The word “culture” has many different meanings, at its most basic referring to the tillage of the soil to grow crops. However, when applied to people, it can be defined as “the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population” . Culture in this context is all-embracing, it relates to both tangible and intangible aspects of society expressed through values, identity, place, politics, ideologies and art.
Until recently, Western societies have tended to regard humans as separate to nature which was seen to be at our disposal to be exploited and shaped to our will . Our culture is thought to be external to environment and not part of it. Griffiths argues that “nature has often been seen to lie outside culture, as an absolute and a given, as a hard, physical, earthy, empirical reality against which culture defines itself”. We are now seeing the results worldwide of a system that has no respect for the natural world. Indigenous peoples tend to see nature and themselves as one, where everything is imbued with life in a network of mutually dependent relationships. The one cannot survive without the other. The land is their culture, it is who they are. Deborah Bird Rose describes the Aboriginal concept of country:
People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. . . country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.
Attitudes towards environmental issues can be widely different depending on the culture of the people involved. Understanding these attitudes is essential to the implementation of projects such as natural resource management. In Australia, animals considered as pests by government departments may be seen as a valuable resource by the Aborigines, who have adopted it into their culture. What we might see as just another tree to be cut down and used may be of huge significance to Indigenous people, for example the Asmat of West Papua and the gharu tree. Environment and culture are completely interdependent. Our surroundings shape us and we shape them according to our attitudes and beliefs. If we want to address environmental issues, we have to take into account the cultural context.