Alchemy, Real Estate and the Culture of Conservation in Byron Bay. (Visualising Place and Space)

Article excerpt

The scientific and industrial revolutions marked a radical shift in how we describe the universe and operate within it. The shift has been revolutionary not in the speed with which changes have taken place but in their continuing influence on our lives. According to Marx and Engels' base/superstructure theory of history, social revolutions begin in society's economic base. When the material forces of production come into conflict with existing relations of production this initiates a period of rapid social change which transforms the entire superstructure. Carolyn Merchant argues that such revolutionary changes may equally be effected by major transformations in human relations with nature. These arise from `changes, tensions, and contradictions that develop between a society's mode of production and its ecology'. (1) Merchant suggests that if a society can be understood as `a mutually supportive structure of dynamically interacting parts', then the process of its `breakdown and transformation to a new whole can be described'. (2) It may be possible to discern intimations of dynamic transformations in our own times and to evaluate whether we are still developing in an environmentally unsustainable direction.

In this context the culture of conservation in Byron Bay is of particular interest. Byron is an experimental community at the epicentre of alternative living in Australia, particularly in relation to spirituality and environmental activism. In this article I will present the outlines of a transdisciplinary study of the `battle for Byron'. (3) Byron Shire serves as a cultural laboratory for an emerging worldview and a new way of doing business and government that reflects a new ecological paradigm. Social historians have discussed the notion of a cultural laboratory. William Irwin Thompson explains that:

   What the planetary villages like Findhorn and Auroville really are is a 
   kind of planetary deme. This is the word geneticists use to describe small 
   isolated subpopulations that have a mutation in them. The species will 
   always send out little tendrils from the major adaptation of where it is 
   now, and these tendrils will explore new ecological niches and in these 
   niches a mutation will occur ... All these planetary villages are 
   evolutionary demes, little subpopulations where cultural evolution and 
   physical evolution are becoming conscious. (4) 

Findhorn in Scotland and Auroville in South India are intentional communities, and the deme analogy may also be used to refer to Byron Shire as a cultural experiment.

Examples of the reputation and self-image of Byron Bay abound. Richard Zachariah describes Byron Bay as `Our spiritual mecca for the new age ... an experimental community willing to limit growth in return for expanded and fuller lives for its people'. (5) He then describes the 2000 Millennium celebrations in Byron Bay:

   Through the all-night party, talking to groups from all walks of life, the 
   thread was there that change is welcome for the common good. Where fear of 
   the future is seen as but a passing thought ... There is a spirituality 
   about the place, a search for an inner peace and certainty in a sustainable 
   environment that they are willing to fight for. This is a community that 
   aims high and sometimes misses ... Byron will play a part in the new 
   millennium, where people continue to come to feed the soul. (6) 

Rabbi Laibl Wolf, a leading modern-day exponent of the Kabbalah, is `very impressed by the openness of people here [in Byron Bay] to spiritual values'. (7) During a four month sojourn in Byron, Helena Norberg Hodge, editorial board member of the Ecologist, said that she had been `uplifted by the degree of interest in the "global to local" message'. (8)

New trends and principles, such as community participation in local government decision making, are being experimented with in Byron Shire, although the `experiment' has not been set up with the customary controls. …