By Alan Kesselheim for The Daily Climate

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Not long ago I had a conversation with a man in my community who has worked for decades with Native American people in North America. His name is Bob Staffanson. He founded the American Indian Institute, which has been working for more than 40 years to keep the spiritual traditions of Indian people alive. How he goes about that is another story. But here's what he said that got me thinking:

"What frustrates Indian spiritual leaders to no end is that they aren't taken seriously," he said. "They are put into this mystical category, lumped in with woo-woo, New Age malarkey that serves to discount them, and pushes them to the fringe where their message can be ignored."

Nothing could be further from the truth, he continued. They are very clear about their understanding of current reality, and it is completely practical.

"Their message is this. You cannot treat the Earth with disrespect and not expect consequences," Staffanson said. "You cannot poison the soil, pollute the air, dirty the water, kill other forms of life, and not have problems. Those consequences are already manifest. They are all around us."

Very true. They make up every day's news. Downtown New York City flooding, unprecedented floods in Colorado, fires laying waste to Australia. In fact, the crescendo of off-the-charts events is increasingly difficult to ignore.

At the heart of change

And yet, all the momentum behind the quest for solutions focuses on technological remedies. New energy sources, new drilling techniques, new science. What we forget, and what the elders are telling us, is that our attitude is at the heart of change, not the latest breakthrough science.

The wisdom of traditional elders grows out of ancestral knowledge passed down through millenia, rooted in place, and drawing on a reality in which awareness of the Earth, the weather, the natural laws that govern water and air and earth and fire is manifest in their everyday existence.

It is an awareness we only rarely glimpse in modern times – perhaps when we climb a high mountain with a threatening storm cell approaching, or hike for days into wilderness. In these fleeting moments, natural conditions impact our comfort and safety, even our survival, in the most visceral way. Then, and only then, do we pay attention. Only then do we experience a level of humility in the face of nature.

Visceral connection

Not long ago, certainly within a few generations, that visceral connection to the Earth was the norm for most humans. We lived in daily proximity to the environment, and it engendered an undercurrent of humility. That level of respect and gratitute is what's missing in our scientific world. These days, when the tornado or the superstorm hits, the sham of security we take for granted is revealed, the facade of separation from natural law is stripped away, along with the illusion of our immunity. Ask anyone who has cowered before a tornado or hurricane or flood lately how humble they felt.

As long as we see the Earth as a cache of resources for our benefit, we will continue to face the problems of overharvesting and collapsing ecosystems. As long as we disregard the worth of other species, we will ignore the lessons they might teach us and remain callous to their plight. As long as we treat the gift of life and health as our ordained right, and not our blessing, we will suffer the fate of the arrogant.

Eric Noyes, executive director of the American Indian Institute, summed it up.

"If we based our actions on natural laws, and truly treated the Earth as our mother, we couldn't live as we do. If we actually thought of the other species we share the planet with as brothers and sisters, we couldn't treat them as we do."

'You can't swim in your river?'

An elder I spoke to shared an experience that captures the disconnect. He is from Greenland. He conducts ceremonies around the world. People know him as "Uncle," a man of unquestioned poise and power. His given name is Angaangaq. He told me about being in New York City, performing a ceremony.

"It was very hot," he said. "It was the end of a long day. The Hudson River was nearby, and I suggested going for a swim. I started running toward the river to dive in. People got all upset and called for me to stop. 'You can't swim there,' they said. 'It's polluted.'

"I turned to them, perplexed. I just read a story in the morning paper today," he said he told them. "It boasted that New York City has the highest percentage of college graduates of any major city on Earth. You are the most educated population in the world, and you're telling me that you can't swim in your river? I don't understand."

Alan Kesselheim is a writer based in Bozeman, Mont., and a frequent contributor to the Daily Climate.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.

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