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Bridging Indigenous Wisdom and Modern Solutions for Climate and Environmental Justice

I recently read two books that sparked a deep reflection on the climate and justice challenges we face today: Principles of Tsawalk by E. Richard Atleo (recommended to me by Professor Kyle Whyte) and Speed and Scale by John Doerr. As a scientist and an indigenous woman from the Philippines, I found inspiration in the diverse approaches these books offer to tackle our pressing climate and justice issues.

Embracing My Indigenous Identity:

Growing up, I hesitated to embrace my Igorot heritage due to the judgment I often faced. An incident in elementary school, where I was singled out for my indigenous identity, left me feeling ashamed. For those unfamiliar, Igorot refers to an indigenous group comprising various tribes living in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines. Another instance during high school, when my landlady scolded me for playful behavior, reinforced harmful stereotypes associated with people from the mountains.

I come from a mixed racial and ethnic background, with a Tagalog-Chinese mother and an Igorot father. Like many mixed-race individuals, I grappled with finding my sense of belonging. However, as time passed, I learned to embrace my diverse roots.

The Call for Diversity in Climate Action:

The need for diversity cannot be overstated in today's climate crisis. My recent interviews with climate and environmental justice experts, conducted as part of my role at Yale University under the guidance of Dr. Dorceta Taylor, have made it profoundly clear that we require a concerted effort transcending age, race, gender, nationality, and more.

However, the path to effective collaboration in addressing climate crises is fraught with challenges. We must recognize that climate change is not just an environmental concern but also a social, political, and economic one.

Balancing Urgency with Responsibility:

While Speed and Scale underscores the urgency of action and suggests technological and financial strategies to combat climate change and reach net-zero emissions in time, we must be cautious not to jeopardize vulnerable communities' social and economic well-being. Neglecting this aspect could lead to further socio-political challenges.

Back-of-the-napkin summary of Doerr's plan to reaching net zero by 2050.

In areas like electrifying transportation, preserving nature, influencing politics and policy, and supporting entrepreneurs, we must anchor ourselves in the four fundamental Nuu-chah-nulth principles laid out in The Principles of Tsawalk.

Recognition and Consent:

The first two principles, Recognition and Consent, deserve special attention. As E. Richard Atleo astutely observes, "A major problem with the practice of democracy is that of recognition. When people are not recognized, it is difficult, if not impossible, to allow them the privilege of consent." Recognition is essential in acknowledging vulnerable communities' rights and incorporating their stories into our understanding.

Recognizing the communities where we conduct research is paramount in scientific endeavors, especially for outsiders. Building genuine relationships with these communities, rather than treating them as mere subjects, should be a core aspect of our work.

Scoping out a mud spring in Laguna, Philippines for my master's thesis on thermophilic bacteria (January, 2012)

As I reflect on my days as a microbiologist in the Philippines conducting fieldwork on extremophiles, I wish I had delved deeper into the rich history of the land. Those mud springs and hot springs where I collected samples for my biological assays held stories of generations past – how the local people harnessed them and their significance. These tales have the power to spark intriguing questions. As scientists, we sometimes become so engrossed in studying the environment that we overlook its profound human dimension.

The Significance of Respect:

Recognition alone is not enough. For instance, despite the legal recognition of Philippine indigenous rights, through the Philippine Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, issues persist regarding representation in national governance and resource extraction, especially in Mindanao provinces by foreign and local entities.

Lumad People of Mindanao protesting against mining corporations. Photo credit: Indigenous Environmental Network

Respect, the third principle, holds great significance. John Doerr rightly acknowledges that "Perhaps the most underestimated force for averting climate disaster is the protection of Indigenous rights and lands and way of life." Lack of understanding and respect for indigenous cultures has contributed to their marginalization.

It's crucial that we approach climate resiliency and other environmental projects with the utmost regard for the well-being and traditions of the communities affected. Additionally, communities should be fully informed about the immediate and long-term consequences of these projects on their ancestral lands, considering the well-being of generations to come, often referred to as the 'seven generations ahead' principle.

Cultivating Continuity and Valuing Diversity:

Continuity, the fourth principle, emphasizes preserving cultural traditions and the continuity of all life forms. Indigenous communities cherish their ceremonies, dances, songs, myths, and unique relationships with the land and other life forms. Despite being spiritual and non-physical in nature, the myths also hold practical wisdom, as seen in the Igorot story of the snake god, Beklat, which teaches the value of respect in marital relationships.

Ballangbang Igorot community dance performed at my wedding (September, 2022). Photo credit: Laura Briggs

As Atleo puts it, “Eagle has a way of life, as does Son of Raven. When the latter attempts to imitate the former, he discontinues his way of life.” This also speaks of the value of diversity.

Indigenous governance and decision-making systems, shared by various indigenous groups worldwide, prioritize equitable participation, emphasizing that every individual has the right to be heard and understood. This approach contrasts with dominance based on power and wealth, which has been the default for modern-day survival of the fittest.

Ensuring a Sustainable Future:

Looking ahead to future generations, continuity also calls for responsible resource management. Indigenous peoples have historically practiced taking only what they need from nature, maintaining a balanced relationship with the non-human world. Their quality of life depended on relationships and not merely on material acquisition.

Who needs over a thousand pairs of shoes?

In our modern capitalist society, this principle urges corporations and each of us to share profits fairly, respect local communities, and limit our consumption to what is necessary.


Our path to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 offers multiple choices: we can fail to meet our goals, meet them at the expense of marginalized communities, or succeed by aligning with key indigenous and environmental justice principles. The latter option holds the promise of a more just, equitable, and sustainable future where we collectively address the climate crisis, guided by indigenous wisdom and modern solutions.

As we embark on this journey, may we remember the lessons of Recognition, Consent, Respect, and Continuity—the Nuu-chah-nulth principles that can guide us toward a harmonious coexistence with our planet.

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