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Biocultural Conservation: the Antidote to Nihilism?

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.00.12 PMIn celebration of its 50th anniversary this fall, National Tropical Botanical Garden and its lead partner, the Botany Department of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington, D.C., entitled Agents of Change — Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century. The one-day event will take place on October 7, 2014 at the Museum of Natural History.  Click for details

 

By Kawika Winter, Ph.D., Director, Limahuli Garden and Preserve

If there is one universal trend amongst the vast majority of cultures around the world in the 21st Century, it is an ever moving shift away from ancestral traditions. With the near exponential increase of the percentage of the human population living in cities, disconnected from the natural resources that shaped the lives and identities of their ancestors, there is grave concern amongst many observers that these ancestral cultures will be lost in the name of progress.

 

Restoration of ancient cultural sites are a part of the biocultural conservation work done at Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the island of Kaua`i in the Hawaiian Islands. Photo credit: Makana Cameron
Restoration of ancient cultural sites are a part of the biocultural conservation work done at Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the island of Kaua`i in the Hawaiian Islands. Photo credit: Makana Cameron
An open market in Thailand depicting the amazing diversification of tomatoes and peppers, both members of the same botanical family which humans have been co-evolving with for millennia. This plant family, Solanaceae, is a major contributor to the richness of the human experience. Photo credit: Kawika Winter
An open market in Thailand depicting the amazing diversification of tomatoes and peppers, both members of the same botanical family which humans have been co-evolving with for millennia. This plant family, Solanaceae, is a major contributor to the richness of the human experience. Photo credit: Kawika Winter

 

Some cultures on the planet have been on a long and slow road leading up to this. For members of these cultures, change has come relatively slow, having a seemingly acceptable bit of change coming with each progressive generation. The change has been so stepped and steady, that it may just appear to be natural progress; and the things that have been lost may seem like an acceptable price for modernity.

There are many other cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, for whom this change has been abrupt and often painful. Loss of ancestral language; breakdown of the family system; disconnection from the plants and animals that are the source of culinary, medicinal, and ceremonial traditions have synergistically contributed to the loss of identity and self-esteem; declining physical, mental, and spiritual health; and an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence.  The change has been so abrupt and painful that, for many, it seems like an unconscionable cost for progress.  But what indigenous cultures have gone through is actually happening with many other cultures around the globe as well.  The difference is temporal and spatial scale. 

Throughout time, cities have risen at the expense of ancestral traditions, and eventually fallen.  Some have even recognized a correlation between the slow and increasing distance from natural resources, the growth of various nihilistic movements within civilizations over the last few thousand years, and how those movements have ultimately contributed to the collapse of civilizations.  But is it all inevitable?  Many would contend not, and further that a large part of the solution is Biocultural Conservation.

 

Perpetuating traditions are a part of the biocultural conservation work done at Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the island of Kaua`i in the Hawaiian Islands. Here a Native Hawaiian plays konanae, an ancient game of strategy. Photo credit Kawika Winter
Perpetuating traditions are a part of the biocultural conservation work done at Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the island of Kaua`i in the Hawaiian Islands. Here a Native Hawaiian plays konanae, an ancient game of strategy. Photo credit Kawika Winter

 

Biodiversity and conservation are not ‘lifestyle choices’ – they are the measure of civilization or, in their absence, its decline.  The richness of the human experience – from culinary adventures, to creation stories that hold our family systems together, to transcendental spiritual experiences, and everything in between – is in eminent peril.  Gardens are uniquely poised to play a leadership role as educators, advocates and innovators.  From ancient times botanical gardens have historically been the interpretation centers of biocultural diversity, and the most relevant ones in contemporary times do the same.  Ultimately, botanical gardens may be the antidote to nihilism.

In celebration of our 50th Anniversary, NTBG and the Botany Department, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington DC entitled: Agents of Change – Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century on Tuesday, October 7, 2014.  I am honored to be joined by Dr. Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, and one of my mentors, Dr. Will McClatchey of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, on the panel, “Biocultural Conservation: Interpreting the Richness of the Human Experience.”  We will explore how botanical gardens have historically approached this topic, and look at some of the more innovative approaches used by contemporary institutions around the country – including some of our work at Limahuli Garden and Preserve in Hawai`i.

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Comments

  1. Harley Goldberg
    San Jose, CA
    November 19, 2014, 5:07 pm

    Drawing a sweeping context of the human experience, you have beautifully laid a path for what individuals can do to cultivate connection with life and joy in living. Thank you. Are the proceedings of the conference accessible for those unable to attend?

  2. Andrea Cvecic
    Croatia
    October 6, 2014, 1:19 am

    An edgy agenda, nihilism correlated to a civilisation measure.

  3. Fred Bove
    San Francisco CA
    October 3, 2014, 3:18 pm

    Kawika, Thank you for a great article bringing attention to one of life’s most important issues. I treasure the time I spend at Limahuli. So inspiring. Mahalo for all you do!

  4. Carmen Winter Neilson
    United States
    September 25, 2014, 2:00 am

    Your leadership, knowledge and dedication to preserving the ancient cultures of Hawaii and around the world is inspiring. Carmen Winter Neilson