Science and Sustainability: Learning from Indigenous Wisdom, by Joy Hendry

Philip Clarke asks whether ecological issues can be solved by studying aboriginal knowledge

November 27, 2014

The emerging academic field of traditional ecological knowledge, sometimes called indigenous bio-cultural knowledge, has shown scholars that deeper insights into local ecologies can be gained by studying indigenous peoples’ lived experience. Today there is a widely recognised moral imperative for land managers to consult broadly when determining the form in which the land should be maintained, although ecologists and indigenous people do not always agree on environmental values. Disagreements occur over such issues as which invasive organisms should remain uncontrolled and which eradicated. While relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous communities are complex, there is a need for Western science to help to provide answers to ecological problems that have existed only since modern times.

Here, anthropologist Joy Hendry argues that indigenous wisdom can provide models for the development of a sustainable future. To achieve this, she says, the definition of science needs to be broadened to include “indigenous science”, which Western colonisers have apparently largely ignored. Via a travelogue style of writing, she takes readers on a tour of the “indigenous wisdom” field, with examples from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. She lists numerous examples of contemporary environmental issues that could be solved, she believes, if only we listened to indigenous wisdom.

Much of the book concerns the need to include indigenous voices within decision-making processes relating to land. While few people living in Western-style democracies today would disagree, the argument that contemporary indigenous communities hold the key to saving the world is less convincing. The number of ecological problems Hendry catalogues is enormous, although rarely does she drill deeply into them. Her analysis of environmental disputes fails to address deeper cultural issues concerning such things as the politics of land ownership, gender relations and the reinvigoration of cultural identity.

Underpinning the book is the argument that indigenous people once possessed cultural systems that compelled them to maintain specific ecological relationships, through such means as seasonally setting fires. This rigid model of indigenous culture causes Hendry to misread the complex dynamic that allows it to adapt and transform. By using a model of a society controlled by the environment, Hendry avoids considering the probability that like Western European colonists, the ancestors of modern indigenous peoples also had a negative impact upon the environment, albeit spread over millennia owing to their relatively low population densities and slow migration rates. She sidesteps continuing debates about early human involvement in the extinction of the megafauna outside Africa. Her portrayal of Western science is equally skewed, describing European colonisers as stubborn in their reliance upon their own science to gather data. My own research indicates otherwise: many European botanists, plant hunters, explorers and pharmacologists utilised indigenous traditional ecological knowledge from the late 18th century onwards.

Knowing how culture embraces change is crucial for dealing with current and future environmental problems. Science and Sustainability does reinforce the fact that solving the world’s ecological challenges requires more cooperative approaches, with the likelihood that certain sections of the community, particularly indigenous peoples, are likely to fare worse in the world to come.

Science and Sustainability: Learning from Indigenous Wisdom

By Joy Hendry
Palgrave Macmillan, 212pp, £56.50, £19.00
ISBN 9781137435903, 35910 and 30069 (e-book)
Published 18 September 2014

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