Colette Sheridan: Does folk wisdom have a role in combating climate change?

Perhaps we could learn something from some indigenous communities whose new way of fighting climate change involves giving personhood rights to nature, so says Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: Does folk wisdom have a role in combating climate change?

CLEANSING? Pilgrims in the Ganges river in India. But their actions are contributing to it being the world’s sixth most polluted river

IN the face of climate change, a lot of us are inclined to shrug our shoulders and mutter hopelessly that it’s too late to reverse the damage wrought by man on the environment.

It just seems too big to tackle.

We make small gestures, like recycling plastic containers. Assertive types shopping in supermarkets leave the wrapping at the check-out desk, telling the staff that they don’t want to bring home this unnecessary extra as it will simply add to landfill waste.

By doing this, conscientious shoppers’ wishes will be relayed back to suppliers who, it is hoped, will pay attention and change their packaging policy.

The world we live in makes it difficult to be truly green. Yummy mummies are purchasing expensive ‘natural’ washing up liquid and recycling the container.

But often, these well-intentioned women drive to the eco-store to make their purchase, instead of walking or using public transport.

Perhaps we could learn something from some indigenous communities whose new way of fighting climate change involves giving personhood rights to nature.

Sounds barmy? Well, not as far as the Yoruk Tribe is concerned.

Their name means ‘downriver people’. They are Native Americans who live in north-west California near the Klamath River and the Pacific Coast.

During the summer, these people declared rights of personhood for the River Klamath — the first to do so for a river in North America. It means quite simply that the river has rights, normally the preserve of humans.

The resolution was passed in May during another difficult season for the Klamath, according to High Country News. In recent years, low water flows have led to high rates of disease in salmon and fishing seasons have had to be cancelled.

There is, apparently, a growing Rights of Nature movement aimed at protecting the environment. It’s coming from indigenous communities and is inspired by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. This enshrines the right of indigenous people to conserve and protect their lands and resources.

Indigenous lawyers say that the main aspect to establishing these legal frameworks involves recognising non-human entities not as resources, but as rights’ holders.

What this means for recreational fishermen I don’t know. Can they have their fish and eat it?

The Yurok resolution means that if the river is harmed, a case can be made in Yoruk tribal court to fix the problem. It’s aimed at “making the river whole again,” says Yurok Tribe general counsel, Amy Cordalis.

But while indigenous wisdom is often worth paying attention to, there are glaring anomalies in folk or religious traditions when it comes to beliefs and actual reality.

Take the River Ganges which, in Hinduism, is considered sacred and is personified as the goddess Ganga. She is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitates the liberation from the cycle of life and death, known as moksha.

Pilgrims put the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges to bring the spirits closer to moksha.

However, the Ganges is severely polluted with human waste and industrial contaminants. The river, the largest in India, provides water to about 40% of India’s population. But it is considered to be the sixth most polluted river in the world.

The primary reasons for pollution in the Ganges are population increase, human activities such as bathing, washing clothes, the bathing of animals and the dumping of damaging industrial waste in it.

So much for worshipping the Goddess Ganga. She is clearly not being shown respect.

Or, at best, the people that are following the Hindu faith, are deluded if they think it is somehow purifying to bathe in the river.

Locally, the River Lee is almost a character in Catherine Kirwan’s hit thriller, Darkest Truth. The opening page of the book reads: ‘With high tide due at 18.42, I needed to move fast. I saved the document I was working on, logged out and felt around with my feet under my paper-strewn desk. Nothing. I’d forgotten my wellies. Which meant I had to move really fast. The city is built on a bog, and when the tide is high enough, and the rain is heavy enough, and the wind is blowing in the right direction, Cork can do floods better than anywhere else in the country. The streets that once were rivers revert to watery highways, and there’s an eerie beauty to it all, if you don’t have to mop out a flooded shop or dump a sodden carpet.’

The River Lee and its propensity to flood is the bane of city centre traders and low-lying dwellers. It’s a difficult ‘character’ which has to be controlled.

Loving the Lee is challenging when it afflicts businesses. No wonder Corkonians have a love/hate relationship with it.

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