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.


Sustainability and culture

First published: March 19, 2017 for Woroni[1].
Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.

Here’s a question you’ve probably never considered: could cat memes be contributing to the likelihood of a mass extinction event not seen in the last 500 million years? It’s a serious question, and yet it’s taken about as seriously as cat memes.

To understand why that is, we need to return once again to the history of sustainability. Previous articles introduced the very basics of sustainability and looked briefly at some of the historical trends that shaped the movement; beginning as a largely environmental cause in the 1970s, and eventually morphing into the triple-headed beast it often remains today. This triumvirate of concerns is often referred to as the ‘three pillars of sustainability’: the social, the environmental and the economic.

Not much has changed since the 1980s. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently defined sustainable development as the ‘integration of economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship’. The three pillars are explicit and obvious in his words, as they are in most places you see sustainability discussed and practised. The ‘triple bottom line’, in which a business may forgo additional profits (the economic bottom line) to reinvest in worker training (social) or improved efficiency that reduces resource waste (environmental), is another example of three pillar thinking at work.

Does this model go far enough, however, and capture everything that we need it to?

Firstly, there’s a lot to be said in the framework’s defence. For one, it includes a hell of a lot. There’s not much we couldn’t categorise into these three areas. A focus on environmental sustainability alone is doomed to failure, so the incorporation of other critical areas like social justice and equitable economic growth is a vast improvement. It has the additional advantage of simplifying horrendously complex problems, enabling a clear path forward that promotes tangible action.

Despite these strengths, and the enduring popularity of three pillar thinking over the last four decades, I’d argue that some important elements of this movement are still being left out. Australian Jon Hawkes helped start this conversation over 15 years ago, in his work The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability[2]. Hawkes wants to add culture as a fourth pillar. He argues that without including it explicitly in the conversation, sustainability initiatives are doomed in much the same way that environmental-only programs once were.

Why is culture important, though? Consider as an example the culture of cat ownership in Australia.

In 2013 The Australian Geographic published statistics showing that 48 percent of Australian households own a cat, the highest percentage globally. These same cats are linked to the extinction of nine bird species in Australia, and the endangerment of over 30 others. The same story plays out elsewhere; in the US free-ranging and feral cats account for over 12 billion mammal deaths each year, many of which are native.

These cats aren’t usefully killing invasive species that disrupt ecosystems. They are the disruptive ones, undermining other native species footholds in an ecosystem in which they can play important ecological roles. Most of us aren’t aware of this reality, or we choose to sideline it. We pass around memes and aww-inducing gifs of our fuzzy, cute friends, struggling to imagine that these cats are also natural born killers going full Mickey Knox in our backyards .

It’s hard for us to grapple with the environmental consequences of cat ownership because we’ve normalized it within our culture.

These same themes play out in even bigger ways when it comes to other cultural norms. Ruby Smyth’s Start with your Plate[3] tackled culture as it relates to the normalisation of meat-eating – a tradition even older and more ingrained than that of owning cats, and far more destructive. Not all norms need great amounts of time and tradition to become established, though. Modern mass consumption, for example, is a relatively new development, and yet one that has become profoundly entrenched and is particularly dangerous to our continued survival.

Now, imagine you’re a sustainability expert within the UN or a national government. You’re tasked with tackling these kinds of problems, and you’re armed with only the ‘three pillars’ framework. Where do you begin? You might argue that cat ownership, meat eating and consumerism are ultimately social problems (and consequently categorise them into that pillar). You’d not be completely wrong, of course, but what we’re really dealing with here is a cultural issue too, no?

This is a realisation embodied by the AAROH campaign and Oxfam’s work[4] in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The problem they tackle is different, yet fundamentally similar. Approximately 160 million women living in rural India have agricultural jobs. Despite their huge contributions to agricultural productivity, only one percent of these women have access to agricultural training, only two percent have access to credit, and only six percent own the land they work on. Partly, this is because of cultural norms and tradition – women are not seen as farmers. To tackle this issue, the AAROH campaign and Oxfam spent years focusing on building social acceptance for women as farmers[5]. Only then did they shift gears to advocating for land ownership. Before tackling the ‘three pillars’, they tackled a fourth – culture.

ImgFeature Kioloa
ANU’s Kioloa Coastal Campus. Image from (ANU, 2019). Watch a YouTube flyover. 

Closer to home, ANU’s Kioloa coastal campus houses thousand-year-old middens on the beach, which I had the immense privilege of standing before on a field trip. ANU preserves these sites and is clearly dedicated to providing the lessons they teach well into the future. What is the significance of these to us? Well, it depends to an extent on who “us” is! ANU has their own management plan and it is admirable[6].

But from the perspective of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, middens like these are living history – a connection to their ancestors, and their culture. Their main value is not derived from potential economic gain, environmental importance, or social impact. Their primary value is in offering a connection to this country’s oldest cultures – ones that practiced sustainable ways of living for tens of thousands of years.

Img Middens
Learning at the middens (Photo: Nick Blood)

While modern sustainability is doing good things, the framework we’re often using is decades old. It needs serious updates and expansions. Until we start integrating other ‘pillars’ such as culture, we’re going to leave some important things out and struggle to affect positive change as a result. What these middens show – what Indigenous perspectives so often show here in Australia – is that we need to broaden our understanding of “culture” as we do that, too. Rather than compartmentalize things into society, economy, and environment, the lessons here exemplify a need to embrace holism and interconnectedness, exactly the kind of approach the world urgently needs more of right now.


[1] Blood, N. (2017, March 19). The Three Pillars and Culture. Woroni.

[2] Hawkes, J. (2001). The fourth pillar of sustainability: Culture’s essential role in public planning. Melbourne: Common Ground.

[3] Smyth, R. (2017, March 12). Start with your plate. Woroni.

[4] Oxfam. (2017). An Economy for the 99%. Oxfam International.

[5] “The campaign focused on the social acceptance of women farmers as farmers in its initial years.” (Oxfam, 2017, p. 14)

[6] ANU. (2019). Kioloa Coastal Campus Final Draft 2030 Master Plan. Retrieved from Kioloa Coastal Campus: https://services.anu.edu.au/business-units/facilities-services-division/kioloa-coastal-campus