The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feinberg Keynote "What Does the Earth Ask of Us?" Draws Thousands of Viewers

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On September 30, scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer delivered the keynote address of the 2020–21 Feinberg Series entitled “What Does the Earth Ask of Us?” In her lecture, Kimmerer connected Indigenous knowledge and modern science to how we can more successfully conquer the problem of climate change in the world today. More than 2,000 people attended the event.

Kimmerer's bestselling book is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. She is also a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

With a multidisciplinary career focusing on both climate change and Indigenous history, Kimmerer interlinked the two topics to provide an encompassing, compassionate lecture. She began her talk by describing the things we view as natural resources as ecological gifts to us from the earth. As she explained, fruits and other natural resources are, unfortunately, often seen as things that are “waiting to be transformed” by society into consumer products. 

“In the ecological sciences, we call them ecosystem services as if they are somehow the inevitable outcomes of the ecological machine,” Kimmerer said. “Though every one of us lives in this beautiful world made of gifts, we find ourselves harnessed to institutions and to an economy that relentlessly asks us ‘what more can we take from the Earth?’” 

In the Potawatomi tribe, of which Kimmerer is an enrolled member, women are honored as the life-givers who bring the world back into balance. She called upon the voices and wisdom of women and other marginalized groups to lead the way in transitioning to a new paradigm. This idea was largely discussed in breakout discussion groups upon the conclusion of Kimmerer's lecture via Zoom.

"We are in an era where women's voices and the voices of marginalized peoples are rising and will lead the way to a just transition in the face of climate chaos," said Kimmerer. 

Outlining the abuse that the materialistic, utilitarian point of view on Earth has on our planet, she discussed the sacredness of land and how it gives us a moral responsibility to protect the Earth.

“The experiment tests the hypothesis as if we behaved [like] the Earth was just stuff.” said Kimmerer. “The results of that experiment are in, aren’t they? We see it all around us. We see ourselves teetering on the precipice of climate chaos, entering the age of the sixth extinction in which we are losing 200 species every day.”

Interweaving her two disciplines, Kimmerer then outlined the Indigenous Potawatomi prophecy of the “Seven Fires,” which refers to historical eras in the tribe's history. The prophecy says that after years of losing land, language, and lives, people will find themselves in the “Seventh Fire,” a disastrous ecological time where “you can no longer fill a cup from a stream and drink.” 

“It is said that in this time, all of the world’s people, both the original people and the newcomers, together are going to stand at a fork in the road,” said Kimmerer. “ The prophecy tells us we have a choice between materialism and greed that will destroy the Earth, or the spiritual path of care and compassion. The prophecy teaches us that the people of the Seventh Fire are going to need great courage, creativity, and wisdom, but will lead us to the lighting of the Eighth Fire. We are the people of the Seventh Fire.”

Kimmerer later delved into the dependency society has on plants, which she considered our “oldest teachers.” Plants are the oldest and most powerful of our relatives and the original sources of life. Learning from the intelligence of the land is part of the Indigenous paradigm, which is now referred to in science and engineering as biomimicry. While science still learns from life and land, it's disappointing to Kimmerer that it's not as simple as listening to what the plants tell us and acting upon it. Rather, bureaucracy and modern systems of change stop us from truly acting on what the Earth is teaching us. 

“Plants tell their stories, not by what they say, but what they do,” said Kimmerer. “If plants are our teachers in this time of crisis, what do they teach us about responses to climate change if we listen and learn from them? They’re not dithering in ineffectual meetings and debating carbon tax structures, they just get to work. They can be the model for the transformation we need.”

Plants themselves are the most pure form of solar economies, but at our current point in climate change they will not be able to solve climate issues on their own. Climate models show we are past the point where we can rely solely on plants to solve our issues, and instead society needs to enact a complete system change. A part of the problem is exemplified on how Americans can recognize hundreds of corporate logos, but only ten plants. Our ancestors could name hundreds of plant species, showing the disheartening transition to a materialistic world.

“Is it any wonder that we live in a society that recognizes legal personhood for corporations, but no legal standing at all for birch trees or blue jays?” said Kimmerer. “Here is a powerful need for system change, when corporations are granted the right of personhood, but living beings are not.”

Kimmerer called upon the idea of “taking only what’s given to us” by the Earth, like the Sun’s energy, rather than focusing our efforts on coal mining and oil fracking. She concluded with another Indigenous story of the “peach pit game” where twin forces of creation and destruction gambled at the fate of the world. Society is at a point in time where it must say yes to creation, and no to the continuous destruction of the world, she concluded.

Following the lecture, attendees had the opportunity to work in breakout rooms with various faculty to further discuss what they learned. Commonwealth Honors Dean Mari Castañeda led one group in a discussion, where participants expressed the need to act on Kimmerer’s ideas. Many of the takeaways from Castañeda’s breakout discussion included how to integrate the professor’s lessons into art and culture, and how we can shift current paradigms at institutions around the world. 

Participants felt Kimmerer’s discussion of moving away from a western, materialistic point of view to be powerful. Discussion elaborated on many of Kimmerer's ideas, calling for action not just within the problem of climate change, but on a systemic level. Some participants pondered on how we refer to non-human objects only as “it,” and if using different pronouns would make a difference in how we treat nature. Others reflected on how the power of stories, like the ones Kimmerer told, can create a collective agreement between different people as to where we focus our efforts. As an academic figure, Dean Castaneda reflected with the group as they asked how they can make change through academic institutions that can often have rigid, western structures, with some even lying on previously stolen Indigenous land.

“I loved facilitating the post-lecture discussion, especially since it brought together a wide-ranging group of people to reflect on the wisdom that Robin shared with us," said Castañeda. "Her words were inspiring and life-affirming, and it empowered us to think about the possibility of next steps for a more connected, nature-oriented world.”

The Feinberg Series seeks to deepen our understanding of important sets of problems and to envision constructive paths forward. Speakers include organizers from the climate movement, writers, artists, filmmakers, and a wide variety of scholars and policy experts. To view Kimmerer’s full lecture, please visit here.