Book Excerpt

Romancing the Primitive: An Important New Book

For 3000 years, civilisation’s discontents have ideal­ised the non-civilised, imagining they lead happy, fulfilling lives at peace with one another and in har­mony with the world. During most of this time, romanticis­ing the other constituted one strand in the thick rope of Western thought and reflection, introspection and specula­tion, discovery and development, and knowledge of the human heart.

 Click here to order your copy of Romancing the Primitive

Pontificating about primitive life formed part of Western civilisation’s never-ending self-questioning, but only ever a part: self-interrogation took many forms. Rarely did one view predominate. More often than not, someone some­where in the mongrel civilisation that makes up the West dissented, disagreed and offered an alternative view. No consensus ever went unchallenged. In the West, everything remained contestable.

By 2023, however, romanticising the primitive dominated and regressed Australian intellectual and social life. The once single filament of the multi-stranded Western world constituted the whole rope.

Every fibre now vibrated with ostentation or shame about origins. Origins, however, are a fact. In taking pride in or cursing one’s origins or idolising the origins of others, one surrenders to the determinism of blood. Yet, millions of Australians now obsess over the idea that race matters above everything and accept racist absurdities: people of Aboriginal descent are inherently wise and good-natured as well as naturally expert custodians and conservators of the land, while people of non-Aboriginal descent are, by nature and in contrast, alienated and unconnected. Every day, mil­lions of people take part in cult practices that divide the world into indigenous and non-indigenous, believing a far­rago of New Age Aboriginal spirituality proclaims the one true path to moral improvement.

The stakes are enormous. The weird parochial compul­sions that revere the primitive now drive a push to funda­mentally alter the Australian Constitution so as to give some people, selected solely on the basis of ancestry, special and exclusive access to government. Bestowed with degrees, doctorates and professorships, a cohort of activists, bureaucrats and academics, zealous and gullible, politically connected and disdainful of reality, lead the charge for this voice to parliament. Not merely estranged from reality, they campaign against reality. They war on nature.

How did such a demented charade come to define Aus­tralian life? Neither original or imaginative, this theatre of the absurd, this fairy-tale that divides people into indige­nous and non-indigenous, stems not from anything intrinsic to the Australian continent.

A yearning for the pure recurs throughout the history of Western life. Ever since people gathered in cities and initi­ated civilisation, some citizens have dreamt of a golden age of peace and harmony with the natural world. For not only do cities spur creativity and innovation, they also foster dis­satisfaction. Dissatisfaction is perennial. Writers, commen­tators, philosophers, travellers, poets and critics have for­ever, usually out of the ruin of disappointed personal lives, looked for and found the pure in primitive life, free of the shackles and burdens of civilisation. In all their forms, each account of this idealised world offers a counterpoint to civ­ilisation. In each story, the primitive becomes civilisation’s opposite.

Romancing the Primitive: The Myth of the Ecological Aborig­ine traces the roots of this cult, surveying primitivism — the unending revolt of the civilised against civilisation — from the Greek poet Hesiod to the Roman historian Tacitus, from the medi­eval church to the French essayist Montaigne, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the twentieth-century Australian envi­ronment movement and its apotheosis in the barren and complacent works of historians Henry Reynolds and Bill Gammage, author Bruce Pascoe and anthropologist Peter Sutton. Along the way, the narrative critically visits Sig­mund Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents, the Uluru statement, the High Court, universities, education, the pur­pose and nature of law, and the 2021 State of the Environ­ment Report.

No civilisation and no nations existed in Australia before 1788. The first nomads arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago. Universal in their feelings, use of reason, and rapa­ciousness, they extinguished the megafauna. Later, Aborig­ines became ciphers for poet Judith Wright, bureaucrat Nugget Coombs, and much of the environment movement, which, while not understanding ecology or conservation, nevertheless turned the romanticised primitive into an exemplar of ecological consciousness.

Wright imagined that thinking ecologically meant recov­ering the habits of thought of some era in the past before heedless agriculture, runaway industrialism, loss of faith,

modernity and reductionist science disrupted the human and natural worlds. Fortuitously, she found that lost time of wholeness in a contemporary counterpart — in the habits and outlook of Aboriginal people. Aborigines possessed a body of knowledge and awareness that would change non-Aboriginal people, if only they had access to it and properly acknowledged it, into better human beings and better at car­ing for the land.

This ecological primitivism constricted rather than expanded awareness, leaving no scope for elaboration, sophistication or nuance. Dumbed-down views about the superiority of particular races negated thought, while dumbed-down cerebration about the country’s natural her­itage corrupted conservation.

Worship of the primitive expressed in the myth of the eco­logical aborigine so perverted conservation, a whole gener­ation of campaigners came to understand conservation as social justice achieved through elevating the superior ways of Aboriginal being. The resurrection of a suppressed har­mony became the aim. Protecting the natural world from human depredation fell out of favour. Instead, activists fix­ated on the idea of culture, which gave rise to identity poli­tics and provided a platform for attacks on wilderness by environmentalist Tim Flannery and activists Marcia Lang­ton and Noel Pearson. Meanwhile, the fantasy of ‘cultural burning’ swept the country like a firestorm, destroying the possibility of sensible discussion about fire and nature con­servation.

Out of the failures and intellectual sloppiness of conser­vation, out of the mush of befuddled minds came the possi­bility of a universal cure to the evils of civilisation: ‘tradi­tional knowledge’. Postmodernism undergirded this fabri­cation with a shonky supporting frame and obtuse, vacuous

language. Traditional knowledge and postmodernism rejected science, literacy and reason and, in banishing sense and rationality, encouraged the development of New Age religions expressed in the desperate, destitute and cliched rituals of welcome to country and acknowledgment of country.

In these ceremonies, participants consort with the great drama of sin and redemption. For over 200 years Australi­ans have laboured in sin. Fear and trembling overcame the country. But the rituals promise that, with fortitude and devout preparation, sinners can reconcile and find for­giveness. The cloud will pass. Acknowledging country will expiate sin. Confessing transgressions will bring redemp­tion, renovate the past, and even promise utopia.

Utopians imagine schemes of living in a perfect world based on rationalised feelings and experience. In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage discovered a utopia in Aus­tralia, which had once revolved, he claimed, around the Aboriginal use of fire. Citing biased and carefully selected evidence to omit the facts of Aboriginal violence, he ele­vated culture as the one true god. Culture become a piece of all-purpose jargon, stripped of its original meaning which pointed to a well-furnished mind.

Gammage’s vacuous caprice prepared the ground for greater depths of absurdity from sparse minds: enter Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which excited a Rousseau-like cult among Australia’s political class.

And then, in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? Peter Sutton sought to rescue the noble nomad from Gammage’s materi­alism and Pascoe’s errors. Sutton extolled magic and, while claiming to reject identity politics and racism actually fos­tered both, viewed history not as inquiry but as an act of knowing and a moral lesson. But, for all their on-stage dif­ferences, Gammage, Pascoe and Sutton united in their poli­tics: blackening Australian history, re-inventing language, and elevating race as an all-purpose explanation.

Devoid of erudition or grace, Gammage, Pascoe and Sut­ton propose, like Henry Reynolds, that Australia’s his­tory is a simple tale of oppression by white European males. They recklessly ignore the social and intellectual concerns that link past periods with each other and with our own, as well as the myriad creative individuals who throng history and who struggled to give shape and meaning to a restless, dynamic civilisation. Art, thought, manners and morals dis­appear. Only the superstition of race, which each writer endorses and reifies, survives their onslaught on the past.

These contorted narratives — jejune, solipsistic and sim­plistic — exercised an astonishingly mesmerising influence on academics, commentators, journalists, politicians and the judiciary. Through a bluff of words, the cult of the prim­itive prepared minds to dwell in drivel. Australia began to see civilisation’s retreat. Regression even paid rather well.

Money is the great leveller, respecting neither back­ground nor ancestry, as evidenced by conflicts of interests among activists and corrupt land councils. All furiously box-tick in a desperate, often remunerative scramble to identify as indigenous. At the supplicant University of Syd­ney, even greater corruption lay in intellectual disarmament and the worship of Aborigines as the font of wisdom. From Sydney and other universities, Maoist rectification pro­grams that conformed education, broadcasting and the pub­lic service spread across the country to sabotage the best humans have thought and done and to weaken the liberal order. In its place, bogus and baseless propositions ruled social and intellectual life.

Alongside the subversion of education and the decline of organised religion came secular prophets, philosopher kings and queens, lauding primitive life, disparaging civili­sation, and claiming to be able to instruct humankind on morality and the right way of living. Their intellectually twisted legacy found expression in the Uluru statement, a pastiche of paraphrasing and a tumbrel of tortured thought. In endorsing this humbug for their ruling in Love and Thoms v Commonwealth, Australia’s High Court judges proved themselves to be Rousseau’s children, embracing voguish ideas that banish all hope of finding out where in the past our present merits and our present troubles actually come from. They degraded the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false.

Religious instincts and discontent with civilisation will always be with us. Both are manifest in the 2021 Common­wealth State of the Environment report, which elevated tra­ditional knowledge over science, and culture over evidence, and renounced the possibility, even the eligibility, of objec­tive inquiry. Many people worked to bring about this abject state of affairs. Several dozen of them appear in these pages.

As well as a critique of the arid nostrums of culture, indig­enous, traditional knowledge and first nations, Romancing the Primitive defends science against superstition and liberalism against thraldom, and seeks to reinstate genuine intellectual inquiry and discovery and build debate on well-grounded information. The story begins, as does much of Australia’s story, with James Cook…

Click here to order your copy of Romancing the Primitive

27 thoughts on “Romancing the Primitive: An Important New Book

  • Farnswort says:

    Looks like a great read and a much-needed antitode to the myticism evident in contemporary Australia. I’ve just ordered a copy!


    This sentimental mush, imagineering of primitive Australia as a kind of paradise lost is an elusive dream. There was never any paradise to lose, only the reality of fallen creation like the rest of Earth. Just like in Milton’s Paradise Lost, any potential paradise was corrupted and spoiled by the sinful character of the humans who inhabited it.

  • cbattle1 says:

    Exulting Aboriginal cultural knowledge is an omnipresent theme enriching most of today’s media, and in particular that Triumvirate of Truth, the ABC, SBS and NITV. Often is shown an Aboriginal person walking along a path pointing out all the bush-tucker, and saying something like: “This is our supermarket and pharmacy!” But, of course, that isn’t the reality, even for those in remote settlements “on country”, otherwise, there would be no “Gap”!

    • cbattle1 says:

      Forgot to mention that beyond the remote communities there are “outstations” consisting of a campsite, as part of the “back to country” ideology, where the people sojourning there are supplied and maintained by a regular 4WD service.

    • vicjurskis says:

      I reckon it was a great concept and probably a great working title – Romancing the Stone Age? i reckon that a reasoned argument against the romancing would have been much better than an ad hominem attack. For example, from Firestick Ecology:
      Gammage wrote of Kangaroo Valley: “Without fire this is climax rainforest country”. Actually most of it, like
      most of Australia, is physically incapable of growing rainforest. Gammage considered that Kangaroo Valley’s mosaic of vegetation was maintained by at least four distinct fire regimes. I’m sure this is true, but geological maps show that four distinct substrates helped to shape the pattern, along with topography, aspect and microclimate. Aborigines worked with these elements. They didn’t burn against the grain as
      Gammage suggested: “This book shows that people often broke these parameters … Climate, soil, altitude, aspect, nutrients … they cannot explain all, or even most, 1788 landscapes”.
      These parameters, together with the firestick or grazing, can actually explain all landscapes in 1788 as well as in 1988. Grassy flats and slopes on the north bank of Kangaroo River and along the flanks of Barrengarry Creek are on heavier soil in a drier rainshadow area that is much frostier than the surrounding open forests. They grew either open red gum woodlands, or grasslands where the trees had all been burnt down. Grazing keeps the woodlands open by controlling woody seedlings. The sandy bed of Kangaroo River grows river oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana). This is not rainforest country.

  • Ceres says:

    In the 18th and 19th Century authors told the same lies glorifying what they termed “the noble savage” – primitive people with their superiority, living in complete harmony with nature.
    Today the academics, media and associated hangers on easily become mesmerised by these lies as the financial grants beckon.
    In 3 weeks we will see how many Australians “obsess over the idea that race matters above everything and accept racist absurdities”.
    I am optimistic that apartheid will not prevail. Apart from the racial aspect the publicised rent and reparations agenda should ensure this abomination is defeated.

  • vicjurskis says:

    Thanks for your opinion William J Lines:
    “Bill Gammage discovered a utopia in Aus­tralia, which revolved, he claimed, around the Aboriginal use of fire. Citing biased evidence to omit facts of Aboriginal violence, he ele­vated culture as the one true god, stripped of its meaning [of] a well-furnished mind. … Gammage’s vacuous caprice prepared the ground for greater depths of absurdity from sparse minds: enter Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which excited a Rousseau-like cult among Australia’s political class.”
    Gammage’s well-researched book presented a great deal of historical evidence about Aboriginal land management. There is absolutely no doubt that fire was fundamental to pre-European economy and ecology. Gammage got some things wrong as i explained in Firestick Ecology. But you are falsely assigning his book – The Greatest Estate – about land management, to literature about the ‘culture wars’. Gammage certainly blotted his copybook when he teamed up with Pascoe. It’s regrettable, but it’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Cultural burning is a loaded term. I learnt sustainable fire management from my forestry elders; black, white and brindle; half a century ago. I’ve ordered your book to check your claim that it “defends science against superstition”. I very much doubt it.
    Fairdinkum Science and traditional Aboriginal knowledge agree on the critical need for frequent mild burning to maintain healthy and safe ecosystems.
    Since the late 20th Century, green academics and emergency generalissimos have visited megafires upon us. Your analogy linking attacks on wilderness, the ‘fantasy of cultural burning’ and firestorms is quite ironic. It’s an historical and scientific fact that firestorms explode from the ‘wilderness’.

    • cbattle1 says:

      Whilst living in a village in a hilly/mountainous timbered area in the late 70’s, a local cow-cocky used to come through the village on his horse in the winter, setting fire to all the frost-killed grass. He did that to encourage the regrowth of the bladey-grass, upon which his free-ranging cattle would feed. After he died and there were no more roaming cattle, then the first fire swept through the village, burning down a shed. Winter fires and cattle-grazing is the way to manage timbered areas, not National Parks.

      • vicjurskis says:

        fairdinkum blackfellas usedta burn the high-country grasslands when they arrived in summer to feast on bogong moths and burn the bush on their ways home down the main ridges in different directions. lightning strikes would fill in the deep dark gullies in dry summers on a longer interval.
        alpine graziers burnt on their way home in autumn.
        commonsenseand pragmatic

        • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

          The people on the land in FNQ used to do a bit of firestick mustering for just before the first “wet” we would burn off the flat country around lagoons etc. the rains would come, fresh grass shoots would emerge and the cattle would gravitate to those green pickings and be easily mustered hence “mustering the burns.”

  • pmprociv says:

    Not sure I agree fully with the criticisms of all those authors. Certainly Pascoe and Reynolds go overboard with their fiction, but the essence of what Gammage wrote seems undisputed, in that much of the landscape had been changed over millennia of repeated burning, largely to promote kangaroo populations and their accessibility. No doubt this was not appreciated by the megafauna. As for Peter Sutton’s “Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?”, it was simply a response to the bullshit in “Dark Emu”. I gained the impression he wasn’t romanticising Aboriginal culture in any way, simply explaining how their rituals did away with any need for them to even think about planting crops or farming animals (not that they had much of either to play with).

    But I fully agree about the nonsense prevailing today. Were we to revert to the Utopian existence of pre-colonial Aborigines, we’d have to cull more than 95% of Australia’s population, for the bare land couldn’t support more than a million or so (in a good year). And today’s Noble Savages don’t want to walk anywhere, but demand vehicles and good roads, not to mention air travel for funerals and football games. And no gunyahs, thanks — we need modern housing, with electric power, A/C, mobile phone and internet connections, water on tap, plumbing, easy food, modern health services (even though we go on about traditional healing and bush medicine), schools for our kids (even though we won’t bother sending them there) — oh, and jobs, too, or at least money (a decadent Western invention). Meanwhile, we need to stay on country so we can practise “traditional culture” . . . while you lot just provide all we want, seeing you stole all our land and traumatised all our generations, past, present and future, even those who are mainly of non-Aboriginal descent.

    • Paul W says:

      It’s possible that Gammage overstated his case: that man was not responsible for the majority of fires. In that case, the suggestion that the landscape was formed by Aboriginal burning as distinct from natural causes is weak.
      Sutton suggested that there is no such thing as a technologically more advanced society. Makes you wonder if he knows what ‘advanced’ even means.

      • pmprociv says:

        While accepting that natural fires do occur, and devastate the country at times, I’m not so sure that all the “parkland” around Sydney in its early days, which was so supportive of the escaped cattle, could be readily attributed simply to natural burning — it was just too convenient for kangaroo hunting.

        Sutton was arguing that we shouldn’t look down on hunter-gathering groups as “primitive”, just because they were not as technologically advanced as the West — they were perfectly adapted to their environments. We sure could argue about that, and it all boils down to definitions, as usual. It applies equally to all extant living creatures, as far down as bacteria and viruses. I do agree that technology accounts for what we’d define as “modern”. And I’d be most uncomfortable living in a truly hunter-gathering community, definitely a tough existence, and knowing what I was missing out on. Most (all?) of today’s “First Nations” people also want all the bells and whistles –with just a sprinkling of trad culture (to show the rest of us how special they are, and perhaps to justify the special treatment they deserve?).

  • padraic says:

    I’ve mentioned this before in relation to traditional Aboriginal use of fire. In the early 60s I attended a lecture in Sydney by an anthropologist/archeologist who reported on a dig that examined the charcoal layers going back thousands of years and he reported that the evidence in the various layers showed that before the Aborigines came to Australia the main tree cover consisted of Casuarinas which are not all that resistant to fire whereas Eucalypts are. As the Aborigines used fire to hunt animals the Casuarinas died out to be replaced by Eucalypts as the dominant tree in Australia. Casuarinas are still found, but mainly around the rivers because they survived the fires in those moist areas, as vicjurkis mentions in his post above about the Kangaroo River.

    • vicjurskis says:

      Good onya Padraic, a grain of truth can turn into a big ball of other stuff. Here’s a summary of what happened when people proliferated in Aus:
      all the best, Vic

      • padraic says:

        Thanks Vic. That was a well researched and informative paper and tends to support what I heard at the lecture.

      • cbattle1 says:

        Thanks for the link, Vic. I noticed on the Conner Court website that there is a picture of you next to a sign saying “Newry State Forest”. I once went up Martells Road to Sharkey’s bush mill to purchase what I thought were railway sleepers they were making; my idea was that being railway sleepers, the timber would be of a white-ant resistant species, and so I used them as stumps for a shed I was building. Later I learned the truth that they were making sleepers for landscaping, probably out of Flooded Gum or something. Big mistake!

        • vicjurskis says:

          if your supplier won’t tell ya u can tell by rings and density and colour

          • cbattle1 says:

            The problem was that I didn’t ask, because I just assumed they had a contract with the State Rail to supply sleepers of a standard that would be fit for purpose. Maybe even timber sleepers were no longer being used at the time, now they appear to replace timber with concrete.

    • pmprociv says:

      Way back in the early 1970s in Canberra, I met two palynologists (can’t recall their names — worked for ANU and/or CSIRO) who were studying sediments in the crater lakes (Eacham and Barrine) of the Atherton Tabeland, and told me they’d found evidence indicating a shift in pollen deposits from mainly rainforest tree species to sclerophyll, mixed with extensive soot deposits. They reckoned artificial burning was responsible — and coincided with the decline, then extinction, of the megafauna. That was revolutionary thinking at the time. Of course, some now say it was all a result of climate change (to exonerate human agency?) — meaning climates have always been changing.

  • john.singer says:

    Gammage overlooks the almost insatiable demand for firewood by the pre-1788 inhabitants and their use of saplings.

    • cbattle1 says:

      Good point john.singer; I heard that idea some years ago, that the arid lands of Australia were the result of thousands of years of campfires. The amount of falling branches and other dead trees couldn’t keep up with the demand for firewood, and a certain amount of available dry wood inadvertently would burn up by the use of the firestick. The campfire was essential for preparing food and keeping warm, as well as providing illumination for social events. Cutting down saplings and letting them dry would provide a source of firewood.

  • Occidental says:

    To go off topic, while I agree with the core argument regarding the noble savage religion followed by many Australians and comfrotable westerners the world over, this article contains the oft repeated, rarely challenged canard that cities are a cradle of creativity and innovation. In my view nothing could be further from the truth. While they and higher education institutes situated in cities are a cradle of empty navel gazing and endless empty thinking, they are, in proportion to the numbers living there quite barren of innovation. The reasons for that should be a study in itself.

  • Macspee says:

    Are not the leaders of the revolution guilty of cultural appropriation with their university degrees ad infinitum and all the other goodies they have because they are able to attain them thanks only to the beneficen of their ‘colonial masters’

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Roger Sandall’s 2018 book “The Culture Cult – Designer Tribalism and Other Essays” gives a marvellous exposition of the elite’s obsession with the primitive. This romantic and delusional fantasy of retreating from civilisation is what Thomas Sowell describes as the essence of progressivism – giving up what works for what feels good.
    The whole climate scam – the “global cooling” of the 1970s or the “global warming” of the 2000s – derives from that “progressive” worldview.

  • Daffy says:

    Just wondering, is the extinction of the Australian mega-fauna related to the wonderful custodianship of the land we hear attributed to early Aborigines?

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