Bridging Worlds: Integrating Indigenous Wisdom into Environmental Action

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of integrating indigenous wisdom into the environmental movement. This recognition is grounded in compelling reasons: despite representing less than 5% of the global population, indigenous communities protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries.

What distinguishes these communities is not just their ability to survive but also their capacity to thrive within functional societies marked by strong social bonds. They also seem to live in profound harmony with the natural world, unburdened by the pressures of modern life.

An idealized representation of this harmonious existence can be found in the movie “Avatar.” The Na’vi are deeply embedded in their environment, their minds actually seem to extend towards and into the environment. They are so tuned in to life, that they are able to do what seems usually impossible: jumping in great heights from one tree to another, knowing that they will be held, that they can trust in the world.

Interestingly, there is a phenomenon of post-Avatar depression. “Post-Avatar depression” is not a medically recognized condition but rather a term coined informally to describe a phenomenon where some individuals experience feelings of sadness, longing, or a sense of loss after watching the movie “Avatar.” The term suggests that the movie’s portrayal of an idealized, harmonious, and ecologically connected world resonates so strongly with certain viewers that they feel a sense of discontent or even depression when returning to their everyday lives, which may be perceived as less fulfilling or disconnected from nature.

To some extent, I can relate to this feeling. It underscores the cultural longing for a way of life that seems deeply appealing, and for good reasons. Our world is in need of alternative ways of knowing, being, and acting in the world. Many Indigenous cultures embrace an animist worldview that imbues the entire universe with vitality, deriving meaning and wisdom from the natural world — plants, animals, and landscapes. This perspective sees the world not as a collection of lifeless atoms but as a vibrant tapestry teeming with life and meaning.

Indigenous knowledge also offers a holistic perspective on environmental issues. It recognizes the interconnectedness of ecosystems, understanding that the health of the land, water, plants, animals, and people are all interdependent. Many also have a deep respect for biodiversity and have developed conservation practices that protect and promote diverse species of plants and animals. This comprehensive view can provide valuable insights into sustainable land and resource management as well as invaluable for biodiversity conservation efforts.

Moreover, indigenous knowledge systems have stood the test of time, having evolved over generations. They contain traditional practices and wisdom about sustainable agriculture, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship that have proven effective in maintaining ecosystems.

Indigenous knowledge is also highly localized and adapted to specific ecological and cultural contexts. By incorporating this knowledge into sustainability solutions, it becomes possible to develop region-specific strategies that consider the unique characteristics of a particular environment or community.

Yet, despite the potential, there is a challenge in integrating indigenous wisdoms. Just as we can’t expect plants to thrive when uprooted and placed somewhere new, a philosophy can’t be uprooted and thrive when planted elsewhere without nurturing. A philosophy, taken out of context, is not practical. Taking indigenous philosophies without re-rooting them in our western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) world — as Henrich calls them— might help to a certain degree.

Still, their knowledge won’t flourish if it’s not adapted to the soil and the environment it lands in. Just as plants, philosophies have to be rooted in the environment. They need to be contextualized — of time and space and relationships.

How then can indigenous philosophies grow roots in our backyards? What are the nutrients philosophy needs to thrive? How can the spores from indigenous philosophies impregnate ours?

Nourishing the Spores of Indigenous Philosophies

There are two main challenges for indigenous philosophies to root and flourish in our WEIRD world.

Embracing Existential Transformation:

Our profound philosophical disparities with indigenous wisdom necessitate a significant existential transformation of our ways of knowing, being, and acting in the world to integrate their perspectives into our Western worldview.

This transformation, despite the romanticized notions of a deep connection with the more-than-human world, can be intensely discomforting. It involves letting go not only of our individual identities but also the illusion of control and human exceptionalism. We need to acknowledge our humble origins in the earth and our eventual return to it.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

It’s much easier to quote indigenous wisdoms and to claim their validity than it is to embed them ecologically. Rooting indigenous philosophies first requires rooting ourselves in our ecological niche. This process demands unlearning the sensory limitations imposed by late-stage capitalism and realigning ourselves with our local environments. However, this endeavor is neither swift nor necessarily enjoyable.

There’s a common misconception that returning to ecological awareness is all about pleasurable experiences like forest bathing and appreciating pristine beauty in perfect harmony with the more-than-human world. But rooting into our environment can be an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Only through existential discomfort can we tune into our ecological niche. Just like exercise, the first experience is of discomfort. Ultimately, such discomfort is productive, muscles grow, and endorphins release.

Letting Go of the Self:

Rooting indigenous wisdoms also requires that we let go of ourselves. We are not confined by our bodies’ boundaries. In fact, on an atomic level, it is difficult to distinguish where your body ends and where your environment begins. This calls for embracing a broader concept of self that extends beyond our individual bodies.

In reality, our sense of self is intertwined with others. This isn’t just philosophical; it’s practical. Every breath we take incorporates elements from our environment, such as dust and pollen. To rejuvenate our lived experiences with embedded ecological-ness, we must expand our perception of self to encompass these intra-species relationships. Physical boundaries are superficial, everything overflows into everything else.

As we become more aware that our bodies extend beyond our skin’s perimeters and into our ecosystems, we recognize that our actions, like polluting rivers and harming the soil, harm our own bodies. Gaining a better understanding of ongoing environmental harm and its direct impact on our interconnected web of lived experiences is more challenging and, frankly, scarier than individual pursuits of well-being and happiness.

When we lean into our ecological embeddedness and expand our notion of self accordingly, our sense of happiness begins to transcend its contemporary socio-cultural construct. Our perspectives on pleasure and pain undergo radical transformations — we cease to find pleasure in what harms. Liberated from the illusion of an indifferent universe inhabited by isolated, atomized selves, we can begin to nurture a vibrant and communal environment where indigenous philosophies can take root and flourish.


Genuine transformation is often accompanied by discomfort, akin to the ‘growing pains’ of personal growth. While indigenous philosophies offer invaluable insights for our journey toward a regenerative society, it’s crucial to avoid idealizing it as a simple wellness retreat to “the wild”. Rather, our task is to nurture the fertile soil in which these philosophies can take root and thrive to their fullest potential.