Designing Sustainable Societies by Incorporating Indigenous Realism

Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College

Sustainability is not optional; it is a requirement if we wish to ensure the viability of future generations. Unfortunately, the concept of sustainability is too vague for many people to value and strive to achieve. As educators in the Earth Sciences, we have a crucial role to provide our students (and our society) with an understanding of the need to achieve sustainability and the means to develop sustainable practices and plans. To do so, we need to go beyond the current, WEIRD*, definitions of science and modes of communication, they are too limiting and do not include vital information and approaches.

I adopt the proposal put forth by the Native American scholar Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muscogee) that we must seek and incorporate indigenous knowledges in our efforts to achieve environmental stability and sustainability. In his book Red Alert (2009), Dr. Wildcat asserts that to fully understand the Earth and how it works, we need to tap into the knowledge base by "listening to what indigenous people can share about their worldviews...and, more importantly, examining how indigenous people act and have acted" because their worldviews and lifeways are inextricably linked to and emergent from the ecosystems in which they live. Embedded in their lifeways are many generations of experience with every aspect of the natural systems with which they co-exist. Wildcat goes further to state that any successful solutions to local and global environmental crises will need to be linked to the environments in which those solutions are situated. To act otherwise, to try to impose cookie-cutter solutions, is destined to fail.

Dr. Wildcat's approach has many benefits as we seek to achieve a sustainable society.
- It provides a rich source of information on how the planet works, where changes are occurring most rapidly, and what the impact of those changes are.
- It provides insight into how solutions to environmental problems need to be developed.
- It provides a means of communicating both concerns and solutions in a manner that engages a very wide audience.

Indigenous people whose lifeways remain enmeshed with their environment experience that environment in most, often all, aspects of their lives. Subtle changes are noticed immediately as unusual odors, sounds, and sights; changes in wildlife migration patterns; changes in planting and harvest times; changes in snow and ice; and many other aspects of their lives. Lived experiences serve as valuable indicators of change because these changes are often noticed before they show up in quantitative data, if such data is even being collected. In addition, because their cultural practices emerged from interactions with their environment over many generations, those practices also serve as a record of past environmental conditions.

Indigenous lifeways serve as examples for developing solutions to complex environmental problems. These lifeways are unique to the environments in which they developed, and long-term solutions to environmental concerns, must, likewise, be tailored to local conditions. Present practice in the WEIRD tradition is to develop solutions that work in a controlled environment and then apply those solutions broadly. Geoscientists know that these carefully engineered designs often fail to work as hoped because controlled circumstances never align with the reality experienced in the field. Indigenizing responses means developing unique designs that are compatible with the environment as it is, including the people who live there. As Wildcat asserts, "indigenous realism [is] a living system of knowledge, one that is not frozen in time, but a deep experiential knowledge that is capable of change and innovation, the ability to figure out what works in a particular place for the people of that place."

Indigenous practices also serve as a guide when developing communications. Stories about lived experience are more engaging for most audience than tables of data. People who are impacted by a changing environment experience that change as unusual weather, plants dying, insect invasions, changes in wildlife behavior or abundance, unprecedented flooding, unpleasant odors, and many other ways. When we communicate urgency, we need to describe changes in a manner that is most meaningful to the audience; this can include stories of people who are already experiencing impacts and of what people are likely to experience in the future.

The best approach to designing Earth Education for Sustainable Societies is to broaden our perspective to incorporate indigenous knowledges and approaches. We need to develop a relationship with the landscapes in which we live, pay attention to what the living and physical aspects of those environments are communicating to us, and tailor our lifeways to those environments. As geologists, we have much to share and much to learn.

Reference Cited

Wildcat, Daniel, 2009, Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge: Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 143 p.

* WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic

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