The ecology of indigenous peoples

Issue 

The Wisdom of the Elders
By Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki
Sydney: Allen and Unwin. 232pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Human history is part of natural history. Human beings arose via their interactions with nature.

Human society developed out of animal social organisation. Active social forces continue to act like natural ones. Their blindness and destructiveness merely reproduce the logic of evolution in the natural world.

However, as society gives rise to class divisions, the human population ceases to be the unit of adaptation. "Thereafter", write biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, "each regular interaction of people in a given culture with nature is determined by the interests of the different social classes in their conflictive or cooperative relations with each other".

Consequently, the laws that govern social organisation become as foreign to us as the many laws of nature. But once we understand them and grasp their action, we can subject them more and more to our own will.

The modern ecology movement is absorbed in this problem. If we are to survive as a species, we urgently need to find a better way of interacting with nature. The quest is to discover the relationship that connects living things to one another and their surroundings. The narrow focus of modern science is found wanting. Barely does it comprehend the interconnectedness of life.

Writers like David Suzuki have grasped this urgency. In The Wisdom of the Elders, written with Peter Knudtson, he pursues better human relationships with nature by turning to the cultures of the world's indigenous peoples for insight.

Peoples such as the !Kung San of southern Africa, the Aranda of central Australia, the Dayak of Sarawak and the Canadian Inuit all have perspectives on nature that are culturally valid and worthy of respect in their own right. Through a series of vignettes selected from the literature on and by first peoples, Knudtson and Suzuki argue that while the dimension of the interconnectedness of all life may have escaped the methods of Western science, indigenous ecological consciousness has done much better.

"The most fruitful dialogue between Nature and western modes of thought", they write, "will take place not under the scorching light of scholarly western intellectual analysis but individually and internally within individual human minds, through mental and emotional processes of personal transformation that take place as culturally different ideas and values collide without the need for any final 'proof', mutual exclusion, or conclusive 'conquest' of one tradition's vision over the other." The authors consider that native ecological consciousness is compatible with modern science.

In this holistic quest, Knudtson and Suzuki advocate that the solution for us rests in a quasi-religious movement along the lines advocated by deep ecologists such as Paul Ehrlich. Intrinsic in the scientific world view is a progressive despiritualisation of nature, and "if western science does not need the Native Mind, the human mind and in particular, the western mind and society do".

In his personal foreword, Suzuki — a professor of genetics — attacks the arrogance and shallowness of modern science, which is unable to comprehend the deepest secrets of the universe. However, Suzuki is missing something very significant here.

We are both part of the natural world and separate from it. We are creatures in a society of our own making but still must relate to the community of nature. The view of nature that dominates our society has arisen as an accompaniment to the changes in our own social relations over the last 600 years.

Inevitably, we see in physical nature a reflection of the social relations in which our lives are embedded. Charles Darwin applied the economic theories of Thomas Malthus to explain the process of evolutionary biology. Thereafter these very same discovered natural "laws" were used to justify the "survival of the fittest" in capitalist society. Because termite nests have "queens", ants are "soldiers" and hives are maintained by "worker" bees, then it must be part of the natural order of things for society to reproduce these divisions.

Modern science also characterises the world as alienated — parts are separated from wholes and are described as things in themselves. Causes are separated from effects so that a new physical structure is imposed on the world.

In contrast, the ecology that Suzuki subscribes to is one in which living systems are interconnected and mutually dependent. But if nature is like that, why should we be different? Why is our society so careless in its relations with the natural world when the indigenous peoples on this planet are so protective of their environment?

Their proximity to and direct dependence on nature sometimes obscure the fact that their social arrangement is very different from our own. They live as members of a collective whose workings are self-evident to every member of the tribal unit. We, on the other hand, perceive ourselves as mere atoms in social space. Whereas the native peoples relate to nature as a group, Knudtson and Suzuki believe that our salvation instead lies in addressing nature through personal and individual transformation, employing the spiritually charged knowledge of native peoples.

This outlook mystifies what time has done. The changing social relations throughout human history have been a necessity imposed by nature itself. We are consequently stuck with the mess as succeeding human societies attempt to dominate and transform nature.

Paiakan — an Amazonian native whom Suzuki toured through Canada — understood this. "People destroy the forest in Brazil because they are poor and ignorant. What", he asked Suzuki, "is Canada's excuse?"

For the first time in human history, we have the capacity for plenty without relying on the continuing degradation of nature to fulfil our needs. What separates us from the wisdom of the indigenous peoples is not our minds but our social system.

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