This is a transcript from the FWFtalks podcast, Ecofeminism.
Access the audio via the podcast page.
Nikki Anderson 00:03
Hi, my name is Nikki Anderson and I’m director of the feminist Writers Festival. Welcome to FWF Talks created for FWF 2020 with the support of the Besen Family Foundation. Check out the whole 2020 program at feministwritersfestival.com. The Think Ins cover the big topics of the day, our culture of violence inequities in our legal and health systems, and how to stay bold as a feminist and activist. The virtual event is supported by essays to get you thinking about the topics ahead of the festival day, on Saturday, the 14th of November. But back to FWFTalks. In this episode, Ecofeminism, Greens Senator, Lydia Thorpe, and novelist Alice Robinson chat with nature writer, Inga Simpson, about a feminism that centers itself around country.
Inga Simpson 00:54
We all owe a lot to the women who paved the way before us. And I think a lot at the moment about Rachel Carson, who took on the big chemical companies and even though she was dying of cancer, and basically spent her last breath on that fight. And Carlson was labeled a hysterical woman for suggesting that pumping toxic chemicals into the air. And the soil and ultimately, the ocean, you know, was going to have some pretty dire consequences. It was hard even though she was a scientist and a wonderful writer. She was still given that label of hysterical. So here we are with all those consequences of those chemicals into the environment. Has anything changed for women advocating for change? Today? You know, is it any easier? You know, what can you tell us about your experience abroad in for change, leading for change?
Lidia Thorpe 01:56
I’m happy to, to hit it off, ah No, nothing’s changed, it’s still struggle. And, you know, we continue to fight for a seat at the table. And, you know, when we do raise any issues that our community or all that we care about, then, you know, the labels come at you. And they usually negative labels like, you know, troublemaker record. And, you know, angry black woman. So, it’s, it’s still a struggle, and it’s part of the fight for our voice to be heard. That, you know, just as you say that, you know, so, so many other staunch women before us have have fought for that, that space, just as as my, the matriarchs, in my family, so you kind of, well, for me, I’ve come accustomed to it that this is part of our struggle, and that we don’t do it easy. And that regardless of of people trying to put us down or take us down, that we have to maintain that strength and that fight. Because at the end of the day, it’s it’s about caring for our our people, our community, and our planet. So it’s, yeah, it’s still a struggle. I mean, as a black woman, we still have to deal with the struggles of deaths in custody, removal of children, and incarceration rates. And seeing the destruction of our country is just as devastating as losing a community member. It’s, we don’t separate ourselves from the land or the water. So the struggle is real. And we’ve got to stick together and you know, build this, this movement together, because I think as women, we are best placed to know what’s best for our family and what’s best for our community. It’s the women that are leading it.
Alice Robinson 04:17
It’s such a galvanising issues and for women, because as you’re saying, Lydia, like, traditional women, will their purview has been the home and their family or their community. And that’s why women are sort of situated. And so climate change is an issue that’s affecting all of those things so profoundly. I see it as an issue about the way that we’re living or our lifestyles and the way in which that’s impacting on the environment, and how we can change the way that we’re living to protect the environment, which is really about what’s going on in the home. So communities and in that sense, I think it’s no accident that women are often at the frontlines. Have those fights. But I was also thinking as you were talking about this question of whether things have changed. And I feel like there’s something, you know, the internet gets a terrible rap for being a toxic place for being problematic in all kinds of ways. But it’s also maybe one of the developments that has allowed for women’s voices to be so powerful. I’m thinking of Greta Tunberg, of course, and other activists like her who’ve been able to amplify their voices in a way that might otherwise not have been possible, because of the internet.
Lidia Thorpe 05:33
Yeah, absolutely. And, and, you know, what I’ve seen in the last couple of years is that we’ve people who are struggling to put food on the table, or, you know, just just struggling to fight the fight. They all have Facebook, and our community on Facebook now, and we’re more connected than ever, through these social media platforms. So the movement is building via social media, which is so yeah, it’s fantastic.
Inga Simpson 06:08
Ecofeminism made the link between exploitation of women and exploitation of the environment. And I think today, we understand that more broadly to the link between inequality and climate change and how we got to where we are. And in the Australian context, I mean, I think Judith Wright said back in the 50s, made the link between violence towards our first people, you know, colonial colonization, and violence towards the land, you know, and she suggested that until we have some sort of reconciliation, that nothing much is going to change in this country. Fast forward 70 years, has anything changed?
Lidia Thorpe 06:49
Well, for us, it’s over 240 years, and to, you know, just see the destruction and how policies and decisions are made in in Parliament’s particularly, that continue to oppress Aboriginal people, and take away our rights to self determine our own destiny is part of these ecological breakdown. Because an ad title, for example, you know, that that’s destroyed our people, it’s, it’s, it’s divided our people, and you only have small groups of people making decisions around the destruction of land. And it’s usually the women that are at the forefront, you know, questioning our own people’s decisions on consent to destroy, you know, I don’t think much has changed, I think it’s got worse, where we don’t have a say over our land, and that those policies, keep us divided and keep us separated. So the last thing the government want is for a unified a unified Aboriginal nation, because we would have a greater voice. And that’s, that’s what I want to achieve. And I think you talk about reconciliation, I think that we need to go a step further and talk about a treaty and talk about how a treaty can bring peace to this, this country. This this the people in this country, and the land and waters of this country.
Inga Simpson 08:40
Do you think there’s a discomfort for non Indigenous Australians about landscapes about this country that we live in and on because of this history? Do you think that’s one of the reasons we just still treating it like some kind of colonial outpost you know, that we’re not responsible for?
Lidia Thorpe 08:58
Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, the, the denial of education in our, in our education system, haven’t told the true history of, of this land. And people are confronted by that. People are in denial, and people don’t think that they’re responsible, and they may not be personally responsible, but if they look back in, in their family history, I’m sure that there’s been some stolen wealth along the lines. And, you know, if we look at my country, for example, so now we just have seven, cleanse left. So, you know, we need to face up to our history, it’s all about history. No, we may not have been personally responsible, but we have a responsibility to unite this nation in a way where people have a better understanding of, of what’s happened and how We can come together, and you know, be able to celebrate something together in this country when there’s nothing that brings us together. And I think a treaty is a mechanism to be able to do that have those hard conversations, we’re at a point now in this country that I think people are ready for some harder conversations.
Alice Robinson 10:22
One of the things I’ve written about in the past and thought a lot about, and I think it’s a problematic assertion in lots of ways, and it’s certainly not a unique idea to me, but it’s very interesting to me, is whether climate change actually poses for the first time, a united front, it’s a problem that’s going to affect everyone globally, and everyone in Australia. And I wonder whether it offers for the first time a kind of conduit for the kinds of conversations, you know, progression that you’re talking about Lydia, in terms of reconciliation and treaty. You know, it’s a catastrophe that we’re all facing. And I think the reason that it’s very problematic, or sort of damaging, or complex to say, after 200 years of invasion and colonization, and what we, you know, settler Australians have done to the land, and now we’re going to look to indigenous communities to help us fix the problem. But if that gets everyone at the table, to change our culture, or change the way we’re relating to place and to protect it moving forward, I think it’s worth it. I don’t know, what do you make of that, Lidia?
Lidia Thorpe 11:36
I think it’s imperative that, you know, truth telling is not just something that that people should be afraid of, it’s something that people should embrace, because truth telling, is also sharing stories of how we’ve maintained and sustained these lands for thousands and thousands of generations. But, you know, the climate space is very white, very privileged, they come from a very privileged position. And I think that the climate space needs to decolonise and move over and allow for First Nations voices to be at the table leading a lot of these campaigns, you know, I’m not seeing much action around it. You know, they’re still very white run campaigns. And so they, it that automatically creates this kind of us. And then when, when campaigns are being run on country without the proper protocol and consent, if we’re not part of the campaign, or part of the conversation around what’s going to happen, then we’ll disengage from that conversation. And so it’s a real, you know, it’s time for the climate and environment movements to have a good hard look at themselves, and ask themselves, do we have consent to run a campaign on that country?
Inga Simpson 13:08
Lidia, Alice and I as writers are writing into this space, you know, in the way that you’re talking about, too. And I know, Alice, your PhD thesis looked at the issues of the obligations for non indigenous writers writing about place or writing about environment, did you want to talk a bit about that?
Alice Robinson 13:27
My thesis looked at how settler Australians relate to the land, and what that might mean for climate change moving forward. And the position I arrived, that was that it’s very similar to what you’re saying, Lydia, that unless we address what’s happening, or what’s happened historically, with the treaty, unless there’s some, you know, meaningful movement in that space, some kind of reconciliation that’s really meaningful, and probably legal, and all those things, then we’re just gonna keep having settler Australians having this really unsettled relationship to place. I think in my, for example, in my personal history, you know, my dad’s lived in the same bit of land for three generations, which is the longest of anyone that I know, and to have lived in one place. And that’s nothing. But that’s where it’s sitting in the settler Australia and relationships to place is very attached. But of course, that’s just a little surface relationship compared to the historic relationships that are there and the ongoing relationships as well. And I think when you try to write about all of that, that comes out in the writing, even if you’re not trying to address that directly, if you’re just trying to describe the landscape or the places that are in the narrative that you’re trying to tell. And you can see in Australia, settler, settler Australian writing about place, you can say this kind of attachment and ambivalence about that attachment. fear about those places, that is also mixed with the longing, and a kind of adoration. Oh, yes, this belonging and longing and fear. And all of this is implicated in the way that we’re telling stories about place, the places where we live, we’re trying to build them. And I think that’s really problematic for culture and for a nation. And I can see those relationships in the way that we’re treating our places.
Inga Simpson 15:29
Yeah, definitely. I mean, sounds like we’ve covered some similar ground, I looked at the history of Australian nature writing, and, you know, saw that same discomfort from the outset. You know, there’s growing attachment to place to the land and wanting to care for it. And particularly the women writers, you know, Louisa Atkinson, mid 1800s, called white Australians invaders, like, she used those terms in a newspaper column invited, which is pretty radical, but overall, there’s just this discomfort with that attachment, and it seems to be getting in the way, you know, and, as you say, a longing to belong, but then this is the distance. And the overall feeling that, you know, we don’t. So yeah, that was very evident in the history of Australian nature writing, as well. And I teach nature writing a lot now, and I’m always having to say to a whole class, you know, if you’re going to write about place in this country, you have to acknowledge, you know, the whole history of that place, you know, how you came to be there, and what is going on in that place. But you can sense it, you know, still today, there’s a discomfort with going there. So often, there’s just a dreadful silence. You know,
Alice Robinson 16:43
We don’t also know the stories that predate the stories we’re trying to tell about those places, you know, maybe we shouldn’t know them. But it’s, there’s this kind of sense that these places are imbued with history and, and story and meaning. And we’re just skating along the surface trying desperately to kind of engage or, or not just use those places in ways that, you know, we can see the outcome of in the environment.
Inga Simpson 17:12
Lidia, do you have a view for people who are trying to non Indigenous Australians who are trying to write about rice and want to acknowledge traditional custodianship and and, you know, the history of that place, at the particular protocols that writers can, should be following or a place they can go for advice on how to do that, if they are, you know, uncomfortable in the way that we’re talking about?
Lidia Thorpe 17:42
Well, I think it’s about, you know, reaching out to those people who are the custodians of that particular place. And, and doing it in a, you know, respectful way where it’s not onerous on on those people, because, you know, we’re very few and far between, we’re 3%. And we’re struggling to survive. So, you know, I see the climate catastrophe that we’re facing, as also in line with the catastrophe that we’re facing as first people in this in this country, you know, because we’re sick and dying, were incarcerated, and our land is sick and dying and being it’s, you know, it’s a form of incarceration of what’s going on with our species. And so, I often say that, you know, if the worst that climate change gets, the worse our health and well being gets. So if that goes, Well, we’re dead. So if you can’t keep us alive, then you’re not going to keep the land and water alive. So, you know, we don’t separate that. But there’s also some good examples. And I was thinking while you’re talking about when I set up the blockade, and now now in a skip plan on my country, can I country against Duke Energy, which was a sin gas pipeline that bell putting through from Longford to Sydney and you know, I was on the now now development group, just a little community group and now with a local GP, and I was the only black follower on there, of course, and when we heard about the pipeline coming through, you know, I was in this white space and it and people were concerned but then I went out to my elders that like tires and said, what I need to know what the story is of the now in our gorge, because it’s, you know, it’s million year old rock. I heard that there was rare callistemon in there, but I needed to hear what significance cultural significance it had for our people. You know, the elder who talked me through this has now passed. And she, she only ever told me that story. And the head of Duke Energy came to me and he said, ‘I need to know what the story is of that gorge. Lydia, why don’t you tell me?’ and I said, ‘It’s not for me to tell you, it’s my elders, my elders have to tell you that. I can’t give you that information’. And he said, ‘Oh, elders, elders, and he was very disrespectful’. He ended up getting quite sick and having to go back to America. And it’s the only bend in the pipe from Longford to Sydney, because we weren’t allowing, you know, explosives to go through this million year old rock and destroy the significance. But it was a whole community that came together, like I set up a little campfire. And we had non Aboriginal elders come sit around bringing warm, freshly cooked cakes and coffee. And it was just a beautiful moment of the whole community coming together. And, and for different reasons, right. So the white fellows of the town had their reasons. And the black fellas, as the traditional owners had their reasons, but we connected for all of those reasons. And we won. So I think, taking the time, and it does take time to connect, because we’ve got to build trust with people. And that’s what we did in that example. And I think that’s what we need to continue to do. Just sit down, have a young Take the time to understand and learn. And we can win, we can win Java, Luke is another example. You know, there’s excellent examples around this country where black and white people have come together, shared the story of why they care about the area, and with one as a result, and they and governments have also kept the environment and climate groups away from traditional owners. And we need to, we need to connect the movements together.
Inga Simpson 22:10
Yeah, great. Um, and that’s, you know, that was a great example of what can be achieved with video, would you talk about the sacred red gums and other campaign that you’ve been involved in? Was that with a similar community involvement there, or was it very much because it’s a sacred women’s space was that a sort of a women’s fight?
Lidia Thorpe 22:29
Um, it was women-led, particularly by our matriarchs the Djab Wurrung matriarchs. So they were the decision makers and, and, you know, we had to seek permission from them to, to campaign and do what we did on Djab Wurrung and country. But everyone was welcome. And I think why that was so successful was pretty much what story I just gave you, you know, people came and sat around the fire and had a cup of tea. And yet it took days, weeks, for those yarns to happen. But people just connected in a way that they hadn’t connected before. I’m talking about, you know, non Aboriginal people, because they were able to have those yarns and learn more deeply about the area. So, yeah, where we’re at, I mean, we’re still fighting that my mum’s on the on the court case as a signature, and she’s fighting it every day. So you know, they’re good, they’re going they want to build that road. In the middle of talking about a treaty, the Victorian Government wants to treaty with us, but they want to destroy our 800 year old birthing trees, and they want to frack the country and they want to continue to log that’s not a treaty, can I just say that is not a treaty.
Inga Simpson 24:02
Feminism has a different, a different look for all of us, maybe today, you know, activism for the environment, probably different for different people. Alice you’ve written a bit about, you know, the impact of being a parent at this time, you know, facing, you know, climatic disaster. You’ve written these post apocalyptic novels, and now we’re kind of living one. Can you talk a bit about your views on being a parent at this time, and how that’s informed your activism.
Alice Robinson 24:34
It’s another point of unsettlement, you know, different things flowing into the same place from different directions or different feelings, different ideas. And what I mean by that is that I had children after already being pretty engaged in the climate space. But it was like, even though I knew that those things were true about what was probably going to happen in the future, and that there was no data In my mind that it was actual, I also chose to have children which, you know, the two decisions seem kind of counterintuitive. And yet they sit alongside one another. And often because of the nature of my work, I’ve been asked to explain that decision or to unpack it. And I feel that on some level I can’t really like one of them is a decision of the head, and the other one’s a decision of the heart. But also having the children is such a profoundly hopeful thing to do. It sort of goes against rational thought, but you’re left with this kind of sense of sending the people that you love most into a future that you feel will be disastrous. And yet, it also by having them gets you in the game in a pretty serious way, because of course, I don’t want my children to suffer. I don’t want anyone’s children to suffer. And I don’t think there’s any accident that when you go to these big marches in Melbourne, where I live for the climate, you know, it’s just packed with people with prams. So there’s something very galvanising, especially for mothers potentially about having a child having some flesh in the game in a serious way about what’s going to happen next. So yeah, I’m interested in that conundrum. And I’m interested in talking to people for whom having children has been taken off the table, because they’re fearful about what’s going to happen next. And I’m interested in people who make the opposite choice as well, like I did. And the interesting thing to me about this moment in history, when we’re having this conversation, is that the kind of precursor disaster if you like, of this pandemic, has been really soothing and kind of comforting to me, in the sense that, you know, the entire society hasn’t collapsed, a big, profound thing has happened. And whether or not we agree with the kinds of mandates, government mandates around keeping people safe and things, we’re still here, and perhaps there are going to be some positive outcomes. In the way, you’re just describing about the perspective that it’s given some parts of our community and, and certainly May, and the way that we were living, I said to a friend at the start of the year, just so busy, I often feel like I can’t breathe. And I said that in a very casual way, like, you know, we’re just catching up. And that’s not an okay way to be living. But it was so normalised to me. And it took a global pandemic to make me think, you know, maybe there’s another way.
Inga Simpson 27:36
Yeah. Well, the way we were living was unsustainable on so many levels, right? Yes, hopes and lessons to learn from them.
Lidia Thorpe 27:45
You know, I suppose it’s different for Aboriginal people. In that, you know, we’re born into injustice, we’re born into struggle. And out, we’ve always had to fight, right, we’ve had to fight to keep our children safe. And we’ve had to fight racism, we’ve had to fight the oppression. Um, so that’s not anything new to us having to fight, you know, these climate injustice that’s going on. And it’s, you know, it’s new for a lot of people in this country to band together and fight for climate justice. But we’ve been fighting for black justice for 240 years. And it’s like, like, ‘Where’s everyone been?’ You know, um, so I just think that it’s something that I’d like people to consider is that we’ve been fighting a bloody long time. And if we hadn’t had justice 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this climate crisis in this country, because we would have had more say over our land, and we would have been able to protect it and preserve it for all of our generations into the future. So I think, you know, our first struggle is to survive as First People. And then we talk about climate because we’ve got to survive to be able to fight climate.
Inga Simpson 29:18
Yeah. Can I ask each of you for something that you feel positive about going forward? I mean, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the moment, right? How do you keep going each of you.
Alice Robinson 29:31
I feel really hopeful. Maybe this is also a bit problematic, but I feel quite hopeful about the extent to which young people are really picking up this fight. I know that they feel that there’s an injustice in that also, that previous generations haven’t done anything and now I really congratulatory that they are doing something. But that just gives me a lot of hope. And even thinking about this conversation today has been really galvanising and exciting. You know that these things are being talked about and taken seriously. I think there’s a lot to be really hopeful about, or at least I find it meaningful to think so.
Lidia Thorpe 30:13
I have to be hopeful. Otherwise, what do we do we lay down and die and give up. That’s not in my blood. And I believe. And this might seem a bit crazy for for, for people who, you know, first people, but I believe our ancestors are in control here. And when you, when we have extreme weather events, you know, we see the land as our mother, we see the earth is our mother. And when we have those events, you know, I feel the pain of my mother, I feel that she’s angry, and that she’s crying for help. And so I’m guided by my ancestors, I don’t know how the hell I ended up a senator in the federal parliament, I believe that the ancestors made that happen. They made it happen in Victoria, whilst there was a treaty conversation going on. And I think that were part of me not being successful in that state election, so that I had this opportunity to go a bit higher at the most crucial time, you know, in our history in this country. So I’m hopeful I’m also hopeful about our young people having a stronger voice. And I’m hopeful about bringing this nation together like it’s never been before. And so I think that our future is bright, that we’re going to feel some pain, we’re going to hurt. But I think, how else do people wake up and learn that this is bloody serious? I think when they feel that pain, and that hurt that we’ve felt for, for 240 years that people will wake up, and I’m seeing that now. So I’m hopeful I think that we’ll have a brand new nation, where we can have a flag that we agree on that we have an anthem that we can agree on that we have a day of celebration that we can agree on. And that from, you know, successfully getting to those points, you now, you know, life and in our nation, that climate justice will happen as a result of that, also, because it’ll be part of the conversation around truth telling.
Inga Simpson 32:37
Wow. Thank you so much for your strength and optimism, the vision, just hearing such a beautifully verbalised and empowered vision for this country. It gives me a lot of heart. So thank you, thank you.
Alice Robinson 32:52
I was just going to say that I’m so excited to see what happens next Lidia, I’m so glad you’re in the position that you’re in. It’s really exciting.
Lidia Thorpe 33:02
Well, I was on a private jet last night, which was weird. Here I am with my Black Lives Matter mask and you know, real cash. And Josh Frydenberg comes along and we had a great yarn and it was just humanise the politicians on his private jet. Um, and he was really lovely. So I want to talk to people who don’t agree with me. I want to have these yarns with Pauline Hanson. I want to have these yarns with as many politicians as I can, you know, there’s ways that we can connect where people don’t even realise that we have things in common.
Inga Simpson 33:41
I love it. You’ve got a great attitude. It’s great. We’re in good hands. Senator. Thank you.
Nikki Anderson 33:51
We hope you enjoyed the conversation. Now thanks to the speakers and chair, our podcast partner Listen Up Podcasting, and the Besen Family Foundation for vital funding support. We acknowledge that this recording took place across Australia on First Nations lands, lands whose sovereignty has never been ceded. For more FWF goodness, visit our website, www.feministwritesrfestival.com and find us on socials.