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  1. Environment
19 October 2022

Robin Wall Kimmerer: “How strange to be a species that engineers its own demise”

The influential essayist and moss scientist on what nature can teach us about survival.

By India Bourke

On the day I talked to the American ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, politics was dominated by talk of growth-at-any-cost. In the UK, financial markets were faltering after Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-Budget, which announced the exploitation of new oil and gas fields. In Brazil, the Amazon-destroying Jair Bolsonaro had exceeded expectations in a first-round presidential vote. But in the eyes of the acclaimed plant biologist, such an outlook counters any long-term evolutionary narrative. “Forces which sacrifice the natural world for so-called economic growth have forgotten that unlimited growth is not an ecological possibility,” she said. “How strange to be a species that engineers its own demise.”

Silver-haired and softly spoken, Kimmerer’s world-view draws on two ways of seeing, she told me over Zoom from her home in upstate New York. On one side is her scientific training in bryology – the study of moss – and expertise in the empirical observation and measurement of non-vascular plants; on the other there are the myths and ceremonies of her native Potawatomi culture, which views plants, animals and landscapes not as objects of consumption but as subjects to embrace and nurture.

Over the past decade, Kimmerer’s essays have become a touchstone for those who believe that a different relationship with our planet is possible. The author Robert Macfarlane has described her writing as “ever more urgent”, while the degrowth advocate Jason Hickel calls it “potentially world-changing”. The novelist Richard Powers cites her as an inspiration, and she has spoken at the UN.

In her first book, Gathering Moss (2003), Kimmerer explored the history of lichens as a framework for more attentive, intertwined ways of being. Ten years later, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) drew on cedar trees and creation myths to further the case for humanity’s reciprocal relationship with nature. The growth of Kimmerer’s audience has mirrored this paradigm: Braiding Sweetgrass topped the bestseller charts seven years after publication – not because of a marketing push, but through word of mouth.

Now a professor of environmental biology at the State University of New York, Kimmerer brings her “bilingual” approach to nature to her role as director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. “Many indigenous peoples share the understanding that we are each endowed with a particular gift,” she writes in Braiding Sweetgrass. “Birds to sing and stars to glitter, for instance. It is understood that these gifts have a dual nature, though: a gift is also a responsibility. If the bird’s gift is song, then it has a responsibility to greet the day with music.”

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It wasn’t until Kimmerer reached university that she realised the full extent of the responsibilities that come with having two languages. Many of her grandfather’s generation had been taken from their lands as children, in state-sponsored attempts to erase indigenous cultures. At college, she was shocked when a professor told her that Western science had “discovered” fire’s regenerative properties – knowing that her ancestors had long practised controlled burning and, at the time, could have been put in jail for doing so. That sense of disconnect made her “want to stand up and plant my voice”, she said. “Truthfully, I’ve been trying to reconcile and navigate those two worlds ever since.”

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Birds and birdsong echo through Kimmerer’s work, including her essay in Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book. Writing in December 2021, she describes “holding” her grief over climate devastation inside “a fallen oriole’s nest”, blown down in an unseasonable storm. Her heart breaks, she writes, at the “visions of climate change refugees” fleeing destruction, as well as for “the bird people and the forest beings”.

Only a few months later her heart broke again, with the death of both her 93-year-old parents. “When we suffer deep grief, it becomes the grief of all things,” she reflected. During one hospital visit to her father, she overheard a patient in a neighbouring cubicle say that dying would be a relief because he didn’t want to “see the world burn”.

Telling me this, Kimmerer briefly disappeared into her Zoom background to reach for a tissue. When she re-emerged, she added that while she had sympathy for her father’s hospital neighbour, she didn’t share his despair. “I want to be here when things go right. I want to see the great turning.”

However, at the level of governance Kimmerer fears there is “unforgivable inaction”. President Joe Biden’s recent Inflation Reduction Act may have allocated billions of dollars to clean energy, but Kimmerer said she was waiting for evidence that the spending would prioritise climate justice. Until extractive industries are curtailed and tribal water rights recognised, she warned, lofty promises risk remaining unfulfilled.

Equally, while Kimmerer saw great potential in the ability of new forests and restored wetlands to sequester carbon, she was wary that investment schemes may exclude the indigenous people upon whom their success depends. She glowed while speaking about a 2019 global assessment that showed indigenous knowledge is crucial to conservation; research found that lands managed by indigenous peoples have more biodiversity than those in state ownership. Yet she is also worried that new targets will seek to protect land by shutting out humans. “An awful lot of Western conservation is based on a separation of humans and nature. Whereas an indigenous world-view says that humans are not just consumers – we can be co-creators of biodiversity and abundance when we do it right.”

The risks posed by nature-based carbon-offset schemes could undermine climate action, she said. “Philosophically they’re unsatisfying, and ecologically they’re often abused.” Poorly regulated projects, for example on forestry in areas not at risk of deforestation, have little climate impact, and the principle of them can allow polluters to avoid cutting emissions at home. “In the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t have to put a value on ecosystem services,” Kimmerer explained. “But that’s not the world we live in. For now, we’re embedded in an extractive capitalist economy, so maybe carbon credits are a good stopgap.”

It could be some time before the concepts of ecology and economy, which share the Greek root “oikos”, meaning “home”, are harmonised. Yet Kimmerer saw some hope in the burgeoning Rights of Nature movement. From Ecuador and Bolivia, which have enshrined ecosystems’ rights in their constitutions, to the US tribes fighting pipelines and fracking, to an international campaign to make “ecocide” a prosecutable offence, the movement is creating “a new narrative of what it would be like if the living world could speak for itself”.

And that, in a nutshell – or an oriole’s nest, or a moss colony – is Kimmerer’s key message: instead of situating ourselves outside nature, we must think from within it. Or else the grief-of-all-things may soon become too great to bear.

[See also: “I haven’t met a politician ready to do what it takes”: Greta Thunberg and Björk in conversation]

This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency