On ancient wisdom and new learning


DR FELIX PADEL is a London-born anthropologist-activist recently returned to the UK after 30 years of living in India, where he taught anthropology and was an activist for tribal and village community rights.

A great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, his passion for nature and justice runs in the blood. It seemed our paths were fated to cross when Felix took the role of shaman in our forum theatre workshop “The Garden’s Secrets” at Oxford University’s Department of International Development.

In a series of three short blogs,  Voices for Nature and Dr Padel explore common values and interests which brought us together.

On ancient wisdom and new learning

Voices for Nature asks– As an anthropologist you have often spoken about indigenous peoples’ close relationship with nature and with other species as ‘creature-teachers’.

Given the biggest challenge currently facing humanity is the destruction of our planet, what do you think we in the ‘developed’ world could learn from indigenous thinking?

Dr Felix Padel replies– Noam Chomsky has spoken of a need to learn from indigenous peoples if we are to save the planet. It’s not that everything about indigenous or tribal societies is ‘good’, obviously; but on balance they represent a far saner approach to living in community and in symbiosis with nature, rather than the model disseminated from the West of over-exploiting and dominating nature.

One aspect is summed up in the word ‘taboo’, which comes from the Maori/Polynesian conept tapu, meaning sacred. Mainstream religions have a history of increasing divorce from nature, that has complemented the industrial revolution to allow a ‘rape’ of nature, that started by removing the sacred from it.

The native American idea of ‘creature teachers’ encourages us to look to a consciousness in nature of a kind very different from our own, that is available with immediacy and humour in chance interactions with any creature we meet.

Rediscovering this consciousness and sacredness in nature is something we need to do, I think, if we’re to recover a sense of shared purpose and survival with the natural world that supports us; and indigenous peoples show the way.

Our next blog will explore whether myths and legends, old or new, can inspire us to build a better world.

More on Dr Felix Padel:

Dr Felix Padel is a research fellow at Oxford University Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He is the author of three books on tribal and environmental issues in India: ‘Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape’ (1995/2010), ‘Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ (with Samarendra Das, 2010), and ‘Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection’ (with Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni, 2013). He read classics at Exeter college, Oxford, and after doing a diploma in social anthropogy, did an M.Phil in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.

Felix will play the part of the Wise One in Voices for Nature’s forum theatre workshop ’The Last Snowflake’  – creative learning for families about climate change and the polar regions,  at Oxford University’s Natural History Museum on 31st May, 2018.



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