Empire and Time

In the south of France lies Chauvet Cave. This subterranean museum contains some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings in the world, offering us a glimpse of life through an incomprehensible abyss of time, to some 30,000 years ago.

The world the paintings depict seems unreal and fantastical: bears and antelope and bison and horses and bulls and rhinos and on the paintings go. Back then, we lived in a much colder and drier place but the sun still shone, so there was still life in abundance and – as the paintings show – incredible diversity.

This art still tells a story. Not only of then, but of now, and of the passage of time in between. A story of changing climates. A story about loss of diversity. What I learned from Chauvet Cave was another story too: one about colonisation and imperialism. A story that questioned the idea of “sustainability” as I understood it.

And I thought I understood it well. I am studying that very subject in detail at my university. But even as a well-versed student in that field, fully immersed in that area, my virtual wandering via online research and YouTube documentaries revealed to me a huge gap in my knowledge.

So, there was a moment. Something I saw that changed me. Not inspiration, but realization. It flashed across my mind, connecting a thousand different thoughts, and asking a thousand difficult questions, inviting reflection on things I’d come to hold close. Things I’d believed in.

That’s the story I want to share – now that finally, I might have found a place to speak it, where others might hear.

It starts with Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, which is an utterly enthralling exploration of this place that I recommend diving into if you have the time. Their on-site film beautifully captures not only the art, but the natural artistry that frames it all. The cave itself is a thing of wonder: everything is crystalline from the slow accumulation of calcite so the walls, and stalagmites and other features of the cave all sparkle in the harsh light of the cameras.

The meticulously preserved grounds of the cave are littered with the bones of many animals, and they too are covered in a mineral snow that glimmers strangely. The camera lingers long enough on these scenes – away from the paintings – to encourage an appreciation of an even greater artist at work here. Quietly and out of view, this artist etched their own stories over the interceding millennia between human visits to this hidden gallery; one that I would argue rivals the Louvre in importance.

I say that because of two paintings there and the story they tell about an entirely different way of life that existed before colonial times. An awe-inspiring culture quite different from ours. The image is of two bulls that look identical, as if painted by the same artist, or around the same time period.  Here is Werner, from the documentary, explaining what you see:

‘…there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. A striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history, and they were not.’

Werner Herzog, Cave of forgotten dreams

It’s hard to describe what those words and the art itself evoke, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around this idea. Is it possible that life was so consistent, so continual, that for five thousand years not much changed at all? Is that what the paintings are saying? The questions alone invite a wholly different way of thinking about sustainability to the one I feel I’ve learned about so far. But surely this is one of the most profound examples one can see of sustainability, no?

Two near-identical pieces of art, overlapping, separated by five thousand years. A statement of cultural continuity spanning a frame of time we today – advanced as we consider our culture – would struggle to imagine.  

If that’s a statement, it’s one hell of a statement!

From the perspective of this boringly typical member of a Western culture that is struggling to survive another year – let alone five thousand – this painting is fucking startling. Better yet, keeping in mind my ancestors once called themselves Settlers, I could describe it as unsettling.

Unmoored from the perspective of a civilization that appears all too fragile, verging on catastrophic, we can see another way of life that extended over timespans that feel impossible to us with all of these modern problems we’ve created for ourselves.

The writer and engineer Nick Arvin, whose blog post inspired me to watch the documentary, describes it beautifully:

‘They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.’

Nick arvin, Reading Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

To help us wrap our heads around this idea, Arvin then points to another rabbit hole: a short story called Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M Coetzee who approaches the same idea from the perspective of the colonizing force. The book’s narrator is the magistrate of a frontier town in some unknown “Empire” that serves to represent imperialism more generally. Beyond the frontiers, the native people, known as Barbarians, exist in harmony with the land, as did the people who once decorated Chauvet Cave. Coetzee sums up the different worldview of imperialism, contrasting it against Chauvet’s “Two Bulls” in this way:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

These two different conceptualizations of time speak to an insurmountable incongruity between cultures. The “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” is contrasted against the “jagged time of rise and fall”. Coetzee’s gorgeously dense imagery transports a litany of ideas but one here rings loudest: the grounding of one’s self in the environment – the cycle of the seasons – the cyclical nature of life and death, set against the refusal to die. A belief in a self that is separated from nature, and thus, can conquer nature and its cycles. The “jagged time of rise and fall” – what we colonialists call history. Call progress. Call success. Call utopia.

Empire’s “submerged mind” has overlooked some things. We can sense it now, in the Apeilicene, as even the things we clutch for in our dreams turn to ash. Turn against us. Turn us against ourselves, and each other. “Save us from what we want”.

As the documentary later describes, these paintings were drawn by homo sapiens, in a time and space they shared with other human species like Neanderthals. The art, it is claimed, was a uniquely human endeavour; not something Neanderthals engaged in. That tells me that even back then, we must have realized (maybe even quite keenly felt) that we were somehow different from our fellow animals – even ones very like us.  

And despite this, or perhaps because of it, these people managed to live for thousands of years in harmony with everything else. Bisons and bulls and bears.  

Now, we see ourselves as fundamentally different and disconnected from nature – an idea that permeates our language, our thought, and our actions.

Stepping away once again from the cave art, we have to appreciate the even greater stories that this landscape tells us, and the questions it makes us ask. In one area of the cave floor there are two footprints: one belonging to a young boy, and another, to a wolf. What could these footprints, etched in calcite and the hardening of time, possibly tell us? Herzog plays out the scenarios: Was the boy being stalked by the wolf? Or were the two perhaps walking together? Perhaps instead, the two imprints – boy, and wolf – are separated by thousands of years?

We cannot know. Nature will not let us know.

She has her secrets, and this, we must respect.

In a sense, it’s easy to understand colonialism, imperialism, and colonisation at a kind of “surface” academic level because they are just ideas with characteristics and features. Ideas like any other. But when people encourage others to “decolonize” their understanding of something, it feels to me like they’re often talking about something else too; something that goes beyond just learning about a new idea and its characteristics. Part of that feels like it’s experiential; that learning about this stuff involves doing and being a part of something. Part of that feels like a radical questioning, where “de-colonizing” might resemble “de-programming”. Not just thinking about things differently, but doing things differently too. Embracing that knowledge over time. Recognizing that we cannot always find meaning in things, that we cannot know all. Camus might smile at that.

The history of sustainability

First published: March 5, 2017 for Woroni[1].
Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling

Although there are elements within sustainability dating back to the Ancient Greeks and even earlier, the idea has risen in prominence greatly since the 1970’s, spurred into public consciousness then by the broader momentum building within the environmentalist movement.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[2], often credited for kick-starting modern environmentalism, had been released in the early 1960’s and done much in the intervening years to raise awareness within the U.S and abroad that human activities were not only harming the planet, but also humans themselves. ‘Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,’ Carson told a Senate Subcommittee, not long after the book’s publication[3].

A decade after Carson’s best-selling book had helped launch modern environmentalism, the UN held one of the first conferences relating directly to the idea of sustainability: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, 1972. The result of the conference, among other things, was the Stockholm Declaration – a list of 26 principles intended to guide a new kind of development that was more sustainable[4]. A taste of the first five are included below.






United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972

A few things are immediately noticeable: Gendered language referring to all people as “man”. A focus on economic development, suggesting that capitalism is the answer. The labelling of some countries as “developing”. The suggestion that “underdevelopment” is the major cause of environmental problems in those countries.The suggestion that population growth is an issue 

Many – if not all – of these narratives are challenged today. Flawed as it is here, this idea of ‘sustainable development’ was gaining traction. Reading through that list of principles, the influence of the environmental movement is evident too. There are perhaps only three principles that do not explicitly mention or concern themselves with the environment. The focus of early sustainability here was narrower than it is today, and yet it remains nonetheless heavily fixated on the environment all the same.

The over-greening of sustainability

Environmental motifs sampled from the same Google image search. “Sustainablity” seems to be about gardening, or having the world (almost literally) in our hands. Being mindful of this framing is important.

If you Google beyond cursory image searches and explore different organisations, you may notice that many sustainability-related projects in government are overseen by, or somehow related to, their environmental departments. Within education, you’ll notice the subject is usually taught by environmental departments too. Here at ANU, my own sustainability degree revolves around courses taught by the Fenner School of Environment and Society. Sustainability has its roots (forgive me) in the environment, and it is usually out of those same departments – once focused exclusively on that domain – that sustainability is beginning to emerge.  

It can take quite a bit more digging beyond first impressions to realize that there is more to modern sustainability than just environmental concerns.

The history of sustainability, with its roots in modern environmentalism, has undoubtedly “greened” sustainability. This could be placing harmful boundaries on the concept by focusing it too much on environmentalism. The name of our project, The Grass Ceiling, represents our desire to transcend historical preoccupations with environmentalism.

For over 40 years now the UN and associated bodies have been expanding the earlier environment-focused definitions of sustainability to be more inclusive of other equally important factors. By 1987, the UN’s Brundtland Commission – another famous milestone in the rise of sustainability – was speaking about the idea in terms of the ‘three pillars’; the social, the economic, and the environmental[6].

The ‘three pillars’ idea has remained popular since Brundtland, and cemented itself into much of the research, discourse and practice of mainstream sustainability. Corporate sustainability over previous decades has often used what’s known as the Triple Bottom Line – a framework that encourages focusing on social and environmental outcomes in addition to the economic ‘bottom line’. The three pillars idea is explicit here, as it is elsewhere. 

In subsequent articles, I implicitly and explicitly critique this idea of the ‘three pillars’ in more depth, demonstrating that there are more ways to think about sustainability beyond these three core concerns. For right now, however, they represent a good first glance at sustainability – a more comprehensive idea than the “green” that a quick Google search suggests, and therefore a good first glimpse beyond the grass ceiling.

The Three Pillars: Social, Environmental, Economic.

What are these three pillars, then, and what is sustainability as it relates to them? The idea is relatively simple: societies cannot achieve sustainability by focusing on the environment alone. We could, for example, achieve all the environmental goals laid out by the UN and others, such as carbon emissions reductions, and yet still be living in an unsustainable world destined for collapse. A reduction in ocean acidification, or the complete halt of biodiversity loss would only be a partial victory for sustainability so long as women around the world remain disempowered, poverty continues to destroy lives, and economic inequality heightens to dangerous and unprecedented levels.

These lingering, unresolved issues would also risk creating situations that unwind progress made elsewhere. If countries with alarming levels of economic inequality fall into civil unrest and even conflict, then the progress made on the environmental front is almost certain to slip.

This framework suggests that achieving environmental outcomes depends upon taking a holistic approach. The social and economic impacts of environmental policy are often so significant that tackling just one ‘pillar’ in a vacuum dooms any such process to failure. Consider how much of the pushback against environmental policy is framed as an economic argument. In Australia, for example, environmental policies are often challenged on economic terms – as too expensive, or economically unfeasible. As the arguments go, achieving environmental targets is no good for Australia if the cost is economic turmoil (and implicitly, the social upheaval that entails). The argument is not without merit and echoes the complex interrelationship between our society, the economy, and our environment.

To wrap up then, and keep things simple for introductory purposes, sustainability can be considered as a movement with three core concerns: environmental responsibility, economic equity, and social justice. Sustainable development (one practice of sustainability) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in a holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary way that ensures progress made in one area does not cause regress in another.

This idea sounds good on paper, and indeed much progress has been made under this framework. As we’ll see in future discussions, however, there is more to sustainability than these three areas, and even within just these three, there remain many challenges ahead.


[1] Blood, N. (2017, March 5). What is Sustainability? Woroni.

[2] Carson, R., & Darling, L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Carson, R. (1963, June 4). Statement of Rachel Carson Before the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations of the Committee on Government Operations. Retrieved from Rachel Carson Council: https://rachelcarsoncouncil.org/about-rcc/about-rachel-carson/rachel-carsons-statement-before-congress-1963/

[4] United Nations General Assembly. (1972). United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Stockholm: UN. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/apps/njlite/srex/njlite_download.php?id=6471

[5] As above.

[6] World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Episode 1: How did we get here?

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Full transcript available here. 


There are many ways of looking at this idea of “sustainability” and we’re here to take you on a guided tour of some of them. Below you can find some extra show notes, resources, and other goodies.

This episode was recorded on 21 and 24 January 2019.


  • Different ways of looking at it
    • Often defined narrowly: As environmentalism. Conflicting studies or viewpoints. Less often a conversation happening with everything taken together: Integrative, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary.
    • Trying to bring together different ideas, voices, perspectives, practices.
    • Especially marginalised ideas or voices
  • Our coming together was in an interdisciplinary class: physical geography + human geography = “the geography of sustainability“.
  • Our university school specialises in integrative studies: The Fenner School of Environment and Society.


  • Using history in understanding why we have so many different approaches. Started with environmentalism.
  • Out of the green movement comes these conferences on “sustainability”
  • 1972: Stockholm Declaration: Majority are environmental, but some important non-environmental concerns (freedom, dignity, etc).Starting to see, even from the outset, that it is something about more than environmentalism. Sustainability is about more than the environment.
  • Brundtland Commission: At this point talking about environment even less, and when considering humanity does so intergenerationally, from the perspective of current and future “needs”.
  • Sustainable Development: “Sustainable Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
    • Sustainability as a concept tied to time.
    • Tied to more than just our environment: tied to concepts of justice, equity, and society.
    • As a uniting term.
  • MDGs (2000 – 2015): Goal #7 only mention of sustainability – sustainable environment.
  • SDGs (2015 – 2030): Great shift here to focus on this idea. Mentioned in their very name / suggesting a much broader aspiration to sustainability: for example “Sustainable consumption and production”.
  • If we achieve these goals we are closer to achieving “sustainability”?
  • Advanced cross-sectoral work, a more multidisciplinary perspective to each of these challenges. Greater coalitions of voices lending greater plurality of voices, once marginalized or sidelined.
  • Seeing a trend over time here of an increasing body of work being built up around sustainability – covering a range of concerns beyond (but always related back to) the environment.


  • Literal definitions: Sustaining over time (a certain period of time)
    • Time-based conceptualisations:
    • Physical / Structural sustainability
      • Cyclicality (and continuity), stable systems, feedback loops (Ouroboros), circular economy
The Ouroboros!


  • Three Pillars theoretical framework that is practised explicitly: Triple Bottom Line
    • To what extent does it mirror sustainability? To what extent is this a good framework for practicing sustainability? It depends: corporate social responsbility varies according to the case you’re looking at
      • True Believer CEO vs. Greenwashing Interface (product to service) vs McDonalds Filet-O-Fish in New Zealand. Profit motive frequently conflicts with sustainable outcomes
      • A great deal of discourse around whether capitalism (or the profit motive) is compatible with sustainability or sustainable development.
      • Similar debate over growth. Related to capitalism, but not always.
      • Individual action as consumers? Structural change? Broader questions here about how to best achieve sustainability: Who practises sustainability? Is it just environmentalists? What about intersections between other progressive causes?


  • Do a simple Google search of the word “sustainability” and see what you find. A sea of green: plants, leaves, the famous motif of the hand holding the plant. What we’re trying to challenge here is the dominance of an environmental perspective when it comes to sustainability.
    • Because we want to embrace complexity. Because we want to learn about other perspectives, especially those outside the mainstream.