Are Modern Science and Indigenous People’s TEK Compatible?

A recent article in The Guardian * described efforts of scientists working with members of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori, to save the kauri (Agathis australis). It’s a species of tree native to New Zealand which can grow to over 150 feet tall, with a trunk girth up to 52 feet, and live for over 2,000 years. Kauri forests have been decimated by a disease caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism (phytophthora agathidicida) living in the soil and infecting kauri roots, damaging the tissues that carry nutrients and water within the tree, effectively starving it to death. The disease is easily spread through soil movements, for example, when soil is carried on dirty footwear, animals, equipment and vehicles. The New York Times ran an article on the same story earlier this year. *

According to Māori tradition, the kauri are considered to be sacred, and this elevated status has turned out to be a great help to the conservation project. One kauri in particular, Tāne Mahuta, was named after the god of forests who created space between the sky father and the earth mother, thereby making life possible. When it became evident that kauri were dying from the fungus, Māori became the trees’ guardians by keeping visitors from inadvertently spreading the killer organism. They also were early advocates for the need for more attention from the New Zealand government which up to that time had not given the problem much priority. A change in government in 2017 brought change in environmental policies. As scientists began to spend more time working with the Māori to at least minimize the damage, they came to value mātauranga, the traditional knowledge of the Māori people. According to Tess McClure in the aforementioned Guardian article,

[Forest] rangers and some scientists say the battle has also contributed to a deeper and more widespread transformation of conservation work in New Zealand, which increasingly looks to matauranga – Māori knowledge systems – to reinforce and inform scientific approaches.

In consultation with Te Kawerau ā Maki [a Māori iwi or tribe], the rangers have begun an intricate process of re-engineering tracks through the reserve – suspending many of them above the ground, and avoiding deep foundation pillars that disrupt root systems.

This collaborative effort to save the kauri is not entirely foreign to New Zealanders. Some of that country’s scientists have been open to TEK or traditional (or indigenous) ecological knowledge and have proposed its inclusion in science education curricula * . However, there are those in the wider scientific community who do not consider TEK to be anything like a science. For example Richard Dawkins has been highly critical of what he sees as a type of misguided approach to teaching science.

I have read [about] the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.

Dawkins is quite clear about what is and is not science.

. . . no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the right place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. . . . Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.*

Dawkins concerns were shared by a number of New Zealand’s scientists who published a letter highly critical of the proposed inclusion of mātauranga in science teaching. The resulting heated crossfire between critics and defenders of mātauranga have led to statements like “New Zealand science is heading off the rails” while the defenders argue that the critics are making “racist assumptions.” In an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Waikaremoana Waitoki, President of the New Zealand Psychological Society and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato presented the defenders’ position:

The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise—while acknowledging that “it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art”. This is similar to saying “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others), established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. . . . *

Professor Smith’s comment reminds me of the science that had been used in the US to relegate Blacks to a lower status in the hierarchy of human races, characterizing them as having an inferior intellect. * Waikato argues that white racism is behind Dawkin’s and others’ condemnation of mātauranga. Again, that makes me think of systemic racism here in the US where whites are often unable to perceive their implicit bias.

Research conducted over 40 plus years in psychology shows the impact of racism on Māori health outcomes, curriculum development, student numbers, research outputs, and staff recruitment, advancement and retention. More needs to be done, and the NCEA [New Zealand’s National Certificates of Educational Achievement] curriculum changes will go some way to achieving mātauranga parity. We welcome the changes on the horizon and embrace the potential for enhanced understandings of science, whatever their origins.

Waitoki is here arguing for a more inclusive understanding of science. When Dawkins and others declaim “true science works” and “science is helping us battle worldwide crises . . . COVID-19, global warming,” they are insisting on an exclusivist view of what methodologies must be used to determine information about the natural world. According to Waitoki and those who are defending Māori TEK,

Māori do have solutions to global warming, as do many other Indigenous epistemologies. These solutions centre on protecting the planet as an ancestor by using Indigenous science and addressing exploitative capitalism. It is unfair to claim that we should be concerned (and therefore panic) that science won’t be trusted if we teach the truth about the colonisation of peoples, or about racism that occurs in New Zealand society. We should instead be concerned that viable and sustainable solutions, derived from Indigenous worldviews, are systematically ignored and marginalised, or suppressed and criminalised by those who do not understand their role in epistemic injustice.

So are modern science and Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge compatible? It’s clear that the answer depends on whom you talk to. But those involved with saving the kauri have no problem seeing the compatibility – because apparently the collaborative approach is working.

According Guardian reporter Tess McClure,

In the case of kauri . . . rangers and conservationists say the advice of Māori has shaped and often predicted the scientific advice, as conservation efforts shift from a focus on kauri alone to a more holistic, interconnected one that looks at pressures on the forest as a whole.

Senior kauri dieback ranger Stuart Leighton describes the kauri situation this way:

We’ve got all of these impacts colliding. It’s climate change, this newly discovered pathogen, the impacts of lots of footfalls … introduced species – all creating this enormous pressure. . . . I think we’ll look back at this point in time, and we’re starting to see, nationally, a change in how we approach some of our natural resources. . . . The western science, if you like, it’s starting to point more and more to that interconnectedness.”

* Sources

Salvation of New Zealand’s dying giant kauri trees may have roots in Māori wisdom | New Zealand | The Guardian(opens in a new tab) theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/14/salvation-of-new-zealands-dying-giant-kauri-trees-may-have-roots-in-maori-wisdom

How Maori Stepped In to Save a Towering Tree Crucial to Their Identity – The New York Times(opens in a new tab) nytimes.com/2022/03/08/world/australia/new-zealand-maori-tane-mahuta-kauri.html

Mātauranga Māori and science — Science Learning Hub(opens in a new tab) sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2545-matauranga-maori-and-science

Myths Do Not Belong in Science Classes: Letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand | Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science(opens in a new tab) richarddawkins.net/2021/12/myths-do-not-belong-in-science-classes-letter-to-the-royal-society-of-new-zealand/

In defence of mātauranga Māori: a response to the ‘seven academics’(opens in a new tab) journal.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/in-defence-of-matauranga-maori-a-response-to-the-seven-academics

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Jane Goodall – A Messenger of Hope

Jane Goodall at a podium
Jane Goodall at TEDGlobal 2007
Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Some days I find it hard to be positive about our planet’s future. A recent front page headline in the Boston Globe (5/21/27) read “Early heat a sign of what’s to come.” The forecast for that day was 92 degrees or 24 degrees above the historic average. A one-time phenomenon? Scientists think not. According to the National Centers for Envornmental Information (NCEI), 

The April 2022 global surface temperature was 1.53°F (0.85°C) above the 20th-century average of 56.7°F (13.7°C) – tying with 2010 as the fifth-warmest April in the 143-year record. The 10 warmest April months have occurred since 2010, with the years 2014-2022 all ranking among the 10 warmest Aprils on record. April 2022 also marked the 46th consecutive April and the 448th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average. [1]

A constant stream of news from around the world about floods, wild fires, drought, extreme heat, melting ice caps, and failing crops can’t help but weigh more and more heavily on our minds and hearts. Compounding all the climate-related bad news are the ineffective responses from national governments and “greenwashing” [2] claims by the fossil fuel companies like Exxon. [3]

No surprise, then, that many of us have become more and more anxious if not hopeless about the future. According to a 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll,

More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and more than half (55%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health. [4]

Recently the New York Times interviewed hundreds people in the US about their thoughts and feelings about climate change and global warming. [5] What the  NYT reporters heard was a litany of loss, anger, and sadness, for example:

I lost a piece of my heart with the trees that I will never get back.(Isabela Walkin, 23. The forest her family planted was destroyed by Hurricane Laura, but protected her childhood home in Lake Charles, La.)

I’m mad, I’m powerless, I’m exhausted and I’m only 18. (Hayley Clausen, Hayden, Idaho)

We ruined the world and we feel bad for the young people that are going to have to deal with this. (Ira Russianoff, 72, Dania Beach, Fla.)

But some argue that this is not a time to give up. In my previous post, I quoted the conservation scientist Will Turner insisting that “inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” And there are many voices of hope and encouragement for continuing the effort to limit the effects of global warming. See for example the resources listed on the “Not Too Late” web page. [6]

One of the more prominent messengers of hope is Jane Goodall (1934- ).  In her interview with Douglas Abrams in The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times [7] she showed herself to be a forceful advocate for doing something despite feeling despair: “It’s really important for us to confront our grief and get over our feelings of hopelessness . . . We must find ways to help people understand that each of us has a role to play, no matter how small.” [BoH, 78]

When asked for a definition of hope, Goodall responded that it “is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to make it so.” [BoH, 8] And Goodall’s strength for maintaining her hopefulness and communicating it to others is rooted in a spiritual connection to nature.

When I was spending hours alone in the forest at Gombe [a national park in Tanzania where Goodall did her research on chimpanzee behavior], I felt part of the natural world, closely connected with a Great Spiritual Power. And that power is with me at all times, a force I can turn to for courage and strength. And sharing that power with others helps me give people hope. [BoH, 80]

When asked for reasons for hope, Goodall provided four: the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of young people, and the indomitable human spirit. Abrams asked Goodall to elaborate on each of the reasons, and the resulting conversations gave them plenty to talk about. Here are some of the points she made:

The amazing human intellect: The intellect can be used for good or bad, and certainly for ecologically destructive purposes when driven by kinds of greed and desire for power that cause environmental degradation. But now that we’re becoming more aware of the harm we’ve done, our ability to innovate has helped us come up with ways of living more in harmony with nature such as renewable energy and regenerative farming.

The resilience of nature: The miraculous endurance of several trees provides Goodall with memorable examples of nature’s resilience. A month after the 9/11 twin tower collapse, a Callery pear tree was found to be still alive amidst the ruins of Ground Zero. Renamed the Survivor Tree, it was rescued and then replanted on the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. The other  examples are two 500 year old camphor trees that survived the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki. Goodall gave numerous other example and explains “There’s a kind of built-in resilience – as when springs brings forth leaves after a bitter winter of snow and ice, or the desert blooms after even a tiny amount of rain falls.” [BoH, 80]

The power of young people: Young people all over the world are challenging older generations to do something about the climate crisis. Goodall quoted Greta Thunberg addressing her elders at a world conference: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act.” [BoH, 127] An example of Goodall’s activism is Roots & Shoots [8], a global community action program, founded by her in 1991 for for youth to become engaged in environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues. 

Jane Goodall at Roost & Shoots Hungary Csigabi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The indomitable human spirit: Goodall defined this spirit as “an ability to deliberately tackle what may seem to be an impossible task. And not give up even though we know there is a chance we may not succeed. Even when we know it may lead to death.” [BoH, 147] She and Abrams exchanged examples of people whose severe injuries disabled them but who regained a fully active life through “sheer will power.” Examples of groups or communities exhibiting this spirit included the British people’s courage during WWII during the Battle of Britain, and the people at Standing Rock enduring pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and being hosed in freezing weather while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In a concluding “Message of Hope from Jane,” she begins by underscoring what other scientists have said about the pandemic, “By destroying habitats we force animals into closer contact with human beings, thus creating situations for pathogens to form new human diseases.” [BoH, 226] [9] But despite new challenges posed by COVID and all the obstacles faced by climate change activists that she and Abrams talked about, she ends with an urgent appeal to the reader: “Please, please rise to the challenge, inspire and help those around you, play your part. Find your reasons for hope and let them guide you onward.” [BoH, 234]

Goodall’s love of nature inspires her to become an advocate for active engagement in the climate change movement. At the same time, she sees a need for spirituality to be an essential part of the work that needs to be done.

When you talk about spirituality, many people are uneasy or absolutely put off.  . . . Yet more and more people are now realizing that we have become increasingly materialistic and that we have connect spirituality with the natural world. I agree – I think there is a yearning for something beyond thoughtless consumerism. In a way, our disconnect with nature is very dangerous. We feel we can control nature – we forget that, in the end, nature controls us. [BoH, 210]

People who are beginning to recognize the value of spirituality in this time of climate crisis are, in her words, experiencing a spiritual evolution which, when compared to moral development, is

. . . more about meditating on the mystery of creation and the Creator, asking who we are and why are we here and understanding how we are part of the amazing natural world – again Shakespeare says it beautifully when he talks of seeing “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” I get a sense of all this when I stand transfixed, filled with wonder and awe at some glorious sunset, or the sun shining through the forest canopy while a bird sings, or when I lie on my back in some quiet place and look up and up and up in to the heavens as the stars gradually emerge from the fading of the day’s light. [BoH, 211]

I think that if Abrams had asked Jane if she agreed with Emily Dickinson that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – .” she would smile and perhaps even add “And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all – / And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – / And sore must be the storm – / That could abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm – .”


[1 ] National Centers for Environmental Information. “Assessing the Global Climate in April 2022.”  https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/monthly-report/global/202204

[2] “Greenwashing is when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact.” Edwards, Carylann. “What Is Greenwashing.” Business News Daily, Feb. 24, 2022. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html

[3] Hernandez, Joe. “Accusations of ‘greenwashing’ by big oil companies are well-founded, a new study finds.” NPR, Feb. 16, 2022.  https://www.npr.org/2022/02/16/1081119920/greenwashing-oil-companies

[4] “New APA Poll Reveals That Americans are Increasingly Anxious About Climate Change’s Impact on Planet, Mental Health.” American Psychiatric Association. October, 21, 2020. Updated on 2/23/21 to reflect the correct percentage. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/climate-poll-2020

[5] Kerr, Sarah, Noah Throop, Jack Healy, Aidan Gardiner, and Rebecca Lieberman. “The Unseen Toll of a Warming World.” New York Times, March 9, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/09/us/mental-health-climate-change.html

[6] Not Too Late. “Not Too Late isn’t an organization. Our goal is to provide useful perspectives and information and guide people from despair to possibilities. This is a project led by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua.” https://www.nottoolateclimate.com/ 

[7] Goodall, Jane, Douglas Carlton Abrams, and Gail Hudson. The Book of Hope : A Survival Guide for Trying Times. The Global Icons Series. New York, NY: Celadon Books, 2021. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250784094/thebookofhope 
All quotes from this book will be referenced as BoH, page #. 

[8] Roots & Shoots website: https://rootsandshoots.global/

[9] See Ecozoic Cafe post “A Great Pause” – https://ecozoic.net/2020/04/09/a-great-pause/.

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“This is a fossil fuel war”

“No SWIFT. No gas. I gladly freeze for democracy.” (Protesters in Germany demonstrating against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) Photo credit: Noah Eleazar, Unsplash.

On February 28th, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment. According to Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, “This IPCC report marks a turning point in the fight against climate change. It forces us to reckon with a stark reality. The crisis is here, and it is all around us.” Four days earlier, Russian troops had invaded Ukraine, beginning a conflict killing thousands of soldiers and civilians, destroying Ukrainian cities and towns, and causimg millions to flee to neighboring countries. For those of us trying to maintain a focus on what we believe is the greatest challenge to human lives and the welfare of the planet, will this war have any impact on our efforts to combat the climate crisis?

The IPCC report led Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, to see the connection between war and climate change.

I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels. Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization. [1]

The West has imposed a high level of sanctions designed to disrupt Putin’s plans for a complete takeover of Ukraine. Europe and the US are using measures like freezing Russian oligarchs’ foreign bank accounts and cutting Russia off from SWIFT (“the global provider of secure financial messaging services”) to stop the war. There can be no doubt, however, that Putin is counting on Europe’s heavy dependence on Russia’s oil and natural gas to help keep paying for the war. On March 11th at a meeting of European leaders in France, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said “We are supporting and actually financing Russia’s war by purchasing oil, gas and other fossil fuels.” [2]

President Biden has proposed an increase in shipments of America’s gas and oil to Europe to help wean it off Russian fossil fuels. There are considerable logistical hurdles to overcome before that effort could hope to succeed (e.g., insufficient fossil fuel delivery infrastructure). For climate change activists Biden’s proposal, if enacted, would be a major setback in the effort to reduce global warming. According to Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, “I’m very worried our climate goals may be another victim of Russia’s aggression.” [3]

Has this war, then, significantly lowered our chances to make real gains in decarbonizing our energy usage? Conservation International news writer Will McCarry asked conservation scientist Will Turner if, given the grimness of the assessment’s report, the situation has become hopeless. Turner responded “We must take the warnings in this new report just as seriously (as we have with previous IPCC reports). At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” [4] And action against global warming can’t take a break because of the war. Biden shouldn’t be advocating for more oil to be pumped. To this point, Thomas Friedman writes 

Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. . . . Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore. Climate change has not taken a timeout for the war in Ukraine. [5]

Yes, there is no question that the victims of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying massive flow of refugees need our most compassionate response. But climate change is also a moral crisis [6] that continues to concern us deeply and requires an equally compassionate response. Both the war and global warming are and will continue destroying infrastructure needed for providing food, shelter, and public health care. But over time the destruction from climate change will be even greater than that resulting from this war. This is a critical moment for us to continue to do as much as we can for the well being of the Earth community. At the same time, an end to dependence on fossil fuels would mean an end to the power wielded by petro-dictators like Putin.


[1] Quoted in Oliver Milman, “‘This is a fossil fuel war’: Ukraine’s top climate scientist speaks out,” The Guardian, March 9, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/09/ukraine-climate-scientist-russia-invasion-fossil-fuels.

[2] Euronews, March 14, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/12/finnish-prime-minister-we-are-actually-financing-russia-s-war-by-purchasing-oil-and-gas.

[3] Quoted in: Somini Sengupta, New York Times: Climate Forward. Newsletter. March 25, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/climate/the-problem-with-shipping-gas-to-europe.html

[4] Will McCarry, “Don’t panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report,” Conservation News, September 30, 2021, https://www.conservation.org/blog/don’t-panic-reasons-for-hope-despite-a-grim-un-climate-report

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, “How to defeat Putin and save the Planet,” New York Times, March 30, 2022, Section A, Page 24, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/opinion/how-to-defeat-putin-and-save-the-planet.html.

[6] On climate change as a moral crisis, see for example: “Morality of Climate Change,” AARCC Newsletter, https://www.arrcc.org.au/about-climate-change-morality.

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TEK

John Englart from Fawkner, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
(More information below.)

In 2015 at the conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) COP21, the 196 participating nations produced a treaty aimed at addressing climate change. Called the Paris Agreement, it was the first time a COP document stated that the world’s efforts to deal with the climate crisis needed to incorporate Indigenous ecological knowledge. To quote from the COP21 report: “Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should . . . be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems . . . (Article 7.5).

After last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, an article published by the UNCCC reported that the effort initiated at COP21 to draw on Indigenous knowledge would continue. According to Rodion Sulyandziga (of the Udege people, from Krasnyyar, Primorski Kray, Russian Far East and a member of the UNCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform Facilitative Working Group), “This is a strong achievement and historic progress under the UNCCC, to bring the Indigenous knowledge holders to the table to voice solutions and humanize the impacts of climate change.”

In 1988, the climatolgist James Hansen provided scientific evidence for global warming at a Congressional hearing that is now considered by many to be a historically significant moment in our awareness of the threats posed by climate change. Of course, as we know, political efforts around the globe to address the crisis have thus far fallen short of what actions are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This despite the fact that the science behind climate change has been confirmed in numerous statements by scientific societies and governmental agencies. Indeed, over the past forty years scientists have increased their research efforts to understand the dynamics behind climate change and how to reverse its effects as much as possible. According to Scopus, a major citation database in the sciences, the number of 1988 publications tagged with “climate change” as a subject was 567. By 2021, it was 46,934 (as of January 21, 2022).

Though quite modest in number compared to the thousands of articles focusing on the more general topic of climate change, a similar increase occurred in the number of articles tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge.” Here is the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) definition of this type of knowledge:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, also called by other names including Indigenous Knowledge or Native Science, (hereafter, TEK) refers to the evolving knowledge acquired by Indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. TEK is an accumulating body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (human and non-human) with one another and with the environment. It encompasses the world view of Indigenous people which includes ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships, and more.

US Fish & Wildlife Service. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Application by
Service Scientists.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.fws.gov/nativeamerican/pdf/tek-fact-sheet.pdf

In 1988, there were six publications tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge”; in 2021 there were 466 (as of January 21, 2022). Here is an example – a summary appearing the National Park Service’s website of a research article published last year:

This article begins with a presentation of new research which found that “Indigenous-created forest gardens of the Pacific Northwest support more pollinators, more seed-eating animals and more plant species than supposedly “natural” conifer forests surrounding them.” This counters the long-held belief of western scientists and land managers that ecological conservation requires the absence of people. The focal point of this new research is the analysis of forest gardens’ functional diversity, which captures an ecosystems ability to feed animals (among other measures). Compared to traditional measures of diversity, how many species are found in an ecosystem, functional diversity seems to be a better indictor of ecosystem health. This is demonstrated by the fact that these gardens have survived 150 years without maintenance. In addition to documenting these important findings, a goal of this paper, titled “Historical Indigenous Land Use Explains Plant Function Trait Diversity”, was to provide tribes with citable scientific literature that may be useful as they push for co-management and management agreements. The authors hope their research, by helping Indigenous communities use the land again, will bring the gardens back.

National Park Service. Traditional Ecological Knowledge. “TEK vs Western Science.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tek/tek-vs-western-science.htm

Another article, published this year, presents a case study where TEK is applied in a scientific project designed to combat the destructive effects of climate change.

Indigenous communities are often on the front-lines of climate change, and for tribes such as the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (PACIT) that make their homes and livelihoods in the dynamic landscapes of Coastal Louisiana (USA), sea-level rise, subsidence, and land loss are very real reminders of why they must continue to hone their adaptive capacity that has evolved over many generations and continues to evolve as the pace of change quickens. PACIT members have an inherited wisdom about their surrounding environment and continue to build on that body of observational knowledge that is passed from generation to generation to sustain themselves in this dynamic landscape. This knowledge is woven through their culture and is sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The PACIT and other Indigenous communities around the world are using creative strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change that include partnering with researchers to combine their TEK with science in approaches to enhance strategies dealing with climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation. . . . Better inclusion of their knowledge into applied research is necessary to support these communities in their efforts to make sure their knowledge is recognized, understood, and valued in environmental management applications.

Bethel, M. B., D. H. Braud, T. Lambeth, D. S. Dardar, and P. Ferguson-Bohnee. “Mapping Risk Factors to Climate Change Impacts Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Support Adaptation Planning with a Native American Tribe in Louisiana.” Journal of Environmental Management 301, no. 1 (2022).

What is common to both research articles is the recognition that modern scientific efforts to mitigate the damage caused by global warming and climate change should seriously consider Indigenous people’s “inherited wisdom” as a resource. We are only beginning to explore how much we need to incorporate Indigenous wisdom or TEK into the way we live on this planet. It may be that we need it a great deal more than we realize today.


Photo: Marcha por el clima on 6 December in Madrid (during COP21). Organisers estimated 500,000 people attended the protest march. Greta Thunberg was there and read a short statement to the crowd at the end. A manifesto – The World Woke Up Facing A Climate Emergency – for climate justice and climate action was read to the crowd by various people from different organisations and constituencies. A concert then followed entertaining people into late into the night. The march was lead by Fridays for Future students, Chileans and Indigenous people.

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Winter Solstice 2021

Inside the Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland) tomb on Winter Solstice

Tomorrow, December 21, the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, will be observed around the world in a variety of ways. Some examples are provided on this page. Clearly some human communities have been and are still so deeply moved by this phenomenon that they have come to mark it with ancient rituals predating modern religions. Remarkable architectural structures created by pre-Christian cultures draw visitors each year, most famously perhaps at Stonehenge but other sites as well like 5,200 year old Newgrange in Ireland (above photo). In past years, people who wished to witness the winter solstice phenomenon from within the Newgrange tomb would be selected by lottery. This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, this site will stay closed but available for archeological research.

Indigenous peoples observe winter solstice as another way of maintaining their close connection to the rhythms of nature. In this, they have much to teach and guide us as in this page from the NDN Collective. (NDN, a shortening of Native Indian, is sometimes used by Native Americans in the United States to refer to themselves.) American Indian influence on Catholic missionaries can be seen in 18th and 19th century Spanish mission churches in California where sunlight blazes through the churches on winter solstice.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. Rubén G. Mendoza, CC BY-ND

Winter solstice provides the occasion for feasts and festivals like the Korean Dongji. In this winter soltice party (3 minute video) at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, the event seems like a blend of winter solstice and Christmas (e.e., students singing “Have yourself a merry little solstice), a convergence many believe to be the reason why Christmas is a late December celebration.

Why do many of us in the postmodern world maintain a fascination with sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange? Or enjoy participating in special events marking the Winter Soltice? For example, The Trustees, (an organization devoted to protecting historic and natural sites in Massachusetts), is offering several such events this year. (Note that several of those events have sold out.) I believe Thomas Berry provides a way of understanding the Winter Soltice’s deeper meaning:

With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established [by “earlier peoples” – Berry’s phrase] to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon , the winter solstice especially in the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into a world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth moment throughout the mammailan world. These moments of change were the moments when the shining forth of the phenomenal world was most evident. Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself with special clarity to the world of the human. [TB, 53]

So tomorrow celebrate this moment of grace. Light a candle or two, pour a drink of your choice, and wish a merry solstice to your dear ones and the rest of the earth community! (And try some of the suggestions offered by the NDN Collective.)

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COP26: Some Notes and a Prayer

 

On the eve of the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York, churches called for immediate action to address the climate emergency. Photo: ACT/Joanna Patouris (permission requested)

On October 4th, a group of leading figures from a number of religious traditions sent an urgent message to world leaders who would be gathering for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow during October 31 – November 12, 2021. The Executive Summary of a Joint Appeal began with the following:

Today, after months of dialogue between faith leaders and scientists, we come together united to raise awareness of the unprecedented challenges that threaten our beautiful common home. Our faiths and spiritualities teach a duty to care for the human family and for the environment in which it lives. We are deeply interdependent with each other and with the natural world. We are not limitless masters of our planet and its resources. . . . We must address these challenges using the knowledge of science and the wisdom of religion. We must think long-term for the sake of the whole of humanity. Now is the time to take transformative action as a common response. [1]

Religious believers are joining others from around the world protesting expansion of fossil fuel industries and demanding commitments and actions from government and business leaders to limit fossil fuel emissions. Theologians and clergy have been writing, teaching, and preaching about the goodness of creation and our obligation to be responsible stewards of the natural world. For example, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote:

Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. [See earlier blog post]

Perhaps the most widely read religious statement on the need for protecting the earth and its atmosphere from further degradation has been Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You). Subtitled On Care for Our Common Home, the title is taken from Saint Francis’s great hymn praising God for his creation, Canticle of the Sun. In the encyclical, the Pope exhorts his readers to follow the example of the Saint’s love for the created world: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” (Laudato Si’, Paragraph 10)

In recent decades, Christian communities have used liturgies and prayers to not only praise God for the wonders of nature but also lament human actions which have caused deep harm to the environment. Examples include this Prayer of Lament from the Anglican Communion Network and the Anglican Alliance, and the Missa Gaia often heard in churches on a Sunday in October in observance of the Feast of Saint Francis (the patron saint of ecology).

In 2015 international negotiations resulted in the Paris Climate Agreement, but the climate crisis has only deepend during the intervening years. Annual increases in the numbers of fires, floods, and hurricanes and the rising of sea levels have confirmed what the scientific community had been claiming for decades – that human activity was degrading the earth and its atmospheric envelope and setting off irreversible changes in the environment.  Many groups both secular and religious have engaged in climate strikes, vigils, and protests around the world. This is a time when many of us feel a need to pray with words of hope that we can change the way we live on our planet home. The following prayer is taken from a prayer booklet developed for children and young adults in New Zealand.

Walk Lightly

Each leaf, each petal,
each grain, each person,
sings your praises,
Creator God.
Each creature on the earth,
all the mountains and great seas show your glory,
Spirit of Love.

And yet the hand of greed has patented
and plundered your splendour,
has taken and not shared your gift,
has lived as owner of the earth, not guest.

And so the ice is cracked
the rivers dry,
the valleys flooded
and the snowcaps melt.

God our Father,
show us how to step gently,
how to live simply,
how to walk lightly
with respect and love
for all that you have made.

Amen.

Adapted from a prayer written by Linda Jones/CAFOD. [2]


[1] “World Religious Leaders and Scientists Make pre-COP26 Appeal: External Statement / 05 Oct, 2021,” United Nations Climate Change, accessed November 6, 2021, https://unfccc.int/news/world-religious-leaders-and-scientists-make-pre-cop26-appeal.

[2] “Climate Change Prayer Booklet,” Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 6, 2021, https://caritas.org.nz/system/files/Climate%20Change%20Prayer%20Booklet.pdf

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NaCl

Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.”[1] In their book Teilhard de Chardin on Love: Evolving Human Relationships, Louis Savary and Patricia Berne note that “According to Teilhard, God has implanted a divine spark of love in everything created, down to every last subatomic particle and photon of light.” I wonder if Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters folk music singer-songwriter duo ever read anything by Teilhard. Maybe not, but whenever I hear her song NaCl, I smile and think of Teilhard.

Here are the lyrics:

NaCl

Just a little atom of chlorine
Valence minus one
Swimming through the sea, digging the scene
Just having fun
She’s not worried about the shape or size
Of her outside shell
It’s fun to ionize
Just a little atom of cl
With an unfilled shell

But somewhere in that sea lurks
Handsome sodium
With enough electrons on his outside shell
Plus that extra one
Somewhere in this deep blue sea
There’s a negative
For my extra energy yes
Somewhere in this foam
My positive will find a home

Then unsuspecting chlorine
Felt a magnetic pull
She looked down and her outside
Shell was full
Sodium cried “what a gas be my bride and
I’ll change your name from chlorine to chloride

“Now the sea evaporates to make the clouds
For the rain and snow
Leaving her chemical compounds in the absence
Of H2O
But the crystals that wash upon the shore
Are happy ones
So if you never thought before
Think of the love that you eat
When you salt your meat

Source: LyricFind


_______________________________________________________
[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1969), 32.

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“Why I Write about Birds”

In the opening chapter of Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Too bleak a statement? Perhaps, but during the past few years many white people have been learning about the quiet (and increasingly not so quiet) desperation of people of color seeking relief from systemic racism in a country that isn’t paying enough serious attention to their suffering. Have Christian Cooper’s periodic birdwatching visits to Central Park helped him deal with any stress he may feel from being a Black man in America – before and (I hope) after the sad events of May 25, 2020? (See previous post.) Cooper lives not only with the frequent commonplace slights and behaviors aimed at Blacks but also with the steady stream of news about police violence against African Americans, an inner burden that he portrays in story form in the newly published “It’s a Bird” (more information). I would hazard a guess that his walks in the Ramble are a much needed refreshment of mind and body.

I don’t know if they ever met, but if they haven’t, I’m sure Cooper would find much to talk about with fellow Black birder J. Drew Lanham. Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, Lanham is a birder, naturalist, hunter-conservationist, and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. As part of a speaker series offered by the Walden Woods Project, Mass Audubon, and several other organizations earlier this year, he gave a talk he titled “A Declaration of Natural Interdependence or Why I Write about Birds.”1 In his presentation, Lanham admitted that the time he spends observing birds is “a selfish act and a small personal space that I do not willingly share with other human beings.” But when focusing on birds, he can inhabit a stress-free environment: “I write about birds because birds will not profile or persecute or imprison me.”

But he realizes he can’t isolate himself from the “daily toxic stream of news that passes through my mental binocular view. I must write to the violence of my people being killed in the streets.” Instead of writing about the violence being inflicted upon the Black community, Lanham writes about birds and the threats they face from climate change. Indeed, he makes a direct connection between the seriousness of his purpose in writing about birds (his “ornitherapy”) and the harsh social realities facing African Americans today.

It is within this socio-politically fragmented and climate inflamed Anthropocene landscape over which we are all migrating. And so it can’t be ignored. To write about birds and not write about their struggles would be akin to writing about Black people as if enslavement and Jim Crow and police brutality and mass incarceration didn’t exist.

Being a birder and a writer about birds define the essence of who he is: “My Black life matters most to me and I won’t deny my own soul’s wellbeing to make birds small and just something to be seen without deeper connect and feeling.” He’s not interested in simply increasing his number of bird sightings, an activity which motivates many birders, but in taking the time to observe each bird and appreciate its remarkable physical features and behavior.

Lanham is concerned that the sheer number of critical issues demanding our response today prevent us from seeing how deeply related some of them, like climate change and racism, are.

So then, in the stream of so many causes that would seem disconnected from birds and disconcerting enough to cleave us from nature, I write about birds. I write about birds because I need to somehow discount the “dis.” Connection and concert are what I, what we, need most, especially now.

In his closing words, he said “I believe it is our mission to not just watch but . . .to move our action, as Thoreau did, beyond the watching, not just to revere the lives of the wild things but of our fellow human beings, and to see all of us as . . . sharing the same air, same water, same soil, same earth, and same fate . . .”

PS: Highly recommended: Lanham’s conversation with Krista Tippett on her On Being podcast.


1 The following summary of Lanham’s talk is based on my notes taken when viewing a recorded version of his presentation on Zoom. The recording was still available as of 7/31/2021.

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We Are All in This Together

The Ramble, Central Park, New York (Photo credit)

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a “wild garden” within New York City’s Central Park, the Ramble has long been appreciated as a sanctuary offering a quiet respite from the big city since its opening in 1859. Beloved by people drawn to its winding paths, forested landscape, and lack of roads and bridle paths, the Ramble is exactly the kind of green space many of us need to refresh body, mind, and spirit. (I’ve written about the various salutary effects of nature walks in previous posts; see here and here.) Among the many visitors who enjoy a stroll through its 37 acres are birders who have spotted over 230 bird species there over the years, and dog owners who have enjoyed using the park as a wonderful area to explore with their pets, an activity fully approved by the Central Park Conservancy (but with certain restrictions). All of this suggests that because of the Ramble’s intended purpose as a forest refuge, you wouldn’t expect it to be a place of racial conflict. But it was.

On May 25th, Memorial Day 2020 (the same day George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis), Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her rescue cocker spaniel Henry, encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man engaged in birding, something he did often in this part of the park. Seeing that the dog was off leash, Mr. Cooper asked her to put him on leash, in other words to follow the rules. What followed has been widely reported in the media (CNN’s report here), and the video recording by Mr. Cooper of the exchange went viral. She immediately interpreted his request as a threat and called 911 for help, describing him as an African American three times.

Although no one was physically hurt, news of Amy Cooper’s reaction went viral as one more example of racism in this country. Ms. Cooper perceived Mr. Cooper as a potential mugger, not as a fellow visitor enjoying the Ramble’s peace and quiet, and certainly not as an expert of any sort who could be there to study some aspect of the Ramble’s wildlife. But Mr. Cooper, a one-time president of the Harvard Ornithological Club, and currently on the Board of Directors for NYC Audubon, was there on one of his frequent bird sighting walks.

During this time of racial turmoil, many Americans of European descent (myself included) have become more deeply aware of how racism or implicit bias affect their perception of Blacks. The unfortunate confrontation in the Ramble that day would not have happened if Amy had seen Christian not only as a Black man but as fellow human who loved nature and the restorative peace of the Ramble.

We have seen how commitment and persistence are necessary to deal with the climate crisis despite climate change denial. Similarly, commitment and persistence are essential for dismantling racism. We need to see all persons as members of a common humanity as urgently as we need to see all beings as members of the earth community. In both racism and climate change the root cause has been exploitation – exploitation of human beings as slaves and an underclass and exploitation of natural resources. I hope and pray that the memory of the terrible events of May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis and New York (just two of the myriad acts of racial violence in our recent and not so recent history) will keep stirring us to work on creating the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, we’re all in this together.

My photo.

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An Earth Day Litany

Today is a day for reflection and prayer – gratitude for the beauty of the earth, grief at all the species we have lost. This time of pandemic and climate crisis calls for a unified response from the many often antagonistic segments of humanity and offers an opportunity to see how much we are part of a single earth community. Toward that end, here is a slightly adapted version of the Chinook Blessing Litany:

We call upon the earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the mountains, . . . the high green valleys and meadows filled with wild flowers, the snows that never melt, the summits of intense silence, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the land which grows our food, the nurturing soil, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the forests, the great trees reaching strongly to the sky with the earth in their roots and the heavens in their branches, the fir and the pine and the cedar, and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and dolphin, . . . and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon all those who have lived on this earth, our ancestors and our friends, who dreamed the best for future generations, and upon whose lives our lives are built, and with thanksgiving, we call upon them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

And lastly, we call upon all that we hold most sacred, the presence and power of the Great Spirit of love and truth which flows through all the Universe, to be with us to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

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