My first experience in working within the conservation field yet outside of western science was when I was assigned to research the impacts of climate change on aquatic resources for a tribe located along Washington’s coast. I was fresh off my master’s degree, and they were looking for someone who could spend hours reading the literature about climate impacts. They needed to know what to expect when it came to access to salmon, the harvest of shellfish, and physical changes to streams and beaches. I asked what their time frame was. Were they talking changes over the next 20 years? 50 years?
No, they said. We plan for seven generations. Look as far into the future as you possibly can.
I was stunned. I had no idea anything remotely close to a government entity planned that far ahead. And it changed forever how I think of conservation.
Seven generations. It was like all the effort my professors put into teaching us the value of sustainable thinking was just inherent to them. All the discussion we’d had in class about how the world’s environmental crises would disappear if ecological and human well-beings were seen as interconnected was something intrinsic for this tribe.
I learned pretty quickly that remedying the disunion between humans and nature eliminates the arbitrary, and ultimately destructive, hierarchy between humans and nature. Doing so allows us to be nurturers to the environment, as opposed to just patrons of its offerings.
I learned about traditional knowledges: the observations about nature, and the meanings attached to natural processes, that are as old as the tribe itself. 10,000 years or more in this case. Explanations to natural phenomenon that western scientists never knew existed. Volcanic eruptions, ancient sea level rise and fall, the migrations of animals. And so much of what I was taught in school connected to this local knowledge.
Small-scale societies such as tribes recognize themselves as of the environment. Of it. Not merely on it, or in it. Of it, meaning one in the same. And this notion isn’t ahistorical for western, dominant society. We too once recognized the feedbacks and interactions between us and nature. Denial of this is relatively recent.
Policies such as the Green New Deal show an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature unlike much I’ve seen in politics in recent memory. I don’t know if it achieves the goal of giving nature the same status as humans, like those common in place-based peoples, but it’s a step toward it. And it seems to acknowledge that doing so, eliminating that disunion, will benefit humans and nature alike.
But there are those of us, within and outside of western science, that view our environment as kin and always have. The Achuar people in the Amazonian rainforest call this wakan: animals have the same spirit as humans, appearing as animals only on the outside. They have a consciousness, and intentionality with which they move. And they communicate among themselves and with animals of other species, like us.
Further reading: S. Caillon et al., 2017, “Moving beyond the human-nature dichotomy through biocultural approaches: including ecological well-being in resilience indicators,” Ecology and Society, 22.