The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture

Thursday 23 February 2017

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Holme Building | Science Rd | University of Sydney


An exploration of the interwoven relationship between culture and nature experienced by indigenous cultures around the world and how this relationship can be used to challenge the large scale degradation of the environment.

From Aotearoa, Australia and the USA, scholars from and of indigenous cultures, politics, philosophy, law and literature are gathering for a multi-disciplinary one-day workshop devoted to examining the merger of culture and nature in indigenous thinking and practice, and recent interpretations/integration in law, politics, literature, architecture and philosophy. They will critically challenge the millennia-old (Western) endeavour to banish ‘brutish nature’ from the cultural, an endeavour so successful that humankind, in controlling life-form and function, now faces extinction unless the re-e-mergence of natural and cultural succeeds.

Large scale degradation of the environment and the threat of irreversible global natural system change illuminate the inextricable and complex links between natural and cultural, challenging the wedge Western philosophy, religion, politics and practices has driven between the two. Attention is refocusing on the de-deification of the human, and a merging of nature within culture to ensure long-term survival for both. It is timely, some suggest, to remove human from centre stage and to accept that the cultural does not sit outside of the natural, but is indeed deeply embedded, immersed and merged in and with it.

Such an immersion is integral to many indigenous peoples’ culture, cosmology and philosophy. Nature and culture have been and are combined, entwined, and interwoven. The links between nature and culture are strong and inseparable.

Australian Aboriginal cultures are deeply rooted in and engaged with the land, soils, waterways, sea, animal and plant life. In the traditions of the Aboriginal peoples that human beings are part of the continuum of living and non-living components of the blue planet is an indisputable fact: humans can no more live outside of nature than they can outside their own being.

Aotearoa Māori understand all elements of the environment have their own life force or mauri. Their cosmology embraces nature and links human and non-human in a web of genealogical connections (whakapapa).  These living connections feature in cosmology, philosophy, culture and literature, and over the past three years in innovative legislation.

Similarly, in North America, as in Australian and Aotearoa, the first nations peoples create no sharp divide between the natural and cultural, for whom the relationship is not one of dominance and exploitation but rather of interwoven custodianship and care.

Over the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, emerging from global non-Western imaginings, is respect for the immeasurable value embedded the nonhuman and non-cultural.  Leading the process Mongolia’s 1992 the constitution requires citizens to ‘protect nature and the environment’ and the Swiss constitution requires bio-technologists to ‘take account of the dignity of living things’. More radically, the constitution of Bhutan (2008) assigns the role of trustee for the environment to every citizen and the Ecuador Constitution (2008) assigns rights to ‘mother nature’. In 2011 Bolivia passed the Law of Mother Earth that grants rights that protect nature from major ecosystem altering projects. In Aotearoa two major geophysical ecosystems have been granted legal identity (personhood) and are represented in their own right by guardians. In each case the natural is inescapably merged into cultural landscape.

Together scholars of indigenous cultures, built environment, art, politics, philosophy, law and literature will spend the day examining the merger of culture and nature in indigenous thinking and modern interpretations.