Indigenous Knowledge Has Been Warning Us About Climate Change for Centuries

Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explains why "green growth" isn't enough to save the planet.
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Bees pollinate pollinating honeybees

The most common introductory example we use when we teach kids about interdependent ecosystems is insects. They may seem gross and small compared to the charismatic megafauna, we say, but insects play all sorts of important roles: pollinating plants, breaking down organic matter, feeding bigger animals. Without insects the whole web would collapse. I don't think many of us who have given this lesson actually contemplated the mass death of the world's insects as a possibility, imminent or otherwise. We should have.

A new study in the journal Biological Conservation takes a look at the global status of entomofauna (insects), and the picture is not good. The topline finding is that over 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction. That's a situation hard to describe without sounding like a heavy metal concert billing. (Megadeath, Ecocide, etc.) And the lesson about the ecosystem wasn't wrong: Without insects, Earth's environment as we've become familiar with it is toast. Even our apocalyptic thought experiments are coming true.

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The trouble with combating climate change, we're often told, is that it's hard to imagine, hard to see. The philosopher Timothy Morton calls climate change a "hyperobject": It's so widely distributed and conceptually sticky that we can't really perceive it except in partial local instances. "When you feel raindrops falling on your head, you are experiencing climate, in some sense. In particular you are experiencing the climate change known as global warming," Morton wrote in 2010. "But you are never directly experiencing global warming as such." Humans don't have the right sensory faculties.

Maybe it was possible to think that way in 2010, but, less than a decade later, I think many of us have developed the ability to see global warming. We are no longer empiricists who route information through our senses to our brain for analysis; we're conspiracy theorists, every raindrop or sunbeam encountered as hyperobject. Now the totality hits us first. At the beginning of this essay, I didn't say the insects were being killed off by global warming—but didn't you assume it?

To people who don't feel the omnipresence of global warming, people like me sound off. Not necessarily because they refuse to believe the data, I think, but because some of us are no longer bothering with the scientific method. We're not analyzing evidence to develop a theory; we are convinced of what's happening before we hear the particulars. Our question is not whether today's forecast reflects climate change, but how. And we're not wrong.

Since global warming is a fact and in one way or another an imminent threat to the well-being of every living thing known to mankind (including us), I think our increased ability to perceive it represents progress. The positivist method is not the only way to produce knowledge, and though "science" gets a lot of credit for sounding the alarm on climate change, it has been comparatively slow on the uptake. If we pay any attention at all, we can see and feel and hear that nature's cycles are broken, and some peoples have understood for centuries that a society built on extraction and accumulation would burn the whole planet alive. Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we're on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs and offer to block out the sun just a little.

"Indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse since the early days of colonial occupation," says Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an activist/scholar from the Nishnaabeg nation and author most recently of the book As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. "We should be thinking of climate change as part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society."

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

From this perspective, it's a mistake to think of global warming in historical isolation, as merely the carbon cycle gone awry thanks to an excess of CO2 emissions. Climate change is the name we've given to the constellation of ecological crises that emerge as capitalist modernity runs out of new places to despoil.

For the insects, today's crisis stems not just from temperature change (which is, of course, a contributing factor) but also from other associated environmental practices: the conversion of land for intensive agriculture, the widespread use of pesticides, and the reckless introduction of invasive species. Matt Shardlow, chief executive officer of the conservation non-profit Buglife, told the Guardian that unconsidered factors like light pollution could be more harmful to insects than we're imagining. These aren't problems that can be solved by decarbonization, no matter how many green jobs are attached. Our whole way of life has to change.

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Insofar as mainstream American society reckons with indigenous intellectual/scientific practices, it's as "non-overlapping magisteria," i.e. if they're true then they're not true in a way that would directly challenge our truths. So when Simpson speaks of the need for "ethical systems that promote the diversity of life," I think most Americans would understand "diversity of life" as an unquantifiable abstraction that we can translate into liberal ideals like interpersonal tolerance and non-conformity. But what if we took it literally instead?

The mass death of insects is an observable and measurable disrespect for the diversity of life on Earth, to which we can and should compare other patterns of human practice.

"Indigenous knowledge systems are rigorous, they pursue excellence, they are critical and comprehensive," Simpson says. "The global roots of the climatic crisis and the exploitation of natural resources are issues indigenous peoples have been speaking out against for hundreds of years." The proof is in the pudding: Colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.

The devaluation of indigenous political thought has nothing to do with its predictive ability. The ruling class produced by accumulation society simply will not put its own system up for debate. Thus the climate change policies we discuss—even and perhaps in particular the Green New Deal—take for granted not just the persistence of commodity accumulation, but its continued growth. As the economists Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm complain in their analysis of proposals for "green growth": "The belief that any of this half-hearted tinkering will lead to drastic cuts in CO2 emissions in the future is plain self-deceit." Economic output as we understand it, they say, must shrink.

If the indigenous critique sounds like an anti-capitalist one, it should. Drawing on the work of communist Glen Coulthard from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Simpson recognizes the language of Marxism as her own. "There is an assumption that socialism and communism are white and that indigenous peoples don't have this kind of thinking," she writes. "To me, the opposite is true." In As We Have Always Done, Simpson makes a gentle case for non-native comrades to follow this lead. For their part, contemporary Marxist scholars like Silvia Federici and Harry Harootunian have been reassessing doctrinaire ideas about the progressive nature of capitalism and the supposed backwardness of indigenous societies, a line of revision that's supported by recent changes to anthropological assumptions regarding the sophistication of pre-colonial technology and social organization.

Green growth, even in its social-democratic versions, isn't going to save the insects. But there exist alternative examples for the left, and for the world. While America's beehives are bare, Cuba's are thriving, which led to the tragicomically western Economist headline: "Agricultural backwardness makes for healthy hives." "We" are just now reactivating the millenia-old Mayan practice of harvesting from wild stingless bees ("meliponiculture"), which used to produce an unimaginably large variety of honeys. These entomological examples support Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani's audacious claim about the history of African thought: Those who study what has been suppressed can see the future.

As for what is to be done about climate change, there's no real mystery. "The issue is that accumulation-based societies don't like the answers we come up with because they are not quick technological fixes, they are not easy," Simpson says. "Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other. They require critical thinking about our economic and political systems. They require radical systemic change."

To this end, Simpson has called for a shift in focus from indigenous cultural resurgence to the anti-colonial struggle for territory. That unsurrendered conflict has continued for hundreds of years, and we should view our living history in its firelight. The best environmental policy America can pursue is to start giving back the land.


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