Sustainable Wisdom: Indigenous Style
A focus on community well-being is our heritage.
Note: This was excerpted from Chapter 1: “People and Planet in Need of Sustainable Wisdom” written by Darcia Narvaez, Four Arrows, Eugene Halton, Brian Collier and Georges Enderle in the 2019 book, Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating First Nation Know-How for Global Flourishing.
Humanity is facing unprecedented planetary disruption not only from global warming, but also from the devastation of natural ecologies and extensive pollution. It is easy to feel that this is inevitable collateral damage from “progress.” But this damage is largely recent in the history of humanity (a few hundred years), accelerated in the last 50 years.
Our demise, and that of planetary well-being, is not inevitable. There are many societies that lived sustainably for thousands and even tens of thousands of years. What do they know that we can learn from them?
What accounts for the differences between dominant, global modern culture and the cultures of successful, sustainable indigenous communities that existed for tens of thousands of years, which are still represented today in many first nations around the world?
First, there appear to be contrary worldviews. An ancient worldview considers the cosmos to be “unified, sacred and moral.” Communities who live with this worldview are connected to the lifeways of a particular landscape, promoting the flourishing of the local biocommunity, with human beings one among many members. All human actions are considered integral to the well-being of the biocommunity, and so must be thoughtful and respectful of the other-than-human. The other, more recent, worldview considers the cosmos “fragmented, disenchanted, amoral” (Four Arrows & Narvaez, 2016; Redfield, 1953). Modern civilization has become infused with this worldview, which focuses on preventing bad outcomes (for humans) through promoting accumulation (hoarding, then consumerism), using coercion to enforce norms of hierarchy and obedience to the system; at the same time, its efforts intentionally work against nature and focus on human aggrandizement (Mumford, 1967; Christen, Narvaez & Gutzwiller, 2017). The goal became to ensure that, no matter the cost, the human group would survive. Often this entails exterminating anything in the way of human dominance and control—presumed necessary to avoid human suffering and death.
Second, embedded in this recent worldview is a sense of separation from and superiority to nature, a view that reaches all the way back to the origins of mono-agricultural civilizations. This harmful cocktail of separation and superiority intensified in recent centuries. In fact, Western scholarship was founded on assumptions about human separation from and superiority to nature, easily casting off the well-being and even continuing existence of other life forms as unimportant or collateral damage to humanity’s goals. “Personhood” was removed from all but humans, and nature became a commodity for human interests (Merchant, 1980). The pursuit of wealth as an end in itself has resulted in unsustainable ways of living, contrasting with non-civilized cultures that thrived for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years before being displaced.
Third, from their beginnings in the 16th century, Western science, technology, and economics have grown as outlooks based on extreme abstraction (Latour, 2013). These fields advocate systematic detachment from the Earth, thereby breaking the bonds of relational responsibility to other-than-humans who were studied as objects. On the other hand, detachment from relational commitment to the well-being of the natural world has led to sophisticated technologies, some helpful and some destructive. Detached science and technology, in part because of their philosophy of separation and control, have led to great physical comforts—but only for a minority of humans, and often with catastrophic hidden costs.
Fourth, perhaps most tragically, Western expansionism and global control of most areas of the Earth have impaired capacities to perceive alternatives to the current pathway of increased control and extermination of nature. As Thomas Berry has pointed out, humans continue to be enchanted with technology, despite the fact that the “wonder world” promised has led instead to a waste world (Berry, 1990, 1999). Cultures that do not conform have been forced into submission to the dominant system. Landscapes are degraded and species lost for the sake of “progress.” Globalized culture often seems unable to perceive an alternative to the current pathway of increased control and domination of nature and destruction of cultures that do not conform to the dominant format.
When considered from the perspective of the history of human cultures, predominant Western beliefs of individualism, human superiority, and separation from nature, and their resulting practices, are odd, rare, and even aberrant (Sahlins, 2008). Most societies in the history of the world would consider individual “self-interest”—assumed normal human nature in most of the West—to be profoundly destructive and even a sign of insanity.
Non-industrialized, first-nation indigenous societies around the world support the ancient worldview, an “indigenous” worldview that can provide a portal to global flourishing (Christen, Narvaez & Gutzwiller, 2017). An emphasis on “global flourishing,” in contrast to “economic globalization,” provides an alternative pathway from the fatalistic pathway of the dominant worldview. The goal is to promote a flourishing life through following nature’s gift economy (constant sharing, giving and taking among entities), being receptive to the natural flow of events, working with nature respectfully to promote diversity, including valuing human life as inseparable from the lives of other members of the biocommunity. First-nation societies “feel themselves to be guests not masters” (F. Shepard, 1998; P. Shepard, 1998). They display a whole different awareness of humanity’s place: walking with the Earth, not simply on it, and walking within its relational grasp (Ingold, 2005). Accordingly, the view includes a sense that spirit pervades all things, that all are related and, indeed, that humans are younger siblings who have much to learn from creatures who have resided on this planet far longer. This worldview is accompanied by a sense of place on the Earth, by a feeling of being at home and practices of fitting in with the local landscape and biocommunity.
Many first-nations peoples of the Earth have lived well and kindly with the Earth for generations. Many first-nations peoples around the world come from cultures that lived sustainably and relatively peacefully for tens of thousands of years (Fry, 2006). Their companionship orientation—from raising children, to living with humans and nonhumans—fosters enduring wisdom, morality, and flourishing (Cooper, 1998; Deloria, 2006). These societies are continuous with 99 percent of the history of the genus Homo and provide evidence for humanity’s sustainable relationship with the rest of nature. Thus, we may regard the indigenous worldview and lifestyle as a baseline for humanity living well on the Earth and as an alternative pathway for human futures.
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