more At the same time as a headline in The Guardian announced: “Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms”, we could also read that $3 billion had been left by healthcare tycoon Paul Ramsay to set up, under the direction of right-wing former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, a plan to install courses on “Western civilisation” in major Australian universities. Civilisation has nothing to do with science as such (DNA is indifferent to it), nor is it something a passing political initiative can uphold.
But with a long view of Australian history, the concept of civilisation is caught precisely in this politically charged dichotomy: between an Indigenous civilisation and a recently arrived “Western” one.
Today’s world is one in which everything can be given an economic value, and entities are defined by competition and inequality.
Under this regime, traditional knowledge would have to be gathered up by a university or by native title law and turned into accountable knowledge of a more whitefella sort. And don’t even think about getting a real pay-to-learn university until your community has grown to 100,000.
The usual definition of it as human society defined by “urban development, social stratification …
and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment”, as given in Wikipedia, is crying out for revision because it ignores sustainability and relegates non-human life, “nature”, to a resource.But cities, too, are vulnerable, especially in the light of the environmental threats that demand we reset the parameters of civilised life.Tim Flannery, in his 2005 book The Weather Makers, speaks, as many do, about climate change as a threat to civilisation as we know it.A Yolngu kid wanting higher education can head into university in Darwin or another major city, or decide to develop traditional knowledge further by sitting with Elders to eventually “graduate” as a law boss. Both are viable institutions, so let’s explore their differences for a moment, bearing in mind that one may be more vulnerable to climate change events.Traditional law and culture is an institution, even if it is not housed in bricks and mortar, and doesn’t need a large annual budget.The Yolngu call it “wangarr”; it is “tjukurpa” in central Australia and “bugarrigarra” in the west Kimberley, where I have worked.People invest time and energy in it, organise each other in different roles and strive for collective outcomes that are highly valued.If the Yolngu have flourished for up to 50,000 years, while the kind of civilisation based on large cities could self-destruct after only a few hundred, perhaps it is time to recalibrate what we mean by civilisation.Today, the Yolngu are among the more robust of Indigenous communities, with their celebrated artistic heritage, their annual Garma Festival, and their business and political skills.It includes the process of initiation through which people are literally “made”; in that sense you can’t be a “proper” Aboriginal person without going through the law.But isn’t it hopelessly idealistic to give value to such traditional institutions, when clearly they can’t be configured in terms of economic progress?