Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

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2 thoughts on “Nature vs culture

  1. Another excellent post! I haven’t checked in here in a while, but with the release of the Kosciuszko National Park Feral Horse Management Plan draft I thought that I’d drop by and read your latest words on brumbies, and they do not disappoint! I’m writing up an article on the draft for Bushwalk Australia, will send you a link when it’s up in August (unless you’d like to see it pre-printing to offer any thoughts?).

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