Biocultural Resilience for Systems Change

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  • 2012•12•07

    Gleb Raygorodetsky

    In this essay, a research fellow with the UNU-IAS Traditional Knowledge Initiative argues that our best hope for averting the converging global crises brought about by the dominant economic development paradigm is to focus on maintaining and connecting resilient nodes of biocultural diversity.

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    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 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”: industrialization, colonization, secularization, computerization, globalization, and harmonization, to name a few.

    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.

    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, reductionist worldview 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.

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

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

    Finding more synergistic ways

    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.

    Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of integrative fields of inquiry, such as Systems Science, Resilience Science, Ecosystem Health, Ethnoecology, Deep 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 decisionmaking and policymaking processes.

    Regrettably, the specialization and power hierarchy in the natural and social sciences continues 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.

    One integrative way of looking at the world and our relationship with it is through the lens of biocultural diversity. Terralingua 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.

    Proponents and practitioners of valuing biocultural diversity (at global, regional and local scales) are working hard to infuse the fields of education, policy, conservation and sustainable development with more holistic models and practical approaches. “It is hard to ignore the similarities between the practical forces driving biological extinctions and cultural homogenization”, contends David Harmon, President of the George Wright Society. “The only effective way to meet them is with a cohesive, biocultural response.”

    Nomadic tribe preparing goat cheese supply before winter time. Zanskar, India. Photo by <a href="">Nicolas Villaume/CWE</a>.

    Nomadic tribe preparing goat cheese supply before winter time. Zanskar, India. Photo by Nicolas Villaume/CWE.

    The preamble to the Earth Charter states that humankind is at a critical juncture in Earth’s history, a time when the future holds both great peril and tremendous promise. As we seek our path toward the just future endowed with diversity and resilience, we must be guided by the vision of the world we would be proud of to leave to our children’s children. Will it be the proverbial Garden of Eden, or Weisman’s “World Without Us”, or a techno-cyber reality drawn up on a computer screen and engineered in a lab in response to contrived demands and incentives of the temperamental markets?

    The world we leave to future generations must be the place where the global community of custodians of Earth’s biocultural heritage sows and nurtures the seeds of an abundant and resilient future that is deeply rooted in collective biocultural wisdom and practice. Millennia of co-evolutionary relationships between humans and their surroundings — with people relying on their environment for survival while adapting to and modifying it — gave rise to a tremendous diversity of bioculturally-endowed systems around the globe.

    Today, many positive examples of biocultural systems endure around the world, as documented in a database maintained by the Resilience Alliance and in the Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook, Dr. Maffi’s latest book on the subject. Many of these examples come from indigenous peoples who continue to maintain biocultural systems worldwide through nurturing an intimate relationship with the planet (known to many of them as “Mother Earth”), something that our modern societies have all but forgotten.

    The ‘Los Derechos de la Pachamama’ (Rights of Mother Earth) is an inspiring video created as a joint project between five indigenous communities in Peru with the support of InsightShare and Conversations with the Earth.

    Comprising a mere 4 percent of the world’s population, indigenous peoples continue to care for over 20 percent of the Earth’s surface, and directly maintain close to 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. In this task, they continue to be guided by their collective indigenous knowledge passed on through generations of oral teachings and sustained through practice.

    The science of resilience

    The essential feature of biocultural systems that has ensured their persistence in time and space has been their resilience. Prominent resilience scientist Dr. Brian Walker describes resilience as the propensity of a system to learn, adapt, self-organize (through co-evolution between different sub-systems) and absorb change without losing functional integrity.

    Resilient systems are characterized by a diversity of patterns, functions, and processes — from nutrient cycles to ecological niches, from inter- and intra-specific variability to between and within the richness of languages, from epistemologies to traditional institutions of governance — that ensure a wide range of responses to external or internal challenges.

    Another important characteristic of a resilient system is its modularity, the presence of relatively autonomous “nodes” (e.g., local communities, ecological refugia, pastoral networks) throughout a system that reduces its over-connectedness and, therefore, enhances its ability to resist rapid transmission of environmental and social shocks. Tight feedback mechanisms between various elements of biocultural systems enable detection of approaching thresholds, or tipping points (from coral- to algae-dominated systems, from rainforest to savannah, from commons to private property, from subsistence to market-based economy), long before the system is on the verge of flipping into a new, potentially irreversible state.

    Functional overlap is a reflection of redundancy in the system that enhances its continuity when some of its elements experience change (e.g., carbon sequestration is achieved in different parts of an ecosystem; traditional diets include varied sources of protein; wildlife harvest is regulated through different institutional arrangements). Substantial social capital — in the form of trusted social networks, wise leadership, intergenerational transmission of knowledge, an equitable integration of different ways of knowing into decision-making — also allows for diverse systemic responses to change.

    Maintaining and enhancing the resilience of biocultural systems is fundamental to sustaining social and ecological systems and achieving the coveted goal of sustainability in meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Such efforts are less about “what”, “when” or “where”, but more about “how”, because the recognition of the value of biocultural diversity must permeate every aspect of human-environment interactions, policy and decisionmaking, be it establishment of protected areas, wildlife management, cultural preservation, food production, or poverty alleviation.

    The current trajectory of humankind’s “progress”, however, is pushing us outside of what the researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Center describe as the planetary boundaries and away from a future that is resilient and endowed with biocultural diversity. The juggernaut of the dominant development paradigm, manifested by the Western multi-planet lifestyle, is sustained through a constant expansion and exploitation of scarce resources, consumerism, privatization of the commons and the homogenization of global cultures.

    As a result, diversity within and across landscapes and ecosystems is being diminished at local, regional and global scales. Biodiversity is disappearing at unprecedented rates; languages are vanishing; and associated systems of knowledge, wisdom and practice that have regulated human-environmental interactions for generations are also disappearing.

    [quote quote=”The juggernaut of the dominant development paradigm … is sustained through a constant expansion and exploitation of scarce resources … and the homogenization of global cultures.” type=”text” ]

    Globalization further removes us from the natural world, truncating feedback mechanisms and diminishing our ability to comprehend and adequately respond to the immediacy of our predicament (for instance, climate change). Humankind has become a planetary force that is making the world increasingly ecologically, economically, socially and culturally “over-connected”, and therefore more susceptible to swift propagation of adverse conditions through the system, be they economic vulnerabilities, weather extremes or food scarcity.

    Several factors appear to limit our ability to maintain a bioculturally resilient world.

    • Wisdom, knowledge, practice and values embedded in local worldviews that have evolved over millennia to recognize the interconnectedness of people and nature, are rapidly eroding amongst land-based communities and indigenous peoples who value Mother Earth and all its beings. Amongst other things, this is often a result of external and internal pressures that instill a false sense of inferiority on such worldviews relative to the dominant one.
    • The scientific community lacks conceptual or methodological agreement on how to internalize the interdependent nature of biological and cultural diversities and the common threats to them into research agendas and conservation and management approaches.
    • There are too few models, guidelines and tools for the policymaking and management communities that explicitly integrate biocultural diversity and resilience (but see Terralingua’s Index of Linguistic Diversity).
    • Human and financial resources are limited for implementing and sustaining biocultural diversity-based initiatives amongst the groups who are interested in integrating them into their strategies and actions.
    • There is poor understanding amongst the general public that, in the words of the late Dr. Darrell Posey, there are “inextricable links between biological and cultural diversity”. Hence, the impact of individual and collective decisions and actions on resilience of biocultural systems are poorly understood.

    Shedding a myopic worldview

    As documented in Dr. Maffi’s book and a dedicated website, a growing cohort of local and indigenous individuals, communities, non-profit organizations and their international partners is working hard towards overcoming these obstacles by opposing the dominant reductionist paradigm while demonstrating and celebrating the importance of biocultural diversity. Several private foundations (The Christensen Fund, The Seventh Generation Fund, the Swift Foundation), non-profit organizations and initiatives (Gaia Foundation, the Global Diversity Foundation, Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment, Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas, Land is Life) and multilateral agency programs and partnerships (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, The Satoyama Initiative, Satoumi Initiative, UNESCO’s Man & Biosphere Programme, the UN University Traditional Knowledge Initiative and others) have been focusing explicitly on a more holistic way of thinking about achieving sustainability and biodiversity conservation. Many of these groups work on initiatives that are planned and implemented in close partnership with, or are guided directly by, indigenous peoples.

    Their efforts demonstrate that our best hope for escaping the thickening fog of the dominant economic development paradigm is to focus our limited human and financial resources on maintaining and interlinking resilient nodes of biocultural diversity — whether these are geographically anchored local communities, indigenous nations, or global networks of like-minded individuals on the path to revitalizing and sustaining traditions of biocultural wisdom and practice.

    The late Thomas Berry, a renowned cultural historian and ecotheologian, described our age as the dark end of the Cenozoic evolutionary tunnel that the past 65 million years has been. Whether we can emerge from the twilight of self-inflicted crises into the light of an Ecozoic era — when human conduct would be based on valuing the Earth community as an integrated web of mutually synergetic relationships — depends on whether we have the gumption and heart to choose the right path. The current focus on “feel-good” stories in addressing global crises is not helpful for making this choice. However enticing and comforting it is for us to follow the dangling carrot of proclamations that “Changing the world does not have to conflict with living the life you want”, as the authors of World Changing: The Users Guide for the 21st Century argue, such a mindset does not reflect the reality of the changes that we must make.

    [quote quote=”Our best hope is to focus our limited human and financial resources on maintaining and connecting resilient nodes of biocultural diversity.” type=”text” ] founder Bill McKibben is quoted as saying that, “It’s not that we have a philosophical difference with the fossil fuel industry — it’s that their business model is destroying the planet.”

    Business models, however, arise out of a particular way of seeing the world. The currently dominant paradigm of unbridled economic growth and development is firmly rooted in a myopic worldview that is completely ignorant of the interdependence of people and nature and averse to creating or nurturing conditions that support biocultural resilience.

    It is therefore imperative that our efforts to deal with the contemporary social and ecological challenges facing the planet are firmly rooted in a holistic worldview, such as biocultural diversity and resilience thinking. In the words of Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, our global efforts must be about “systems change”, or a paradigm shift, toward learning from such synergistic worldviews as indigenous traditions of relating to the Earth with respect, reciprocity and reverence.

    Whether or not humankind is going to achieve such a systems change and succeed in transitioning into the Ecozoic Age depends ultimately on our individual and collective courage to commit to a more holistic worldview that is based on valuing biocultural diversity for our own and our planet’s wellbeing.

    For such a transformation to occur, a few key elements must be present. We must embrace change as an inalienable part of life, rather than trying to avert it at any cost. We must be realistic about the scope and scale of what should be done to correct the course, as well as what each of us is capable of doing him or herself. We must also expand our notion of community from a group of people united by their geographic or genetic proximity, to a broader global community inclusive of other like-minded individuals and groups united by their recognition of the value of biocultural diversity as the very “pulsating heart” of Nature. We must work towards a biologically and culturally rich world not only through our work but, more importantly, by changing our own thinking and actions. Only through such comprehensive transformation of our own nature could we hope to ensure that Nature is bioculturally resilient for generations to come.

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    This article was originally published on Our World 2.0 web magazine. The photos and video featured here appear courtesy of Conversations with the Earth. You can join the CWE conversation on Twitter and Facebook.