Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World's Oldest People (2006), by Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe
In Treading Lightly, Swedish management theorist Karl-Erik Sveiby addresses directly the central paradox of modernity: that despite the proliferation of specialised knowledge and the general raising of living standards (at least for modernity’s beneficiaries), our present system of ordering the world is unsustainable and likely, if nothing is done, to end in our destruction. Sveiby’s book lies somewhere near the James Lovelock/Tim Flannery end of the debate, so is far, far away from the ideas of that minority of scientists and others still in denial of the existence of this paradox, the most famous of whom is probably Bjørn Lomborg.
Perhaps even more uncomfortable to those clinging to the erroneous idea that today’s globalised system, with its emphasis on individual liberty and material well-being, is the knowledge that there are cultures that have survived – and prospered – for over forty thousand years. Sveiby analyses one of these cultures, the Nhungabarra nation of the Nhunggal country in north-western New South Wales, with the assistance of painter, educator and custodian of Nhungabarra stories, Tex Skuthorpe.
Sveiby makes well the point that, while the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent were able to thrive on this land for over forty millennia, Europeans, with their unapologetic emphasis on exploitation, have largely destroyed that same land in just two hundred years. Often, through unsustainable agricultural and mining practices, the destruction has been ‘achieved’ in one generation.
Sveiby believes that, contrary to previously accepted wisdom (which employs evolutionary theory to assert that ‘western civilisation’ is more ‘advanced’ than traditional Indigenous society), the Nhungabarra had developed a highly advanced social structure, central to which was the idea of ‘context-specific’ leadership. There was no supreme leader (like a king or a president); rather, each individual had at least one major leadership role, depending on the particular situation. All decisions were made on a consensus basis, which various anthropologists and political historians have noted is possible only until the population becomes too large. Sveiby argues that a major contributor to the Nhungabarra’s sustainability over such a long period was the rigid control of population size. This can be contrasted with present-day notions of ‘populate or perish’, still propagated by so-called conservative thinkers.
Another major contributor, in Sveiby’s opinion, was the Nhungabarra’s world-view, which saw humans as part of the natural world, rather than as distinct from it. Whereas Europeans (and Asians) have for centuries seen their relationship with land as one of ‘ownership’, and have therefore seen its exploitation as not only appropriate but desirable, the Nhungabarra saw themselves as ‘custodians’ of the natural world, the maintenance of which was their primary social objective.
To us (and the European explorers, invaders and settlers of the 17th-20th centuries), schooled in ideas of material ‘progress’ (presented as self-evidently ‘good’), the concept of a society ordered around apparent torpidity is deeply troubling. Unable to escape our ‘progress’ paradigm, we search for explanations which privilege progress; thus, the biological theory of evolution becomes a social theory, Indigenous societies are presented as ‘primitive’ and/or ‘inferior’, and our cleverness is confirmed. But Sveiby asks: just how clever is it to destroy one’s own habitat? Of what benefit is modernity, viewed from a holistic perspective? The majority of the world’s population is suffering the consequences of centuries of exploitation by the few; those of us who benefit from this exploitation are shielded from the destruction we and our ancestors have caused.
In this sense, Sveiby’s book is the latest in a recent spate of popular science volumes pleading for us to change our ways. Flannery’s The Weather Makers (2005) describes the global warming (or, as the US likes to call it, ‘climate change’) phenomenon that is already wreaking havoc around the world. By examining the collapse of past great civilisations, Ronald Wright’s Massie lectures series, published as A Short History of Progress (2004), and Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2005) predict doom for our own. The closest a ‘western’ scientist has come to an Aboriginal world-view is arguably the ‘Gaia’ theory, labelled by William Golding but formulated and developed by James Lovelock. Initially described in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979, Lovelock’s theory is that the Earth acts as a huge, self-regulating organism, which is dying after centuries of having its natural processes overrun. His latest book is Revenge of Gaia (2006).
By questioning the assumptions that underlie our present social structures, Sveiby’s book makes a valuable contribution to this school of thought, and to the ongoing debate regarding our future. Its strength and its shortcoming is its simplicity, and it could be accused of presenting an oversimplified ‘Aboriginal = good, European = bad’ dichotomy. I don’t believe that was Sveiby’s motivation in writing the book, however, and it does provide a structured way of thinking about sustainability, which much of the discourse to date has lacked. [Russell]
 See for example the proceedings of the 2003 National Population Summit in Parliament House, Adelaide, collected in: Australian Population Institute, Australia’s Population Challenge (2004).
 For a particularly cogent examination of the ideas of ownership, albeit written within a ‘western’ paradigm, see JW Harris, Property and Justice (1996).
 See Steven Poole, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality (2006).