Indigenous Knowledge, Land Ethic, and Sustainability
University of Alberta
As the pace of modern development around the world accelerates, the need for the development of forms of life that are sustainable grows proportionately in urgency. The meaning of sustainability itself is in dispute, 1 but here I will suppose that it stands for the type of activity that is compatible with the flourishing of present as well future human and non-human beings in viable ecosystems. Aldo Leopold's land ethic is in this regard a landmark way of conceiving such a sustainable way of life. The crucial question is how such a land ethic may be adopted given the obstacles that it faces. Part of the answer lies in our natural inclinations toward land and life. I propose that another crucial ingredient leading to the adoption of land ethic lies in the particular ways of knowing that issue in Indigenous knowledge.
In the following, I begin by clarifying what Leopold's land ethic stands for, and point out the obstacles to its development that he saw. After noting the role of topophilia and biophilia, I proceed to explain how the ways of knowing that lead to Indigenous knowledge may be important conditions for overcoming the obstacles noted by Leopold. In the process I consider an important objection arising from the tension between 'is' and 'ought' statements. I conclude that Indigenous ways of knowing can make a very important contribution to the development of a sustainability-supporting ethic, land ethic.
Leopold's Land Ethic
Aldo Leopold's call for land ethic was his reaction to the unconscionable acceptance among his contemporaries of often irreversible degradation of ' land and the animals and plants which grow upon it.' 2 Philosophers continue to debate whether recognition of the value of non-human entities requires a new kind of holistic, ethical theory or simply an extension of extant, individualistic theories of ethics. 3 Although Leopold generally is placed among those that argue the need for a new holistic theory of ethics, a case can be made for the view that his concern was less for a new justification of respect for the natural environment than for a new willingness to act on principles of conduct (extant or not) that express respect for land and its life. One might say that Leopold's call for land ethic primarily is a call for the adoption of a new, individual and social, ethos, that is, a new form of life, commensurate with the value that, in our enlightened moments, we claim to recognize in land.
Leopold understood the relationship of human beings to their broader environment in terms of their participation in a 'biotic community' comprised of soils, waters, animals and plants. He supposed that, although some 'alteration, management, and use of these 'resources'' is inevitable, respect for the value of other, non-human members of the biotic community would result in the affirmation of 'their right to continued existence, and, at least in some spots, [to] their continued existence In a natural state.'
Curiously perhaps, Leopold despaired of the supposition that 'more conservation education' would bring about the desired ecologically sound practices. As he saw it, the 'conservation education' urged on his contemporaries amounted to little more than this: 'obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your land; the government will do the rest.' To Leopold such conservation education failed to stem the tide of environmental destruction and bring about land ethic because of its failure to point out that more than 'enlightened self interest' is required.
Leopold illustrates the limitations of 'enlightened self interest' by noting that when, on Its basis, concerted political action is taken, the results tend to be less than satisfactory from an ecological point of view. Leopold noted that in order to stem erosion of farmland in the U.S. State of Wisconsin in the 1930s both 'conservation education' and self-regulation were tried. 'The farmers,' however, only 'selected those remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those which were profitable to the community, but not clearly profitable to themselves.' Leopold concludes that '[t]he net result is that we have more education but less soil, fewer healthy woods, and as many floods as (before].' In contrast, effective conservation education would cultivate ecological conscience, that is, a will to act that reflects 'a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.'
Although today nearly everyone pays lip service to the protection of a healthy natural environment and the need for 'sustainable development,' the predominant view still seems to be that individuals (as singular owners or as stockholders in land-holding corporations) only have a responsibility to themselves. Fortunately, environmentally responsible management sometimes agrees with the self-interest of the proprietors of land; when it does not, however, few perceive a moral obligation to give the natural integrity of the natural environment a high priority. For example, In Southern British Columbia, Canada, despite the fact that old-growth forests on private land can provide a last niche to various native species of plants and animals, development is generally given priority over preservation. 4 Evidently the type of moral responsibility for land and its inhabitants described by Leopold's land ethic has not taken root very widely yet.
Leopold suggested that there are specific barriers to the development of land ethic. It was 'inconceivable' to Leopold 'that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.' In his eyes such an ethical relation to land is undermined by three main factors: firstly, our increasing isolation from natural processes, secondly, our perception of an adversarial relation to land, and thirdly our belief in the 'fallacy' of economic determinism.
Let me consider these obstacles in the order set out here. First, Leopold noted that 'our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.' He points out that our artifact-oriented societies block the immediate awareness of the natural environments on which we rely for our sustenance. This is epitomized by our preference for a multiplicity of 'synthetic substitutes'. Leopold argued, moreover, that our tastes are changing in such a way that for many people land holds no interest unless packaged as 'a golf links or a 'scenic' area'.
Since Leopold's time the substitution of the artifactual, human-made for the natural has accelerated many times over. This process has advanced even into areas formerly of interest only to nature enthusiasts. Increasingly skiing and rock climbing, for example, are turning into 'synthetic,' fully engineered activities; artificial snow and concrete climbing walls are stealing the show from their natural counterparts. 5 Moreover, after decades of pseudo-reality beamed into our homes on television sets, we apparently are soon to face the mass dissemination of machines that will generate the ultimate in synthetic experiences, namely, virtual realities. 6 This growing alienation 'from the land and its life processes runs counter to the development of land ethic. The development of land ethic would require significant reform of our educational and economic systems; it would require conscious and concerted effort at re-cognizing our roots in the natural environment. 7
The second obstacle to land ethic, noted by Leopold is the perception of land as an adversary, which has to be pressed for a livelihood. which contributes to our alienation from it. If land is seen as 'a taskmaster that keeps [us] in slavery' then the replacement of natural forests with tree farms, indiscriminate mining activities in' undeveloped regions, and the use of pesticides and herbicides on fields and woods, becomes unobjectionable. In response to this difficulty Leopold urges the spread of genuine ecological understanding of land and of our place in the environment. He proposes that recognition of our membership in the ecological community should lead us to adopt his oft-cited imperative: 'A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.'
The third obstacle to the development of land ethic noted by Leopold is the belief that 'economics determines all land-use.' While he freely admits that economic factors may provide an important limitation to our concern for land, he points out that it is 'simply not true' that economic factors are, or need be, the only values relevant in land use decisions; as it stands, '[a]n innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land user's tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse.' Presumably Leopold would argue that reflection on our membership in the biotic community, comprised by land and its inhabitants, would lead us to recognize that non-economic values should play an important role in our land use decisions.
To summarize: Leopold compares our careless interventions in the land with the quixotic notion of redeveloping Alhambra, the exquisite apogee of Moorish architecture in Al Andalus (Southern Spain). He says that '[w]e are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and we are proud of our yardage.' Leopold perceived that, even while expressing lip-service to the value of land and its wild life, we continue destroying its intricate fabric. However, despite the obstacles recounted, Leopold argued that it is possible to adopt land ethic, a form of life respectful of the natural environment. He suggests that what Is required is a new form of human life, a new ethos, that manifests a very practical commitment to act on the respect for land which we profess to have. But what can ground this new ethic?
Topophilia, Biophilia and I and Indigenous Knowledge
The obstacles to the development of a land ethic outlined by Leopold, that is, our increasing isolation from natural processes, our perception of an adversarial relation to land, and the belief in the fallacy of economic determinism, suggest that we generally lack the attitude of genuine respect for land. Nonetheless, this situation is not inevitable.
There is reason to believe that we are biologically capable of. and probably even genetically disposed toward, the appreciation of natural places and living things. In support of this claim we may think, for example, of the cases made by Yi-Fu Tuan for 'topophilia', and by E. 0. Wilson for 'biophilia.' 8 Tuan provides evidence for the view that the affective ties to the natural environment are a natural, although culturally modified, feature of the human species. Wilson and others have argued that we have an 'innate tendency to focus on life and life-processes.' 9 The real question is how this potential for the appreciation of natural places and life can be activated so as to generate the conscience for the integrity of land that we require. I propose that the development of land ethic likely depends on the ways of knowing that lead to what has been called Indigenous knowledge.
Indigenous knowledge has recently begun to receive academic and institutional attention. 10 The study, application, and recording of Indigenous knowledge, viewed as Indigenous technologies for living with natural environments, has become a field of great interest and promise to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
'Indigenous knowledge' is an expression that still has evolving conceptual boundaries. It has been used to make reference to knowledge held by Indigenous people, where 'Indigenous' stands for aboriginal, native or autochthonous people; that is, it has been used to make reference to the knowledge of the people who comprise the descendants of the original inhabitants of a land. 11 The expression 'Indigenous knowledge' has also been used in a more general sense as a way to make reference to a certain type of knowledge ('local knowledge') held by people from a particular locality no matter how recent the people's arrival. 12
Indigenous or traditional knowledge may be explicit, that is, expressed, for example, in lore or in advice passed from generation to generation, but it may also be implicit and embodied in specific traditional practices (determining, for example, when and where to fish with which techniques and tools). 13
Most interestingly, Indigenous knowledge has been described as mostly qualitative (instead of quantitative), generally the result of direct acquaintance, and gathered diachronically (collected over long stretches of time at one locality). 14
The link between traditional ways of knowing and traditional values has been documented in many instances. We may consider, for example, Deborah Bird Rose's paper 'Exploring An Aboriginal Land Ethic.' 15 She documents how the Australian Aboriginal Yarralin people's judgements regarding responsible and irresponsible actions are based on their thorough, first-hand, long-term acquaintance with plants, animals and places on their land. Rose proposes that the particular understanding of land of the Yarralin people is integrated in a thoroughgoing way with their moral practice and philosophy regarding their land.
As others have also observed, traditional societies often provide outstanding models for an approach to our world that is respectful of non-human entities in their ecosystemic roles. My thesis is that the traditional ways of knowing, that is, the Indigenous ways of conceptualizing the natural and human worlds, have a crucial part in the facilitation of these ecologically appropriate ways of living with nature. There is an objection, however, that may be raised to my thesis. It may be argued that I am mistakenly supposing that adequate, sustainability-promoting morality can be derived from Indigenous ways of knowing.
Relating Ethics and knowledge
Ordinary thinking and orthodox philosophy disagree radically about the role of fact statements in environmental issues. It is pointed out by some that much environmental writing moves freely from statements of fact (concerning pollution, for example) to statements about the actions that morally ought to be taken (such as the prevention and mitigation of pollution). Such writing has been criticized on the ground that it overlooks a basic distinction between 'is' and 'ought' statements, insofar as, according to philosophic orthodoxy (going back to David Hume) 'ought statements' cannot be derived from 'is statements' So, it is noted that from the fact that industrial pollution occurs it does not straightforwardly follow that the pollution-generating industrial activity must cease. That conclusion only follows if a corresponding value (such as 'pollution-generation ought not to occur') is appealed to as well.
Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the relation between 'is' and 'ought' statements, or between knowledge and ethics, is closer than this orthodoxy suggests. This becomes apparent if one considers the supposed epitome of objective knowledge in modern, European societies, namely science. It has become increasingly clear since Thomas Kuhn's work on scientific revolutions that modern, European science Is not value-free. It is becoming apparent that modern, European science is largely structured so as to make the world available to prediction and/or (technical) manipulation and control. From this point of view objectivity in fact statements translates to fact statements that do not betray commitment to any other values than availability to prediction and/or human manipulation and control. But, we may note, such limitation in itself is the expression of a value.
We may observe, for example, that conflicts over policies which pit options based on 'objective' grounds against options based on 'subjective' grounds frequently depend crucially on the hidden values underlying the 'objective' point of view. Consider the disputes between those who appeal to the 'objective' value arising from development of particular pieces of land through logging, mining or construction (determined in quantified resource yield or in monetary terms), and those who appeal to the 'subjective' value of those same areas of land in their undisturbed state (determined in aesthetic or personal-history terms). Notably, the 'objective' value determinations presuppose the availability of the lands In question for manipulation in terms of logging, mining and construction development.
One may ask, however, what justifies the supposition of their availability for these purposes in the first place; certainly not everything that physically can be done can or should morally be done. (The hidden freight of so-called 'objective' valuations only becomes apparent In the extreme cases, such as when we note the inappropriateness of assessing human beings for their mineral or chemical value on the marketplace.)
So, in reply to the objection noted, I suggest that I am not claiming that an 'ought' can be derived from an 'is,' but that, up to a point, fact statements are already presupposing certain values. Now, if values ineluctably enter into fact statements then, if our aim is to further the development of land ethic, it is imperative to fix on modes of knowing that entail values congruent with land ethic.
At this point the issue becomes somewhat empirical since the best way to determine the modes of knowing congruent with sustainability-promoting land ethic may be to locate exemplars that manifest the values in question. My proposal in this paper is that the ways of knowing issuing in the type of local knowledge described as Indigenous or traditional often, if not generally, are outstandingly congruent with a sustainability-promoting land ethic.
In this light we may note that it certainly is appropriate to learn, where possible, and where it is offered, the Indigenous knowledge of the people native to a place in order to understand land in those places as well as we can. But, more importantly, my proposal is to consider the ways of knowing exemplified in those societies as models. In other words, the approach to knowing land that relies on first-hand acquaintance, focuses on its many varied gifts, favors caution in the face of fundamental transformations, notes the role of land in the personal histories of its long-time inhabitants, and so on. The adoption of such ways of knowing may lead to a new caring for land, to true land ethic.
1 At least since the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) there has been widespread discussion of the notions 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability.' There are very divergent interpretations of what these notions entail, ranging from total non-intervention by human beings in natural processes, on the one hand, to the supposition that sustainable development demands a fifty-fold increase in present economic activity (entailing significant human transformation of the natural environment), on the other.
2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, 1949 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966 edn), pp. 217-241.
3. See, for example, J.Baird Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic (Albany: State University of New York, 1989), and especially 'Animal Liberation: a Triangular Affair,' pp. 15-38, and 'The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic', pp. 75-99.
4. The large scale sale of Gallano Island forest lands (in Southern British Columbia, Canada) to real estate development interests, in the face of very significant citizen resistance, constitutes a case in point.
5. Albert Borgmann, 'The Nature of Reality and the Reality of Nature', paper presented at the University of Alberta, 1993. Borgmann points out the dispensability of natural snow on today's alpine skiing slopes.
6. In this connection also see Albert Borgmann's discussion of hyperreality in his Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-97.
7. In this connection see David Orr, 'Love It or Lose It: the Coming Biophilia Revolution,' Orion 13(Winter 1994), 8-15.
8. See Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: a Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1974); Stephen R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1993).
9. E.O. Wilson, Biophilia: The Human Bond With Other Species (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
10. See Thomas Heyd, 'Indigenous Knowledge, Emancipation and Alienation, Knowledge and Policy, 8 (1994), 63-73; D.M. Warren, D. Brokensha and L.J. Slikkerveer (eds.), Indigenous Knowledge Systems (London, Kegan Paul, 1993); World Commission on Environment and Development 1987; Agenda 21 in J. Quarrie (ed.), Earth Summit (London: Regency Press, 1992).
11. On this point see Agenda 21, chapter 26.
12. E. Hunn, 'What is Traditional Knowledge', in Williams and Baines (eds.), Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Canberra: Centre for Research and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, 1993), pp. 13-15.
13. H.T. Lewis, 'Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Some Definitions' in Williams and Baines (eds.), Traditional Ecological Knowledge, pp. 8-12.
14. F. Berkes, 'Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Perspective' in J.T. Inglis (ed.), Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases (Ottawa: International Program on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, I.D.R.C., 1993), p.40.
15. Deborah Bird Rose, 'Exploring An Aboriginal Land Ethic,' Meanjin, 47 (1988), pp.378-387.