Tl;dr: Indigenous habits might help, but are not the answer to our sustainability issues.
After a very long wait of almost 13 years, the sequel to Avatar is set to return to theaters next month. Because we live in a society where everything successful is heavily scrutinized, Avatar was criticized in certain circles for having a heavy nativist spin, with many people calling it “Dances with Wolves in Space.” Others saw parallels to Pocahontas or other films where white colonizers rely on native populations and begin to embrace their ways of living.
There is no doubt that European colonialism of indigenous people created profound harm. We also cannot deny the brutal treatment that native tribes received from the US government, or how other countries have treated their own indigenous populations. Sadly, there are far too few examples of how governments have invested significant resources to preserve native habits, culture, and ways of life. A nation that seems to be quite serious in acknowledging the significance of their original occupants is New Zealand, or Aotearoa in Māori.
Kiwi appreciation of Māori culture extends beyond their trademark haka at rugby matches or having a national anthem that begins with the Māori verses first. There is a serious commitment to ensuring that Māori populations (with other Pacific Islander communities) get the resources to prevent and address instances of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, high drop out rates in education, crime, and domestic violence that are more common that in other populations.
While the list of issues is tragically lengthy, the positive aspects of indigenous life are also significant. Almost all native cultures are perceived to have a healthy respect for their environments, with an almost reverential appreciation of the resources that nature provides them. We are led to believe that native people never take more than they need, and that they live in harmonious balance with all the flora and fauna of their habitats. If only stupid modern humans (white people) could just learn that sustainable life exists all around us, and we just have to look to our past to understand how we can achieve this!
There is a slight problem to this romanticization of indigenous life. They weren’t perfect, either. In New Zealand, there used to be a magnificent flightless bird called the moa. They were the largest terrestrial animals in New Zealand, with some species of moa reaching up to 12 feet in height and weighing over 500 lbs. The smallest moa was around the size of a turkey. There were possibly up to 2.5 million moas living in what is now called New Zealand when the first Polynesian settlers arrived. The moa was also not the only plant and animal to be completely eradicated by the new human presence.
Anyone care to take a guess how many moas were left 100 years later? If you guessed zero, you would be absolutely correct. But, how can that be possible? Where was the respect and balance? How could cultures that understand consumption completely wipeout several species? Maybe it’s because there is no society that can offer the perfect examples of how to live sustainably, especially in today’s world.
We can absolutely strive to emulate the best aspects of indigenous lifestyles. And there are many of them to select from. Not taking more than we need, replacing what we take, and appreciating what we have consumed are all wonderful things. However, we also have to craft a new set of values going forward that address wholly unique issues that populations that existed in pre-industrial revolution times just didn’t have to worry about. Māoris didn’t have to worry about toxic waste, ocean acidification, increased population densities, or the absurd increase in the popularity of K-pop bands. The situation we face requires both a backward view AND a forward vision of the best ways to exist within the parameters that we are facing now. All too often, we tend to believe that the answers have existed all along, and Western societies are too greedy and materialistic to understand the lessons given to us by our wiser indigenous populations. This would only be true if we completely reverted back to the ways of life that were successful in the past. I sincerely doubt that all of us are willing to forgo the internet, airplanes, and Netflix (especially for those addictive K-dramas) to make this a viable option.
In the first Avatar, the final scene is the victorious native population marching the invading humans in disgrace off their moon. This is an oversimplification of how we can live sustainability on our planet. It might seem satisfying to watch on the big screen, but both a wholesale rejection and a emotional embrace of the “old ways” are problematic. I know this because you are reading this post on technology that cannot exist without habits that native populations would largely reject, and that is ok.