Indigenous Ecology & The Modern World

“It is the stories that we tell ourselves about life – both individually and in our wider cultures – that allow us to make sense of the bewildering array of sensory experiences and wider evidence that we encounter. They tell us what is important and they shape our perceptions and thoughts. Our cultural stories help to define who we are and they strongly impact on our behaviours. One example of a dominant story in our present culture is that of ‘progress’ – the story that we currently live in one of the most advanced civilisations the world has ever known and that we are advancing further and faster all the time. The problem with stories comes when they shape our thinking in ways that do not reflect reality and yet we refuse to change them. The evidence might support the view that this ‘advanced’ culture is not making us happy and is rapidly destroying our environment’s ability to support us, but dominant cultural stories are powerful things and those who challenge them tend to meet resistance and even ridicule.”

Rob Hopkins,The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience.”

At the moment, mainstream western social and economic values are shaped considerably by the forces of mass consumerism and materialism and this is placing a very heavy burden on the environment, particularly in terms of the greenhouses gases that are emitted as a result of our energy intensive lifestyles. Orthodox western social values currently maintain that happiness and well-being are to be found in the material realm, by acquiring greater financial or material wealth – money and possessions.

However, increasing automation and competition from economies with substantially lower wage costs than in the developed world are resulting in a growing shortage of meaningful and fulfilling employment, a shortage that is projected to worsen as technological improvements enable employers to replace workers with machines. At the same time,  substantial increases in the number of young people attending university has led to a parallel increase in their career and life expectations, hopes that are often dashed by the lack of graduate level jobs. This results in many young people taking unfulfilling, relatively meaningless jobs to pay their ever rising living costs. These young people make up the first generation since the industrial revolution to face lower living standards than their parents and who are facing growing levels of poor mental health, depression and suicide.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, be borrow it from our children”                    Native American Proverb

At the same time, globalisation and neo-liberalism has led many manufacturers that were previously based in the West to relocate to countries with much lower wage costs, leading to an erosion of blue-collar living standards. This, combined with an increase in migration from developing to developed societies, has led many of the so-called ‘left behind’ to turn to xenophobic nationalism and a retreat into cultural and ideological parochialism to express their frustrations.

Alienation from modern industrial society can also be due to the growing distance between urban society and the natural world, from which we can draw considerable spiritual nourishment and mental health benefits if we (re)connect with it. Running parallel to industrialisation, modernisation and mass media and consumption are trends away from active lifestyles towards more sedentary ones, towards process foods high in saturated fat and sugar which contribute towards heart, disease, obesity and diabetes and towards living in atomised, fragmented communities which contribute to social isolation and loneliness. These in turn have been shown to have a profoundly detrimental impact on physical and mental health.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”                    Chief Seattle

As alienation from orthodox western values grows, the health of the planet on which we depend, if existing and future generations are to enjoy health and prosperous lives, is threatened by a number of factors. The impact of the unfettered release of greenhouse gases on the climate is now clear, with more extreme weather patterns and the melting of Artic and Antarctic ice sheets. We are also becoming increasingly aware of the damage caused by our release of plastics into the environment. These problems and challenges cut across national boundaries and we therefore need to cultivate a sense of planetary community and kinship if we are to identify a common interest and therefore devise common actions with which to address these problems.

Our sense of who we are, with whom we belong and identify and with whom we can join in common cause or for whom we can make sacrifices in the name of community is passed down to us by our families or broadcast to us through the media we consume. In a pre-modern social context, these media were local in nature and transmitted on an inter-personal basis. As a result, identities and cultures were primarily local in nature. With the advent of modern communications technologies, first the printing press, the railroad, the telephone and television, identities became nationalised and with it our sense of community and identity.

“I believe that ancient tribal cultures have more important lessons to teach the rest of the world about the inter-connectedness of all living things and the simple fact that our very existence is dependent on the natural world we are rapidly destroying.”

Wilma Mankiller, The first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1945–2010

The primary social unit for which we might make sacrifices therefore became the ‘nation-state’. However, with advent of the internet, the internationalisation of other communications technologies and the impact of globalisation on the international economy has generated a growing awareness of shared social, economic and particularly environmental issues which transcend national boundaries. These transnational media are slowly facilitating the emergence of a sense of global citizenship, particularly amongst the younger generations who will face the costs of the environmental damage inflicted by current ones. At the same time, local and regional identities are enjoying a resurgence, facilitated in part by the ever lower costs of broadcasting and fueled by a sense that national governments are ignoring the interests of their regions.

Our work serves to highlight the importance of certain key elements of intangible heritage – our sense of identity and community, our values, goals and aspirations and our sense of progress, health, happiness, wealth and prosperity. We see a need for an ongoing process of reappraisal of these core social values if we are to develop layers of identity and culture fit for an era of increased globalisation. No longer is it necessary to have just one identity, but is possible and, we argue, more appropriate to adopt multiple identities which one may put on and take off like an outfit of clothes, depending on the social situation in which one finds oneself.

Our indigenous groups exemplify the most local of identities and the beauty and wealth of artistic and spiritual knowledge that can be embodied in very local identities. We also seek to raise awareness of the many individual physical and mental health benefits associated with participation in local community arts activities, as exemplified by traditional African drumming and dance. As the need for us to adopt less energy intensive lifestyles, informed by a deeper level of ecological understanding and responsibility, becomes ever more apparent, there is much we can learn from indigenous cultures. Many indigenous people live low-impact lifestyles, close to nature and possess considerable ecological and spiritual wealth, including important concepts of ecological guardianship and interconnection with nature that contrast with the western view of nature as a commodity to be exploited and consumed.

I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again. In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom. I salute the light within your eyes where the whole Universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am that place within me, we shall be one.”

Crazy Horse, Oglala Sioux Chief as he sat smoking the Sacred Pipe with Sitting Bull for the last time, four days before he was assassinated.