What Can Indigenous Coastal Peoples Teach Us About Environmental Conservation? 12 Questions with Anthropologist Philippe Max Rouja (PhD)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades or are one of those people who’re in denial about climate change and other related issues, you know that our environment is in dire straits. Global temperatures are rising, unprecedented levels of CO2 are present in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans are filling up with plastic and other pollutants, and there’s less nature than ever before. As a result, species are disappearing at an alarming rate, there are more wildfires and natural disasters, global temperatures are rising, and people are getting sick from losing touch with nature, breathing in polluted air, and eating contaminated food.

As we know, this depressing state of things didn’t come into being as a result of some uncontrollable factor or factors, but rather because of our own actions. It’s us humans who’ve wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s also our responsibility to work on cleaning up the mess. Some have just capitulated, saying that all hope is lost; however, others are continuing to fight the good fight, working hard to save the environment. Much of the hope is that new technology will save us, and that’s also where much of the focus is at at the moment. Less attention has been devoted to what we could potentially learn from people who live in a more sustainable manner, in agreement with nature. That may have been a mistake…

Like other creatures, we humans have a tendency to focus on the here and now. Most of us don’t go around reflecting on how things were like some 100, 1000, or 10000 years ago. That’s just not the way we’re wired. Hence, it can be easy to forget or overlook the fact that for the vast majority (>99.9%) of the time we humans have been around, we managed to live on this Earth without inflicting serious damage on the environment. For most of that time, we were out in the wild, a part of, as opposed to separated from, nature.

The overall state of things have changed a lot since those primal days – we’re more people than ever and are more technologically dependent than ever. In other words, many aspects of the more natural way of life of our ancestors may be difficult or impossible to implement on a large scale today. A widespread ban of all motorized vehicles, for example, is most certainly not going to go down so well. That said, we can clearly learn a lot from our ancestors.

Most of the focus in this respect has been on nutrition, physical activity, and other health and fitness-related aspects of our lives. That’s also what’s at the center of this site. What I haven’t talked much about are the potential environmental lessons we may learn from our ancestors. Not because I don’t think an evolutionary perspective is of any value in this respect, but rather because I’m not an expert on environmental issues and because that’s not what this site is primarily about. I’m very concerned about the environment though, and also recognize that the issues we’re currently facing are of medical importance, in that they have effects on health throughout the entire ecosystem of the Earth.

For that reason, I was happy to get a chance to speak to Phillipe Max Rouja, a cultural/medical anthropologist who’s spent much of his life in and around the ocean. In addition to exploring and managing historic marine artefacts (e.g., shipwrecks), he’s examined indigenous coastal communities, both as part of his PhD thesis and in subsequent research. The people he’s visited with are by no means “pure” hunter-gatherers, closely resembling Palaeolithic humans; however, they retain certain notable aspects of their ancestral lifeways. I first became aware of his work through an e-mail he sent me via the contact form here on the site. I was immediately intrigued, and upon checking it out, quickly decided it was something I’d like to feature and draw attention to here on the site.

So, without further ado, let’s hear what Philippe has to say…

1. Please tell us a little about yourself, focusing particularly on your educational background, passions, and work

That is pretty hard to summarize – for several reasons — but mostly because there isn’t a consistent straight line. I was born in Bermuda and have spent most of my life here but my dad was French from the Pyrenees from a historically rich area called Ariege. I spent two years and many summers as a child with my grandmother in a little village called Le Mas d’Azil – that you access by driving through a large grotto – a cave that breaches a small mountain or large hill. That cave features very strongly in the prehistory of the region with multiple human occupations dating at least as far back as 20,000 years ago, with humans using it as a place of shelter all the way into the 1940’s with significant historical uses by persecuted people (e.g., protestants) throughout recent centuries past. There are dolmen dotting the landscape and remnants of Gaul villages in the hillsides. Stunning quite frankly and when I was a boy all of overseen and treasured by local experts and amateur historians and archaeologists.

Bermuda is quite a contrast – obviously ocean-centered with a much shorter human history. However, being so isolated it was also strategically placed and has quite a unique heritage. My mother comes from a family of Bermudian sea-farers and farmers who came to Bermuda from England and the Azores at different times. Bermuda is an anomaly in that prior to the 1500s there were no people here. It was a unique mid-Atlantic island. The impacts of human settlement and modernization of human activity started quite suddenly in the mid-1500s as a result of shipwrecks, tacitly of European origin – Spanish, Portuguese, and French – bringing the first mammals to the island, pigs and rats, and then humans finally settled here due to a shipwreck of English migrants headed to Jamestown Virginia in 1609.

As a mid-Atlantic way station for ships, its endemic ecology has been massively disrupted so it is a place that inevitably makes you think about human impacts and interactions with nature. So I guess between Bermuda and rural France I have always had a sense of mankind and the environment as inextricably linked – which is an obvious truism but perhaps not a regular sentiment of reflection made by people in today’s highly urbanized world.

And I don’t mean that just structurally, where people live in cities away from nature, but in terms of human values – people are quite easily able to live in mental worlds that don’t account for nature on a moment to moment basis. So really what I have is an environmental background of a certain kind and from that exposure to certain types of people whose lives were centered in nature. That was the first education. My parents were nature people and whether it was on the water or in the mountains that was where we spent time of value.

I went to high school in Bermuda and then university in Canada – first McGill in Montreal and then University of Toronto and finally did a PhD at Durham University in England. I started university wanting to study archaeology. I grew up loving that version of buried history. The tacit feeling of exploration and discovery was something I liked most and really was attracted to. I was also very curious about human origins and felt that many of the stories we had about human prehistory were incomplete, inadequate and frankly pretty pejorative – the skills to live healthily in nature are unbelievably difficult to attain, and I always rebelled against the notion of developing human progress with us at the top. The inability – or rather the lack of skills possessed to survive in the wild, in nature, as the world really is, I find quite embarrassing, and the notion that we are somehow superior to people who have these skills borders on laughable.

I grew up among a community of divers in Bermuda and started university with the idea that I could eventually work in prehistoric marine archaeology – feeling that key parts of human history were likely underwater. I left McGill after 2 years, took a year off and ended up in anthropology at U of T. I realized along the way that I liked working with people more than stuff, a sense that would come to be fully expressed much later when I applied to do a PhD in the UK after working with professor David Turner from the University of Toronto who introduced me to the world of Australian Aboriginal people and took me with him in 1992 when he returned to Groote and Bickerton Island communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria to continue work he had been doing with his Aboriginal colleagues for close to 30 years.

David’s work was incredibly detailed and complex and I couldn’t possibly do it justice – there is a series of videos where David describes his journey that is totally worth watching. David had been taught by Aboriginal Elders aspects of their culture that confounded any western or occidental categorization – they had designed models of human society that were ineffable of themselves. In trying to communicate this David encountered the quiet but overt general tendency to regularize, categorize and rationalize differences that is the preoccupation of much academic work and that particularly inhabits some sectors of anthropology.

I learned, watching and hearing about David’s work, the pernicious effect of reductionism on scientific learning – not that it is bad per se, it is a necessary working method – but rather it becomes a problem when we replace reality with inevitably reduced interpretations of it. So I arrived on Groote and Bickerton Islands with David, and through a series of events ended up fishing and hunting with two of David’s classificatory brothers for a few weeks – quite senior fishermen and lawmen. Their skills in this domain were mind-blowing – not just in terms of prowess in capture but all the knowledge that went into being successful, and most importantly safe, in the northern Australian marine coastal environment. We didn’t just live off the land and sea – we thrived!

There was at the time a gap in the descriptions of coastal Australian peoples’ skills and practices and so David helped me pull together a proposal to look explicitly at researching this space as part of a PhD. I was accepted at The University of Durham and through a series of contacts decided to try and work with one of the most traditional fishing communities in Australia, the Bardi community at Ardioloon – One Arm Point – at the tip of the King Sound in Western Australia – the area that the Bardi have inhabited for at least 27,000 years, an area that experiences a 30-foot tide range. This unbelievably rich and dangerous marine environment, expertly navigated by the Bardi, had kept or at least restricted the impact of European and occidental occupation on their fishing practices and they remain today one of the strongest fishing communities in Australia.

I went with my wife to be to spend one year there in 1994 and was fortunate to be taken in by Douglas Wiggan and his mother Katie one of the community matriarchs and head of a family that had retained the deep knowledge of fishing and hunting in this unbelievable maritime space. I essentially ended up writing an ethnography on Bardi hunting and fishing through teaching led by Douglas. I say an ethnography, but realistically not a comprehensive one, which would be impossible in such a short interaction and I say ethnography because what I ended up doing was materially different from testing out a hypothesis and generating data to prove or disprove it. In fact, my hypothesis was that they had their own hypotheses to describe their motivations and rationalizations and these were what I wanted to experience. An ethnography does not presuppose knowledge that I don’t have – it is not reductive or at least tries not to be.

Through this approach I was shown fishing techniques and experienced seasonal shifts in procurement and distribution rules that were taught as necessary responses to knowledge of the environment at a broad ecological level but also at a species level and that also reflected value systems the Bardi held about how people should interact with the environment and each other and that overarching social goals were being pursued. In short, value systems at many levels combined with clear empirical understanding of environmental systems were driving choices of where, when, what and how to hunt and fish (and what not to fish) and to whom fish and animals would be distributed. Describing this was the crux of my thesis.

After my PhD I ended up quite providentially working with Dr. Eric Dewailly from the University of Laval, my colleague and friend, first in a Post Doc looking at omega-three fatty acids in the Bardi Community and then as part of the Atlantis Mobile Laboratories extensive research in coastal ecotoxicology and human health. I ended up looking very specifically at local levels of mercury in newborns in Bermuda and then guiding the research that measured local mercury levels in fish as well as beneficial nutrients like omega-three fatty acids and selenium. We then designed local risk-benefit recommendations that led to a 5-fold decrease in Hg in Bermuda newborns – a nice result. In a curious lateral jump and a desire to move home I ended up being offered the position of Custodian of Historic Wrecks in the Bermuda Government in charge of the management of the significant number of Bermuda shipwrecks.

Due to my experience, the Bermuda Government expanded my role to include continuing research in ocean human health and climate change, and participate in significant ocean conservation initiatives. I am currently the Principal Scientist for Marine Heritage and Ocean Human Health – a pretty unique title. I am also the co-Director of a research program on Ocean Human Health established with my now sadly departed colleague Eric Dewailly, that continues our work with indigenous and local fishing communities, specifically researching curious data as a way to get moving quickly in doing meaningful companion research. It has been rewarding. I just finished a book on our work with Bardi Elder Douglas Wiggan called “Fishing for Culture” which is with a publisher in Western Australia as we speak.

2. Much of your life revolves around the ocean, and in particular the artefacts it harbors and the communities it supports, like the Bardi people. What appeals so strongly to you about the sea?

The sea on a calm day is a free place for the mind. It is a place where nature still dominates – it is still a wilderness. Bermuda especially makes that clear. Good calm days or rather perfect moments transition to incredibly wild moments – so I can say that through that I figured out early on that it isn’t necessarily only the activity – be it fishing or looking for shipwrecks, or working on an archaeological project – that attracts you to the space but rather the moments of camaraderie with family, friends and colleagues, as well as the time to oneself, where the world goes silent on a flat calm day or with your head underwear. Also I talk a lot so scuba diving is one of the few places where I am, and everyone else is, forced to be quiet.

To answer your question directly I was very lucky to have a mother who introduced us to Bermuda beaches – which isn’t hard to do on an island only 2 miles wide at the widest point – on a daily basis from babyhood up. Also the best people I met all seemed to love the ocean and the water – its history etc. Shipwrecks are a naturally attractive feature in Bermuda all fully enmeshed and taken over by the beautiful reef systems that are quite simply an exquisite thing to spend time with – and the sense of human gravitas that is a shipwreck is also very captivating – but I was really drawn to the human stories of the people on these ships but also the people I was getting to know as a kid who searched for and investigated these ships and their stories.

I think I learned, without knowing it, that the value of a thing is very rarely the thing itself but rather the stories that grow up around and are attached to them. On that note most natural things are intrinsically valuable – the ocean is full of beautiful objectively gorgeous animals, especially here in the coral reef systems – but frankly most living things, beings, are beautiful.

3. Your work ties in with the environmental and ecological situation of the Earth, something you’ve regularly emphasised in articles, interviews, and videos. Focusing particularly on the ocean, what do you consider to be the most serious and pressing environmental issues of the day? What changes, if any, have you personally observed over the years you’ve spent in and around Bermuda and other coastal areas?

The most pressing environmental issue today is the lack of experience many people have of the beauty of the earths living systems – natural beauty. A connection to the living world should be an inalienable human right and we are impoverished without it. It has been assessed that there is a crisis of loneliness in the west today. I would extend that crisis to a loss of community and connection with nature.

I have reflected on this a lot, and I also feel there is a rather pernicious story, that the west especially tells itself, that humans are incapable of achieving the balance needed to live in coexistence with the world around us, that we are selfish by nature – fundamentally flawed. I think the proliferation of this myth is exceptionally dangerous and damaging – and in my experience entirely untrue. That is the most pressing issue – it comes down to hope.

I think the other quite critical thing we need to be working on very directly is interrupting any human activity that impedes, prevents or hurts the ability of nature, of living things and systems to reproduce. I think reproductive harm as a theme is explicitly one of the greatest problems the planet faces. I would like to see a focus on confronting that problem in all its facets. The ocean specifically is in reproductive crisis – not only do we take too much at all trophic levels, in every ecological niche, but we add pollutants, entirely of our manufacture, that greatly diminish the reproductive capacity of many species – if not all. This problem – in large part an ecotoxicological problem – needs to be handled, and again all of humanity will benefit at a very personal level as many of these chemicals are extremely harmful to human homeostasis. The entire world around us that we depend upon for irreplaceable ecological services is at risk. Did you know that pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world today? How often do we hear that? Reproductive harm is unquestioningly one of its most pernicious facets.

It is a broad problem with many features but it is I think at the core of what we need to be attending to.

4. Please tell us a little about the indigenous people you’ve been in contact with. As I understand it, they are by no means “100% primal”; however, some appear to have retained certain key aspects of their ancestral lifeways. What was their way of life when you made contact, and how have they been affected by increasing westernization/outside forces?

Primal is such a loaded term – I appreciate its use as a “catch-all” for a movement that seeks to redress the mistakes we are making in terms of human nutrition and behaviors – or lack of behavior as we become more sedentary – as we try to understand how some human societies have so lost their way in terms of their diet and their health by trying to identify the primal needs. Seeking the primal foundations of health makes sense, but I don’t really like some of the inevitable implications, some quite pejorative. We are all equally 100% primal – but if I use the question as a way to explore how some societies and individuals are choosing to align themselves with more empirical rational healthy ways to live learning from the ways that many contemporary native and indigenous communities recently did and do live then I can get on board.

Negative Western lifestyle patterns and habits are thankfully having their viability quite necessarily questioned and the world is looking around for alternatives. Choosing to emulate lifeways or living choices that objectively are better than the predominant systems in place today for human health reasons is important. My view is that these alternate dietary systems are also inextricably linked to different, likely better, outcomes in terms of our relationships with the world around us.

To meet the Bardi I first wrote to the community office and called them on the phone – that is to say in a way that all people in 1994 reached out to each other. I came with letters of recommendation from David Turners brothers on Groote Eylandt which were pretty important as they established me as a known quantity. Back then many communities required permits to visit them but the Bardi were already very open and had very good infrastructure, a good community store, a small school, good phone service etc, though they were a 6 hour 4wd drive road from the nearest paved road, which was already 3 hours from the nearest town of Broome. It was at that time all pretty impassable in the wet season – so quite remote.

The Bardi are contemporary to western society and always have been. To some degree I would argue that all societies, except perhaps the most urban, have retained some aspect of their “ancestral lifeways“ or are their own derivative of a time before globalization when there were more variations in unique ways of living. Bardi fishing techniques and choices to eat specific fish fat deposits are as contemporary as Norwegian fish pickling techniques like lutefisk and German sauerkraut making. These are all tacitly healthy choices and most societies will be able to harken back to a healthier, call it ancestral or traditional way of eating, that preceded what can be a quite damaging industrialization and homogenization of food culture – but all societies, pretty much, have certain culturally unique dietary traditions that would be far healthier were they to be mainstreamed as the contemporary diet today.

The Bardi are as contemporary as me. Their communities have been and are deeply affected and shifted by outside forces – but they have always fought really hard to retain their fishing traditions and management strategies that maintain and produce a healthy coastal environment and nutritional practices that they know are better for themselves and the environment. In that context I arrived in the community to investigate change in fishing traditions and rather than investigate I really just ended up reporting on what was, and remains, a dynamic community-wide conversation about the adjustments that have been made and the challenges to the traditions and life choices that they want to retain – under enormous pressure I might add. They have fought and negotiated to maintain very important cultural elements that they refined, tested and applied over and over for millennia.

It is a privilege for us to have them share their knowledge of the coast, and also apply their way of thinking and seeing the world. In the context of what they have experienced at the hands of western oppression, their generosity is all the more humbling and outstanding.

5. In summary, what has stood out to you as the main differences between the indigenous communities you’ve visited or read up on and modern, industrialized societies with respects to resource exploitation and habitat/ecosystem care? What, if anything, can we learn from them? Is there anything they do (or used to do) that it’s feasible to implement on a larger, more global basis?

That is a huge question. From the Bardi I was explicitly shown that there is a way to harvest resources, fish specifically, that attends to the resources’ sustainability and ability to reproduce, and that also maximizes the beneficial nutrients made available to the community. For many fish the Bardi explicitly only hunt and consume them when they are fat. This physiological state of “fatness” (manifested as deposits of fat in the gut of the fish, as well as in a higher quality of fat in the meat, the filet) is inverse to the season when they are spawning/breeding. The Bardi also explicitly choose to avoid these species when they are spawning – despite being readily, and in many cases, more easily available. They do this overtly because it supports the environmental system, what I came to understand was a logical truth for the Bardi.

I will give you an example of that. When discussing the obvious question and logic of leaving fish to spawn, Douglas (Wiggan) sensed I was failing to see the deeper sensitivity the Bardi held regarding this practice. To make his point he asked me a simple question:

Philippe, if I interrupted you while you were making love to your wife do you think you would have a lot of babies? No I replied. – It is the same for fish, he said.

The knowledge of seasonal spawning cycles, the preference for fat, and the explicit cultural and personal attachment to the logic of leaving animals to do their business, to breed, work hand in hand. This very specific example for the northwest coast of Australia from one of the oldest continuing cultures on the planet demonstrates the possibility of attending to the interconnectedness of things, of managing our human activities and through that explicitly protecting and benefitting environmental and human health.

My postdoc was with Dr. Eric Dewailly from University of Laval – one of the worlds preeminent scholars in marine ecotoxicology and on the role and benefits of marine fats and specifically omega 3 fats in Inuit and other coastal communities (He was nicknamed the King of Fats). Eric invited me and the Bardi to analyze these seasonal dietary patterns, test the levels and characterize the fat accumulations through the labs in Quebec, and the work showed that the Bardi fishing strategies were making available to the community a rich source of n-3 fats that mirrored the consumption levels of some Inuit communities and brought with it the health benefits that Eric’s team has been instrumental in demonstrating come from the consumption of these beneficial fats.

What makes this so important is that the Bardi acted with full awareness of the integrated nature of these benefits and the sound ecological and public health significance of these choices – all of these are inseparable for them. The overarching conclusion for me is that in fixing some essential parts of how western industrial human societies interact with nature the benefits will be extensive in all manner of quarters that we cannot anticipate. Fixing how essential sectors of our lives interact and affect the environment – our diets etc. – is essential to attending to the myriad of challenges we see around us.

The empathy that the Bardi use in determining aspects of their resource management, or to put it another way, the interconnectivity that the Bardi explicitly acknowledge and act on in terms of how humans should behave in the natural world – if that is accepted at a global scale our behavior will change. The Peruvians are correct to give Mother Nature legal status – that is an interesting move, a challenge to other societies to see and treat the world in a fundamentally different way.

Occidental Science today is making clear the equality of all environmental systems. You cannot prioritize one over the other without creating the imbalances we see toady – all aspects must be attended to. What is promising is that, in my experience, at as small a scale as I have witnessed it in action, is that the kind of changes that globally will need to be made, maybe even forced upon us, will result in people living better lives.

6. Something that really resonates with me is your holistic view that environmental/ecosystem health, human/individual health, and communal health are all connected. On this note, could you briefly talk a bit more about how changes in the coastal environment may be affecting human health and thereby potentially the state of our society as a whole. What are the consequences of the increasing levels of plastic and mercury, as well as the impact of human activities on the fatty acid profiles of marine life? Furthermore, what are your thoughts about the modern trend of eating mostly fish fillets, while avoiding fatty organs? Feel free to relate your answer to indigenous coastal communities and the role that healthful, omega-3 heavy foods has historically played in the human diet.

The changes we see today in the ocean are negatively impacting human health, the evidence in remote coastal communities is very clear. The problem of air quality was recognized, in many industrial areas and big cities decades even centuries ago, as one of the most pernicious negative impacts on human health, and I am pretty sure that almost all humans today recognize that they are likely affected at some point by air quality.

The oceans and coast in contrast, their impact on human health has been ignored for a good century, it has not been a shared concern, but today the problem of visible pollution in the form of plastic has made it self evident – it has made it visible. The invisible problems have existed for a long time – the emptying of the oceans of natural products and the filling of the ocean with run-off pollutants of all kinds and serious ecological disruption through careless development, invasive species etc. Overharvesting and pollution are at a crisis point –many commercial fisheries are below reproducible population sizes, and even when they could be sustained by responsible fishing practices chronic pollution endangers not only the ecosystems they depend on but likely there is chemical interference on their ability to reproduce directly through things like endocrine disrupters – phthalates that leech from plastics, pharmaceuticals etc. So we are seeing the evidence that the oceans are hurting – and there are many highly specialized niches being impacted that we have very little awareness of that eventually scale up to big picture problems — many streams of problems becoming rivers of problems, that portend deep problems and shifts at ecosystem levels we are only now beginning to appreciate. The carbon shifts in the ocean as a consequence Co2 emissions is a sad massive example of this problem.

But there are smaller impacts that we can’t calculate that aren’t even on the radar. The loss of whale biomass in the previous last 2 centuries from whaling has likely had a dramatic impact on deep-ocean ecosystems. Whales have been vastly reduced and not recovered to anything like pre-industrial levels. This has reduced the number of whale falls – whale carcasses that reach the deep ocean that some very specific and specialized deep ocean ecosystems depend on. These mini site-specific ecosystems feed other ecosystems, all invisible to us, that when coupled with the loss of other quite unique and limited in scope systems add up, aggregate, to very serious ecological shifts and disruptions. In fact I think the loss, the huge diminishment of living creatures in all their manifestations in the ocean – simple biomass – is a crisis of rather large proportions.

I think the message is that we have to fix all of it – a huge challenge – but my feeling is that everyone will benefit.

As for the move to fish filets, it disconnects the fish consumer from the fish and also turns fish from a very specific source of unique nutrients, nutrients that are just under the skin, in the organs, lining the stomach cavity, behind the eyes etc., into a nondescript, almost unidentifiable, transferrable source of protein. But let me not do the filet a total disservice – some filet – if from fish caught seasonally – can be nutritionally fantastic.

Let me give you an example. In Bermuda there is a fish called a hogfish. It is a delicious white meat fish with beautiful fillets but that also has a good size head, which is used to make a local traditional soup called a fish chowder. This is not a cream chowder, it a brown fish chowder that we spice with sherry peppers and black rum. Delicious. The head is boiled down and the broth, meat, gristle and fat, and other elements that are extracted, make a fundamental part of the soup.

The hogfish can be speared or caught on a line with very specific bait. Very hard to commercially exploit but despite this, anecdotally according to older fishermen, is at much lower population levels. Bermudians catch and eat it all year. When I first came back from working with the Bardi in 1999 I decided to apply some Bardi principles to my way of fishing back in my home. Being an avid spear fisherman at that time I procured hogfish over the course of a year. It became very clear that the fish I caught in winter were much fatter. The meat in the back of the fish was well rounded and there were gut fat deposits that I ate. When I cut through the fish, to get the filet, the knife was gummy with fat.

In the summer especially the late summer, July or August, a fish of the same length weighed less and was noticeably skinny. The back to the fish at the spine was concave and the knife when cutting through the filet was dry and you had to push it through the stringy meat. The summer filet also cooked completely differently – it curled up in the pan and required more oil to cook. In the winter you could almost cook the fish filet in its own fat. And the difference between winter and summer fish in the level of fat, oil, and gristle when boiling the head was massive. Now that I was also paying attention to the gut rather than simply discarding it I became keenly aware that this fish was spawning in the late summer with the cavity full of eggs and putting on and retaining fat in the winter – the semi-tropical cycle the Bardi had observed.

The health benefit differences between summer and winter hogfish are obvious and as our work with the Bardi proved these seasonal fish fats are rich in omega threes so the health benefits in terms of reducing inflammation, among all the other benefits, are unquestionable. The balance of Omega 3 vs. Omega 6 fats is critical in the inflammation cycle – so not only are winter fat hogfish better for you because they have higher omega-three fats, the way we have to cook the summer lean hogfish – most likely in omega 6 rich cooking oils to make it palatable – contribute to a higher level of omega 6’s which move the body into a more inflammatory mode.

I think these kinds of feedback loops are likely everywhere and speak to the interconnectivity of things.

Getting things right, being in positive alignment in one dimension makes things right in many others. The same goes for getting it wrong. Poor harvesting choices are bad for the environment and bad for human health. In the case of these fish alone if we focused on procuring it when it was at its most nutritious, full of healthy fats requiring no additional fats in its cooking, vs. in the summer, we would be having a more nutritious meal and avoiding them when they spawn, allowing them a better chance to reproduce and in a positive cycle to persist and deliver to us more healthy fat adults.

Of course it all falls to pieces if we take too many of the fat fish. To the Bardi this is a logical way to fish – for all the reasons described above earlier – better taste, better human health, and health of the environment and satisfying cultural values through an assessment of the needs of the natural world they live in – call it empathy. In Bermuda we might apply restrictions seasonally but this would not stop overharvesting necessarily – a better approach would be to educate people as to the health and ecological benefits of seasonal harvesting of fish and the strategies needed to keep these benefits sustainable – not overharvesting.

I really like the perspective of human evolution as seen through the lens of omega-three fatty acids as put forward by Michael Crawford and Stephen Cunnane (Queen of Fats) among others. I believe they are correct and that human brain evolution is a coastal and riverine phenomenon tied to the availability of rich sources of n-3 fatty acids. I am not a brain chemist but my appreciation of the way humans function as social animals suggests to me that there is a strong link between the function of the brain (and things like mirror neurons) and the importance of n-3 to fetal brain development in the third trimester. I also am attracted to the suggestion that our very humanity is linked in a fundamental way to our diet and to a particular environment.

The fact that natural, wild, or country foods are better for us is quite simply true and coupled with the many known, scientifically tested, associations between diet and human health, such as the emerging science on gut flora, absolutely supports the idea that foods derived from healthy ecosystems result in healthier people.

Since the human social capacity is a critical survival tool human evolution and development would likely have favored it. This doesn’t have to be a philosophical point, though I like to think of it that way, but quite structurally it suggests to me that people who eat what emerges from a healthy natural environment will be better at being the social empirical animals we emerged to be. Evolution of humans with these capacities quite likely occurred in coastal and riverine areas with bountiful sources of omega three’s, and in these environments the human species evolved with its big social brain. This gave us, humans, a unique mental empirical capacity to adapt our behavior so that today we can now live in quite marginal food environments – survive with marginal food quality – but that doesn’t make them ideal or necessarily result in human flourishing and consequently ecosystem flourishing.

That may be too far in terms of abstracting what we know about human evolution and the benefits of healthy natural diets, and omega threes specifically, but I am comfortable with holding and debating that position.

7. Renunciation is a recurring theme in your observations, which tie in with reports showing that giving/sharing is an essential component of traditional human lifeways, as well as the recognition that minimalism is the evolutionary norm for our species. It’s a new thing that we’re producing, accumulating, and claiming ownership over so much stuff. This ‘greediness’ and materialism put a heavy toll on the environment, meaning that a return to a more ‘basic’ way of life is a natural component of environmental restorative endeavors. On this note, it would be great if you could elaborate on the customs that exist with respect to apportion, ownership, and accumulation of goods in the indigenous communities you’ve connected with. Anything in particular that have stood out to you?

Awesome question. I am sensitive to interpreting what are highly complex social systems with resident experts who have lived these lifeways and can elucidate them far better than me, but my experience in approaching this intellectually and through the exercise of some Elders trying in vain to educate me in this area suggest that there is no question that there is a cost to the material accumulation that preoccupies so much of our lives, and I think we do a very poor job – or at least I do – of rationalizing the material accumulation that drives so much of our lives, or challenging this paradigm, despite the fact that the dominant religious traditions of the west and even attachment to eastern mysticism all quite explicitly juxtapose materialism and human happiness – both spiritually and in terms of our social and mental well being. I like the cartoon that looks at western suburban life from an aliens perspective who assess that the car is in fact the sentient leading being on the planet with a human population dedicated to servicing their needs. I also like the thinkers who have challenged the notion of materialism as the enemy but rather point out that materialists would value and conserve what they prize, that in fact consumerism is what we suffer from, which is an interesting perspective and likely quite correct.

My experience with some of my Bardi friends was interesting in this regard as they have come to appreciate air-conditioning on a hot summers night – and other so-called material things. But in my limited experience, my friends though having by and large all the things I would have as a semi-urban Bermudian, their attachment to them was entirely different – they shared them and gave them up – renounced them quite adroitly – by that I am trying to say “with practice”. My experience makes me feel that, quite specifically, the idea of dedicating your life to accumulation and maintenance of these things and the experience of feeling pain or stress from the idea of losing them would be quite different from ours.

The wider and strong persisting social network – while under stress – is intact, giving you a cushion and a sense that failure, materially, would not leave you destitute. Of course as people who can and still live well from the land and sea – and who see the world as giving up sustenance to them for health and well being, and experience that daily, are not a people in fear storing up a stockpile or defending from others a limited store of goods needed to survive. They have faith in themselves, their abilities and their social systems and planning. Even if you are old or infirm there are deeply held community values that care for you, that ensure you will be provided for – which obviously is a great comfort.

I can’t talk too much about this without falling into generalizations but there have been observations made by scholars with more experience than me who assert that the safety net of Aboriginal society as a part of the social systems they designed is one of Aboriginal Societies great accomplishments that surpassed the same objectives in most western democracies and socialist states. Couple that achievement with the fact that they don’t undermine the ecological systems to achieve this security and you can begin to understand just how much there is left to learn from their example and how much guidance we still need.

My impression was that I could personally live a fulfilled life with much less. Modern material poverty in a world with failing or even absent natural support systems is a very frightening thing. Renunciation as an identifiable social philosophy and guiding social principle comes very specifically through David Turner and his work on Groote and Bickerton, and it is likely one of the closest translations of an element of Aboriginal philosophy and social organization that I have been exposed to. It identifies a unique view of human interaction, social organization.

The idea of renunciation in the Aboriginal social context refers not only to a unique system that seeks to create interdependencies between people who know each other and choose to relate this way but also with outsiders and strangers, that functions at an interpersonal as well as a state to state level so to speak. David Turner came up with this translation in concert with his Aboriginal teachers – simplifying it is difficult but the sense that it describes both interpersonal and much higher level, state to state interactions, that it institutionalizes the best type of or highest order of human of relationships, peace, love, nurturing and caring that hopefully everyone has some experience of within our families and close circle of friends. Where you would literally give everything to some else if they needed it.

This rings as idealistic and in practice renunciation is certainly tested but it is chosen and reapplied generation after generation. It speaks to the ability for humans to create stable social systems around the highest order of philosophical goals. I find it awe-inspiring and highly encouraging. It is why I have hope.

8. Beyond the things we’ve already touched on, is there anything else that have stood out to you as important or noteworthy in your work with indigenous coastal people that you’d like to bring up? If so, what?

I think I would reinforce the fact that these are contemporary human societies making a different set of choices based on different value systems with historically very compelling results that frankly compel us to create research partnerships so we can all find a way to bring all the great things that human societies have invented and accomplished into alignment with some fundamental principles such as coexisting with the world around us – the world that is us.

9. Some experts and reports paint a pretty grim picture of the current environmental state of things by implying that we’ve gotten so far in over our heads there’s little chance of turning things around. One of the things that appeals to me about you is that you come across as an optimist. The task may seem insurmountable, but that doesn’t mean that we should just give up. From your point of view, where are we heading? Have you noticed any positive signs or trends recently, or is it all gloom and doom?

I hope I addressed some of this above – but I am really sensitive about seeming Pollyannaish in this domain. I am not entirely optimistic, but I have to stay positive. I am optimistic about our abilities to adapt and about the resilience of natural systems, and also I am open to being surprised. As much as we think we can predict the future we have a pretty poor track record, and so being pessimistic is just not entirely rational.

I am in particular, right now, a little frustrated with the obsession with measuring everything to a higher and higher standard as an excuse for not taking action in very clear dimensions such as industrial pollution of the environment, and I think dithering in that arena is unforgivable. This specifically brings us back to diminishing any activities that impact natural systems reproductive capacity and pollution is a huge factor in that. One reason for hope is the ability of ecosystems to redeem themselves from quite toxic conditions which can be remarkable. Just outside my house there is a saltwater pond that has heavy metals and PAH’s inside it accumulated from road runoff. A small experiment with solar panels pumping ordinary air into the pond sediment through a series of hoses reduced the levels of toxic metals and other chemicals measurably and significantly in a short amount of time.

Also society has made significant changes very quickly when needed across quite big industries. Tobacco is one example but there are many lesser-known ones, for example in the dimension of diet and fatty acids. Look at the transformation of food systems away from trans fatty acids. The actual ban only came into application last year but they were effectively removed from most foods a decade ago, only a few years a after phase-out period was decided on. This was after intense evidence gathering by public health specialists and finally by the actions of individuals of influence like Michael Bloomberg when he was the Mayor of New York who banned them in restaurants in 2006. That kind of ban moved the science from the peer-reviewed studies into people’s lives and led the way to an important improvement in food and subsequently people’s health. After that point it moved very quickly in industries that seemed united and monolithic in their attachment to these fats in their products.

One of the challenges is scale: how do we scale up the potential solutions and scale back the problems? For some issues they are the same thing – the scaling back of the problem is how we scale-up the solution. Maybe scaling isn’t the right word – marketing, meme(ing). Is memeing a verb yet? But we do have experts, companies, teams and individuals that are tremendously experienced in scaling things up, in marketing, and as they retire, or look for some kind of life satisfaction, or purpose they are looking for things to do, ways to apply their skills.

10. If an individual came up to you and asked what he could do as part of his everyday life in order to help support oceanic health and wildlife, what would you recommend (e.g., with respects to seafood choices or other consumption behaviors and/or activism/organizational work)?

  1. Elect leaders who understand and communicate that it is all interconnected. Active profession of ignorance of scientific facts is a disqualification for any form of leadership.
  2. Protect spawning aggregations and the reproductive capacity of fish. This is critical and includes everything from banning fishing during spawning seasons to ensuring that dams allow for passage of fish to spawn, to ensuring that industrial pollution and residential contaminants don’t enter natural systems.
  3. Choose how you invest. Support companies that have clear social and ecological mandates to do no harm. Ethical investing is a huge and fast-moving beneficial space. It will change things fundamentally for the better.
  4. Take some very local action. Clean a beach, a river, a stream, a gutter. Choose ethically sourced seafood – buy local as much as possible.

I would also add that there seems to be some division in who gets to be an environmentalist these days, rejecting in many cases people who live closer to the land, that fish and hunt. I am utterly convinced that it is in fact amongst those that use and depend on the ocean that the greatest defenders of the ocean are emerging. We need to be very careful in the world of activism not to pigeonhole people into camps that care or don’t care about the environment – everyone cares. It is a value in my experience that all people hold.

11. On a larger scale, what stands out to you as key policies and measures for improving the conditions and state of oceanic ecosystems?

We need to specifically address the sustainability of industrial non-local fishing and add a whole new list of pollutants and contaminants, many of them quite ubiquitous, common in consumer goods, to the Stockholm Convention, quite rapidly, so we can limit the damage they are doing and will do to the marine environment and human health.

12. Anything else you’d like to add?

I really appreciate you asking this broad range of interesting and stimulating questions and giving me a chance to reflect on them with some liberty. Hopefully I have not misrepresented anything or offended anyone unfairly. I also think it is important to state that while I may seem critical of the society I am a part of the very fact that I have been able to dedicate a large part of my life to reflecting on that society and the world around me highlights one of the greatest and more hopeful qualities of this society I find myself a member of. We are concerned about others and the world around us and strive to improve on that. This particular academic pursuit of mine, a mix of research science and social inquiry, our societies inquisitiveness and capacity for self-reflection, the peer review process we have in place and the opportunity it suggests for course adjustment, represent a great reason for hope.