Fourth World Theory

by Liero Plantir

The modern world and its environment seem to have become a contradiction of one another. This ‘decoupling’ from our surroundings severs our ability to accurately understand our disconnection from the world, as we continue to grow further away from ourselves, the land and spaces we occupy. We attempt to create a world that feels like we are connected to something, but it seems like we’re continuously walking in the wrong direction.


Modern states, especially Western ones, are built on the relics of what man has conquered. These underlying foundations serve as key blockades to global issues of climate change and progress made in those areas. They are derived from force and intimidation, with technology and rational philosophy leading to the political organisation we see all around us.

The modern state has lacked any ethical stance towards territory use, from Europe’s first contact with North America, to the current day where most indigenous nations have been crushed by the boots of the modern world in pursuit of natural resources. The thousands of indigenous nations that have existed are built on foundations which are in complete contrast with all modern states, both from necessity and culture.

In the past half century, the Fourth World has come to describe many indigenous nations that exist within developed states. Despite many having been around for millennia, such as the Nuxalk Nation of Bella Coola, the Meskwaki of the Great Lakes, the Livonians of Latvia and the Ainu of Japan, they are often characterised by the modern world as being ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards’. This is often used to rationalise marginalisation, which colonial powers have legitimised through the banners of modernisation, development and progress.

The idea of a ‘Fourth World’ was formed throughout the 1970s, into the early 1980s by leaders of indigenous peoples resisting the persistent global patterns of ethnocide and ecocide. The term was created to acknowledge the limitations of the Third World schema applied to indigenous nations. It is a product of the struggle and destruction which juxtaposes the growth of the Third World from former colonies.

Many of the first nations of North America found they had much more in common with the Sámi of Scandinavia, the Bretons of France and the Basques of Spain than they did with Third World nations. Self-determination was the key objective, as they were thrust upon a society that was changing at a disorienting pace.


The modern state has many origins depending on what perspective you take. In a broad sense it can be traced back to the mid-17th century with the end of the Thirty Years War. This war of attrition ended in 1648 with a treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia, irrevocably changing the map of Europe. This marked a point in time where the kingdoms of the past disintegrated into a new realm, the colonial empire.

The treaty created new structures between emerging European Christian states. Borders were formalised between sovereigns and mutual recognition was gained as sovereignty became the basis for state legitimacy. It set universal standards for political organisation and sovereignty, attempting to ensure peaceful relations and promoting global stability. This Westphalian system of states has functioned for close to half a millennium.

The Peace of Westphalia built the foundations for the colonial policies that spanned from the mid-17th century till the mid-20th century. By the 1960s however this colonial empire was on its last legs, and the Earth had settled into an amalgamation of over 190 internationally recognised states. This industrial and post-industrial state would find man beyond the capacity to connect to the world it had adapted to for thousands of years.

The state as a political entity is a legal creation, consisting of a set of internationally recognised boundaries, acknowledged by other states and comprising more than one nation. It is ultimately artificial, breaking down and breaking up as part of its lifecycle, only reorganising once the political and economic costs of occupation exceed returns. From Yugoslavia to Czechoslovakia to the USSR, identity separates from the self as it battles against something that is all consuming.

Nations however are people with a distinct culture, evolved over time as a product of human interaction with their environment and the spiritual realm. They are self-defining, created by a sense of solidarity, common culture, a historical territory and a national consciousness.

In 1994 it was estimated that there were approximately 5000 nations that existed within 192 modern states. They were internationally unrecognised and represented a third of the world’s population, though this number has significantly decreased since then. They are hidden from the world both intentionally and unintentionally, and in developed states they are ultimately invisible and oppressed.

Modern states have constantly suffered from cultural blindness and an insulation against reality. During the 19th and 20th centuries this blindness led modern states to believe that indigenous people were already like them, people who could be made into images of themselves, or who were hopelessly inferior and could not be changed. From the Trail of Tears to Norwegianization to the Lamey Island Massacre. Nations that had existed for hundreds and even thousands of years were eradicated almost as if they’d never existed.

The Akuntsu who exist in north-west Brazil will inevitably go extinct after being massacred by ranchers and loggers in the 1980s. The Qauqaut of Taiwan are suppressed to the extent that they are not recognised people by the Taiwanese government. The Livonians have faced continuous struggles throughout their history, including repressive measures by the Soviet Union where they were unable to sail far enough to continue their fishery. As of the modern day they have become completely assimilated by the Latvians, with their last native speaker having passed away in 2013.

Colonialism is about the spatial expansion of one people and the corresponding constriction of another. This ignorance coerced nations that had existed for millennia into ones they found legible, regardless of the means. The continuous pattern of destroying something they cannot understand.

Indigenous nations have not only been dispossessed of their lands but also of their histories and cultures, forcing them to collapse or assimilate into a world that is ultimately meaningless for them.

At a very personal level, meaning cannot be created and maintained until an individual is able to locate themselves within a cultural universe of meaning and continuity. The destruction of culture inflicts real harm on individual human beings. This forced operation of transplanting one culture with another is a violation of the dignity and integrity of that individual.


The mid-17th century also coincides with the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe. This era built the pillars for a philosophy which has become so integral to the way we live; it has come to permeate every corner of the globe.

One of the defining features of the Enlightenment was empiricism, the basis for the world we see around us. It emphasises the role of evidence in the formation of ideas, rather than innate ideas or traditions. In a sort of explicit way, it makes epistemology difficult for any spiritual belief.

The mechanical and mathematical nature of this period elevated the idea that man would possess nature, as opposed to merely being a part of it. Descartes, for instance, viewed nature as a machine, one where animals were devoid of reason and emotion. He held that the human intellect could perceive the nature of reality entirely through intellectual perception.

There seems to be an insistence that regardless of how large, complex or interdependent something is, a purely empirical approach will be able to understand it. An extension of states’ cultural blindness, history has a tendency to reduce the complexity of ecology and ecosystems in order to make them legible.

In Seeing Like A State, James C. Scott investigates how state attempts to make the world more legible have failed us, with nature having largely been at the centre of this. From introducing abstract measures of land and implementing practices such as monocropping. They constantly reduce and destroy the complexities of the world into something they can repurpose and reinvent as an economic resource, regardless of their understanding or its significance.

Indigenous practices from agriculture to spirituality are disregarded, replaced and demolished with no ethical concern or conscience. For instance, the Juma were reduced from 15,000 people in the early 20th century to just five as of 2002, as traders were interested in the chestnuts existing in their territory, so deemed it fit to exterminate the population.

The forest as a diverse habitat has largely disappeared, having been replaced with a financial reserve to be managed efficiently and profitably. Modernism has also largely exacerbated these issues with the architects of the modern world indoctrinated by the philosophy of the millennia.

The underlying philosophies of many indigenous nations are in stark contrast to the modern world. Indigenous cultures, such as those in North America, have epistemologies that typically include non-empirical knowledge and take a very holistic approach. They are generally built on the notions that all life forms are sacred, relating to the concepts of the Great Spirit or Earth Mother.

Information from dreams or conversations with non-human animals are often common elements of indigenous culture. Many cultures practised dream hunting which allows premonitions of the appearance and location of game animals. They have symbolic significance to art and culture and have a metaphorical, literal and prophetic meaning to the waking reality of their daily lives.

Holistic practices are often dismissed by much of the modern world, given their lack of empirical evidence. This has created a very narrow vision of what the world can be to people, constricting states and their populations to exist within a fraction of their own experience, suppressing and suffocating ideals which are practised beyond this.

A non-empirical approach to epistemology taken by many indigenous cultures creates mental space for intuition. This is a very human and subconscious awareness of events, processes and outcomes. The dominant epistemology of the modern world tends to undermine experience and heuristics.

Useful knowledge does not always need science to prop it up. Stories and anecdotes tend to be dismissed as useful sources of knowledge, despite having been embedded in culture as the fundamental way to pass on information for millennia. Significance spans beyond utility, as the intangible is often unacknowledged in place of rigour, despite making up the majority of our experience of the world.


It is approximated that in the early to mid-90s, 75-80% of the wars being fought involved Fourth World nations resisting state military forces. This includes wars such as the Papua conflict, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the ongoing Western Sahara conflict, which continues to inflict irreversible mental, physical and emotional trauma upon its victims.

Resistance from military forces primarily comes from environmental degradation caused by the exploitation of natural resources, to which these nations solely rely on. For many indigenous people personal identity is very much bound up with the land. The Fourth World experience has largely been one of deterioration, both psychological and ecological. This includes deforestation, damage to streams, pollution of the water, flooding from water diversion schemes and the depletion of animals due to over-hunting.

The political elements of environmental degradation and climate change emphasised by modern states tend to be compared to critiques of the left and Marxist analysis. Fourth World representatives however see the left-right political discussion as one Neo-European debate. Communist or capitalist, they are all one in the same from their perspective.

They all attempt to reap the benefits of industrialisation and continue to colonise native people around the world, destroying the environment regardless of what they label themselves. The outcome for the Fourth World would still be the same, which threatens all political systems because of its lack of interest in modernising. As such there has been mass rejection of Marxist ideas among many Fourth World nations, leading them to conclude that it’s merely committed to its own destructive version of modernity.

‘Capitalism and Marxism alike exhibit the modernist tendencies of the ignorance or obfuscation of difference, the silencing of local voices, and invocation of dialectical metanarratives. Both approaches to social organisation are, after all, the intellectual spawn of Industria.’

Whether its people or the environment, the modern state will find a way to suffocate its ability to peacefully coexist. This superiority is an ideal so deeply ingrained it forms part of the ground we walk upon.

There is no end in sight for indigenous nations living harmoniously in the modern world, as history continues to feed its own dementia. Fourth World nations experience what the developed world fears will happen to them. They temporarily protect themselves from their own exploits whilst they place the more immediate burden on the margins of society. The experience of the Fourth World is a lagging indicator, a premonition for our own future?

My mother taught me that water is the source
of all living things and to honor life like the circle
we sit in for ceremony. From the doorway in
to the doorway out, life is about all our relations.

Let us dig to remind ourselves our roots are ancestral
and there is nothing deeper
than these sacred, dirt-covered hands.
Tanaya Winder

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