The Knowledge (Epistemic) Crisis

The roots of our climate and environmental crisis are epistemic—they are based on a flawed knowledge system anchored in Western culture.

Many First Nations’ Elders have called for Australia to adopt a two-way learning approach to incorporating First Nations knowledge systems in modern Australia, particularly when it comes to school education involving Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This has lead to a nation-wide effort to sustain and revive Indigenous languages and teach them to children, as we all know that the worldviews of different cultures are encoded in language—in its very grammar and structure.

Two-way or both-way learning infers “a partnership relationship between First Peoples and Settler cultures in Australia…a negotiated space….‘third space’, to imply that, like the cultural literal zone where land and sea meet… it is dynamic and fluid, like that of a coast line.”

Purdie, N., Millgate, G., and Bell, H. (eds.) (2011). Two Way Teaching and Learning: Toward Culturally Reflective and Relevant Education. Camberwell, VIC: ACER Press.Systems Thinking and Relationality

First Nations intellectuals have pointed to the ‘systems thinking’ that is inherent in their ancient knowledge systems, and to the importance of relationality in their knowledge systems.

In her article on Systems Thinking, published in the Common Ground newsletter (, Kaytetye woman from Central Australia, Rona Glynn-McDonald identifies the importance of both systems thinking and relationality in First Nations knowledge systems.

Systems thinking: across First Nations communities in Australia are unique and distinct cultures that centre many different types of knowledges. These knowledges are often referred to as ‘knowledge systems’ and have ensured First Nations communities have lived in balance with the land, other communities and the natural environment for over 80,000 years. One consistent way of thinking, being and knowing that exists across First Nations communities is systems thinking, which is applied in many different areas of life… Systems thinking is to view the natural environment, human relationships and non-human relationships with a systems lens. When First Nations communities think in systems, we are seeing how interrelated parts of an ecosystem or set of knowledges relate to one another and are continuously shaped by these interrelationships.  

Relationality underpins all First Nations cultures, and explains why maintaining relations with people, the natural environment and knowledge is integral to the continued strength and wellbeing of our communities. Relationality refers to the relationship between everything and the strength of each of these relationships. Through relationality we know that everything is interconnected and shifting in a non-static way. In the unique law/Lore that many First Nations people follow, relationships are at the centre of everything. This is why family and kinship relationships are integral to our cultures and why community relationships are the foundation of many of our lives. We know that relationships are what bind us and guide us to thrive in relationship to each other and Country. Understanding the Western Cultural Inheritance

The Western knowledge system is strongly compartmentalised as reflected in the disciplinary structure of our universities and institutions of governance.  While following on from the insights of ecological science and the sciences of complexity and chaos theory, Western knowledge systems and institutions have sought to develop a more systems thinking approach, systems thinking does not come naturally to anyone nurtured in Anglo-Western culture and its education system.

The dominant Western worldview, particularly in the English speaking world, is expressed in a language that is linear in direction and binary in nature, with a strong separation between subjectivity and objectivity, between various categories of things such as male and female; reason and feelings; science and religion/spirituality. It is also thing-based (nouns) rather than process based (verbs), and favours universalist abstractions over localised, specific knowledge. In his comparative analysis of Western and ancient Daoist strategic conceptions of efficacy, the French sinologist, François Jullien, maintains that while the key to ancient Chinese strategic thinking 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 (Philosophy of Living, 2016). This latter approach we can see all too clearly in the role of economic modelling where inconvenient ‘effects’ are hived off as externalities to the model, so as not to threaten its efficacy.

The 17th century Scientific Revolution led to the idea of the ‘mechanical mind’ , which aligned with the thrust of the Industrial Revolution.  It achieved global authority with European imperialism, in which the English-speaking world established global dominance through the British Empire, and then the rise of English-speaking USA as the post WWII dominant global economic and military power. This has been re-enforced by US dominance in the field of technological innovation and the rise of platform capitalism.

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the only counter to US dominance has come from China, with its own version of platform capitalism and its own increasing investment in scientific and technological development. This has enabled China to rapidly transition from a developing country providing cheap manufactured goods to the world, to a leading player in science and technology-based goods and services, using a socio-economic model of ‘state capitalism’ rather than communism.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Government is an attempt by its President to re-establish Russia as a dominant global player, leveraging its vast oil and gas reserves, but this is coming at a time of global transition to renewable energy and the challenge of managing global climate change resulting from the impact of the fossil fuel economy. Meanwhile while the US remains a strong economy with global power, it is facing a political and cultural implosion that is threatening the viability of its governing democratic institutions.

Thus we are in an era of considerable geo-strategic instability as well as global warming that is unlikely to be held at less than 2% and which is producing extensive and profound impacts through climate change.So What is Two-Way Learning for Non-Indigenous Australians?

Firstly we have to recognise that fully 75% of the Australian population is of European cultural heritage, with nearly 60% of that being British or Irish (Anglo-Celtic), while Indigenous Australians make up only 3.4% of the total population.

Truth telling is not only about the colonial settler history of physical and cultural violence, and dispossession from Country and language. It is also about recognising the nature of the Western cultural knowledge system, which this settler culture brought to Australia, and the contribution it has made, in the name of economic progress, to environmental degradation and climate change through rising carbon emissions from its fossil-fuel economy.

We not only have to de-carbonise the economy, we have to undertake a similar project in relation to our cultural worldview that is encoded in our dominant knowledge system.

Universities in Australia are stepping up to this challenge by offering courses and research projects in First Nations knowledge systems. However, just as environmentalists are rightfully wary of ‘greenwashing’ when it comes to establishing whether companies and organisations are environmentally sustainable, First Nations leaders are wary of ‘blackwashing’ by non-Indigenous Australians.

They wish to be at the table in their own right, speaking with their own voices, as recently advocated in terms of the IPCC report, given that Indigenous Peoples manage around 25% of the Earth’s territory that contains 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity (Bhiamie Williamson, ANU).

My own cultural heritage is British-Irish-Danish, going back at least three generations into colonial settler culture. Both my parents assumed the commonly held view that British Western culture stood at the apex of human cultural and intellectual development. My father was also deeply racist. When I married my university sweetheart, a man from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, my father found this very difficult, raising concerns of miscegenation. But my mother was culturally reassured when she visited me in Port Moresby and saw that I lived a ‘normal’ middle class Australian life with my university educated husband. For my mother the issue was not skin colour but cultural practice, and this cuts to the heart of how racism intersects with ethnicity and cultural practice, with different knowledge systems and their view of ‘reality’.

White Australians are not alone in harbouring these sorts of prejudices. They are readily found across Asia, Africa and the Middle East in attitudes to the ‘foreigner’ and are exacerbated by religious faith differences and historical conflicts as we see across the Middle East, India and various other hotspots.

They represent the challenge for Australia’s evolution into a diverse multicultural nation, which has also embraced its ancient cultural heritage encoded in First Nations knowledge systems and recognising and valuing that their knowledge system is profoundly different, challenging many of our assumptions about the nature of reality, truth and ways of thinking.

What some immigrants from non-European cultural heritage have experienced in common with Australia’s First Nations people is the combination of racism/ethnocentrism and dispossession through war and conflict leading them to become refugees/asylum seekers, and which sensitises them to the historical experience of First Nations people in Australia.

It is a different challenge for those of us from colonial settler Anglo-Celtic culture, who have experienced ‘white privilege’ and cultural ease particularly through our institutions of governance and education. It is easy for us, therefore, to be blind and deaf to our ‘privilege’, particularly if we don’t belong to the high income ‘elites’ and we have taken our western knowledge system as just ‘common sense’ in how to understand reality.  This is what sits behind the ‘white backlash’ that is a feature of right wing nationalism/populism in the US and Europe.

Science tells us that the way we experience ‘reality’ is through receiving information via our sense faculties, which is then cognitively interpreted – that is, it is culturally constructed.  This is really hard to accept because we experience this perceived reality as if it is simply ‘out there’, not ‘in here’.

Perhaps one only begins to understand this when they are plunged into a very different culture, as I was when I married into Trobriand Island culture.  I was not a visiting tourist, but an in-law, bound by their rules in their culture.  But even in this I was protected by white privilege because I belonged to the controlling colonial power which had imposed its institutions and laws on Papua New Guinea’s indigenous cultures. I arrived to live in PNG before it was an independent nation, and was just achieving self government under colonial mentorship, so although an in-law I ‘belonged’ to the ruling colonial power.

My husband had gone to school in Australia, and then onto university – so he had mastered my culture and its knowledge system. But I was clueless about his, except through the writings of the German anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski whose seminal study of my then husband’s culture is titled ‘The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia’.  I think this title shows the problem as Malinowski puzzled over how such ‘savages’ could express romantic ideas in their interpersonal relationships.  After our marriage was amicably dissolved, I returned to live in Australia, but we share two children and have been keen to ensure they have their feet (sense of identity) in both worlds – Australia and PNG.  PNG is very different for its Indigenous people compared to Australia.  They have not been overrun by a white settler culture.  They still have their languages and speak them.  Their culture has been substantially modified by modernisation/capitalism, and by Christian evangelism, which has campaigned against many aspects of their cultures, but that experience is nothing like what has been endured by First Nations Australians.

In terms of two-way learning and the possibility of arriving at a ‘third space’, we are at a pivotal point in our history.  We are finally trying to respond positively to the invitation issued to all Australians through the Uluru Statement from the Heart—or Voice, Treaty, Truth.  We face a new focus on our relationship with Pacific Island nations who are our neighbours, to healing the wound of commercial-interest spying on Timor-Leste, and trying for  re-set in our relationship with an assertive China, and our SE Asian neighbours.  And all of us across the World are facing the extraordinary and growing challenges of climate change on our economies and societies.  Two-way learning has never been more urgently required.Finding Our Own Pathway

We each have to find our own pathway to this two-way learning with Australia’s ancient cultural heritage of more than 60,000 years, as it is the foundational culture of Australia. It carries the unique and powerful voice of this land, which is now speaking to us all in incontrovertible terms through climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.

As the GreenPrints program advocated by the AELA states: the first step is to think differently because the roots of our climate and environmental crisis are epistemic. They are anchored in our deeply held worldview about the nature of reality and the privileging of humans over all other species and lifeforms. We can begin by understanding the type of systems thinking and relationality that Rona Glynn-McDonald points out underpins First Nations knowledge systems, and examining our own thinking and practices through this lens.

Finding a pathway to think differently in this way is the first challenge for those of us from an Anglo-Celtic or European cultural heritage, which has held global dominance for the last 400 years of human history, and which have now been revealed to hold the fatal flaws that have led to our current crisis.Insights from a Two-Way Mentoring Project 

In their collaboration two academics coming from different world views: an Australian First Nations scholar, Kath, and a White, non-Indigenous scholar, Jo, working together to promote First Nations Australian perspectives into the curriculum, share their insights and learnings.

This collaboration involves supporting each other, learning from each other, opening each other’s hearts and minds to each other’s worldviews. We act as each other’s mentors at different times, we are each other’s translators, have each other’s backs, and see each other as equals with different views to offer in order to create critical and sustainable change in all areas of education.

Reproducing the White privileged view, mentoring relationships are often inherently paternalistic. Even mentoring established on principals of social justice assume a mentor and a mentee, with the mentee perceived as needing the social or cultural capital to navigate the university system. Established White academics know and benefit from the implicitly “hidden agenda” of a university system; knowledge the seemingly “less privileged” Indigenous academic may need in order to advance their career, survive, or thrive. In this White relationship, however, there is still an expert and a novice. Professional knowledge trumps what is problematically mis-defined as “experiential knowledge,” reinforcing what First Nations scholar Martin Nakata calls the knowledge boundaries of the colonisers.