Sustainability; Lessons from Indigenous Wisdom
John Perkins presented this keynote speech to the World Bank. It offers a new perspective and great hope during this time of turmoil. John Perkins, a businessman and environmental philosopher, founded DreamChange Coalition, a nonprofit organization, and created the Pollution Offset Lease for Earth (POLE) program, enabling corporations to offset the greenhouse gases they produce by leasing CO2 absorbing rain forests. He draws extensively from three decades as a consultant to multi-national institutions and Fortune 500 companies and his experiences as CEO of an U.S. energy company that produced electricity with environmentally beneficial technologies. His acclaimed books -- published in many languages -- include Spirit of the Shuar; Shapeshifting; The World Is As You Dream It; Psychonavigation; and The Stress-Free Habit.
"Sustainability: Lessons from Indigenous Wisdom"
John Perkins, CEO, Dream Change Coalition;
Keynote Presentation, World Bank;
Corporate Sustainability Conference;
Washington, DC, May 2, 2002
This talk may challenge your thinking. I hope it will inspire you -- as the World Bank has both challenged and inspired me for much of my life. When I was a young boy during the 1950s I grew up in the shadow of the hotel in Bretton Woods, NH where the World Bank was conceived. My dad, who fought in World War II, was deeply moved by its goal of reconstructing a devastated Europe. He used to take me by that hotel.
Later, I attended business school in Boston. One of the professors I most respected was a consultant to the World Bank. He shared with us case studies and personal experiences he had in Africa and Asia. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. On graduating in 1968 I joined the Peace Corps. During 8 weeks of training in Southern California, I learned a little Spanish and, because of my business education, was trained as a specialist in credit and savings cooperatives.
Then the Peace Corps sent me into the Ecuadorian Amazon, deep into Shuar Territory. In those days the Shuar were famous for shrinking the heads of their enemies. As I struggled to make my way into the rainforest I discovered something that really shook my confidence: although I spoke very poor Spanish, most Shuar did not speak it at all. Finally I arrived at the community where I was supposed to spend the next two years. I announced my intent to help them form credit and savings co-ops -- and discovered something even more shocking: the people who lived there had no money! How could I possibly carry out my assignment? We Peace Corps volunteers had been told that we would help poor people around the globe change their lives. But I quickly learned that I had absolutely nothing to offer. Despite all my years of education, there wasn't anything in my background that could possibly help them.
On the other hand, they had a great deal to teach me. Their knowledge of the forests, their attitude toward life, their ability to live in the present, to enjoy their families and the rivers, the plants and animals, their ecstatic way of being were the very things that my culture lacked and sorely needed. The Shuar, perhaps more than anything else, taught me the importance of seeing and feeling relationships -- mine to the people, plants, and animals around me, them to each other -- the interrelated aspects of all our lives.
I ended up extending my Peace Corps stay for three years -- the longest time allowed for a volunteer in those days. Afterwards, I returned to the United States and did what I had been trained to do -- I became and economic and management consultant, specializing in international development. For the next ten years I worked all over the world, assembling a staff of nearly 50 specialists --economists, sociologists, agronomists, planners, econometricians and financial analysts. Much of our work was for the World Bank and affiliated organizations.
Every chance I had I took time off and visited local indigenous communities. I always found that they had things to teach me, including techniques that allowed me to visualize what I really wanted in life and focus my energies in ways that enabled me to achieve my goals.
In 1981 I left consulting and founded a company that developed and operated environmentally sensitive alternative energy projects. It was a high risk/high gain enterprise and we were one of the few successful companies. I must say that a primary reason for our success was that we employed many of the techniques I had learned from indigenous people --those in the Amazon, as well as in the deserts of the Middle East, and the remote islands of Indonesia. These techniques are described in some of my books (Shapeshifting, The World Is As You Dream It; Psychonavigation, and The Stress-Free Habit).
I sold that energy company in 1990 and decided to return to the Amazon. The rainforests were threatened. The community where I had lived deep in the jungle now had a road through it and only a few scattered trees remained. I took a small plane and dugout canoes further into the rainforests and finally reached a place where members of the Shuar culture -- those who had made a conscious decision to maintain their traditions -- now lived. I told them that they had changed me, saved my life back in the 1960s, and now I wanted to help them save their forests and their culture.
The Shuar expressed appreciation for what I had in mind, but they also informed me that they were doing nothing to destroy the forests. "It's your people," they said. "Your oil and lumber companies and your cattle ranches tear down these forests. The world is as you dream it; and your people have had a dream of big buildings, many cars and lots of industry. Now you realize that that dream is a nightmare. If you want to shapeshift this dream, go back to your people and change them."
Once again I learned that the indigenous people had so much to teach me --us. I returned home and formed Dream Change Coalition (DCC); a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing our dream of the world. Yajanua is one of our DCC teachers. A Shuar woman, who also graduated from the University of Quito and traveled to the United States and Europe, she knows both worlds. She tells what she calls the "Parallel Development"story:
"You people," she says, "believe that your civilization has developed for thousands of years, that you can look back to ancient cultures in Asia and the Middle East and trace this development through Europe and into the United States. You say you've made great progress and this is true in many ways. You also look at us, the Shuar and other indigenous people, and you say that we haven't developed, that we've been static, that our lives are 'primitive'. But it simply isn't true. We've always developed. We've cultivated forest plants, learned new ways to fish and hunt; our shamans are constantly understanding new things about healing journeying, and using herbal remedies. We've developed too -- but the difference is in how it happened. Our way has always taken into account all other live forms and the lives of our children's children. For us the word 'progress' does not apply if it threatens other species or could possibly harm future generations. How could that be progress? So we've developed in parallel to you -- only we've done it very, very differently." (Spirit of the Shuar, pp. 154-155)
I often think about these words of Yajanua. I think about them in the context of the work that I used to do for the World Bank. We frequently were called upon to make 25-year forecasts of a country's economic growth. For example, we would evaluate the impact of a World Bank loan of a few hundred million dollars to Iran or Panama. How would investing that in the energy sector versus the transportation sector impact Gross National Product over the next two and a half decades? What would a road deep into the rainforests accomplish compared to a hydroelectric dam?
I was often struck by the fact that although we were trying to forecast the next 25 years, we personally cared only about the next few months, the upcoming quarterly report. We wanted to know whether or not the project would be approved. Bonuses and promotions depended on those decisions.
It has been 25 years since I made many of those forecasts. I have no idea how accurate they turned out to be. I doubt anyone does. So I find myself wondering: In a world where things are measured bys hort-term goals, how do we deal with future generations? What can we learn from Yajanua and cultures that have survived on this planet for thousands of years?
Post WWII economics worked successfully for many years. Not only was Europe reconstructed; improvements were made around the globe. We truly live in a different world and are confronted by challenges that could never have been imagined by those men and women who met at Bretton Woods. Until very recently we were convinced that things would just keep getting better. The idea that the human conquest of the world could be anything but beneficial was unthinkable. But now irrefutable evidence tells us differently. We see it in climate change, El Ninos, the ozone layer, over population, species extinctions -- there are signs wherever we look that we are on a path toward self-destruction. Yet we are still stuck in the patterns of our past success. In his book A Language Older than Words, philosopher Derrick Jensen draws upon the work of psychologist Erich Fromm and anthropologist Ruth Benedictto to classify cultures into three general categories:
1. Life Affirmative --represented by the Zuni, Hopis, Mbutus, U'wa; these are characterized by a minimum amount of hostility and aggression toward people, animals, and nature and a dedication to looking out for the long-term good of the community.
2. Nondestructive Aggressive -- the Samoans, Crows, Shuar and other cultures that exhibit aggression toward certain people ("enemies") along with a determination not to destroy the natural world which they understand to be essential to their well-being and which they usually hold as sacred.
3. Destructive -- the Aztecs and all the "classical" cultures of Persia, China
Greece, Rome, the colonial powers of Europe, and -- yes -- us; these are characterized by interpersonal violence, a philosophy that they have a God-given right to exploit everything, and a system that emphasizes the short-term and the individual, often at the expense of community.
I ask you: Which of these is sustainable? Which is not? Today, for the first time, we have arrived at a point in history where a Destructive culture controls
the entire planet. It is not a country, but rather a culture that reaches across national borders. And now this culture has undeniable evidence that its system is no longer working, that if we do not change we are doomed
So what exactly are the lessons to be gained from indigenous wisdom? Attitudes toward life, ecology, and relationships and techniques for visualizing like the ones I learned during my Peace Corps days? Certainly. The concept that the world is as we dream it and that what we don't like we can re-dream? Absolutely. Ideas about looking out for the long-term, setting as a priority a better world for future generations? Of course. All these are important, but I sometimes believe that the most important to us right now, at this very critical time in human history, is a lesson that was graphically demonstrated to me about 10 years ago.
I had taken my publisher to the Shuar. Two of their young men escorted us on a three-day hike to their sacred waterfall. On the way back, about an hour before re-entering the community, they stopped and bent down beside the trail. "This bush is sick," one of then said, pointing at a tiny plant that was barely visible. "It was healthy three days ago when we left here." They explained that they would have to describe it to their elders because the plant might carry a message. That night the elders decided that the trail we had taken should be abandoned and allowed to fade back into the forest. The plant had spoken. The Shuar had listened. At a recent meeting of Shuar elders we described some of the things happening on our planet: the melting of glaciers and polar ice; forest fires in jungles that have never experienced them before; the hole in the Ozone layer; rampant drug addiction and family violence. After we finished, first one and then another of those elders stood up to tell us we had better listen, we had better change.
World War II was the result of human decisions and actions; it destroyed cities, nations, people and forests. It was also a message. We listened. Among other things we created this organization, the World Bank. And we succeeded magnificently. We have not only survived; we have thrived. Now we are confronted by a new form of devastation. Like WWII it is the result of human decisions and actions and it threatens our very survival as a species .It too is a message.
Never before has an organization like this, the World Bank, been so needed. Never before have people like you been so essential. It is time to listen and to act, to invoke the spirits of all those great minds and courageous people who met in Bretton Woods and who walked these halls before you.
I've reached that point in this talk when it is time to bring things to a close. Before I do I'd like to summarize five of these Lessons from Indigenous Cultures in a way that, I hope, encourages you to use them on a personal basis:
1. Help future generations. In evaluating projects, always ask: "Does it benefit the next several generations? " Remember that future generations of people are dependent on the well being of future generations of plants and animals, all of nature.
2. Protect every culture. During the 20th century, in the Amazon alone, over 100 indigenous cultures disappeared. It happened to many more around the planet. With them we not only lost human lives; we also lost libraries of unwritten books about the human experience, untold volumes of wisdom. Commit yourself to stopping this process. Instead seek out ways to help these cultures share their wisdom with the rest of us.
3. Ensure that all World Bank projects have a net environmental benefit. Make this a condition before you approve any project.
4. Explore and feel relationships.Understand the importance of relating to family, people, trees and animals. When you look at a table, relate to the wood that went into making it And to the people who brought it to you. When you work in a country, relate to its people, to its natural world and to the problems being faced by both. Your true work is about relationship, not statistics and economics.
5. Take action in your community. Bring the idea of a sustainable world to the area where you currently live. Get involved in local projects that protect natural areas, watersheds, endangered species, or threatened cultures. Volunteer to speak at schools. Spread the word and set an example. You can make a huge difference. As can this institution. You have the mandate and the capabilities to lead the world back from the edge of a precipice. Bretton Woods gave you the mandate. You have developed the capabilities during the decades since. As an organization you encompass the planet. You understand how to disseminate information and knowledge and how to distribute resources and wealth. You know how to change the world. Change this world -- our only home -- in a way that ensures our survival. Not just a probability of survival, but a guarantee of it. And do more than that. Take actions now -- right now -- that will make children from all over the earth proud of what happened today, in this place, proud of you and the actions you take on their behalves.
-------- by John Perkins, the man who organized the World Bank and DCC
The Cardinal Flower has many brilliant red, tubular flowers in an elongated cluster on an erect stalk. The flowers are about 1.5”, are five-petaled with two lips; upper with 2 lobes, lower with three. United stamens form a tube around the style and extend beyond the corolla. The leaves are lanceolate and toothed.
It is found in wetland habitat and is pollinated chiefly by hummingbirds, since most insects find it difficult to navigate the long, tubular flowers. Although relatively common, overpicking has resulted in its scarcity in some areas.
This native blooms from the end of July to early October. It is most abundant in the southernmost counties of the Chicago Region, and is common in the Kankakee River valley counties. In our area it is found most frequently in ditches, along with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), a Sedge called Muhl (Carex lupulina), Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata), Rice Cut Grass (Leersia oryzoides), Frog Fruit (Lippia lanceolata recognita), Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), Ditch Stonecrop (Penthorum sedoides), Mild Water Pepper (Polygonum hydropiperoides), Bristly Buttercup (Ranunculus pensylvanicus, Water Parsnip (Sium suave), and Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata).
Cardinal Flower also grows in shallow water in shaded ground, and Floyd Swink notes that as far back as the 1930’s it was one of the dominant species in the large Cattail swamp that occupies so much land at the Indiana Dunes State Park in Porter County.
JEWELWEED or SPOTTED TOUCH-ME-NOT
Deer love this plant, and folklore describes the juice of its crushed leaves as a remedy for Poison Ivy. Jewelweed is a tall, leafy plant from two to five feet in height with succulent translucent stems, and pendent golden orange flowers with reddish-brown speckling. The name “Touch-me-not” is due to the touch-sensitive flowers that explode on contact when the seeds are mature, expelling the seeds. Its one-inch flower has a sharply-spurred sac, whose petals open out at the mouth.
Jewelweed is found in wet woodland areas, upland woodland, shaded flood plains, and calcareous fens, blooming from July to October. In Kankakee area wet oak forest areas it can be found with Arisaema atrorubens, (Jack-In-The-Pulpet), Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger), False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis), White Ash, (Fraxinus (America), White Avens or Wood Avens (Geum canadense), Fowl Manna Grass
( Glyceria striata), Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis), Clustered Black Snakeroot (Sanicula gregaria), Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), American Elm (Ulmus americana), Blue Lettuce (Lactuca floridana), Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) and White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum).
In upland woods, it is found growing with Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Choke Cherry (Prunus Virginiana), Red Oak (Quercus Rubra), Feathery False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa), Basswood or American Linden ( Tilia americana,), Hairy Wood Violet (Viola sororia), Smooth Yellow violet (Viola pensylvanica) and River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia).
The Pale Touch-Me-Not, or Yellow Jewelweed, is more common to the mesic woodland areas. It is found growing with Acer saccharum, Asimina triloba, Blephilia hirsuta, Carya cordiformis, Cystopteris fragilis, Dentaria laciniata, Eupatorium rugosum, Fagus grandifolia, Hydrophyllum apendiculatum, Quercus rubra, Sanguinaria canadensis, Smilacina racemosa, Tilia americana, Viola pensylvanica, and Viola striata.
I’ve seen bluebirds atop Mullein stems in open fields in early spring, feeding on the wintered-over seeds. Common Mullein is a member of the snapdragon family that has been introduced from Europe. It is found in dry overgrazed pastures, rocky pastures, occasionally along woodland paths, and is frequent in abandoned fields. It also occurs along railroads and in waste places along with other
disturbed-ground specialists. It has yellow flowers in a tightly packed, spike like cluster. The stem is woolly and erect, with white-woolly stem leaves and arises from a rosette of thick, velvety basal leaves. Its blooming period is mid-June to mid-October.
Mullein has long been used for a variety of purposes. Roman soldiers The leaves are still used as wicks in some areas. The stalks are one of the best materials for a spindle in starting a fire with a mouth- drill or hand-drill. Native Americans lined their moccasins with the leaves to keep out the cold, and colonists used them in their stockings for the same purpose. A tea made from the leaves was used to treat colds and lung ailments, and the flowers and roots applied to the skin for sunburn and other irritations.
Plants of the Chicago Region
By Floyd Swink & Gerould Wilhelm
National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers
By William A. Niering & Nancy C. Olmstead
WEBSITES WITH INFORMATION ABOUT PLANTS
Links: Illinois Natural History Survey
Grand Prairie Friends
Ken Robertson's Home Page
Chicago Botanic Garden
Vermilion County Conservation District
IDNR Division of Natural Heritage
Plant Conservation Alliance
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Center for Plant Conservation
Botanical Gardens & Arboreta
Garden Web Native Plants Forum
Missouri Botanical Garden
Internet Directory for Botany
Other States Native Plant Societies
Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council
Biological Control for Garlic Mustard
Interesting Botany Internet Sites
Kids Educational Sites
These links represent connections to other members of the conservation community. NAA members have suggested these sites as containing information relevant to our mission.
Electronic Green Journal
Environmental Defense Fund
League of Conservation Voters
Man and the Biosphere Species Database
National Wildlife Federation Partners in
The Natural Heritage Network
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Nature Conservancy
Rainforest Action Network
David Suzuki Foundation
The Trust for Public Land
World Resources Institute
World Wildlife Fund
Environmental Protection Agency (U.S.)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. National Park Service
National Plant Data Center (U.S.D.A.)
Michigan Natural Areas Council Departments
The EnviroLink Network
Environment and Nature (Yahoo Search)
Environmental Organization Web Directory
Linkages - International Institute for Sustainable
Natural Resources Research Information Pages
WWW Virtual Library – Environment
Outdoor Education Link
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last updated on December 9, 2011