How does giving and receiving take form in, and give form to, our living world? While most discussions of gift-giving focus on exchanges between humans, Deborah Bird Rose is also captivated by the many forms of connectivity and flow that are integral to ecological processes.
This talk took place on 2 March 2018, in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Sharni Jones: Welcome and good evening. My name is Sharni Jones. I'm a Waka Waka Kabi Kabi woman from South East Queensland and I'm also the manager of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection here at the Australian Museum.
But before we begin this evening's proceedings, let's start by paying homage to the traditional owners. The Australian Museum is located on the traditional homelands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I acknowledge and pay respects to the Gadigal people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waterways and sky. I pay respect to the elders that walked before us, who walk beside us, and who will continue to walk in front of us tomorrow. Our young people are our leaders of tomorrow, and we look forward to their strong leadership and championing our people and our dreams.
So today, not only is it International Women's Day, we're also celebrating the Human Nature series as part of the week, the museum's inaugural Festival and Celebration of Aboriginal and Pacific cultures.
Tonight is the second—and I must say sold out—lecture in the Human Nature series, jointly funded and co-ordinated by the University of New South Wales, Macquarie Uni, Western Sydney Uni, the University of Sydney, and the Australian Museum.
I'd like to invite and introduce Professor Thom Van Dooren who will introduce our guest speaker. Thom is an associate professor and an Australian Research Council future fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, and also the co-editor of the international open-access journal Environmental Humanities. So without further ado, please, Thom.
Thom Van Dooren: Thank you all for coming. It's a real pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce Deborah Bird Rose tonight. Professor Rose is one of the world's leading scholars in the environmental humanities. Over the course of a career spanning almost 40 years, she has produced an incredibly rich body of work. At its heart her work is concerned with what it means to inhabit a more than human world in a way that is faithful to those who have come before and those who will, who must, come after.
Professor Rose has made major contributions in a range of important fields, from the environmental humanities and the anthropology of Indigenous Australia, to extinction studies, animal and multi-species studies, and philosophies of ethics, justice, religion, temporality and place.
Across all of these domains her work has consistently explored the way in which processes of colonisation, modernisation and development produce ramifying patterns of unequal loss and death. But at the same time, her work has also relentlessly pursued a politics of hope, seeking to imagine and enact new possibilities for social and environmental justice.
Hers is a scholarly practice of paying close attention, of drawing together disparate voices from within and far beyond the academy, of a skilled refinement of the crafts of writing and storytelling; a deep commitment to and creative intervention towards better possibilities for life and death.
Deborah Rose is currently an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales. She has published many widely read, cited, award-winning and frequently reprinted books. Most recently, Wild Dog Dreaming: love and extinction. She has played a pivotal role in nurturing the growth of the environmental humanities in Australia and beyond through the inspiration of her own written work, through her founding and support for key journals, including the journal Environmental Humanities, as well as through her tireless efforts to foster and support the next generation of scholars.
Tonight Professor Rose will be presenting to us on the topic of Gifts of Life in the Shadow of Death. Please join me in welcoming her.
Deborah Bird Rose: Thanks so much, Thom. Phew…good thing I brought a hanky. I'd like to join my voice in paying my respects to the Gadigal Elders and to their Dreamings and to their future, and saying again the gratitude that I share with so many others that the generosity continues.
I also want to say thanks to the Aboriginal people specifically who have taught me so much, and in particular I'm going to mention the Ngaringman people of Yarralin and Lingarra in the savannah woodlands in the north, and the Mak Mak Maranungu people of the tropical flood plains. Respect as well to the Elders of New South Wales, western New South Wales, the Ngiyambaa and Barkindji people along the Darling River and its tributaries. I've learned far more than I can acknowledge here tonight. And finally also I want to thank my colleagues at Sydney Uni for organising, and thanks to the museum for hosting. And greetings to everyone on this wonderful International Women's Day. Yay!
So I didn't prepare a PowerPoint because I thought about that great saying that 'radio is better than television because the pictures are better.' And I thought that this would just be an invitation to you to open up your imaginations.
I'm sure that you all know that we're living in a time of upheaval—climate change, of course, ecological devastation, even extinction, and ontological upheaval as well. But as our understandings of reality are in a state of flux we're being pushed to ask new questions and explore new terrains of meaning. So it's a very lively time, to say the least.
I'm going to start with a little story about an event that took place a while back, back when I had a research position at the ANU. And I worked with a number of extremely talented scientists there. It was a challenging situation being a humanities person amongst a group of scientists that included earth scientists and wildlife ecologists, amongst others. And with my humanities colleagues Val Plumwood, Libby Robin, Thom Van Dooren and others of our wonderful group we were developing environmental humanities in a kind of often not quite comfortable dialogue but a dialogue with our science colleagues.
And one day an older guy, quite a bit older perhaps I should say, bailed me up to tell me something that really had been agitating him. And what he said was, 'You can't go looking for values in nature. Humans make values; nature does not, and you simply cannot cross that line.'
I was a bit startled. I think it probably showed on my face or I might have started to venture a little, 'But…' But in any case he offered his clinching argument: 'Just think about the praying mantis. After sex the female eats the male. No, Deb, you can't look to nature for how humans should live.' He did shudder. So let me alleviate any anxiety straight away by saying that I'm not going to advocate for cannibalistic sex.
But I do have a reason for sharing this story, which is that it articulates an impenetrable boundary. And my point is that we greatly deprive ourselves if we stick to the idea that humans can't look to the non-human world for understandings about how human life should be lived.
Well this idea of an absolute boundary between humans and all the others expresses the nature-culture dualism that's been so devastatingly influential in western thought. And as our great eco-feminist philosophers such as Val Plumwood and Freya Mathews have taught us so well. A large part of the ecological loss we face seems to be justified in part on the grounds that somehow it doesn't really concern us because we're separate—or at the least we're more important. At the extreme, this dualism held that only humans were mindful and that all the rest of life was effectively mindless.
I don't want to spend too much time rehashing this boundary, because I think that most of you do know and accept that there are many continuities between humans and other species, and with nature more widely. And in due course I will be offering some lessons to be learned.
But in case you haven't been following the great revolution in western thought brought about by the demolition of the nature-culture boundary, let's briefly consider other animals. Scientists working at the forefront of ethology, that is the study of animal behaviour and animal cognition, are investigating questions that until recently would have been unthinkable. A quick definition: cognition refers to a creature's ability to receive sensory input, to turn that input into knowledge, and then apply that knowledge in their surrounds. So input, knowledge, action. That's the basis of cognition.
Animals live through cognition, and perhaps you're familiar also with this fascinating new research showing that many plants do too. And in fact even microscopic creatures like bacteria show this capacity for perception, knowledge and action.
But remaining with the world of visible creatures, the presence of cognition leads to exciting research into animals' sense of fairness, their moral lives, their emotional lives, and much more.
So this new research goes to show that the differences between our species and other species do not form hard and fast boundaries, and it's now clear that evolution has produced a lively, multitudinous assemblage of interacting sentiences.
The rigid nature-culture boundary would close off this knowledge and thus would estrange us from most of the non-human world, but that's not all. This boundary would also deprive us of opportunities for conversations between Aboriginal and settler-descended people. That is, if we are folks who think we're the only sentient beings on Earth, how would we respectfully share knowledge with Indigenous people who know that this is not true.
The terrific Australian Aboriginal philosopher Mary Graham wrote that one of the two basic precepts of Aboriginal world views is that you are not alone in the world. She's saying that we live in the midst of a world saturated with sentience. And her other tenet is all Law comes from the land. I'll return to this.
But in saying this, she invites us to open our minds to Earth-based Law. So if we were to adhere to the rigid nature-culture boundary, we would be completely at a loss to understand what Mary Graham and other Indigenous people are talking about. Another opportunity for enhanced and transformative knowledge would be closed off. The nature-culture boundary also impedes knowledge sharing between scholars in the sciences and the humanities.
The field of enquiry that promotes this lecture series, the environmental humanities, aims specifically to build bridges. And especially now, in this era known as the Anthropocene, a lot of scientific research investigates matters in which humans are all too often implicated, and at the same time humanities research cannot reasonably exclude attention to what is happening to the world we live in.
And furthermore, in this interesting time, fascinating new areas are opening up, and I'm thinking in particular of multi-species ethnography, articulated initially by Eben Kirksey as one of a number of areas of research that become possible because so many borders and boundaries are now understood to be porous.
So…knowledge sharing. The science of ecology is actually wonderfully instructive. One of its central insights concerns ecological connectivity defined as flows of energy and information across boundaries of difference. I'll just say that again: flows of energy and information across boundaries of difference.
Porous boundaries make flows possible, and as connectivity is essential to life, so life necessarily entails inter-dependence. To put it in more spicy terms—connectivity reveals our position as participants in entangled co-becomings. Nothing stands alone. Everything at pretty well every scale depends on others through flows of energy and information.
Well, flow brings us directly into thinking about gifts. About giving and receiving, about exchanges that work across human and non-human domains. For the many of the flows of energy and information are gifts. They bring life because they are connected and relational, and always there is motion.
The proposition that life is a gift would come as no surprise to most Indigenous people; I expect you know that. In my case, I want to be clear that I'm not using the term 'gift' as either a cliché or as a metaphor. It is a complex term, but for the moment let's just say that across multi-species, participatory interactions, the flows that carry life express this great injunction: the gift must always move.
The fact that we humans are not alone means that we're part of these flows. We have to include ourselves in the story too.
Actually, though, we are poorly equipped to understand connectivity and interdependence. The ethnographer Stephen Muecke reminds us that connection is a new logic for the west, and provocatively he implies that it entails an ethics: connection calls for commitment. Stephen learned about connectivity and commitment while sitting on the ground listening to Aboriginal people, and that's how I learned too. It is an absolutely wonderful way to learn.
But this evening I plan to start in a different place, because it's also an important fact that the dominant western tradition always had its dissenters. And one of the very interesting and now largely forgotten dissenters was a Parisian philosopher named Lucien Levy-Bruhl. He lived from 1857 to 1939 and the story is both fraught and fascinating.
Levy-Bruhl became interested in what anthropologists were learning about Indigenous people. In the 1920s and 30s when he was publishing it was still entirely acceptable to refer to indigenous people as 'primitives', and Levy-Bruhl shared that terminology, so it makes it kind of hard to read today.
But what he didn't share was the idea that indigenous people had inferior mental skills. His conclusions were way outside the box for his time. I'm just picking up on one strand of his thought here, the strand that says that indigenous people's thought had its own characteristic organisation, coherence and rationality. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who worked on the assumption that indigenous thought had failed to develop, or somehow gone astray, Levy-Bruhl understood that he was encountering an actual logic and that it was gained through experience of the non-human world. The term he came up with to describe this logic was 'the law of participation'.
Levy-Bruhl was iconoclastic on two fronts. The first big provocation was to claim that connection is, or can be, a form of logic. And secondly and even more provocatively, that western people could learn from indigenous people about this important form of logic—and how mind-blowing was that, back in 1935 when this Parisian philosopher was publishing these ideas. Indeed, for many people it may still be iconoclastic.
The law of participation asserts that living creatures are substantially implicated in each other's lives, that they participate in shared life. The law of participation thus entails an ethical claim bringing us into domains of responsibility, accountability and commitment. This may seem a bit abstract, so I'm going to offer a brief example.
Aboriginal fire ecology exemplifies the law of participation in action, and of course it equally exemplifies Mary Graham's precept that Law comes from the land. As you probably know, there's excellent evidence to show that Aboriginal burning was integral to the long term health of Australian flora, fauna and ecosystems.
To put it in a nutshell, fire, properly handled, brings benefits to numerous species, and the benefits flow. Within that flow, benefits circle back, so that the people who set the fires also benefit. There's no reason to say that burning is done just for others, or that it's done just for humans. A good fire benefits everyone.
I know this is very brief, but I trust you get the main point here, that in the midst of life's flows of energy and information, what goes around comes around, and much of what goes around enters into the lives of multitudes of others.
I'm fortunate to have learned from Aboriginal people who have had a strong history of burning the country, and in our co-authored book, Country of the Heart, you can learn more about the Mak Mak Maranungu people and their fire ecology. In that book you'll meet April Bright, a Mak Mak elder, explaining that the country tells you when and where to burn, and that, 'If we don't burn our country, we aren't taking care of our country.'
Well before I go further I need to mention another Parisian philosopher, Jacques Derrida. He argued that the gift must not be conflated with exchange. And it goes like this: 'If you give while expecting something in return, then it's no longer really a gift.' Derrida defined the gift in its capacity to disrupt the usual exchange circuits. And for him, that meant disrupting capitalist exchanges. Both he and Levinas, another great thinker, were drawn to the gift as an opening into ethics. The gift, they were saying, is open to the world and has no predetermined outcome.
Well in contrast to the emphasis on expected outcomes, I'm proposing that in ecology and in human life, exchange is far more interesting and complex than capitalist ideology would want us to believe. And I'll pause just for a moment to offer my respect to the great feminist geographers, JK Gibson-Graham whose rigorous analysis totally unmasked the myth that capitalism is the only game in town.
I'm going to shift gears now and look more closely at the nitty-gritty of exchanges. And I'll tack back and forth between human and other-than-human domains. The starting point is the main types of exchange as we know them in human terms. I'm drawing on an American anthropologist named Marshall Sahlins, who in 1972 developed a typology of exchange. Remember, a typology is just a framework for a classification. It gives us some useful tools for analysis, but it doesn't answer fundamental questions.
So Sahlins narrowed his analysis down to just two sides of exchange, giving and returning. And he identified three types: negative, balanced and generalised. Negative means taking as much as you can while giving as little as possible in return. Human examples are all over the place. On a global scale we can think of the race to the bottom, where companies seek out people who are desperate and impoverished and thus are willing to work for miniscule wages and terrible conditions, and that's negative exchange.
So the question arises, is there a negative exchange in the non-human world? Well an example concerns the rock orchids here in the Sydney region. These little plants actually do provide habitat for other creatures, and the stems are edible, so orchids give a lot. But when it comes to pollination it's a different story. Rock orchids do all the right things to attract pollinators—their creamy flowers gleam in the sunlight (if you've seen them you know how beautiful they are), and they offer up beautiful scents. The colour gradation of the flower invites bees in and they are brushed with pollen. All this vivid information communicates something deeply desirable, that is nectar.
Bees come and do their work but they get no payback, because in spite of the seductive messages, there is no nectar. These orchids are tricksters. They sustain themselves across the generations through targeted deception. So let's note that negative exchange only works because most other plants do offer nectar. And here we see one of the problems. Negative exchange cannot be the norm. If all flowers suddenly stopped offering nectar, pollinators would die. And in due course plants would die too.
So tricksters rely on the gift-giving of others, and they kind of cheat their way through life. I won't stop to draw out the obvious lessons in relation to human life. I'm sure you can see many parallels yourselves.
I'll move on to balanced exchange. I need to note briefly that the term 'balance' has some negative connotations in the biological sciences, so I want to be clear that I'm using the term really only in relation to exchange. Balanced exchange entails outcomes in which the giving and receiving are more or less equal. However, equal is not necessarily about quantities. It's not as if X grams of pollen equals X grams of nectar. In balanced exchange one gets food, the other gets pollination; each gets what they need.
Another example involves nutrition sharing between members of two different species of trees—birches and firs—that are growing in close association. This is research coming out of Canada. Each species thrives during a different season. They nourish each other through their roots, with one species giving nutrition when they are thriving, and later receiving nutrition when the others thrive. Take away one species and the other falters. Information and energy flow back and forth and the benefits are balanced and mutual.
The third type then is called generalised exchange, and this involves giving without expecting a balanced return, and perhaps not expecting a return at all.
It's a pretty broad category and doesn't really work very well as a category, but gives us some stuff to think with. A lot of our everyday social interactions are like this, like I pay for coffee today, another day someone else picks up the tab. It would be insulting to expect a close accounting because it's about the relationships, but at the same time, nobody wants to be a bludger, so there probably is some accounting going on behind the scenes.
A more interesting example probably is when you make a donation to charity. You're not expecting anything for yourself but you do intend the gift to have an impact for others. Such gifts take us towards altruistic behaviour, and I think this is the kind of giving that Derrida might accept within the term 'gift'. It's possible to construe altruism as an extreme form of generalised exchange, since it involves giving without expecting anything in return, and perhaps even giving at some risk to oneself. But actually I think altruism takes us beyond the typology of exchange.
Frans de Waal is a major figure here, and he makes an excellent case for altruistic behaviour based on empathy among mammals and birds. Probably you each have—I hope you each have—a favourite story of how an animal rescued a drowning individual, for example, or comforted another creature who was in distress. The technical term is 'spontaneous altruistic impulse'. In thinking about altruism we're called to consider empathy, cognition, emotion, curiosity, sense of fairness, care, concern, companionship, and many more kinds of mindful activity as expressed in the lives of many animals. And now plants, too, are being shown to demonstrate care and concern, and the research is ongoing. Gifts of care and concern are gifts of self.
For all of us social animals, these gifts make possible the actuality of shared life. Creatures who share each other's lives partake of something precious. Not only do they share the experience of not being alone in the world, but they—or we, including we—learn that there is a moral order, and that we are included within that order.
And thinking of sharing in the lives of others, another example is grief. One of my favourite stories concerns magpies, and I'm quoting Marc Bekoff here. 'One magpie had been hit by a car and was lying dead on the side of the road. Four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it and flew off and brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one they flew off.'
Well, as you would know from your own life, grief has its functions and there are plenty of explanations of those functions. But in the context of the gift, grief gifts affect us deeply I think because they truly are offerings into the unknown.
This brings me to gifts of life that move through intergenerational flows. Examples are parental nurturing in the non-human world include most mammals, many birds, and other creatures too, such as some fish and, apparently, some trees. Thom Van Dooren's book Flight Ways has a wonderful chapter on albatrosses and the incredible work that the two parents undertake each year to raise their one chick. Two parents, one chick, and they work so hard. He tells of the parents' commitment, which is huge, and he points out this is not dedicated to an abstraction such as a species, rather parents work for their specific young. And furthermore, Thom tells us, 'What is tied together is not the past and future as abstract temporal horizons, but real embodied generations, ancestors and descendants in rich but imperfect relationships of inheritance, nourishment and care.'
In short, intergenerational continuity depends on many flows and is a huge, multifaceted achievement.
Well, intergenerational flows are equally multi-species flows. This may seem obvious but it needs saying, because so often it seems like it's taken for granted. In Hawaii, where Thom and I have spent time with albatrosses, parents fly all the way to Alaska because those northern waters are rich with fish, and that's what they need to sustain their own strength and thus to feed their chick.
One individual who was tagged and documented, a female named Wisdom, is known to have raised at least 35 youngsters that were her own offspring. In the course of her life she logged about 4.8 million flying kilometres, which is the equivalent of six round-trips to the moon. I can't get my head around that, I simply can't. And every trip she made she came back to the same little place on Midway Island where she nested every year. All this in order to feed herself and her chick. And year by year, new albatrosses were brought into the world.
Another brief example brings us back to those praying mantises. The female puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can bring forth about 200 eggs. (This little insect, 200 eggs; a big albatross, one!) A lot of nutrition has to pass through the mother's little body. She can eat up to 16 crickets a day, and mantises are also documented eating mice, frogs, birds and salamanders. If there's to be a healthy new generation, females need both nourishment and sex.
So it is rather a fortuitous adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. And in fact males may even copulate more rapidly when their head has been bitten off, and I will refrain from comment on that one.
But once the eggs are produced, both male and female soon die. There's no way humans could live like this, even if we wanted to. As we know, it take huge parental investment and involvement to raise a child. In fact it takes more than just the parents. As we, the cliché is actually true: it takes a village to raise a child. And that's before we even consider the multi-species flows it takes to sustain a village. So to raise a praying mantis it takes a garden, a meadow, or a field. It takes an ocean to raise an albatross. Nothing comes into this world without flows of energy between multiple species and ecosystems.
And there is yet another aspect to these intensely participatory multi-species flows. Creatures gain benefits, and the mesh of benefits is often stunning. Freya Mathews addresses this issue in her exquisite essay, 'Earth as Ethic'. She writes that, 'Beings desire what other beings need them to desire.' And she offers some lovely examples. Bettongs desire truffles, and as they dig, they aerate the forest soils. Emus desire zamia nuts, and their digestive tract prepares the seeds for germination. This is one of the great beauties of life, that creatures fit well with each other through adaptive desire.
The law of participation has further lessons to offer, in addition to circularity and desire. These lessons are, I believe, gifts of knowledge. So I want to look at a few more.
I want to look first at the knowledge of abundance. Within complex systems of gifts there are marvellous outbursts of abundance. And they demonstrate a great fundamental proposition that one way to get more is to give more. The complete opposite of negative exchange, where you try to gain an advantage by giving less, the gift of abundance points to a more generative practice. But it isn't altruism. Often it's actually highly competitive.
One of Earth's many magnificent outpourings of abundance involves pollination, as I've suggested already. I've been doing research with Australian flying foxes and the people who care and advocate for them. I'm going to draw an example from this work.
Flying foxes are night-time pollinators, with very keen eyesight, and many of the Australian eucalypts put out their best nectar at night. So let us consider the lush, extravagant beauty, flamboyance and dazzling seductiveness with which eucalypts offer their gifts. They burst open sequentially, species by species, and region by region, and when they burst every branch and twig says more. More buds, more flowers, more colour, more scent, more pollen, more nectar—more and more and all that can be conjured from within the tree to reach out into the world with these great, vivid, multi-sensorial gifts. And for their part, the flying foxes come racing to respond. Their long tongues are perfectly adapted to sucking up nectar and their delicate whiskers pick up pollen and distribute over 70% of it intact.
Across the patchy and increasingly fragmented landscapes of contemporary Australia, the renewal of woodland and forest life hinges on these gifts. A new generation of trees is carried on the fur and the tongue and on the wings that beat through the night. And at the same time, new generations of flying foxes are nurtured with lashings of glorious nectar.
Well such extravagant giving amplifies life's adaptability. Intergenerational continuity of trees depends on the novelty that arises with ample gene flow. And in this time of climate change flying foxes are especially important because they transport pollen across large distances.
And, of course, the gifts keep flowing. What is good for trees is good for all forest dwellers. And there's more. What is good for trees is good for carbon capture. And leaves fall into streams and are carried into the ocean, where they leach acids and stimulate plankton growth—that's the foundation of marine life. And, of course, let's not forget oxygen. What is good for oxygen is good for all of us who breathe. What goes around comes around, and you have to ask, why do people torment, kill, or even massacre flying foxes, as they do.
Abundance has to be situated within a context of limits, so let's look at the knowledge of limits. An example that is directly relevant to us humans involves top predators. Here in Australia, the dingo is our main non-human large carnivore. Dingos keep in check populations of mesopredators such as cats and foxes—or they would, if they were not being killed. And they limit herbivore populations. With these creatures limited, their flow-on benefits to a range of vertebrates and invertebrates, and to plants, and to soils. The evidence shows that top predators are vital to overall ecosystem diversity and resilience. Perhaps you've seen that marvellous video about the effects of bringing wolves back into Yellowstone National Park? Tells the story of how wolves, who are top predators, of course, change the behaviour of deer. And when the deer browse differently, plants had a chance to regenerate, and as that happened, riverbanks stabilised.
And over a relatively short period of time an absolutely astonishing set of changes occurred that brought much greater diversity and stability to the riverine ecosystem. That video's online. It's easy to find. It's called How Wolves Change Rivers.
Well, the inverse lesson is that the eradication of top predators is followed by cascades of loss. And here in Australia, deliberate programs of dingo eradication have involved much vilification and terrible cruelty, and have had predictable effects. As dingos are assaulted and eradicated, other creatures lose their limits and over time cascades of loss, even extinctions, follow.
Top predators put limits on some of the others, then, and those others put limits on different others. And we see a flow of gifts of limit. And so the question arises, who limits the top predators? And the answer is that they limit themselves. A stable dingo social group is led by a dominant mating pair. The female gives birth only once a year and the rest of the group do not breed. Many members of the group are offspring from previous years, and they assist in raising new litters.
Self-regulation is the key to stability for those at the top, and I have to pause to note that one of the many ways in which contemporary humans are failing to participate productively in flows of gifts is through failing to limit our own population. Individuals do, of course, but as a species we've been on a population binge, and I think everybody knows what happens after a binge. It's not a good prospect.
I'm going to turn now to the knowledge of coming after. Thus far I've discussed and focussed on life, and not said much explicitly about death.
So it's time to bring the two together. We humans are among the vast cohort of creatures whose cells are programmed to die. That is, we're mortals. In due course individuals die, and over much longer timespans species die, too.
The philosopher Hans Jonas reminded us that life is hard work. Metabolism, he wrote, 'is a continued reclaiming of life against its lapse into nothingness.' These Germans really know how to put things. Every day and every moment we draw life from our surrounds and we avert death. And this is why the gift must always move. Life's desire is to live, but existence is never assured and there's always the potential to slide toward death.
The larger picture is of course that we're destined to die. The connection between natality, that is birth, and mortality, that is death—is clear. The death of parent generations makes room for their offspring, and this is not sacrifice, by any means, it's just the way it works. It's the flow of life, all mortal life, arriving in vast, multi-species interactions and departing as well.
Mortality and natality bring us face to face with the gift. James Hatley, an American philosopher, makes the point which often seems to be forgotten, that there's no autonomous right to have been brought into existence. We are not here because of entitlement; we are here by gift. The condition of being birthed, or hatched, or sprouted, or whatever the given moment may be called, this moment is a gift. And the interactions that nourish and promote life are gifts. Hatley refers to this condition of being birthed as 'coming after'.
We all, always, come after our ancestors. And because we come after our ancestors, so we are also indebted to all the gifts that made their lives possible. In fact we're the beneficiaries of flows that so vastly precede us and so widely connect us to other creatures, and to the biosphere, that our indebtedness is impossible to imagine.
And yet the giftedness of our condition tells us that we are always already beneficiaries and participants. This is to say that we are always, already within an ethics of the gift with all its complexity, circularity, abundance and limits—including death.
Derrida and others tell us that we are always in the midst of unpayable debt, and yet the gift that cannot be directly repaid can be responded to and we are always therefore in the midst of responsibility. In this way the gift is an opening to ethics, and we find ourselves as ethical subjects as we are called into responsibility for others.
Our challenge is to find responses appropriate to our creaturely existence. We can participate well, or we can participate badly; but we can't opt out of participation, because we can't opt out of reality.
Well, I think it's about time to wrap it up here. As you will have realised, I decided not to say much about the heartbreaking things that are taking place on Earth today. We're in the midst of a great betrayal of life's gifts. But I've chosen rather to praise life, and in this mode grief may be transmuted into advocacy. Along with mourning the loss, I'm asserting that in the shadow of death we're called to defend life and to avoid despair.
In answer to the implicit question of why we must not get into despair, I'm drawn back to Indigenous knowledge and Law.
Earlier I mentioned the philosopher Mary Graham's tenet that all Law comes from the land. We're all implicated and our responses matter. The [Aboriginal] lawyer Irene Watson attributed most of the disasters facing the world to the fact that the greater part of humanity is living today in exile from the Law. And actually, let's be clear, the majority of us are outlaws.
The environmental humanities scholar Kate Wright tells of the struggle to live ethically and intimately in country she loves—country that is deeply traumatised by the devastating impacts of both capitalism and colonialism. And this is so true for many of us, that in the midst of damage we strive so hard to participate well.
Two fascinating Indigenous scholars from Western Australia, Ambelin and Blaze Kwaymullina, also speak to country and law. In their beautiful words, 'Law flows from the living hearts of Aboriginal countries.' And this is so important: 'Law flows.' There is motion and there is the present tense. The ontological assertion is that Law is living and that it continues to flow from country. Law is inclusive. It involves all of us. We are in the midst of this ongoing flow, and so the story is not yet over. Thank you.
Thank you very much for your warm response. I think we have time for a few questions and I'm happy to hear what any of you have to say. Comments are welcome as well if you don't have questions.
Audience member 1: Thank you very much for that amazing presentation. What I'm asking is rather self-interested. Is it possible to get a transcript and a list of references? No, I'm serious.
Deborah Bird Rose: I would imagine so, yes.
[A question about trapdoor spiders based on a misunderstanding of Professor Rose's work came here, but is untranscribed]
Audience member 2: Good evening, Professor. The notion of connectivity and Indigenous tribes suggests to me that there was a connection with the land. In terms of then the time line that we seem to be connected to with regards to technology, with regards to our society's kind of devotion to things that seem to be taking us away from a connection with the land, how do you reconcile your optimism with this—to my eye—growing gap between a sense of multiplicity of connection and a growing gap?
Deborah Bird Rose: Well, I'm not entirely sure I'd class myself as an optimist. I sort of think of myself as a realist. But it's really interesting that there are so many openings all around us all the time. And once we get rid of a lot of these dualisms we see them much more clearly. So, for example, with the flying foxes, the whole concept of urban wildlife. Cities were always thought of as places where wildlife is not. Cities are for people; animals are elsewhere. And now we're inter-penetrating. It's not just that more and more humans are becoming urban critters but more and more animals are becoming urban critters as well. So there's multiple opportunities for how our lives can intersect and interact.
It's a big question, because a lot of the drive in our economy and our social policy and stuff is wanting to push us into kinds of consumerism and ways of behaving, ways of thinking, ways of doing—that get in the way, actually, of us doing the kind of participatory work that we know would really matter.
I think one of the things that always comes to my mind is that sort of in a parallel with Aboriginal totemic relationships where nobody's responsible for everything. So you have to pick your own partners, pick your place of participation, put your life into that knowing that you can't do everything. And trusting that others are making other choices and doing other things and then finding out where they connect so that you can be supportive of each other. But yes, it's huge. This is not an easy battle and we don't know what's going to happen.
One of my colleagues at the ANU, gone now, but Frank Fenner gave the human species about 100 years to live. His nickname was 'Bunny Fenner' because he's done all his research with rabbits. So he was a guy who knew a lot about how populations boom and bust, and that was his professional opinion, was that the human species had about 100 years. That was probably 20 years ago. It'd be 80 by now.
Audience member 3: Deborah, gardeners feel attuned when they're in the garden, and have a relationship, and often I've heard gardeners talk about how the plants tell them what to garden or what to do next. So that sort of emotional response is quite—have you done research on that?
Deborah Bird Rose: Well no, only by participating in my own garden. But I've heard people talk about that kind of intimacy. And I've asked some ethnobotanists about this stuff, because I've met some anthropologists doing research in the tropical jungles of South America who've said that they could walk through forests and plants would basically communicate to them, and they would know which plants to pick for what kinds of medicinal and psychotropic effects and stuff. So to me, that sounded slightly bizarre. Psychotropic to begin with, before you even got started, is what it sounded like to me. And I asked some ethnobotanists about this and they said that actually when you spend a lot of time around plants like that you do start getting a communicative interaction with them and it's very real. So it's not been my experience, but I take it as real.
Audience member 4: Thank you very much for your talk. Just a question about the idea of justice and whether it's reflected in nature and the way things and creatures adapt.
That's probably referring to this idea of the strength and creatures that adapt better than others. And in the human society we are kind of struggling with this idea of equity and valuing different things. Do you have any observation about justice in nature?
Deborah Bird Rose: Well, I suppose there's two kinds of issues there. One would be let's say do individual creatures have a sense of fairness. Some do. That's been very well documented with really interesting lab experiments, so that's very well established. We get into I think really sticky ground, I suppose, when we start to think about what does life really want. So if we're taking a secular approach and we're not assuming that there's some grand designer running this but that it's a self-organising system, well then what are the principles around which it organises itself?
And here we see a lot of the circularity. So a lot of ecologists who work in Australia, or biologists as well, point out that Australia's quite an unusual kind of continent that favours large, co-operative groups. So for life to work adaptively well here, co-operation is a really key value. And to do co-operation things have to fit, things have to mesh. So that's really interesting. That's a kind of model that I think we really ought to be thinking about, that is actually attuned to the kind of environment that we live in.
But other areas are different, of course. But at the very grandest scale I think just one of the most astounding things is that one of the things we do know is what happens when huge numbers of species get wiped out. We know that from the last great extinction. We know that we'll soon be heading into a new mass extinction, but from the last, life regenerates. Life wants to live. Life wants diversity. Life wants abundance. Life wants complexity. Life wants adaptive fit. I don't know if 'want' is the right word. Maybe I should just say that's what life does. So if we're working with what life does, those are the kinds of things we'd be working with.
Audience member 5: First, Deb, just thanks so much for all the gifts that you've given all of us, as well, in the environmental humanities. Your generosity is amazing, you've made so many things be possible. So first of all, huge thanks. And then secondly, I've loved so much of your work, looking at introduced species as well. Your story about the donkey breaks my heart. But I was just wondering if you could please say a little bit more about that kind of connectivity and communities of species, thinking about introduced species as well, how that works in terms of giving of gifts.
Deborah Bird Rose: When new creatures come in, we really don't know what gifts and traumas they may be bringing. We can say this about humans, we can say this about donkeys, we can say this about many creatures.
We're in a space of the unknown, and patience is always a great virtue when we're face-to-face with the unknown. I vividly recall an Aboriginal claim to land that I worked on in the Northern Territory. They were claiming a portion of a government-sponsored research station. And it had been neglected for some years—decades—and in the last couple of years when they realised it was going to be a land claim they scurried around and tried to get some experiments going. So it was a really, really half-arsed effort on the part of the Northern Territory government, which could be awfully half-arsed without even trying.
So here's this scald area and there used to be trees here, so hey, we'll get some trees going. And so they're showing the Land Commission—look at this wonderful thing, we've got scald area here, we're got these wonderful things here and we've got these trees going, and we're going to regenerate this thing—it's going to be fabulous. And the Aboriginal TOs didn't like it. They didn't like it for two reasons. They felt that they would have been smart—they thought—to have asked them what trees used to go there before they started planting trees. But more deeply than that they felt that it should have been left alone. Because they wanted to know what that country would do to regenerate itself if it were left alone.
So their approach was just wildly different to, 'Oh, we've got to get in there and fix it.' It really was, 'There is this life power in earth that will come back. Let's wait and see what it does.'
And I think that's one of the things that—it's just this huge contrast with 200 years of colonisation, where we've mostly gone around trying to kill things that seem to have got in the way of our vision of what it ought to be like. And…well, I'd love to see an end to the killing.
Audience member 6: Thank you very much for your generosity and abundance of thought and deed over time, I'm very grateful for that. I was wondering if you'd like to say something about your thoughts on the gifts of flying foxes particularly through those mass death events, and particularly related to climate change.
Deborah Bird Rose: It looks like the greatest mammalian mass death events in the world today are taking place with flying foxes through the het-stress events. And they have really actually two main causes, as so many things to do with the world today. So one is that the heat and humidity is becoming too much for them; and the other is that the places where they would take refuge—because this is a hot continent and they've been here for 40 million years, I think, and survived a lot of El Nino and ENSO events—the places where they would have taken refuge are no longer available to them. Every place where there's a ridge and a breeze has been taken over by housing developments. Every place where there's a nice little humid understorey—they've got no place to go. And this is how they become a problem in parks and stuff. They get pushed there and they've got no place to go.
[Here Professor Rose asked the audience member to repeat the question, but it was off mic, so inaudible and not transcribed]
I'm in awe of flying foxes. I've done a lot of interviewing with people in Queensland, carers who worked at that terrible heat event they had up there a few years ago, and I'm writing a book about that at the moment. So I hope that'll be one kind of gift I'll be able to hand in to the world. But yeah, it's an awful thing to be witness to. It's an awful thing to be a participant in, and yet at the same time the spraying—if you can get people in there spraying water that can cool them down, the situation can be mitigated if not completely averted. And we all should be involved, if not directly—I mean there are places in Queensland where when the bat people called on the local fire brigade to come and help with the spraying, they refused. They said, 'In a few years it's going to be legal to shoot these bastards, why would even bother saving their lives now?' So, you know, even if you're not out there at the forefront of spraying you can be trying to bash somebody's ear about not letting things like that happen.
Audience member 7: Thanks for a brilliant talk, Deb. It was a real tour de force, and I'd like to presence another idea that you've written about previously: double death. Death that does not give back into the next generations. So when you first introduced that idea you talked about 1080 poison and killing dingoes. And looking at the title of your talk, I realised another talk you could have given is 'Gifts of Life in the Shadow of Double Death'.
And I was wondering what it might be like to scale up your idea of double death to planetary scales, to think about, you know, Povinelli talks about life breathing in and non-life breathing out, and that sort of planetary scale process. So what do gifts of life look like in the current era where we have double death taking place on these planetary scales?
Deborah Bird Rose: Well, double death is a term I came up with to talk about what happens when that synergy between life and death gets broken. So many deaths are happening so rapidly that creatures, species, ecosystems are unable to recover. And instead of being a long-term contract between birth and death and the ongoing-ness of life it becomes this overflowing invasion of death into the land of the living.
Boy, on a planetary scale, I don't know, Evan. That is scary. That is scary. I think I would look to the oceans. I would need to start all over and just focus on oceans for that, I think. Because so many of the big, big cycles—well I haven't even dealt with the abiotic cycles at all, which I would like to have in there as well. But so many of them actually can't cycle without oceans, and oceans are undergoing such traumatic changes that…yeah, I think it's huge. You always ask the big ones, Evan.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.
Deborah Bird Rose came to Australia in 1980 to live with Aboriginal people in the hopes of learning about their relationships with country and other species. Instead of going home to the USA, she stayed to work with people on land claims and other decolonising projects. Her continuing commitment to social and ecological justice focuses on multispecies communities in this time of escalating violence and amidst the peril of extinction.
A prize-winning author, and co-founder of the international journal Environmental Humanities, Deborah is an Adjunct Professor in Environmental Humanities at UNSW. Her most recent books are Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generations, co-edited with Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew (2017), Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, co-edited with Katherine Gibson and Ruth Fincher (2015), and Wild Dog Dreaming (2011).