Humble enough to listen and tough enough to decide

In the 1960’s during a plague of Crown of Thorns starfishes on the Great Barrier Reef, in the waters of Australia, people decided to counter attack by slicing them into pieces. Whether it is true or not, according to certain reports, their numbers then doubled or quadrupled when each piece of starfish regenerated itself into a full new one.

In 1584, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a Spanish sailor, established a settlement at Buena Bay (locally known as Mansa Bay) on the west side of the Strait of Magellan, near Punta Arenas in Chile. In less than a couple of years, all 300 plus settlers died of starvation. The unfortunate location is known today as Puerto Hambre or Port Famine (Port Hunger in english!)

In 1819 Sir John Franklin led an expedition in the Canadian Arctic. Of his original crew of 20, 11 died of starvation. Again, in 1845, his famous Northwest Passage expedition got lost and all of his 129 men, himself included, died.

What do those three seemingly unrelated events have in common?

The Crown of Thorns is known to the Fijians as “Na’Bula”, meaning living or alive, reflecting the regenerating power of the starfish. Puerto Hambre is located in an area where the Alacaluf, a Fuegian tribe, had lived for hundreds of years. Franklin’s doomed expedition perished in a place where Inuit had been living for thousands of years.

Each case represents a total lack of consideration for the precious knowledge held by the indigenous people. For the “White Man”, coming from civilized countries, these “people” were considered savage and primitive. Not only were their beliefs in nature seen as a flagrant obstacle to progress, but it was ridiculous to admit that they could know more on how to survive in these remote places than a highly decorated naval officer.

While the natives saw themselves as part of Nature and understood the delicate balance that needed to be respected, the “White Man”, supported by his belief that God had created the earth for him only, plundered the resources as if there would be no tomorrow. Anything found in the way was destroyed. His motto has always been “Act Now, Think Later”. He wants something, he gets it, then deals with the consequences later. He decimated the buffalos, the wolves and the whales. On the Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea, he succeeded in reducing to almost zero a population of fur seals that was considered limitless. When the resources were gone, he simply moved to another location and proceeded again. Where the indigenous people managed to live off nature for centuries, the “White Man” only took decades to destroy everything.

Not much has changed today. Reading recently about the incredible and fast decline of stock of Mackerels off the coast of Chile, we don’t seem to have learned anything. We keep repeating the same pattern over and over. The only difference is that today with our technology, we do it much faster.

The natives have warned us since the beginning that our lives were unsustainable. That our lifestyle and values would destroy the earth’s resources. We laughed at them and told them that we had amazing technology that would fix everything.

…overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms. And so, Icarus fell into the sea…

This Greek myth is a premonition about our culture of consumption. Obsessed by satisfying our desires and pleasures we have forgone common sense and wisdom. We have lost the ability to limit ourselves. Blind to any consequences, we plunge into our ego centered lives and quietly hope for salvation. We take pride in our intelligence, bragging about our inventions and technology, believing that only WE have the power to save the world. But are we really that smart or simply extremely arrogant? One thing for sure is that we are not a mature civilization. Mature is by definition something that is based on slow and careful consideration. Which lies at the total opposite spectrum of how we operate.

And in those moments, when everything around us is crumbling, we look at our leaders for guidance and courage. But unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher said: “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” Will our world find the humility to listen to the indigenous tribes and have the courage and strength to take the necessary decisions to move towards a sustainable growth? Will the Arctic become the stage for a new kind of development or sadly be an “Encore” of a very bad show? A dialogue like the one recently put forward by Prince Charles is a good step in the right direction. The only thing it takes is people that are willing to make the right decisions rather than wanting to please everyone.

“In the distant past, scientists often ignored and even made fun of the knowledge of indigenous people. But we now recognize that people who live off the land for generations know more than researchers will discover with years of investigation.” Smithsonian Blog

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