Epistemology and Culture

Epistemology is the study of how we construct our systems of knowledge (ways of knowing) that express our worldview. These rest on our ontology, our ideas about the nature of reality. In a multicultural society, it is important to understand that our different cultures embody different assumptions about ontology and epistemology. I am personally close to these issues.  I am of Anglo-Celtic cultural heritage—at least 4 generations. My children are of part Trobriand Island (PNG) cultural background.  One of my grandchildren is of part Aboriginal and part Trobriand Island cultural background.

  • 58% of Australians come from an Anglo-Celtic cultural background
  • 18% of Australians come from other European cultural backgrounds
  • 21% of Australians come from non-European cultural backgrounds (predominantly Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian and African cultural backgrounds)
  • 3% of Australians come from a First Nations cultural background.

Globalisation, the rise of China and India as strong economic performers, and the international diaspora of East Asian people into Western nation states has made it increasingly difficult for ‘western civilisation’ to masquerade as the geo-cultural retainer of a universal experience of modernity. As a result the world is currently experiencing a significant geo-political shift in power and economic relations and associated cultural assumptions and norms.

The French philosopher, François Jullien (‘The Philosophy of Living’, 2011) has sought to expose the differences between European cultural epistemologies and those of Chinese, through the lens of Daoist philosophy. He maintains that while the key to Chinese strategy is to rely on the inherent potential of the situation and to be carried along by it as it evolves, European thought has consisted of developing a model (often a mathematical model), determined on a theoretical basis, which is then projected upon the world to test its efficacy and a claim for universalist truth. This way of thinking also separates theory and practice in a similar dualism.

Chinese thought never constructed a world of ideal forms, archetypes or pure essences that are separate from reality but inform it. It regards the whole of reality as a regulated and continuous process that stems purely from the interaction of the factors in play (which are at once opposed and complementary: the famous yin and yang)…Therefore such Chinese thought overcame the conflict/separation between theory and practice.

This strategic approach is most famously expounded in the well known ancient Taoist Chinese classic, ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, about how to strategically work with your enemy and respond to shifting circumstances successfully. It has been quite influential in modern management theory.Challenge Posed by First Nations Cultures

While we often proclaim that we value our First Nations culture as the cultural foundation of Australia, modern Australia is dominated by the religious belief systems, legal frameworks and institutional structures of people of an Anglo-Celtic cultural background. These structures are based on an ontology and epistemology that is profoundly different to that which has shaped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture.

This difference is particularly evident in the Indigenous moral obligation of ‘caring for country’, which is based on a deeply ecological and sacred relationship between people, all other life forms, and the landscape itself. As a result of the impact of global warming and environmental degradation of soil and river systems through modern agricultural practices, there is an increasing recognition that Indigenous knowledge about caring for country is more closely aligned with the science of earth system ecology than are many European introduced systems of agriculture, land clearing and water management (irrigation and dams). This has become particularly evident in bushfire management.CARING FOR COUNTRY

Aunty Sharyn Hall: “In the language of the Gungundurra people of NSW, country (ngurra) takes in everything within the cultural and spiritual landscape—landforms, trees, rocks, plants, animals foods, medicine, minerals, stories and significant places.  It includes Cultural practices, knowledge, songs, stories and art as well as Spiritual Beings and people, present and future.  Ngurra has a deep meaning of belonging.  The best way to understand Ngurra is to walk along the track” (Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Art of Planetary Health exhibition, 2020).

This idea of ‘country’ sits in marked contrast with that of Anglo and other European cultures.

  • Firstly the modern European worldview includes a fundamental split between man (humans) and nature (plants, animals, birds, reptiles, insects, fish etc) and between mind and matter.
  • Secondly it is based on the idea of ‘property’ and ‘ownership’. This provides the legal means of control over particular areas of landscape, which in colonial settlement used the legal concept of ‘terra nullius’ to remove Indigenous legal rights over their traditional country, and to allow for their forcible removal from that country. Other legal measures were used to forcibly remove children from families (Stolen Generation), to legally control their movements, and to criminalise the activity of Indigenous people.
  • Thirdly, ‘country’ is seen purely as ‘matter,’ as landscape/seascape for either economic production (mining, agriculture, fishing) or leisure activities (gardening, camping, bushwalking, rock climbing, physical exercise, surfing, swimming etc).  There have been recent attempts to use the western concept of the ‘legal individual’ and apply it to physical features such as rivers and forests, to give them legal agency in the western legal system.


There is no word in the English language that adequately captures the complex of meanings by which Aboriginal people understand their complex of spiritualised land-time meanings. ‘The Dreaming’ was first glossed as an English language translation for Alcheringa, by the anthropologist, Francis Gillen and adopted by other early anthropologists. Another English language term used is ‘everywhen’, a time complex that is past, present and future. In Pitjantjatjara language the complex of meanings is captured in Tjukurrpa, which is also translated as The Law. The term, ‘The Dreaming’ was further popularised by the anthropologist William Stanner, and has since become the commonly accepted English language term for the Aboriginal idea of their relationship to time, landscape and spirituality; an ontology and epistemology that encompasses reality, religion and the law.

To understand the problem of meaning translation, consider the insights of  the Curator and Linguist, Dr Christine Judith Nicholis in a series of articles she wrote for The Conversation in 2014):

  • Unfortunately, since colonisation, this multiplicity of semantically rich, metaphysical word-concepts framing the epistemological, cosmological and ontological frameworks unique to Australian Aboriginal people’s systems of religious belief have been uniformly debased and dumbed-down – by being universally rendered as “Dreaming” in English.
  • Indigenous regional and cultural differences need to be taken into account in order to develop a real understanding of the religion known in English as “The Dreaming”.
  • The complex of meanings is spirituality grounded in the land itself. It incorporates creation and other land-based narratives, social processes including kinship regulations, morality and ethics. This complex concept informs people’s economic, cognitive, affective and spiritual lives.
  • ‘The Dreaming’ is (more effectively) conceptualised as an eternal and continuing process involving the maintenance of life forces, embodied or symbolised as people, spirits, other natural species, or natural phenomena such as rocks, waterholes or constellations.
  • But what differentiates Aboriginal religion from other religions is its continuity with specific local landscapes. Importantly, Dreaming Narratives also have encoded in them important information regarding local micro-environments, including local flora, fauna and the location of water, deep knowledge of “country”, and survival in specific locations.


It is estimated that, at the time of white settlement in 1788, there were 750,000 Indigenous people. Within 10 years, the Indigenous population was reduced by 90 per cent due to the effect of diseases (smallpox, measles and influenza) and massacres of an estimated 20,000 Indigenous people. Today the total Indigenous population is estimated at 798,365 in a total Australian population of 25 million. Our First Nations people are now a small minority—but 3% of the total population, and hence within a formal democratic system, have little electoral influence.


Language encodes culture, with many concepts in one language difficult to translate into the language and grammar of another. Before colonisation, over 250 First Nations languages were spoken in Australia. Now, just over 100 are still in use and 90 per cent are considered “endangered”. However, through First Languages Australia, there is now a strong movement to recover language among groups such as the Wiradjuri, Yuin, Bundjalung, and Yorta Yorta people in NSW and Victoria.


In the words of the late Tjilpi Bob Randall, in the documentary Kanyini, directed by Melanie Hogan, the Aboriginal culture of his people of the Central Desert was based on four principles of Kanyini, which he translates as unconditional love and belonging:

  • Ngura—a sense of belonging to home and land
  • Walytja—family connecting with life
  • Kurunpa—love, spirit or soul
  • Tjukurrpa—the belief about creation and the right way to live

In this documentary, Tjilpi Randall explains how all these were systematically taken from Aboriginal people:

  • Ngura: land was taken and made whitefella property, and Aboriginal people lost their basis of economic livelihood
  • Walytja: children were stolen from their families and families were removed from their traditional country and put into missions under the control of whitefella law
  • Kurunpa: whitefellas imposed their belief system and religion and denigrated Aboriginal belief systems and languages and sense of cultural pride, with citizenship denied, and Aboriginal people hunted and killed as ‘pests’.
  • Tjukurrpa: whitefella rule of law replaced the ancient Law of Aboriginal culture kept alive since the time of the Creation Ancestors through the songlines and Ceremony, and Aboriginal people were criminalised—resulting in their having some highest rates of imprisonment of any ethnic group in the world.

Tjilpi Randall explains how, as each one of these aspects of Kanyini was taken, Aboriginal people shrank—spiritually, culturally, emotionally and physically, and became like ‘the living dead’. The result has been intergenerational trauma, alcohol and drug addiction, and high rates of suicide, especially among the young.



Recognition of the intergenerational emotional, psychological and economic impact of colonisation on First Nations peoples requires active programs of decolonisation, among both Indigenous populations and settler-immigrant populations, to overcome ethnic and race prejudice and cultural ignorance. It means confronting differences in ontology and epistemology.

This is especially important for the dominant Anglo-European cultural group whose epistemology allows them to take ideas from many different cultures and synthesise them into their own ‘understanding’ without recognising that the foundation of linguistic practice and thought remain within their own epistemology.  The Aboriginal scholar, Tyson Yunkaporta attempts to address this problem in his book, ‘Sand Talk’, 2019, refusing the structure of chapters and referring to his analysis as ‘yarning’ with the Elders.

In her 2019 review of the impact of the NSW child protection system on Aboriginal children, Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman of the Barrungam nation and a Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, pointed out:


  • The history of Aboriginal involvement in the child protection system from the late 1800s to today is a sustained history of oppression, paternalism and cruelty, which included a lengthy period of ‘protection’ or compulsory racial segregation, the consequences of which can still be seen today.
  • Assimilation, the aim of early policies governing the lives of Aboriginal people, was an attempt to force differing cultures together to form a single culture. In the context of Australian culture, given the recognised behaviour patterns of white Australians and their numerical superiority, this meant the extinction of what was distinctive in the Aboriginal subculture under the weight of mainstream values.


Australian Human Rights Commission (2011): “Colonised people such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia have all too frequently internalised the values and behaviours resulting from whitefella racism, leading to a negative view of themselves and their culture… from a position of powerlessness, the anger and frustration about the experiences of injustice and racism manifest in violence and envy, not ‘vertically’ towards the colonising power (too risky), but ‘laterally’ towards and within their own community… Lateral violence thrives today because power imbalances, control by others, identity conflict, negative stereotypes and trauma continue to feed it.”

2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart: Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. CLOSING THE GAP

The Rudd Government of 2008 introduced the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap Strategy, providing for an annual report to parliament against key indicators of health and wellbeing. It has failed because it has structured ‘closing the gap’ in purely whitefella terms, through whitefella controlled structures for: school education, health, employment and economic advancement, combined with punitive measures such as the cashless welfare card, and the notorious Northern Territory Intervention.

It is this legacy that the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart has sought to address through a three pronged strategy of: Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Australia Constitution; Treaty through a Makarrata Commission; and Truth Telling about our shared history.


As part of modern Australia’s reconciliation with its First Nations peoples to overcome the colonial legacy of cultural destruction and structural systems of inequality and racism, Universities Australia embarked on an Indigenous Strategy to bring all 39 member universities together to advance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and success in higher education. This followed a review by Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, Professor Larissa Behrendt of ‘Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’.

  • 55 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were awarded PhDs in Australia from 1990 to 2000
  • 219 students earned PhDs in the 11 years to 2011, a fourfold increase, according to the Department of Education.
  • 143 PhDs were awarded in the five years to 2012, according to the last available data.
  • 641 Indigenous students were engaged in postgraduate research in 2018, a 63.1% increase 2008 – 2018
  • In 2018, only 1.2 per cent of Australian university staff—both academic and professional – were from an Indigenous background—up from 1.09 per cent in 2017. This remains below the working-age population parity of 3.1 per cent.

THE STRATEGY 2017-2020

Universities Australia’s strategy is based on the following acknowledgement:

  • Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuing cultures.
  • This towering achievement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in human history is the foundation story of our country and our national identity.
  • The campuses of Universities Australia’s 39 members have been established on the traditional lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the continent.
  • On these lands, teaching, learning and research have taken place since time immemorial.
  • Including this heritage, tradition and knowledge as visible and valued parts of contemporary Australian university life and decision-making is a unique privilege.
  • Universities Australia acknowledges traditional owners across the vast Australian continent, and pays our deep respects to community Elders – past, present and future.

As a result many universities have established special centres of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, which are supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars to undertake research, in collaboration with Traditional Elders, to gain a better understanding of the ontology and epistemology that underpin Australia’s indigenous knowledge systems of its more than 60,000 year old culture. The following centres of Indigenous Knowledge and programs have been established:

Australian Capital Territory

  • ANU—National Centre for Indigenous Studies (NCIS)
  • University of Canberra—Indigenous Research Initiative (CIRI)

Northern Territory

  • Charles Darwin University, NT—Australian School of Indigenous Knowledge Systems


  • Melbourne University—The Indigenous Knowledge Institute
  • Deakin University—NIKERI Institute
  • Monash University—William Cooper Institute: Hub for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, learning and engagement
  • RMIT—cross university initiatives
  • Swinburne University—Indigenous Knowledge & Global Design
  • Victoria University—Indigenous cultural awareness training
  • University of Divinity—Indigenous Theology (NAIITS)


  • Charles Sturt University—7 Indigenous Student Centres, and Chair of Indigenous Belonging
  • UNSW—Nura Gili Centre for Indigenous Programs
  • UTS—Centre for Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges
  • University of Sydney—Sydney Indigenous Research Hub
  • University of Wollongong—Woolyungah Indigenous Centre
  • University of Newcastle—Wollotuka Institute
  • Southern Cross University—Bachelor of Indigenous Knowledge
  • Macquarie University—Dept Indigenous Studies, MA Indigenous Education
  • University of New England—Oorala Aboriginal Centre
  • Western Sydney University—Indigenous Research Forum and Indigenous Research Network


  • Queensland University—Indigenous Knowledge & Education Course
  • James Cook University—Indigenous Education & Research Centre
  • Central Qld University—Indigenous Engagement & Leadership Strategy
  • QUT—Indigenous Knowledge course and Indigenous Knowledge: Research Ethics and Protocols
  • University of SQ—BA Indigenous Studies
  • University of Sunshine Coast—cross curriculum strategy
  • Griffith University—Indigenous Research Unit
  • Bond University—Nyombil Indigenous Support Centre

South Australia

  • Flinders University—Office of Indigenous Strategy & Engagement
  • University of Adelaide—Wiritu Yarlu Aboriginal Education Unit
  • University of South Australia—Wirringka Student Services & Aboriginal Research Strategy

Western Australia

  • University of WA—Indigenous Knowledge, History and Heritage course
  • Murdoch University—Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre
  • Curtin University—Centre for Aboriginal Studies
  • Edith Cowan University—Kurongkuri Katitjin Centr for Indigenous Australian Education


  • University of Tasmania—Indigenisation cross curriculum approach

Australian Networked Universities

  • Australian Catholic University—Indigenous Higher Education Units
  • Federation University—Aboriginal Affairs and Indigenous Activism and Indigenous Health courses
  • University of Notre Dame Australia

Australian Research Grants—Discovery Indigenous 2021 Round 1 Funded Projects

  • UNSW—on Indigenous curriculum content in Australian curriculum ($330,000)
  • UNSW—Indigenous children in out of home care ($427,685)
  • UQ—Indigenist health humanities ($1,776,000)
  • UQ—Business development for native bush foods and plants ($1,565,000)
  • UQ—Co-design of Indigenous education policy, Qld ($750,000)
  • Griffith—Music and health strategies ($820,000)
  • UTAS—Indigenous research data ($415,027)
  • UMelb—Indigenous cultural burning ($454,000
  • Murdoch U—Racism and Mental Health ($584,000)

Areas of Indigenous-Whitefella Epistemological Engagement


NAIITS Australia—working with the University of Divinity offers a program exploring theology, history and the practice of ministry from Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and world Indigenous perspectives. This program is part of a wider growing community of theologians who are Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Canadian Aboriginal, Native American and other First Nations and Indigenous peoples. The community is also joined by non-Indigenous theologians who seek to work with, and within Indigenous theological education.

Religions for Peace Australia—part of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, is Australia’s largest community-based organization working for inter-religious harmony and social cohesion. It strives also to create multi-religious partnerships to confront the world’s most dire issues: stopping war, ending poverty and protecting the earth.

Uniting Earth—from the Uniting Church’s very beginning, our First Nations leaders challenged Western stewardship, or instrumental theology, which saw the Earth as a collection of resources to be shared out amongst humans.  They called the wider church to appreciate that the land is Mother, and part of their being an insight finally picked up in the 1993 Social Justice Sunday workshop resource. The First Nation’s challenge to Western theology continues.  More recently, the sense of family relationship to the rest of Creation, and reciprocity  is amplified in Pasifika theology.  Western science, especially evolutionary biology echoes their call to see humans as part of the family of life.

Anglican EcoCare—since 2006, Anglican EcoCare has sought to reform the Church through rflection on environmental theology, education and advocacy, and to seek to build elationships with other environmental organisations, faith groups and educational institutions regarding environmental matters. It publishes the Journal of Ecotheology to explore the role of ecotheology formed by our landscape and our historical engagement with immigrant and indigenous cultures and spirituality.

2021 Annual Conference—Practical Theology as Ecotheology (UK-Ireland)In an era when scientists warn there is limited time left in which to reverse the most catastrophic effects of climate change, BIAPT 2021 will turn its attention to this most urgent of issues and to wide-ranging engagement with ecological thinking. How do we interpret and respond to our contemporary ecological crisis in the light of our diverse faith traditions?  What theological resources, practices and convictions will enable us to respond most creatively and prophetically to planetary changes?  What kinds of conversations between science and theology do we need to encourage and enable? Speakers include Dr Hilary Marlow, a Cambridge Old Testament scholar, Dr Seforosa Carrolli, a Fijian Research Scholar at Charles Sturt University, and Scottish activists, Dr Anna Fisk, Iayla-Roxanne Hill and Zarina Ahmad.ECOLOGICAL EPISTEMOLOGY (EE)

In order to address the fundamental dualism between both man (human) and nature, and between mind and body (matter) within dominant Western epistemology, philosophers have developed a theory of ecological epistemology (EE). This seeks to encompass the knowledge emerging from the assumption of symmetry between things and thought, human and nonhuman beings, and historical and natural processes (Isabel Carvalho, Springer, 2016). EE seeks to consider all humans and nonhumans as ‘co-residents’ and ‘co-citizens’ of the same world.

EE builds on the work of Bruno Latour’s actor-network object-oriented ontologies used to analyse innovation in technological and social systems, but prefers the idea of ‘things’ to ‘objects’. EE also builds on philosophies of immanence and the earlier work of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in his ‘Steps to the An Ecology of Mind’(2000):

The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. The larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by ‘God’, but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

EE challenges the idea of human exclusiveness by means of their superior intelligence and seeks to reposition the human being in the symmetrical network of mutually determined relations, the immersion of humans in the material world as one of continual engagement with the environment.

It gives agency and dignity to all ‘things’ and gives ‘voice’ to the world, accepting the autonomy of things and nature in their relation to the human, avoiding biological or cultural determinism.

In the EE paradigm, the otherness of nature is transformed into the subject’s engagement with the world and with the core of matter by participating and sharing a common experience that pervades all beings and things that inhabit the same realm.ECO-SPIRITUALITY

Patricia Gemmell (Grail Australia): “Eco-spirituality is based on a belief in the sacredness of the entire created universe, in the Divine Mystery being not only the source of all creation but also the sustaining power within it, and in the belief of the interconnectedness of all life. It is about living a life that seeks to care for the earth, that engages with the environmental crises of our time and place, and that longs for and works for justice for all creatures. And it is marked by attitudes of reverence, wonder and gratitude. Clearly, it is a spirituality that finds a home in all the religions of the world. And of course, there exist non-religious eco-spiritualities.”ECO-THEOLOGY

Following the 1967 publication of Rachel Carson’s ground breaking book, ‘The Silent Spring,’  the relationship of theology to the modern ecological crisis became an intense issue of debate. This was provoked by the publication of the article, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ by Lynn White, Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles.

White sourced the problem to the modern (post 18th century Scientific Revolution) interpretation of Genesis 1.28 (Old Testament): “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Combined with the idea of human exceptionalism (made in God’s image), this proclamation to have dominion over every living thing was interpreted as the right to use human scientific and technological know-how to exploit the resources of the Earth and all its lifeforms for the benefit of humans.

This process of combining technological know-how with the moral right to exploit and control nature has led inexorably to the current ecological crisis of global warming, destruction of forests, scarcity of fresh water, acidification of the oceans, loss of soil and landscape degradation, dangerous air pollution and extinction of many specifies of insects, animals and birds. Humans have attempted to replace natural ecosystems with synthetic ones (e.g. farmland “agro-ecosystems” and urban complexes). If care is not given to the principles of natural ecosystem survival, the system itself is threatened by the depletion of resources.

Pope Francis (First encyclical, Laudato Si’, chapter 1, p.61

We need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognise that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analysed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human-activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”

The theologian, Frederick Elder (Crisis in Eden, 1970) outlines the two opposing views:

  • Exclusionists—those who sharply separate humans from nature and are confident that humans have the right and ability to manipulate nature through science and technology.
  • Inclusionists—those who see humans as part of nature.

Eco-theology seeks to redress the Exclusionist’s religious basis for the economics of exploitation of the natural world by claiming that ‘dominion’ is not about control and exploitation, but the obligation of stewardship. Ecotheologians argue that humans are ontologically one with nature as a primary reality; the relationship between humans and the remainder of creation must proceed from that fact. Because God is the Creator and Preserver of the world, to be ‘made in the image of God’ means to protect: “humanity is not the subject and the world the object; humans act within creation to protect it. In this sense it remains God’s creation, it “cannot be claimed by men and women.”

Ecotheologists suggest an ecological perspective, in which Christians see themselves as steward-ecologists, challenges us to accurately assess our lives, ministries, and relationships in the social and physical environment in order to see if what we are doing is inappropriate. We must ask ourselves, “Have we been faithful stewards of God’s creation?”

The eco-theologian, J. Moltmann suggests: “There is tension in this understanding of God and creation, but it proceeds from an immanent tension in God himself: God created the world, and at the same time entered into it. He calls it into existence, and at the same time manifests himself through it…The God who is transcendent in relation to the world, and the God who is immanent in that world are one and the same God. So in God’s creation of the world we can perceive a self-differentiation and a self-identification on God’s part” (God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 1985).

Christian, Judaic and Islamic theologians who are important to the development of eco-theology include: St Francis of Assisi, Teilhard de Chardin, Mathew Fox, Thomas Berry, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Alfred North Whitehead, Jürgen Moltman, Catherine Keller, Pope Francis, Elizabeth Theokritoff and George Nalunnakkal, Martin Buber, David Mevorach Seidenberg, and Terry Tempest Williams.

Australians active in eco-theology movement include Denis Edwards, Dr Bryon Smith and the Common Grace movement, featuring prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians such as Brooke Prentis, Bianca Manning and Adam Gowen.Call for a New Mindset

Charles Massey, in his ‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth’ (2017) specifically calls for a transition from the ‘mechanical mindset’ of European settlement, shaped by the mechanistic thinking of the First Industrial Revolution, to what he calls ‘Emergent Mindset’—through regenerative agriculture practices and a profound transformation in the minds and hearts of individuals: farmers, consumers and decision makers.  He suggests that the shift to an Emergent Mind involves a major cognitive and affective (emotions and feelings) leap—dismantling and rebuilding the entire superstructure of one’s belief system and worldview. (p.497)

Massey brings together the insights of modern systems theory and ecological science with insights from First Nations’ management of the Australian landscape over 65,000+ years, with an understanding of the importance of ontology and epistemology—how we come to understand reality, our selves and our relationship to the world around us, and the moral and spiritual imperatives that flow from this.

He states: “the confronting truth is that much of the modern threats to human health, including the near exponential increase in modern chronic diseases, is due to our industrial systems and especially those embedded in industrial agriculture” (p.5)

Massey draws extensively on the evidence of Aboriginal custodianship of the Australian continent for millennia whereby 250 or more Aboriginal nations (language groups) were ‘married’ to their own particular area of land or ‘country’ in a truly organic sense through their interrelated ideas of Law, Religion, Time and Reality—a complex set of ideas encapsulated in the English language term, ‘The Dreaming,’ and the Central Desert term ‘Tjukurrpa.’  Knowledge of the Dreaming was kept alive and passed down through the generations via the tradition of songlines by which the ‘country’ was sung up into life, maintaining is potency and fertility for all life forms.

Massey points out the central importance of ontology and epistemology: When a crisis occurs (such as global warming, species extinction, and environmental degradation), the actions taken depend on the ideas that are prevalent.  The key then is to find new stories or narratives that are meaningful, substantive and relevant depictions of a new reality—an ontology (idea of reality) and epistemology (knowledges) that meets the challenges of the Earth’s transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene era.  These are pressing issues as we face the challenges of global warming, species extinctions and environmental degradation, set against the powerful interconnected technologies being unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution—AI, robotics, genetics—particularly when their application will the driven by the instrumental logic of modernity’s techno-dreaming entrancement and the informational pollution unleashed by social media and its algorithms.


A Call to Action for the Creative Arts

Massey: “Story is thus the touchstone for our hearts and minds because it is fundamental to our cognitive, metaphorical, symbolic mind that emerged some 250,000 years ago.  Intervening at this seminal point of our psyches is therefore key” (p.501).

Just as our First Nations people used the arts to keep their knowledge system alive though the songlines, despite the devastation wrought on them through colonisation and dispossession, the story tellers of today are being called upon to provide a new narrative through film, art, writing, dance, performing arts, music, and all the myriad new forms of story telling of the digital age.


A new and exciting development is Gapiuwiyak Calling: phone-made media from Arnhem Land. Gapuwiyak Calling celebrates mobile phones as technologies of creativity and connection.  Curated by Miyarrka Media, a media-arts collective based in the northeast Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak, it features Yuta: phone-made material collected over the past five years, as well as film and video produced specifically for an exhibition at the Anthropology Museum, University of Qld.  It has also been released in book form through Goldsmith Publishers, winning the Gregory Bateson book award.

Yuta: Phone & Spear is a uniquely powerful work of anthropology in and through art practice. Few works expand the depth and breadth of collaboration to produce such revelation and pleasure. The sense of an intercultural family of voices brings a dynamism and richness that is often missing in scholarly texts. The Yolngu curators see the exhibition as an opportunity to assert enduring and meaningful connections between generations of Yolngu kin living through times of enormous social stress and change.                                                                       

You can view this work at: https://phone-and-spear.pubpub.org/