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Traditional knowledge in a time of crisis: climate change, culture and communication


Science as it has come to be defined in Western thought is at the root of our current environmental problems. This article reviews the historical trajectory of specific facets in Western thought, including the disenchantment of nature, the apotheosis of reason, the technological domination of nature, and the Puritan temper. Illuminating this history points out that what is called “rational” and what popularly acceptable as “science” is in fact a by-product of specific historical, cultural, and political circumstances, and has produced a culture of “scientism” that is ideological, not value-free, and is in fact contrary to the open inquiry of science. These ideas are linked to economic rationality, colonialism, and human rights, severing modern humans from our Indigenous roots and fostering an ideology of rapacious environmental exploitation. The author proposes “indigeneity” as embracing the holistic knowledge and wisdom found in traditional cultures while also utilizing the advances in science and other areas of human endeavor. Specifically, the paper argues for bringing about a new cultural discourse that helps reshape human behavior into a more sustainable direction. The role of communication and storytelling is emphasized, with an example given in the story of Polynesian voyaging and the five values of the voyaging canoe.

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  1. Copernican astronomy is heliocentric, posing that the Sun is stationary with the Earth and other planets moving around it. This was considered heresy to the traditional Ptolomaic notion that the Earth was the center with the sun and the planets revolving around it.

  2. “Sir Isaac Newton,” Britannica, Accessed 5 Jan 2015.

  3. Weber is quoted in Greisman (1976).

  4. See for example Long (1948), Deloria Jr. (2006). Francis Bacon himself considered “magic” to be a science of understanding matter's hidden virtues, but his focus on magic has largely been ignored.

  5. National Academy of Engineering (2015) “Petroleum Technology History Part 1—Background”. Accessed January 9, 2015.

  6. While such sentiment is not so overt in the writings of the late eighteenth century explorers, it becomes much more clear in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Commodore Wilkes’ (1845) journal of the United States Exploring Expedition is an excellent example.

  7. While I am discussing human rights in the broadest sense, there are sub-areas within the human rights arena that approach the issue more holistically, including the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the United Farmworkers Union.

  8. See, for example, the work of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy in promoting wind energy.

  9. I am drawing on Sundberg’s (2014) reading of Kuokkanen.  See also Shaw et al. (2006) for a critique of the Indigenous-Western binary.

  10. See also Nisbett 1999.

  11. The Polynesian Voyaging Society, with whom I worked closely, espouses six values which are similar to the five I propose. See I had derived mine before learning of theirs, but those I worked with there approved of my five.


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Correspondence to R. D. K. Herman.

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Handled by Jay T. Johnson, The University of Kansas, USA.

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Herman, R.D.K. Traditional knowledge in a time of crisis: climate change, culture and communication. Sustain Sci 11, 163–176 (2016).

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  • Sustainability
  • Values
  • Scientism
  • Indigenous
  • Wisdom