Potawatomie scholar Kyle Whyte (2018b) documents a number of critically important studies carried out by Indigenous environmental scientists on the impact of polluted habitats on degraded health and loss of well-being in people, even if the people are not directly exposed to the pollutants themselves. He points out that that prevailing environmental science opinion about toxic pollutants is “if there is no exposure there are not adverse health effects.” This view sees the impact of toxins within a linear cause-and-effect system in which a toxin harms health only by being ingested and interacting destructively with the physiology or biochemistry of the person that ingested it.
Toxic pollutants dumped into an ecosystem move through and impact the complex networks of relationships between water, microorganisms, fish, and plants in ways that damage the moral relationships — the active expressions of relational accountability — between the entire network of waters and organisms, including the humans. This winds up adversely affecting the health of people and beings outside the immediate and direct reach of the pollutants (Whyte ibid). This view of ecosystem health — that toxins disrupt the chains of relational accountability within an ecosystem, and that these reciprocal relationships are the foundation that sustains the health of every part of the system, including human beings — is Indigenous.
If you’re not yet ready to look at this situation within Indigenous worldview, then consider this: such a view of ecosystems and toxic pollutants aligns with (though is not fully explained by) complexity theory. Ecosystem perturbations caused by toxic pollutants can be seen within a complexity paradigm as fragmenting the rich network of connections from which the whole, healthy ecosystem is an emergent phenomenon. When enough connections break, the whole system drops below a threshold of healthy function and a destructive type of phase change takes place.
Whether you see this situation holistically through Indigenous worldview or you use complexity theory to give you corrective lenses to see the real natural world, the outcome of toxins on ecosystems is the same. In the specific case Whyte describes, people living along the river system have begun to experience increasing levels of birth defects, cancer, and other health problems that result not from direct exposure to toxic pollutants but from the degraded health of the whole system of which the humans are a part. And of course, every part of that system suffers, including fish, waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles, plants in and along the banks of the river itself, all the microorganisms in the river and in the land beneath it and to both sides, and all the animals and plants that come in contact with or rely upon that river in some way. The impact obviously also extends to non-Indigenous people in the same area, even if they don’t realize what’s happening. Everyone who lives in a place that’s being or has been poisoned with toxic pollutants is a stakeholder in this kind of situation. The stake they have in the game is their lives and health, and that of their children and all their descendants.
Indigenous reciprocity is the value system that recognizes, respects, and preserves the moral relationships between all the parts of any ecosystem.