‘Untitled,’ by Mohammed Al-Ghamdi. 2014. Mixed media on wood 180 x 70cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hafez Gallery.
Innovation in technology has helped the global society uplift itself from the hardships of every-day life by enhancing its overall quality. However, the present-day environmental crisis urges us to reflect on ourselves and possibly look into the past to gain insights on how to better take care of our environment and preserve it for generations to come.
Before the discovery of oil, most of Saudi Arabia’s economic structure was limited, and the majority of the population was engaged in herding and agricultural techniques unique to their local environment – a practice which has been performed for over thousands of years.
People of the past knew which areas to move towards when lands were bountiful each season, and had a special time to hunt and trap certain animals for food and clothing, as well as a time to pick and prepare medicines. In addition, they knew how to mend and fix broken items that they valued or viewed to be necessary.
For example, some local communities of the past devised ingenious ways to store their fruit and vegetables in the scorching heat of the desert by digging holes into the ground and burying their food. This aided in keeping their food fresh and cold. Another example is that they would tear off old, tattered clothes and sew them into newer fabrics to create newer clothes or fix torn patches.
Naturally, knowledge transfer occurred over centuries and both indigenous and local communities preserved it by continuing the practices that they have learned. These practices, unbeknownst to many, have been essential in maintaining the diversity of both landscapes and cultures. It is why cooperating with these communities and groups is important as they can provide valuable perspectives when considering the impact of certain decisions on the environment. This is where the idea of cultural sustainability comes into play. A modern concept, it seeks to combat the continuous belief that has existed since the 17th century where domination over nature is based on a technological and economic world view that replaced an organic one. As such, nature and culture cannot be separated – for they meet and interact across several levels whether through values, beliefs or societal norms.
As it aids societies by providing solutions to environmental problems, ergo maintain cultural beliefs, practices, and the culture itself, it is therefore viable for any policymaker to consider local societies as a source for sustainability strategies. A sustainable future is truly achievable once one connects with local communities to understand their own challenges as well as gain a perspective of their solutions to it.
To provide a better idea, indigenous or local designs are rooted in sustainability whether it’s contemporary or traditional work. Therefore, when a Saudi brand chooses to have work that represents the heritage of the Kingdom, they will be benefiting local communities more than ever by providing goods and services that are originally from the region. This would not only enrich the lives of these communities, but also further protect the environment from pollution.
So how are should one encourage more people to look at cultural sustainability? Participation in events related to folk culture is one method. By doing so, engagement with practices based on cultural heritage occurs. An understanding of how our ancestors lived their lives moves to the forefront, promoting future sustainability by embedding sustainable practices into current and future culture.
There are many Saudis today showing their intent on learning more about their impact on the environment, and what they can do to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Exploration into the past and looking at the lessons provided can allow for new innovative approaches towards living a more sustainable life, while being appreciative of cultural norms.