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.
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…