Learning to Listen
By Cathye Williams | May 18, 2019
On May 6, the United Nations shared findings from the most comprehensive assessment ever conducted on the impact of human development on the natural world. The landmark study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) involved hundreds of expert authors and other contributors who systematically reviewed 15,000 scientific, government, and indigenous- and local-knowledge sources. Looking at changes over the past 50 years, here are just a few of the key findings:
· Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades — more than ever before in human history.
· The changes/losses are a direct result of human activity and constitute a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.
· The current response of global policies to conserve and sustainably use nature is insufficient to the magnitude of the problem. This is not only an environmental issue but also a developmental, economic, security, social, and moral one.
· “Transformative” reorganization of systems “across technological, economic, and social factors” will be necessary to restore nature.
· There will be opposition from vested interests. (Well, really? Duh — a quick internet search uncovers a host of corporate and anti-regulatory entities already out in full force, casting doubt and dispersion with their usual bag of tricks.)
· This opposition can be overcome for the sake of the public good. (Let us hope; “public good” might ring hollow for those who have contributed least to the problem and who have been waiting centuries for restoration and justice.)
While sobering, these findings shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to environmental issues in recent years. The main culprits are — no surprises here — changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species. Maybe we'd do better if we imposed rules as strict on our governments and corporations as we do on our kindergartners: Be kind, ask before you take, take only what you need, leave some for the next person, say thank you.
Perhaps least surprised of all by this study will be indigenous peoples around the world: The IPBES also found that the bio diversity and ecosystem losses described in the study to be “less severe, or avoided, in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.” It is surely the most poignant of ironies that the places where indigenous peoples and their cultures survived genocide are now the pockets of the world where relationship with the land remains, where people listen to the land and all its beings, and where there is hope.
Dr. Robin Kimmerer is a writer, plant ecologist, and author of numerous scientific articles. Her work seeks to integrate science and indigenous knowledge on behalf of land and culture. In her 2013 book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” she illustrates through many stories how our physical and spiritual survival depend on our connection with earth, and how love for the earth needs to be more than a feeling; it has to be expressed in action to be meaningful. Her lessons come as would a song — full of genuine love and gratitude for the subject. In spite of dammed rivers, lifeless soils, and hills tore open for oil, she still has hope. She describes her life of study and observation and, amid hills torn open for oil, she remains hopeful. She sees how the land and its creatures can change people. She watches her students and fellow scientists, also her people, learning to listen. She describes how their “notebooks, smudged with salt marsh and filled with numbers, are love letters to salmon.” She believes that “science can be a way of forming intimacy and respect for other species … a pathway to kinship”
The crisis of extinction has many manifestations and will require many solutions across disciplines. We can’t wait for them all to be perfected in order to begin. We need massive mobilization of people who want a sustainable world for future generations. People willing to act on their love for the world. We need scientists like Dr. Kimmerer, and thousands more from every field, leading us. If we quiet our many voices and listen to what the natural world is showing us — the design of reciprocity, the fuel of love and gratitude, and the purpose of life, we may have a chance.
Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liason for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.