This course emphasizes comparison of the attitudes and perspectives towards the natural world which have been developed by different cultural traditions. The primary example with which most of us are familiar is the contemporary Western attitude concerning the management of natural resources, treatment of non-human animals, and the natural world, and emerges from traditions derived from Western European philosophy, i.e. the assumption that humans are autonomous from, and in control of, the natural world.
A different approach is presented by Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Indigenous peoples of the world. TEK is based on close observation of nature and natural phenomena; however, it is combined with a concept of community membership which differs from that of Western political and social thought. TEK is strongly tied to specific physical localities, therefore, all aspects of the physical space can be considered part of the community, including animals, plants, and landforms. As a consequence, Native worldviews can be considered to be spatially oriented, in contrast to the temporal orientation of Western political and historical thought.
TEK emphasizes the idea that individual plants and animals exist on their own terms. This sense of place and concern for individuals leads to two basic TEK concepts: 1) all things are connected, which is related to Western community ecology, and 2) all things are related, which changes the emphasis from the human to the ecological community as the focus of theories concerning nature. Connectedness and relatedness are involved in the clan systems of many indigenous peoples, where nonhuman organisms are recognized as relatives whom the humans are obliged to treat with respect and honor. Convergence of TEK and western science suggests that there may be areas in which TEK can contribute insights, or possibly even new concepts, to Western science and strategies to manage natural resources and solve environmental problems.
TEK is inherently multidisciplinary in that it links the human and the non-human, and is the basis not only for indigenous concepts of nature, but also for concepts of indigenous politics and ethics. This multidisciplinarity suggests that TEK may be useful in resolving conflicts involving a variety of stakeholders and interest groups in controversies over natural resource use, animal rights, and conservation. TEK may also have implications for human behavior and obligations towards other forms of life that are often unrecognized, or at least not emphasized, in Western science. During the course examples will be discussed where a TEK based approach yielded unexpected and non-intuitive insights into natural phenomena. Understanding of TEK may be useful in helping scientists respond to the changing public perceptions of science, and new cultural pressures in our society.