Changing Planet, Common Ground

Nov 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: 23-2: Climate Commitment, Features
By Mary Annette Pember

BURNING LANDS. Smoke rolls up behind the United Methodist Church on Highway 30 between Santa Clara Pueblo and Espanola, NM, on Thursday, June 20, 2011. Photo by Natalie Guillen/The Santa Fe New Mexican.

“We have no greater concern than the future of this planet and the life upon it.”

In many ways this statement sums up the essence of Indigenous wisdom, a worldview that recognizes human connection to the planet and also emphasizes respect and responsibility for the Earth.

These words, however, are not quoted from the speech of an American Indian leader. They were taken from the 1988 report, “Earth System Science: A Closer View,” by a NASA advisory council, the Earth Systems Sciences Committee. The committee was tasked in 1983 with creating direction for NASA’s Earth Sciences Program.

This report is part of the “Bretherton Report,” named after committee chairman Francis Bretherton of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Released in two volumes, “Earth System Science: An Overview” (1985) and “Earth System Science: A Closer View” (1988), the report is considered a seminal contribution to the discipline of Earth System Science and its approach to climate change.

In the study of climate change, the “Bretherton Report” is often cited as a momentous development that has offered scientists a new view of Earth as an integrated system in a state of constant change. “We have thus in the 1980s reached an exciting point in our attempt to know the Earth,” it reads. “Our research has led directly to the concept of an Earth system and a scientific approach that considers the Earth as a complex evolving body, characterized by ceaseless change.”

Undoubtedly, the authors of the “Bretherton Report” were influenced by the Gaia hypothesis that emerged during the late 1970s. The hypothesis, defined by chemist James Lovelock, proposes that the Earth’s organisms are integrated into one self-regulating system. Notably, earth scientists of the time were becoming increasingly aware of the important role that human activity plays in changes of the planet’s “system.” Indeed, they appear to have been embracing the interconnectedness of life on earth.

The epistemology of Earth System Science and the Gaia hypothesis, however, is not news for American Indians.

“We are part of the earth, and it is part of us. This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Commonly attributed to a speech made in 1854 by Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, this quote demonstrates the essential qualities of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science: interrelationship with the earth as well as respect and responsibility for it.

The current scientific discourse about the earth sciences and climate change shares concepts with Native traditional cultures.


LIFE IN BALANCE. “We have always known we are connected; therefore, life is ceremony," says Dr. LeManuel "Lee" Bitsoi (Dine) of the Harvard Medical School.

“Traditionally, Native peoples seek to maintain balance and harmony. This perspective brings respect to learning and understanding the power and miracle of science,” says Dr. LeManuel “Lee” Bitsoi (Diné) of the Harvard Medical School. “We have always known we are connected; therefore, life is ceremony.”

To illustrate this connection, he described a meeting in his family’s hogan, a traditional Navajo structure often used for ceremonies. Speaking the Navajo language, he described a recent scientific discovery to his family. He told them that a genetic code of the platypus had been found indicating that cows, chickens, sheep as well as the platypus share more than 80% of the same genes found in humans.

His uncle, an elder and medicine man, sat quietly with his eyes closed throughout the talk. At last his uncle remarked, “Well, it looks like those White scientists are finally catching up with us.”

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