costly to extract them and the “energy return on energy invested” equation becomes untenable. Much of this thesis was dismissed as scaremongering, or wished away like Reagan did, but it has never been seriously undermined. Peak oil may have been delayed by the discovery of unconventional resources but still exists as a concept and so far our intelligence, imagination and wonder does not seem to want to push us far enough away from fossil fuels fast enough.

As Bill McKibben says we will run out of planet before we run out of oil. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is accelerated by human activities and the ability of the climate to assimilate these emissions within temperature rise limits tolerable to human existence is fading, as each IPCC report after report shows.

With these problems in mind, Jackson redefines prosperity to include greater well-being and social cohesion and also reduce the material impact on the planet. Jackson borrowed from Amartya Sen’s three concepts of prosperity: opulence (the quantity of material satisfaction), utility (the quality of material satisfaction) and capability for flourishing (how well we can flourish in any context).

He also questions whether economic growth is a necessary condition for lasting prosperity. He notes the importance of income (opulence) which is played out through relative effects. We compare our income to those around us to establish our social standing. Being at or near the top helps individual health and prosperity but does not add well-being to the nation. He quotes the book The Spirit Level which shows inequality has damaging impacts across the nation as a whole, though he acknowledges social logic locks people into positional competition. He also acknowledges de-growth is unstable and can lead to rising unemployment, falling competitiveness and a spiral of recession.

Writing ten years ago, Jackson spruiked the Green New Deal, an idea that foundered for a while but is now getting a second run with some Democratic candidates in the 2020 US presidential election. If that the public sector is spending money to invigorate the economy it should be on technologies to address 21st century resource and environmental challenges. This could be in labour-intensive industries investing in energy efficient buildings, the electricity grid, renewable energy and public transportation.

The idea foundered after the GFC with governments preferring other stimulus measures aimed at high-street spending with few low-carbon outcomes. Jackson suggested green bonds linked to low-carbon investments to pay for the stimulus rather than increasing national debt. This would need to be supported by governments investing in energy assets and what he called “ecological tax reform”.

Stabilisation of the economy could be achieved by working less hours and sharing jobs or introducing universal basic income. As well as lowering growth and reducing it would reduce unemployment and poverty without compromising economic stability or climate change targets.

But to end the cleavage between the economy and the environment, the social logic of consumerism also needs to be addressed. This will not be easy given how material goods are woven into the fabric of our lives. There are never enough material things to make us satisfied and the need to avoid social shame, the “keeping up with the Joneses” drives demand forward ceaselessly. Jackson says two structural changes are needed to shift values and behaviours. The first is to dismantle perverse incentives to constantly improve social status and the second is to establish new structures to allow people to flourish in less materialistic ways. The latter will need more policy attention to what flourishing means and must address social alienation and anomie. That involves reducing social inequality – which is on the rise in most western societies.

Jackson doesn’t pretend that introducing an ecologically-literate macroeconomics and changing the logic of consumerism are easy challenges. Together they are possibly the biggest ever faced by human society. Writing after the GFC he was right to say the current model has failed us, but memories are short and 10 years on, it’s business as usual at the bourses and banks. Jackson says the transition to a sustainable economy must begin by establishing the resource and environmental limits.  That means identifying greenhouse gas emission caps and reduction targets and taxing carbon. He sees the need to shift the burden of taxation from economic goods like incomes to ecological “bads” such as pollution. There needs to be funding mechanisms so that poorer countries can still grow which still investing in renewables, low-carbon infrastructure and the protection of carbon sinks such as forests. Jackson also says financial markets need to be reined in by outlawing short-selling, reducing executive remuneration packages, protecting against consumer debt and incentives for savings.

How all these things happen in a runaway executive salary market with almost negative interest rates and with Trump and other populists rampant, Jackson probably could not foresee. But he offers a useful economic perspective on the problems of capitalism. He understands the dangers of novelty and how it drives consumption while undermining our sense of common endeavour. A better and fairer social logic lies within our grasp, he says. “Neither ecological limits nor human nature constrain the possibilities…only our capacity to believe in and work for change”.