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Indigeny Part I: Becoming Native To Your Place

This weekend my family went to see a local showing of the film _Ancient Futures_ based on Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book of the same title. For those of you who haven’t seen it, part of itit is available on youtube here: and here: and here:

In the film (and the superb book which I’d recommend to everyone), Norberg-Hodge explores the realities of an indigenous culture, which due to isolation created something imperfect, but sustainable, and the loss of sustainability caused by the importation of western modern culture.

As a homeschool exercise, we went home and looked at other cultures that are, if not fully sustainable, generally dramatically lower users of resources than we are. We talked about various indigenous cultures, about the stories Edna Lewis tells about life in Freetown, about our local Amish communities, about Green Belt work in Kenya, and about peasant cultures around the world. I gave my kids a child-aged summary of Wes Jackson’s superb book _Becoming Native To This Place_ and talked a little about this question of how we might live like that. The idea is not to test them for pure sustainability, or a perfect life we’d like to emulate, but to talk about what they have in common, and how places that have lost indigenous traditions are reclaiming them.

It is easy to imagine the goals of Adapting-in-Place are mostly goals of survival and getting through hard times. I don’t think this is true, actually. I think that the real goal is not so much to live through it (although that’s good too) it is to come out the other end of each experience with the ability to spare the next generation some of this suffering, and a way of life that offers something more than bare survival.

I call the project “Indigeny” - that is, becoming local to your place, creating a culture that can go on, not just ’a bit after the fossil fuels run out” but for generations, and one that results in a life worth having. Without this, we are merely minimizing losses - and all of us need more than that.

My next post is a meditation on what it would take to make my family more indigenous to our particular place. But here’s our list. \

1. People mostly stay in one place for generations, and there is a pass down economy. That is, in Ladakh, 90% of the population owns land - but no one buys it. At one point, one man observes that he (now elderly) has seen 7 generations live in his house. Because people stay, they can’t afford to degrade the region, nor can they afford to radically overpopulate it, unless there are available ecological niches being created.

2. People live in extended families, rather than nuclear ones. This was the first thing the kids noticed about the Ladakh film - and the thing that Isaiah said he liked best, that the kids all lived with their grandparents. There are many hands around to do the work.

3. The technologies the culture evolves are low input, and simple. If the culture survives into the modern era, they must evolve powerful prohibitions against using other technologies. These prohibitions must be part of the cultural identity of the group.

4. The identity of the group is both positive and negative. That is, they must teach their children compelling stories about who they are and why it is good to be part of that culture. They also must describe themselves against people who are not part of that culture - that doesn’t have to be a hostile definition, but “We don’t watch television because we don’t believe it is good for us” or “We don’t do this because it is part of our faith” must be part of it. A purely affirmative self-definition that doesn’t say “no” to things seems not to be sufficient.

5. Children spend much of their time in their community and integrated into it - which some places do a lot of schooling and some a little, no successful indigenous culture sends its kids away from them all day. Nor do they primarily educate their children to do jobs not needed in the truly local economy. Immersion is the name of the game.

6. The local economy serves most subsistence needs. That doesn’t mean trade or money don’t exist, but the more one moves primarily into the formal economy, the harder it is to keep up. A portion, probably the largest portion of each household’s human resources are dedicated to subsistence activities. This means that the people doing subsistence work are not alone in it, and the subsistence work is viewed as primary, rather than relegated to the inferior territory of household labor.

7. There is a high value placed on getting along, accomodating others, working together, sharing and resolving conflicts. Traditions are built around these customs of sharing, and evolve for the management of common resources (despite the constant iteration of the “Tragedy of the Commons” commons are often extremely well managed).

8. People eat a truly local diet as their primary foodstuffs. They eat what grows well and naturally in their regions, including foraging wild foods and growing in ways that do not deplete the soil. Their crops and animals are not generally optimized - ie, they aren’t necessarily the biggest or best, but the best adapted to their particular circumstances.

9. It isn’t just food that is localized - architecture responds to local conditions, community practices respond to local conditions, and to evolving local conditions. One of the reasons most indigenous cultures are so often thought to be “backwards” is that when confronted with modernity, their carefully evolved structures don’t work very well. What serves beautifully in a harsh environment where little imported food is available looks scant and strange in a culture where the markets are full. What keeps one warmer than average in a cold climate with only a small fire for heat seems drafty and weird when you can just turn the thermostat to 70. As we evolve back from modernity, and deal with climate change, our local will change - what we need is broad resilience.

10. The culture creates minimal waste, and focuses much of it resources on making full use of what comes easily - rather than forcing what doesn’t come easily into a mold that doesn’t work. Waste is shocking and disturbing to people.

11. The culture has a long tradition of music, art, literature/storytelling and spiritual/religious production, as well as other projects that bring beauty and joy. That is, it isn’t just focused on subsistence activities, but has pleasures that are available to all, that are participatory and fulfill human needs for good stories, song, beauty, uplift and a sense of connection to something greater.

12. Having contiguity with your past is considered desirable, not bad. Modernity reduces the past to a few heroic tales, and makes the past literally uninhabitable to the present. Thus, those who came before us know nothing of value, and the ways of the past are archaic and foolish. Sustainable cultures on the other hand, focus on the ways that the present future and past are linked to one another.

Now not every culture does these things perfectly - but we thought that some of these characteristics might provide a set of guidelines for the project of indigeny - and of creating a collection of indigenous cultures that can compete with the bright lights of modernity.


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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