By Madronna Holden
Given the extensive impact of human actions on the natural world, it is improbable that we can restore our environment to a previously undisturbed state-in terms of climate change, for instance. Even if it weren’t for the current environmental crises, it is problematic to decide what our “restore” point would be. In the dualistic framework of the modern industrial worldview, “wilderness” is that which has no human impact. However, some lands pioneers in the Pacific Northwest considered “wilderness” since they were not altered by western-style development were in fact the result of thousands of years of a human-nature partnership which fostered the resilience of the local landscape.
More than ever, in the modern age, we need such models to honor and support natural resilience: which I define here as the ability of natural systems to sustain, heal, and regenerate themselves. This is in line with a native grandmother’s words. At a meeting in which her Muckleshoot people detailed the ways in which their sacred sites had been ravaged by developed, she said, “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Life has a sacred meaning among many indigenous Northwesterners as it should for all of us: as the animating principle of the earth we share. I cannot think of a more powerful sense of nature’s resilience.
I want to suggest four guiding principles for managing human behavior toward this goal.
One key element in an environmental philosophy that supports the resilience of natural systems is reciprocity. Reciprocity casts human and natural interactions in terms of balanced and mutual exchanges: As such, it enjoins humans to take (food, energy, shelter, medicine) from the natural world only what they return. Though some institutionalized religions link reciprocity with a mentality of accounting, earth-centered societies link it with gratitude, moderation, generosity, and sharing-in which giving back to the circle of life is done without knowledge of how and when a gift will be returned. Enacting reciprocity with respect to natural systems inhibits human actions that undermine the essential vitality of these systems by drawing too much from them. notably, those mid-Columbia River peoples who saw life as a sacred animating principle of our world also saw reciprocity as a key ethical standard.
The precautionary principle or “forecaring” is a second element of a standard of human behavior that supports the resilience of natural systems. Its main tenet is that human actions (especially new technologies) must prove themselves harmless before being enacted. This principle compensates for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. As instituted in modern law, this principle protects natural systems from harm in a way that echoes traditional stories stressing the importance of care in human choices-care that extends to future generations. The precautionary principle is linked to environmental justice in the ethical prohibition against inflicting harm on those who share our world both today and in the future.
Honoring the flexibility and diversity of natural systems is another way of supporting their resiliency. Flexibility is essential to the ability of any system to respond to and recover from stress. “Edges” and interstices between ecosystems as fostered by indigenous practices in the Willamette Valley are the most diverse and thus resilient parts of ecosystems. The value of diversity to the resiliency of ecosystems weighs in against practices that create “blank slates” for human use — such as clear cutting, non-contoured plowing for mono-cropping, and wholesale bulldozing for construction projects. Today wilderness set asides might be used to balance some of the diversity lost through human use of the land.
It is important to note that indigenous peoples throughout the world traditionally managed their landscapes for biodiversity and this is one reason that they now steward some eighty per cent of global biodiversity. Another reason consists of the tragic homogenization of nature and culture that results from industrialized development. In creating such homogenization, we are undermining the options for both ourselves and the natural systems we depend upon to respond to stress such as global warming.
A fourth essential element supporting natural resilience is partnership. Traditional societies enact their partnership with the natural world through ceremonial or diplomatic relationships with other natural beings: animals, plants, and spirits of place. Such personalization (as opposed to commoditization) of others has the pragmatic result of fostering the protection of these natural beings and the habitats upon which both they and humans depend. We might take a first step toward enacting the partnership ethic today by assuming a stance of humility in our dealings with the natural world-and respect for those others that show us how to expand our own humanity. We might also work to learn the “language” of our natural partners, as did contemporary Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. Importantly, the partnership ethic shifts the social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” from competition to cooperation. In terms of the partnership ethic, those most “fit” for survival are those who support the lives of the most “others”-and thus the diversity and resiliency of natural systems upon which they depend for survival.
From a somewhat different perspective, the Resilience Alliance works with natural resource managers to foster natural resilience.
For a more detailed discussion of my sense of the relationship between partnership and resilience, see my “perspectives” piece in response to Brian Walker’s essay at Ecotrust’s online journal:
You are always welcome to link to this post. Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Health, Health and healing links, Hope and vision, Indigenous links, Our Earth and Ourselves, worldviews | Tagged: environmental philosophy, indigenous environmental philosophy, Indigenous environmental views, precautionary principle, reciprocity |