Jan 242013

This past weekend I visited the National Museum of the American Indian’s annual Living Earth Festival. There’s so much to describe about the excellent event, but let me start with the lessons I learned that’ll help us prepare for life after runaway climate change disrupts modern society and we can no longer make a living typing on computers or selling gadgets that people will discover have much less value than grain and a heavy stone to mill it.

I started by learning from a Pueblo Indian a technique to preserve seeds by mixing them into clay balls. This was a very low tech but effective way to preserve seeds, keeping them moist and protected from rodents over the winter, until planting is ready—and then you can plant them right in the balls (so minimal additional work is necessary).

I also learned how to make a blowgun out of bamboo, which is now in abundance in the DC area. Not much to the gun—is should be about an inch in diameter. The trick is using rabbit fur and hide for the feathering of the darts (as this traps more air in the gun than bird feathers would). According to the demonstrator, the blow gun I shot has a range about 20 meters, but I imagine only a lifetime of practice would allow accuracy at anything but close range. Even so, this is a good starter weapon for hunting squirrels and other very small game that’ll keep your belly full during the first food shortages.

There were many other tables devoted to traditional skills: bread-making, basket-weaving, playing the traditional Hawaiian board game Kōnane (stay tuned for an essay on this game), pottery-making, tamale-cooking, and so on. But instead of lingering, I headed to listen to a panel of experts including Jeremy Rifkin, Gregory Cajete, and Melissa K. Nelson, who edited Original Instructions—a compilation of “Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future.”

The panel started tremendously, with Rifkin, noting that “there is no more crucial subject to be discussing” than climate change, and that today’s children may be the last generation before the “mass die off.” That certainly focused the audience, and brought me to the edge of my seat as Rifkin built his case. He described that “photosynthesis is the primary economy of the world,” with humanity—at just 0.5 percent of the Earth’s biomass—using 31 percent of photosynthesis’ products each year. “We’re monsters,” he said, “We’re devouring all the ecosystems of the Earth.”

“Go, Jeremy, go,” I thought, “wake these people up!” He kept punching—explaining that we’re using up millions of years of deposits of fossil fuels, our endowment from the Carboniferous Age, and that if humanity survives, 50,000 years from now the only remnants of our civilization will be significant spikes in carbon dioxide levels. Climate change “is much worse than you’re being told,” Rifkin said, forecasting 3 degrees Celsius of temperature increase, and 6 degrees if we hit 450 PPM (we’re at 393.69 PPM right now, up from 320 in 1960).

The audience was dazed, swaying back and forth ready for the knock-out punch: the call to action that would empower them to throw off the shackles of the consumer culture and live within Earth’s means. Instead it felt like Rifkin hit me below the belt, describing how a green consumer society, complete with personal hydrogen-generating solar stations on rooftops, plug-in electric vehicles, and smart grids, would save the day. I am still in shock four days later (though I can walk again). This naïve view that we can consume our way out of a crisis caused primarily by our consumption patterns is preposterous. As I explain in State of the World 2010:

An analysis by Saul Griffith found that in order to produce enough energy over the next 25 years to replace most of what is supplied by fossil fuels, the world would need to build 200 square meters of solar photovoltaic panels every second plus 100 square meters of solar thermal every second plus 24 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour nonstop for the next 25 years.

And that doesn’t count replacing all the cars, or adding all the capacity needed to bring more of our growing population into the consumerist system. Heck, just the lithium we’d need to mine for the batteries of our global fleet of hybrids would destroy vast areas of Bolivia, Argentina, Australia and China. Instead, to survive, we have to transform cultural norms around both consumption and reproduction, and I’m horrified that Rifkin seemed blind to that reality.

The good news at least, is that Nelson did hint at the necessity of cultural change, although mostly focused on dietary norms. With her work at the Cultural Conservancy, an organization working to enable the flourishing of indigenous cultures, I can imagine that she is quite aware of the need to transform cultural norms, resurrecting key elements of traditional cultures that will help improve people’s health and the Earth’s.

But ultimately, it will be necessary to somehow convey this message to those with influence over business, policymakers, the media and other institutional leaders—like Rifkin—or we’ll continue to sacrifice more of Earth’s body to the gods of growth hoping that we can please them so that they will give us magic technologies to save us from a warming Earth. The Mayans took this path when their own environment changed and they were faced with prolonged drought—increasing ritual sacrifices—and as history showed, their sacrifices failed (and indeed, accelerated their own decline by putting additional demands on increasingly scarce resources).

But one thing is clear, in the strong chance that the influentials don’t get the point that we need to shift cultures away from consumerism, having basic farming, foraging, and hunting skills will certainly be a plus—so make sure to put next year’s Living Earth Festival on your calendar, and even better, sign up for a permaculture course or primitive skills training near you.

Gwich’in Hunter Warming Himself by a Fire. Courtesy of Nicolas Villaume via the National Museum of the American Indian

And in the mean time, visit the new exhibit “Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change.” I won’t go into the exhibit other than to say it offers a lot of wisdom about coping with climate change and runs until January 2nd, 2012, so for those of you in the DC area check it out. And for everyone else, visit Conversations with the Earth’s website for dozens of conversations—from adapting to drought and erratic weather patterns to dealing with the unjust disruptions of ancestral territories due to the commodification of carbon by carbon markets (and yes, environmentalists sometimes hurt more than they help–and check out this World Watch Magazine article by Mac Chapin if you don’t believe me!)

A Post Script: Conversations with the Earth organizers wondered on Facebook about how “primitive” these skills really are. Of course, I agree. More accurately they should be called “Future Skills,” as we’ll be using them again very soon! But I used that term because the community of practitioners call those skills primitive (as in here). However, I think few in that community are Native American. While they could be called indigenous skills, that might convey that they’re not for the broader public, which would be counterproductive, as we all need to learn these skills. Perhaps a better name would be ancestral, ancient, or traditional skills? Any thoughts?

Originally written by Erik Assadourian in July 2011 for Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures blog.

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