Biocultural resilience for systems change

The remarkable variety of life’s interdependent phenomena and processes — what we call ‘diversity’ — is being eroded by the modern forces of homogenization. The rich tapestry — woven from a countless multitude of mutually reinforcing strands of biological, cultural and linguistic relationships — is wearing out. Our increasingly fatigued world is losing its vitality, luminosity and splendour under a relentless assault from various “izations”, such as industrialization, colonization, secularization, computerization, globalization, and harmonization, to name a few.

Cooking caribou meat. Arctic Village, Alaska, USA. Photo by Nicolas Villaume.

The multiple crises are intensifying and converging. Climate change is hastening ecosystem degradation; peak oil leads to a scramble for other carbon-based fuels and ultimately an even greater carbon footprint; and over-consumption, poverty, species loss, and ecosystem and cultural decline are deepening, further precipitating systemic collapse.

The country knows. If you do the wrong thing to it, the whole country knows. It feels what’s happening to it… Everything is connected somehow…— Lavine Williams, Koyukon Elder, quoted by Richard Nelson.

[small_ad_left]At the Earth’s 11th Hour, when the environmental and social consequences of human-induced changes have become increasingly apparent, there is growing recognition that the ways of thinking that originated in the dominant, largely linear, reductionistworldview must be abandoned. As Albert Einstein observed, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” We must concede that, to date, no amount of technological “tweaking”, guided by the current dominant paradigm, has moved humankind out of its dire predicament. We therefore need to nurture a new way of thinking that is more aligned with the non-linear and interdependent nature of life. Such a paradigm shift is vital if we are to avoid the fate of humankind foretold by Alan Weisman in his non-fiction account of The World Without Us .

Scientists, managers, and policymakers are gradually recognizing the limitations of the current reductionist dualistic covenant, which postulates nature and culture as distinct entities and humans as separate from nature. This view fails to reflect the true essence of our relationship with the Earth and is therefore unhelpful in addressing the ultimate and proximate causes of our planet’s imperiled condition.

Lima Isama Pedro with a pine branch. Mojandita, Ecuador. Photo by Nicolas Villaume/ Conversations with the Earth (CWE).

Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of integrative fields of inquiry — such as Systems ScienceResilience ScienceEcosystem HealthEthnoecologyDeep Ecology, Gaia Theory and others. These fields seek to advance our understanding of the complex non-linear and multi-scale interactions between culture and nature, to incorporate insights from both the biological and the social sciences and often to develop respectful and equitable ways of relying on the traditional knowledge systems of land-based communities and the worldviews of indigenous peoples, together with mainstream scientific approaches, to tackle the multiple challenges facing the planet. Local and international organizations involved in biodiversity conservation, wildlife management, cultural preservation and sustainable development have become increasingly engaged in exploring such synergistic approaches and integrating them into decision- and policymaking processes.

Regrettably, the specialization and power hierarchy in the natural and social sciences continue to support an environment of learning and practice that is mired by intellectual siloing and exacerbate the problems we face rather than promote solutions. Still, there is an emerging recognition that as we contemplate and try to transform today’s economic, political and personal realities into a more sustainable, equitable and diverse world, we must rely on the holistic view of human-environment interactions. We have to discover (or re-discover) more synergistic ways of envisioning and interpreting social and ecological systems, as well as the environmental and cultural problems beleaguering them. We must grow wiser, so that the way we experience, interact with and value the Earth and its constituent elements is firmly grounded in an inherently holistic worldview.

A number of integrative fields of inquiry have been emerging in recent years, seeking to advance our understanding of the complex interactions between culture and nature.

One integrative way of looking at the world and our relationship with it is through the lens of biocultural diversity. Terralingua’s Director Dr. Luisa Maffi, one of the pioneers of this synergistic field of inquiry, characterizes biocultural diversity as “the pulsating heart of the globe, the multi-faceted expression of the beauty and potential of life on this planet — a precious gift for everyone to cherish and care for”. Biocultural diversity describes life-sustaining interdependencies and co-evolution of various forms of diversity — a view of the world that has been integral to indigenous ways of knowing — from landscapes to ecosystems, from foodways to languages.