Working with Local Knowledge: Environment and Anthropology

This is my American Anthropological Association presentation for 2007.

Working with Local Knowledge:  Bringing Environmentalism and Anthropology Together

Paper for panel on Environmentalism and Social Justice, organized by Leslie Sponsel, American Anthropological Association, annual meeting, Washington, DC., 2007.

E. N. Anderson

Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology,

University of California, Riverside

Affiliate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology,

University of Washington


Local knowledge is valuable or necessary for managing many of the planet’s lands, and there is no time to reinvent it.  This paper draws on examples, including some from Native American cultural groups of west Canada, California, and southeast Mexico.


Anthropologists have served environmentalism in several ways.  They have helped bring into consideration the plight of local people dispossessed from land or resources in the name of “conservation.”  They have shown that those local people were often managing the land sustainably and well—maintaining biota and biodiversity, sometimes at least as well as “preservation” does.

This paper attempts to review what I see as the current knotty problems—difficult passages or cutting edges, depending on your point of view—at the intersection of environmentalism and social justice.  These problems are aspects of one problem:  how to accommodate local peoples and their concerns in a time of rapid globalization, specifically of environmental policies and politics.


The first, and most serious, problem is simply documenting knowledge while there is time.

Perhaps the most interesting and difficult work in anthropology has been recording traditional landscape and land use knowledge and wisdom, and trying to interpret or translate that knowledge for the worldwide intellectual arena.  At this time, when traditional worldviews are threatened by “globalized” mass culture, the need for anthropologists, environmentalists, and local peoples to work together has become critical. This has been very widely addressed in the recent literature (e.g. Anderson 1996; Berkes 1999; Berkes, Colding and Folke 2000; Brechin et al. 2003; Davis 2000; Deur and Turner 2005; Menzies 2006; Nadasdy 2004; Turner 2005).

Contrary to a wishful myth circulating in recent years, traditional ways of life are dying out in very many areas throughout the world.  Most of the world’s languages are now declining or downright endangered.  Almost all the indigenous languages in the United States and Canada are declining; most are spoken only by older people or are extinct.  With the languages goes most of the knowledge of plants and animals, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by field workers (Deur and Turner 2005; Turner 2005).  Even  without language death, environmental knowledge can disappear; many rural ways of life among ordinary Anglo-Americans and Europeans are dying out.

This is not only an intellectual or academic concern.  The world environment is now declining so fast that we simply do not have time to invent solutions.  Our only hope for survival is to draw on every good idea the human species has found and preserved.  We must pool our joint knowledge of how to use resources and landscapes sustainably and efficiently.  This is especially true for institutional and motivational knowledge.  We might, just possibly, be able to invent or reinvent technical fixes, but the modern world has not been notably successful at producing institutions that preserve the environment, and above all at motivating people to do so.  By contrast, that is the area where traditional cultures and societies succeed.  (This follows by definition:  if they did not motivate people to preserve their environment and way of life, they would not become “traditional.”  Many a past society is extinct today because it failed in this regard.)


This raises the second problem:  assessing the effectiveness of this knowledge in managing over the long term—”sustainable” or at least lasting long enough to feed new generations.  We are now aware that the vast majority of traditional and small-scale societies consciously and deliberately manage (or once managed) resources reasonably well, sometimes very well indeed.  Few practice preservation in the modern sense; the goal is to manage the environment for sustainable but intensive use, not to preserve it from humans (K. Anderson 2005 provides the fullest discussion of this; see also Kay and Simmons 2002 for several other viewpoints).  The major advantages over contemporary “developed world” management are that the entire environment is used, rather than only a few crops, and that the use is sustainable over relatively long spans of time, rather than for a very brief period only.  The Maya may—or may not—have done themselves in by ecological overdraft (Diamond 2005; Webster 2002), but they had a good run, lasting over 1000 years as a great civilization.

Some (notably Hames 2007; Smith and Wishnie 2000) have argued that traditional management is not “conservation” in the modern sense, because traditional management is for short-term utilitarian reasons rather than for long-term preservation.  This objection does violence to normal understandings of the word “conservation” in English.  We speak of soil conservation, water conservation, range conservation, and biodiversity conservation.  None of this involves lock-down protection from all human contact.  Quite the reverse:  it usually involves active, ongoing management.  Gifford Pinchot is more broadly ancestral to modern conservation than John Muir.  Alternatively, others maintain that traditional management is for the present only, while conservation has to consider the future.  This is usually not the case.  Burning, pruning, building irrigation works, saving and planting seeds, preserving sacred groves, and other practices are clearly future-oriented and involve foregoing resources now.  The origin of animal domestication is evidently an early case of foregoing present gratification to provide more in the future, as pointed out by Michael Alvard and Lawrence Kuznar (2001).  One had to keep young animals alive, and eventually develop whole industries of breeding and maintaining and herding them, in the hopes of future meat.

Also, as pointed out to me by Leslie Sponsel at the presentation of this paper, some cultures really do preserve.  Sacred forests are inviolate in many parts of the world (Sponsel, pers. comm, 2007).  Core areas were safeguarded by the Akha of Yunnan, for instance (Ayoe Wang, ongoing research, reported to me in working papers, 2005-2007).

A small counter-literature maintained that all talk of traditional sound management was mere romanticization of the “noble savage.”  (The most extreme was Preece 1999; Redman 1999 also assumed that early population declines were due soley to human folly.)  Kent Redford (1990) coined the rather catty phrase “the ecologically noble savage” for this view.  Redford has since changed his position (Redford and Mansour 1996).  The negativist view seems to have withered in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  There was indeed a naïve and uncritical literature that romanticized traditional “harmony with nature,” and the “primitive” living off the land without affecting it.  This literature too has withered away.  It was primarily a “New Age” phenomenon; the last time I saw such views in serious scholarly literature was decades ago (to be exact, in Hughes 1983; but for discussion of some latter-day sources that do approach it all too closely, see Hames 2007).  The hopeful eufunctionalist views of early cultural ecologists (most famously Roy Rappaport, who discusses the problem in the second edition of Pigs for the Ancestors, 1984) have also been sobered by reality.  A middle-ground position is now generally found.

Considerably more nuanced, but still rather opposed to the idea that traditional peoples were good managers, are positions assuming optimal foraging (OF) among human hunters.  At its most simplistic, OF models would have humans acting to maximize immediate individual returns, with no thought to society or to the future.  Humans certainly do this on many occasions—especially when they are very few and are hunting big game, which provides a huge return per kill (Kay and Simmons 2002; Smith and Winterhalder 1992).  This may well have decimated many game populations over time.  Such decimation, however, is ferociously difficult to prove, since climate change, disease, and other factors, as well as temporary management failures, all confound the issue (see e.g. Grayson 1991, 2001; Kay and Simmons 2002).  Other OF models allow for management at all levels.

A recent useful review by Raymond Hames (2007) puts the problem in perspective, contrasting the intellectual question of traditional conservation with the social justice issue of how to deal with land issues (see below).  Hames provides a valuable survey of the literature and correction of extreme views.  However, he uncritically accepts several works critical of traditional management, but cites rather few favorable to it (notably excluding above- or below-cited works of K. Anderson, Berkes, Igoe, and even Kay and Simmons, who are closer to his position).  In particular, he draws heavily on Krech’s The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999) but uncritically accepts, and then highlights, the most extreme chapters, ignoring all the other chapters in Krech’s very valuable book—though several of those ignored chapters question strongly the Native American role in Pleistocene extinctions, describe traditional burning as a management tool, and otherwise say the opposite of what Hames says (see Anderson 2000).   Selective citation aside, the main difference between Hames’ position and mine is that I am concerned with sustainable management over time, while Hames defines conservation almost strictly as preservation.  He also fails to differentiate complete lack of conservation or management (which certainly does occur in many societies) from explicit conservation or management that is, for various reasons, not totally effective (which also occurs commonly, as in the cases studied by myself and Felix Medina Tzuc; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005).

Large game can easily be hunted out, even by low-density hunter populations.  Normally, however, humans live at higher densities and forage for smaller-return, more easily manageable resources, such as small game, fruit, and seeds.  Under such cases, it pays to think of one’s society-mates and of the future.  Management of such resources is virtually universal.

Levels of indigenous management, however, vary enormously among traditional and local communities.  At one extreme are groups like the Piro and Matsiguenga of Peru and the Hadza of Tanzania, who practice minimal management and little or no conservation; they simply do not think about sustainable use (Alvard 1995; Terborgh 1999; it should be noted that even the Piro and Matsiguenga farm, and thus conserve seed stocks, at least).  This is because they have not had to; they live at very low population densities in a very rich environment.

At the other extreme are the groups I have studied:  the south Chinese, the Maya of Quintana Roo, and the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast.  Of these, the Maya have the most explicit ideology of sustainable use (Anderson 2005; Anderson and Tzuc 2005), and, not surprisingly, the most comprehensive set of sustainable practices.  The Northwest Coast peoples, in a fluctuating and harsh environment (miscalled “rich” in earlier literature), managed fish and plant resources superbly, but maintained a low population density (Anderson 1996; Deur and Turner 2005; Turner 2005).

The Chinese, driven by population pressure and a long history of autocratic governments, did what they could, though they were far from being able to maintain their environments in ideal shape (Anderson 1988, 1996; Marks 1996).  The Chinese carefully protected large fengshui groves next to villages and temples, for religious reasons but also for use; the groves were managed to provide ready supplies of firewood and building material.  (Contra a suggestion about sacred groves made by Andrew P. Vayda on Eanth-L listserv, 2007, the Chinese groves were in immediate proximity to major settlements, not in remote places.)

Humans are naturally more socially aware than even their closest relatives, and have an innate sense of fairness, however much it may be manipulated by culture (Henrich et al. 2004; cf. Taylor 2006 on general considerations of rationality vs traditional land sense).  Humans simply do not act as individual maximizers (“optimal foragers”) in the sense that mountain lions or even chimpanzees do.  There are society-mates to consider.

Thus, we expect to find, and we do find, that humans almost everywhere manage resources for sustainability over the long term.  This has been constructed morally and socially everywhere.  It is typically part of religion, thus being enforced by religious teachings, including—often—both promises of heaven and threats of hellfire or its equivalent.


A quite different, and important, recent literature on political ecology critiques modern preservationist practices.  Particularly valuable are several recent books that address the tendency of First World environmentalists to ignore local people.  Most of the anthropological literature concerns indigenous and Third World people.  (Some particularly noteworthy examples of a generally high-quality literature are Agrawal 2005; Lowe 2006; Nadasdy 2004; Tsing 2005; West, Igoe and Brockington 2006; West 2006; some of these studies, and several related ones, emanate from Yale, where Michael Dove and James Scott were instrumental in launcing and guiding the agenda; see Scott 1998).   However, First World rural folk have been targeted too.  Even relatively rich and powerful First World groups, such as ranchers, are frequently ignored, peripheralized and even dispossessed in the name of the environment (Hedrick 2007; Sayre 2002).

Some of the stories are harrowing.  James Igoe’s work with the Maasai is particularly sad (West, Igoe and Brockington 2006; Igoe, in prep. and pers. comm.; I can verify Igoe’s findings from personal observation, on which I draw for what follows).  The Maasai have been widely displaced from their grazing grounds in Kenya and Tanzania, for “conservation” and “game protection.”  Ironically, the result has been widespread crashes in wild animal populations.  The Maasai do not hunt; they have a taboo against eating anything they do not raise.  They do, however, burn the land and then graze it.  Grazing pressure is light because the herds are kept moving, in search of the best grazing conditions.  This burning and grazing open the land, eliminating brush and insect pests and keeping the grass in prime condition.  Grass is adapted to grazing, and needs it to stay healthy.  Conservation by lockout of Maasai has led to undergrazing and to brush invasion.  It also leads to fencing and restriction of access, which eliminates animals that need to migrate.  So not only the Maasai, but also the animals and the conservationists, all lose—a perfect lose-lose situation.  The Maasai have been allowed to return to some areas, often rather sub rosa.

This is an easy case.  Clearly, the Maasai should not only be allowed to return to their lands, but their incredible expertise in range management should be thoroughly studied and used, in cooperation with them.  They should manage their lands.  This is unlikely to happen in current political climates, but it is eminently possible in future.

Something similar has happened in Australia, where displacement of Australian Aboriginals from national parks led to rapid decline of wildlife and vegetation.  In many cases, the Aboriginals have been allowed to return, and varying degrees of comanagement have evolved; there is need to continue and improve this relationship.  At Uluru (“Ayers Rock”), for instance, local groups are now burning small patches and otherwise restoring traditional management (Anderson, in prep., based on brief field research in 2006; Kohen 1995; Evelyn Pinkerton, in prep. and personal communication; Deborah Rose, 2000 and personal communication).

The indigenous people I know best, the Maya of Quintana Roo, have had a somewhat more happy outcome.  They are intensive, expert managers of the land (Anderson 2003, 2005; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005).  They have preserved the forest for centuries, in spite of clear overshoot in the period from 700 to 900 that may have contributed to the famous “Maya collapse” (Demarest 2004; Diamond 2005; Gill 2000; Webster 2002).  The Maya still have control of much of their lands in Quintana Roo, and practice fairly traditional agriculture.  They are integrating into modern sustainable-yield forestry projects with varying degrees of success (Anderson 2005; Faust et al. 2004; Primack et al. 1998), though there have been some serious cases of exclusion for “preservation,” with predictably bad results.  Other less than happy attempts at accommodating Maya management and modern preservation have been made in neighboring Campeche (Haenn 2005).  Maya in Yucatan and in Guatemala are not so fortunate, but at least have some land still.  Again, the success of many projects in Quintana Roo proves that the best way to manage Maya lands is through comanagement, leaving local communities in control and leaving their traditional strategies intact, but assisting them with some aspects where modern biology is useful.

Other cases are more vexed.  Extremely heavy-handed international efforts to conserve primates in Madagascar displaced Tanala farmers in Ranomafana, with disastrous consequences for their health and welfare (Harper 2000; her story was fully confirmed by a research team, including the present author, that visited the area in 2005).  The situation is more complex, however, since the Tanala have also been displaced, and sometimes exploited in their old and new quarters, by their stronger neighbors the Betsileo (Anderson ms 2; see also the superb thesis of Pollini, 2007, on a comparable nearby case).  The Tanala, like the Maya, are competent and knowledgeable swiddeners, but are less careful with fire and more populous on the ground, so they really degrade the forest in the Ranomafana area.  They also face massive invasion by introduced weedy plants that harm the environment both for them and for the critically endangered lemurs.  Finding a best-case solution in this situation is complex.  No one has found it so far.

Worst of all is the situation in which small-scale local communities really are wrecking a world-class resource.  The Matsiguenga, noted above, have a large and growing population within Peruvian national parks and reserves, hence John Terborgh’s concern (Terborgh 1999; I have heard anecdotally that the situation has improved).  The worst case I have heard of was reported by Cynthia Fowler (2007).  She has been studying the Cat Tien Biosphere Reserve in Vietnam.  It is being poached to death by local minority groups, desperately poor and desperate for cash.  They can sell essentially anything in the reserve to the Chinese (China is nearby), who use any and all animals and many or most of the plants for medicine or food.  Thus the reserve is being rapidly destroyed.  Local programs with the best of intentions and the best ideas are in place, but, unsurprisingly, are hopelessly inadequate for the situation.  The survival of the Cat Tien Reserve and the species it protects is in serious question.

Bolivia has stopped even trying to enforce conservation and management laws in its national parks and reserves (Teressa Trusty, pers. comm. based on ongoing research).  Given Bolivia’s poverty and growing population, a very few more years will reduce Bolivia to irreversible devastation.


Within these parameters, the next problem is how to serve justice.  In some cases, such as the Maasai, the answer is obvious.  Their case is comparable to that of the minorities in the American South who are subjected to racism expressed through toxic waste dumping (Anderson 2006; Bullard 1994, 2000, 2005).  The rights and wrongs are so clear, and the solutions so obvious, that there is no question about the justice, whatever the problems with real-world politics may be.  Fortunately, in very many cases worldwide, turning local management over to local people or seriously involving them in comanagement would be the best thing for the resource base.

Often, however, not enough local knowledge exists.  Alternatively, local politics is sometimes so problematic that nothing can currently be done, as in Bolivia today.

But the really hard cases are those such as Ranomafana and Cat Tien.  Here, we know all too well what is happening, and either the world or the local people or both will have to suffer.  Continuing of the present course would be the worst option, since it will leave the local people ruined in a very short time, with the world-valued resources gone forever.  We have had this story played out already around the world, e.g. in Washington state, where the logging firms marshalled the loggers and successfully fought off sustainable management of the forests for many years.  Now the loggers are out of work anyway, because there is virtually no marketable old-growth forest left.  The loggers bought themselves a few years of work, but now everyone has lost, probably forever.  Letting people destroy themselves is all very libertarian, but it does not serve anyone’s interests.  Perhaps individuals, or even traditional groups, should be allowed to destroy themselves, but they simply do not have the moral right to take a lot of innocent others down with them.

So the only moral course in these cases is persuading or forcing the local people to stop their behavior.  Either way, compensation or finding alternative livelihood sources seems a matter of common decency, though it is in fact rarely done.  This is comparable to the case of large dams, which is even worse (Scudder 2005).  Big dams flood vast tracts of land, but the people displaced are barely or never compensated.

How much can one morally restrict the behavior of the local people?  The ethical question here is a classic one:  a local, vital, specific interest versus a more diffuse but much wider and potentially much greater interest.

Possibly the best way to implement a better future is to find and cultivate local dedication.  If the people in question can produce their own saviors, all that the wider world community needs to do is support them.  A recently reported example is Dr. Pilai Poonswad of Thailand, who is saving the hornbills of south Thailand (Stone 2007; even if his enthusiastic account is exaggerated, she is clearly doing some good work).  She has established good rapport with villages in the troubled south, where Thailand’s 19th-century imperial takeover of three small Malay states has led to an endless, ugly rebellion that has taken religious overtones.  The Malays are Muslim, the Thais are Buddhist.  World Islamic radicalism has had some effect recently; there is also a comparable, though small, extremist Buddhist movement in Thailand (B. Anderson, personal communication).  The Thai government continues its essentially imperialist policies in the area (Les Sponsel, personal communication).  Yet, Pilai has developed village-level protection for hornbills, and this now transcends the war.  This is, unfortunately, a rare situation, because it requires an almost superhuman combination of ability and dedication.

Methods of common property management have been known and discussed for some time (Ostrom 1990; Ostrom et al. 2007), with comanagement by far the most hopeful and valuable way to accommodate traditional management with modern systems (Pinkerton and Weinstein 1995).  However, comanagement is made difficult by the enormous gaps in worldview between traditional peoples and modern bureaucrats and the dubious commitment of the latter to the project (Nadasdy 2004).  This gap can be bridged more easily than Nadasdy thinks, however; I have seen it done in Quintana Roo without much trouble.  Nadasdy, like so many anthropologists, is a cultural idealist, who tends to essentialize Culture at the expense of common humanity, and to see hopeless incommensurability where there is none.  Actual differences are indeed formidable, but common humanity exists, and hard work over time allows translation.  After all, ethnographers do it routinely.  Nadasdy himself worked with the Native peoples of Canada for only a few months, yet he is confident that he knows their views.  Long experience suggests to the present author that the problem is lack of will, not lack of commensurability.

In any case, many recent studies have documented the failures of “TEK” use, participation, comanagement, and other programs promoted actively by anthropologists from the 1970s or 1980s onward.  The problem is not that the ideas are bad, but that bureaucracies can coopt or subvert almost anything (Scott 1998; for relevant studies, see Agrawal 2005—which has a rather happy ending; Lowe 2006; West 2006).


We can get a great deal of guidance from the vicissitudes of the movement associated with the next problem: trying to secure intellectual property rights for indigenous communities (Anderson ms 1; Shiva 1997; Vogel 1994, 2000).  Like the case of minorities afflicted with pollution in the United States, it represents a situation in which small, often rural minorities are subjected to injustice because of environmental choices.   In this case the problem is how to secure indigenous intellectual property rights without denying the world the knowledge that these groups have.

In one interesting case, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington (2007) have drafted a cultural protection act that is intended to give the tribes full powers to copyright their intellectual property under their traditional copyright laws.  Unlike most peoples of the world, the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast had a full system of copyright law long before European contact.   Songs, traditions, tales, artistic motifs, and other cultural creations were owned by individuals or corporate descent groups, ranging from families up to very large but usually kin-defined groupings.  The heirs of these corporate entities are the modern tribes, recognized by the United States as “dependent nations” and as corporate entities.  Thus they can exert their right to set such policies.  The intent is to allow them to get the full benefits of conserving their subsistence resources and management systems, getting full returns for use of their art motifs and tales, and so on.  This will stop such things as the blatant appropriation of Native art motifs for advertising and other commercial purposes, which is not only highly offensive but makes a lot of money for the offenders—money that could go to the actual indigenous owners of the motifs.

Similarly, Will McClatchy (pers. comm.) and his group at the University of Hawaii have developed model protocols for working out agreements with local governments—national or community—to divide up the rights and benefits of bioprospecting.

Ideally, John Locke will prove right once again, and securing property rights will greatly increase economic activity and especially the wise use and management of the resources.  Possibly in a perfect world everything would be free to all, but we live in a world whose leading imperfection is the ability of the rich to rip off the poor, often by maintaining that the poor do not have property rights.  We have to deal with that world.

Unfortunately, these models cannot be easily copied elsewhere.  The Yucatec Maya of Mexico are in a far more common situation.  They have no corporate tribal identity.  Their descent groups are diffuse and not legally recognized.  They blend imperceptibly into the “mestizo” population (very often, individuals call themselves “Maya” in one context and “mestizo” in another).  Their traditions are mostly shared by neighboring indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.  There is no way they can copyright anything under present laws.  Individual healers reserve rights to their special knowledge, and ejidos—corporate landholding communities—exercise rights as they can, but anything widely shared by the Yucatec has long escaped into public domain.  It is hard to imagine how this situation can be remedied.


The moral issues in some of these cases are deeper and more difficult than previous accounts have usually suggested (Vogel is an exception).   Balancing interests in Madagascar, Matsiguenga-land, and Yucatan will not be easy.

In these cases, we have a problem with an unspecified interest, poorly asserted and defined property rights, and ill-defined groups.  Clearly, definition of group boundaries and land boundaries would go far to resolve the conflicts, but then the question of who gets to define the group becomes paramount.

The deeper question is how to balance a specific, focused interest against a diffuse but much greater one.  It is complicated by the fact that the victim communities are impoverished.  Often, they cannot survive without their resources.

This has produced two moral extremes.  First is the attitude exemplified by the Ranomafana reserve, where the local Tanala were not taken into account at all in the original design and implementation.  This is sadly common worldwide.  It is an extreme example of one kind of utilitarianism:  the idea that overall benefit should be maximized, even at the expense of many people.  This is not classic utilitarianism, which qualified benefit maximization with Jeremy Bentham’s phrase “each to count as one, no one as more than one” (Sidgwick 1981/1907).  However, it is the form of utilitarianism espoused by large international agencies today.

The second is the attitude represented by some NGO’s and anthropologists:  that the interests of small local groups must always be given total priority, and that the interests of the world community must not be considered at all (Anderson ms).  Recent authors like Jake Kosek (2006) appear to hold this view.  (Kosek appears to believe, further, that there are no environmental problems, and that environmentalism is merely a cover for racism.)  It is close to that of logging and mining firms who wish their economic interests to be the only ones considered in resource conflicts, except for the key distinction that the firms are rich and the local communities are poor.  Social justice demands that we give consideration to helping the poor and reducing the inequalities that doom them to poverty (Rawls 1971; Sen 1992; Scanlon 1998).  However, the idea that we owe no consideration to the public good, and all consideration to individuals directly impacted by a project, is a different question.  In terms of ethical philosophy, it is a form of Kantianism.  It involves taking to extremes the Kantian idea that individual humans must always be treated as ends, never as means.  Again, Kant himself was not so extreme (see Kant 2002).

In its extreme form, this view is based on a form of German idealism that can become right-wing.  Classic German idealism was associated with reactionary views and eventually with Nazism.  German idealism lies behind certain recent political ecologies that hold, first, that culture is all-powerful and that cultures are essentialist and incommensurable; second, that some groups should be privileged over others; third, that primal or pristine status is important and creates that privilege; fourth, that ideas—including “discourses”—are all-powerful, and that material reality (environmental and economic) is a secondary consideration or not a consideration at all; fifth, that all progress and change should be sharply questioned or critiqued in the name of an extreme, perfectionist ideal.  One corollary of the last point is that imperfect agents of change are more evil than perfect agents of doing nothing and letting disaster happen.  Also, the extreme idealist approach, privileging ideas as it does, makes people seem maximally different.

Even far less extreme, much more ecologically grounded writers such as Paul Nadasdy (2004) have drawn a strong contrast between the experiential knowledge of indigenous peoples and the rational, book-ordered knowledge of the western world.  Nadasdy certainly did observe such a contrast in his field work, and describes it superbly.  However, he essentializes and exaggerates the degree of difference.  The worlds are not closed, and indeed many of us integrate them.  Raised in the semirural Midwest and South more than half a century ago, I learned fishing, camping and woods skills from my elders, in the field, through examples and stories, just as Nadasdy’s First Nations friends did.  The knowledge was embodied and locally situated.  I have had no trouble relating it to book learning, nor did the many biologists I know who had similar background.  On the other hand, the contrast Nadasdy describes between local experiential knowledge and rationalized bureaucratic knowledge can produce friction and incomprehension even in a purely Anglo world, as Kimberly Hedrick has brilliantly shown in her recent work on cattle ranching (Hedrick 2007).  It seems that Nadasdy is right in seeing the divide as caused by bureaucratic systems of management of the world (cf. Scott 1998), but wrong in so far as he sees it as intrinsic to the experiential-analytic divide, though indeed the latter does create problems of communication.

The materialist approach makes people seem much more similar.  All people need food, shelter, health, and protection, and have to figure out how to get them.  Seeing people as fundamentally united by having to deal with the same basic needs is a liberating and hopeful view.  Seeing them as hopelessly divided by inflexible, essentialized ideas is not conducive to hope or action.

However, an extreme Darwinian materialism that ignores culture is extreme in the other direction.  Humans are not defined by instincts or inborn behavior; everything they do is influenced by cultural learning.  Anthropologists have usually realized that culture matters, but that people are siblings beneath the epidermis, and that this is the only way to make sense of what we observe.

Following Sen (1992) and Scanlon (1998), we have to ask what we as humans owe local disadvantaged persons and what we owe all human persons.  We may also worry about what we owe nonhuman (or “other-than-human”) persons.  This is a new way of thinking for many people of European descent, but traditional and nearly universal among Native Americans.  We owe nonhumans some consideration—how much is controversial.

Most modern conservation schemes compensate local people in some way.  Usually, now, this is by giving them some comanagement rights in the reserve and/or alternative source of livelihood.  Rarely have these plans worked.  Comanagement rights can be easily subverted or taken away outright.  Alternative sources of livelihood rarely live up to expectations.  Promised benefits of reserves often fail to appear, as in the case of Redwoods National Park, California, which has proved a failure at attracting tourist dollars to the area, after local residents had been pacified for loss of local land and logging opportunities by promises that the park would be a major money-maker (Anderson, personal observation).

In any case, any form of compensation may be inadequate.  People who have a genuinely religious veneration for their land will not find any compensation adequate or appropriate—an argument used by Michael Taylor to show that people are not “rational” in the narrow economistic sense (Taylor 2006).  One might think of how much money it would take to compensate for wilful destruction of the Parthenon, or central Jerusalem, or the Vatican.

8          I have no solutions, but a proposal for ordering alternatives.

First, we should be fully documenting local ecological knowledge, and, above all, management systems.  This sort of ethnographic documentation is, after all, what anthropologists do best.  It would provide knowledge of how much the local people are managing their area, and could potentially manage it if full advantage was taken of their more sustainable or conservationist strategies.

Second, those latter types of strategies should obviously be encouraged, by direct payment and other means.  It would probably solve most of the problems worldwide.  It would, among other things, get local communities and environmentalists on the same page whenever possible, instead of setting them against each other.  It would also fit with the imperative moral need to allow self-determination to local communities.  We cannot go back to the days when every community on earth was a totally independent little world, usually at war with any neighbors, but we have certainly gone too far in the other direction.  The dominance of giant corporations and their captive states is not a happy outcome for anyone, least of all for local communities dependent on their relations with their landscapes.

Third, failing that, reasonable compensation and comanagement rights come in, but they have to be ongoing and flexible, not frozen in a way that sets them up for failure.

Fourth, the world community has to be ready to pay full price for environmental benefits.  We have been saving world-class benefits on the backs of local impoverished communities.  This cannot continue.

However, fifth, we have to be much clearer on relative rights and priorities.  The world community in general owes everything to small local communities of the past—from the developers of language, agriculture, and cities to the inventors of bread and the wheel.  More recently, the folk-medical origins of most of our prescription medications are well enough known.  However, also, indigenous communities are now part of the global village, and owe proportionately for what they use of its benefits: electricity, food aid, medical care, music, the Internet….  Today, few indigenous communities lack these amenities.  The Tulalip Tribes, for instance, must pay for most of what they get, but they get many free or subsidized benefits, from taxpayer-funded roads and airways to the Internet, the public schools, and the results of public-funded medical research.

This begins to look like the start of a wider world morality.  Traditional ideas of world as garden, world as sacred space, and world as community of beings need to be dragged from the realm of New Age mystification.

I am struck by the extreme backwardness of moral philosophers like John Rawls and Tom Scanlon in this regard.  They are still talking about a world where environmental problems do not exist.  They are also still talking of a world of rational individual humans, inferentially adult cosmopolitan males.  (See Rawls 2005 for some discussion of this issue.)  Social emergents, nonhuman persons, and sacred spaces are completely alien to their ideologies.  They barely nod toward the reality of irrational or choice-restricted humans.  The environment is explicitly excluded from their consideration.  They do not, and their schemes cannot, deal with the issues and conflicts discussed here.

Thus, a sixth step requires the construction of a new morality that recognizes society and emotion.  (Communitarian moralities do, but have other problems, and will not be considered here.)

For that reason, among others, we have to go on to a seventh step—that magical number seven.  We have to take traditional indigenous morals and social theories seriously.  This may involve not only taking their social knowledge into account, but also a “willing suspension of disbelief” (as Coleridge said of reading novels) about their religious beliefs (Nadasdy 2007).  So far, to my knowledge, there is only one philosophically adequate account of a traditional morality system, and it is more than 50 years old:  Hopi Ethics, written by the utilitarian philosopher Richard Brandt (1954).  Many partial accounts of indigenous ethics, especially land ethics, have appeared since, but Brandt’s is still the only full-length study by a philosopher who actually did participant observation.  It disclosed exactly what we need:  a sophisticated ethical system acutely conscious of society, emotion, and environment, including what we may call the personhood of all beings.  Many excellent books by anthropologists and ethicists have covered some of the same ground since (e.g. Berkes 1999; Milton 2002; Turner 2005).  We need more details.  Above all, we need these books and Brandt’s and many more, to save us from the very partial and incomplete accounts of local knowledge and ethics supplied by the political ecology literature.

Political ecologists have been acutely aware of the plight of local communities, but have been generally slow to use local ethical and moral philosophy to address the issue (one shining exception is Agrawal 2005).  More usually, they ground themselves in a folk-Kantian ethic like that described above, or in a Foucaultian skepticism that rejects or relativizes all moral discussion.

I will, therefore, go further, and in the terms of my Calvinist background, speak of “the priesthood of all believers”—but for “believers” substitute “beings.”


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