First, it is important to realize that just as there are a variety of indigenous knowledge systems throughout the world, there are also a number of different traditions in Western science, many of which are now leaning towards a more interdisciplinary approach. Thus, the following treatment of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Western science relies on broad generalizations and often touches on the more striking dichotomies in order to introduce the relevant concepts.
Like Western science, TEK is a cumulative and dynamic process that builds upon collective wisdom, practical experience and adaptation to change over time. Both bodies of knowledge have been transmitted generation to generation within their respective cultures. While some may argue that TEK is often narrow and Western science tends to have much wider applications, in practice all successful ecological management or restoration practices are local.
Modern ecological thought has derived some, if not many, of its concepts and applications from TEK that resulted from European contact with indigenous cultures and tribal communities beginning in the 1800’s. As a result of this contact, it is safe to say that all ecological knowledge and practice (both traditional and modern) is to some extent a synthesis, an amalgamation.
Both conscientious ecologists and wise tribal elders recognize the accelerating loss of animal and plant species as the major issue in environmental management and thus often look to recreate the preexisting “natural” conditions in order to sustain or increase biodiversity. The ultimate goals of both TEK and Western science are the sustainability of populations and the preservation of diversity within the context of economic needs and social harmony.
In general, many of the same variables utilized in environmental assessment and resource management are considered with the exception that Western science often excludes the sacred or indigenous worldview (“cosmovision”). Many native rituals and beliefs define a sense of personal responsibility to the environment and reinforce the intimate symbiotic relationship between Nature and Culture.
This will perhaps be the most difficult aspect of TEK to integrate into the prevailing Western framework although the Gaia hypothesis is gaining popularity among scientists. It postulates that the myriad of life forms within the Earth’s biosphere work together as a single super organism. Without the scientific basis of the Gaia theory, self-regulating models of ecosystems and the biosphere can be found in many traditional cultures.
There is skepticism among Western scientists about the broken links in the intergenerational transmission of TEK resulting from modern assimilation as well as the role of ritual, myth and belief in environmental practices. Thus, TEK still does not command respect as a separate valid or equal knowledge system among the general population of scientists and rarely are indigenous peoples with this knowledge included in decision-making processes beyond the local (or token) level.
Traditional beliefs and the resulting values that shape the desires of a culture play a large role in determining the probability and worth of ecological outcomes in native communities. In terms of environmental assessment, indigenous peoples that rely on local resources for their livelihood are often best suited to determine costs and benefits. Unfortunately, as the indigenous world becomes more intertwined with the modern, the interests of native communities are being ignored and TEK is quickly losing its power (effectiveness) as a management or restoration tool. Some Western scientists even argue that many of these values must be separated from TEK in order to create a more rigorous method of evaluation that will be consistent with the inevitable merging of the traditional and the modern.
Western environmental science tends to be inherently reductionist and abstract; the perspective is often secular, utilitarian, and depersonalized. Ecosystems are reduced to discrete components and valued primarily for their economic usefulness and consumer potential. In addition, Western science is always striving to expand its ability to measure and quantify observations in an attempt to verify its hypothesis on a more global basis.
Perhaps the most important difference between TEK and Western science is this measurement or quantification of the relationships that exist in the environment, and how these observations reflect risk, uncertainty and values. TEK relies on a much smaller number of observations in order to make decisions in what is perceived as a dynamic and unpredictable situation. Whereas Western science is constantly seeking the objective “truth” utilizing a comprehensive and structured framework, extensive data collection and optimization analysis, and then formulating the most efficient response. This is often accomplished with an attitude of domination and without due respect for the realities of symbiotic relationships within the ecosystem.
The branch of modern environmental science that caters to the exploitation of natural resources for financial gain has little in common with TEK, and is solely concerned with the efficiencies of its extraction and processing. Yet, as these forces become more entrenched within our public policy, and the complexity and magnitude of our ecological problems increase, the integration of TEK offers us the promise of more stability and balance in the way we utilize the abundance of nature.
Integrating TEK & Western Science
The integration of TEK and Western science has become an increasingly important approach used in natural resource management. The lack of scientific knowledge in many of the world’s more remote regions often demands the introduction of TEK into modern ecological restoration practices. This has given rise to the concept of co-management where native peoples are able to share in the decision-making process and the implementation of restoration projects on their lands.
TEK has the integrity to stand alone and help foster environmental practices that can be adapted and utilized beyond the local conditions in which they were developed. There is nothing intrinsic in TEK that separates it from Western environmental science as both are primarily concerned with observing, understanding, and predicting ecosystem relationships.
Successful integration will require a thorough and thoughtful synthesis where concepts are considered within their cultural context and not as bits of knowledge or information to be inserted into the prevailing scientific framework. Once divorced from the indigenous system of management, specific ecological knowledge can often be distorted or sanitized to fit into the established models of Western science. The fact that TEK includes the sacred and other intangibles that are rarely quantified also presents a problem for effective integration beyond the local level.
Taking into account the practical considerations of the existing political and economic system, the integration of TEK must be formalized (empowered) and the traditional bearers of wisdom must be included in local management in order for it to survive and be effective. Some of the more recent conflicts between TEK and Western science can be found in political control over resources and power struggles in the decision-making process.
It is certain that TEK and Western science have commonalities that can be cultivated in order to bring forth a new integrated approach to environmental management and restoration (as a discipline, we now have ethnoecology). First and foremost, the most important similarity is the interdisciplinary concept that all things, organic and inorganic, are interrelated and that these direct and indirect causal relationships unify and give stability to the world in which we live (deep ecology and the Gaia hypothesis).
At the practical level, it is the knowledge of plants, animals and ecological cycles that bring these two disciplines into close contact which includes skills and techniques that rely on empirical observations, pattern recognition and repetitive behavior as well as inference and forecasting. In other words, the means of knowledge acquisition and process of knowledge transmission may be important similarities that begin the formal integration of TEK and Western science.