“The soil, we had to get out. We had no water. The water was filth. It was poison, it was sour. And then the crows came. We couldn’t grow anything.”
-The Many Mothers, Mad Max Fury Road
Under the protection of an enormous tree, in ancient woodland, I breathed in green. Surrounded by lush and abundant plant life, I imagined life without such a space, and imagined it replaced by barren and dry desert – absent of water, the basis of all life. I pictured the devastated ‘Green Place’ from Mad Max Fury Road . A dramatically unrealistic scenario, I guessed, and shook it out of my mind. Still riding high, I took a train back into city life.
In his Academy acceptance speech, Leonardo DiCaprio called climate change the most “urgent threat facing our entire species.” Science explains global warming as the overheating of the Earth’s surface through an overproduction of carbon dioxide. Unsafely high temperatures threaten worldwide land and food security. Nearly all scientists agree that this “is not a natural occurrence, but is primarily the result of human activity.” Fossil fuel extraction and burning creates exceptional levels of carbon emissions, which throws off the balance of natural carbon emitters such as volcanoes, for example.
Since over half of the world’s population today lives in cities, humans are increasingly more separated from nature than immersed in it, which could explain our difficulty in letting go of the carbon-emitting activities we’ve become dependent on. “Our increased use of electrical light, and reduced exposure to natural light” may be contributing to our poor quality of sleep. The sky is dark, but the Smartphone is lit. Recent research that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed states that going camping for 1 week will recover people’s circadian rhythm. But don’t we intuitively know that darkness indicates it’s time to wind down and sleep and that sunrise means it’s time to wake? Scientific research is helpful in setting the benchmark for our success or failure in preserving the planet and ourselves, but I’d like to believe that the power of human’s natural intuition is still available to us to achieve the same.
Humans originated in nature. Ten thousand years ago, all humans hunted and gathered food in the wild, relying on instinct in order to survive. Yet, today scientists at the World Wildlife Fund for example, distinguish us as being separate from nature: “Our scientists develop innovative approaches and apply the best available information to efforts directed at meeting the needs of both nature and people in a changing world.”
In the 16th Century, scientist Galileo viewed the complexities of natural life as a mathematical book. He proposed that nature is written in a language of “triangles, circles and other geometrical figures,” and that if we couldn’t understand it, we would be completely lost.
Thousands of years later, scientists have invented technological methods in order to understand what happens in nature. Scientists use mobile phone connectivity, animal tracking telemetry and cameras to map and monitor animals. This can help companies, banks and political actors to plan the development of “new roads, hydroelectric dams, mining and agricultural concessions.” Conservation areas – nature separated from modern society – function as a way to protect and also control outcomes in natural ecosystems.
Thousands of years before Galileo was born, nature’s ‘information’ was understood through Aboriginal epistemology, which makes no separation between human beings the natural world. Science host of The Nature of Things show, David Suzuki suggests that policymakers and suppliers could learn how to best obtain and sustain resources if they listened to and took into consideration the experiences of people native to the land.
Scholar Betty Bastien teaches how European thinking separates humans both from each other and from the natural world. She suggests that this way of knowing is informed by rationalisation and control over an object. In her book Blackfoot Ways of Knowing she writes: “By knowing one’s place in the cosmic universe, we form intricate alliances with the world…” By living and interacting in nature, one comes to understand that “land, animals, and spirits are not separate but an integral part of the Siksikaitsitapi world. They, too, are the source of science and knowledge. This same relationship exists with the elements, earth, wind, water, and rock – all are within the consciousness of the universe [Ihtsipaitapiiyo’pa] and make up the circle of life.” So conservation does not have to occur in isolation from human habitation. Aside from taking less from the earth, not only reducing our carbon footprint, Aboriginal Ways of Knowing show that there must also be an element of giving back to nature, as “…reciprocity is essential for the survival of all life.”
Neither science nor Indigenous epistemology has to ‘win’ in our understanding of nature. Much environmental work lies somewhere in between. For instance, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation and co-founder of the Coastwatch Grizzly Project in Canada is collaborating with young leaders to protect traditional lands and understand bear hunting behaviour using scientific data such as DNA samples. Historically, bear population data was not gathered in Great Bear Rainforest beyond rough estimates and observations in order to set hunting quotas. The people living in the area though, intimately know when bear populations are increasing or decreasing and can also identify individual bears based on their personalities and habits. This knowledge is passed down to the next generations who understand the importance of protecting bear to protect the forest.
Who makes vital decisions about the earth’s resources and how they’re used and protected? It depends on those in positions of power who perceive certain types of knowledge to be more or less valid. A case study in Małopolska, a region in southern Poland, shows how groups are categorised: “based on their rights (e.g., land owners), land use practices (e.g., farmers), roles in the policy process (e.g., scientists) or interests in its outcomes (e.g., investors, environmental groups).” In theory, all stakeholders have an equal stake and say in the land’s use. In practice, those in the higher positions can secure their interests through law and knowing the right people.
The Nature Conservancy takes a ‘rights-based’ approach to conservation, with projects around the world, such as the Amazon, Kenya, Canada and Australia. By working with indigenous people to uphold human rights to specific regions, nature is also protected. A youth-led environmental initiative includes 8-19 year olds in the USA who have taken the Federal Government to court for a violation of the Fifth Amendment right to due process and equal protection. One article on the case explains: “By failing to act on climate change…the government discriminates against youth as a class. Without access to a healthy climate, they’re deprived of their fundamental rights to life, liberty and property.”
Without having to rely completely on science, we probably know more than we give ourselves credit for. I can feel the Change. I barely had to wear a winter jacket in London this December, and Australia simultaneously experienced an uncomfortable heat wave. New York had the second worst snowstorm in history, which killed nearly 20 people. The list of lethal natural disasters in Southeast Asia continues to grow. As I appreciated the deadwood sprawling out of slate-faced walls, and the clear, cold water dripping off of clusters of plants before I resumed city living, I suppose I knew I had a responsibility to protect the Green Place.