It’s a term we’re hearing more and more at the convergence of science and policy-making: “wicked” problems too large and complex for any one discipline to tackle. The word implies a moral dimension that previously hasn’t been associated with ecological issues—formerly the purview of environmental science and engineering. The youth, in particular, are demanding that leaders begin making decisions based on a unifying consciousness. It is only by embracing indigenous values and allowing these to overcome centuries of fickle, bipartisan divide that we stand a chance in driving real, long-lasting, environmentally-friendly change that nourishes us from our souls to our soils.
I recently had the pleasure of attending an uplifting and informative talk by Professor of Indigenous Peoples Law, Dr. Rebecca Tsosie. Of Yaqui descent, Tsosie is a dynamic, magnetic force to be reckoned with as she encourages us to consider the benefits that can come from creating climate policies based on the culture and beliefs of indigenous peoples. These are communities with voices not being invited to the table for key discussions and—in all honesty—it’s a disgrace. Consider that indigenous peoples occupy approximately 22% of the Earth’s land surface and host over 80% of our biodiversity and you soon realize that we are ignoring centuries of wisdom by keeping them silenced.
Respectable media platforms like The Guardian now refer to climate change as the “crisis” that it is, but this term is only just entering the mainstream dialogue 10 years after the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, hosted in Alaska in 2009. During The Anchorage Declaration, participants from the world over called for the immediate phasing out of fossil fuels, as well as detrimental practices on their land, including food and water contamination, GMO, deforestation, and extraction. Furthermore, they called for the right to mobility on their own land, rather than forced displacement—the latter a devastating reality for those left with polluted land and water and depleted resources.
We recently discussed the ecosystem collapse happening right now in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, brought about by our unsustainable salmon overfishing, parasite problems worsened by fish farming, and climate change. As well as affecting the grizzlies and orcas, river tribes are facing the very real pressure of having to relocate due to the decimation of resources they have survived and thrived upon for centuries. When the rivers run void of fish and the wells run dry, the top soil—once fertile—now a sweeping of dust void of life and nourishment, the air too foul to breathe, what then? Whose responsibility is it to provide “compensation” for a loss of culture, history and resources, instigated by humanity as a collective? Who is to blame for the changing climate, ecosystem collapse, and pollution that comprise the Anthropocene?
Corporate greed and wasteful consumption habits got us into this mess, but there’s a key factor missing in the solution that that comes only from the wisdom of a variety of indigenous peoples: the power of spirit and the metaphysical. Many tribes believe in spirits other than human. These might be land, tree or animal and whether that resonates with you or not, tell me what bad can come from trying it on for fit? Begin to imagine the ways that your decision to tamper with even one small facet of an ecosystem can have ripples to the farthest reaches and you might reassess to see if there’s a way to minimize your impact.
Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen distinctive spiritual relationships with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
The emphasis on the responsibility to future generations is a sentiment that cannot be faulted, yet it is painfully lacking in mainstream society. This flagrant disregard is why we continue with such destructive habits, thinking only of ourselves, as though isolated in time and space.
As time goes on and indigenous peoples are forced off of their lands as a result of the poor choices of humanity as a collective, I wonder who will be the ones to provide compensation for their loss of not just soil and water, but of history? Will we continue to sit here and do nothing while our decisions support cultural genocide?
We sit at the crossroads now, with an obligation to listen to one another, starting with those living and breathing the sustainability and conservation in their blood. Before the trends and the “lifestyle movements,” these were people who saw that what damages the environment damages us.
Indigenous communities not only provide us with a new, critical paradigm in order for us to have a viable future—they also hold a wealth of Traditional Knowledge that they have cultivated through millennia of living in close relationship with the land. It is increasingly being revealed that conservation and sustainability are not just a matter of a new startup idea or engineering—the time-tested, tried-and-true wisdom is essential to connect all the dots in the complex web of an ecosystem.
Ask leaders in your community what they are doing to support indigenous peoples and reach out to those very people wherever you are in the world with the simple challenge of trying on a new perspective for size. You might be surprised where it leads you.
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