Since the formation of the first national parks in the late nineteenth century, the governments of Australia have promoted the concept of stewardship as the State’s role in environmental management. However, the term “stewardship” in epistemology and ethics has always been associated with en explicitly Christian reading of landscape and humanity’s role within it – one which relies on God as “Truth” and an “axiological point of reference”.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd observed that “evidence-based policy making is at the heart of being a reformist government” (Banks 2009, p.3). There is also meta-reform occurring, for the evidence-base for public policy is itself being reformed through the influence of multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches to research – principal among them the creative enquiry of the humanities and arts. Questions of what constitutes evidence and the foundation for Truth are also being challenged by greater complexity and greater acknowledgement of uncertainty in postmodern decision-making.

In environmental policy, the establishing of resilience thinking as a conceptual framework for decision-making is a distinct shift away from previous buzz-words – conservation, sustainability, triple bottom line, duty of care, environmental responsibilities and services – and their roots in the stewardship ethic. Resilience thinking, or at least its reformist conceptualisation, is a questioning of the stewardship ethic and a questioning of the normalising of environmental thought which occurs and reduces new ideas to political orthodoxy.

In the following, I will seek a dissensual analysis of the role of art, specifically literature, in environmental public policy. I will demonstrate that this analysis prefigures and enhances the reformist agenda of the central themes of resilience thinking.

This analysis is designed to reveal the hidden stories which (environmental) political orthodoxy is often based upon in ostensibly secular and democratic modern societies. The stewardship ethic is one such hidden story – not to suggest that modern Western bureaucracies are still driven by religious fanaticism but that Christian belief underpins the violence of managerial man and stewardship is a manifestation of that managerialism. The following will reveal the hidden story of the continuing influence of Christianity on Western environmental discourse, the hidden story of terra nullius and its impact on non-indigenous Australians’ engagement with the landscape and, most critically, the hidden story of the role of literature and art in influencing public policy.

The double dialogue I am engaged in is between the artist (specifically the writer of literature) and political praxis (specifically environmental public policy). The State of modern societies has replaced God’s “Truth” as an “axiological point of reference”. Ultimately, it is my assertion that art and literature generate new engagements and the potential to reconstruct – ethically, cognitively, perceptually – alternative ways of being-in-the-world for political ends.

The Origins of Stewardship: the influence of Christianity on environmental discourse

For Socrates, not only animals but the whole biosphere served human ends and thus were proof that the Gods had designed the natural world to serve man. Later, the first Stoic school was established in 300 BC. In addition to Socratic anthropocentrism, the Stoics also proposed that the cosmos was a single, self-regulating, living thing. Stoicism was an influential philosophy in the development of Christian thought, especially the teachings of Paul the Apostle (d. 64-67 AD).

Lynn White, a professed Christian, contends that the ecologic crisis is principally due to “the orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature” (L. White 1967, p. 20). He traces the foundation of anthropocentric dominance of nature to centuries before Socrates in the text of Genesis, Chapter 1:28: “God blessed [Adam and Eve]; and God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth”” (Anonymous c. 1450 BC, p. 69). The limits placed on humanity’s utility of nature in pagan animism and by the proscriptions of the Gods as represented in Homer and Ancient art are removed by Christianity according to White: “Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature … By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (L. White 1967, p. 20).

In this interpretation of Genesis, God endows man with a mandate to exploit nature without moral restraint. Man’s dominion over the earth extends to serving God’s will to “stamp down” (kabas (Hebrew)) the earth. White’s “despotic” reading of Genesis has been challenged by many Christian apologists in the forty years since ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’ was published. Two alternative readings have emerged – the stewardship and citizenship interpretations. J. Baird Callicott in Earth’s Insights: a survey of ecological ethics from the Mediterranean basin to the Australian outback defines the differences between the interpretations as “(1) an indirect, human interest/human rights environmental ethic associated with the “despotic” reading; (2) a more direct, ecocentric environmental ethic associated with “stewardship”; and (3) an uncompromising ecocentric environmental ethic associated with “citizenship” – a radical biblical biotic communitarianism” (Callicott 1994, 20). Essentially, the stewardship interpretation is the popular riposte, emphasising God’s instruction to Adam to “dress and keep” the Garden of Eden.

The citizenship interpretation relies on a reading that God “intended man to live harmoniously within the whole creation as a member, not to transcend it as a master – or, for that matter, as its steward” (Callicott 1994, p. 19). The citizenship ethic emphasises our disconnection from God’s intended role for humanity as a member of the community of nature. The Fall represents a seminal point when man became self-aware and began to make judgements about himself and the world about him. Nature was thus divided according to the new categories of good and evil.

It is Callicott’s view that both the stewardship and citizenship ethics are ecocentric; and, in fact, that the stewardship ethic presents a philosophical foundation for humanity’s engagement with the natural environment today: “The ecocentric environmental ethic associated with stewardship is thus the most effective, practical, and acceptable environmental ethic consistent with the Judeo-Christian worldview” (Callicott 1994, p. 21). The stewardship ethic becomes an important underpinning component to the “postmodern evolutionary-ecological environmental ethic” that Callicott articulates in Earth’s Insights.

My concern with Callicott’s elevation of the stewardship ethic in a modern context is twofold. Firstly, our current environmental crisis has emerged from a history of Western thinking rooted in a world view consistent with its Judeo-Christian and Socratic origins. I find it inconceivable that a postmodern environmental ethic would return to a paradigm that is responsible for present environmental decline. Secondly, and more importantly, I disagree with Callicott’s premise that the stewardship ethic is ecocentric.

As Lynn White has argued, rather than being ecocentric, the stewardship ethic is the origin of our anthropocentric dominance of nature. Furthermore, I believe we can trace the managerialism of our contemporary society – where nature, animals and other humans (physically, cognitively and emotionally) are perceived as resources – to all three interpretations of Genesis. The violence of the despotic and citizenship interpretations is also evident in the stewardship ethic – demonstrating that anthropocentrism is fundamentally a perspective underpinned by a violent orientation to the world.

Callicott, in arguing that the stewardship ethic is flawed because it depends on the axiological authority of God also, inadvertently, demonstrates why the stewardship ethic is essentially anthropocentric rather than ecocentric. Callicott proposes a moral dilemma when the plight of the endangered Houston toad is considered in the absence of the stewardship ethic:

In the absence of some disinterested valuer beyond human consciousness, and in the absence of any resource value to us (of which the Houston toad has little or none, even when “resource value” is extended to the furthest limits of the term, as in aesthetic and scientific utility), the Houston toad is worthless … In the Judeo-Christian stewardship environmental ethic, God steps in to fill the axiological void (Callicott 1994, pp. 21-22).

There is a contradiction here in Callicott’s reasoning. The fundamental principle of the stewardship ethic is that man is charged to “dress and keep” nature; therefore as a basis for decision-making the stewardship ethic will always rely on a cost-benefit analysis undertaken to balance the trade-off between the implications for humanity (as “the steward”) and the implications for nature (or “other than steward”). According to the stewardship ethic, man is still the privileged species because he is God’s steward in the absence of a God who can manage the earth directly. What Callicott suggests here, is that the Houston toad will survive according to stewardship principles because God “pronounced each of them [his creatures], and the replete creation as a whole, “good” (p. 22). But what if it came down to the Houston toad or us in some existential stand-off? According to the stewardship ethic, the toad must go because the earth requires a steward – man – as privileged above other organisms.

There is another anthropocentric weakness implied in the stewardship ethic. For Callicott: “Central to the stewardship idea is that each human generation holds God’s creation in sacred trust, lives on the surplus, and passes on to the next generation a renewed edition, complete and intact” (Callicott 1994, p. 23). However, this also relies on each generation placing an obligation on future generations in order for the stewardship interpretation to underpin an environmental ethic – that is, an adherence to Judeo-Christian beliefs and the removal of their liberty to develop an existential or secular environmental ethic or, more generally, to “think differently” or dissensually, because as Callicott admits the stewardship ethic relies on God as an “axiological point of reference”.

As an anthropocentric ethic, stewardship is not just the privileging of managerial man (in the absence of a direct managerial God) to “dress and keep” nature, it is also the privileging of the decision-making managerial present. Anthropocentrism is a violence against the future. In the example above, if we take into account a responsibility towards future generations then we must also consider the future implications of the Houston toad. The toad may potentially be the epitome of beauty from a future perspective, be the source of a cure for a future endemic, or prove to have a role in the ecosystem which is currently beyond the understanding of contemporary ecology. Such a scenario may also identify a moral reciprocity where man is also valued by toad because a symbiotic relationship is established – similar to the symbiosis between rhinoceros and oxpecker – where the toad provides humanity with a pharmaceutical source of disease control and the toad depends on humanity for conservation. The tendency to define the value of a thing (whether aesthetic or in regard to its scientific utility) in terms of pre-existing tastes or knowledge is central to the violence of anthropocentric thinking. In protecting the right of future generations to share their world with the Houston toad, and reciprocally the right of the toad to share it with humans, we have established an ethical basis for protecting the Houston toad which also divests us of an axiological need for God.

The stewardship ethic, and the broader Socratic-Christian history of thought, became further amplified by the neo-rational skepticism of Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes stripped back the knowable world to reason and reason alone – cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) – and established a Cartesian dualism, already present in Christian ideology, of mind and body. Central to this dualism is a self-determining rational subject, imbued with the power of reason that enables the individual to make value judgments about the objective world. In this process, the Cartesian cogito (“I think” or thought) reduces the potentiality of the world to calculable, quantifiable – and thus controllable – objectification.

A reductive and mechanised natural world as experienced through the cogito is perceived in terms of its potential resource-reserve to serve the ends of human progress, as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) the Enlightenment philosopher suggests in The Masculine Birth of Time: “I am come in very truth leading nature to you, with all her children, to bind her to your service and to make her your slave.” Note in Wilden (1972, pp. xxxv-xxxvi) Nature compartmentalised into quantifiable resources has no inherent organic integrity and thus it can be radically and violently altered – enslaved – by humanity without cost.

Descartes’ philosophy was following the established Greek tradition of his education – the Pythagorean dualism of soul-body, Democritean atomism and Platonic forms. It is this history of false values and philosophical error that underpins the environmental crisis of today. The Greek tradition provided Descartes with a vision for understanding the natural world that was consistent with his skeptical subjectivism. Nature is a predictable machine – intricate, impersonal and ordered: “the laws of Mechanics are identical with those of Nature.” With Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) explication of gravity in the following generation, Descartes’ vision of a mechanistic nature comprehensible by, and conforming to, mathematical laws was realised.

Although Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) establishes the cogito in order to prove the existence of God, ultimately Enlightenment science would usher in the secularisation that characterises modernity. E.A. Burtt argues that a dramatic shift in the Cartesian world view is that the why of medieval philosophy and the principle of final causality are replaced in the Enlightenment by the immediacy of the how. In the medieval world view:

Here was the teleological hierarchy of the Aristotelian forms, all heading up in God or Pure Form, with man intermediate in reality and importance between him and the material world [man as steward]. … Now, with the superstructure from man up banished from the primary realm, which for Galileo is identified with material atoms in their mathematical relations, the how of events being the sole object of exact study, there had appeared no place for final causality whatsoever. The real world is simply a succession of atomic motions in mathematical continuity. With final causality gone, God as Aristotelianism had conceived him was quite lost (Burtt 1925, p. 98).

Ethics in modernity is thus challenged by the absence of God and the need to locate a source of value outside finite (human) consciousness.

However, just as the medieval Christian world view was strongly influenced by its Hellenic roots, so too did modernity, functionally secular, retain essential Christian philosophical doctrines. Both periods shared a faith in human reason that it would reveal divine providence and the explicitness of a knowable universe through empirical analysis. However, more critical from an environmental perspective was that they shared a value system. In Judeo-Christian dogma, from Genesis to the universitas, humanity had a moral responsibility to exercise dominion over nature. Modernity, based on the founding principles of Descartes and Bacon, focused on technological and scientific expansion which complemented Christianity’s vision of nature as existing for the benefit of a human progress towards a future utopia. Our relationship with the natural environment today – and the legislating of that relationship through public policy – is still predominantly perceived through this stewardship narrative.

Emerging Issue Analysis: Identifying Alternative Narratives to Stewardship

In the second half of this analysis, I will consider how alternative narratives for our relationship with the natural environment have emerged through disciplines other than science

My method shares principles with that branch of futures studies called “emerging issue analysis” (EIA) which Paul Wildman and Sohail Inayatullah have derived from Graham T. T. Molitor’s concept first articulated in his essay ‘How to anticipate public policy changes’ (1977).

It is Molitor’s assertion that all public policy issues and opportunities experience a similar transition (represented in the ‘S’ curve in Figure 1 below). Their emergence is often imperceptible and the subject of artistic, literary or otherwise creative representation before a slow growth through conceptual thinking and then a much more rapid growth as it becomes the subject of scientific analysis and publication.

Figure 1: Emerging Issue Analysis (Wildman & Inayatullah 1998)

The more popular branch of futures studies, trend analysis, concerns itself with issues currently under significant scientific examination on the verge of being established as public policy concerns. However, emerging issue analysis draws from a much wider source of cultural production and asserts that future challenges and issues need to be addressed at their emergence and require the consideration of a wide array of disciplines before they have consolidated as trends which are often accompanied by scientific schisms with developed (and possibly irreconcilable) paradigms for addressing the issues. Trend analysis is still useful but trend analysis has greater appeal to those public policy practitioners focused on the scientism of management principles rather than unpacking policy tensions and challenging political orthodoxy. Emerging issue analysis elevates the analyses of art and literature practitioners to a more equitable level with science.

It is the premise of my analysis that art reflects and preempts change in the unconscious before science monitors this change. In this world view, art is a problem solver which represents issues and problems that are otherwise not representable. A literature which reflects, and is informed by (whether consciously or not), the “unrepresentable” is not a static literature but “an axe to break up the frozen sea within us” (Kafka). This literature, when it represents and confronts those underpinning causes that have led us to violence, generates new engagements and the potential to reconstruct – ethically, cognitively, perceptually – alternative ways of being-in-the-world for political ends.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed a new conceptual framework for environmental thought emerge. Resilience – “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker & Salt 2006, p.1) – will potentially lead to a paradigm shift away from the stewardship ethic and an opportunity for a new foundation for environmental policy leading to environmental restoration.

As with any new term that captures the attention of a broad spectrum of academic thought, there is a broad array of principles and objectives under the banner of resilience. However, I have distilled five principles below which are often repeated in resilience theory.

Maintaining resilience requires:

Continual change – all systems have to change to adapt to circumstances.

A high “response diversity”– a system exhibits different ways of performing the same function.

Cross-scale and cross-domain interactions – and awareness of these interactions, such as how the increase of resilience at one scale can reduce it at another.

Specified and general resilience – the maintaining of the resilience of a specific value challenged by a specific threat, and of general resilience characteristics: diversity, heterogeneity, modularity, tightness of feedback, reserves, overlapping institutions, polycentric governance.

Identifying which systems require enhancement and which require transformation. Undesirable states can be resilient (saline landscapes, dictatorships) and thus require transformation through critical steps: a preparedness to change, a capacity to change, and options for change (trajectories) to adapt Walker & Salt (2006)

Taking these broad principles as a guide, resilience thinking stands in direct contradiction to the orthodoxy of the cogito’s neoclassical managerialism. For example, “response diversity” requires a system to exhibit redundancy, duplication and overlap of functions – counter to the efficiency principle at the centre of Cartesian instrumental materialism and thus financial and economic policy today.

The following will consider how these underpinning principles of resilience theory emerged initially, not through scientific analysis, but through artistic and visionary works in the second half of the twentieth century. Judith Wright has been chosen for her appropriateness – as an Australian and as a poet concerned with environmental themes – however there are other writers such as Halldór Laxness and Don DeLillo who I have analysed elsewhere that could also demonstrate this phenomenon.

Writer as Environmental Activist in Australia: resilience as an emerging issue

Judith Wright is an author who aspires to recognising a “larger gestalt”. Her poetry attempts to identify a mythopoeic consciousness which engages with Australia’s unique ecology in a way that is inclusive of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Her voice is white-Australian but one that is conscious of co-existing alongside a people who have suffered great violence to their social structures and their land in order for white Australia to establish its own identification with its ecological, historical and cultural spaces. For Wright, non-indigenous Australians should aspire to become “a people who have seized the chance to make a new kind of consciousness out of new conditions” (Wright 1965, p. xvii).

Wright in At Cooloolah (1955) writes that “I’m a stranger, come of a conquering people” (Wright 1963, p. 108) – the land she occupies is not truly hers to identify with until the ecological, historical and cultural spaces are shared with the indigenous occupants that were displaced. Wright did not want to compound the violence of the past by commodifying indigenous tradition and adopting it as her own in a misguided attempt at “honoring” the indigenous occupants of her land. Wright wanted to connect to the ecological space of her country through the history and culture of her own people, creating “a new kind of consciousness out of new conditions”. In her way, she sought to subvert the scientific tradition of the West – responsible for so much global violence against land, sea and indigenous cultures – to reach not assimilation or the peaceful coexistence of isolated cultures but rather an aesthetics of engagement between the natural world and the history and cultures of all Australians. According to Wright: “It will take four or five hundred years for us to become indigenes; and to write poetry, unless you are an indigene, is very difficult … The aborigines lived with the landscape and every bit of it had meaning for them” (Strauss 1995, p. 59).

Wright’s lament in The Cry for the Dead (1981) is twofold; it is not only for the pastoral lifestyle that has degraded the natural environment of Australia but it is because pastoralism disfigured the human engagement with the land, perhaps permanently: “The land itself was now disfigured and desecrated, studded with huts, crossed by tracks and fences … the all-embracing net of life and spirit which had held land, and people, and all things together was in tatters” (Wright 1981, p. 27). According to Martin Jay, the West’s privileging of sight over the other senses was initially consolidated in the Hellenic world view (Jay 1993, pp. 24-28). The effect of this world view on Western thought is the dual effect articulated in Wright’s analysis – it (1) disfigured the environment when it established “the tracks and fences” which compartmentalised the landscape into land holdings and the maps of the European cartographers, and (2) it enclosed and enframed the “net of life” reducing environment to a resource for commodification.

In her article ‘Landscape and Dreaming’ (1985) where, in reflecting on the difference between European and indigenous engagement with the environment, Wright asserts that:

This very word “landscape” involves, from the beginning, an irreconcilable difference of viewpoint, and there seems no words in European languages to overcome this difficulty. It is a painter’s term, implying an outside view, a separation, even a basis of criticism. We cannot see it against the reality of that earth-sky-water-tree-spirit-human complex existing in space-time, which is the Aboriginal world (Wright 1985, 32).

Wright here is reacting against the tradition of the “picturesque gaze” of Kantian disinterestedness that deconstructive postmodern analysis of nature is founded on and which interprets landscape as artefactual, fragmenting the “earth-sky-water-tree-spirit-human complex” – the Aristotelian assertion that nature remains in a potential state awaiting the actualisation of the universal frame of the human context to “illuminate” nature “as cultural landscape”. Whereas Wright suggests that the European enframing represents “a partial, inadequate, and temporal vision, reflecting our own interests” (Wright 1985, 32).

Non-indigenous Australians’ unfulfilled search for “a new kind of consciousness out of new conditions” has evoked the experience of Heidegger’s unheimlichkeit – a sense of a broken home: “when one’s home is rendered, somehow and in some sense, unfamiliar; one has the experience, in other words, of being in place and “out of place” simultaneously” (Wright 1985, 23). The violence and associated guilt that white Australia must come to terms with to ameliorate this sense of unheimlichkeit in relation to the land it occupies is an ecological one – the violence against land and sea from the adoption of European agricultural practices and industrial development – but it also a violence against the sacred.

This violence against the sacred is the effect of the dominant stewardship ethic in Western environmental thought – the anthropocentric drive of pastoralism – a violence against the land’s original occupants and their “earth-sky-water-tree-spirit-human complex”, and against the future generations of both the indigenous and non-indigenous occupants. This violence against the future must include the violence against non-indigenous future generations because of the resulting disconnection that is experienced by the “conquering people” – the violence which renders “one’s home unfamiliar”, “of being in place and “out of place” simultaneously”.

All this violence is founded on the lie of terra nullius – the concept that civilisation did not exist in Australia before the arrival of the Europeans and the Christian ideals such as stewardship that they brought with them. The violence of anthropocentrism is not just that it is a human-centric perspective of the world, but that a privileging of human needs is always a privileging of the now – through the anthropocentric gaze the future is a place owned by the values of the present. Anthropocentrism is a future-orientated ethic that inscribes the present over the future in the same way that pastoralism inscribed eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe over the ecological, historical and cultural space of indigenous Australians without acknowledging the value of their prior engagement with the land. Thus anthropocentrism is not only a violence against the future and the elision of the past, but it is also a neglect of the now and the thwarting of potential new engagements and new ways of “worlding” that heterogeneous perspectives from shared occupancy of the land can realise – or, as Wright suggests, we must “write, no longer as transplanted Europeans, nor as rootless men who reject the past and put their hopes only in the future, but as men with a present to be lived in and a past to nourish” (Wright 1965, p. xvii).

Wright is conscious of non-indigenous Australians’ desire for a legitimate ecological, historical and cultural space in the nation – that is, not only to possess the land without recrimination but to be imaginatively linked to it – and the complexities that involves for the “conquering people”. According to Jenny Kohn: “Through writing about the landscape, the poet takes possession of it, and becomes native to it. In a country such as Australia, to lay claim to nativeness necessarily involves a certain degree of appropriation” (Kohn 2006, 116). Kohn acknowledges that Wright was criticized for romanticising Aboriginality and white guilt (Ryan 1999, 29) – for conflating her environmentalism and her passion for Aboriginal rights, what were in Wright’s words: “those two strands – the love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of the invasion – have become part of me. It is a haunted country” (Wright 1991, p. 30).

One poem that demonstrates that Wright the artist brought a new perspective and way of thinking about Australia’s ecological, historical and cultural space is the 1946 work – Nigger’s Leap: New England (Wright 1963, p. 11). The poem recounts an incident that occurred near the Wright family property in the New England region of New South Wales. A group of Aborigines were forced off a cliff by settlers at Bluff Rock when they were suspected of stealing cattle.

As Wright explicitly states in this work, darkness “is the symbol” in the poem for the haunted, ghostly land and its violent, defining moment – the darkness which secretes the settlers’ action where “the night tided up the cliffs and hid them”, the physical darkness of the “thin black children dancing,” and the darkness of our history: “Night floods us suddenly as history, / that has sunk many islands in its good time.” The voice of the poem pleas that the darkness which obscures the settlers’ violence on that fateful night could be a shroud for the whole of white history in Australia: “Swallow the spine of range; be dark, O lonely air. / Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull / that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff.”

According to Kohn, “the image of the “cold quilt” is an uneasy one, and not simply because the quilt functions as a shroud for the corpses. The quilt, which should represent warmth and comfort, is made strange by coldness; what should be reassuring is the opposite” (Kohn 2006, 117). Again, the experience of unheimlichkeit manifests here – creating an analog between Heidegger’s rendering of one’s sense of home as unfamiliar in our interface with technology and the white Australian experience of anxiety (the “cold quilt”) of being at home in a land which one can only identify with if one accepts the violence of our past history in obtaining that land.

Wright’s image of the screaming men who become “silent, waiting for the flies” is all the more powerful because the settlers have more in common with their victims than difference: “their blood channeled our rivers, / and the black dust our crops ate was their dust? / O all men are one man at last”. Their bloodless crime of stealing cattle is an offence many of the first Europeans would have identified with – stealing food to survive in eighteenth-century London a common felony which could lead to transportation to the colonies – thus their murder at Bluff Rock is also an act of hypocrisy. The dead Aborigines shared the settler’s land, needs and aspirations: “there they lie that were ourselves writ strange”.

The final lines of the poem are ominous: “Night floods us suddenly as history / that has sunk many islands in its good time” – suggesting that the action of the settlers will not end at the base of the cliff but will haunt for generations to come for our violence is inscribed on the landscape we inhabit and disconnects the usurper from a sense of belonging. This sense is conveyed in the language of Nigger’s Leap and in Bora Ring (1946) from the same collection, where the landscape still honours the sacred site disturbed, presumably, by the white invasion: “Only the grass stands up / to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums / posture and mime a past corroboree, / murmur a broken chant” (Wright 1963, p. 3). The experience of unheimlichkeit – a denial of belonging in the land – is perhaps the white Australia myth, the dreamtime of our consciousness, that could as Wright laments “remain forever at the root of this country” (Wright 1959, p. 183) and submission to it will deny non-indigenous Australians the opportunity to “know ourselves no longer exiles, but at home here in a proper sense of the term” (Wright 1965, p. xxii).

Wright’s “earth-sky-water-tree-spirit-human complex existing in space-time” emphasises the need for cross-scale and cross-domain interactions when engaging with the environment. It prefigures resilience theory in its identification of the importance of considering the values of social and natural agents – past, present and future – when making decisions about the natural world. Similarly, the violence of unheimlichkeit experienced by non-indigenous Australians – the violence which renders “one’s home unfamiliar”, “of being in place and “out of place” simultaneously” – represents an undesirable but highly resilient state (since European settlement). It is a state requiring transformation and Wright identifies that transformation is dependent on a preparedness to change, a capacity to change, and the capability to plot a trajectory from the current undesirable state to a changed state.

Reclaiming Uncertainty: resilience against stewardship

The thread I would weave in conclusion between these two hidden stories – the impact of Christianity on environmental discourse and the unheimlichkeit evoked by dispelling the myth ofterra nullius – is that they expose the violence of the cogito towards the environment and towards indigenous people of lands occupied by European settlers.

This violence is a consequence of the neoclassical managerialism which accompanies post-Socratic thought (Cartesian instrumental materialiam) – where nature, animals and other humans (physically, cognitively and emotionally) are perceived as resources – and can be traced to all three interpretations of Genesis and its origins in Socratic thought. Furthermore, as an anthropocentric ethic, stewardship – which is also central to the pastoralism of the European settlers – is not just the privileging of managerial man (in the absence of a direct managerial God) to “dress and keep” nature, it is also the privileging of the decision-making managerial present. Anthropocentrism, and its legislating through environmental policies founded on the stewardship ethic, is a violence against the future.

However, as the emerging issue analysis of Judith Wright revealed, the principles of resilience theory emerged in environmental discourse in the arts decades before it became a subject of scientific analysis and publication. Art is by its nature “dissensual” – “an axe to break up the frozen sea within us” – or as Wright puts it a “chance to make a new kind of consciousness out of new conditions”. Art generates new engagements and the potential to reconstruct – ethically, cognitively, perceptually – alternative ways of being-in-the-world for political ends.

Whereas the stewardship ethic and neoclassical managerialism share a faith in human reason that it will reveal divine providence and the explicitness of a knowable universe through empirical analysis, the principles of resilience theory identify with the perspective that the world is ultimately unknowable – the raison d’être of art and literature – as opposed to the instrumental materialism of the Cartesian cogito.

Strategies to express uncertainty and the quality and complexity of heterogeneous perspectives are functions of resilience thinking and expressed through the diverse responses that resilience practitioners employ to make sense of environmental problems: emerging issues analysis, futures studies, capacity building, polycentric governance, knowledge sharing, and encouraging diversity and redundancy.

As an experienced environmental policy practitioner, I have heard buzz words like resiliencecome and go before – sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) and later the catchier sustainability were touted as a new way forward for environmental decision making, only to be subsumed by the orthodoxy of stewardship. The currency of resilience may be equally undermined by the institutionalization of resilience. How long will it be before we have a government Department of Resilience and Environment? Alternatively, resilience may prove to be a concept that ultimately fosters genuine collaboration between the natural sciences and the humanities and the arts. The practitioners of environmental public policy – long a domain dominated by science, Cartesian instrumental materialism and an outdated stewardship ethic – may discover that by expanding their evidence-base they will increase their capacity for adaptive governance and diversifying responses to environmental threats. In which case, perhaps future generations will still have a chance to make up their own minds about the relative worth of the Houston Toad.


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(1.) Reproduced in Wilden 1972, pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

(2.) After Walker & Salt, 2006.