The Australian Journal
of Anthropology

Official Journal of
The Australian Anthropological Society

ISSN: 1035-8811

Volume 16, Number 3, December 2005


Australian Anthropologies of the Environment

Guest Editors: Jane Mulcock, Celmara Pocock and Yann Toussaint

Introduction: Current Directions in Australian Anthropologies of the Environment
Jane Mulcock, Celmara Pocock and Yann Toussaint


Environmental anthropology is an expanding field in Australia. Extensive research on Aboriginal relationships to land and natural resources has provided the foundation for growing anthropological interest in the interactions of other Australians with the biophysical environments they inhabit. Australian-based anthropologists also continue to contribute to research on environmental beliefs and practices in other parts of the world. This paper provides a brief overview of previously explored themes in this field as a precursor to introducing new research and proposing additional areas of research. It is suggested that these could be usefully developed to enhance anthropological contributions to debates about environmental change in Australia and surrounding regions. We argue that there are roles for anthropologists as ‘cultural translators’ in cross-disciplinary engagements with environmental scientists and natural resource managers; as cultural theorists skilled at documenting and interpreting changing environmental attitudes; and as environmental advocates pursuing the knowledge needed to create more ecologically sustainable human communities. We also suggest that Australian anthropologies of the environment can make valuable theoretical and ethnographic contributions to this important international field of study.


An Indigenous Philosophical Ecology: Situating the Human
Deborah Rose


Can Indigenous ecological knowledge contribute to major debates in Western science and philosophy? I argue that it offers a ‘philosophical ecology’ that works synergistically with Western eco-philosophy and some streams of ecological science. This paper takes up the challenge offered by Val Plumwood: that anthropology can contribute to the work of re-situating the human. It examines an ecological philosophy of mutual benefits, and shows patterns, and a broader meta-pattern, in which life is both for itself and for others, and in which connectivity and stability are achieved through densely recursive benefits. I identify these and other contexts as areas for further dialogue.


Forests as Spiritually Significant Places: Nature, Culture and ‘Belonging’ in Australia
David Trigger and Jane Mulcock


The spiritual significance of forests is explored, based on interviews with people involved in disputes that led to the signing of the Western Australian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) in 1999. Included are reflections from individuals involved in forestry, tourism, farming, and in the environmental conservation movement. Although the conflict between these groups has been emphasised in previous accounts of the RFA process, this analysis focuses on points of similarity, namely, ideas about Australian attachments to land. A significant proportion of interviewees compared their own feelings of spiritual or sentimental connection to the forests with the kind of attachments they thought Aboriginal Australians might have to their homelands. This leads us to consider feelings of belonging and attachment to place in relation to controversial debates about nature, culture and identity in settler-descendant societies such as Australia. An understanding of such deeply held beliefs and values about land and identity provides insights into disputes over natural resource management.


Managing the Myth of Ecotourism: A Queensland Case Study
Adrian Peace


Although social anthropologists are taking an increased interest in tourism in Australia, not much attention has been paid thus far to the sites from which visitors take off into the bush, wilderness or nature. Tourist resorts and lodges are not simply the locations in which basic needs are met before more energetic activities begin. Especially in ecotourist settings, important ideological claims are made about their built environments as well as the everyday practices and localised activities which are ongoing in these discursive sites. This paper provides an ethnographic analysis of one such ecotourist resort. It aims to detail the myths which are manufactured about its relation to the island environment in which it is situated, and to the world beyond.


‘Blue Lagoons and Coconut Palms’: The Creation of a Tropical Idyll in Australia
Celmara Pocock


The Great Barrier Reef is regarded as an ‘Australian icon’. It is an internationally recognised World Heritage site managed for its ‘natural’ values. However, it is a location where visitors rarely enjoy Australian landscapes. This paper contrasts the sensuous engagement of past visitors with contemporary tourist experiences. Analysis of historic and contemporary visual and written materials suggests that tourist landscapes of the Reef have been transformed significantly during the 20th century. In particular, experiences of Reef islands characterised by Australian bush have been displaced by those of a generic Pacific location. The coconut palm, as a symbol of earthly paradise, has played an important role in realising both an imagined landscape and the physical transformation of tourist locations. Whereas the tourism industry is often regarded as responsible for the promulgation of such generic images, this study suggests that they are the product of a shared imagination to which both the tourism industry and tourists subscribe.


Crisis of Meanings: Divergent Experiences and Perceptions of the Marine Environment in Victoria, Australia
Tanya J. King


The oceans of the world are regularly depicted as under threat from human exploitation with the problem portrayed as being of ‘global’ concern. In a world market characterised by the division of labour, many of those who eat fish do so without directly experiencing the ocean as a domain of productive utility. Rather, their encounters are with representations that depict the ‘natural’ world as an aesthetic object of contemplation, and environmentalist discourses that identify human activities as threatening marine ecosystems. So prevalent is this experience that tangible institutions, such as state fisheries management bodies, have emerged, acting to reinforce the ontology of this ‘contemplated’ ocean, giving weight to the illusion that humans can, and should, appreciate it only from afar. In this representation, commercial fishers are regularly depicted as transgressing a ‘natural’ boundary between humans and the environment. It is when the world is simultaneously encountered as an object of consumptive utility and aesthetic utility that the human role in the environment becomes ambiguous and a sense of crisis arises. This paper investigates disjunctions in experiences and understandings that contribute to environmental anxiety, and debates over the appropriate use of the ocean.


Water Works: Agency and Creativity in the Mitchell River Catchment
Veronica Strang


This paper outlines some of the theoretical developments in cultural anthropology that have been particularly useful in elucidating human engagements with land and resources. It examines some of the meanings and values encoded in water by a range of water using groups along the Mitchell River in northern Queensland, and their diverse ideas of what constitutes environmental ‘productivity’. Exploring some of the cultural and sub-cultural beliefs and practices within the catchment area, it considers how these intersect with ecological issues; social issues; and with local conflicts over the ownership, control and management of water.


Debating Biodiversity: Threatened Species Conservation and Scientific Values
Yann Toussaint


This paper explores some aspects of the cultural logic of conservation biology and threatened species conservation recovery projects from the perspectives of environmental anthropology and science studies. Responses of the scientific community to recent ‘re-discoveries’ of species believed to have become extinct are considered within current decision making models that emphasise landscape scale restoration over single species recovery projects. In particular, this paper considers responses to the proposition that dedicating resources towards recovery projects for critically endangered species is inconsistent with a rational approach to biodiversity conservation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, I demonstrate that debates over the value of threatened species recovery projects cause many scientists to reflect on the ethical responsibilities and emotional attachments that led them to act as advocates for threatened species.


Obituary to Marie Reay, 1922-2004
Paula Brown Glick and Jeremy Beckett



David Walsh and Jack Taylor



Book Reviews


Rohan Bastin The Domains of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Mannesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka [Bradley S. Slough]


Daniel Miller (ed.) Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors [R. Wilk]


Sujata Patel, Josodhara Bagchi and Krishna Rai (eds) Thinking Social Science in India, Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner [S. N. Mukherjee]


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