Can mātauranga Māori help us understand climate change?

May 30, 2023 • 9:30 am

Judging from this video lecture and Q&A session below by a Māori climate scientist, the answer to the title question is “no”.

A New Zealand biologist and teacher sent me the 46-minute video, angered at its intellectual vacuity, as you can detect from his/her email. (By the way, the scientists I quote are different people, not just one disaffected person.  Plenty of Kiwi scientists are fed up with the nation’s drive to indigenize science, as well as its handing over tons of grant money to Māori researchers for dubious projects. But they dare not reveal their names for fear of losing their jobs and reputations. This is a country where academia is deeply involved in self-censoring). Anyway, the email:

“Yesterday I came across a teachers’ newsletter referencing a webinar titled “What te aro Maori can teach us about climate change?” It’s 45 minutes long long and fellow bio teacher [NAME REDACTED] and I could only stomach the first 17 mins, with references to the “sky god”. Readers might be able to get further, but I can’t take this garbage.”

I had trouble getting through it, too, as it’s pretty much anodyne gobbledygook with the ultimate message “we need to talk to each other”. But I managed to listen to the whole thing, though it took me two sessions.

Although I had trouble deciphering some of the Māori language (the use of which is imperative to establish your credibility), I believe the words “te aro Māori” in the title simply mean “Māori-centered focus.” The question at hand is clearly what using that focus, or using mātauranga Māori (Māori “ways of knowing”, henceforth “MM”) can tell us about climate change, and how to ameliorate its effects.

Sadly, nowhere in the entire presentation and question session could I find a single contribution that a Māori perspective contributes to our understanding of and work on climate change. Listen for yourself and tell me if you find anything substantive.

That’s not surprising: after all, it was modern (not “Western”) science that discovered the issue of anthropogenic climate change and is now working on how to ameliorate it, though that will involve not just science but politics.  And if the Māori perspective can contribute to the political solution at least, or provide useful scientific viewpoints, we’d like to know. But the effort here comes up dry, with the climate scientist spouting bromides that you’ll see below. In the end, I felt as if I had given up 45 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.  All I can do with that lost time is show the readers what the Māori themselves present as their best case for contributing to science. And the case is pitiful.

Here are the YouTube notes:

In our first Climate Conversation, Akuhata Bailey-Winiata (University of Waikato) will speak specifically about his work on the relevance and application of mātauranga and te ao Māori in climate change. The session will be facilitated by Glen Cornelius (Chief Executive, Harrison Grierson and Deputy President, Te Ao Rangahau). Bailey-Winiata is a climate change scientist.

Click to watch.  The take-home lesson is in a series of slides, some of which I’ve put below, but there’s not much to take home:

In lieu of his inability to really nail down proposals and solutions that differ between Māori and “Western” viewpoints,  Bailey-Wineata simply discusses the differences in between Māori and “Western” worldviews, and then makes up reasons why they’re relevant. One of the differences is said to involve the “Western” concept of linear time and the Māori concept of “Indigenous time” (slide below).  This turns out to be irrelevant because of the false suggestion that while Westerners have linear time, and don’t really look back much, the Māori view of time sees it as “event based” and “nonlinear”, with the “past and future just as important as the present.” Since climate change is really a problem for the future, but is detected by comparing past with the present, and solved by extrapolating into the future, this is a distinction without a difference, and not a contribution of MM to science. The slide:

When asked how MM-based scientific methods differ form those of modern science, Māori tend to emphasize the “interconnectedness of everything”, as opposed to the supposedly “Western” view that things aren’t much interconnected. Here’s the slide that emphasizes that supposed difference, but I see nothing relevant between this Māori view and the way modern science tackles climate change, which of course involves thinking about both past and future generations (cf. Greta Thunberg):

Below a slide meant to emphasize how Māori “long term views” can contribute to the climate change problem. Note that the lecturer brings in storytelling and water spirits, but again, this leads at best to only a week and unenlightening analogy between the dangers of water spirits and the dangers of climate change. I won’t get into the tail-flicking of the water spirit, supposedly a metaphor for a river changing course and causing flood damage (see here).

The lesson from the above: don’t put houses where they can be affected by climate change. But that’s just common sense, not a unique Māori-centric conclusion. Every insurance company in the US knows this.

Here’s a slide that again relies on weak metaphor: just as rivers in NZ can be “braided,” so, says Bailey-Winiata, so we need both Māori and “Western” approaches to science. (The constant use of the words “Western science” to refer to “modern science” irks me, but I use the term because the lecturer does.) At any rate, he says over and over again that both approaches are needed, but never says one tangible thing about what the Māori approach can add to how science is presently addressing climate change.

The Māori answer to the question “what can you add to how science is currently done?” invariably involves simply emphasizing the difference between Māori and non-Māori world views, but never translates these into tangible actions, much less telling us how they add to science in general.

Finally, here are Bailey-Winiata’s “take home messages”.   Again, they emphasize the difference in world view, but never tell us how those differences promote fruitful cultural interaction when it comes to scientific problems that affect society.


If you think I’m deliberately distorting what the lecturer says, and leaving out valuable contributions that a Māori view can bring to climate change, then by all means watch the video for yourself.

Bailey-Winiata‘s presentation is finished in 25 minutes, and in the rest of the video he answers listeners’ questions fed to him by moderator Grierson. Here are a few questions and answers. I’ll paraphrase some of them, and give quotes (using quotation marks) when I had time to write them down.

Question: “Are there difficulties matching the timelines from the event-based sense of time [hundreds of years] to a Western sense of time?”?

Answer: Yes, for Māori culture gives us a long-term view, so this changes “how policies and industry has been done.”  The Māori view tells us that “building the capacity to do these things within that spaces of change and policy is going to be crucial heading into the future, but yeah. . . it’s a hard question to answer in terms of. . .yeah.”

In other words, it’s gobbledygook.

Question:  “What challenges could you give us as engineers and as climate-change practitioners to embrace teo Māori and empower the use of MM amd mauri in the work we do?”

Answer: “The challenge is just to be open to new ideas to new concepts and new ways of knowing, of being, of doing. . . . we need to open ourselves up to these different knowledge systems. . .have conversations with your Maori colleagues, have a cup of tea with them, and just talk.” Answer: “be openminded and understanding. .  see the other side.

There’s a strong smell of kumbaya in such answers.

At one point, when asked what kind of new Māori-centric institutions we need to promote indigenous world views, Bailey-Winiata says that the Māori need “safe spaces” for discussion.

“Be openminded, be aware of time, everything is interconnected. . . “:  this is what we hear over and over again. What we don’t hear is how MM adds to modern science.

Question: How can we use the past to inform how we deal with climate change (emphasis on the past is part of the Māori “nonlinear” view of time)?

Answer:  We can “use history to understand how we can look forward in the future.” Māori tradition tells us “what can we draw resilience and inspiration from.”

Of course using the past to inform the future is already an integral part of climate-change solutions.

Question:  Is there existing literature in Maori available on climate change for the general public?”

Answer:”It’s very sparse. . . . . there’s a lot about Māori natural hazards that you can draw parallels with, but not much historical work has been done.”

Short answer, “no.”  Bailey-Winiata then lists several Māori people who are “pushing the boundaries of this area of climate change in Maori, and the literature is bound to come out”. But where is that literature? I look forward to it.


Question: “Do you think that Pākehā [the Māori word for European descendants] need to get on board with accepting some of the Māori values when planning projects, especially when accepting climate change.”

Answer; Bailey Winiata mentions the famous Listener letter of 2021, in which seven University of Auckland academics argue that MM should not be taught as if it were equivalent to modern science, and then claims that this misguided viewpoint is spreading.  Instead, he says, we need to “be open to the idea of new ways of knowing and new ways of doing”. and “we need to move forward because climate change is happening.”   The moderator, of course agrees, as he has with everything that Bailey-Winiata says.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: a presentation of the value of Māori ways of knowing in addressing anthropogenic climate change—and from a Māori climate-change scientist with a Ph.D.  Either he’s totally unable to express the values he sees in using MM to address the problem, or there is no value of using MM to address the problem. I tend toward the latter view, for MM was developed before “Western” scientists raised the problem of climate change, and MM is a worldview that contains a bit of practical knowledge but nothing that bears on climate change unless you think that the “long view,” supposedly contributed by Māori lore, has something to add. In fact, that could even be deleterious, for at one point Bailey-Winiata mentions even bigger climate change in the past—something that climate-change denialists often cite when arguing that today’s changes are simply part of the historical cycle of climate change on Earth.

Since this is a half-hour lecture by a credentialed Māori climate-change scientist, I take it to be the best case that can be made for infusing MM into modern science, at least in terms of climate change. And the case is not only weak, but nonexistent. There is no “there” there.

Let me emphasize that by criticizing MM as a valuable contribution to modern science, I am not criticizing the Māori people themselves, who had a rough time of it, but are now reaping reparations in the form of affirmative action, jobs, grants, and the like. But I will argue that their “way of knowing” is way overemphasized, and that the government and academic powers of New Zealand, in a desire to cater to “the sacred victim,” are being sold a bill of goods.

34 thoughts on “Can mātauranga Māori help us understand climate change?

  1. After reading PCCE’s comments these last few months on the Maori way of knowing, I have just now wondered whether it has been proposed as a reason why the Kiwis have mastered rugby and racing sailing. The AllBlacks have their pre-game haka–maybe the crew does this before the boat leaves the dock?

  2. When lecturers like this tell us about the Other Way of Knowing through MM, they really mean the Other Way of securing state money— and the Interconnection of All Things is, above all, the interconnection of teo Maori with grant funding. Somewhat like our NIH
    Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Alas, this NIH program now includes some emphasis on rigor and reproducibility, whereas in New Zealand, teo Maori proposals will instead consist of the kind of word salad this lecture represents. In the US, we are
    developing a counterpart in the form of “research” in DEI—but its practitioners have yet to hit on an alternative culture and an Indigenous language to use as decoration.

    1. If I was in charge of a big oil company, I would give wheelbarrows of money to the MM promoters. Their empty blather is a surefire way of wasting time and doing nothing about global warming.

  3. There’s some truth to the fact that there’s always been something exploitive about “Western” science, beginning with Francis Bacon’s declaration that “We must put nature on the rack and force her to answer our questions.” Nature ‘s been on the rack for roughly 300 years and while she’s answered many of our questions, she isn’t looking too healthy or happy about it. I think the most generous spin we can put on the Māori viewpoint is that if we rely exclusively on technical fixes to combat climate change without adjusting the relational paradigm that created the problem in the first place, then we haven’t really addressed the root of the problem.

    1. I’m sorry. What is a relational paradigm and what does it mean with respect to global warming?

      1. Good question, Leslie. From the Māori point of view the relational paradigm that needs to be modified is that humans are above and in charge of nature rather than merely a part of it. Note that the former paradigm was Biblical (“Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”) long before Science adopted it. I have no clear idea (nor, I think, do the Māori) what this paradigm shift might mean with respect to global warming. Presumably, it might be similar to what followed upon society’s viewing wives as co-equal with, rather than as the property of, their husbands.

        1. As if that paradigm is part of MM, coming from an indigenous group that burned more than half the island and killed off the moas. And are you saying that this is a unique contribution of the Maori to climate-change amelioration, as if NOBODY ELSE EVER SAID IT A GAZILLION TIMES BEFORE. We screwed it up and now we have to fix it, and that’s what people think. I cannot believe that you think that this is a lesson that we must learn from the Maori in order to fix global warming.

        2. Fair enough. The part of this I object to is the glorification of Maori relational paradigms, as if nobody in the dominant western culture has ever had such a thought or tried to convince their comrades & friends to tread lightly upon the earth. The Maori include the same mix of rapacious scoundrels and thoughtful conservationists that characterizes other cultures (cf. the precontact deforestation and mass extinctions of New Zealand). But we’re told to think of the Maori like sacred ewoks and everyone else like robber barons. Same happens here in Canada, where we’re advised to focus on sweet grass smudging and not notice the extinction of the boreal megafauna.

          [woops Jerry beat me to it]

        3. From the Māori point of view the relational paradigm that needs to be modified is that humans are above and in charge of nature rather than merely a part of it.

          I don’t think that is a view point unique to the Māori. Certainly, anybody who is concerned about climate change is aware of the fact that we are part of nature, not apart from it. In fact, it is an idea that has been gradually taking hold since humans started to get serious about science. While it’s true that not everybody in “Western civilisation” understands that (and many of the people who don’t seem to be in positions of power), I bet the same applies to the Māori.

    2. Bacon’s statement was hyperbole and not at all exploitive. And seriously, the speaker gave NO emphasis on any “relational paradigm” that would help us affact climate change. Or are you saying that this is a unique Maroi viewpoint, and that nobody else would do it? What about Greta Thunberg.

      Could you tell me something exploitive about the early development of Drosophila genetics in Morgan’s lab at Columbia, since you say that there’s ALWAYS something exploitive about “Western” science?

    3. This is just a different flavor of the Promethean myth. The arguments vary but in essence it is always an appeal to living “within your means” (paradigm shift) and how “the West” has broken this rule. On the face of it sounds reasonable until you realize that deep down it is a religious appeal, and what is being asked (even if they don’t see it themselves) is to revert to a mythological pre-scientific era when we lived in” harmony” with Nature (translation: disease, lowlife expectancy, famine, superstition, tribal wars, shedding maybe 8 billion people. ..).

      1. I thought the same – that, to be fair, the traditional Maori lifestyle would bring less climate change (well, leaving out the wildfires and the killing off of the moas, let’s say that the Maori have also made mistakes and hopefully learned from them).
        The problem is that this lifestyle has its own teensy-weensy disadvantages such as the ones you listed, and moreover, nobody today wants to revert to it, even the Maori.

  4. The braided rivers are proving to be a well-used metaphor in NZ public life. The thing about a braid, though, is that all strands need to be tough and able to pull with and against each other. If you take the metaphor seriously, it means that MM and modern science need to test each other’s strengths and weaknesses, moving towards a demonstrably stronger whole.

  5. This whole affair is a great example of what you might call “cultural relativism”.

    I have noticed that FreeThoughtBlogs, especially *Z *yer*, have said nothing on this issue. You can guarantee that if Ray Comfort and company were spewing this woo, they would be all over it. In fact, *Z *yer* has published several articles recently about Comfort and other irrelevant non-entities.

    I think we all know why.

  6. I tried to watch the video and got a ‘blocked page’ message. Is there a problem with the link?

  7. Whatever do they mean by “indigenous time??” And how does that “make sense” re climate change?? How will an “indigenous scientist” measure, say, glacier melting, or sea level rise, without a standard denominator??

    1. I am very surprised that “indigenous time” is acceptable woke language, since regarding the indigenous of NZ it is “Māori time”, which Pākehā have traditionally used to disparage Māori for often not being “on time”.

      I expect there are similar disparagements for most other indigenes, such as “Indian time”.

  8. I’ve been casually and cynically reading up on elements of MM and the best I could say is depending on the subject it is between 70-90% mythical, spiritual and religious mumbo jumbo, much of it quite poetic but still just that.

    That 10-30% has always been taken seriously down here for the most part. Sure, the guys (and yeah, they were usually guys) didn’t always pay respect and give due credit to those they learned it from, either by asking questions, spending time and often befriending them.

    Speaking of religion, I’m a secularist and also see the state prioritizing one religion or style of spiritualism over others as disrespectful towards the others. Despite being 100% non-religious, I often enjoy the mythology and much of Māori mythology is included there.
    Charles Darwin himself argued after his trip on HMS Beagle that why weren’t religions other than Christianity no less relevant or valid, a step on his path to enlightenment.

  9. This is childish and embarrassing. Deeply patronizing. I watched the entire video, what a horror.

  10. I speak “Paradigm Shift.”

    What the constant references to holism, interconnectedness, kinship etc probably means is that we can help stop climate change when everyone realizes that we need to go back to simpler times and stop using modern inventions — such as the automobile and electricity. Go off grid, grow your own vegetables, sit down with your neighbors and tell stories around the light of the campfire. Everybody. All at once. Across the entire planet.

    It will happen when the harmonic convergence gives rise to a quantum leap in global spirituality. Let it start with MM. Problem solved.

    1. I know you’re teasing, Sastra. (I think.). But this really is one way to solve a collective action problem. CAPs are usually regarded as insoluble unless an omnipotent sovereign imposes restrictions binding on all players relating to the exploitation of the common resource and can catch and punish all cheaters. (Hence the “one-world-government” theme that runs through climate-change policy discussions.). This is unlikely ever to happen because China doesn’t have the staying power to be the world’s sovereign despite its impeccable leadership in reducing emissions.

      Yet some real-life small pasturing commons have survived non-coercively by mutual agreement for hundreds of years without succumbing to the Tragedy of the Commons. The users of the resource all know and trust one another, cheating is impossible to hide, and the game is well understood by all players: over-exploitation of the resource will lead to the rapid ruin of all. Nobody buys an extra cow into the commons except when a neighbour sells one of his out of it. Production and wealth creation are required by agreement to be modest. You could call this a spiritual way of life.

      These arrangements have much in common with your “harmonic convergence” that leads to global spirituality for the whole planet, not just for those people willing to govern themselves in mutual commons. If everyone did agree to do without the automobile, heavy construction equipment, electricity (i.e., no refrigeration), meat, fertilizer other than compost and night soil, cement, plastic, aviation, and long-distance ocean transportation, climate change really could be solved. The Cambridge University Study of 2019 outlines this sort of scenario to end Britain’s CO2 emissions by 2050. Modest reductions are not enough. (“Net Zero” is just a misleading tag line invented by Boris Johnston’s most recent wife. There is no Net because there is no practical way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere other than by natural photosynthesis. This point cannot be over-emphasized. We are talking about zero emissions. In 27 years. While the population grows.)

      It is not to make fun of Maori spirituality, or Greta Thunberg’s, to recognize what an enormous change of outlook this way of life would require, not just in doing without all that modern technology, but to trust that none of your neighbours in faraway countries whom you will never get to know around the campfire are not cheating, secretly building coal-fired electricity plants to keep their meat cold and their armaments industry working.

      Many people who believe this is all worth doing are trying to get all the world’s people to turn their backs on the Industrial Revolution. It is perhaps understandable that the world view of primitive stone-age societies who never contributed to that science-driven revolution but only free-rode off its benefits would appeal to romantics who dream the rest of the world could be induced to live this way.

  11. I think there must be a typo in that email cited in the OP: “What te aro Maori can teach us about climate change?”

    The video / slides talk about “te ao Māori” — this is the typical phrase. AFAIK it means “the Māori world” or sometimes “Māori worldview”, including philosophy and values, etc.

    “Te reo Māori” is the Māori language. Possibly the email got them mixed up (?).

    Anyway — I do think there can be useful stuff in some parts of these areas. For example, it is reasonable to think that indigenous knowledge and records of seasonal events — flowering times, bird and fish migrations, etc. etc. — could provide useful baseline information which could be compared to modern/future climate change impacts. And of course communities and their values need to be involved when e.g. a government program that impacts them is being planned.

    However, it does seem true to me that in this space, it is also common to see a lot of vague bromides, wishful thinking, strained interpretations, romanticism about the idyllic past, vast oversimplification of “western”/scientific worldviews/practices, etc. A lot of it seems to overlap with postmodernist and/or New Agey rhetoric, which is (a) ironically very very Western, and (b) tends to far apart with just a little bit of skeptical exploration. I don’t see how this part of it helps anyone.

  12. Here’s a “wokie-talkie” paper:

    “‘Never-ending beginnings’: a qualitative literature review of Māori temporal ontologies”:

    “Time is central to the way our lives are organised and, as we treat time as if it is reliable, stable and observable, it tends to be ‘naturalised’ rather than recognised as a social construct within our own understandings that are informed by knowledge systems, ontologies, and epistemologies (Matamua Citation2020). Our experiences of temporality are thus defined and shaped by our experiences of the world. For Māori in the nation-state currently known as New Zealand (NZ), these inter-generational experiences involve colonisation and settler colonialism. Thus, similarly to patterns of the marginalisation of other Māori knowledge systems, ontologies and epistemologies (Matamua Citation2020; Cormack and King Citation2022), Māori understandings and experiences of time have been marginalised as a result of hegemonic western-centric temporal understandings that have become dominant through their privileging and embedding into structures and institutions (Matamua Citation2020; Winter Citation2020; Kidman et al. Citation2021). As Kidman et al. (Citation2021) highlight, ‘just as land and place are subject to settler-colonial ‘rewriting’ by the marginalisation or erasure of indigenous claims to territory, time is also racialised and radically reconfigured by these manoeuvres’ (p.24).”

    Oh boy…

  13. I believe the speaker does not yet have a Ph.D., but is currently studying for one on the effect of sea level rise on coastal marae (meeting houses) and urupā (burial sites), which seems a worthy if niche topic. I must admit that I didn’t have the patience to listen to it all, but the stuff on time seemed like a good deal of rubbish, especially the concepts of “Western linear time” and “Indigenous time”. Seeking further light on the issue, I perused Georgina Tuari Stewart’s book “Maori Philosophy” where I found this: Māori philosophy belongs to a different spatial and temporal reality from that of European philosophy. Time and space in Māori philosophy are unified: in the Māori language, separate words for space and time do not exist. Therefore, past events do not lose their significance, and ancestors can collapse the space-time continuum to be co-present with their descendants.”

    Re “linear time”, a few years ago the Nobel prize winner Sir Roger Penrose published a somewhat speculative book entitled “Cycles of Time”. If the ideas ever take off I can pretty much guarantee that we’ll hear people in NZ telling us that they were present in matauranga Maori all along.

  14. Using Baysean reasoning, when I see a title like What can Mataranga Maori teach us about X (X=climate, nuclear fusion, solar energy, quantum mechanics, relativity, chemistry, brain function, dental implants, cancer, genetics), I know I do not need to read/watch further. The answer is simple – NOTHING! But unfortunately this idiocy spreads rapidly and we already see in the US calls to indigenize chemistry education.

  15. I listened right through and reacted more positively than others. The guy seems genuine and likeable and we can give credit to him and others for standing on behalf of his people and culture. We may agree that traditional knowledge has good things to offer to protection of our environment and management of natural resources, as well as caring for each other, but such ideals are hardly unknown in either “western science” or “world culture”. If Mr. Christopher Hitchens were with us today he might remind us that various religions make great claims for themselves and are not entirely comfortable about having those claims challenged in the public domain.

    In both science and research we can indeed take due account of traditional values and ethics but apologists for traditional knowledge would engender greater credibility if they limited their claims to reasonable proportions rather than assert full equality with world science or taking it that proposing nature as interconnected should surprise a marine ecologist or atmospheric chemist.

    Actually, we can learn from conversations such as this one but a serious danger arises when we meddle with our primary education curricula, take scarce resources from world class science and pass them to second rate activity and assure the people that traditional healing is an alternative to chemotherapy. To quote a line from King Lear (I think) – “That way lies madness.”

    1. He does seem a perfectly pleasant and well-meaning young man, but having listened to more of his talk I still think it’s vacuous tosh. There’s way too much of this vacant posturing in NZ. Rangi Matamua also seems perfectly pleasant, but that doesn’t stop him talking rubbish about the Gregorian calendar as an instrument of colonial oppression. My feeling is, if you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say it.

  16. Alas I am one of the increasingly belaboured non-indigenous New Zealanders. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent….

  17. Thank you for watching the video. I only got as far as the water spirit twitching tail bit before I lost patience.

    My questions are: would the Māori know anything about climate change without being informed by modern science? Would they know anything about its causes? I think the answers to these questions are both no.

    They may go on about how they notice rivers changing course and other effects in nature, but do they seriously believe that science does not measure these things? Has no scientist ever studied the effects of climate change on rivers? If not, I’ve got an idea for a PhD thesis.

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