How Aboriginal ways of decision-making can sustain global humanity

In business, the reliability and resilience of ecological governance are illustrated in organisations like the US-based Visa card organisation, the John Lewis Partnership in the UK and the multi-stakeholder cooperatives of Mondragon in Spain. They also demonstrate that stakeholder-governed firms can deliver both business excellence and enriched democracy.

The traditional practices of Aboriginal Australians illustrate how modern humanity could achieve global sustainability from local self-governance. These practices that enrich democracy are not taught at universities by social scientists. However, engineers who design self-governing automobiles and spacecraft follow these practices. Aboriginal knowledge looks at sustainable self-governance for all living things.

Without knowing how to survive, thrive, and reproduce in complex, dynamic environments, life cannot exist. These complexities involve new ways of understanding, feeling, hearing, and participating with reality for most modern individuals. English language 'speaks about' nature and environments as if these concepts are separate to people. However, Indigenous languages describe complex networks of relationships that are place-connected, physical, cultural and intuitive.

By embracing these complex systems-thinking possibilities, we can develop solutions to society's big problems. These include overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and the pollution of oceans, atmosphere and soils. This requires transformative learning that recognises humans as part of multispecies ecosystems, which begins in early childhood, continues through schooling and underpins university studies. 

Universities need to teach sustainable knowledge

Despite The Conversation identifying environmental risks as "the most important mission for universities in the 21st century", a failure to consider sustainable self-governance concepts where people are ecosystem participants is an intellectual hole for universities' curriculums.

This is because universities teach in separate disciplines, whereas complex thinking is interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary.  What happens in our higher education institutions reflects a deeper problem in modern Australian society. It lacks recognition of the strengths and knowledge systems of First Nations people.

No Aboriginal languages have a word for "ownership". It is not required. Nor do they need the economic language that invades every aspect of our life: "value", "price", "cost", "markets" or "hierarchy". These words are not required. Market failure and the "groupthink"[i] of toxic hierarchies[ii] are responsible for making modern society unsustainable.

Bottom-up self-governance is fundamental to the way Indigenous Australians govern their communities and their larger regions. One of us saw this Aboriginal self-governance in action at an annual meeting of the Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Trust fund[iii]. It was a compelling example of distributed decision-making. In her 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Elinor Ostrom described this as "polycentric governance".

Polycentric governance: Distributed and contested decision-making

Polycentric governance introduces competing checks and balances that mirror the way the human brain works. Different parts of our brain are responsible for making different types of decisions. Different parts of our brains cooperate and compete for dominance according to internal needs and drives and external threats and opportunities. Social scientists should be schooled in this thinking to educate tomorrow's managers on how to counter existential risks.

Polycentric governance is universally found in nature.  So we describe it as "ecological". While this suggests – rightly – that it is effectively applied to protecting the environment, it also reflects the idea of governance as an ecosystem that allows for complexity and contrary paradoxical relationships.

In business, the reliability and resilience of ecological governance are illustrated in organisations like the US-based Visa card organisation, the John Lewis Partnership in the UK and the multi-stakeholder cooperatives of Mondragon in Spain. They also demonstrate that stakeholder-governed firms can deliver both business excellence and enriched democracy.

US Vice President Al Gore in 1996 recognised the efficacy of ecological governance. Gore suggested governments should be "imprinting the DNA" of society and "Evolution could offer insight into our social structures. But at the moment, we lack the vocabulary even to begin such discussions".  Today a vocabulary has been developed to provide simple tests to identify knowledge gaps. These can be used to help us solve some of the most significant challenges we face, not least, countering environmental degradation.

Contestability in the decision making of ecological governance is a neglected subject in management education. This explains why a group of three highly experienced and intelligent company directors, appointed by a leading Australian bank in 2019, could not answer a question as to "what good risk governance looks like". As a result, the bank was required by its regulator a year later to improve its risk management. This starkly reveals a management knowledge gap exposing society to existential risks.

Larry Fink, the largest fund manager in the world, wants "A new model for corporate governance" as "companies must benefit all of their stakeholders". Ecological governance offers "a new way to govern" to promote global common goods like countering climate change. In 2019, 180 CEO from the US Business Round Table who had Fink as a shareholder supported providing benefits for all their stakeholders.

Groupthink among management scholars has denied many the chances to consider the relevance of alternative ways of thinking. As practised by First Nations people, sustainable self-governance offers a different approach to the narrow forms of governance organisations currently cling to. Stakeholder-led self-regulation makes for better decision-making and reduces the cost, size and intrusion of government. As communities of knowledge, universities should broaden their thinking – and more importantly, their teaching – to incorporate ecological self-governance.

The need to manage existential risks to humanity is so overwhelmingly critical that university funding should become subject to the immediate teaching of ecological governance. A tax incentive for shareholders to create a stakeholder society provides a compelling way for political leaders to win or maintain government.

[Word count excluding three endnotes: 869, endnote word count: 96]

23 Embedded URLs

"enrich democracy" with a link to video presented by Shann Turnbull 2021, on "Reshaping capitalism for a sustainable world" posted at: 

"follow these practices" with the link to a video hosted by the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) with   a presentation by Shann Turnbull (2020) on "Avoiding extinction requires the knowledge of System Scientists" at: 

"sustainable self-governance for all living things" with a link to Anne Poelina, et. al (2020) article: A coalition of hope! A regional governance approach to indigenous Australian cultural wellbeing at:     

'speaks about'  with a link to Glenn A. Albrecht (2019) book: Earth Emotions: New words for a new world posted at: 

"systems-thinking" with a link to Shann Turnbull 2021 video hosted by the International Society for System Scientists, July 12, 'Avoiding extinctions by adopting the governance of nature',

"The Conversation" with a link to The Conversation June 4, 2020 at:

" strengths and knowledge" with a link to Shann Turnbull (1980) Aboriginal Development in the Northern Territory - A Study in Two Parts: 1. Impact of Mining Royalties; 2. Self-Sufficiency (with Land Rights) posted at:

"ownership" with a link to Shann Turnbull (1986) "When land owns people" posted at:

"Market failure" with a link to the Stern Review final report (2009) posted at:

"communities and their larger regions "article by Redvers et. al (2020). "Indigenous Natural and First Law in Planetary Health" as posted at:

"acceptance speech" by  Elinor Ostrom (2009) as posted at:

"different types of decisions"   article by Scott Kelso et. al (2012) as posted at

"universally found in nature", with a link to Turnbull, S. and Guthrie, J. (2019) 'Simplifying the management of complexity: As achieved by nature', The Journal of Behavioural Economics and Social Systems (BESS),1(1), pp. 51-73,

"ecological" with a link to Turnbull, S. 2015, 'Sustaining society with ecological capitalism', Human Systems Management, 34, pp. 17-32,

"imprinting the DNA" speech by Al Gore (1996) as posted at:

"what good risk governance looks like" with a link to "Appendix C: Terms of Reference" on page 32 of "Westpac Group ASX Release 4 June 2020" posted at:  

"A new model for corporate governance" with a link to Larry Fink's 2018 letter to CEOs "A sense of purpose" posted at: 

"a new way to govern" with a link to Shann Turnbull (2002) A new way to govern: Organisations and society after Enron, New Economics Foundation: London, posted at:

"benefits for all their stakeholders" with a link to

"different approach", with a link to: Turnbull, S. (2014), 'How Might Network Governance Found in Nature Protect Nature?' Journal of European Law, 11(2): 98-102, April,

"Stakeholder-led self-regulation"  with a link to Shann Turnbull (2021) "Privatising regulation to enrich democracy" posted by Long Finance at:  

“incentive” with a link to:  ‘De-Tax Yourself To Eternal Wellbeing’, Shann Turnbull (2021), Long Finance

"win”, with a link to Shann Turnbull (2020) “Wining government by reducing inequality with less taxes’, 




[i] “Groupthink” was raised as a concern in public companies by Fink L. (2018), “Letter to CEOs: A sense of purpose”, 

[ii] The systemic toxic features of hierarchies are tabulated in: Turnbull, S. 2021, ‘Reshaping capitalism for a sustainable world’ presented June 16 online to European Academy of Management virtual conference: “Reshaping Capitalism for a Sustainable World”,

[iii] Refer to “Aboriginal Money Managers – Groote Eylandt” pages 12-18 in Turnbull, S. (1977) Impact of mining royalties on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, First Report, October, Parliamentary Paper No. 135/1978, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia,


Bio notes 

Anne Poelina PhD is a descendent of the lower Fitzroy River Country, earth rights advocate and cinematic storyteller. Anne is an Adjunct Professor, Senior Research Fellow, University of Notre Dame, Nulungu Research Institute Broome, Australia, Cell: +61 (0) 408 922 155, email: [email protected] 

Shann Turnbull PhD is the Principal: International Institute for Self-governance, Author of Democratising the wealth of nations, 1975 and the first education course in the world for Company Directors, PO Box 266 Woollahra, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 1350. Cell: +61 (0) 418 222 378, email: [email protected]

James Guthrie AM, is a Distinguished Professor of Accounting and Corporate Governance at Macquarie University Sydney, Editor of the Journal of Accounting, Auditing and Accountability, Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Behavior and System Science (BESS), Cell: +61 (0) 0402 153 453, email: [email protected] 


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