According to many textbooks, an ecosystem is defined as a community of living organisms interacting with each other and the nonliving components of their environment.
Whenever I introduce this concept to students, I ask them to consider what is meant by “living” and “nonliving.” Common examples of “nonliving” parts of an ecosystem include air (oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen), rocks (minerals), and water.
This makes sense from the Western perspective, but I’ve interacted with many cultures that see air, rocks, and water on different terms. The Ngäbe, for example – whose territory spans the border between Panama and Costa Rica – consider water a living creature. They have strict rules regarding its treatment. According to the Ngäbe, water cannot be blocked or dammed but must always be allowed to flow. Boiling water will kill it.
The awareness of different cultural interpretations of what is alive needles me every time I cover the definition of ecosystem in a classroom. Asking students to distinguish between “living” and “nonliving” is an example of acculturation in science. Education can broaden our horizons, but it can also squeeze us into a very particular – and sometimes limiting – worldview.
This is important because apparently simple exercises like separating “living” from “nonliving” have consequences. In the Western tradition, what we consider “nonliving” too easily becomes the passive “other,” a resource to be used, managed, and controlled. The nonliving are most often “things” subordinate to ourselves. Having no spirit, soul or agency, the “nonliving” can be wasted, contaminated, or even destroyed in order to meet our own needs and desires.
This was one of several themes that Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi) spoke about in her address to the Ecological Society of America (ESA) during the Society’s annual meetings in Louisville, Kentucky, August 11-16. Dr. Kimmerer’s talk, P-Values and Cultural Values: Creating Symbioses Among Indigenous and Western Knowledges to Advance Ecological Sciences, emphasized the indigenous worldview as an essential element of sustainability.
A Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Kimmerer is the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She has written two books, “Gathering Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Wisdom of Plants.” Dr. Kimmerer works toward the restoration of ecological communities, and the restoration of our relationships to the land.
I thought it ironic that Robin Wall Kimmerer’s address, which focused on the long and rich history of indigenous knowledge, was billed a “Recent Advances Lecture.” Perhaps this label refers to the field of ecology, which has recently opened up to insights offered by indigenous leaders and scholars like Kimmerer.
I’ve embedded Dr. Kimmerer’s talk below. The video omits the slides – unfortunate since she makes several points visually. But the important messages still come through. If the address leaves you wanting to know more, please check out her books.
Enjoy, and have an inspiring weekend!