Indigenous and Dominant Worldviews: Realism vs. Illusion

I have thought about the implications of the wisdom of indigenous cultures for industrial-consumer culture for quite a while now. The dominant worldview of industrial civilization, despite its power to control some elements of Nature, for a while, is so clearly out of step with the fundamental principles of both science and indigenous wisdom in a finite world.

The clash between the worldviews of indigenous peoples and industrial-consumer societies points directly at the core predicament of modernity. Several excellent works have explained the contradictions between industrial modernity and the limits of the Earth System. When we look at the worldviews of indigenous groups in contrast to the culture of industrial modernity, the differences are stark.

Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa), aka Don Trent Jacobs, is an Oglala Lakota Pipe Carrier and Sun Dancer. He created a chart listing forty dimensions on which the dominant worldview of industrial modernity and the worldview of indigenous cultures have diametrically opposed perspectives on the world and our place in it. I will list only a few key dimensions here.

The Trajectory of Modernity

It started with the Ancient Greeks, whose philosophy separated the soul from the body, mind from Nature. The specter of duality continued through early Christianity, the middle ages, and the European renaissance, right through the birth of modern science and Newtonian physics, followed by the technologies and rational-legal organization of industrial societies. The result is that modern industrial-consumer civilization lives in the illusion that it is separate from and dominates Nature itself. And that, of course, is the fatal flaw that may very well bring down the entire edifice of modernity. Jeremy Lent’s research on the origins of the modern worldview and its alternatives sheds a great deal of light on what is nearly universally ignored in modern industrial-consumer culture.

Two Worldviews and their Consequences

The worldview that assumes the domination of Nature by humans is a threat to humanity itself. Indigenous peoples who experience modernity know this well. Here is a sampling of dimensions on which the dominant worldview and the indigenous worldview collide, with a few comments on the consequences of the differences.

Dominant WorldviewIndigenous Worldview
Rigid Hierarchy: Social control from the top down; responsibility from the bottom upNon-hierarchical: [egalitarian] Social control and responsibilities distributed democratically in social networks
Focus on self and personal gain: Relation of individual to hierarchy focuses on gaining power by moving up the hierarchyEmphasis on Community Welfare: Relations of individual to community is contributory; personal status reflects contributions
Earth as an unloving “it”: All of Nature seen as separate and to be dominated. Focus is on fear and controlEarth and all systems as living & loving: Recognition of relations to living systems are mutually supportive in ecology of being
Emphasis on theory and rhetoric: It’s often all about talk, creating imagined power.Inseparability of knowledge and action: Indigenous knowledge is directly connected to action in the natural world.
Emphasis on rights: Dominant thinking is about the hierarchy of rights by position.Emphasis on responsibilities: Individuals are connected to community in relation to their commitments to others.
Human nature as corrupt or evil: Others are out there trying to hurt you, so you must control them.Human nature as good but malleable: Benevolence is the norm; evil arises from a serious imbalance in one’s life.
Nature as dangerous: Nature must be controlled to minimize danger and reap rewards of extraction.Nature as benevolent: Living in balance with the rest of Nature results in a wealth of benefits for all.
Linear thinking: Singular line of thought from problem to solution, from cause to effect.Non-linear thinking: Awareness of balance in relations among elements of complex systems.

Think about how these differences in perspective on the world (worldview) affect not only individual behavior but also societal policies.

Necessity, Degragation, and Transformation

On the ‘dominant’ side, clearly hierarchy and separation from others and Nature are central to the dominant worldview. So is top-down thinking about the source of rights and responsibilities. It is a ‘heady’ worldview, not well engaged with the natural world in which we live. Connections to our environment, within this framework of thought, are based on separation, especially the division between people and the natural world. (Nature as something one goes to look at, but is not part of.) The people, especially the elites, perceive the world as a bundle of ‘resources,’ the sole purpose of which is to be exploited. Or, as Zuckerberg puts it, “move fast and break things.” In this worldview, responsibility focuses on the lust for power, and the ‘rights’ of the most powerful are paramount. The dominant culture assumes its own necessity and inevitability. However, culture never trumps Nature.

The indigenous worldview is integrative. It recognizes the interconnectedness of the many elements of the world in a great complex living system of which we humans are merely one (increasingly dangerous) part, not the overlord of creation. As components of the larger living Earth System, indigenous people do not see any ‘it’ out there; they see a great system of life in which they play a modest respectful part. Responsibility dominates their relation to the living world, not ‘rights’ to take from it without giving back. Economic relations to the world are balanced. The mutuality of interests of all creatures in sustaining ecosystems is paramount. The indigenous worldview avoids the degradation of the natural world that is endemic to the endless growth model of industrial-consumer culture.

Now, for example, imagine how all this may or may not fit into the current crisis of ‘leadership’ in the U.S. House of Representatives. Power plays, not policy, are the order of the day. How would it look if the members held the indigenous worldview instead of the worldview of domination that focuses on the struggle for power over both humans and the Earth System itself? Very different, that’s how.

These contrasts of worldview demonstrate why a great societal transformation has become an urgent necessity for modern civilization, now.

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