Sunday, December 11, 2022

Indigenous = Environmental? Hold on...

There's another of those articles in this weekends Globe and Mail. You know the ones, the ones claiming that if only we were all as environmentally sensitive and responsible as the world's Indigenous peoples, we would not have an environmental crisis on our hands right now. Climate change? Biodiversity collapse? All a product of white settler greed, overreach and heedlessness.

It makes for a compelling story, but I can't help but find it somewhat disingenuous. In many ways, it smacks of the whole "noble savage" narrative - perhaps not deliberately, but maybe unconsciously or accidentally - and that's a narrative that does no-one any favours.

Yes, Indigenous people went for thousands of years without decimating the climate and the natural world. But then, so did Europeans and Asians in their time. As soon as technology reaches a certain level, it becomes that much easier (and more likely) to tip the natural balance in a negative way. Europeans did that. Asians are in the process of doing that, now that they have access to the appropriate technology.

Even Indigenous peoples are prone to it. The old conventional wisdom that white settlers wiped out the North American bison herds in a few short decades conveniently ignores the reality that, as soon as the Plains tribes obtained European weaponry, they were well on the way to doing it themselves, ably abetted by the aforementioned white settlers and some significant (natural) changes in climate.

Sure, some Indigenous leaders and grass-roots activists are genuinely concerned about the environment, as are many non-Indigenous leaders and activists. But to claim that "their way" is the right or the only way is patent nonsense. Putting a "spiritual" slant on environmentalism is no more (and arguably much less) valid than a Western scientific approach. And please don't try to convince me that all Indigenous people are spiritual anyway (many, particularly among the more urban Indigenous population, are no more "spiritual" than I am, i.e. not very).

I don't say all this to denigrate Indigenous people in some way. If anything, I am denigrating the white (and Indigenous) commentators who peddle the whole "Indigenous = good, white man = bad" account. Like most generalizations, it is deeply flawed. We need to fix our environmental woes any way we can, and in practice this is more likely to happen through an international scientific and political consensus than through some spiritual "kumbaya" approach. We need Indigenous people on board for sure, but they don't have all the solutions, nor should we expect them to.

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