In complex ecosystems, the relationships between individual elements are what really matter because a healthy and resilient ecosystem emerges from those relationships. So the individual elements in that complex system have a moral responsibility to maintain their relationships with one another in a way that preserves the integrity of the larger whole — the emergent thing we call an ecosystem. If they do not uphold their moral responsibility but break or damage their own or others’ connections, the emergent phenomenon of “ecosystem” falls below threshold and collapses. When the whole system comes apart, all the individual parts suffer — including those that violated their moral responsibility to the whole and broke connections to begin with.
Another way to look at the same thing is to say that things like Ponderosa pine trees, mule deer, porcupines, penstemon, and all the organisms, waters, winds, and people who are part of a Ponderosa pine forest community, are bound to one another by relational accountability (Wilson 2009). Relational accountability is based on relationship and reciprocity. So relationship and reciprocity are the values that preserve the ecosystem’s health. What do these terms mean, axiologically — in terms of values?
Relationships are two-way streets that Indigenous people think of as reciprocal. Reciprocity is a key ethical or moral principle of Indigenous worldview that’s usually closely paired with relationship, and often connected to respect as well. These terms, used in this particular way, are so important to Indigenous people that if you’re a person of Western culture who’s collaborated with Indigenous evaluators, you’ve almost certainly already encountered them. Cree educator Evelyn Steinhauer clarifies the weight these words carry in Indigenous cultures: “Respect is more than just saying please and thank you, and reciprocity is more than giving a gift. According to the Cree Elders, showing respect or kihceyihtowin is a basic law of life. Respect regulates how we treat Mother Earth, the plants, the animals, and our brothers and sisters of all races . . . Respect means you listen intently to others’ ideas, that you do not insist that your idea prevails. By listening intently you show honour, consider the well being of others, and treat others with kindness and courtesy” (Wilson 2009:58).
Reciprocity is depicted in paired arrows on diagrams that show the “economic” exchange of material and other kinds of resources between individual members of a complex ecosystem. Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte tells us that environmental scientist Robin Kimmerer, who’s also Potawatomi, calls this set of mutual transactions a “covenant of reciprocity” (Whyte 2018:127). Whyte himself defines reciprocity, in part, as “the moral quality of being accountable for returning what one has been given.” (Whyte 2018b:140). Ceremony is an act of reciprocity (Adams, Barlo, and Belasco 2021).
Reciprocity is the core, the central tenet, of the specific Indigenous understandings of deep sustainability that people of Western culture yearn to somehow comprehend. But reciprocity cannot exist in the absence of relationship itself. The wall between Western culture and the natural world makes such relationship very difficult. The fear that motivates the persistance of this wall creates a serious obstacle to the ability of people in Western culture to truly understand or engage in reciprocity.
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