Indigenous activist, scholar and farmer Dr. Randy Woodley was the keynote speaker on May 24 for the Vancouver School of Theology conference Religious Responses to Climate Change. Based in Yamhill, Ore., Woodley addressed the assembled Zoom audience on the topic Indigenous Spirit: Weaving Justice and Peace in a Wounded Land.
“The West has largely failed in its mandate to till and keep the soil; that is, to serve the community of creation, the whole community of creation,” Woodley began, introducing the concept of humankind’s responsibility to assure the well-being of those in its care, namely, the land and all the creatures that reside on it and in it.
Humans are co-sustainers of the earth, he stressed, showing a slide that highlighted the billions of bacteria, millions of protozoa, metres of fungi and thousands of nematodes in just one cup of soil.
Woodley gave examples of the unflattering views Western scholars have often had of Indigenous cultures and how such scholars (and others) have overlooked “many things that ‘primitives’ still know.” While North American curricula contain lessons on Greek, Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, for example, education on ancient American civilizations is lacking.
Indigenous American societies brought about such things as micro-agriculture and macro-environmental management, including botany, agronomy, forestry, raised beds and naturally self-sustaining fertilized gardens, said Woodley. Further, there was sustainable architecture that incorporated passive solar design, solar heating, water capture systems and mass water transport.
“I would argue that the Western worldview has been a failed experiment,” he said. “We need to dump it and we need to adopt a more Indigenous approach.”
He said the “faster, bigger, cheaper” method of food production in the Western world is depleting soils and leading to the loss of crop varieties. At the same time, forests are shrinking, species are going extinct and droughts are increasing. Blame for water waste could be placed on big agriculture, he asserted.
Meanwhile, Indigenous people have lived in North America for more than 20,000 years without permanently endangering the land. He said, “The earth has had enough and is not going to let humans get away with knocking things out of balance forever.
“Nature’s chaos, which we’re understanding now, is actually stable because it continues to adapt. If there’s one thing true about all of creation … it will adapt. Human beings are the only ones who resist that. Adaptation is stability.”
The nature of a closed system is to collapse in on itself or be consumed by other more adaptive systems, he argued. Therefore, he said, the religious response to climate change should be to adapt as well. Within adaptation, there is an order that builds open systems of unity and diversity. The West, on the other hand, introduced chaos and continues to maintain it.
“Lots of different diseases we have are because we have not lived in the way we should with the animal kingdom. We only have a short time to come back from our own unsustainable chaos and back to the Creator’s sustainable order,” Woodley said.
A handful of human generations has accelerated consumption exponentially. Mother Earth is now trying to rebalance the overuse through “random acts of nature,” he said. The planet is reclaiming its territory and “spitting out the inhabitants in order to restore harmony, the top of the food chain temporarily is now Mother Earth herself.”
It was a particular kind of human being, Woodley reiterated – the Europeans and Americans, and not the species itself – that brought us to this perilous stage. Woodley sees a connection between the way Europeans and Americans treat both creation and people, especially women, immigrants, the poor and other marginalized groups – with respect to nature and fellow humans, they have a need to control, exploit, expect production from and objectify, he said.
Practical steps forward, in Woodley’s view, include a critical examination of the Western world approach, the shedding of unhealthy paradigms, and the adoption of a more Indigenous perspective, such as sustainable ecosystems, a respect for the wisdom found in nature and an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all living things.
Woodley quoted environmentalist and economist Winona LaDuke as saying, “Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food, food has a culture, it has a history, it has a story, it has relationships.”
And he cited a Shoshone elder: “Do not begrudge the white man his presence on this land. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he has come here to learn from us.”
Together with his wife Edith, Woodley runs Eloheh Indigenous Centre for Earth Justice, an organization that focuses on developing, implementing and teaching sustainable and regenerative earth practices. Eloheh is a Cherokee word meaning harmony, wholeness, abundance and peace.
Woodley has written several books, including Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine, and Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.
Director of the VST conference was Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.