What Indigenous cosmovisions teach us about climate apathy

The world is burning, and humanity is asleep. Why won’t people just wake up??!!

It’s planting season. Last Tuesday, along with a friendly bunch of fellow farm volunteers, I spent the afternoon introducing hundreds of young tomato plants to their new poly-tunnel home. The farm’s head grower had wanted to plant them the previous week, but the nights were still too cold. Tomato plants, like all crops, must be kept within a critical range of temperatures, above or below which they could fail.

While farming in the UK certainly has its challenges, we’re still insulated from the most severe weather extremes experienced in other parts of the world. Take the hellish spring heatwave in India and Pakistan, for example, where April temperatures hit a staggering 49°C. The impact on crops has been devastating, with yields falling by 50% in the worst hit areas. For some, the end of the world is already here.

This is the grim reality of climate change – the high-carbon lifestyles of us Global Northerners inflicting mass suffering on the Global South. But it gets worse. A month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their latest report. Their assessment couldn’t have been clearer: we must act now or face climate catastrophe. The UK government responded by announcing plans to drill for more oil, a policy cheered on by the COP26 president, Alok Sharma.

Neither the latest IPCC code red warning, the South-East Asian heatwave, nor the literal pouring of petrol on an already out of control blaze by characteristically reckless Tory politicians – two slaps in the face and a kick in the crotch – registered with the dormant British public. We carry on as normal, as if these reports relate to a totally different planet altogether.

Dormant citizens don’t hold climate-wrecking politicians accountable, nor do they change their climate-wrecking lifestyles. If we’re to avoid extinction, both must change. That’s why understanding climate apathy in advanced industrialised economies is so crucial. Given what’s at stake, it’s arguably one of the most important questions ever posed in human history. And yet, as I’ve written previously, the Western science paradigm gives us false answers, claiming that humans are innately predisposed to ignore climate change.

The consequences of this bogus narrative are dire. With climate apathy wired in the brain, we can only conclude that human nature is irrevocably flawed, leaving us permanently comatose to the perils of climate breakdown. Almost by design, this pessimism of the human condition inspires optimism in capitalism and technology. “Trust progress!”, “Trust technology!”, “Trust the profit motive!”, scream the tech masters of the Universe. If all else fails, they tell us, we can black out the sun[1].

Belief that the economic system which has pushed us to the brink of mass extinction will eventually save us is motivated reasoning so perverse that it would make ISIS blush. But this is exactly where we are. The Prophets of profit are the most fundamentalist psychos on the planet.

Moving beyond this fatalistic, insular, and superficial account of climate apathy is crucial. Totally absent is an appreciation of the structural social, economic, and cultural factors that shape people’s climate apathy in the first place. To get to the root of the issue, we must dig deeper. Focusing on why we won’t wake up isn’t enough, we need to ask the more basic question what kind of people are we – that is, what kind of human does late-capitalist society produce? Without this understanding, how do we even know what the baseline expectation should be for our ecological and environmental concern?

In my previous post, I laid out how cultural blindness or ‘ethnocentrism’, a by-product of socialisation processes, prevents us from seeing the strangeness of our society. It’s why the Enlightenment was forced to wait until Europeans encountered Native Americans, who kindly pointed out to them the absurdity of their cherished institutions and beliefs, such as the divine right of Kings. Likewise, to move beyond the superficial and bland auto-introspection of the late-capitalist condition (we’re individualistic, selfish, consumerist, short-sighted etc. etc.), we must, once again, turn to Indigenous writers and activists for inspiration.

The poetic words of Guarini activist Eunice Kerexu, shared during a session at COP26, are good starting point.

“We invite you to join the struggle to reforest the Amazon, and to reforest our hearts and minds, because more than the forest, what has been deforested has been us as human beings.”

The observation that industrialised society has felled core pillars of our humanity is a common thread in Indigenous thought. Perhaps, then, we should be focusing less on what we are and more on what we are not.

One thing we’re certainly not, the Indigenous writer Ailton Krenak reminds us, are the kind of people who talk to rocks. Nor do we contemplate the mood of mountains, sing to the forest, appreciate the sacredness of a river or, indeed, commune inter-subjectively with any other-than-human natural entity. In his book ‘Ideas to Postpone the End of the World’, he contrasts his connection to the natural world with that of industrialised peoples.

“My communion with what we call nature is an experience long scoffed at by city folk. Rather than see any value in it, they poke fun at it: “He talks to trees, he’s a tree-hugger; he talks to rivers, he contemplates the mountains.” But that’s my experience of life. I don’t see anything out there that is not nature. Everything is nature. The cosmos is nature. Everything I can think of is nature.”

In a recent webinar run by the Indigenous rights group Cultural Survival, Archana Soreng, an environmental activist from the Kharia Tribe in India, expanded on this sentiment:

“The entire worldview of Indigenous people and local communities, for us nature is a source of identity, culture, tradition and language. We believe that we are not a mere part of nature, but that we are nature. Nature has been a source of our livelihood, a source of our protection, a source of our centre. We are in a relationship where we respect her, and we take care of her. The world has seen land, forest, and nature as commercial commodities, unlike Indigenous communities. For us, talking care of nature is our way of living. Often Indigenous people are asked “What do you do to protect nature? What’s the traditional knowledge and practices?” but for me, it’s not what we do, but who we are.”   

The above statements all illustrate the profound interdependence that Indigenous and local communities feel for nature and that this is experienced on a deep psychological level. It is a function of both their proximity to natural processes and their direct dependence on nature for survival. From birth, they are socialised into a cosmovision, or worldview, which reinforces these connections, providing them with the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and ritual practices to live in commune with the natural world around them.

These cosmovisions promote an ‘ecological realism’[2] – an accurate ecological representation of humans as just one element of a natural living system comprised of innumerable others, whose harmonious balance must be preserved so that all lifeforms can benefit from its abundance. Culturally, this ecological relationality is often expressed by extending kinship relations beyond humans to ‘other-than-human’ beings.

The cosmic importance of ecological balance for Indigenous peoples means that they’re extremely sensitive to climatic disturbances. More than three decades ago, the Kogi, an Amerindian tribe located in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, abandoned 500 years of isolation to broadcast this urgent message to the world:

“We look after nature. We Mamas [Kogi spiritual leaders] see that you are killing it by what you do. We can no longer repair the world – you must. You are uprooting the Earth and we are divining how to teach you to stop.”

In more recent years, Indigenous peoples and local communities across the globe have been visible as the most vocal and vociferous campaigners against planetary destruction and climate change. Thousands of land and water defenders have been murdered on the frontlines.

I hope it’s now abundantly clear that climate apathy doesn’t reside in the brain, but in the environment and the culture emerging from it. Western science gets things so wrong because it fails to grant personhood to people living beyond industrialised society. If you’re only studying subjects in one environment, you will only get one answer. We can imagine a different science, one that only studies Indigenous peoples, concluding that humans are wired to passionately care about climate change.

‘Environmentalism’ is an odd term for the advocacy of the natural world as the environments humans navigate take many forms, most of which are not natural in any meaningful sense. The Amazon and Las Vegas are both environments, but the influence each exerts on their populations will obviously vary immensely – as will the environmentalism that each inspires. It follows that those living in the industrialised world can care for their environment with a similar reverence as Indigenous and local communities – it’s just that their conception of ‘the environment’ is one that’s totally detached from nature.

Ask any local council candidate about the issues raised on the doorstep in the latest round of elections and they’ll tell you about the rage induced by potholes, fly-tipping, and “bins” – all factors of environmental imperfection. And think about the immense amount of time and money invested in our most treasured environment – our homes – doing DIY, extensions, refurbishments, home décor, pruning and landscaping gardens. This is also environmentalism, but of the kind in service of artificiality.

My flat overlooks a primary school playground. The scene of boisterous children playing between classes is familiar to all. So familiar, perhaps, that it’s just taken for granted that this is what kids should be doing. Play is, after all, vitally important for a child’s social development. As someone interested in human behaviour, the social dynamics of these developing young people have been fascinating (and often hilarious) to observe.

But lately, I’ve begun to appreciate this scene’s profound strangeness. Absolutely everything in this play environment is artificial. The two surfaces are asphalt and Astroturf. The objects the kids are playing with – balls, hoops, and tyres (!) etc. – are all plastic or rubber. The handful of trees lining the playground’s periphery receive no attention. While there are a few schools that have a greater access to natural surroundings, what I’ve described is very much the norm across the country.

Play is one of the most important motors of a child’s socialisation and the school playground is arguably where they play most (and if they’re not at school they’re in parks playing on slides or at home playing with toys). If children are socialised in entirely artificial environments, interacting with wholly artificial objects, then we shouldn’t be at all surprised that as adults they are utterly detached from natural processes and disinterested in ecological matters like climate change. A recent encounter I had through my work in social research sums this up perfectly. Whilst interviewing a woman on the doorstep, a fly flew into her house. In a genuinely panicked tone, she exclaimed “My daughter is scared of flies!”, before disappearing to deal with it (her daughter was a toddler).

So, to summarise my argument: it’s not that we’re “wired to ignore climate change”, it’s that socialisation in environments devoid of substantial natural connection wires us for artificiality, robbing us of the ecological realism that we see so clearly in the cosmovisions of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Of course, none of this should be in anyway surprising given that the globe’s dominant cosmovision, capitalism, operates on logic abstracted away from ecological reality – profit, shareholder value, commodification, private property, monetary policy, growth etc. – all ruthlessly reinforcing our separation from nature. Even our education system is geared towards the needs of the private sector – corporates sponsor and run some of our schools, ensuring the conveyor belt of docile workers and ravenous consumers never ends.

Given that we’re operating in a culture which actively disconnects us from the biosphere, the baseline expectation for general concern for ecological processes will naturally be very low, and mass climate apathy entirely unsurprising. In fact, we should probably be grateful that there’s any concern at all (although it doesn’t typically encompass the radical changes to our lifestyles needed to stave off extinction). While it’s important to remain positive, we mustn’t shy away from the immensity of the challenge in front of us. How we nurture ecological realism against the tidal wave of capitalist influence feels like an unsolvable conundrum. Fundamentally, it’s about finding ways of allowing Indigenous-inspired cosmovisions, like ‘buen vivir’, to take root. And it begins with how we educate and socialise our children.

Looking down from my window at this wasteland of concrete and faux-grass, strewn with tyres, I see great potential for nature connection – a pond, wildflower patches, a mini orchard, and raised beds for growing veg – as well as opportunities to play with nature – tree climbing, building and toy making using natural materials, and picking wildflowers. Importantly, the hegemony of competitive games must be displaced by play (and integrated teaching) which reinforces communality and ecological connection. Tackling climate apathy means first tackling mass ecological illiteracy. Ecology must be granted the same educational importance as English and Maths.

Somehow, we must find a way of awakening the masses to the bizarreness of this Willy Wonka-esque wonderland we call ‘modernity’, which has us hooked on endless artificial treats that we gorge with Creosotic excess. Divine kings are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. In a very real sense, we have become aliens on our own planet, occupying a virtual world disconnected from physical reality. To become Earthlings once more, we must turn to those cultures that never abandoned Mother Earth.

[1]Bill Gates is a proponent of so-called solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s light back into space

[2] I probably need to find another term for what I mean here because ‘ecological realism’ is already used in philosophy with a different meaning. Can’t think of a better one for now, so I’m sticking with it!

Seeing the strange: the revolutionary potential of the Indigenous critique

The goal of anthropology, so the saying goes, is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I first heard this impressively succinct mission statement many years ago but hadn’t given it much thought since. It wasn’t until I started reading Indigenous authors’ critiques of modernity that I recognised the important of these dual processes for shifting social understanding.

The problem is this: socialisation is a powerful constrainer of social change. From the moment we’re born, we begin the long process of absorbing the social logic of our environment. Socialisation’s function is to equip humans with the basic knowledge to adaptively operate within their culture – not to question it or even understand it on a deep level. So much of the superficial workings of society are taken as given, leaving us blind to the often perverse lower-level rationales. To make matters worse, it bestows us with a quasi-moral sense that our ways are right or ‘normal’ (ethnocentrism).

The only way to lift socialisation’s blinders is through exposure to different ways of being. We open our eyes to new possibilities by meaningfully engaging with societies radically different to our own. And we shake our sense of cultural superiority with active contemplation and debate of our ways in relation to those of others. This is how the strangeness of our society is revealed to us and how social change can happen.

Just how profound can this change be? In their recent bestseller, ‘The Dawn of Everything’, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that it was precisely these dynamics that catalysed the 18th century conceptual revolution of Western thinking on social organisation that came to be known as the ‘Enlightenment’.

Why was it, they ask, that while living under the absolute monarchy of Louis XV, French intellectuals were asking questions about the origins of social inequality? Naturalised inequality (e.g. the divine right of kings) was all they knew, so how did it occur to them that social inequality might have emerged from a primordial state of equality?

The first part of the answer was France’s entry into the globalised economy which exposed European intellectuals to “a whole plethora of previously unimagined social, scientific and political ideas”. In other words, increasing familiarisation with the beliefs and knowledge systems of faraway alien cultures allowed these thinkers to formulate new questions which, in turn, opened up new social possibilities for Europe.

But exposure alone would not have been sufficient for Europeans to shake off their sense of cultural superiority – a prerequisite for the abandonment of institutionalised hierarchy and the embrace of principles of freedom and equality. They had to see the strange in their familiar. And they were shown this strangeness, not by fellow Europeans, but by Native Americans. As Graeber and Wengrow put it:

…indigenous Americans – confronted with strange foreigners – gradually developed their own, surprisingly consistent critique of European institutions, […] these critiques came to be taken very seriously in Europe itself.

Just how seriously can hardly be overstated. For European audiences, the indigenous critique would come as a shock to the system, revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored”

And they didn’t hold back. French writer, Lahontan, popularised the views of an exceptional Wendat leader and diplomat, Kandiaronk, who had the opportunity to visit France. He wrote:

“[Those Native Americans who have visited France] were continually teasing us with the faults and disorders they observed in our towns, as being occasioned by money. There’s no point in trying to remonstrate with them about how useful the distinction of property is for the support of society: they make a joke of anything you say on that account. In short, they neither quarrel nor fight, nor slander one another; they scoff at arts and sciences, and laugh at the difference of ranks which is observed with us. They brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to one man [the king] who possesses all the power, and is bound by no law but his own will.”

Indigenous critiques extended to the most fundamental and sacred aspects of French society. They recognised the link between wealth accumulation and European servitude. In their society, wealth differences were trivial and had little consequence for individual liberty. But for the French, they saw that wealth was convertible into power and domination over others. Additionally, they eviscerated the logic of Christianity and cast doubt on the moral basis of European-style punitive law. Kandiaronk explicitly called for the abandonment of self-interest in French society and a re-founding based on Wendat principles:

“Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity – wisdom, reason, equity, etc. – and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.”

These ideas were taken up by Enlightenment philosophers, most famously Rousseau, but subverted by others. Social evolutionists, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, recast the ‘state of equality’ at the bottom of the ladder of social development. Consequently, the transformative impact of Indigenous ideas on European society, although profound, was subject to limitations. Monarchic power was either abolished with revolutionary fervour or drastically restricted. Church was separated from state and the trajectory towards liberal democracy was set. But European colonialism expanded (justified by social evolutionist racism), eventually morphing into globalised capitalism. Inequality in material wealth, and therefore power, has increased exponentially. Unchecked self-interest continues to be at the root of our malaise.

So, how does this relate to our current dire predicament – the destruction of a liveable climate by modern civilisation? Clearly, the motors of socialisation (school, cultural institutions, mass media, work etc.) continue to reproduce a large majority of agents for whom the current industrialised consumer capitalist model is perfectly normal[i]. At the same time, environmentalists, baffled by the intransigence of people’s behaviour in the face of such a catastrophic threat, wrongly insist that it’s a ‘human’ crisis, rather than a cultural one. Both cases demonstrate an inability to see the strangeness of this society (albeit to differing extents).

The key takeaway is this: it takes an outsiders’ eye to truly show us the most fundamental failings of our own society. Just like the philosophers of 17th and 18th century France, intellectuals and environmentalists preoccupied with solving the current planetary crisis must harness the power of the gaze of those cultures that, unlike ours, respect life. We must, therefore, look to Indigenous writers for inspiration.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of valuable Indigenous critique of modernity, showing us the strangeness of our ways and making visible far deeper societal fractures than the superficial analysis coming from within the Western framework. It’s not hyperbole to say that these Indigenous thinkers are trying to give birth to a new Enlightenment (or, perhaps, complete the previous one!) by helping us rediscover our shared ancestral wisdom. Unfortunately, there’s presently not much sign of the Indigenous critique cutting through in Europe, even amongst the environmental left.

It’s this blog’s goal to try to correct this. In my next post, I’ll begin to delve into the perspective-shifting power of this new Indigenous critique.


[i] Of course, those most indoctrinated in this system are those who have materially benefitted most from it i.e. the over-50s, ‘Baby boomers’. Tragically, they continue to wield the most political and economic power, using their considerable influence to ensure the persistence of this culture of death.