Does Knowledge Have a Sell by Date?

Naomi Klein’s controversial book and subsequent film adaptation, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014 and 2015 respectively), was meant to give a new take on the issue of the relationship between the current dominant economic model and the price our planet has to pay for its success. To many of its critics the book/film only rehash well-trodden arguments and offer unrealistic or downright silly solutions, their damning verdict is that in fact the book and film do not change anything at all. Others on the other hand praise the way in which Klein has put climate change into context by tracing it back to the Industrial Revolution, has identified the main culprit namely our relentless pursuit of economic growth at any cost, and has proposed radical but viable and necessary potential solutions. The assessment of the work, as you would expect, tends to fall into clearly delineated and predictable political perspectives, the Left sees it as a visionary clarion-call to action whilst the Right condemns it as so much wishy-washy bleeding heart socialism. For me, one of the interesting and under-commented upon elements of her argument is the involvement and role of indigenous communities and what we may learn from them. Some might argue that looking to and learning from their ancient wisdom could be the most effective way of rescuing our failing socio-economic systems and at the same time, our planet. We are so obsessed with the idea that progress can only mean looking and going forward, that we may fail to appreciate the wealth of ideas and practices which have sustained some cultures for tens of thousands of years.

Indigenous knowledge was, in my view, a significant and welcome addition to TOK when the new curriculum was introduced in 2013. It takes the idea of ancient wisdom seriously and highlights what benefits might be gained by rediscovering the knowledge of first nations and the methods by which it was achieved. One of the Enlightenment’s most powerful assumptions and driving forces was the idea that everything in one’s culture, however long-established or embedded, could be and should be challenged and summarily discarded if it was found wanting in any way. The result has been an ever increasing rate of progress in every sphere of human knowledge and achievement. Or so we’ve been told. No-one has borne the price of this ‘triumph’ more than the native and ancient cultures which laid in progress’ path. Whether this happened through the early colonialists’ and their descendants’ sense of innate superiority or a staggering ignorance of the cultures they were destroying, or a sense of disconnection with their natural environment, a war on ancient knowledge has been waged ever since and looks to continue still in many parts of the world.

If we are to dismiss ancient knowledge altogether we have at least a duty to seek to know and understand what it is we are rejecting. Whilst there is a myriad of ancient cultures and a vast range of ideas contained therein, one may identify some common methods and values however uniquely they may be expressed in a given community. We shall look briefly at a few of them.

  1. Traditional knowledge is of course derived from an intimate knowledge and appreciation of one’s local environment. As a result, ancient people learnt not only how to survive but how to do it in a way which respected the integrity and dignity of their life-giving locality. Ancient knowledge therefore has an inbuilt model of sustainability.
  2. Traditional knowledge is produced with future generations in mind. This is sometimes known as the Law of Iroquois, a Native American tribe where major decisions were evaluated on the basis of how it would affect the next seven generations.
  3. Traditional knowledge is holistic and does not raise artificial barriers between different aspects of reality. Typically it sees an interconnectedness between the three main realms of existence, the spiritual, the natural and the human.
  4. Traditional knowledge is highly pragmatic, it is interested in producing the best possible results for all and is far less concerned with esoteric or highly abstract speculations. Mythology deals adequately enough with those types of questions.
  5. Traditional knowledge is highly portable and flexible, any technology produced is not over-complicated and can be adapted to changing circumstances.
  6. Traditional knowledge values quietness and silence, it is not embarrassed by silences and does not seek to fill every second with noise.
  7. Traditional knowledge values patience, things are expected to unfold or happen in their own time, wisdom has its own timetable and doesn’t respond well to deadlines.
  8. Traditional knowledge emphasizes cooperation and collaboration, individual and personal achievements only mean something if they benefit or serve the community.
  9. Traditional knowledge prizes some values which our modern way of life might do well to emulate. Respect and care of the elderly, a strong sense of the common good, consensual decision making, the emphasis on listening rather than speaking, hard work with a clear purpose rather than mere busyness, a strong sense of hospitality especially to strangers etc…

For some, taking ancient knowledge seriously would be a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment, it would be no more than a sentimental attempt at preserving outdated and mostly superstitious beliefs and practices, it would be a futile and disastrous attempt at reversing the march of time. Whilst one should not for one moment ignore the many genuinely harmful beliefs and practices which are part of many traditional cultures, and whilst one should be wary and claiming that a rediscovery of traditional knowledge and values would ‘change everything’; one however might agree that this might change some things, and for some for the better. Maybe there is some knowledge that should never be allowed to die, sometimes looking back might the best thing we can do before moving forward.

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