5 Questions for Dr. Wade Davis on Indigenous Communities and the Paris Climate Talks

PARIS - Dr. Wade Davis holds the University of British Columbia BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk. He is a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, bestselling author and the winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for literature for his breathtaking book about Mount Everest, Into the Silence. Wade has studied and lived with Indigenous communities around the world for over forty years. I Interviewed him during the Paris Climate summit about what's at stake for indigenous communities.

Question: How will climate change likely affect indigenous communities around the world?

Throughout the world indigenous people who played no role in the creation of the climate crisis not only are seeing the impact of climate change on their lives, they are taking personal responsibility for the problem, often with a seriousness of intent that puts many of us to shame. Eighty percent of the fresh water that feeds the western coast of South America is derived from Andean glaciers. These are receding at such an obvious rate that the pilgrims to the Qoyllur Rit'i, believing the mountain gods to be angry, are no longer carrying ice from the Sinakara back to their communities, forgoing the very gesture of reciprocity that completes the sacred circle of the pilgrimage and allows for everyone to benefit from the grace of the divine. In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, the mamos observe each season the recession of the snow and icefields that for them are the literal heart of the world. They notice as well the disappearance of birds, amphibians, and butterflies, and the changing ecological character of the páramos, which are drying out. They have increased both their ritual and political activities, and have formally called on the Younger Brother to stop destroying the world.

Question: Based on your extensive contacts with indigenous communities worldwide, what would you say is the most resounding message they have for the governments negotiating the climate deal in Paris?

The voices of indigenous people matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and eco- logical space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.

Question: What have you personally learned from native elders about our relationship with the planet that we all would be wise to heed?

As a young man I was raised on the coast of British Columbia to believe that the rainforests existed to be cut. This was the essence of the ideology of scientific forestry that I studied in school and practiced in the woods as a logger. This cultural perspective was profoundly different from that of the First Nations, those living on Vancouver Island at the time of European contact, and those still there. If I was sent into the forest to cut it down, a Kwakwaka'wakw youth of similar age was traditionally dispatched during his Hamatsa initiation into those same forests to confront Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven, cannibal spirits living at the north end of the world, all with the goal of returning triumphant to the potlatch that his individual spiritual discipline and fortitude might revitalize his entire people with the energy of the wild. The point is not to ask or suggest which perspective is right or wrong. Is the forest mere cellulose and board feet? Was it truly the domain of the spirits? Is a mountain a sacred place? Does a river really follow the ancestral path of an anaconda? Who is to say? Ultimately these are not the important questions.

What matters is the potency of a belief, the manner in which a conviction plays out in the day-to-day lives of a people, for in a very real sense this determines the ecological footprint of a culture, the impact that any society has on its environment. Herein, perhaps, lies the essence of the relationship between many indigenous peoples and the natural world. What these cultures have done is to forge through time and ritual a relationship to the earth that is based not only on deep attachment to the land but also on far more subtle intuition -- the idea that the land itself is breathed into being by human consciousness. Mountains, rivers, and forests are not perceived as being inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination.

Question: What's your assessment of the climate negotiations so far?

The United Nations Climate Conference, COP21 has been rightly billed as a defining moment in the global effort to combat climate change. If the fate of the world hangs in the balance, if a projected rise of sea levels promises to flood the Nile delta and inundate the homes of 120 million people in Bangladesh and India, if entire island nations in the Pacific are being washed away, and if the glaciers of the Andes and the Tibetan plateau, source of life for half of humanity, are melting, then why has not our response been in any way commensurate with the severity of the crisis? Why have we not fully mobilized and declared war on global warming?

Question: So if climate change is the threat we now know it to be, why do you think the international response in the past has been so fundamentally tepid?

On my last day in Copenhagen in 2009 I put this question to Carter Roberts, head of the World Wildlife Fund. The situation, he suggested, comes down to four basic possibilities. If the scientists are wrong, and we do nothing, little changes. If they are wrong and we act, the worst that will happen will be an economic stimulus that will result in a cleaner environment, a more technologically integrated world, and a healthier planet. If they are right, and we do nothing, the potential consequences are at best bad, at worst catastrophic, with scenarios so bleak as to defy the darkest imaginings of science fiction. If the scientific consensus holds, and we aggressively marshal our financial resources and technological brilliance to confront the challenge, we will be able to, for a relatively small investment, head off potential disaster and make for a better world. It was difficult to conjure a losing scenario, save that of inaction.

One can only hope that as delegations and world leaders gather in Paris the events and lessons of the last years will have finally registered. Under new leadership, Canada has a remarkable opportunity not simply to repudiate the policies of the past, but to move forward with ambitious goals and firm targets that will announce to the world that we are back as a nation at the leading edge of global efforts to move away from a carbon-based economy toward a new vision of hope for the planet.

For more about Wade Davis, see www.wadedavis.com

Tim Ward is the author of The Master Communicator's Handbook, a guide for thought-leaders who want to change the world.