by Dr. Jeni Henrickson, Instructional Designer, DLINQ
The title of this post is drawn from the article Ten Ways to Confront the Climate Crisis without Losing Hope by Rebecca Solnit. As I was doing research related to nature, technology, and alternate futures, I kept returning to those words: “The future is not yet written. We are writing it now.” What does it mean to write the future? How can we do so while holding onto hope? And is it possible to do so using minimal computerized technology?
My colleague Bob Cole recently shared some of the dangers of today’s technologies, along with seeking “hope for more collaborative and ethical pathways into a future with AI” in his detox post Exploring Collaborative Futures with AI. AI is certainly being used in some innovative ways to help us better understand our world, and hopefully to also mitigate some of our harmful behaviors toward it. Here are some additional examples that complement Bob’s piece:
- Three Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Helping to Save the World: As computers get smarter, scientists look at new ways to enlist them in environmental protection. By Erin Biba.
- Five Ways AI Is Saving Wildlife – from counting chimps to locating whales by Graeme Green.
- The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by Ricardo Vinuesa et al.
As Wai Chee Dimock aptly notes in his article What AI Can Do for Climate Change, and What Climate Change Can Do for AI: “This subset of artificial intelligence, turning an unprecedented crisis into grounds for solidarity, couldn’t be more different from social media algorithms, facial recognition software and autonomous weapon systems.”
While computers and AI are providing some new understandings of our natural world, particularly through data gathering, mapping, and analysis, I find myself most inspired (and hope-fueled) by work that is being done with lesser emphasis on computerized intervention, work that is drawing on and honoring traditional knowledge, and work that is challenging us to look beyond our oftentimes people-centric worldview.
I love richly detailed, nuanced stories of places, people, and wild things. That kind of detail and storytelling connects us, mind and body, to ideas, and is what facilitates us falling in love with and wanting to nurture and care for people, places, plants, and wildlife. I also feel that localized human firsthand observation is important to building a fuller understanding of a place. Computers and data alone cannot create such subtle, rich, and localized stories and understandings.
As James Bridle notes, data in and of itself, also sometimes distracts us from the here and now, the present moment. In their article Phenological Mismatch (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines phenology as “the study of periodic biological phenomena, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions”), Bridle writes:
“The greatest trick our utility-directed technologies have performed is to constantly pull us out of time: to distract us from the here and now, to treat time as a kind of fossil fuel which can be endlessly extracted in the service of a utopian future which never quite arrives. If information is the new oil, we are already, in the hyper-accelerated way of present things, well into the fracking age, with tremors shuddering through the landscape and the tap water on fire. But this is not enough; it will never be enough. We must be displaced utterly in time, caught up in endless imaginings of the future while endlessly neglecting the lessons and potential actions of the present moment.”
This leads me to a desire to investigate historical knowledge and explore what it offers beyond what “modern science” teaches us. I view historical knowledge as localized knowledge that has been gathered by multiple or many people through firsthand observation and tracking over long periods of time, spanning generations, and that is sometimes communicated through storytelling. One form of historical knowledge is traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK.
“Compared to Western environmental science, traditional ecological knowledge is more holistic and expansive. It includes teachings that help individuals understand their role within the local ecosystem, and precepts that guide their interactions with its human and non-human denizens. Thus, in addition to natural history, traditional ecological knowledge includes governance, philosophy, and religion, as well as the expressive media used to transmit this information.” (Vine Deloria Jr., Red Earth, White Lies : Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact, as quoted by Talking Stories: Traditional Ecological Knowledge).
Indigenous communities worldwide hold a wealth of TEK, gathered over centuries, and long dismissed or ignored by Western science. There has more recently been a trend in Western science to seek out the teachings, perspectives, and understandings of Indigenous peoples, but even then, it is not always honored, given proper attribution, or fairly compensated. Indigenous peoples have traditionally shown respect toward and understanding of non-human intelligence and life, as well as better in-practice understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and how to live in a sustainable way.
Some examples and organizations that help illustrate TEK and/or the melding of TEK with western science include:
- The Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences
- Sustainable Development Institute of the College of Menominee Nation
- The Ecological Society of America has resources, examples, and presentation recordings on their TEK Resources webpage.
- The National Park Service also has a TEK Resources webpage that shares summaries and links to research articles centered on TEK.
- Voices of the River: docuseries that shares stories of the Traditional Owners of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River in Western Australia’s Kimberley region
- Traditional Aboriginal burning in modern day land management
- The Kimberley Land Council’s Indigenous fire management program (see also Common Ground’s Traditional Fire Management webpage)
In the end, I believe that writing the future calls for a balanced use of, and respect for, different types of tools and knowledge, rather than an overreliance on or privileging of a technology-first or Western-science-first approach. Storytelling also plays an important role in writing the future, in helping each other understand and connect to places, wild things, and other people. As Solnit writes in her article Ten Ways to Confront the Climate Crisis without Losing Hope, “imagination is a superpower” and “I believe we now need to tell stories about how beautiful, how rich, how harmonious the Earth we inherited was, how beautiful its patterns were, and in some times and places still are, and how much we can do to restore this and to protect what survives.”
- Start small and local. For me, it can get overwhelming thinking about the world as a whole and about the multitude of harms profligating there. So I start with my own yard, my neighborhood, my community, my county, my state. What small changes might I make in my own backyard that helps wildlife thrive there? How might I volunteer in my community to help clean up or support a park or wild space? Where can I learn more about the Indigenous communities that have lived and currently live in my area, and how might I advocate for them or invite them into local decision-making?
- Related to the bullet point above, continue to do little things that make you feel like you’re doing good for the planet. Ignore those who say those little things are meaningless. If it helps make your own small community a healthier place and it fuels hope and keeps you and others around you moving forward, that matters, and you’re likely inspiring folks around you to do the same.
- Get involved in local organizations that support wild things and wild spaces.
- Read up on local Indigenous communities and organizations around you and learn how to advocate for them and invite them into local decision-making.
- Related to the above bullet, read up in general about the history of the land where you live, both its natural history (e.g., what plants are native to the area?) and its people and political history.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence by James Bridle
- Cooperative AI: Machines Must Learn to Find Common Ground by Allan Dafoe et al.
- White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and Council on Environmental Quality release first-of-its kind memorandum to initiate new federal guidance on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge
- Room to Roam: Connecting data and people to protect wildlife migrations