Can mātauranga Māori help us understand climate change? – Why Evolution Is True

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.

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