From ecological economics we move (temporarily) to ecological awareness. Many Americans and some Europeans reading this blog will remember playing “cowboys and Indians” when growing up. Some merely imagined themselves one or the other; others donned a bit of costume such as a buckskin shirt and moccasins, or they wore a cap pistol in a holster. (Interestingly, my Native American friends have told me that they, too, played cowboys and Indians when growing up.) The Indian stepped silently through the woods in his or her moccasins, with senses keenly attuned to nature. Young Boy and Girl Scouts learn woodsmanship: how to get along in the wilderness. Hunting, fishing, building a fire, making shelter, survival skills: all these require a kind of ecological awareness of the natural world unavailable in the course of ordinary life to youngsters living protected lives in cities and suburbs; and so for some it becomes a kind of serious recreation. Euro-American culture values ecological awareness, as it values nature.
Do (or did) native or indigenous peoples acquire ecological awareness that leads to sustainability practices? If so, there is something to be learned from them. Anthropologists who study the pre-European contact lifeways of tribal societies agree that their peoples are ecologically aware; indeed, this feature is oft remarked on in popular anthropology, whether it is the Eskimos’ forty or so different words for different snow conditions, or the Australian natives’ intricate mental mapping of the landscape. But whether their ecological awareness led to practices that we would call sustainable turns out to be a more difficult question to answer.
It is more difficult because it is unclear whether their traditional economies were maintained over thousands of years prior to European contact because ecological awareness led to sustainable practices, or because the available technology was unable to exploit the resources to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, if resources such as game grew scarce, a smaller human population was supported until the resources were renewed. Anthropologists have looked hard to find instances of ecological awareness among tribal peoples leading to conservation and sustainability practices, but a recent review of the scholarly literature concludes that except in a few cases, indigenous groups exploited resources to exhaustion when new technology (e.g., guns, horses) made this possible. Of course, one could argue that new technology and contact with European cultures may have caused the disequilibrium, but whatever the cause, it would appear that the indigenous peoples’ ecological awareness did not lead to sustainable practices. Seymour Krech’s The Ecological Indian (1999) concluded, for example, that “little or no evidence could be found for conservation among Native Americans prior to contact and plenty of evidence demonstrated a lack of conservation during the contact period. . . . This view is consistent with major reviews of the conservation literature in the ethnographic world” (Raymond Hames, “The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2007, p. 178).
Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned about sustainability from indigenous ecology? I would not rush to such a conclusion. For one thing, in the midst of the current sustainability debates, indigenous cultures have mounted legal actions based on the relation between ecology and cultural property rights, viewing nature in terms of what my friend Nathan calls a “sacred ecology” and claiming property rights to various natural resources on the land, basing those claims on traditional beliefs and practices which may be and often are in a revival phase within the native groups. In the midst of these debates, indigenous peoples, even if they did not practice sustainability in the past (when perhaps they felt no need to do so), are acutely aware of sustainability issues today. Further, it’s inconceivable to me that the more tradition-minded among them did not ponder and enact strategies for sustaining their traditional cultures in the face of Western colonial and cultural onslaught. To deny them deliberation in this way—that is, to deny that they thought about sustainability—is to perpetuate the myth of the unself-conscious, unreflective, savage. The strategies they adopted, and are adopting, in the face of such difficult odds, would indeed repay study.