Climate change promises to alter life on Earth for hundreds of millions of people in the decades to come: modern science can learn from Indigenous knowledge

Nicole Mortillaro writes on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website about what we can learn from taking a long term perspective to our climate actions. Some believe that when it comes to climate action, this short-sightedness neglects to take into account how our actions today — such as continuing to burn fossil fuels or cutting down forests — will affect our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on. What are your views?

 

How climate action can benefit from Indigenous tradition of ‘7th-generation decision-making’

Unlike most other animals, humans have the ability to think in the long term. We plan not only for the coming days but also for years down the road: careers, children, homes and retirement.

However, when it comes to considering the very long term — say, generations ahead — we often fall short.

Some believe that when it comes to climate action, this short-sightedness neglects to take into account how our actions today — such as continuing to burn fossil fuels or cutting down forests — will affect our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

Philosopher Roman Krznaric notes that Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine back in the 1950s and later warned about nuclear proliferation, asked the question, “Are we being good ancestors?”

“In other words, how are we going to be remembered by the generations to come?” said Krznaric, who recently published the book The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking.

This question becomes even more relevant in an era of climate change, which promises to alter life on Earth for hundreds of millions of people in the decades to come.

This type of long-term thinking isn’t new to many Indigenous groups, who are used to what is termed “seventh-generation decision-making,” where people make choices based on how it will affect their community decades, if not hundreds of years, into the future.

“Seventh-generation thinking says you have enough: Earth already provides everything you need to be happy and healthy, so take care of it well,” said Rick Hill, a member of the Tuscarora Six Nations in southern Ontario.

But in contemporary times, “we’re stuck with this idea that growth is necessary in order to be modern, to be competitive in the world.”

Hill said that such a forward-thinking process doesn’t provide quick answers. If the government asked his community for a response on a matter of importance, for example, “we would then sit down and talk to our elders, talk to our women or talk to the children [and ask]: ‘What do we think about this?'”

Arriving at a joint decision, Hill said, “could take days, weeks, may take a year. Because you’re cautious, you’re careful and thoughtful.”

As Hill put it: “We’re out of step with modern society. But we say modern society is out of step with the Earth.”

Krznaric said that in researching his book, he encountered many Indigenous groups around the world who apply the seventh-generation philosophy, including those from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, the Maori in New Zealand and in the Haudenosaunee tradition here in Canada.

Krznaric asks whether “those kinds of ideas [are] actually relevant if you’re living in a hyperspeed consumer-culture-driven society?”

His own book suggests that the answer may increasingly be yes. For example, Krznaric points to cities in Japan that have borrowed directly from the Haudenosaunee idea of seventh-generation thinking in order to make urban planning decisions. In the process, some citizen groups are tasked with picturing themselves in the year 2060.

“When imagining themselves in 2060, they systematically advocate far more transformative plans for their towns and cities, whether it’s investment in long-term health care or climate change action or dealing with artificial intelligence or responding to COVID-19,” Krznaric said.

Other cities around the world are also taking a longer view, such as North Vancouver, which has a 100-year sustainability plan, and Amsterdam, which is aiming to have a completely circular (basically no-waste) economy by 2050.

It’s more proof that modern science can learn from Indigenous knowledge.

While the steps may seem small thus far, Krznaric said that environmental organizations such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future show that longer-term thinking may be taking hold in broader society.

“I think these movements add up to something, which is about a recognition of the need to extend our time horizons,” he said.

Changing our way of thinking is of the utmost necessity, said Hill, because “there always is a reckoning for bad behaviour.”

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3 thoughts on “Climate change promises to alter life on Earth for hundreds of millions of people in the decades to come: modern science can learn from Indigenous knowledge

  1. The topic of long term thinking seems to me to be a bit of red herring. It’s not that long term thinking is unimportant. I believe it is very important. The issue as I see it is that this emphasis on Vision is just the start, and I would say it is the easy part. In my view it is relatively easy to come up with a vision/goal. The hard part is the on-going work of selecting and managing programs that will achieve the vision/goal, and keeping everyone focused on the things that are likely to have the desired long term impact. In other words great efforts are put into defining the vision with the result that having a vision becomes the goal rather than just the first step.

  2. I would like to add another comment I received by email from Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Professor Emeritus, Educational Studies, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia: In commenting on this article, I focus more on the notion of Indigenous 7 generations philosophy or sometimes called teachings. Many Indigenous nations have long-term thinking that is inter-generational and some may not call it 7 generations, but the meaning about considering many generations into the future is the foundation of this type of philosophy. Understanding such a philosophy, committing to it, and then putting it into action is challenging, especially for a topic area such as climate change, but not impossible. That said, in the field of education, I believe that many Indigenous people, especially Elders and cultural knowledge holders, have continued to live the inter-generational values and practices when it comes to their Indigenous knowledges such as Indigenous language and cultural revitalization, land-based education, and community health and well-being, which have implications for dealing with climate change. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Indigenous education?

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