Eco Watch: Robin Wall Kimmerer in Sun Magazine on “Two Ways of Knowing”

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(Robin Wall Kimmerer; more info on her faculty page)

The Sun Magazine recently published a fascinating interview with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who fuses her formal science background with knowledge from her background as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She also serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

I encourage you to read the entire interview, which speaks to a holistic and more complex view of ecosystems and the environment–and one that’s useful in thinking about how we combat global warming and biosphere degradation but also in how we re-imagine our relationship to the Earth in a more meaningful and positive way.

It’s  useful,  too, in pushing back against the frequent fetishizing or simplification of the cultures of various Native American and First Nation peoples–first by thinking of these diverse and varied cultures reductively as one culture and second by thinking of their views of the environment as being only “mystical” and not practical.  I’d also argue that within the realm of “traditional” science, Kimmerer’s comments point to a vital fact: while specialization in science is important it can also be extremely limiting.

Here are just a couple of excerpts that I found of particular interest. Again, it’s important to read the entire interview to get the full context.

Kimmerer:

When we use the scientific method in an experiment, we look at one variable at a time. In order to really understand how something works, science says, we must exclude all else. We’re not going to talk about relationships. We’re going to limit ourselves to cause and effect. This notion that you can rigorously exclude all factors save one, and in so doing find the cause, is not part of traditional knowledge.

In the traditional way of learning, instead of conducting a tightly controlled experiment, you interact with the being in question — with that plant, with that stream. And you watch what happens to everything around it, too. The idea is to pay attention to the living world as if it were a spider’s web: when you touch one part, the whole web responds. Experimental, hypothesis-driven science looks just at that one point you touched.

Another important difference is that science tends to want to make universal statements, whereas to the indigenous way of thinking, what’s happening between two organisms is always particular and localized, unique in space and time. Take the example of a bee landing on a flower for a sip of nectar. To the indigenous observer, it’s not some idealized Bee meeting some idealized Flower. There isn’t an attempt to generalize to pollinator ecology, or to say that it’s all being driven by certain physical principles. Those principles may be real, but they aren’t any more real than this bee on this flower at this time on this day with this weather.

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Western science explicitly separates observer and observed. It’s rule number one: keep yourself out of the experiment. But to the indigenous way of thinking, the observer is always in relationship with the observed, and thus it’s important that she know herself: As I watch that bee and flower, as I study how water moves, as I observe the growth of the grass in this meadow, I understand that the kind of being I am colors how I see and feel and know. Furthermore, my presence might even be influencing how the world is working around me.

It’s important to recognize the relationship that exists between the observer and the observed. In Western science we believe our technologies and how we frame our hypotheses will eliminate our bias. A traditional perspective instead celebrates the relationship. A young person is going to see things differently than an old person. A daughter and a mother and a grandmother will see in different ways. All of these perspectives should be brought to bear. Rather than isolate them, we can incorporate them into the learning process.

One comment on “Eco Watch: Robin Wall Kimmerer in Sun Magazine on “Two Ways of Knowing”

  1. Frankko says:

    Great piece.

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