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Recovering Environmental Scientist

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

I like to describe myself as 'a recovering environmental scientist'. It usually gets a few laughs from people similarly frustrated with balancing the absoluteness often expected of scientific thinking and the deeply personal, subjective - often spiritual - relationships people have with nature. I love science and learning about how and why stuff happens the way it does, but there's a problem in the objective way that scientists think and talk about the world. 'It' is not 'stuff '.

'They' are living beings and systems more aware, connected, and active in creating daily life than they have been historically been given credit for in the minds and practices of Western science. This living community is what First Nations peoples call 'Country', and how we think about taking care of Country has a critical component that science does not: subjective relationships.

Stringybark Tree regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S.Kian
Stringybark regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S.Kian-Judge

I choose to believe that the objectifying view of the world is steadily changing. I also acknowledge that plenty of ecologists and biologists would feircely disagree with my description of their field. I understand why - many of these scientists do what they do because they are deeply, genuinely in love with the world around them. I have found this to be especially true of science communicators, who do an amazing job of bringing complex research to the public in exciting, engaging ways. But I have also experienced the arrogance of many career scientists firsthand - from dismissal & tokenistic, 'anecdotal' inclusion of local Indigenous ecological knowledges to outright refusal to contribute to public science education - because "that's not our job".

I disagree - I think that when you decide to do science in these times of mass environmental emergencies, you have an ethical responsibility to include science education and accessibility in your job description. What's the point of doing sicence and being a scientist if you do not participate in sharing your findings with everyday people in ways that are easily understood? What's the point of doing science if you do not take seriously the observations of people who are on the ground all the time and encouraging them to keep observing, recording, monitoring when time and funding frequently don't allow scientists to be? When did the ability to observe, consider, record, and understand Country become such an elitist club that only those with a PhD could possibly do it in a valid way? These are self-imposed limitations that only serve professional and person ego, not Country or the collective survival of all beings - including humans - who call this Planet home.

Stringbark regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge
Stringbark regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge

The fact is, science as a knowledge system is still very young compared to the knowledges of many Indigenous peoples who have lived in right relationships with their lands and waters for tens of thousands of years. Many scientists don't see it this way, because they think of Indigenous peoples and knowledges as primitive and subjective. Such views come from not knowing or understanding the complexity and different format of Indigenous knowledges, and the narrow, absolute belief that science is the only valid knowledge out there.

But people were thriving, innovating, understanding, deducting, and inferring long before the concept of science or scientific method even existed. We made observations. We were curious and asked questions about the lands and waters that sustained us. We recorded data in the landscape, our stories, ceremonies and kinship connections. We noticed and paid attention to patterns. We added variables - like fire - to observed patterns. We embedded repeating, predictable patterns into our lore/law along with our cautionary memories - reflections on methods that worked and didn't work. We listened and considered carefully when patterns changed. Whichever way you look at it, Indigenous cultures have many of the same elements as the scientific method - it just looks different.

Whatever dismissal of First Nations knowledges is attempted, it immediately comes undone when we remind ourselves that the Ancestors of these unceded lands now called 'Australia' used those knowledges systems to live and thrive here continuously for tens of thousands of years. Through ice-ages and dramatic climatic and landscape changes, they thrived. Colonisation and persistent colonial legacies have led to almost 300 small, meagre years of blanket dismissal of these ancient First Nations knowledges within the relative newness of Western knowledge systems. That's like a 3 year old telling a 65 year old about life experience. Again, this is steadily changing - but there's a very long way to go still.

From First Nations perspectives, science could be thought of as having reached a kind of adolescence where it thinks it has everything figured out and knows best. Until very recently, science has had little interest in hearing what its Elders have to share. The problem is, we as a Planet of beings don't have time to wait for science to keep maturing into a more diverse approach to knowledge - we need that growth to happen now.

That means learning how to practice objective methods in a complex world of subjective connections and variables that can never be fully controlled, understood, predicted, known, or accounted for. In other words, you can objectively objectify, or you can objectively subjectify.

Regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge
Regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge

Objectively subjectifying means understanding that healthy environments have never been untouched, passive wildernesses. Nonhuman Country actively makes their own touches too. Country constructs, changes, manages, decides, negotiates, and expresses just as much as we do. Very often, Country does these things against blanket predictability about what a particular species or ecosystem should be, because just like us - the individuals and communities of a species are not necessarily all the same. In those times, it is deep relationships and familiarity with the particular species and ecosystems of that particular places that matter most.

Country is not a laboratory, a text book description, or a 'wild place' to be preserved like a lifeless relic in a outdoor museum - Country is alive, homes, moods, expressions, responses, and peoples of many cultures and species. Including us humans. And while it would be great if science had the resources to conduct in depth studies on every local environmental system and species - the reality is that it does not. Science cannot always know these subtle, beautiful nuances, and very often it takes a lot more than data and an objective emotional distance from the agency of nonhuman beings and forces to know how to not just effectively - but respectfully - take care of them.

Local human communities in healthy relationship with their nonhuman people and places, on the otherhand, live and breathe those nuances. When you grow to love another, when you identify with, relate to, and empathise with other beings - the extent to which you are prepared to care for and compromise with them grows too. That's why First Nations people treat animals, plants, land, sea and sky as family members. We each need to have a personal stake in the thriving of Country - as a collective human species and community, we need to nurture meaningful, personal relationships that go beyond humans alone if we are to respond effectively to the Planetary crises we now face.

These days, neither science or culture is ensuring healthy ecosystems as much as we could be - and it's not our fault. We share the frustration of being forced into tirelessly navigating, resisting, and sorting out the catastrophic damage caused by colonial, capitalist forces that are still in action, hindering every attempt at emergency responses to a Planet in obvious trouble. Every step forward in fixing environmental problems is met with ten more; we're constantly behind.

It's a race we are losing for one core reason: humans see human economic needs as an unquestionable priority - even if it is at the expense of all other lives, and our own. We are the only species on the Planet that actively, knowingly sabotages its own life support system in the pursuit of bits of paper and metal with arbitrary, self-declared value. You can't eat, drink or breathe money, though.

Every time a species gives in to extinction, a domino falls in an ecosystem. It knocks down other dominos until eventually the ecosystem collapses. That ecosystem becomes a domino falling in bigger domino chain of connected ecosystems. It keeps going and going. And it ALWAYS reaches us eventually.

What is the point of prioritising human needs if by doing so we destroy everything we rely on to survive?

Science does so much for the world, it really does. But to solve this core problem, it doesn't have the best tools for the job. To solve this problem, people need to care - and to care, they need to have relationships with beings, systems and forces who are not entirely like us. And although some people will develop such relationships with Country through science - most will not. Science is notoriously inaccessible to the majority of our human people - not everyone has access to higher education or even the internet! Not everyone speaks the handful of dominant languages that science is typically presented in. Not everyone can connect with wonder and awe through scientific ways and words, they need to be enchanted and spoken to via the heart, spirit, imagination, meaningfulness, and creativity.

The world's First Nations Indigenous peoples have a formiddable set of tools for this job! The science of stories. The ability to turn complex knowledges into relatable journeys that make us feel like we are part of something instead of apart from it. Such story-based tools effectively used can turn understanding into relationships full of feelings, familiarity, commitment, empathy, love and respect. We desperately need relationships with Country again. We need to get rid of the idea of Country as 'stuff', 'its' and 'things'. We need to see, feel and believe in Country as 'who' again.

Stringbark regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge
Stringbark regrowth after 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge

That is why I am a recovering environmental scientist. I have not rejected science - just the insistance that to be scientific I must keep emotionally distant from the 'objects' of study. I prefer to see nonhuman beings, forces, and places as 'subjects of negotiated curiousity', however. I need to accept nonhuman peoples on their terms, while simultaneously finding ways to relate to them and see something of myself in their ways of being. I need to be open to learning from them like my Ancestors did, and acknowledging that I don't know anything about them that they don't decide to show me first. With that cross-species sharing of knowledge comes the responsibility to care and ct accordingly.

This is what recovering means to me - learning to be precise, to measure, and yes, even to be objective...without objectifying the agency of beings who are different to me.

Knowledge-rich stories, relationships, and caring for Country kept my Ancestors going strong for tens of thousands of years through significant environmental changes and challenges. Our greatest threat - and the most devastating human threat to be faced by Country - came with the dehumanising objectivities of Western culture, religion, and science. Just look at the damage that has followed this pattern all over the world. We talk a lot about Indigenous and environmental recovery, but I wonder...maybe it's a recovering Western culture and science that we really need.

Burnt Tree from 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge.
Burnt Tree from 2019/20 bushfires - S. Kian-Judge.

*Words & pictures by Sara Kian-Judge, 2020-22.

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