A hidden gem at the AMS 2024 Annual Meeting? Rising Voices.

 “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  – Mark Twain? (No, not really[1].)

The AMS 2024 Annual Meeting reflected two major trends. The first is the rapid enlisting of new technology, especially AI, to address fundamental problems of the geosciences and related social sciences, in order to advance these disciplines. The second is the growing urgency and speed with which these advances are being harnessed for societal benefit. This latter is itself motivated and enabled by technology, again highlighting AI. These trends are combining to transform the meetings and indeed the AMS. They were everywhere evident in Baltimore this past January; they will likely be even more pronounced in coming years.

Step back a bit. A worldwide awareness and mindset is driving these trends. (To greatly oversimplify, in the interest of brevity) that worldview notes that population growth is slowing, but not everywhere. It’s growing most rapidly where the local populations remain impoverished. The worldview accepts as given: a universal, insatiable human appetite for more resulting in competition for acquisition, control and consumption of natural and financial resources. It sees economic growth, largely-but-not-entirely-free competitive markets and continuing innovation in these pursuits as the only way forward.

The world knows all this for sure.

But just maybe it ain’t so.

Worldwide, nations also see, amidst this mainstream perspective, the remnants of myriad indigenous cultures that once offered and continue to hold to different viewpoints and values. (Of particular interest here are the bits of these cultures and value systems dealing with the environment, with natural resource ownership and use, and with wealth and consumption more  generally.) Though diverse, and quasi-independent in origin, a number of these indigenous cultures have developed essentially similar ideas – for example, a degree of agreement that human beings “belong to nature” as opposed to “nature belongs to human beings” – that the human role is stewardship rather than ownership.

It’s easy to oversimplify and romanticize all this; to avoid that error here let’s limit the discussion to this restrained excerpt from a United Nations document:

Indigenous Peoples have, over the course of generations, developed rich sets of knowledge about the natural world, health, technologies and techniques, rites and rituals and other cultural expressions. Culture is… inextricably linked to Indigenous Peoples’ identity, their traditional knowledge, their experiences with the natural environment [emphasis added] and hence their territorial and cultural rights. Cultural practices, traditions and values of Indigenous Peoples – as long as they are in line with human rights principles – can play a critical and positive role in advancing and promoting gender equality and human rights.

It’s worth noting that the mainstream worldview sees indigenous perspectives as endangered – on the verge of extinction. For example, from the same UN document:

The importance of land and territories to Indigenous cultural identity cannot be stressed enough. However, Indigenous Peoples have continued to experience loss of access to lands, territories and natural resources. The result has been that Indigenous cultures today are threatened with extinction in many parts of the world. Due to the fact that they have been excluded from the decision-making and policy frameworks of nation-states in which they live and have been subjected to processes of domination and discrimination, their cultures have been viewed as being inferior, primitive, irrelevant, something to be eradicated or transformed.

This same UN document ventures to forecast that 90% of the 6000-7000 oral languages in the world today may be lost within the next one hundred years. To read some of the literature on these topics is to come away with the sense that the world’s chances of preserving any of this diversity are similar to those involved in preserving biodiversity in the face of climate change or reining in climate change itself. In other words, essentially nil.

The 2024 AMS Annual Meeting offered a window into this world. The experience led me to draw a different, more hopeful conclusion.

Start with some background. UCAR’s Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences collaborated with the AMS Committee on Spirituality, Multi-faith Outreach and Science (COSMOS) to put on Convergence Science: Indigenous Weather, Water and Climate Knowledge Systems, Practices and Communities. The program comprised three Monday panel discussions, entitled respectively Rising Voices, Changing Coasts: a new/old approach to convergence science; Tribal Story Maps: Integrating and Sharing Tribal Knowledge and Science through the Visual Language of Geography; and Convergence Science in the Context of Integrating Weather and Climate Science with Studies of Marine and Coastal Resources and Geophysical Processes. The conversations (captured by video recordings on these links, ICYMI) made for a memorable day. The meeting room was one of the smallest in the venue, and yet there was ample seating, in contrast to the standing-room-only AI sessions going on at the opposite end of the Convention Center. The pace was leisurely, but the conversation animated, and yet at the same time both informal and respectful. (To gain a better feel for the day and experience, read Isabella Herrera’s truly excellent post on the AMS Front Page blog, which I discovered belatedly in the act of posting this.)

But here’s the thing. The vibe didn’t have the feel of something fragile, endangered, needing protection – about to go extinct. It would more accurately be described as nascent, full of life and rich in potential, offering messages of hope and alternative pathways forward with respect to climate change, coastal resources and more that the larger world should be hungry to hear.

Why? Because the world’s prevailing approach to climate change and related challenges – maintain enthusiasm for acquisition, control and consumption of resources, but sustainably support these through improved technology – seems to be falling short. In particular, the pace of transitioning to renewable energy seems to be lagging what’s needed to maintain climate conditions favorable to life on Earth – for technological, economic, and political reasons. The world needs some new ideas – with some new intellectual DNA. Rising Voices has these on offer.

An analogy: this is not unlike the struggle individuals and populations the world over face with obesity, highlighted in a recent WHO report (worth the read), which has received a great deal of media attention the past few days. Efforts to regulate weight through pure self-control tend to come a cropper for both biological and psychological reasons.

But new medications, including some developed originally as therapies for type-2 diabetes, have been found to help. In the same way, it might be hoped that a kind of reverse acculturation – in which the world’s dominant consumption-based cultures take up some of the desired features of the minority/indigenous cultures, rather than the other way around – would be of help.

LOTRW readers might be tempted to see this possibility as unrealistic – dismiss it out of hand. Here are three reasons to reconsider.

First, meteorologists and climatologists are engaged every day in this same process of reverse acculturation. Our urbanized, climate-controlled world tends to see weather, climate and environmental conditions more broadly as irrelevant or at most minor compared to their more pressing daily concerns. We’re constantly in the business of encouraging that world to see climate change, hazard vulnerability, pollution, and reduction and habitability as requiring more priority and urgent action. In this respect, we should see ourselves as fellow travelers with indigenous peoples.

Second, climate scientists and professionals in related disciplines have long recognized there isn’t a single silver bullet for coping with these challenges. Instead, they’ve developed wedge-based approaches, grouping individual interventions into climate stabilization wedges each incrementally reducing carbon emissions. Indigenous perspectives on natural resources and their consumption might form the basis for an additional wedge – as well as strengthening some of the others.

Third, some might argue that respect for nature and stewardship rather than ownership reflect hunter-gatherer, nomadic ways of life, where resource acquisition is difficult and by definition traveling light is not just an advantage but a necessity. But it might be that closer examination of developed-country life reveals that it often brings not satisfaction, but anxiety. For most, this means the anxious striving to meet not just needs but wants – to have not just enough, but to have abundance. For a privileged few who “have all they want,” it’s the fear of somehow losing it. When it comes to happiness, even the privileged might not be better off than the nomads. (This idea is especially poignant in light of the latest World Happiness Report which suggests that world happiness is generally down; that America’s ranking among the nations has fallen from 15th to 23rd, a new low; and that American youth, who used to be happier than the middle-aged, and about as happy as the elderly, are now the least happy.)

In conclusion, it was a privilege to be in the Rising Voices room at AMS – and a shame that more people weren’t. One of the more encouraging outcomes of the day was an idea tabled to raise the visibility of indigenous perspective and approach at a future AMS Annual Meeting – possibly by organizing a plenary-level session inviting tribal leaders as well as indigenous scientists. In that room, on that day, it was even possible to imagine future AMS meetings where these topics might be receiving their 10th or 20th annual airing, and where talks and attendance might have grown by an order of magnitude or even two.

[1] Sadly, as the link demonstrates, yet another “quote” apparently misattributed to Mark Twain. The quote’s actual origins remain unknown. Its roots might more accurately be described as the result of crowdsourcing and wordsmithing over time by several persons.

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