Hall #2 Is Land Terra Nullius … a Slave … a Magic Pudding … a Person … ?
How do we think of Land in Australia? Let’s enter the next hall in the Art Gallery to get some ideas.
Frontpiece for Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and His Friends Bill Barnacle & Sam Sawnoff (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1918)
We’re all familiar with the iconic Australian children's literature classic, The Magic Pudding. Here the Magic Pudding, protected by Bunyip Bluegum and his likeable friends, loves to be eaten and constantly re-forms to provide an inexhaustible supply of food for those who protect him from the Pudding Thieves. It’s all very Australian and has a good feel about it.
Does this story, however, provide us with a convenient myth justifying an unchecked consumption of natural resources, if we protect the environment against unconstrained exploitation by mining companies? For those of us with a religious worldview, we might describe this outlook as seeing Land as a gift of God for us to use, provided we steward it and care for it properly.
But this is a rather slippery slope. In the debate surrounding the abolition of the slave trade over 200 years ago, for instance, William Wilberforce was incensed by comments that slaves were being ‘decently’ cared for, having food, clothing and shelter. This outlook reinforced the myth that slaves were subhuman, cogs in a machine that served the greater good of the nation’s economic growth and development, and that they would be satisfied with minimum quality of life standards.
So is Land our subhuman slave, contributing to Australia’s economic growth and development, but getting nothing in return other than being ‘decently’ looked after? We delude ourselves. In reality looking after, or ‘protecting’, the environment means controlling the amount we harm the environment when we extract its natural resources. And even harm is understood in human terms – we mustn’t damage the environment past the point at which there will no longer be a future for our grandchildren.
This view almost characterises Land as a person; it contrasts with the British political myth of terra nullius, whereby before 1788 Australia had been regarded not only as a land of no people but as a place where nothing of significance had happened. Descriptions such as Hideous Blank were used to describe the unexplored centre of Australia.
Gibber plain Photo: Chris Dalton
It’s convenient, of course, to objectify Land in such demeaning terms, as it legitimises our exploiting it to find something of value (to humanity) where previously there was nothing. And this is what happened – Land gave access to vast water resources through the Great Artesian Basin, supported the wool trade, and offered up its gold, coal and iron ore. And now we even extract great spirituality from it. The Magic Pudding must be delighted!
Dalhousie homestead Photo: Chris Dalton
But wait, do you hear Land crying out My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Can you hear that cry in poetry, landscape art, bushfires, floods, indigenous spirituality, wild storms and searing heat? Or is Land just a stone, a rock, a lump of dirt, a dried-out creek, a gibber plain, a crusted over salt lake that has no voice? Do you hear instead the voice of reason that offers economic growth, jobs, export earnings and funding for schools, hospitals and roads?
Which voice do you hear? And which voice do you let shape the way you find the right ‘balance’ in the regulation of the mining of CSG?
Time to move on to the next exhibition hall!