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Searching for synergy: integrating traditional and scientific ecological knowledge in environmental science education


Scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) is a powerful discipline for diagnosing and analyzing environmental degradation, but has been far less successful in devising sustainable solutions which lie at the intersection of nature and culture. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of indigenous and local peoples is rich in prescriptions for the philosophy and practice of reciprocal, mutualistic relationships with the earth. Scientists and policy makers all over the world are calling for incorporation of the wisdom of TEK into natural resource planning and environmental policy. TEK has a legitimate place in the education of the next generation of environmental scientists, yet this body of knowledge and the process by which it is generated are virtually absent from the environmental science classroom. Integrating TEK and SEK holds a great promise for broadening and deepening the teaching of environmental science, yet the challenges to such integration are significant in the mainstream classroom. I have found that key elements of this integration include fostering intellectual pluralism in a student population largely unaware of other epistemologies by: (1) clear and disciplined analysis of how TEK and SEK are grounded in different worldviews. Mutually respectful evaluation of the divergences and convergences of these epistemologies creates the foundation for critical examination of how synergy might be created between them; (2) engagement of the indigenous pedagogy of direct, experiential learning in which the land and its inhabitants are recognized as primary knowledge sources; (3) holistic engagement of multiple elements of human capacity: mind, body, emotion, and spirit, not just the intellect which is exclusively privileged in conventional environmental science education; (4) recognition that in indigenous approaches, knowledge and responsibility are inextricably linked, so the course content and approach simultaneously cultivate the responsibility that accompanies knowledge acquisition, including protection and appropriate use of cultural knowledge; and (5) recognition that the mutually exclusive duality between matter and spirit which is essential to the scientific worldview is bridged in TEK where material and spiritual explanations, the secular and the sacred, may simultaneously coexist.

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Correspondence to Robin Wall Kimmerer.

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Kimmerer, R.W. Searching for synergy: integrating traditional and scientific ecological knowledge in environmental science education. J Environ Stud Sci 2, 317–323 (2012).

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  • Traditional ecological knowledge
  • Education
  • Indigenous knowledge