Sustainable development has become firmly rooted in the public debate, and has also become a permanent part of the everyday language of economists, environmental researchers and political scientists. The concept has gained popularity just as quickly as it has lost its reputation as it’s considered a term meaning both everything and nothing at the same time. It has recently been replaced with the concept of climate change, which at the same time diverts our attention from the way of solving problems in favour of the causes of the situation in which our ecosystem is.

During our conversation, I’d like us to talk about your opinion on sustainable development. I want to define what “our Gdańsk academic understanding of sustainable development” is. Hence, my first question for you, as a cultural expert, concerns what associations come to your mind when you think of sustainable development and how is sustainable development present in your daily research and teaching work? Do you think that a radical global change of way of life and consumption is possible? Is it likely that diverse societies, at different stages of development, will take up the challenge of taking the same direction of development?

It seems to me that we have no choice now, because sustainable development is a condition for our further functioning, but for this to succeed, the absolute basis is to change the way of thinking, to raise the awareness of society. Such a process, however, always takes a long time, so you have to start with small steps and wait patiently for the first effects. In turn, the very concept sustainable, in my opinion – although I don’t have such inclinations – refers to the philosophy of the East, the balance of power, the Taoist concept of wu wei. It means activities that lead to human existence in conformity with nature. However, I’m afraid that just leaving things alone isn’t enough at the moment. We must first reflect on the state of the world, which is largely the result of our human actions, and try to direct it in a better – and more sustainable – way.

The very topic of sustainable living and sustainable development is present in my daily academic practice in several areas. The first is related to the understanding of sustainable development, corresponding to my research in the Amazon. I work with two groups (Quichua and Huaorani), one of which still lives partially keeping balance, living in its settlement, where they have everything they need to live. People there live off the forest, taking care to meet their own needs: they hunt, gather, but they also have gardens where they grow vegetables. Interestingly, most of them prefer to live in the forest, like their ancestors used to, rather than in the city. Their lives, like of other indigenous groups,  are balanced and always have been because they’re aware of their dependence on nature. Of course, many changes have taken place in this area today, but despite this, many traditions are maintained.

The second such area is the activities around sustainable development undertaken in the world. Activities related to the Anthropocene, to climate change in a very broad context.

The third one is sustainable development implemented on a microscale. Such a plane is e.g. our university. We can start the process of change from above, which our graduates will continue after completing their education. We can play the role of change leaders thanks to our institutional capabilities. This requires changes in the education process that include both theoretical and practical content on sustainable development.

In my opinion, we should also build this microscale of changes in everyday practice, show students that it’s possible to function more environmentally friendly, not to use plastic cutlery and plates at the university, introduce electronic document circulation to save paper, etc. A lot of these things can be done. I’ve recently read that AGH UST in Kraków prepared winter huts for hedgehogs at the campus. I believe that this is an excellent idea not only from a natural, but also didactic point of view. Let’s show in practice that the fate of nature is important to us, because it is one of the ways to promote sustainable life and development. Hedgehog houses are a small step, but in my opinion very important, and if it contributes to someone’s reflection on our place in nature, it’s priceless.

Looking for common solutions to take actions towards sustainable development means the necessity to collide and juxtapose different perspectives. In the field of science, interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity are useful. Interdisciplinary research consists in using the theoretical resources of various scientific disciplines to solve problems arising at their contact point. It requires theories from several scientific disciplines to be coupled and is less frequently conducted than multidisciplinary studies. The latter, however, are of great value in terms of understanding the complexity of problems such as sustainable development. Do you have experience in conducting research that exceeds the scientific discipline you represent?

A cultural expert must be very versatile. I often tell my students that a cultural expert must be multidisciplinary, because we need to be knowledgeable about geography, mathematics and, for example, needlework. Therefore, from my perspective, interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary cooperation are not only possible, but even necessary to understand cultural phenomena. The very selection of a common research subject by representatives of various scientific fields and disciplines, and learning about its complexity, allows researchers in this smallest dimension to sensitise us to the complexity of the human and non-human world. Four years ago, I conducted research with my students in Thailand, on the coast of the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, as part of a Polish-Latvian-Thai project. It was an interdisciplinary project, we worked with biologists. There were four students among us – two of biology and two of cultural studies. We investigated how fishermen from a local village in the mangrove forest area use the marine environment. Biologists determined which species of fish breed in the mangrove forest. Our role was to find, among others, answers to the question of how local fishermen use the marine environment and how they use local species of fish. The research itself was an interesting experience as we exchanged methodologies and theories, which resulted in a more complete picture of the reality under study. In this project we also did an experiment that consisted in that the biologists took the culture experts fishing for two days and I, in turn, took the biology students to a village where they learned – in a sense – about the fate of the same fish they had previously studied as biologists. We are planning to continue our research in India and Ecuador. However, in the case of the project carried out in Thailand, we can’t talk about sustainable development, because the waters there are overfished by large industrial vessels and this creates problems for local fishermen. Probably, if they were left alone on these waters, the biological balance would return in a short time, and sustainable development could also follow, but this isn’t possible in this part of the world. I doubt whether it would be possible anywhere nowadays.

Your research shows a variety of approaches to sustainable development, but also different motivations and relationships between culture and nature, which also influence specific behaviours. What is characteristic for indigenous peoples’ approach?

In the case of indigenous groups, this difference is connected with something much broader. Unfortunately, I’d associate this with the effects of colonialism, because in the economy we constantly think about balancing our actions so that we don’t use up natural resources as they are scarce, because they are limited. Of course, it’s different in indigenous cultures. In Western cultures, in the Christian tradition, of course, culture is separate from nature. And here we have the imperative to control nature. Nature is for us and we’re supposed to use it. In indigenous cultures, culture is part of nature. It’s an element of it, so it’s obvious that the use of nature must be sustainable. In many places people still live in such a way as not to overexploit resources because they are aware that they might soon run out. For example, in Australia, the Aborigines who lived on the water’s edge used resources in a very sustainable way. If a group came to the coast at some time and caught fish, and ate it for a few days or a few weeks, or a crab or a mollusc, they would leave their shells on the beach. When another group came there later, they concluded from the remnants on the beach that they could no longer eat certain foods because that would be excessive exploitation. And they also left more shells as a message for the next group. This is the simplest example of acting sustainably: we use resources in a way that will also allow us to use them in the future. We use resources enabling their reproduction. European colonisation brought a new way of exploitation that was neither sustainable nor friendly. It was predatory. Examples include the obtaining of rubber in Africa and the Amazon, and timber harvesting in the Amazon. A whole new type of economy was imposed on indigenous groups everywhere. In the first period, the most important thing was profit. The second phase of imperialism, which came a little later, was related to politics. During colonisation, deforestation took place, and the natural environment was destroyed. New excessive exploitation devastated the environment in which the natives lived. They could no longer live as they used to. Much later, post-colonialism appeared, according to which we should decolonise our thinking about the world. It appreciated different ways of perceiving the world, which is also characteristic of anthropology, which tries to look at, or at least get closer to, understanding the fact that not everyone perceives the world or uses the world and interprets it as we do. Currently, a lot of research is being conducted on indigenous knowledge, not only on what they know, but also knowledge understood as a way of perceiving the world. From the perspective of the theory of culture, our language and our culture are the filters through which we perceive the world. If we’re brought up in a culture, it seems to us that the whole world is organised just like in our culture, which of course is not true, but everyone thinks so. The dominant European culture took away from indigenous groups not only their livelihoods, not only the environment, but also their culture, their way of thinking, customs and language. Now we are trying to give voice to them, saying that their ways of perceiving the world are not only not inferior or less valuable, but are those from which we can learn how to function better in the world.

What is young people’s, for example your students’ attitude to what you’ve just said?

I run workshops on indigenous shamanism, often for secondary school students. For example, when I explain to them what shamanism is about, that there is a belief in a parallel world inhabited by spiritual beings who have access to us and who can harm us, doubts appear. At one of the workshops, a secondary school student said to me: “Okay, but how can they believe that some beings are walking around somewhere in some world. It makes no sense.” I answered that I understood his remark and that I wouldn’t like to go into religious matters but I understand that the point is that it isn’t possible to prove that spirit beings exist. The student admitted that this was what he meant when he asked the question. I asked if he could prove that Catholic God exists, because in both cases it’s about faith. We believe in this, they believe in something else. We are brought up in the culture of the West, so for us the faith that functions in the culture of the West is so obvious and natural that it seems to be the norm everywhere. Other concepts, other ways of leading a life are alien to us. When it comes to students, especially of cultural studies, they are often sensitive to difference in all aspects, which is very encouraging from my point of view.

Does technological development in the field of communication help or hinder the promotion of indigenous cultures?

On the one hand, technologies are strongly Westernised, on the other hand – they can be an excellent tool for promoting indigenous cultures. Everyone who has access to the Internet, for example, can post information about their culture. However, the free market economy, technology and science in which we operate have a huge impact on us – all elements of our life come from Western culture. We’re so saturated with it that it is sometimes difficult for us to go beyond such thinking.

Can you enumerate some examples of negative understandings of cultural differences?

In anthropology, examples are even given of aid projects that have failed for this reason. In Africa, an aid project was being carried out for a local group and it was decided that men working on the plantations would only work a certain number of hours to keep everything in order. However, when the finished project was taken to the place, it turned out that in this culture women pick up tea leaves, not men. But, the project assumed cooperation with men – no one had taken into account the fact that there was a different labour division in this group based on gender. The project, of course, was not implemented.

Negative understanding of cultural differences is present in our everyday lives – it can be seen in stereotypes, in jokes and in comments. All people are prone to recognising their culture as better because they are brought up in it and find it difficult to go beyond such thinking. For me, a very important role of the humanities and social sciences is to change such an attitude in society.

What is your position on climate change and attempts to counteract its negative effects?

Referring to nine planetary resilience boundaries, it should be remembered that four of the nine were already exceeded in 2009.Currently, we’re dealing with the disappearance of species, with deforestation, many processes can’t be reversed.We should persuade everyone that we have to act differently.The lack of social awareness is the greatest obstacle to overcoming the crisis. Changes should be introduced on the basis of this awareness.Research shows that there was once no depression in indigenous groups and few mental illnesses were diagnosed.This situation was a positive effect of community life: sharing food, skills, and lending support to each other. Life was different.Of course, I’m not saying that we should go back to this way of life, because it wouldn’t be possible.However, there’s no doubt that it was more balanced.Our actions also influence the lives of those people who’d like to lead a balanced live, but can’t.

Do you encounter specific effects of climate change while conducting your research?

I conduct my research in the Amazon in Ecuador, where the Yasuní National Park is located – it’s a park recognised as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which is one of the places with the greatest biodiversity in the world. Part of the community that I study lives in this park. They have lived there for centuries, some of their land that has been allocated to them is either on the border of the park or partly in the park. And that’s where the trouble starts. The first is that the economy of Ecuador is based on the extraction of crude oil, which is obtained through concessions granted by the government to foreign oil companies. They extract oil and export it from Ecuador. For many years, the companies did not observe any regulations in the process of oil extraction. What is the effect of this? Indigenous groups who want to live there by taking advantage of the forest can’t because the soil is saturated with petroleum waste. It is similar in Brazil, Venezuela and Peru. The global economy is encroaching there very intensively, making it impossible for people to live the way they’d like.

Second, in 2007, Ecuador announced a plan to extract oil from under the Yasuní National Park. Then various countries, organisations and foundations began to alarm that the UNESCO biosphere couldn’t be destroyed in order to obtain oil. The Ecuadorian government emphasised that it was one of few sources enabling the development of the state. Oil and tourism are the two main sectors from which Ecuador earns revenues. The government of Ecuador, however, set up a project according to which crude oil in Yasuní wouldn’t be extracted, but as compensation various global organisations, governments and foundations would pay back to the government of Ecuador 1/3 of the profits that the country would have obtained from oil extraction. 2011 was set as a deadline. In 2013, the project was terminated because the sufficient amount of money had not been obtained.

Currently, crude oil is extracted in the Yasuní National Park. For example, in the area where I conduct my research, drilling began 15 km from the village, in the park area. The impact of oil extraction on indigenous culture is direct, as it functions in every dimension in connection with the forest. All cultural elements have been related to the natural environment and are still used today. Today, hammocks and baskets are still woven, although the local population also uses plastic and metal containers. There are gas cookers in homes, but also traditional furnaces. The problem is losing the possibility of living off the forest in the future because there is too much traffic and noise, polluted land and water, etc. It may sound funny, but as a personal protest, I never, in any country, refuel at the Chevron station, which is responsible for contaminating vast expanses of the Ecuadorian Amazon with petroleum waste. Even when refuelling here, I feel guilty, because in the Amazon I found out what the real cost of fuel is. Of course, I don’t think the gasoline at the village petrol station comes from the Amazon, but it doesn’t matter. It comes from somewhere else where oil companies start anti-sustainable processes through their activities. It’s not just that we can go to the park and see it, it’s that the park must be there. I’ve read that the preservation of a biological species is possible when we let ten specimens out of a million die out a year, and we exceed that number a hundred times. It’s important to live in accordance with the idea of sustainable development everywhere, and not only in places where it’s supported by law.

What is the process of informing the world about this situation?

There isn’t much information, although it’s slowly changing. But, for example, in 2015, during the Paris climate summit, indigenous groups protested a lot. Little was said about it in the media. There were protests because the fragment about respecting the rights of indigenous people was removed from the main text of the appendix. Indigenous groups’ mentality, life, or philosophy wasn’t as important as that of the West. This year’s Glasgow climate summit is more publicised, so maybe such information will reach a wider audience.

What can we do on a microscale at the University of Gdańsk?

First of all, show sustainable development in practice, which should come “from the top”. We should teach students who go out into the world after studying with us, what you can do, starting from yourself: reduce plastic consumption, add vegan dishes to the menu in campus bars or promote the trend of sustainable development in your own environment.


The interview was carried out by Sylwia Mrozowska, PhD, DSc, Prof. of the UG