Braiding Science, Kinship With Nature, and Communal Well-Being

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Plants fascinate biologists because they regulate ecosystem processes, form complex relationships with other organisms, and have intriguing patterns of development and diversity. They provide fiber, food, fuel, medicines, oxygen and shelter for the entire biosphere, making life on Earth possible.

Drawing on her life as an Indigenous scientist, author Robin Wall Kimmerer in her now iconic 2015 book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants intertwines the knowledge she gained during her Potawatomi upbringing with the education she later received as a scientist—specifically, a plant biologist. Her central argument in the book is that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

Today, I see that pairing that defines Kimmerer’s past and profession as the only way to successfully deal with the climate crisis—and its associated threats. There are signs that it is the right path for everyone everywhere. For example, Alaska lacks a state-run toxin testing program for noncommercial harvests of shellfish, so Indigenous tribes have stepped in to help the state expand the reach of shellfish safety programs. And a new report by a team of 40 experts, including those from Indigenous tribes, outlines a novel approach to forest stewardship that features climate-smart, adaptive management practices that will aid USDA Forest Service land managers.

On the heels of those two studies, an international team of scientists is calling for a global cultural shift that elevates kinship with nature and communal well-being, underpinned by the recognition of Earth’s finite resources and the interconnectedness of all of its inhabitants, no matter their cultures.

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Scientists are calling for a global cultural shift that elevates kinship with nature in our thinking and the interconnectedness of all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Shellfish safety

Inside shellfish, toxins from some types of algae blooms can accumulate. When these shellfish are consumed, they can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Even small quantities of the toxin can lead to death. While Alaska tests commercially sold shellfish and the state’s Division of Environmental Health advises against eating shellfish harvested from beaches that have not been recently tested, local community shellfish harvests that are not for commercial sale can’t be tested with the state.

Coastal Indigenous communities are at high risk of poisoning because many depend on traditional wild-harvested shellfish. Between 1993 and 2021, Alaska Natives suffered 53% of recorded PSP cases despite only making up 16% of Alaska’s population.

That’s why in 2014, Alaska Native tribes founded the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) network, with early testing beginning in 2016. SEATOR’s tribal partners regularly collect shellfish samples, encourage community members to collect and send in their own shellfish for testing, and share toxin data with communities to inform harvesting decisions. Seventeen tribal communities are now involved, increasing participation and risk awareness.

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Inside shellfish, toxins from algae blooms can accumulate. When eaten, they can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, which can lead to death.

Even with this success, however, a study published in the journal GeoHealth in March 2024 reports funding and community perceptions around risks limit how widespread and effective the toxin testing program can be.

To understand the barriers to the program’s effectiveness and reach across Alaska and how it is perceived by communities, researchers interviewed 27 SEATOR staff who help manage testing and other individuals with shellfish toxin expertise. They discussed several, broad themes: community perceptions of toxin testing and the risks of shellfish harvesting, the status of toxin testing in those communities, and roadblocks to or facilitators of the actual toxin-testing process.

Overall, the researchers found that communities with active toxin testing were very aware of shellfish poisoning, but reactions varied widely. Some people were less concerned, relying on personal experience with the safety of the traditional shellfish harvest. Others took the risk of PSP so seriously that they stopped harvesting shellfish altogether.

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In 2016, a group of coastal Alaska Native tribes began monitoring their communities’ shellfish for deadly biotoxins. The state of Alaska only tests commercial harvests.

The environmental education coordinator for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska says the goal is to bring both sides to the middle. They want to show that harvesting is good, but it must be done safely.

Successful risk communication, however, relies on consistent, timely testing, which can be a problem. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the testing facility closed between October 2021 and February 2023; and there were delays in testing until July 2023.

That halt in testing just a few years into the program—it began in late 2018—damaged trust with communities, interviewees said. People don’t want to keep shellfish in the freezer indefinitely while they’re waiting for test results, especially if they’re relying on it for food during lean winter months. Now, it’s difficult to get people to buy back into the program when it seems like testing could stop again at any time.

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Alaska is home to about 230 federally recognized Alaska Native villages located across a wide geographic area, some in very remote places. Although they have widely diverse cultures, art forms, histories, languages and lifeways, they share many core values that have guided them for millennia.

Climate change is further complicating risk communication. Historically, winter was a safe time to harvest, but “things are changing,” one participant said. As coastal waters warm and their nutrient fluxes mutate, harmful algae blooms—the source of shellfish toxins—are becoming more frequent and widespread, and they are occurring over a longer season. Today, paralytic toxins in shellfish are found year-round.

Remoteness was another major barrier that the researchers found. Many Southeast Alaska Native communities are deeply isolated and difficult to get to, making it hard to attract workers. In addition, the cost of living is high in those communities, and housing is expensive and limited. Those factors make carrying out sampling difficult, and it can be a tough sell for would-be staffers.

Then, there is the financial hurdle; low and unreliable funding from grants was noted by interviewees. Toxin testing is typically funded by a series of grants, each supporting novel work and each lasting only a few years. However, more rural communities with fewer resources are less able to apply for these grants. The need to seek new funding every few years also contributes to high staff turnover. SEATOR enables communities to better pool resources and apply for grants together, but applying still takes staff resources and time.

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The cost of living is high in many Native Alaska communities, and housing is limited. That makes it hard to attract workers.

Nevertheless, the SEATOR program fills an essential gap in public health protection and has found success, with its 17 tribes now in the testing network. Securing stable, long-term funding and improving public outreach could improve outcomes even further, say the researchers.

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Future forests

There are 154 national forests in the United States, covering nearly 300,000 square miles of meadows, prairies, shrublands, wetlands and woodlands. These lands are increasingly recognized as vital for supporting a broad diversity of animal and plant life, for water and nutrient cycling, and for the human communities that depend on forests and find cultural and spiritual significance within them. Forests could also be potential bulwarks against climate change. But large insect outbreaks, invasive species, increasingly severe droughts and wildfires—all intensified by climate change—are straining many national forests and surrounding lands.

Now, a report by a team of 40 experts—who come from consulting groups, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Tribal Nations, U.S. Forest Service research stations and several universities—outlines a new approach to forest stewardship that “braids together” Indigenous knowledge and Western science—known as “Two-Eyed Seeing”—to conserve and restore more resilient forestlands. Published in March 2024, the report provides a model for future work on climate-smart, adaptive management practices for U.S. Forest Service land managers.

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Forests, such as the Klamath National Forest in California, help guard the planet against the negative effects of climate change. But more and more, severe droughts and wildfires, large insect outbreaks and invasive species are stressing them.

Initiated by interest from the U.S. Forest Service, the report stems from the direction to protect mature forests as outlined in Executive Order 14072, signed by President Joe Biden in April 2022. These types of forests, some hundreds of years old, are often dominated by larger trees, with fewer seedlings and saplings. Some management practices over the past century have made many of these forests vulnerable to drought, fire, insects and other stressors, all of which will likely increase with climate change.

The executive order included guidance on strengthening relationships with Tribal governments and emphasized the importance of Indigenous knowledge, a theme highlighted repeatedly in the new report. This knowledge includes the time-tested practices of Indigenous stewardship that for millennia shaped forest structure and species composition. Following European colonization, these practices were sharply curtailed by displacement, forced assimilation and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Western scientists are increasingly recognizing that Indigenous stewardship practices built and maintained forests that were more adaptable and ecologically diverse than those today. Many Indigenous cultures, for example, used a practice called intentional burning—also known as cultural burning—which decreased forest density, promoted healthy understory growth, and hosted a broad diversity of animal and plant life. These practices over time yielded mosaics of forests made up of diverse patches of trees varying in age, density, and overstory and understory composition. These types of forests are less prone to the kinds of large, severe wildfires that have burned swaths of North American forests this century.

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Forests support a diversity of plants and wildlife. Human communities depend on forests for many cultural and ecosystem services.

Indigenous members of the report team contributed two especially powerful ideas: reciprocity and the seven generations principle. These perspectives guided the group’s recommendations, which suggest taking from the land and giving back in equal measure, and proactively stewarding these lands with seven generations in mind.

But the report, say the coauthors, is deeper than just changes in policy and management; it proposes a fundamental shift in the worldview guiding current practices.

I believe that concept is long overdue.

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Marine biomes are facing critical tipping points, such as more acidification, harmful algal blooms, coral reef extinction, the introduction of nonnative species, overfishing, plastics and sound pollution, seabed mining, and changes in water temperature.

Seismic shift

Today, most of us would agree that centuries of extractive capitalism, imperialism and population growth have pushed Earth’s ecosystems beyond their limits. Often, the most vulnerable human populations—those who bear the least responsibility—disproportionately carry the consequences of these interwoven global crises, breeding disease, disillusionment, displacement and dissatisfaction that, in the end, erodes social cohesion.

A grossly unequal distribution of wealth is now amplifying the destruction. Studies show that the poorest half of the global population owns barely 2% of total global wealth, while the richest 10% owns 76% of all wealth. The poorest 50% of the global population contributes just 10% of emissions, while the richest 10% emit more than 50% of total carbon emissions. Marine and terrestrial biomes face critical tipping points, while escalating challenges to food and clean water access foreshadow a bleak outlook for global security.

Recently, an international team of scientists published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences NEXUS emphasizing the urgent need to align economic resources, political will and societal values to ensure a more sustainable and equitable world. Led by University of Hawai’i at Manoa researchers, the 18 authors combine their expertise in communications, earth and ocean sciences, ethnic studies, geography, law, politics, public health and renewable energy to assess the causes, impacts and solutions to a multitude of worldwide crises.

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Environmental and human health are inextricably linked. Scientists say we must start thinking of Earth as “our lifeboat in the cosmic sea of space.”

According to the authors, a global economic model focused on wealth accumulation and profit, rather than true sustainability, is a major impediment to decarbonization, conserving natural resources and ensuring social equity. Therefore, they argue, governments should enforce radical, immediate cuts in fossil fuel use, eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies, and restrict trade that generates pollution or unsustainable consumption. They advocate a global cultural shift that emphasizes communal well-being and a connection to nature, with a deep understanding that the Earth’s resources are finite.

While the review summarizes the grave threats facing the planet, it rejects a doom-and-gloom philosophy. Instead, the authors state, these threats should motivate substantial and swift actions. The global cultural shift in values they call for is possible through community empowerment, corporate accountability, cross-sector partnerships, economic incentives, education, leadership, robust policies, technological innovation, and cultural narratives delivered through art and media. They conclude that humanity must stop treating these issues as isolated challenges and establish a systemic response based on kinship with nature that recognizes “Earth as our lifeboat in the cosmic sea of space.”

Planet plaiting

Remote Tribal communities are taking the safety of traditional harvests into their own hands when the state falls short. Such success could serve as a model for other community-led environmental health efforts elsewhere. And a new report on forests—incorporating Indigenous input—provides practical measures we can take now to promote resiliency and help forests thrive through the stresses of climate change, even as they are considered one of the planet’s strongest climate change mitigators.

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For our health and the Earth’s, we need comprehensive and urgent action, including rapid decarbonization and a more harmonious relationship with nature. By braiding together Indigenous knowledge with Western science, we can create a sustainable path forward.

Scientists around the world say we need to alter our thinking about how we’ll continue life on Earth as we know it, focusing on community empowerment, cross-sector partnerships, and cultural narratives delivered through art and media.

Recognizing and integrating the knowledge that Indigenous Tribes have to offer for keeping food safe and forests resilient are examples of the first and second, and Braiding Sweetgrass and other creative works like it are providing the third.

That’s hope, because by interweaving all our strengths—no matter where in the world we find them—we just might carry on.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

 

The post Braiding Science, Kinship With Nature, and Communal Well-Being first appeared on Good Nature Travel Blog.

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