Ancestral climate wisdom: Return to a thoughtful etiquette
Researchers have been heading north to document Inuit observations of changing weather, land, ice and animals for decades now, and as with many I was originally focused on Inuit ecological knowledge of climate change before Jaypeetee shifted our discussion from this well-worn path to a consideration of silatuniq. For weeks, we discussed the relevance of sila to northern warming which he described as an ever-moving and imminent force that surrounds and permeates Inuit life, with it most often experienced in the weather. Contrasting his Inuit sense of sila, I brought to our dialogues knowledge from two largely divided academic disciplines. Contemporary climate research with Inuit was deﬁning sila as a direct translation for weather, with it most often coming up in relation to unexpected weather phenomena. Meanwhile, Inuit ethnographies from the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century described sila as the spirit of the air, upholder of the weather, and the breath source of all life. It was while discussing this divide in Western thought between the physical weather properties of sila and a more spirited sensibility that Jaypeetee brought up silatuniq. As he explained, the sila and climate surround our lives, and silatuniq is an inquiry into “the context and consequence of applying knowledge and/or how our interacting with the surround aﬀects that surround”. This understanding seemed relevant to northern warming and global climate changes that are at root a planetary response to industrial society’s exhalation of greenhouse gases. What I do not discuss in Climate, Culture, Change is that such Inuit concepts as sila
and silatuniq began to motivate another set of questions on the methodological nature of inter/trans-disciplinarity in academic environmental thinking and studies. There seemed to be a resonance between Inuit silatuniq and the late-1960s rise in environmental interest that, in the academy, led to a host of writings on the idea that the surrounding ecology can shape and inﬂuence the nature of our thought. Though this idea stretches back to Aldo Leopold’s (1970) mid twentieth century reﬂections in ‘Thinking like a mountain’ where he describes his initiation into a broader ecological thought than that of limited human motives, the ﬁrst to coin the term “ecological thinking” was environmental philosopher Paul Shepard who wrote a seminal 1967 essay describing the self extended into “the landscape and ecosystem” (1967, 2). Not long after Shepard, there was also Gregory Bateson’s inﬂuential Steps to an Ecology of Mind that similarly proposed “the mind is not limited by the skin” (1972, 454). Of particular relevance to my interest in silatuniq is the unfolding thought of Shepard which concluded that the long Palaeolithic history of hunter-gathering led the human mind to pattern itself after the animals, ecology and climate it depended upon. Seemingly intimating Inuit sila and silatuniq, he would write that ecologically-grounded indigenous approaches of past and present can “carry us beyond ourselves, pursuing the nature of thought as the thought of nature” (1996, 63). As inﬂuential as these writers were on the idea of “ecological thinking” generally
and my own thought as I engaged Inuit, my initial sense of such mind-ecology relations ultimately arose from an early pedagogical document in Canada’s oldest Environmental Studies program at York University where I began graduate work in 1999. Founded in 1968, the program described its studies in the following way (Carrothers et al., 1968/1988, Foray Four 9): The concept of ‘environment’ may be seen not only to mean the phenomena which
are studied, but also to mean an inherent way of studying – environmental thinking.
The notion, relatively undeveloped [in the West], is that subject matter has an intrinsic form of thought as well as content, and that the environmental context of substantive concerns may be used to determine form of thought. Inﬂuencing this description was John Livingston who similarly deﬁned environment
as the “context” we live and think within, and, his own speciﬁc ﬁeld, “wildlife conservation not necessarily as an activity, but as a state of mind” (2007, 12). One implication of this view is that inter/trans-disciplinary environmental research and pedagogy is seen as being responsive to the surrounding world and not merely a human innovation. In other words, disciplinary concepts, cultural understandings and institutional traditions – like those that limited my sense of sila – are decentred within a relational environment and climate that must inform our ways of thinking and living. From very early on, there seemed to be a connection between such environmental or
ecological thinking and the older Inuit sense of a contextualizing silatuniq that arises through intimate relations with the sila. While silatuniq is concerned with, in Arnakak’s words, the “consequence of applying knowledge” in a deeply interconnected reality, the still “relatively undeveloped” Western idea of ecological thinking arose within a social context of increasing concern about human impacts on local and global environments. The story related by Leopold of watching the green ﬁre seep out of the eyes of a wolf he killed while participating in an early twentieth century idea of resource management that attempted to eradicate the wolf is merely one example of how ecological wisdom has arisen from the experience of misapplied knowledge. In retrospect, he concluded that our incapacity “to think like a mountain” means the mountain lives in fear of not only deer unrestrained by the wolf ’s howl, but also those deeply intertwined human plans that are often grounded in short-sighted thought (1970, 140). Turning to Bateson, he similarly writes that we forget the “eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of our thought and experience” (1972, 484). As with Leopold, he concludes the organism which cannot reﬂect the deeper and broader ecological thought that surrounds them is doomed to destroy that same environment which is the ground of their existence. Such unwise human thoughts as a world without wolves, lakes as pollution sinks and/or carbon as a tradable commodity has, in this way of thinking, unforeseen consequences. It should be clear that ecological or climate thinking is not actually thought in the
way it is dominantly conceived today as a largely internal mental reasoning, but rather some kind of relational epistemology and ontology that gives the world space to transform our ways of thinking as they are embodied in our actions – from the personal to institutional to political to cultural. I think it is in a context of this understanding that Cheney and Weston’s (1999) diﬀerentiation of some main assumptions in the current dominant epistemology-based ethics and their alternative environmental etiquette is insightful. The ﬁrst two assumptions in our dominant approach basically states the world is knowable enough to determine proper ethical action and that ethics is predominantly a response to what we know of the world. But from the perspective of ecological thinking, the deeply interconnected nature of human, ecological and climatic processes always severely limit our knowledge and thus our ethical relation to the world. We cannot “think like a mountain” because our knowledge is limited by various cultural assumptions concerning how we value a wolf. In relation to my climate research, it is the uncertainty surrounding climate change – from the way cultural predispositions demarcate climate research to the inﬂuence of climate denial politics on
our responses – that highlights the continued relevance of Inuit silatuniq not just for the north, but also the practice of interdisciplinary climate research and global politics. We need wise climate research and politics that is reﬂexively aware of “how our
interacting with the surround aﬀects that surround”. This is where Cheney and Weston’s alternative etiquette has some interesting points for considering a wise Western approach to climate thinking. Rather than ethics arising in response to a knowable world, the world itself is seen as ﬁlled with hidden possibilities that modify our ethical stance from knowing and managing to engaging and enriching the world. Critiquing the scepticism that aﬄicts both postmodern and analytic philosophical approaches to climate ethics, Schönfeld similarly proposes we need to move beyond the postmodern emphasis on culture over nature and the analytic focus on de-contextualized information. He writes both these ethical ways of thinking “appears wrong-headed and obsolete, because climate change asks philosophers to do the precise opposite: the reconciliation of information, the understanding of data, and the integration of events in context. Analysis is not needed now; synthesis is” (2011, 134-5). It is a view not inconsistent with Bateson’s deﬁnition of ecological thinking as grounded in a complementarity methodology that is in “the nature of ‘service’ rather than dominance” (1972, 335). Lack of knowledge does not lead to paralysis of thought and action. Rather, it calls us to deeply engage the ecological and climate realities that surround us with an etiquette that can continually transform not only what we know but how we think and act in the world. This emerging sense of climate thinking as primarily an etiquette for fostering com-
plementary understandings can be seen as informing the relatively recent rise of both interdisciplinary and intercultural approaches to climate and environmental research. My dialogues with Inuit on concepts like sila and silatuniq required me to engage a wide range of discourses that included, but were not limited to, climate research, ethnographies, adaptive management, environmental ethics and religious studies. They also simultaneously highlighted the way in which contemporary climate research, politics and media are often constrained by a focus on the physical reality of the issue and economic viability of responding (see Leduc 2010a). This concern with interdisciplinary narrowness led me to my current project that is concerned with the scope of interdisciplinary research and pedagogy in the evolution of academic environmental studies and, as I have mentioned, the etiquette of ecological thinking. My ﬁrst paper in this research critically analyzed some dominant program trends in academia and potential impacts on the complementarity of knowledge that inﬂuences ecological thinking (Leduc 2010b). Amidst ﬁve commentaries written in response to the article, Paul Woods suggested truly radical interdisciplinary environmental studies that can consider its own cultural limitations would need to be critically informed by the local indigenous understandings of where programs are situated. In his words, the future of environmental studies “is to educate students who are capable of imbibing some of the wisdom of indigenous cultures and who could, in time, oﬀer eﬀective counterweights to the hegemony of science” (2010, 46). It is not that indigenous understandings of ecology and climate are factually correct or impervious to limiting cultural, political and economic biases, but rather they have the potential to oﬀer stark epistemological and ontological contrasts that can help us consider more adaptive ways of thinking and acting than what currently drives our lives.