The best environmentalists I know are the ones who have over 60,000 years of experience

By Breana Macpherson-Rice

“You talk of conservation, keep the forest pristine green

Yet in 200 years your materialism has stripped the forest clean”

Kev Carmody, ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’

On a gusty winter evening in July last year, I sat as part of a large crowd gathered around a smouldering fire on the soggy baseball field of Flinders University, Adelaide. Drawn here by the Students of Sustainability conference, we had the privilege of listening to First Nations elders, who had travelled from all over the country to share their stories on Kaurna land.

For me, that evening was a reality check. As a young environmental science student, my empirical knowledge of nuclear fuel, energy, and waste was pretty limited. I guess it wasn’t an industry I’d readily support — a brief recollection of Fukushima hinted that much — but I wasn’t aware of any reasons I should oppose such an industry in Australia.

My perspective widened dramatically after I attended the conference. Mitch, a fierce Aranda/Luritja activist from the desert, told us of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga in the 50s – a legacy I somehow hadn’t heard of before. I discovered that these tests poisoned and killed many Indigenous people, contaminating their land and lifeblood with radioactivity indefinitely.

Arabunna Elder, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, told us the dreamtime story of the sleepy Kalta lizard that lives under the ground, not to be disturbed due to the poison in its belly. This lesson has been kept alive through the oral histories of generations that stretch back far longer than any Western civilisation. Yet, instead of heeding this message, we have excavated the ground to build the Olympic Dam mine — one of the largest producers of Australian uranium, which is transformed into radioactive yellowcake and sold across the world. It is an established fact that Australian uranium was present in the reactors at Fukushima when the plant went down.

Understandably, First Nations communities here are distraught, feeling they have failed to pass on their ancestor’s warnings to prevent disasters from happening today. I believe, however, that it is we who have failed: to listen, and to act.

Since hearing these stories, I have come to understand that Australia is only minimally entangled in the nuclear industry because of the tireless efforts of First Nations groups around the country. The more I learn, the more I realise that the same is true of most environmental struggles in Australia. We need only listen to the traditional custodians of this land to understand that they are the ones fighting hardest against the projects damaging our land. Their knowledge about this country spans two ice ages and countless generations – it’s fair to say they are pretty reliable when it comes to thinking sustainably.

Ultimately, when it comes to the environment, I’ve learnt that it’s time for us to sit down and listen to those who know best.

The Students of Sustainability conference will be held this year from the 7-11 July in Brisbane on Jagera and Turrbal land.

Go to for more information.