Learning from Indigenous communities can drive sustainability amid the climate crisis
As global temperatures warm, forests are cleared and species become endangered, there is a growing acknowledgement of the detrimental impacts humans are having on the environment.
Humans are often portrayed as merciless exploiters of the earth, ravaging its landscape and debilitating its ecosystems as they greedily pursue profit at the expense of the planet.
While it is imperative that we acknowledge the harm we are causing to the planet, does that responsibility lie on the shoulders of all humanity? Is exploiting the environment an inherent human condition?
This is the dominant narrative in the West and other developed economies because these societies shoulder the blame for much of anthropogenic climate change. But this portrayal can be reductive, neglecting large swathes of people who have lived in harmony with the planet for centuries.
There are societies that nurture a sustainable relationship with the natural environment and it is time to recognise that they are stewards of the planet humanity calls home.
Indigenous communities make up only 6% of the global population but they conserve 80% of biodiversity. Sustainable practices and respect for the environment are built into their social doctrine which has been passed on for generations.
Yusuf Baluch is a climate activist from Balochistan, a region of Northern Pakistan that is deeply affected by climate change. When he moved to London, he encountered the idea that being human meant to exploit the planet – an idea that conflicted with what he knew from Balochistan.
“When I talk to my community, particularly the community elders, there is a sense of stewardship and responsibility towards the earth,” Baluch said.
In his experience, the culture of his community explored ‘the power of the natural environment and the need to protect it’. Essentially, environmentalism is a way of life, a way of being that pervades every aspect of the life of the community.
Indigenous communities have generations of skills and experience that we must harness in order to tackle the climate crisis. It is vital we bring such communities to the forefront of the climate revolution, centering their best practices so that we can learn what true sustainable development means.
Climate activist Yusuf Baluch
Every person has the ability to appreciate nature. The connection to the environment is visible in children across the world – regardless of their ethnicity, religion or country, children spend vast amounts of time playing naturally.
Indifferent to status, children are incredibly environmentally friendly, offering a glimpse of who we were before social forces took charge. Furthermore, the natural world has long been heralded as key to childhood growth and development, as free play is fundamental for children’s imagination and creativity.
“Being immersed and involved in the environment [while] growing up causes children to connect with the natural world. Allowing children to freely explore nature promotes understanding and wonder about nature,” said Amy Campbell, the founder of Growing Up Green, an organisation set up to encourage childhood-environmental connection.
Amy Campbell at the 'TedXBrum: Why Childcare Needs Reinvention' event
Ms Campbell gave an example of her son, Theo, who has built an appreciation for nature and at the age of ten, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ahead of the UN COP26 summit on climate, asking for urgent action.
Does this suggest the human instinct, evident in our childhood selves, is about understanding nature, nurturing a relationship with it, and appreciating all the beauty, variety and colour it adds to our lives?
There is an argument here that, innately, humans appreciate nature. Children have no hunger to dominate the natural environment, no desperation to exert power over land. They play in harmony with it – climbing trees, creating mud pies, and making daisy chains.
Greed, therefore, is not part of our condition but a product of the societies we grow up in – a taught concept that warps our relationship with the planet. To live sustainably is not to go against our basic instincts and repress ourselves, but something compatible with who we are as humans.
It is of utmost importance that we not only conserve the ability to connect with nature for future generations of children but also work to ensure that extends into adulthood instead of being replaced by the dystopia of consumerism.
Through education, we can nurture a loving relationship with nature. Drawing from practices of indigenous communities we can enable people to carry the innate drive for sustainability into adulthood, creating generations with a healthy relationship with the environment.
There is no denying that damage has been done to the environment. Yet, there are communities that have long protected the environment by nurturing a beautiful co-dependency with their natural surroundings. Their actions offer an alternative worth exploring.