Can Merging Science and Indigenous Knowledge Save Us?

Tribal Canoe Journeys
Tribal Canoe Journeys 2014 Qatuwas Festival in Bella Bella, British Columbia, Canada. Photo credit: kris krüg / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Many of the actions that can save our threatened environment are already being practiced by indigenous peoples. If only we would pay attention. So suggests this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast guest, Dr. Alejandro Frid.

Frid is an ecologist and adjunct assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Victoria, in western Canada. A science coordinator for the Central Coast and First Nations of British Columbia Indigenous Resource Alliance, he conducts research on marine ecology and conservation. 

Twice arrested for civil disobedience against fossil fuel companies, Frid works in the worlds of science, modern indigenous cultures, and climate activism. He’s recently authored Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene.

Frid makes the case that people need to understand that there’s a plausible alternative story for what humans can be — an approach that combines the traditional knowledge of indigenous groups with modern scientific ways of thinking. 

As an example, he explains how indigenous First Nations of British Columbia found themselves responding to external resource management policies that affected their traditional foods from the ocean and the forests.

They knew that their traditional knowledge of local ecosystems, when combined with science, could play an important role in getting federal and provincial governments to change the management of resources. 

Frid details how, with the added stressors of climate change, indigenous groups are evolving a holistic approach of integrating fisheries with the creation of marine protected areas and new logging practices. With climate change altering the whole ocean ecosystem and changed logging practices, they correctly foresaw an increased conflict between bears and humans over the salmon supply.

The indigenous people he works with envision an ecosystem that might be different from the natural world of today but would be both sustainable and livable. He argues that this is the time to mobilize a broad societal coalition to apply the wisdom of indigenous cultures to creating a habitable future for all. 

googleplaylogo200px download rss-35468_640

Click HERE to Download Mp3


Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to time constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like. Should you spot any errors, we’d be grateful if you would notify us

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Joan Didion has said that we tell ourselves stories, perhaps that’s never been truer than today. The stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world, the future of the planet, and the truth about what lies ahead may very well determine our survival. We’re going to talk about that in this week’s podcast with my guest, Alejandro Frid. He’s an ecologist, an adjunct assistant professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. He’s a science coordinator for the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance as well as the First Nations of British Columbia Central Coast. He conducts research on marine ecology and conservation, and he’s the author of the recent book Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene. It is my pleasure to welcome Alejandro Frid here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Alejandro, thanks so much for joining us.

Alejandro Frid: Well, it’s great to be here. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the work that you do first of all, and give our listeners a little sense of the activities that you’re engaged in currently.
Alejandro Frid: Yes. So, I work with four Indigenous First Nations of British Columbia, these are the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Nuxalk, and these are all neighboring first nations of the Central Coast. For a long time, they found themselves responding to external resource management policies that affect their traditional foods from the ocean, their forest, and it’s probably been about 15 years or so, maybe a little less. They said, “Okay, enough of responding. Let’s work together as nations, as neighbors, and be proactive in what we want in terms of the governance of our territories and all the very important traditional foods within them.” So, they formed a Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance for that purpose.
Alejandro Frid: They also knew that as important as their traditional knowledge of their local ecosystems is, that science was going to play an important role in their objectives of working with federal and provincial governments to change the management of resources. So, that’s how I started working with them and basically integrating their perspective with scientific studies that would help them advance their conservation need. These have been largely focused on aspects that affect fisheries and that affect the creation of marine protected areas.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the ways in which climate change is impacting some of the things that you’re doing.
Alejandro Frid: Well, climate change is a very critical stressor that exists among others. So, if we didn’t have climate change going on, we would still be concerned about fisheries, about logging. This is like the big additional stressor that combines with all of them. So now in addition to fisheries, removing fish or affecting their populations, we have climate change altering the whole ocean ecosystem, its productivity, the growth rates of different species.
Alejandro Frid: Just to give you some more concrete examples, because of what’s going on in terms of warming, a lot of salmon stocks are having really poor returns to rivers. This likely reflects low survival of juveniles when they first enter the ocean given the less access to food. So when we have less salmon returning to streams, a lot of the bear populations that rely on the return of spawning salmon are finding themselves with less food to eat. This pushes them into looking for other food sources. So some of the settlements along the coast are finding themselves having more encounters with bears that are going into the settlements. That’s really an indirect effect of climate change, this increase in conflict between bears and humans mediated by salmon.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about what happens if we don’t begin to address some of these broader issues that you’re talking about and that you’ve been working on.
Alejandro Frid: Well, we really are at an entirely critical time in history in which we’re at a fork on the road of sorts in which as a society, as a whole, if we decide to start shifting away from our fossil fuel economy in a timely way, changing our consumptive patterns, we can move towards a path that air stabilizes in some pretty reasonable range of conditions. It won’t be the same Earth that I was born into in the mid 1960s but it’ll be an Earth that will keep a lot of the elements that make our lives not too hard. If we don’t get off the path we’re on, we’re going to head towards a much more difficult Earth in which temperatures are that much warmer. The sorts of changes I’m describing in the ocean with salmon and other things are going to amplify in ways that are really going to alter ecosystems in ways that would be very unrecognizable.
Alejandro Frid: So, this is really the time to mobilize into a broader societal transformation, which is largely the objective is to make people realize that there’s a plausible alternative story for what humans can be. It’s exemplified in that traditional knowledge of the people I work with and other indigenous groups throughout the world. It’s not an old story. These people are still alive in the modern world, very much here integrating their traditional ways with modern scientific ways of thinking. I think this can propagate towards a broader … in broader ways across society.
Jeff Schechtman: What does that story look like? What is the transformation that has to happen?
Alejandro Frid: Well, I think one of the most important concepts that have to enter our collective psyche is that humans are inseparable from biodiversity. In a real fundamental way, we owe it to our non-human relatives to focus on respect and reciprocity in our relationship with them, which is very different from a strictly scientific view of we are related to other species, which would be just strictly from evolutionary genetic perspectives that we do have a common origin. This comes more from the traditional knowledge perspective of the people that I work with.
Alejandro Frid: That is, it’s really an obligation of being reciprocal to these other species. They nourish us, they sustain us, they provide oxygen, and therefore, all of our actions should focus on allowing them to thrive. It means taking what we need from ecosystems but not all what we can get, which has been the more common context of industrial society to consume as much as we can get away with rather than focusing on what we leave behind and taking only what we need.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what you have learned, what we need to learn from indigenous peoples.
Alejandro Frid: So for one, their perspective of ecosystems is very, very long-term. The ancestors of the people I work with have been there for thousands of years. The archeological record documents their presence in the area for at least 14,000 years. Throughout much of that period, they had very large populations with very sophisticated fishing technologies in which they could have easily depleted resources around their villages. If you look at the archeological record, there’s no evidence of that depletion of resources. There’s also evidence that they were targeting species that were more likely to take exploitation because they reproduced at a younger age, they grew faster, rather than species that were more vulnerable to exploitation, because they took a long time to reproduce and grew very slowly.
Alejandro Frid: So, I think that kind of decision-making, in which they’re consciously modifying, managing their own fishing practices or other resource exploitation practices in ways that have a really long-term view, is critical. By long-term, I’m talking about thousands of years. I mean there’s villages that were occupied for at least 7,000 years. Salmon were consumed sustainably over that period, and they probably would have … those villages would have kept thriving had colonization not happened. I think that is really the main message from the people I work with is humans have a track record of being able to live well on the planet without being disruptive.
Jeff Schechtman: You think that we have it within our ability to deal with some of these problems today and you’re optimistic in terms of seeing some potential bright spots out there? Explain those to us.
Alejandro Frid: Yeah. So for me, the bright spot is the sorts of things I’ve been describing are not something of the past, something to romanticize about what it was. It’s very much here and the governance systems of indigenous people are being revitalized, their knowledge systems and they’re being integrated into modern fishery management. This is relatively recent, but there’s some really exciting changes. So, I’m just going to give you one example. About six years ago, there was big concern with Dungeness crab populations from the perspective of the people I work with. They could see their catch rates declining, and Dungeness crab are really important traditional food. So, they went to the federal government and said, “We got to do something about this.” They didn’t get a big response, a proper response. So then they said, “Okay, we’re going to use our own traditional laws and we’re going to close some areas so that the crab can get a reprieve from commercial and recreational fisheries.
Alejandro Frid: So they implemented this closure from their traditional law. We monitored those closures as well as other sites that were being fished and proved that we were able to show a recovery of crab populations in the closures. So we’re able to use that information with the federal government and other information collected for interviews with fishers about how they had not been getting enough Dungeness crab for their traditional food needs. That led to discussions with the federal government, changes in which the First Nations and government scientists are working together and changing policy. So now we have legislative closures for commercial fisheries that reflect the perspective of the First Nations. That would have not been possible more than five years ago. So, it’s a recent sign of change in the right direction in which different governance systems and knowledge systems are being integrated.
Jeff Schechtman: Given how real the climate change problem is, given how quickly things are changing, where does that optimism come from? What are you counting on out there that perhaps the rest of us aren’t seeing right now?
Alejandro Frid: Well, I’m trying to avoid the pessimistic view while being very realistic. I mean, what I described earlier in terms of climate changes, it’s absolutely essential that we act quickly. I’m banking on the majority of people waking up in time to make the right moves. If we’re not making the right moves is something that does worry me. If within the next 5 to 10 years we really have a fundamental shift, like I said, we will be able to maintain our Earth in a reasonable range of conditions. If we’re able to take care of that climate change end of things, it’s going to be a lot more feasible to work with fisheries and manage fisheries better, to work with forestry and how we manage logging better. The key clincher that worries me is how fast we’re going to respond to in a substantial way to the need to address climate.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, all of these issues that you’re talking about, all of the things that you’re working on are global in nature.
Alejandro Frid: Yes, it’s really a global story that is being told. Throughout the world, we have similar issues of fisheries interacting with climate change, but also if there are many other indigenous groups in other parts of the world that are beginning to be able to revitalize their governance and knowledge systems. So what I’m hoping is that the sort of progress we’ve had in British Columbia and other parts of Canada over the last five years or so can take hold elsewhere in the world.
Jeff Schechtman: What are you seeing in China right now, for example?
Alejandro Frid: Well China, one thing I am aware of is that there is some important change in the right direction in terms of use of renewable energies, but at the same time, you have some very contradictory use of fossil fuels, like a lot of coal consumption, a lot of expansion of new cities. So, China’s an example of maybe in which the right types of change like renewable energy has come more from an economics perspective rather than from an intentional way to have a better relationship with Earth. So, I would point that China’s a cautionary tale in which the right change for the wrong reasons is not exactly what we need. Going to renewables because it’s better business, it creates a fickle situation in which you can still could shift to coal when it’s convenient economically. So, we’re going to have the right kind of change that’s going to stick. It has to come from a deeper transformation of our values. That’s why alternatives to what we see in the growth of renewables in China is what we need.
Jeff Schechtman: What kind of leadership do you see is needed in these areas and is that leadership coming forward?
Alejandro Frid: Well, at high political levels that we needed, I have not seen it myself, unfortunately. That is we really need political leaders at the top to respond … to treat this as the real crisis that it is. Something equivalent to how different governments behaved during World War II. Fundamental shifts like the end of institutionalized slavery, that kind of big transformation is what we need. I see only baby steps from some governments. So hopefully, as the younger voters elect a new set of leaders in the next election, we can get into the real transformation from a political level that is required.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you see generational shift taking place?
Alejandro Frid: I am starting to see it for sure. I mean this movement of youth climate strikes is very heartening. I have an almost 16-year-old daughter who is very motivated in that regard and so are her friends. She’s going to be voting in the next federal election in Canada, which is not for a few years. I think when that generation starts voting, there’s some real possibility of political transformation.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do you see capitalism as, as a friend or foe of the changes that need to take place?
Alejandro Frid: Well, I mean that type of capitalism that we work with is one that thinks that the impunity of markets is acceptable, then we’re in trouble. If we can have some form of capitalism in which the broader view of how society interacts with the Earth, how different parts of society interact with each other can become fundamentally important, then we have something to work with. But our current form of global capitalism is certainly a part of … largely at the root of the problem.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you think is the first crisis that really could be a tipping point if we don’t address some of these issues quickly enough?
Alejandro Frid: Well, we have raised the temperature of the Earth by approximately one degree globally since pre-industrial times. Emissions keep growing, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere keeps growing. So no matter what, the temperature is going to keep rising. We do not want to cross a 2-degree threshold, a 2-degree Celsius of global warming change. That many scientists focused on atmospheric research generally point out as the threshold that we want to avoid where we … from which other feedback loops such as the melting of sea ice, which means that the darker ocean absorbs more solar radiation and warms faster, the melting of permafrost, which means that more greenhouse gases are released from within the permafrost. These kinds of feedback loops might get really out of control once we hit 2-degrees of warming. So we still have some time but not much, and we really want to avoid that 2-degree threshold.
Jeff Schechtman: Alejandro, thank you so much for spending time with us.
Alejandro Frid: A pleasure to speak with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Alaska Library Association / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Alaska Library Association / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

Comments are closed.