Sustainability means caring for country
The Dreaming, the fundament of Aboriginal belief, was made up of a network of interconnected pathways across the land that had been sung into being by ancestral spirits, and those songlines have for millennia supervised the nurturing of a resourceful and sustainable habitat. As Bill Gammage points out, “The Dreaming was saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused.” 1
As with most pre-industrial civilisations, pre-colonial Australians occupied the land for at least 40,000 years without impacting the levels of greenhouse emissions, never mind destroying ecosystems and eradicating entire species of wildlife. The anthropogenic era then repurposed nearly all the ecosystems it could track down, laying waste to many, whilst contributing more significantly than many might imagine to global climate change, and the impact upon a fragile, relatively untrammelled environment has been profound.
The rain falls more wildly and heavily than ever before, our settlements are repeatedly flooded, the countryside burns without ecological (or humanitarian) benefit, the soils are degraded, and the rivers run dry. It is clear that we cannot continue to attempt to override the realities of living in such an unforgiving land, and we might then realise that our increasing sense of fear could be ameliorated by respect and understanding.
In terms most specific to Australia, it must now be accepted that the existential cycle, which had rapidly and fatefully veered from the harmonies of the Dreaming to the discordances of anthropogenic servitude, needs to be reversed. And that means Caring for Country.
It is now estimated that something like fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions is created by building construction and maintenance, while another thirty percent comes from urban industry, transportation and infrastructure. Our cities are the problem, their modes of existence are not sustainable, and we are now impelled to revert to a condition of environmental equilibrium that may eventually be termed ‘neo pre-colonial’.
If the cycle is to be reversed, what role might architecture play?