Opinion

Spiritual Wealth as Data: Tony Birch on Collective Obligation, Appropriation and Climate Justice

SEI’s Charlotte Owens reflects on the first Human Nature lecture of the year, given by acclaimed Indigenous poet and writer Tony Birch.

Image via Shutterstock, ID: 1190397670

The 2019 Human Nature lecture series, which launched on 26 February, welcomed acclaimed Indigenous poet Tony Birch to the lecturn. Now in its third year, the series is a collaboration between the Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Museum, highlighting key environmental thinkers in Australia and beyond. Birch captivated the audience with his insights into ecological destruction and the necessity of collaborating with diverse voices. He welcomes the use of Indigenous knowledge as a climate strategy, when done so respectfully and in consultation with Aboriginal communities. In light of this, Birch seeks to reframe the climate narrative to stem from a sense of collective obligation and moral responsibility.

Respecting Indigenous Knowledge

Birch interwove stories of the Indigenous Dreamtime with his own history of climate activism, not just as mere anecdotes, but essential drivers of his environmental philosophy. He champions Indigenous systems of ecological knowledge that are too often discarded as invalid, hyper-emotional and irrelevant to climate change discourse. Instead, he suggests that the spiritual wealth and imagination of Indigenous Australians should be treasured and treated as data in its own right, especially in the agricultural domain.

This notion of collective obligation is evoked poignantly in his recount of The Lifting of the Sky story, in which there was a collective obligation to help others once Goruk the Magpie had freed them from the blanket of the sky. Birch further recalled Aboriginal communities’ scepticism of the use of smoke and fire by European colonisers, as it struck an uncomfortable chord with their innate connection to the natural environment. This absence of environmental respect has been an unfortunate legacy of Australia’s colonial heritage, one that continues to inform Birch’s belief in collective obligation to the land.

On a sobering note, Birch reminded us that commodification threatens the integrity of traditional ecological knowledge when it is used without Indigenous consultation or context. Birch cited Leanne Simpson’s research to suggest that the tendency to manipulate Indigenous knowledge within Western paradigms of scientific knowledge is a result of its popularisation in research and activist domains. This form of intellectual dispossession is emblematic of pervasive colonial structures and contributes to Indigenous peoples’ scepticism of established academics.

Altruistic Interrelationships: Balancing Responsibility With Obligation

Birch’s personal philosophy, derived from his connection to sacred land, is informed by two central tenants: support of Indigenous knowledge and collective obligation. He proposes that climate change must be re-framed as climate justice in order to avoid mainstream dialogue that perpetuates a sense of hopelessness.This involves a delicate balance of individual responsibility and shared obligation as the compartmentalisation of climate change from other current issues, such as Indigenous rights, intra-state migration and economic vulnerability, is an obstacle to the realisation of true justice. Thus, he reiterates that climate change does not occur in a vacuum and that a collaboration of multi-dimensional voices is more important than ever before.

Following on from collective obligation, Birch advocates the necessity of altruistic interrelationships between people, culture and the environment by insisting that a reconciliatory spirit between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is integral to climate justice. He spoke highly of Dwayne Donald’s lecture, “On What Terms Can We Speak?”, as Donald navigates the influence of Aboriginal-community relations on solving current crises. AlthoughDonald explores this in relation to Indigenous Canadians, his discussion of sovereign, colonial tensions in the modern era is transferrable to the Australian context and the difficulty in engaging with non-Indigenous actors.

Responding to audience questions, Birch spoke more comfortably about his background as a novelist and its implications on his activism. He asserted that fiction must continue to serve as a platform for diverse voices and a tool to elevate our collective conscience. These conversations will need to recognise that Indigenous peoples have a different level of vulnerability to climate change than non-Indigenous peoples, despite a generally smaller carbon footprint. These collaborative efforts should be derived from a place of mutual understanding in order to strengthen the importance of altruistic relationships with Indigenous communities.

However, tensions may arise between actors that view themselves as stakeholders, rather than partners, in the economics of climate change. Irrespective of different motivations, Birch discusses that a sacrificial willingness in all participants is vital to avoid bureaucratic, “move on” gestures that are intended to symbolically placate Indigenous desires of climate justice.

Children as Teachers

In the post-truth age, the credibility of scientific and Indigenous knowledge must be a counterweight to climate denialism. Birch spoke openly about climate denialism as a political strategy by claiming that the real concern is not its polemic nature or factual inaccuracy, but its effect on individual thinking. Exposure to the media’s saturation of such insulated rhetoric can manifest into active resistance to climate solutions, subsequently decreasing the likelihood of collective action.

Instead, the realisation of children as our teachers will become more important in climate discourse as a generation that has grown up with the concept of sustainability firmly planted in their minds. Birch reveals that his involvement in Seed Mob, Australia’s primary Indigenous youth network, has been a source of enlightenment in how young people conceptualise the changing environment.

Surprisingly, many children that Birch has interacted with at Seed Mob do not subscribe to the intergenerational approach of environmental activism, which compels individuals to consider the environmental impacts of their behaviour on future generations. He notes that this is not a sign of their naivety, but rather their wisdom as empowered agents of change that are not tainted by cynicism or generational prejudices.

The importance of youth activation in climate justice was a resounding message of Birch’s address and imparted an uplifting impression on the audience. His honest delivery and provision of literary evidence was received well, and undoubtably will continue to provoke conversations of “where are we heading?”


The next Human Nature lecture will be presented by the Sydney Environment Institute on May 14. Craig Santos Perez from the University of Hawaiʻi will be exploring the vital role of Pacific literature in the environmental movements of Oceania. More information and registration is available here


Professor Tony Birch is a poet, short story writer and novelist, the current Bruce McGuinness Professorial Research Fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University, and in 2017, became the first Indigenous writer to win the Patrick White Award. Tony has published key academic articles and essays concerning Climate Justice, Protection of Country and Indigenous Rights, and is currently researching and writing a book titled ‘The Dead are the Imagination of the Living: Climate Justice and Connectivity.’

Charlotte Owens is the Administrative Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Charlotte is currently completing her Master of International Security at the University of Sydney, after completing her undergraduate degree in International and Global Studies. She is passionate about the nexus between climate change and migration, and the articulation of human rights discourse in Australian politics.