The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
The New Environmentalism and its Critics
The Perils of Consumption and the Gift Economy as the Solution Daniel Miller’s ‘Consumption and Its Consequences’
Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies
Ruling Class Men: Money, Sex, Power
Options for a Sustainable Future - Four Models of Utopia
Exploitation, Surplus and the Community Economy - 2013
What is the Difference between Anarchism and Socialism anyway?
Checkmate: Why Capitalism Cannot Survive Global Warming
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis
Indigenous Sustainability and Collapsing Empires
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 1)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 2)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 3)
Sociological Utopias and Social Transformation: Permaculture and the Gift Economy
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part A)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part B)
Sustainable Agriculture: A Marketing Opportunity or Impossible in the Global Capitalist Economy?
Food, Society and the Environment - 2003
Apocalypse Most Likely: Agency and Environmental Risk in the Hunter Region
Second Wave Feminism - The Opening Debates
Second Wave Feminism - Since the Mid-Seventies
Ecofeminism Part One: Different positions within Ecofeminism
Lecture: Deep Ecology
Indigenous Sustainability and Collapsing Empires

Best viewed as a PDF
Download This Chapter As A PDF

Please ensure you have 
the latest Adobe Reader

Get Adobe Reader



The term "indigenous" can refer to a situation where there is an original group of people living in a particular area and a more recent group gains control of the nation state in which they still live. e.g. the Aborigines or the Native Americans.

However this is not always the issue. For example in Thailand, India and Indonesia, the issue seems to be more about groups that are part of an original ethnic cultural racial mix that still occupies the whole territory of the nation state = e.g. broadly "Malays" in Indonesia. In this context the term "indigenous" can refer to a group that have held out against the culture, religion and state power of a conquering state and maintained their original culture. For example the Tanah Torajah people of Sulawesi who were never part of the feudal empires of lowland South Sulawesi and were not converted to Islam or the Bali Aga who did not accept the caste system that went with the Hindu kingdoms that dominated most of Bali. In the Indian subcontinent people like this are usually called "tribals"; i.e. they have lived in autonomous tribes that have not been brought within the Indian state or religions of the pre-colonial period.

In either case, the term "indigenous" describes a political situation. It is a situation of marginalisation in relationship to a state apparatus that has taken over the area in which the indigenous people live.

Systems of Production and Culture

From an anthropological point of view the term "indigenous" is not all that descriptive of the actual cultural and economic structures which these people maintain. Yet it is cultural and economic activities which impact on th environment. To describe these cultural and economic activities, anthropologists are more likely to use terms like "hunters and gatherers", "slash and burn agriculture", "horticulturalists". These really refer to the kind of technology that is used and there is an assumption that particular types of social organisation and economy and politics go along with each technology. What all these types of production and their associated cultures have in common is that there is no state. There is no body of professional soldiers under the command of a ruling political elite.

Key Issues - Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

When people speak about the relationship of indigenous people to the environment, there are really two issues that come up.

  • One is about what these marginalised people may want to do now with their environment and attempts by them to regain some political control over their environment and in cases where they get this, how this area might be maintained to conserve environmental values.
  • The second is about the practices that these people traditionally maintained in relationship to the environment. I will concentrate on this second question first. In other words did indigenous people in the past organise their society and economy in ways that fostered environmental conservation? Are there any lessons to be learned about how to achieve environmental sustainability from the traditional practices of these people? So we know that capitalist societies and many other state based societies (e.g. Ancient Rome) have degraded their environments; what about indigneous people?

In view of the comments about definitions listed above, this comes down to asking whether stateless societies practicing the productive techniques of hunting and gathering; horticulture and slash and burn agriculture conserved their environments, and if so how and why. Maybe there is no one answer to this question; i.e. some may have maintained their environments and some may not have.

In terms of the way conservation of the natural environment is defined, there are a number of issues that come up. Biodiversity is one. Did indigenous societies maintain a high level of biodiversity in areas where they lived? Also, did this biodiversity consist of the same mix of animals and plants that they originally found when they arrived in an area or did they radicallly alter the mix, causing extinctions of some species?

A second issue is sustainability. Definitions of this differ but the sense I am using it here is that an economy is sustainable if the practices which it entails can be repeated year after year without undermining the environmental basis for those practices. For example our current use of soils is unsustainable in the sense that we are losing topsoil to erosion every year. Ultimately, we will not be able to continue planting crops in areas where topsoil has been completely eroded. This outcome has already taken place in relation to the salinisation of wheat growing areas in WA.

Another way to define sustainability is to ask whether the given set of economic practices maintains an original biodiversity. In other words, can these economic practices continue and the original species mix be maintained. Again, examples abound of the failure of sustainability in this sense from our current practices - e.g. long line fishing is driving the albatrosses to extinction.

So the questions here become - did indigenous societies sustain an original mix of species and did original societies produce an economic order in which extractions from natural resources could be sustained indefinitely without undermining the environmental basis for those extractions?

Indigenous Australians and the Use of Fire

One of the key topics of debate in the Australian context concerns Aboriginal hunting and use of fire. On the one hand, there are prehistorians and environmental scientists who argue that Aborigines when they came to Australia - and at any rate during their years of occupation of the country - caused vast changes to the species mix of this continent (e.g. Flannery, Pyne, Cary&Barr). In that sense, it is being argued that they did not sustain the original mix of species that this continent held on their arrival. The arguments are that Aboriginal hunters killed off the megafauna of the Australian continent and also changed the flora by encouraging pyrophytic or fire-loving species at the expense of species that cannot tolerate fire.

The megafauna are species such as huge wombats, vast kangaroos, enormous pythons and so on. These all died out, by 13000 years ago. If Aborigines came to Australia between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago they certainly did not kill them all off on the instant of their arrival, but may have done so as populations of Aborigines increased.

In terms of the flora, there is a similar argument with evidence of a shift from a flora in which rainforest species such as araucarias were more common to one in which schlerophyll (dry) forests were more common with fire loving species like gums and banksias becoming dominant. Again this is argued to have taken place in the period of Aboriginal occupancy and the argument is that Aborigines of this past period in Australia’s history used fire to encourage grasses for kangaroos and to hunt, just as Aborigines did when Europeans arrived here. Other evidence is the way areas first seen by Europeans were park like with big trees standing in grass, while after a number of years in which European farmers did not burn, these areas were full of many trees and shrubs as understory.

One approach to this change (Cary & Barr) and the regime of burning carried out by Aborigines is that this fire regime must have encouraged soil erosion, since soils were exposed after a burn and rain would have washed away some topsoil.

These three arguments are much contested by prehistorians, including Aboriginal experts such as Langton. Firstly, it is argued that changes in climate may have been responsible for the extinctions of megafauna and changes in the flora. Secondly, it is argued that the timing of these extinctions with Aboriginal occupancy and use of fire does not fit (see Langton on this). Finally, we may regard Cary and Barr’s comments about soil erosion as merely a hypothesis at this stage - there is no experimental evidence that soil erosion was caused by Aboriginal use of fire. Because this use of fire was in patches, the unburned areas may have retained any soil that was washed off burned patches (Holmgren's view of this).

Another useful point made by Langton is that the assumptions made by this argument are very dubious as anthropology. The term "Aborigines" is used in these discussions to refer to the aboriginal race. What I mean by this is that it is assumed that the cultural groups that we now refer to as "Aborigines" are the same "people" as those who 30,000 years ago may have killed off the megafauna. To see how peculiar this is imagine how strange it would seem to say that it was actually the French who killed off the mammoth in Europe. We really do not know (a) whether these people are even the biological ancestors of the current Aborigines let alone (b) what their cultural beliefs and identity was. We do not know either when it was that the current practices of burning that Aborigines used in recent history were actually invented - was it 300 years ago or 100,000 years ago?

The Sustainability of Aboriginal Lifestyles of the Past

The other important issue to remember in all this is how environmental degradation is being defined in this debate. In relationship to the megafauna and to the flora the argument is that an original species mix has not been sustained. However it could never be argued that Aborigines presided over a depleted biodiversity. Australia has the most biodiverse environment on the planet and has more species unique to this country than any other country. So in other words there is no doubt that Aboriginal economic practices sustained an extremely diverse biota even if it was not that which was originally present. Moreover, the absence of constant patch burning and the consequent increase in large scale hot burn wildfires have both contributed to a diminution of biodiversity since European arrival - for example many small marsupials and plants that have depended on patch burning to create niche environments have become extinct (see article in new edition of Edwards). A second point to observe is that it seems fairly certain that Aboriginal economic practices were sustainable also in the other sense I have used - i.e. it was possible for Aborigines to maintain them indefinitely without undermining the environmental prerequisites for those economic practices. At any rate, there can be no doubt that their land use was far more sustainable than that practiced by Europeans for the last 200 years.

The Political Implications

There are a lot of political issues that go with all this.

Do Aborigines get the right to maintain their burning practices and the religious ritual associated with this as part of land rights - or does this activity get treated as illegal fire ligthing?

Is it appropriate in other areas of Australia to re-start some approximation of Aboriginal burning regimes. We might think this is the right way to go if we want to preserve the species that were common when Europeans arrived in Australia. Or is a policy like this impracticable near to urban and farming areas, i.e. too expensive to be implemented by fire brigades?

What are the implications about bushfires? Should we burn off to prevent disastrous fires? Such regular burning off tends to be expensive since fires have to be supervised close to urban areas. Or do we attempt to prevent fire and favour species which both resist a fire but also are easily damaged by fire? In other words the kinds of species that were more common in Australia before Aborigines started using fire here - basically rainforest plants such as figs and lilly pillies, bunya pines etc etc.

Are Aborigines regarded in the white community as models of environmental sustainability and this at least is granted to them in a context in which they are denigrated for other aspects of their traditional culture? Or is this too to be taken away by a new mythology of Aborigines as environmental vandals who destroyed the megafauna?

Many if not most white Australians see Aborigines negatively within a discourse of progress and a project of technological mastery of nature - Aborigines did not develop the land. At least this view of Aborigines - that they left the Australia in its original condition - allows Aborigines to reverse the evaluative message and defend themselves as a people who conserved Australian nature. Now this claim is undermined by new scientific arguments that are taken to show that they were no better than the Europeans in their destruction of nature. The Aborigines killed off the megafauna. In other words, this is how these debates in the scientific community get read in the context of popular Australian racism.

Changes in Species Mix and Indigenous Peoples in Other Countries

Of course these issues are not restricted to Australia. In other countries the evidence of indigenous people killing off the megafauna seems to be a bit more compelling than in Australia. In America, the arrival of people approximately 20,000 years ago was accompanied approx 13,000 years ago by the ending of the megafauna - mammoths, camels, giant bears, giant sloths. There is evidence of kill sites for mammoths including stone spear tips of the Clovis people. For New Zealand the Maoris arrived about AD 800 and the moas were killed off - heaps of moa bones associated with human camp sites etc. In both these cases the arguments about climate change also get an airing. The problem is that all this giant fauna survived many millions of years of climate change no worse than those that occurred during the period of human presence.

All this goes along with a discourse in which the "human" as a natural biological entity is seen as inimical to the natural environment (Flannery seems to think this). This is a very worrying discourse for a sociologist since it tends to obscure the specifics of capitalist and state societies in terms of their social structure - the way these societies are particularly prone to degrade environments in ways that vastly reduce biodiversity and are unsustainable in the most direct sense of undermining the natural basis of a set of economic practices. For example the Maya, the Romans, Capitalism today.

Indigenous Societies and Systems of Belief

In looking at the fact that world wide, the evidence suggests that stateless societies were less prone to do environmental damage, an obvious fact is that all these societies have religious beliefs which endow aspects of the natural environment with supernatural powers and human qualities. They also all engage in ritual practices which are designed to preserve an environmental status quo in which humans are able to continue to depend on the natural environment for sustenance. For Aborigines, these practices and beliefs are descibed in the Bird article set for this week. For example in reference to North American Indians, they believed that their three main food crops were given to them by a culture hero and that they are each gods or spirits in their own right. Before a hunt they pray to the spirits of the animals to be hunted and after they apologize for killing and ask forgiveness.

At the very least, this evidence has led to a push for a new religious respect for the environment as a prerequisite for environmentally sound economic process in modern society - represented in Deep Ecology, Ecofeminism, the Pagan and previously the hippy movement as well as in elements of modern Christianity (see Reuther).

Environmental Damage and State/Class based Social Structures

However clearly another (and probably complementary) way to look at this is to talk about what indigenous societies represented as stateless societies (see Sahlins, Clastres, Bookchin). Although it cannot be argued that such societies were without gender hierarchy and status differentiation, what indigenous societies did have in common was the absence of a state, a professional army, a ruling class and alienated labour.

It may be that these features of state societies are what cause state societies to degrade their environments. Instead of trying to explain why indigenous cultures maintained their environments we need to look at why state based societies did not do this.

A ruling class always buys off its subordinate class, especially its armed forces by promising increased material wealth and control of other people. This is most easily achieved by increasing the degree of oppression of the most subordinate population so that they can produce more surplus product to distribute to those who do not work. The outcome is increasing pressure on the environment to supply more and more product to reward more and more people who are not involved directly in production.

To maintain its power a ruling class can also take over neighbouring areas with a lower state of technological power and consequently, power over nature and military power becomes the prerequisite for any ruling class to maintain its control in conflict with other states.

Centralisation of state political power tends to mean that areas close to the centre get over exploited environmentally and collapse leading to pressure to extend the imperium to other areas with similar consequences.

There are plenty of examples of all of this.
The Ancient Greeks destroyed their forests to power the warships that enabled them to maintain a colonial empire and also to stave off the attempts at conquest from the Persians. Their bare hillsides were quickly eroded with the damage being finished off by goats.

The Romans caused Northern Africa to become a desert by deforestation so that they could grow wheat. They needed to do this to buy off the poor peasants in Italy and stop them becoming a threat to the ruling class in Rome. They also needed a wheat harvest to feed their armies so that they could maintain control of their empire.

Holmgren makes a general point about the replacement of sustainable tree based agricultural systems in Europe - tree agriculture being replaced by cereal crops and soil erosion. He sees this change as taking place with the development of standing armies - something linked directly to the structure of a state/class society. The destruction of tree agriculture and the replacement with cereals took place in Europe in the Bronze age. Forests of oak and chestnuts that provided staple carbohydrates were replaced by grain fields. His explanation is that aspiring states that wished to take over large areas of territory burned the tree crops on which people had depended - causing instant dependence on cereal crops. Cereal crops could be established quickly and easily controlled by an army. The new standing armies worked with tribute collectors who could siphon off a surplus of grain at harvest and put it under the control of a central government. The tactic of burning crops could be repeated by any army that wished to take over an area or put down a rebellion.

The Mayan empire exploited its soils to the point where the population was suffering from malnutrition. A drought was the last straw. The Mayan civilisation collapsed and people returned to hunting and gathering supplemented by gardening. With widely dipersed communities and little environmental pressure the rainforest grew back after hundreds of years!

The capitalist class today buys off the population of rich countries with consumer goods - so ordinary people put up with the alienation of working for an employer and having no control of daily life in work. Again, this can be seen as a process in which the political tensions of class society are relieved by practices which extract an unsustainable level of resources from the natural world.

In other words what all this implies is that the puzzle to be explained is not why indigenous peoples maintained their environments. You'd have to be an idiot to destroy the natural resources on which you depend. Instead the puzzle to be explained is why state and class based societies have commonly ( though not always) destroyed their environments. The answer lies in the political tensions that operate to make every ruling class nervous about their continued control on society. These nerves are best soothed by a good dose of conquest and an increase in exploitation of resources - with the provision of more surplus environmental products as a resource to be used to maintain and increase power. The context is always a combination of local rebellions from subordinate classes and the depradations of rival state apparatuses. You can never have too big an army or too big a surplus of food and other goodies to control and feed them.



HomeKey Writings & Recent WorksPermaculture, Sustainable Agriculture and DevelopmentFood Security For Africa: Project DesignFeminism and EcofeminismThe Environmental Movement & The PublicThe Social Meaning of Popular MediaThe Gift Economy & How To Get TherePhilosophy of the Social Sciences