The co-founder of the NRDC and environmental advocate Gus Speth once famously quipped, "I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we, lawyers and scientists, don't know how to do that."

Indeed, Speth is correct in assuming that most scientists are ill-equipped to deal with the topics of spiritual and cultural transformation. The hyperspecialization of science coupled with our restrictive scientific training often limit us to dealing with the mechanics of the natural world, nothing more. But that's because we've been led by the wrong kinds of thinkers, lawyers, politicians, and scientists over the past few decades. 

What science and society demand is a new type of scientific thinker who isn’t afraid to go above their scientific training and look beyond science to other viable domains of knowledge. Such a scientist isn’t afraid to marry two of the most important reservoirs of knowledge ever harvested throughout our species' evolutionary existence: modern, scientific ways of knowing with Indigenous, ancestral ways of knowing. They marry old-world knowledge—the tried and tested ways of living in balance and harmony with Nature—with new-world knowledge gathered by science and myriad technological advances.

For the vast majority of our species' evolutionary existence on this planet, our Indigenous ancestors lived in relative harmony and balance with nature. Indigenous cultures around the world have long held ecological wisdom rooted in their spiritual and cultural beliefs that we, as scientists, are only now coming to understand and fully appreciate (known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge or TEK for short). Thus, the scientists who study Indigenous lifestyles and marry them with modern science hold the key to the spiritual and cultural transformations necessary to revolutionize modern society and curb climate change.

This is why I hope to add two new words to your lexicon from the Indigenous literature, those of "Kincentricity" and "Reciprocity", since the evolutionary fate of our species ultimately hinges upon the addition of these two words into the lexicon of every living, breathing human. I anticipate that these two words will develop into two of the most important words uttered in the following decades—that, or we will continue our inevitable plunge to extinction. Unfortunately, these are the only two paths our species can follow.

Our Indigenous ancestors once lived in harmony with Nature,1 not because they consciously chose to, but because they viewed Nature as an integral part of themselves. Choice had little to do with the matter, as our Indigenous ancestors were born into natural and social environments where Nature comprised a significant part of their psychological identity structures. This is what TEK researchers have recently come to call kincentric ecology, or kincentricity for short.

Kincentricity is a foundational concept in nearly all Indigenous belief systems, where Indigenous people view both themselves and Nature as part of an extended ecological family who share in ancestry and origins. Unlike the anthropocentric view implicit within modern Western society, which places humans at the center of the universe, Indigenous kincentricity recognizes that humans are just one part of a larger, interconnected web of life. This perspective encourages humility and respect for all living beings, viewing them as relatives rather than exploitative resources.

Indigenous teachings tend to see relationships extending between all organic and inorganic matter—in animals, fish, trees, rivers, and mountains—as our kin. They refer to the sky as "Father Sky" and the Earth as "Mother Earth". They call plants and animals endemic to their region "brothers" or "sisters". And they refer to psychoactive plants that induce spiritual experiences as "grandparents", e.g. grandmother Ayahuasca or grandfather Peyote, since they teach profound ancestral wisdom and reconnect humans to the land. The famous Lakota medicine man Black Elk once recounted:

The four-leggeds and the wings of the air and the Mother Earth were supposed to be relative-like. . . The first thing an Indian learns is to love each other and that they should be relative-like to the four-leggeds…The Great Spirit made the flowers, the streams, the pines, the cedars—takes care of them... he takes care of me, waters me, feeds me, makes me live with plants and animals as one of them. . . All of nature is in us, all of us is in nature.2

In a similar vein, Laguna native and poet Leslie Marmon Silko wrote, "I carried with me the feeling I'd acquired from listening to the old stories, that the land all around me was teeming with creatures that were related to human beings and to me".

The idea of being related to Nature stems from the creation stories that Indigenous people are taught from the cradle, since like all creation stories, they offer a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are, how we got here, and describe our relations to the natural world. 

For example, Polynesian Natives of Hawai’i express their creation story and genealogical history with the rest of life through a prayer-chant called the ‘Kumulipo’ in their native language of ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘I’. According to the chant, Hawaiian people descend from the meeting of Wākea and Hoʻohōkūkalani (Father Sky and daughter of Mother Earth), whose first child was stillborn, buried, and then grew into the first taro plant—a staple food of Hawaiian cuisine. Their second child, Hāloa, was the first human and he was born with eternal kuleana (right and obligation) to care for his elder brother, the taro.  

The Kumulipo is what connects kānaka (humans) to the ‘āina (land & sea), as it states that the land we live on and the creatures that surround us are our ‘ohana’ (family), and we should treat them as such. "A common Hawaiian phrase is 'He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka' - 'the land is the chief and man is its servant.' When we take care of our resources, they also take care of us," noted Hawaiian Native Kevin Chang.3

Like the Hawaiian Kumulipo, most Indigenous creation stories emphasize a profound connection between humans and the natural world. The creation of humans is often interwoven with the creation of animals, plants, and the natural landscape. For instance, the Raràmuri people indigenous to the eastern Sierra Madres in present-day Mexico believe they emerged from ears of corn after a great flood. The Abenaki believe they were created from ash trees. The Lenape say that humans sprang from a “great tree.” The Hopi owe their emergence into this world to a spider, a spruce tree, a pine, and a stalk of bamboo. Nearly all Indigenous cultures, ancient or modern, tell a creation story of how humans emerged directly from the land, claiming common ancestry with all living things. 

The best example of kincentric ideals, however, derives from comparative linguistics. In modern Western society, we often talk about Nature as if Nature were an external or separate object from humans. We usually refer to Nature as an impersonal pronoun or an "it". In Indigenous languages, the close and 'familial' interrelation between humans and Nature is more explicit. In the Māori language endemic to New Zealand, 'Ko wai au' has the dual meaning of 'who am I' and 'I am water'; the word for land, or 'whenua', is also polysemous for the word placenta. In Māori, terms used to describe Nature and humans are spoken interchangeably, often to the point of contradiction: "If you ask me the value of Nature for my well-being it's like asking me the value of my head for my well-being. It doesn't make sense", remarked Māori native Tina Ngata.

In the ancient languages of Quechua and Aymara spoken by natives of the Peruvian Andes, no known word exists for Nature since the Quechua people do not view themselves as separate entities from Nature. The Quechua people view themselves as mere components of the bigger ongoings of Mother Earth, or what they call 'Pachamama', since Pachamama is seen as the womb of life, the provider of food and sustenance, and the tomb that we eventually disintegrate back into thus continuing the cycle of life.

Moreover, in Western societies, we tend to talk about Nature as a 'magical, wonderful place' full of intrigue and marvel, whereas "the natural world for indigenous peoples, is not one of wonder, but of familiarity" writes the Indigenous scholar Enrique Salmon.4 Thus, the separation between humans and Nature evident in Western languages is often confusing and uncomfortable for Indigenous people, as they find it difficult to comprehend a worldview where humans are divorced from the natural world.

The Indigenous notion of kincentricity is thus a necessary prerequisite for living in a reciprocal and harmonious relationship with Nature, bringing us to the second major totem of Indigenous philosophy, reciprocity. While kincentricity reinforces the notion that all beings are part of one extended ecological family, reciprocity guides how humans should interact with and give back to their kin or 'family'.

Reciprocity, in its broadest sense, refers to the practice of mutual exchange, cooperation, and a balanced relationship between two parties. Implicitly built into the notion of reciprocity is the basic formula for every human society, otherwise known as the golden rule: what you give, you receive in return. You reap what you sow. Treat others how you would want to be treated. What goes around comes around. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every major religion and every human society has some form of the golden rule embedded into their cultural and ethical traditions.

Yet the notion of reciprocity in Indigenous cultures extends past the simple give-and-take between humans. "The concept of reciprocity is totalizing", writes the Archaeoastronomer and Indigenous activist Carlos Milla Villena in Ayni, "that is, it occurs not only among the members of the community, but also among them with Nature, in all its expressions and the forces of the cosmos." Indigenous people apply the golden rule more broadly to include Nature alongside humans and communities. The Indigenous notion of reciprocity implies a respectful give-and-take, reciprocal relationship with Nature, in which Indigenous people develop a deep relationship with the land founded in mutual exchange and deference. "There is one law that applies to all Indigenous communities, which is reciprocity," writes the Aboriginal academic Tyson Yunkaporta in his book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World

The differences in how Indigenous people see and react to the natural world become evident in their traditional practices, such as sustainable hunting and fishing, agroforestry, and rotational farming. These practices are not just about resource management but are deeply rooted in a spiritual connection to the land and a sense of responsibility to future generations. By treating Nature as kin, Indigenous cultures ensure their ecosystems' long-term health and sustainability.

For example, Indigenous farmers typically employ the sustainable technique called 'fallowing', in which arable land is left without sowing for one or more vegetative cycles. The purpose of fallowing is to give the land time to recover, regenerate, and provide sustenance for future harvests. When hunting, modern Indigenous hunter-gatherers typically target only males, allowing genetic lines to continue and proliferate undisturbed. Indigenous rituals and ceremonies are often centered around expressing gratitude towards Mother Nature, the animals they hunt, or the land they farm. "In our communities, Native environmentalists sing centuries-old songs to renew life, to give thanks for the strawberries, to call home fish, and to thank Mother Earth for her blessings,"5 writes the Native American leader Winona LaDuke.

The Indigenous concepts of kincentricity and reciprocity emphasize the importance of mutual respect for the agency and value of all life forms. When people view Nature as kin, they are more likely to engage in reciprocal relationships with Nature, ensuring that their actions contribute to the well-being of the broader ecological community. In turn, reciprocal practices are often embedded in cultural rituals and norms that ensure a balance between human needs and maintaining the health of ecosystems.

In essence, kincentricity provides a philosophical foundation for understanding the intrinsic value of all life forms, while reciprocity guides the practical interactions and relationships between humans and the natural world, fostering sustainable and harmonious coexistence between humans and Nature. Together, these concepts contribute to a holistic Indigenous worldview that respects and sustains the web of life within Indigenous communities better than in modern societies, hence why 80% of the Earth's biodiversity is protected within the 15% of land maintained by Indigenous communities.

What's more, the Indigenous worldview is beginning to be vindicated by modern science. Similar to most Indigenous creation stories, the prevailing view of science is that Nature, and not some anthropomorphic deity, was the original source of our creation story. The most important theory in biology, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, is predicated on the assumption that past natural environments selected for certain characteristics while purifying others, thereby fashioning us Homo sapiens into the thinking, feeling, and philosophizing species that we are today. Nature is our god, our creator, our fashioner, so to speak. And despite our species’ best attempts, humans cannot be physically, emotionally, or spiritually separated from our surrounding environments. 

In addition, recent findings coming out of modern biology and ecology are revealing a new picture of the evolution of life on Earth—a picture that runs contrary to the anachronistic and reductionistic view of Darwin's biology that was built in the competition-based, “survival of the fittest”, Victorian-England ethos. The new picture of evolution that is finally revealing itself at the frontiers of the biological sciences is less about competition between and among species within a zero-sum game but has recently been found to be more about cooperation and collaboration between and among species in a non-zero-sum world, where everybody has the potential to benefit.

Kincentricity and its ethical corollary, reciprocity, are thus two central themes of Indigenous philosophy that we must add to our modern lexicons if we are to have any chance of curtailing climate change and evolving into an ecotechnic, ecocentric, and sustainable society. The basic idea of kincentricity infers an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view life as kin, hence why kinship to Nature is an essential component of an Indigenous worldview and spirituality, and thus an essential component of sustainable living.

The Indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi nation, writes in her best-selling book Braiding Sweetgrass:

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as "the younger brothers of Creation." We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They've been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.

By rekindling our relationship with Nature, we can cultivate a more sustainable and just society based on the principles of respect, reciprocity, and understanding for all life. Only then may we make it as a species, rather than follow in the same trajectory of the 99.999% of extinct species heretofore.


1. I write "Indigenous ancestors" because every human alive today derives from a long line of Indigenous ancestry, up until the point in your genetic ancestry when one of your unlucky Indigenous ancestors encountered modern society and became "detribalized"--or what Jared Diamond refers to as "history's broadest pattern". For example, my genetic and ethnic ancestry stems from Western and Northern Europe, and thus, before the conquest of Roman society following the Iron Age, my ancestors were likely to be Celtic (or Gaelic) in origin—pre-Roman, Indigenous, nature-based cultures who expressed similar beliefs and customs to modern-day Indigenous societies. Native Americans, in contrast, are a more recently detribalized people. Yet we both, along with the rest of humanity, stem from a long line of Indigenous descent in origin. We all share the unfortunate camaraderie of becoming detribalized somewhere in our ancestral history, recent or antediluvian. And although profound cultural differences exist between all Indigenous societies today and throughout history, the one curious commonality that weaves between all Indigenous societies is the belief in the interconnectedness and interdependence between humans and Nature. This describes the reciprocal Human-Nature relationship recently coined by researchers as Kincentricity.

2. Black Elk (1971) TheSacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, rec.and ed. Joseph Epes Brown. Baltimore: Penguin Books. Pp. 31–32.


4. Salmon E (2000) Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of theHuman-Nature Relationship. Ecol Applications 10(5): 1329.

5. LaDuke W (1991) All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. South End Press. p. 3.