Can our ancestors school our scientists on how to solve climate change?

by Karalee Corley

In our current, complex state of struggle to mitigate climate change, the question begs to be asked: can science alone offer the knowledge to resolve climate change? Maybe not. Science instructs us to know and observe processes such as climate change in the natural world. We have done so for decades, yet the data reported on the negative changes in our environment cannot apparently, by itself, inspire societal change. In a recent article, Smithsonian geographer R.D.K. Herman (2016) offers vehement argument, and extensively evidenced non-scientific knowledge, that the scientific disciplines will not resolve the issue of our decaying planet on their own. The author asserts that the predominance of capitalism and colonialism in our recent history has fostered a societal one-sidedness and overconfidence in our scientific outputs.

Herman was motivated to write about his considered perspective following a meeting at the National Academies of Science, where, to his frustration, a panel of academics refused to discuss the physical mitigation of climate change; instead constraining the conversation to strategies for human adjustment to it. Indignant that a panel of academics would adopt such a passivist approach, Herman launches into hopeful argument that we do still have the opportunity to reverse some of the oncoming effects. To do so, though, Herman believes we must look beyond science, to traditional indigenous knowledge systems, that we might inspire mass cultural change in our current behavioral patterns when interacting with our environment. Broadly, our society considers the climate change issue exclusively one of scientific pursuit, understanding, and mitigation. Herman shows how we have cut out important systems of knowledge other than science. His timeline originates with the religious institutions that rejected scientific theories as part of their explanations of the nature of the universe. Herman claims the Scientific Revolution that followed inspired future generations towards a cold rationality, which he thinks does not serve us well today. In dethroning the omniscient religious gods of centuries past in favor of scientific objectivity, we armed ourselves with the power of rationality and science to understand our world, and in turn, became confident in our newfound god-like abilities to control the natural world with our science-backed technologies. We have overinflated our cultural belief in the the scientific method, excluding all other information which is not equivalently evidenced and rational, thereby pushing out valuable systems of knowledge which might reflect more on the complexities of how to respond (culturally and behaviorally) to a situation even more complex than fundamental nature itself- nature being actively observed/interacted with by humanity. Science’s method of inquiry (requiring extensive and repeatable evidence) certainly slows the rise of any resolution until our technology catches up to our questions. In the meantime, other systems of knowledge, such as indigenous wisdom, may offer the essence of what is soon to be also scientific resolution/perspective, but will do so with less of the hardline rationality we operate our culture on in the modern era.

Ironically, the powerful methodological approach that we hope will give the world a technological, science-based resolution to climate change, is the same way of knowing that weaponized us with the tools to manufacture all this environmental destruction in the first place. It is not that the science or technology itself caused the impending doom of our planet, but the cultural behaviors that arose to condone the overuse and abuse of our powerful knowledge of the natural world to promote the less environmentally moralistic pursuits of economic success and colonial establishment. Inarguably, the relentless objective to obtain control over the natural world through science and technology is a very Western way of thought and being. Modern society often reflects on history to consider how Western thought dominated, and in ways still continues to, traditional areas of knowledge around the world. We seem faced with two expressions of knowledge that inspire the same subjective mitigation of climate change, one hardline and evidenced, one more appealing to our emotional/intuitive behavior, both with the potential to inspire the same outcome. Is one inherently better than the other? In some ways maybe, but probably not to the extent that one system of knowledge will ever reign so powerfully that it is to the exclusion of all other “less meritable” systems/ways of knowing. This is the essence of Herman’s assertions. To what extent, if at all, might the knowledge produced from the spectrum of disciplines/methodologies/ways of knowing be mapped out in a way that each perspective complements or converges on the same resolution? Specifically, how might we employ traditional understanding and beliefs in spiritual energies and connectedness of the natural world to inspire behavioral/cultural change in our societal responses to climate change- something science does not even attempt to do, but according to Herman, may be quite imperative to our mitigating the death of our planet.


Herman, R. D. K. “Traditional Knowledge in a Time of Crisis: Climate Change, Culture and Communication.” Sustainability Science 11.1 (2016): 163-76. SpringerLink. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.


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