Finding Connection to Country: Future Cities as Networks of Waterholes

Steven Liaros asks how the air-conditioned comfort of urban life inhibits our ability to fully connect with our place, and what lessons we need to learn from Indigenous land custodians.

In a rapidly urbanising world, how can we establish and maintain a connection to the environments around us? And in Australia, where the dominant culture is one brought by immigrants from other lands, how can communities assimilate with Country, sustainably, as we move into the future?

Early European colonisers brought with them their European seasons, which do not align with the actual seasonal changes on this continent. Australian Indigenous weather knowledge is far more nuanced, with different calendars in various parts of the continent, each determined by local conditions. In Nyoongar Country in the southwest there are six seasons. In Yirrganydji Country in the northeast, north of Cairns, there are two major seasons, Wet and Dry, divided into five minor seasons. To truly integrate with Australian environments, it is necessary to observe and understand the land upon which we live locally — not just with respect to the changes in weather but also how other species respond to these changes.

Navigating the land through waterholes: integrated systems of energy, water, food and shelter

There is an abundance of evidence about the complex political, economic and agricultural life of First Australians, much of which is synthesised by Bruce Pascoe:

… I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells; planting, irrigating, and harvesting seed; preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds, or secure vessels; and creating elaborate cemeteries and manipulating the landscape—none of which fitted the definition of a hunter-gatherer.1

The landscape is imagined as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines — also called Storylines or Dreaming Tracks. The Songs reference features in the landscape, thus acting as a system of navigation, guiding the singer through the land.

Imagining the landscape as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines offers an ideal framework upon which to found future human settlements. Rather than creating ever more congested, polluted and unaffordable cities, while simultaneously depriving rural townships of resources and infrastructure, perhaps we could distribute human settlements more evenly across the landscape? Each settlement would be a waterhole that supports a discrete community which, in turn, manages the land, ecosystems and infrastructure in their locality to ensure these remain in balance.

Renewable energy technology now makes this possible. An energy micro-grid can power a water micro-grid, which could then irrigate a diverse regenerative agricultural food system. Designing such systems around co-living and co-working spaces, allows a discrete community to manage the systems that provide their basic needs. They would manage their shelter as well as harvesting, storing and distributing food, water and energy within their local catchment.

Decentralised governance and the wisdom of relational philosophy

First Australians also had a comprehensive and effective governance system — one that was distributed rather than centralised. Bill Gammage describes how hundreds of different cultures and languages across the continent were bound together by a common worldview:

The Law…compelled people to care for all their country… an uncertain climate and nature’s restless cycles demanded myriad practices shaped and varied by local conditions. Management was active not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life. […] Means were local, ends were universal.2

This is an example of plurality and diversity bound together by a common narrative. Local communities were autonomous and also respectful of the autonomy of their neighbours. There was no central government enforcing its views over the entire continent but a network of societies all choosing to be responsible for their part of the country and their local community. Borders followed natural bioregional boundaries, so the law varied from one jurisdiction to another because the ecosystems in different bioregions functioned differently.

For Indigenous Australians, the land teaches people the law. Law is based on understanding and managing the land to ensure an abundance of food. In order to learn from the land, it is necessary for each community to align works and activities with local natural systems. Systems are locality-specific but the objective is the same everywhere, to create abundance. Unlike colonial-capitalist objectives of endless extraction from nature and endless work for people to power endless economic growth, the objective of Indigenous communities is to create an abundance of food, minimise work and to maximise play and ceremony.

To truly learn from and live with this Country, we must change both our social objectives and our worldview. Irene Watson provides a detailed discussion of the indigenous worldview as a relational philosophy, which she compares and contrasts to the binaries of Western philosophies.3 Linear time becomes cyclical, logical thinking becomes systems thinking, hierarchical patriarchy becomes community consensus, ownership of land becomes stewardship.

New stories for navigating life and the land

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Indigenous worldview is the acknowledgement that we navigate both the land and life with songs and stories. Our current prevailing story is that ‘jobs and growth’ will bring prosperity to all. This is so embedded in our cultural worldview that it is almost impossible to question it. Yet this narrative is destroying both the people it is intended to support and the ecosystems and climate upon which all depend.

There is a need for new narratives, new songs to guide us. Rather than just taking what we can, how can we take and give in equal measure? Rather than aspiring for more, how do we seek moderation, harmony and balance? How do we think beyond our bubbles or silos and see the world more holistically as a system?

The stories we live by guide the work that we do and so shape the human settlements that we create. Unaffordable housing, climate change, plastic pollution, inequality, droughts, floods, loneliness, stress, traffic congestion, food insecurity, no free time — these are all symptoms of a systemic problem. We solve all these problems together only by thinking in systems and creating a new system.

As we transition from linear to circular, from extractive to regenerative, from hierarchical to egalitarian governance, from silos to systems and from centralised to distributed, perhaps we will reconsider the assumed ‘self-evident’ truths that Western society is founded on for something else; the notion that we all have the right and the responsibility to sustain all life, and that if we learn from the land around us, we can enjoy freedom from unnecessary work, waste and irreparable environmental damage — liberty for the pursuit of happiness.

1. Gammage, B. (2011), ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia’, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
2. Pascoe, B. (2018) ‘Dark Emu, Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture’, 2nd ed., Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, Broome, WA.
3. Watson, I. (2015) ‘Raw Law: Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law’, Routledge, Oxford and New York

Steven Liaros has qualifications in civil engineering, town planning and environmental law. He is currently undertaking a PhD research project at The University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy with the aim of designing a replicable process for sustainable, resilient and affordable land development. Specifically, this will involve the development of public policies and economic strategies that would drive the implementation of the Circular Economy as a framework for building resilient and globally connected local communities. Steven and his partner Nilmini De Silva write about their everyday sustainability efforts at Eco-living Journeys.

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