‘You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia … I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.’ -Enele Sopoaga, Tuvaluan Prime Minister, to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison during climate change negotiations at the August 2019 Pacific Island Forum.
Diplomacy rarely comes clearer or more urgent. And yet, four months later in Australia, the layers and truths embedded in Mr Sopoaga’s statement remain unpicked as the temporalities of news have moved on at that rhythm that corrodes the possibility of reflection and deep thought. Incidentally, we’ve had incredibly early bushfires on Australia’s east coast.
Mr Sopoga’s words reveals an urgent task for Australia. They open up bigger questions about the nature economy in a time of climate emergency, and about our relationships to place.
The science on climate change has long been in. The use of coal in particular (championed inexplicably in Australia) threatens to exacerbate and accelerate sea level rise and other catastrophic potentials of the climate emergency. For Pasifika peoples though – and Indigenous communities in the Torres Strait of Australia – the climate emergency goes beyond rising sea levels inundating homes (as difficult as that alone is). It is about the severing of a deep, existential connection to place that defines identity and the very state of being (see, for example, McGavin 2017) – in the name of an extractive economic system they see little if any benefit from.
The ontological chasm that Mr Sopoga’s words and Mr Morrison’s reported reaction exposed might be addressed in three questions:
- How is it that one wealthy country’s economy has come to be so dependent on the destruction of place?
- How can the idea of prosperity be conflated with such destruction?
- And how then, might we in Australia take on the essential task of rethinking the idea of economy?
This question and the wonder at how we got here ought not be new: Countless texts* have shown sides of the destruction wrought by an extractive colonial economy in Australia since 1788. At its worst, this has shown a cavalier disregard for place, targeted 60,000+ years of deeply emplaced Indigenous culture and the boundless plains referenced in the second verse of our national anthem (you know, the verse that talks about sharing boundless plains).
At its roots, the English word “economy” (like “ecology”) comes from the Ancient Greek term “oikos”, a term that could describe home and family (including property). Notions of “home” are fundamentally linked to the relationships between people and place, yet as cycles of global capital and environmental degredation intensify, we might wonder about the decoupling of the term “economy” from place, and even from its etymology.
The nature of economy today shows how revealing shifts and dynamics underpinning the way language is used can be. It also betrays the narrowmindedness and lack of imagination that accompanies destructive extraction. How might we then re-envisage an idea of economy that is tethered to place and the rebuilding of oikos?
Framing it another way, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests we rethink giving and taking. Kimmerer states that we, surrounded by the gifts and holding nature of place every day, “find ourselves harnessed to institutions and an economy that relentlessly asks, ‘what more can we take from the Earth?’” She continues:
“This worldview of unbridled exploitation is to my mind the greatest threat to the life that surrounds us. Even our definitions of sustainability revolve around trying to find the formula to ensure that we can keep taking, far into the future. Isn’t the question we need, ‘What does the Earth ask of us?’”
Perhaps, in a western settler worldview that occasionally likes to point to its roots in Ancient Greece, we ought revisit the idea of oikos, in a way that conceives all beings as family and the Earth as a shared home, all bound in bonds of reciprocity.
Kimmerer reminds us that an economy underpinned by reciprocity opens up new realms of restorative possibility. “It is not just land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be partners in renewal; we can be medicine for the Earth”, she writes.
What if Australia was to start with some home truths about “economy”?
*Here are a but a few such texts
Kimmerer, R, 2014, ‘Returning the Gift’ in Minding Nature 2014, 7:2 (accessible via https://www.humansandnature.org/returning-the-gift)
McGavin, K, 2017, ‘(Be)Longings: Diasporic Pacific Islanders and the meaning of home’ in Taylor, J & Lee, H (eds) Mobilities of Return: Pacific Perspectives, ANU Press: Canberra.