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The World Faces a Great Unraveling. If We Ignore Indigenous Wisdom, We Are Lost.

A new podcast, “Holding the Fire,” discusses the global climate crisis with Indigenous people from around the world.

Thousands of activists, indigenous groups, students and others take to the streets of New York for the 'March to End Fossil Fuels' protest on September 17, 2023, in New York City.

We are living amidst Earth’s hottest year ever recorded. Given the severity and acceleration of climate breakdown, we are in an unprecedented time of crisis. While it has been known for a long time that Arctic Sea ice is melting rapidly, recent data show sea ice in the Antarctic, which scientists believed would be shielded from climate impacts for decades, at dramatic all-time lows.

New Orleans, situated on the banks of the once-mighty Mississippi River, is facing a drinking water crisis caused by unusually low flows due to drought, allowing saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico. Extinctions, wildfires, droughts, floods, instability of crops and ever-increasing numbers of climate refugees have become the norm.

Meanwhile, fascism is on the rise around the world, and wealth disparity between the haves and the have-nots, already at record levels, increases daily. All of this environmental and social breakdown is happening against the backdrop of inept, dysfunctional governments that are largely incapable of dealing with this polycrisis.

A few years ago, I would periodically call my friend Stan Rushworth to bemoan the latest news of the crises. He would patiently listen, pause, then say, “Welcome to Indian country,” referencing the fact that Indigenous people have been living amid their own polycrisis for, in some places, millennia.

I quickly learned to hold my tongue, as his comment promptly and dramatically altered my perspective.

Since then, I’ve heard many others offer a similar analysis. Aslak Holmberg, an Indigenous Sámi man who lives on the Deatnu River, on the border of Norway and Finland, shared with me his perspective of how things have gotten to this point of crisis:

I think this is the clear result of an ideology that is already from the start … doomed to fail. Because if you build something on unsustainability then it will crash at one point, and we are at that point when ecosystems are crashing and the whole global climate is starting to collapse.

On Turtle Island, where a country with the name “United States” currently exists, Indigenous peoples have been living within a polycrisis since first contact with settlers and colonists. They have found ways to live among collapse and survive genocide, erasure and ongoing assaults from the government that pushed them off their lands. Today, their traditions, ceremonies and culture not only continue, but in many places are flourishing.

These are the people who are the experts in navigating times like this, and it behooves us to listen. It has been my honor to host a new podcast called “Holding the Fire: Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling,” which presents the perspectives of Indigenous communities from around the world, as all of us, humans and more than humans alike, reckon with the consequences of a global, industrial society built on growth, extraction and colonialism.

A long, winding path has led me to hosting this podcast.

Like many people, I have been horrified, outraged and heartbroken repeatedly by what is happening in the world.

Holding the Fire Podcast Cover

I’ve been drawn to bear witness and document some of the darkest impacts of modern-day empire and capitalism. This started with a risky decision to travel to Iraq during the early months of the U.S. occupation, which turned into a decade of war reporting. I then spent years traveling across the globe to report on the worsening climate crisis, which led me to write The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption.

All of these experiences led me into deep grief; rage, frustration, depression, sadness and despair became constant companions. My friend Joanna Macy, author, eco-philosopher and teacher of The Work That Reconnects, calls the collapse of this unsustainable way of life and all the suffering that comes with it, “the Great Unraveling.” She also points out how this unraveling precedes “the Great Turning,” which will be a vital, creative response and a wholesale reenvisioning of our values and perceptions toward the Earth.

Through this journey, I came to see that those in power are unable or unwilling to alter our current course, where the destruction of nature, the pursuit of resources and profit, and the disregard for life are leading us to ruin. We have to look elsewhere for guidance and leadership.

Amid all of this, Stan suggested we talk with Indigenous people. Given that Indigenous populations around the world have been experiencing collapse, genocide, erasure racism, and other traumas, for millennia, his suggestion made perfect sense. Together we interviewed 20 Indigenous persons from Turtle Island (North America), which were collected in a book titled We Are the Middle of Forever.

While working on that book, I settled into a new sense of calm, and developed a deeper sense of purpose as I began to understand and adopt Indigenous values. I listened to people who had been through the complete collapse of their worlds, but who were also continuing to do great work. They didn’t have false hope. They knew better than anyone what was being done to the planet and to people on the margins of society. Yet here they were, leading the way through our current polycrisis simply by living by Indigenous values as they always had.

Galina Angarova from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, speaks directly to this. She told me:

Understanding the human condition, understanding suffering, knowing our place on this beautiful and fragile planet, having our hearts broken, hurting, grieving, healing, and always, always having hope that we can overcome and thrive. It’s all of it. This is why we’re here. How can I be the best version of myself given the story I was born with and lift and what can I do with it? It’s living the best way that I can, allowing life to happen to me, guided by my heart, caring for others leaving behind something important, after I’m long gone, and that’s how I tried to live those values that came from my grand sisters, my grandmother. And that’s what the land has been teaching us all along.

I had little idea how desperate I had become for this entirely different perspective, not just on what’s happening in the world but on life itself. I know I’m not alone. I have heard from countless people around the world who’ve expressed their own anger, anxiety and grief over the ruinous path on which we find ourselves.

Because the global polycrisis is experienced differently around the world, I recently set out, with the help of many allies, to better understand how Indigenous peoples across the planet view this shared moment of crisis and opportunity.

The podcast “Holding the Fire,” launching today — Indigenous Peoples’ Day — is the outcome of those conversations and gives voice to the insight and wisdom of Indigenous thought leaders from all six permanently inhabited continents, gained from lived experience and cultural memory.

It has been my honor and privilege to speak with, and most importantly, to listen to these remarkable people. The fundamental way I perceive, feel and experience the Great Unraveling has been changed, perhaps best expressed by Lyla June Johnston, a Diné/Tsétséhéstáhese woman in New Mexico:

The polycrisis, and the convergence of crises in the collapse that we are learning about and experiencing — that crisis happened a long time ago. Actually, it’s manifesting now. But this crisis has been going on since 1492. For example, are we reaping what we’ve sown? Maybe the collapse is fruiting now, but didn’t we plant it a long time ago? And why are we so shocked that this is happening?

We’ve been saying this for centuries. It’s almost like the Creator was giving us nine lives; it’s like we were acting a fool. And he was patient and said, ‘OK, well, let me give you another chance.’ And we did it again, and again, and again — kept brutalizing each other, kept brutalizing the Earth, and the Earth can only take so much. The fact that she’s even lasted this long, is incredible, with the amount of brutality and the amount of abuse. But she’s very resilient, she can actually absorb a lot of abuse, she can handle a lot of insanity but only to a certain point. And at a certain point, we can’t go on like this.

And so in that sense, to me, the collapse is almost overdue, like the crisis started a long time ago. And if this is what it takes to sit our butts down and say, ‘No, you cannot do this anymore. Period, find another way. And if you don’t, I’m gonna force you to!’ If that’s what it takes, then so be it, because we’ve been having a ball just being extremely disrespectful to her and to each other, and with no consequences whatsoever. And so, in that sense, it’s not such a radical reframing at all. It’s almost like a no-brainer. What did we expect, extracting her, treating her like a slave, treating the soil like it’s just here for our benefit?

Hosting this podcast has been a journey of heart and mind, one that has taken me deeper in both understanding, feeling and awareness of what these times are asking from each of us. I trust that by listening with your heart, you will have a similar experience.

As the Great Unraveling deepens, we need as many people as possible to wake from the false, destructive dream of infinite growth and techno-utopian progress and embrace a different, deeper way of knowing and being. The voices featured on “Holding the Fire” are pointing humanity back to our collective heart. I hope, after listening to these wise people, you will be moved to join in creating the different future we need.

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