CW: This article discusses topics of racism and racial abuse which could be distressing to some readers.
Ever since we sent explorers to find and colonise "undiscovered" parts of our Earth, Western Culture has been obsessed with technological growth and gaining knowledge about our world. However, the only thing we have been able to do with that knowledge is further develop technology as a method of control on other cultures. For example, deforestation still impacts the habitats of many species of animals and indigenous tribes.
We have become hell-bent on this "knowledge is power" mindset, where we believe we have a God-given right to take and shape our planet's resources to our own needs. Finnish-Nigerian writer, Minna Salami, calls this Western mindset 'Europatriarchal knowledge'.
But about if we stopped for a moment to look within? Our intuition and emotions might already have some of the answers we’re looking for. In Salami's book 'Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone' she proposes that both Europatriarchal Knowledge and emotional intelligence should be combined into a new definition of knowledge called "Sensuous knowledge".
"We need an approach to knowledge that synthesizes the imaginative and rational, the quantifiable and immeasurable, the intellectual and the emotional. Without feeling, knowledge becomes stale; without reason, it becomes indelicate. We need an approach that measures Wisdom not only by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or gross domestic product (GDP) but also by how ethically we develop our societies. We need knowledge that affects the interior as well as the exterior. Ogbon-inu and ogbon-ori. Sensuous Knowledge."
In short, she argues that Western culture's love for objective facts and figures over our own feelings is the source behind many of our current societal problems. These issues include climate change. Ogbon-inu and ogbon-ori are concepts from West African culture, showing that Sensuous knowledge is a framework similarly used in other cultures and deeply impacts their relationship with nature.
I could tell you that 11% of emissions caused by humans are from deforestation or that 800 million people are vulnerable to climate change's impacts but statistics can be reductive of the complex emotional lives it affects. Therefore, to highlight the need for Sensuous Knowledge, this article will elevate some individual voices from around the globe and their culture's approaches to nature. Climate change is a global issue, so we are going to need to listen to diverse perspectives to come up with solutions.
From pecan trees to braiding sweetgrass
Salami discusses how in African mythology aspects of nature are anthropomorphised, allowing their followers to treat the earth as a conscious being. She also says that "animals are not viewed as inferior to humans because we all depend on life in an equal manner". Animals are not less valuable, even if they can't 'reason' like we do.
This is similar to Native American practices. In 'Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants' Robin Kimmerer shows how their relationship to nature differs from Western culture.
"In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold."
While the Western settlers in America were treating land as a commodity to trade (even pressuring the Native American tribes to be segregated to their own privately-owned lands) Native Americans saw it as their life source and teacher. As a teacher of environmental and forest biology, Kimmerer blends knowledge of Indigenous practice with modern scientific discovery. Her book beautifully shows how pecan trees have evolved to over-produce their fruit for other animals to eat and ensure their own survival.
“How generously they shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live. But in the giving their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity. Living by the precepts of the Honorable Harvest—to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift—is easy in a pecan grove. We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels.”
Once again, it is through an approach like Salami's Sensuous Knowledge, the blending of the emotional and intellectual, that provides us with a clear view of what pecans show us about life and survival. It just goes to show that because nature has existed even before us it knows ways of living that we do not yet understand, such as the importance of community.
Sensuous art for climate change
Art is a great approach to encourage climate change activism because, while statistics can feel empty, things that pull on our emotions have a tendency to stick. Salami cites Lodovico Einaudi's "Elegy for the Artic" as art that demonstrates this. The piece being played on a melting glacier in the Artic begs for our sympathy as it shows we have a responsibility as humans living within, and not separate from, nature to protect it for both our interests.
More positively, the image above is a shot of Singapore. In the third episode of the BBC documentary series "The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet", Chief Sustainability Manager of City Developments Limited, Esther An, proudly displays how Singapore has become the world leader of Biophilic design. This involves designing city-scapes to incorporate the natural technology plants possess in how they detoxify the air with the human technology of buildings. Not only does it practically work in how it can detoxify the air's particulates up to 60%, it also looks gorgeous and vibrant. We could literally live within and be a part of the plant life!
Clearly, I'm not promoting that we look at these cultures' practices and appropriate them as our own. Nor am I implying that we all have to become very spiritual or religious to protect our planet. Regardless of your faith, to look up to how these cultures value the Earth and unite it with our own technological knowledge is to step toward a more realistic way of tackling climate change. We have the ability to technologically advance, yes, but we have emotions and empathy too. Why not use them?