By Gary Kenny
Recently a short essay was shared on Facebook that’s profoundly pertinent to the climate-crisis times in which we live. The essay laments what befell the Inuit people with the 16th century coming of Europeans to their windswept Arctic land. It’s author is Inuit lawyer, Sandra Inutiq.
As with the traditional lands of all First Peoples in the America’s, Inuit territory was encroached upon by Europeans in the name of ‘glory, gold, and God’ or some such epithet. They primarily saw in the land “resources” – caribou meat, whale oil, dried fish, and eventually fossil fuels and precious minerals – to be exploited for commercial gain.
To the Inuit, Inutiq writes, nature regarded as a warehouse of consumable commodities was entirely alien. Like Indigenous peoples elsewhere, they understood themselves as stewards, not owners, of the land. What they harvested from the land was regarded, not in a utilitarian manner, but with the deepest of reverence.
The Inuit lived in sacred relationship to the land and understood it, deeply intuitively, as part of their very being. “I am the land” is a commonly-held spiritual expression among First Nation’s communities. In Inutiq’s poetic words, “Streams and rivers are our veins, rushing through our bodies.”
So what does all this have to do with the apparently growing calamity of global warming? Actually, a lot.
Those early Europeans carried with them a deeply embedded understanding of the natural world as something wholly other than, and inferior to, themselves as humans. It is this human-nature divide, this self-imposed alienation from nature, that has taken Western civilization down a path of possible global environmental catastrophe.
Historically, religion and philosophy provided convenient justifications for the separation of humans from nature in Western culture. As Christianity developed, humans were re-positioned outside of nature. Genesis 1:28, for example, came to be interpreted as God having given humans licence to “subdue” and have “dominion” over “every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” For early Christians, however, the sacred was found throughout nature in which humanity was thoroughly enmeshed.
In the secular realm, the work of 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes, was enormously influential in shaping modern ideas of science and how Western society views human and animal identities. He framed the world as essentially split between the realm of mind and that of inert matter. As the only rational beings, humans were viewed as altogether separate from and superior to everything in nature.
Values such as these laid the foundations of modern anthro-pocentrism, a system of beliefs that elevates humans above the non-human world.
Contemporary philosopher Val Plumwood was among the first to suggest this disintegrated values system underlies the world’s environmental crises. The very term “natural resources” implies that the earth’s fabric holds no value apart from what it provides us with, Plumwood says.
Because of their close association with nature, Indigenous peoples like Inutiq’s Inuit were lumped in with the not-fully human. Their objectification and treatment as “other” made it acceptable for Europeans to exploit them also. They are other Native societies were hobbled by a European belief system that tried to sever their relationship with nature in the interest of advancing an oppressive colonial agenda.
Today, governments and corporations have immense control over the natural systems they exploit, and they are destabilizing the chemistry of the earth’s climate. So are those of us living unsustainable lifestyles. We know the cost: inhospitable global heat, massive wild fires, prolonged droughts, crop failures, rising seas, and increasingly frequent extreme weather events – trends that could render millions of people refugees.
It can be difficult for those of us weaned on a worldview of ‘humans vs nature’ to understand the world more holistically. But there’s good news. Right relationship with nature as an over-arching global ethic can be restored.
Economist and philosopher Charles Eisenstein has called for a “living earth” narrative that views the earth not as a dead rock with extractable resources, but as a living system whose health depends on the wellbeing of its “organs and tissues” – its wetlands, meadows, forests, seagrasses, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and more.
Strong vestiges of that way of seeing and living still exist within global Indigenous cultures like Inutiq’s Inuit, or closer to home, members of Six Nations Reserve near Brantford and Saugeen First Nation near Southampton. We can learn from Native people like them. They might just represent our ultimate salvation from ourselves.
Education, especially of children and youth, is vital. Nature schools where forests and other natural settings are viewed as classrooms hold great promise. We need more of them. Mainstream elementary and secondary schools can integrate nature immersion exercises into their curricula. Higher education courses across disciplines can be redesigned to deepen the relationship to nature of those about to enter the workforce.
To truly bring ourselves into right relationship and harmony with the natural world, we must return to seeing humanity as part of it and it as part of ourselves. ◊