Perception: The West in the eyes of Others

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The way we describe the world becomes the one we live in, writes Gabriella Morris. The way we see it, determines how we treat it. Human beings’ perception of the natural environment, does not just absorb its physical state. It is filtered through our thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Western concepts of science are no exception.

Theories are extracted from very concentrated, narrow samples. Narrow, but not necessarily exact. These finite forms of data, colour our attitude towards nature. Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, have a more holistic view of science. They understand ecology in a way that preserves its future, giving us a perspective to understand sustainability. Concepts of life lie beyond and before our life spans.  Knowledge is extracted from experiences, from generations that have lived before and understand the earth, rather than the institutions of theory and academia, that dominate our perceptions.

                 Sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science.’

                                                         Nakashima, ‘Tapping into the World’s Wisdom’.

For the Inuits of Inuvik in Canada, the environment, is understood through its relationship between things. Any part of the environment that is used for human consumption, is recognised as being part of a wider system of the landscape. An understanding of the petals of a flower, is not just seen as beautiful or desirable, but connected to the wider state of nature, of the weather, the seasons. Unlike the way we see such beauty as an object for our consumption. We often treat natural resources as a means to satiate our current desires.

Inuits live with a philosophy of environmental sustainability, rather than the Western priority of economic advancement. Animal numbers are maintained. They will not be bred if they disturb the equilibrium of the soil. The Inuits in Inuvik, understand that knowledge is acquired through a slow process. It is not just absorbed through formal education. It is felt. Knowledge of nature is passed down from elders, instilled in ceremonies. Our formal system of education can provide us with a rational understanding of the consequences of an unsustainable way of living, but this is not always translated as an emotional concern of society, of community. Where we see an opportunity for progress, an Inuit may see an equilibrium that if disturbed, will need to be realigned for others’ use. Rhythms of life are deliberate. The Inuits respect the movements of the natural environment, which give them life.

Time

In the West, time is divided into fragments, in relation to the division of labour. Time is a resource for progress. People are motivated by delayed reward in the future which influences our view of the land as a resource that can be owned. Whereas for the Inuits, the land cannot be a possession because it belongs to everyone. It both encapsulates the ancestors, their human history, but is greater than the needs of individual, human lives. The dissection of the natural environment, by Western scientists, is fuelled by a desire to control the environment, from the narrow view of the West, which ignores a geological perspective, the longevity of the earth’s life cycle. The short-term use of science in the developed world, disrupts the idea of continuity between present and past (and even people living at the same time).

In indigenous communities, life is not lived for the experience of immediate time, rather life is experienced and cultivated, in a way that can be passed onto future generations. This can remind us of the peculiarity with which the frantic pace of consumer society is performed.

One of the central features of traditional societies, as outlined by the UN’s 2007 declaration of indigenous rights is ‘non dominance’. Perception is too easily manoeuvred by knowledge that is an outcome of money and power, rather than veracity. Despite these power structures at play, our lives, are not that different from one another. Each person experiences emotions, tensions, difficulties, in life, that we assume makes our reality unique, but is a slight but vital part of being human. Each day is not a step towards a doomed future, but a new opportunity, to let our perception, see our faults, as an opportunity for greater understanding of the world from which we emerged

Each day is not a step towards a doomed future, but a new opportunity, to let our perception, see our faults, as an opportunity for greater understanding of the world from which we emerged. And it resides in you. With us. With our perceptions.

The Author is a researcher and Anthropologist at Captioning Culture

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