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Science Weekly

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘The clock is ticking but the world will teach us what we need to do’

Tue Jun 04 2024
Indigenous KnowledgeScienceNatureBiodiversityClimate Crisis


In this episode, Robin Wall-Kimmera discusses the importance of combining indigenous and scientific knowledge to reframe how we see the world and our place in it. She highlights the wisdom of mosses and the lessons they can teach us about success, gratitude, and reciprocity. Additionally, she explores the need for a shift in values to address the ecological destruction and climate crisis we face. Through her insights, she emphasizes the importance of mutualistic relationships with the natural world.


Combining Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge

By integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the world and promote life's flourishing.

The Wisdom of Mosses

Mosses offer valuable lessons on success, minimalism, and living within natural limits. They play a crucial role in ecosystems and demonstrate the importance of cooperation and mutualism.

Gratitude and Reciprocity

Reframing our relationship with plants and embracing gratitude and reciprocity can lead to a more sustainable and ethical approach to the natural world.

Learning from Indigenous Science

Indigenous science and land care practices hold valuable insights for protecting biodiversity and fostering mutual flourishing between humans and the natural world.

Values Change for Survival

To address ecological destruction and the climate crisis, we must undergo a fundamental shift in values towards responsibility, reverence, and mutualistic relationships.


  1. Vacation and Work
  2. Combining Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge
  3. The Wisdom of Mosses
  4. Gratitude and Reciprocity
  5. Learning from Indigenous Science
  6. Values Change for Survival

Vacation and Work

00:00 - 00:48

  • It's that time of the year. Your vacation is coming up. You can already hear the beach waves, feel the warm breeze, relax and think about work. You really, really wanted all to work out while you were here.
  • gives you and the team that piece of mind. When all work is on one platform and everyone's in sync, things just flow, wherever you are.

Combining Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge

01:14 - 03:25

  • In the Western world, science trumps all in the pursuit of knowledge. For indigenous communities, it's the stories, songs and sayings passed down from generation to generation that contain the most valuable wisdom.
  • But as we plunge the planet deeper into environmental crises, it's becoming clear that it's time to pay attention to both. And my guest today has made it her life's work to weave them together.
  • As scientists we have this incredible privilege to sit at the feet of the living world and learn from them and I think we also have a deep responsibility to protect those living systems as well. Not just to stand back in so-called objectivity.
  • Robin Wall-Kimmera is a botanist, distinguished professor in environmental biology, member of the Citizen Pudawami Nation and founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. But she's probably best known as the author of the hugely popular book "Brading Sweetgrass".
  • In it, she argues that by combining indigenous and scientific knowledge, we can reframe how we see the world and our place in it, and maybe even help life to flourish. Pay attention to the fact that we would not be here without the gifts of other beings. How does that not bring you into a state of profound gratitude?
  • It is a radical act to reclaim your own attention and turn it to the natural world. So today I hear from Robin Wall Kimera about what we can learn from the most ancient plants on earth. Why we need to cultivate gratitude for the natural world and what Western science could learn from indigenous knowledge.

The Wisdom of Mosses

04:21 - 08:29

  • Robin, there's so much that I'm looking forward to asking you about because through your books you offer this really wide and expansive view of our relationship with the natural world. But I actually want to start small because, amongst many of the things that you do, you're a biologist, you study mosses. There's something almost all of us wouldn't usually notice.
  • to them. That's one of the things that drew me to them. They're at the limits of our attention. We think of them as just one thing like green wallpaper, but all you have to do is stop, give them your attention, and this whole new world explodes in front of you. There are more than 17,000 species of bryophytes, so they're sometimes called the coral reef of the forest because they're so
  • mosses were the first plants to put root to land, although they don't actually have roots. They're the most primitive simple plants, which means that they have endured every single climate change that has ever happened since plants colonized the land on earth.
  • 99.9% of all organisms who ever evolved have gone extinct. But the mosses remain and they remain very much like their ancestral forms. And so to me that means that they have adaptations to life on earth that could provide some guidance for us. So what do you think we can learn from these incredible orgs?
  • Well, one of the things is that it helps us re-evaluate what it means to be successful. Mosses are so tiny, right? Overlooked, very, very simple. They're kind of minimalists of the plant world. They take very little from the earth and they give a lot back.
  • I think we should be listening to that in this particular moment when the crises that we face are precipitated by our taking too much. Mosses are some of the most important organisms in an ecosystem, but we overlook them because instead of trying to overpower natural
  • they live within natural limits and flourish through cooperation, through mutualism, through many of the things that we have failed to do. So I think MOSSE has become really important models for us to consider not only in a kind of biomimicry of the mechanics of how we live but the philosophy of how we live as as well, living within our limits.
  • An example of that that you've written about that I was really struck by was the way that mosses interact with water, the fact that they are able to, as you describe it, go with the forces of nature and have this kind of collective economics when it comes to water. So perhaps you can explain to me exactly how that works, how mosses use water.
  • and when they're wet, they can photosynthesize. But if the sun comes out, if the breeze comes up and they start to dry, they have very little resistance. And so when they start to dry up, unlike the plant on your windowsill, if you forget to water it, that becomes all crisp and dry and dead, the mosses are not dead. They're just waiting. If the conditions aren't right for growth, they don't grow.
  • They just sit and wait. When they do have water available, they share it. They move water from leaf to leaf so that all those leaves can photosynthesize. And so what that means is they're essentially sponges. They're holding all this water and then they're slowly releasing it into the atmosphere.
  • which creates high humidity situations, which if you're an insect or exactly what you need. So other very tiny organisms rely on the microclimate that is created by this collective sharing of water. Decomposing organisms, fungi for example, many of them rely on bright...
  • for that moist micro habitat where they can do their decomposition work. So they're really important to the biogeochemistry.

Gratitude and Reciprocity

10:14 - 14:56

  • Robin, for me at least, Moss is a really good example of the relationship many of us have in the Western world with nature. Despite the fact that these are incredibly ancient, diverse and well adapted organisms that formed some of the first plants on earth and gave rise to everything else, I have absolutely no hesitation in ripping them off my garden patio, although admittedly how I might.
  • But you've written a lot about how we need to change our perspective on plants and find some gratitude towards them and how that might help us treat the world with a bit more reciprocity. Perhaps you can explain that a little bit more.
  • in indigenous philosophy, in our pot of water me tradition, we call plants our oldest teachers. So that, of course, opens the question, "Well, what are they teaching us?" And one of those important elements is generosity.
  • from the mosses on your patio, please don't rip them up. To fields of wildflowers and forests, plants are renowned and revered in my culture for their generosity and for their creativity.
  • And reciprocity takes the form of exchange, doesn't it? Like in return for the berries that are produced, let's say, by the service berry, the plant is producing them and giving them to the birds that love to gobble them up, right? Those birds haven't earned those berries. They're a gift from the generosity of the plant.
  • But there is a kind of a loose exchange going on here in that, of course, the birds are fed by that, but the serviceberry can't move around. So you make delicious berries that bring the birds and then the birds move the seeds and plant new service berries. That's a very simple reciprocal exchange.
  • But the whole natural world works in that way. We can't just take, we always have to give back. That's what the plants are showing us. And that is, I think, a thread that runs counter to a lot
  • of contemporary economics, isn't it, of justice relentless taking from the earth that we humans have engaged in in the last couple of centuries. And of course it's coming back, we're paying the price for failing to be in reciprocity.
  • Now, looking at this from a Western scientific perspective, perspective.
  • You could argue that what you're describing is an ecosystem. This thing depends on that thing. And you know that the bird isn't grateful for the berry, it eats it, it eats what it can get, and the berry has evolved to take advantage of that, so its seed is spread out.
  • So why do you think it's important and valuable for us to reframe that and to invoke these feelings of reciprocity and gratitude? Why should we begin to see this in a new way? This is such an important question First of all, I would want to challenge that we say well the bird eats those berries without gratitude Well, how do we know?
  • know that. Our assumption is that there isn't agency on the part of those birds, but you have only to watch them gobbling up those berries and singing as they do so to suggest well maybe they are really grateful for them just as you and I would be grateful for a feast that keeps us alive, right?
  • But what you're pointing out is the ways in which indigenous ecological knowledge and Western scientific ecological knowledge converge on these truths of the reciprocal exchange of nutrients, the flow of energy through an ecosystem. And the reason that I think bringing
  • in the notions of gift and gratitude are so important is that this helps engage us in caretaking for the land. When we understand the land as gift rather than as commodity or natural resource, we imbue it with a sense of responsibility.
  • And our Indigenous story tradition that I draw on so often in addition to scientific ways of knowing, tell us that when we fail to be respectful and grateful, we end up taking too much, we end up abusing the systems and they begin to deteriorate.
  • And so it is the attachment of ethical behavior to our relationship to the physical world that is particularly important.

Learning from Indigenous Science

15:02 - 16:32

  • As well as more philosophical wisdom, it's now well recognised that Indigenous communities protect 80% of the biodiversity that's left here on the planet. So what do you think Western science and ecology needs to learn from Indigenous science?
  • Well, let's take the increasingly well-known example that you just cited, right? When we look at the biodiversity crisis around the planet, and we see exponential losses, right, everywhere, except in the recent UN biodiversity reports that show us there are places on the planet where biodiversity is not plummeting, and that is primarily an Indigenous homelands.
  • And so then we need to be saying, why should that be true? What is it about indigenous land care that actually generates and protects biodiversity rather than diminishes?
  • it and Indigenous science and management practices for the land are a big piece of that, but so is the entire ethos of human people being active participants in the well-being of the world.
  • that instead of this Western view associated with fortress conservation, that says we have to keep people out of land in order to have the land be healthy, this sort of evidence gives the light to that, doesn't it? It says that what we need to be doing...
  • is to be participating in a reciprocal manner with the living world so that people and the plant world and the insect world and the bird world all mutually flourish. We have forgotten that all flourishing is mutual. We tend to have

Values Change for Survival

17:25 - 19:44

  • Robin, the way that you describe the natural world, it's so full of joy and abundance. And yet we live in a time of ecological destruction, the climate crisis, and I expect you to find these things extremely deeply affecting. And recently the Guardian's Environment Editor, Damian Carey-
  • and asked hundreds of climate scientists how they felt about the future. And so now I want to do the same with you. What are your reflections today on us and the planet?
  • We are clearly at a decision point about how it is that we will live into the future. The urgency of that has become so clear, well, not clear enough perhaps to everyone.
  • I guess what I want to do is paraphrase a wonderful teacher and mentor of mine. The great indigenous environmental activist and thinker or alliance of unindogination who is turning 94 this year. And what he said is in his long career of doing this work.
  • and trying to steward change. He said for him, it all comes down to four words and the four words he chose are values change for survival. And that's the moment we are in, that we need to change our values.
  • away from exploitation, accumulation, this treating the world as if it was just a warehouse of commodities moving toward a place for which we have responsibility, for which we feel a sense of practical reverence. And it is those shifts in worldview that could propel us toward change.
  • I feel like we're waking up. I feel like we are on the cusp of imagining a new, more mutualistic way to live together in balance with our more than human relatives. But I worry that the clock is ticking and that we won't change
  • But the world will teach us what it is that we need to do if we're paying attention to those plants and animals around us who are weathering this this time of peril as well Robin, thank you so much. Thanks for a good chat. Thanks again to Robin