Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change

Over the past couple of days, I have come across a number of items pertaining to indigenous knowledge of, and responses to, climate change. Of course, climate change is an issue that affects everyone around the world, but the indigenous perspective is worth paying attention to for at least two reasons: first, indigenous peoples often have unique systems of traditional knowledge pertaining to the environment that can be essential to understanding the environment itself and changes that are occurring; and second, climate change will result in environmental and other (economic, political, etc.) changes that are likely to affect indigenous peoples disproportionately.

The whole area of “traditional ecological knowledge” or “TEK” is something of a “growth area” in anthropology, with many new contributions to the literature over the past two decades. The term “traditional ecological knowledge” has been defined as:

a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000: 1252).

Such a definition encompasses far more than just climate change, but questions of climate change—indigenous knowledge of it based on detailed observations, indigenous beliefs about its causes and meanings, and indigenous practices in adapting to it—clearly loom large in studies of TEK in the present moment.

We can begin with a fascinating documentary film Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, which is based on interviews with Inuit elders about traditional ecological practices from their youth and young adulthood, and how those practices have had to undergo a variety of alterations to accommodate climate change. From changes in the predictability of the weather, to the deteriorating quality of seal skins, to the earlier and earlier breakup of the Arctic ice, the Inuit have been acutely aware of environmental change occurring all around them. Inuit elders also report their that “the earth has changed its tilt”, based on their perception of changes in the position of sunset over the past several decades and that the angle of the sun is generating greater heat now than in the past; that the prevailing wind directions, previously used for navigational purposes, have changed; that the stars “look different” and are “no longer in their proper positions”. The film makes it clear that the Inuit way of life is made far more unpredictable and fragile through the effects of climate change, generated by populations far away from them.

There is plenty of evidence that indigenous perceptions of climate change, as well as oral narratives that document climate change, coincide to some degree with Western scientific studies of the same phenomena. Indigenous stories from the Pacific Northwest about seismic activity and related flooding are underscored by geological studies, while Australian Aboriginal stories about sea level rises ( see here and here) seem remarkably good documents of scientifically documented sea level rises. A broad overview published in the journal BioScience provides a good review of the literature.

There’s a lot of good stuff out there to explore on this topic. Here are a few highlights: