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Noble savage is a concept that idealizes the virtues of the primitive “other” who dwells in nature according to the doctrine of natural law and without the burdens of civilization. Innocent and free from corruption, the noble savage was seen as a romanticized ideal representing the innate goodness of natural man in contrast to the artificial goodness of civilized man. While the notion of the noble savage is most commonly attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, anthropologist Ter Ellingson traces the origin of the noble savage to Marc Lescabot, a French lawyer and ethnographer who invented the concept in 1609, nearly a century and a half before Rousseau’s writings.
The Ecologically Noble Savage
A contemporary expression of the noble savage emerged in the late 20th century as the “ecologically noble savage.” Environmentalists, in their critique of the unsustainable nature of capitalist growth, focused their attention on indigenous people who were seen as natural conservationists who used resources in ways that were nondestructive, sustainable, and attentive to the needs of future generations. By the 1980s indigenous people living low-impact lives in remote areas were portrayed as far more civilized than people in the industrialized world whose lifestyles had resulted in unprecedented species extinction and disruption of ecosystem processes. Environmentalists were able to marshal evidence from ecological anthropology to support their views of indigenous people as effective guardians of valuable habitats, highlighting the richness of traditional ecological knowledge and the efficacy of local resource management systems.
Embedded in the search to prove the ability of indigenous people to sustainably manage their own resources is a critique of Western capitalism. The environment has been damaged by the growth of global capitalism, and many of the world’s regions of high biodiversity remain in areas occupied by indigenous people. This critique of capitalism, coupled with a romanticization of indigenous people, gave rise in the late 1980s to new alliances between indigenous people, eco-activists, and socially conscious “green” businesses such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, and the Body Shop. These businesses promoted images of Amazonian Indians and their environmental knowledge as embodying qualities of purity, simplicity, and living in harmony with nature. The alliance between indigenous people and green companies was a politically potent critique of Western cultural dominance. However, this simplified representation of indigenous people had negative repercussions when it was shown that many native people are just as eager to reap short-term benefits from their natural resources as their neighbors in the industrialized world. Indigenous people had been placed on a moral and ecological pedestal that ultimately crumbled, resulting in a backlash against native people and their ability to manage their lands.
Conservationists Kent Redford and Allyn Stearman sparked an academic debate in the early 1990s by questioning whether indigenous people have a conservation ethic or whether their historically low impact on the land stems from low population density and lack of access to technology. This debate prompted a flurry of research aimed at objectively testing the hypothesis that indigenous people possess an intimate knowledge of their environment, resulting in effective conservation. Research showed that there is abundant evidence that indigenous people can be successful stewards of their resources.
However, for every example of indigenous knowledge with positive conservation outcomes, there is a counterexample of other indigenous practices that have resulted in loss of biodiversity. As a result, many conservationists see national parks as the only places where biodiversity can be preserved. For them, indigenous people should not be expected to conform to a preconceived stereotype of being natural guardians of the forest. Yet the process of protecting biodiversity in national parks almost inevitably results in the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands. As such, this debate over the conservation ethic of indigenous people glosses over the long history of oppression in which indigenous people have struggled for self-determination and recognition of traditional land rights.
While conservationists and scientists devote energy to proving or disproving the ability of indigenous people to conserve their own resources, the debate has not advanced the cause of conservationists or indigenous people. Critical opportunities for collaboration are lost when indigenous people are not given equal authority or negotiating power in decisions regarding their lands, making the possibility for fruitful and critical partnerships between indigenous people and conservationists difficult to achieve.
- Janis Alcorn, “Indigenous People and Conservation,” Conservation Biology (v.7/2, 1993);
- Beth Conklin and Laura Graham, “The Shifting Middle Ground: Amazonian Indians and Eco-Politics,” American Anthropologist (v.97/4, 1995);
- Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (University of California Press, 2001);
- Thomas Headland et al., “Revisionism in Ecological Anthropology,” Current Anthropology (v.38/4, 1997);
- Kent Redford and Allyn Stearman, “Forest-Dwelling Native Amazonians and the Conservation of Biodiversity: Interest in Common or Collision?” Conservation Biology (v.7/2, 1993).