Coronavirus shows we must change how we live or face self-destruction

Indigenous knowledge has a lot to teach us about global pandemics.

 

By now, it’s clear the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most serious collective events most of us alive today have ever faced. The spread of the virus has been a massive wake-up call for humankind, and not just in a scientific, logistical or even personal sense. It has also shown us that the way we live on the planet is fatally out of balance. We should think of COVID-19 as a warning.

We must change the way we inhabit the planet, or otherwise face self-destruction caused by our own negligence, if not by the pandemic then by environmental destruction (or both). The changes we need to make are not just economic and scientific; they are philosophical and practical, and they concern the things we value. We need to seriously re-examine and revise the philosophical frameworks that undergird modern society. Indigenous peoples who have lived sustainably in the same territories for thousands of years have important knowledge systems that can productively intervene in the destructive social structures currently orchestrating our downfall. But first, societies need to listen.  

“By guarding the integrity of an ecosystem, the integrity and very existence of human communities are guarded, as well,” says Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

The world as we know it — shaped by centuries of technological advancement, aggressive migration and colossal population growth — is the result of particular beliefs about how humans should live on the earth. Perhaps most recognizable to us would be the belief that the earth’s resources are there for unrestrained human taking. So deep-seated is this view that entire populations of Indigenous peoples were considered expendable by way of germs and warfare in order to give way to more “advanced” societies who would use the land “properly.” As Indigenous peoples, we know all about foreign diseases.

A 2015 white paper produced by the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission, which gave birth to the budding field of planetary health, concluded that not only do failures at the governmental and implementation level contribute to many of our current problems, so too do failures of imagination and knowledge, including the over-reliance on economics as a measure of human progress. Altogether, these reveal that societies based primarily on a utilitarian and extractive orientation are based on a worldview that has gone horribly wrong.

Mushrooming social movements and a huge body of academic literature have for decades criticized unquestioned, unlimited capitalist economic growth, including its impacts on planetary health — the study of the ways commercial development affects the environment and its consequences to human health. Recent media stories, for instance, have highlighted the ways zoonotic diseases and pathogens cross from animals to humans, unleashing hellish illnesses as a result of our unending exploitation of the natural world. Ebola, SARS, MERS, Lyme disease, the ever-mutating avian influenza viruses, and our most recent coronavirus, COVID-19, are perfect examples.

When the integrity of an ecosystem is guarded, the integrity and very existence of human communities are guarded as well.

Indigenous societies, on the other hand, are based on worldviews where human needs are balanced with the needs of other life forms. This worldview inherently acknowledges the constraints of an ecosystem, the essence of sustainability. When the integrity of an ecosystem is guarded, the integrity and very existence of human communities are guarded as well. In a philosophical system that respects other life forms as relatives, an ethic of respect, responsibility and reciprocity automatically follows, mediated by reverence. This is the opposite of the vulgar, endless extraction of resources for short-term economic gain.

Just as scientists are finally waking up to the ways Indigenous knowledge can inform climate science, so planetary health scientists should also look to Indigenous knowledge to fill in the gaps of the failures of imagination, knowledge and implementation.

As Indigenous peoples, we have always understood that ecocide — the killing of an ecosystem — is commensurate with genocide. In the U.S., this socially acceptable form of genocide continues in the way our lands and resources are still targeted for toxic development, as the Dakota Access Pipeline and countless other fossil fuel projects make clear. Now, coronavirus shows that the entire human race faces the ramifications of ecocide and biodiversity loss. But applying Indigenous thought patterns today presents a challenge.

Indigenous knowledge involves the application of particular knowledge in particular contexts. It is not universal like universalist religious and capitalist value systems. Before Indigenous knowledge can be incorporated into research and policy toolboxes, powerful entities will need to learn how to partner with local Indigenous communities in ways that are respectful, equitable and non-extractive.

It might, at first, sound like lunacy: Expecting societies to begin valuing the knowledge of the peoples they have systematically been trying to eradicate for centuries. I am not naïve about that. But as a teacher and an “almost elder,” it is not the older generation I place my faith in. Instead, I look to the youth. Historically, it has always been the younger generations who fought the hardest for change. With their futures at stake, now will be no different. It is up to us as elders to help lay a transformative philosophical foundation for them. And the sooner the better, because as scientists tell us, this will not be the last — or the worst —pandemic we are likely to see.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and an independent educator and consultant on Indigenous environmental justice policy. She is the author of As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Indigenous Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock (Beacon Press, 2019). 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.