A Yolngu kid wanting higher education can head into university in Darwin or another major city, or decide to develop traditional knowledge further by sitting with Elders to eventually “graduate” as a law boss. Both are viable institutions, so let’s explore their differences for a moment, bearing in mind that one may be more vulnerable to climate change events.Traditional law and culture is an institution, even if it is not housed in bricks and mortar, and doesn’t need a large annual budget.
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The usual definition of it as human society defined by “urban development, social stratification …
and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment”, as given in Wikipedia, is crying out for revision because it ignores sustainability and relegates non-human life, “nature”, to a resource.
There is a prejudice reinforced every time the Euphrates and Tigris are cited in accounts of world history as being the ‘cradle of civilisation’.
Sometimes contesting “cradles” are noted in China, India or the Americas.What he doesn’t mention, as an Australian, are the civilisations that persisted here for many thousands of years.He could have thought of the way the word was used in that context by American anthropologist Lloyd Warner in his 1937 study of the Yolngu, A Black Civilisation.Today’s world is one in which everything can be given an economic value, and entities are defined by competition and inequality.Under this regime, traditional knowledge would have to be gathered up by a university or by native title law and turned into accountable knowledge of a more whitefella sort. And don’t even think about getting a real pay-to-learn university until your community has grown to 100,000.If the Yolngu have flourished for up to 50,000 years, while the kind of civilisation based on large cities could self-destruct after only a few hundred, perhaps it is time to recalibrate what we mean by civilisation.Today, the Yolngu are among the more robust of Indigenous communities, with their celebrated artistic heritage, their annual Garma Festival, and their business and political skills.But cities, too, are vulnerable, especially in the light of the environmental threats that demand we reset the parameters of civilised life.Tim Flannery, in his 2005 book The Weather Makers, speaks, as many do, about climate change as a threat to civilisation as we know it.Let’s consider what civilisation might mean in Australia today, starting with what The Guardian reported as the first civilisations of the country, since they stood the test of a very long period of time – without walls.I would like to define civilisation as planned, sustainable collective living.