What Are We Missing? Answers To The World’s Problems Might Be Hiding In Plain Sight

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The world is looking for solutions to tremendous problems including pollution, climate change, and cultural as well as environmental degradation. We have been taught look to our scientists for answers, to our governments for regulation, and to our corporate giants for follow-through. But are we looking in all the right places? In the deluge of today’s media, it’s easy to forget that solutions can be found elsewhere, if we open our minds and take the time to listen.

Some of our greatest innovations as a global society
have come from discoveries made by small indigenous communities long before they encountered the industrialized world. One well-known example is a medicine that eases pain and saves lives, available at almost every corner store as a ubiquitous white pill. People around the world have used willow bark to reduce fever and pain since ancient times, yet the beneficial compound salicylic acid was not isolated by scientists until the mid 1800s. In 1899, chemists at a company called Bayer derived the less-irritating compound acetylsalicylic acid, and aspirin was born.


Willow bark was a source of pain relief medicine in ancient times. Aspirin is a relatively recent derivative.

Willow bark was a source of pain relief medicine in ancient times. Aspirin is a relatively recent derivative.

Freeze-drying sounds incredibly modern and has transported food as far as the moon – but this technology was brought to us by the ancient Incas. They had freezing mountain nights and bright sunlight in place of modern freezer and vacuum technology, and they regularly freeze-dried potatoes for travel and storage. They called this durable delicacy chuño, and it is still made and eaten in the traditional manner today.

Tunta, also called white chuno or moraya, is a freeze-dried (dehydrated) potato made in the Andes region, mainly Bolivia and Peru.

Tunta, also called white chuño or moraya, is a freeze-dried (dehydrated) potato made in the Andes region.

Where will we look for the next great idea – where do we turn to build our future? The answer may lie in the traditions of small communities that are rapidly disappearing into the industrialized world. In Panajachel, Guatemala, the Maya Traditions Foundation is preserving knowledge and culture, teaching people of the importance of local plants and traditions.

Maria is a girl who lives there. Recently, GreaterGood.org asked her to speak to the world about her life, using a camcorder, as part of a campaign to make sure girls’ voices are heard. Maria turned the tables. She used her opportunity to speak not only about her life and traditions, but of her great hope that the deep knowledge of natural dyes and textile creation passed to her from her mother and grandmother can be used to make the world a better place. She says, “It’s important for me to show this to the world because if these trees exist in other parts, I’d like them to be protected, not cut down.”

Maria grew up in Panajachel, Guatemala, learning ancient traditions from her family.

Maria grew up in Panajachel, learning ancient traditions from her family.

The textile industry is one of the greatest polluters of our time. According to an article in Newsweek, it falls behind only the agricultural industry in polluting clean water. Maybe Maria is on to something: wouldn’t it be nice if you knew that your clothing wasn’t destroying entire communities? People like Maria are working to build a better future for all of us. They may well be the source of the next big solution to the world’s problems, from hunger and poverty, to pollution, and beyond – if we listen.

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Nikki Burns lives quietly in Western Washington, enjoying the company of a delightful family, three rescued cats, good friends, persistent rain, and very tall trees.