End of the World?


Many have noticed the flaws in democracy. These days, you have only to glance at Trump, or watch Britain unravel over Brexit, or notice the hung parliaments and unconvincing votes around the world. Is it time to find a new system?

Climate change has defeated democratic decision making. The main parties are beholden to the big end of town, especially coal and gas, and rather than choosing to oversee a rational transition to renewable sources, politicians have dug their heels in and promoted products and practices that add to harmful emissions. The science is indisputable – or should be.

Don’t imagine that politicians are happy with their alliances with coal and banks. Their overreactions to the #Extinction Rebellion sit-ins have revealed how sensitive they are to criticism. To suggest mandatory jail and cutting protestors’ welfare payments is despotic. Messrs Littleproud and Canavan should note: Blocking roads is not new. I can remember sitting on Riverside Drive at peak-hour in 1969 to protest the danger for pedestrians crossing to and from The University of WA.

 The argument in This is Not a Drill, a series of opinion pieces by supporters of Extinction Rebellion (Penguin 2019) is that the democratic process has failed us by not taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change. In Australia, emissions are increasing, and sales of coal are growing. Younger people fear for their future: coastal flooding, the melting of polar ice, wildfires year-round and cycles of severe drought should cause fear. The mass extinction of many species and the destruction of much of the world’s coral reefs, including the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, should be cause for alarm and grief.

#Extinction Rebellion aims, in part, to shut down capital cities until governments declare a climate emergency. No one likes the disruption to daily life this causes, but it is far less that the disruption that climate change unchecked will bring.

Writers in This is Not a Drill argue that not only must clean energy be generated and coal and gas phased out, but also the whole economy must be re-made. The ‘free market’ with its dependence on growth and consumer addiction to constant purchasing are the cause of climate change. These writers argue for a more distributive economy, local and equitable. As they say if fewer than 10% control more than 80% of the wealth, the system is loaded for reform.

The #Extinction Rebellion street actions have an element of fun. Some placards are humorous, playful floats function as centrepieces. Food shared generously creates a party atmosphere. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, pleads for a place for delight: this is God’s world we are trying to preserve, and our Scriptures describe the act of creation as a form of divine play. If there is no joy, but only earnest protest, #Extinction Rebellion becomes a negative, maybe destructive force. With the element of delight, however, the movement is showing what a renewed world will be like.

The claims of #Extinction Rebellion disturb me deeply. Has democracy failed? Can a new and loving politics replace it? I fear the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act to preserve their world. Democracy will evolve – it must – but we must fight for the future.

RUOK? J.B. Phillips and depression


Vera Phillips & Edwin Robinson,
The Wounded Healer — J.B. Phillips,Triangle, 1983.

From $15 used online. In Public Library system. Reviewed by Ted Witham
110 pages – paper-back

Sometimes an old book comes into your hands at just the right time. I have surprised myself with a severe bout of anxiety and depression: maladies I believed I was exempt from. Apart from the symptoms of feelings of doom, breathlessness and general fatigue, my mental ill-health has stopped me in my tracks, and I have felt I’ve had to give up most of my activities. I’ve stopped (for the moment) teaching French, creative writing and much of my church activities.

I’ve felt a real tension: my therapists warn me of withdrawing from social contact (because being out among people is the best treatment for depression), and yet I simply have not had the energy to keep up with my usual activities.

One of the disappointing symptoms of this depression is that I have lost “the sense” of God. I had had a heightened awareness of the divine when I received communion and in my daily prayers. That has disappeared, just at the moment when it could help.

A friend of mine mentioned that J.B. Phillips, one of the pioneers of translating the Bible into modern English, and the author of Your God is Too Small, suffered from depression. It turns out that Phillips received mountains of correspondence in response to his sales of six million books, and that he answered every letter. Often these letters were to encourage people who opened up to him about their depression.

He also reached out to other notable Christians who had disclosed their depression publicly, seeking their advice, sometimes begging for their help.

Vera Phillips, Jack’s wife, and Edwin Robinson, a long-term friend, have compiled a selection of these letters resulting in a short book (110 pages) of practical help for Christians with depression.

In them, Phillips recounts some of his psychological challenges. He wanted to live up to the perfection he believed his father demanded of him, so was constantly disappointed that he wasn’t the best ever Vicar, or the greatest ever writer. He shows that while these psychological issues were related to his depression, they weren’t the sole or main cause of the illness.

J.B. Phillips was an English evangelical whose faith is attractive and accessible. His voice, the voice of his letters, is practical, compassionate and liberal. I found his advice helpful, and I am sure those who received the letters originally were even more encouraged by their gentle empathy.

Different ways of seeing


https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/P/1925360849.01._SY200_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg

Bruce Pascoe, Young Dark Emu: A truer history, Broome WA: Magabala Books 2019.

Hardcover 80 pages.

$18 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

As kids, my brother and I used to go through phases of collecting Aboriginal grindstones on our farm. These artefacts were ironstone. They weighed perhaps a kilogram and fitted into the palm of an adult hand. A smooth area had been sculpted out of the top. Our Dad told us to look for the other part of the machine, a smaller smooth stone. It was evident that seeds or berries were placed in the scooped-out area and the second stone used to grind.

Grinding stone – booma boyak

There were two inferences we didn’t make as kids. The first was that there is no ironstone near Tambellup. The nearest deposits are in the Mid-West 800 kilometres north. The existence of the grindstones proved there was an active system of trade around the State.

The second inference was that the people who used this device must then have gone on to mix the milled seeds with water and cook them. In Young Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe comments that, if this happened 65,000 years ago, this is the earliest known invention of bread, pre-dating Ancient Egypt by an astonishing 13,000 years. (p. 16)

The basic thesis of Young Dark Emu is twofold: one is that pre-contact Aboriginal culture included sophisticated farming and settled village life, and two that the early ‘explorers’ saw these facts – huge fields under yam cultivation, well-constructed huts that could accommodate 40 people easily – and wrote about them in their journals. By the 1880s the settlers had both deliberately and inadvertently destroyed all this evidence. For example, the hard cloven feet of sheep compacted the soil so that it became too hard to plant yams or seeds.

Once physical evidence had disappeared, Europeans failed to take notice of the eye-witness accounts of ‘explorers’, and soon came to forget the scale of the civilisation they had supplanted.

Young Dark Emu is a version of Bruce Pascoe’s book for older readers, Dark Emu. Young Dark Emu would be suitable for children upwards of 10 years old. Both books are a plea to learn from the land use and fire regimes that Indigenous people developed over 80,000 years (or more) of occupation of this continent. They adapted their crops aquaculture and food storage to the soils and climate of this place.

Text Box: Brewarrina Fish traps - the oldest surviving human construction in the world – Image courtesy ABC
Brewarrina Fish Traps – the oldest surviving human construction in the world

 The book takes its name from the Emu constellation. Traditional Aborigines named constellations not for the patterns made by bright stars, as Europeans did, but by the patterns in the dark spaces between them: a unique way of seeing.

Young Dark Emu invites readers to many levels of diverse ways of seeing. All Australians should read it or Dark Emu.

Naming our land


As a writer and language teacher, I know the power of language. We express ourselves in words and sentences. With language we persuade others to see things the way we do. The language of others influences the way we see the world. 

Think of the differences between Ayers Rock and Uluru: the former celebrating the Chief Secretary of SA at the time explorer William Gosse sighted the rock in 1873; the latter marking the complex relationship the Anangu have formed with Uluru-Kata Tjuta over tens of thousands of years.

The English names in our country reflect the dispossession of the land by its Second Peoples. Ayers Rock, backed up by the colonists’ military power, rendered Uluru invisible.  This has been repeated time and again across Australia. The obliteration of Aboriginal names may not have been a deliberate policy, but it was part of the large-scale destruction of Indigenous culture by the incomers.

We should rejoice that, at times, the settlers listened to the locals and used their name for the place. (According to Professor Leonard Collard, about half of south-western Australia’s placenames are Noongar.)

Wejulahs (my mob!) enjoying the ‘water that is there when all else is dry’, Lake Toolbrunup

Toolbrunup, the name of the lake on our family farm and of the mountain on the horizon, is` close to the original. It means ‘the place which has water when all else is dry’, which was true until 20 years ago. Sadly changing land use has turned the lake into a place which is perpetually dry, but the name still reflects the memory of the Koreng people who gathered there year after year at the end of the hot season well into the European period.

For this is the power of Aboriginal placenames: they record a staggeringly long bond between people and land. They are memory; they are the keepers of value; they are part of the record of the most ancient continuous culture in the world. It is arrogant to continue to give places new European names if they are already named.

Of course, it is appropriate that the built environment should be named both for Aboriginal and wejulah reasons. A new school can be called the Bob Hawke College, but another one could be named the Wagyl Kaip College after the inland region of Wardandi country. Above the Forrest Highway could be the Mokine Overpass. Our history now, for better or for worse, is a joint story.

Mokine – image courtesy Elders Real Estate

Local governments around Australia are developing commendable policies of dual naming, reviving the hidden Aboriginal name for places alongside the European name. Some have also adopted the principle of first using the Aboriginal placename (with appropriate permission from local elders).

The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2019 is ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage’. What better place to start finding the truth is in the literal ground, the land beneath our feet? Sensitivity to placenames will speed this recovery of truth and memory and help wejulah to absorb more of Indigenous culture and reality and walk together with courage into the future.

Wejulah is the Noongar name for non-Noongars.   

Talking the Talk


Israel Folau has been sacked. Rugby Australia could have handled the situation differently. But in the end, it was Folau’s own doing, and he knew it, so cannot escape responsibility. To his credit, it appears that he accepts his punishment.

Folau knew how his post would be heard. He claims it was written in love:  what he posted was bound to be heard as the opposite.

I think I have some credibility to comment on this: for four years I was the CEO of an inter-denominational Christian agency. Our main ministry was in a secular context. I learned that I was constrained in what I could say. Very constrained. But paradoxically, I learned that I could say anything at all – if I said it the right way. 

Effective communication requires you to think yourself into the shoes of the audience. It requires understanding their context, and, specifically, to communicate Christian truth, you must appreciate their beliefs: what they believe and how they express it.

Israel Folau’s post was based on I Corinthians 6:9-10. He added to it the command to ‘Repent’ and ‘Jesus saves.’ He invokes God’s mercy for repentant sinners, a central Christian teaching. However, I Cor. 6:9-10 was not written for non-believers: it was written for ‘brothers and sisters’. What is more, it was written for believers of the 1st Century. Its language does not cut through in the 21st Century; or it cuts through in the wrong way.

Folau’s Instagram followers include non-believers. If he was genuinely warning sinners to repent, then he should have known that they would not hear his message that way. He had already amended I Cor. 6:9-10 to include mercy for the repentant: he could have ditched “hell” and crafted a sermon to be heard!