Originally published at Project-Syndicate | Sep 15th, 2023
As climate change worsens, we must move beyond technological fixes that accelerate production and promote consumption. Indigenous practices and tools, like the traditional halibut fishing hook of the Pacific Northwest, demonstrate the importance of approaching design with a deep knowledge of and respect for the environment.
MANCHESTER – What if we could build wooden houses without felling a tree? What if we could fish in such a way that left egg-producing females in the sea? And what if we could fill our forests with a wide array of edible plants, making commercially farmed forests look comparatively barren? Though they may seem impossible, these practices have existed for centuries, suggesting that the future we need is to be found in our past.
Climate change has become a time bomb, and the need to develop new ways of living that are far gentler on the planet has never been greater. But we stubbornly adhere to the same old mantra of innovation, technology, and unrestrained growth – offering lip service to sustainability while encouraging nature-destroying activities that are rapidly making the planet unlivable.
Even so-called “green” technologies accelerate production and promote consumption. Consider electric vehicles, bicycles, and scooters: manufacturing these goods requires ever more energy and resources and inevitably results in more emissions and waste.
While living in Canada, I had the opportunity to learn from its indigenous peoples. In the town of Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, I met an indigenous fisherman at the municipal wharf, which was crowded with small fishing boats. He told me that he used to fish for halibut until industrialized fishing decimated the stocks. Now he fishes only for salmon; but those stocks are dwindling, too.
Before the Europeans arrived, indigenous peoples around the world had lived on their tribal lands for thousands of years; even after centuries of dispossession, many continue to be close to the Earth. They have learned, over generations, how to coexist with, rather than exploit, nature and developed highly sophisticated tools, mostly made of local materials. The design and utility of these tools reflect a deep knowledge of and respect for the natural world. By comparison, our modern innovations often seem frivolous and irresponsible.
Take, for example, the humble halibut fishing hook. Mass-produced hooks, which can be bought for pennies, are not made to last and can be easily replaced – like so many of today’s products. The traditional halibut hook of the Pacific Northwest, however, is something else entirely.
This artifact seamlessly integrates many of the objectives that we are struggling to achieve in design today: functionality, sustainability, and conservation. It also embodies the creativity, artistic expression, ecological knowledge, spiritual beliefs, and cultural heritage of its indigenous makers.
Perhaps most importantly, the hook is sized to catch only the male halibut, which is smaller than the female, thus preserving fish stocks for the future. This approach to fishing, like traditional indigenous methods of boat building, house construction, and forest management, ensures the continuation of community-based practices, while simultaneously conserving the natural environment.
The good news is that UNESCO, through its Intangible Cultural Heritage lists, supports the safeguarding of this type of local knowledge and know-how, which should play a foundational role in sustainable development. Indigenous practices can help us rebalance our values and recognize the importance of interdependence, the common good, localization, a more distributed economy, and biodiversity.
These are all key aspects of economist Kate Raworth’s groundbreaking book Doughnut Economics, in which she critiques the dominant economic system and proposes an economics suited to the twenty-first century. In the same vein, Wales, as a member of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, is attempting to transform its economy to ensure a good quality of life for all and to achieve harmony with the natural world. Transformation is progressing via a host of bottom-up (rather than centralized, top-down) initiatives, including local food production, swap shops, co-working spaces, “women’s sheds,” peppercorn rents for small businesses, local wealth-building projects, leadership training courses in nature-based well-being, and regular public-engagement panels.
As global warming accelerates, innovation must move beyond technological novelties whose main purpose is to generate profits for shareholders. Tools like the halibut hook of the Pacific Northwest and the localization initiatives in Wales demonstrate the need for a different set of values. Embracing resilient and restorative design that respects and supports the environment, social equity, and cultural traditions, while also building a vibrant economy that benefits everyone, is the only way to create a future that lasts.
Stuart Walker: Professor of Design for Sustainability at Manchester School of Art, is the author of Design for Resilience: Making the Future We Leave Behind(MIT Press, August 2023).