Thursday, February 12, 2009

When a child dies

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel tells us that the Australian continent is like no other. Damn right. These recent awfulnesses, the deaths by bushfire, suggest that we haven't yet learned from Burke and Wills. They died, as you and I would too, in country where indigenous people thrived.
They died in their cultural cocoon, because they could not think that the illiterate folk who tried to help them, had an intellectual heritage worthy of investigation.
It's not about bush survival skills. It's not even about techniques of adaptation to the most unreliable climate imaginable. It's about institutional arrangements in which country is not treated as a blank canvas waiting for paint, but an active agent capable of both generosity and ferocity. It's about setting up conventions of governance, which acknowledge belonging and dependency on active country which does active economic (that is, human) services and disservices.
We still ignore indigenous intellectual heritage to our peril. From first settlement, the British colonisers superimposed an institutional relationship of entitlement and control of vast amounts of the non-human 'resource'. Entitlement to surveyed 'land' (conceived as an unexploited resource awaiting 'development') was institutionally imputed to faceless overseas shareholders who never even came here. Aboriginal groups were like fauna, ineligible for the imputation of equity value in 'land.'
This institutional repudiation of direct dependency on an active country still prevails. Our civilization is still one of domination and appropriation. Imputed entitlement is so important to us that we can't afford to admit that this continent we expropriated is not like the others.
There's no future in abandoning our civilized adaptive strategies, or wishing to undo the past. Nobody needs to idealize indigenous heritage or pretend that it will translate cleanly. It's just that we ignore it at our peril. Our indigenous fellow-citizens are now mostly as dependent as we are on our civilization. But they carry amongst them understandings from their pasts, understandings which may yet be needed if our civilization is to be helped. Entitlement to 'land' in this country is in need of a rethink. Our civilization has tweaked entitlement before, and we can do it again, if there's time to do it slowly. Change in entitlement is very difficult in a world market where 'land' is a commodity, a store of equity value. But it's not all gloom. All equity value is created and sustained by state instruments of imputation and compulsion, which is to say, regulators, legislators, executive, judiciary. They change slowly, but they do change.
Those who hope for a future in which their entitlements are safe, have a choice. Either they opt out and hoard weapons in fire-proof bunkers, or opt for adjustments to the institutional arrangements that keep us all safe (i.e., our entitlements), in anticipation of unplanned vulnerabilities, or 'tipping points', as they say.
Now I've written this, I wonder whether I shouldn't just delete it because it's too soon, too soon to speculate even on the deepest causes of the shrieking emptiness. Vast wounds which can never heal over, never never never. Dead children, dead, dead. Weep for yourselves, for when a child dies we are all made small.

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