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). 

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