Transport of “Bakken” Crude Oil Threatens Native Way of Life

However the particularly flammable “bakken” crude oil is mined or transported across native lands, in North Dakota or in the Pacific Northwest, it threatens native lands and ways of life.

The Westway terminal expansion proposal to transport bakken crude by ship threatens tribal fishing and hunting in Grays Harbor and on the Chehalis River and its tributaries. It also threatens lands with accidents all along its rail and pipeline transport routes from sacred native lands in North Dakota. Bakken crude was involved in the recent rail fire in Mosier, Oregon, in which water from the Columbia River had to be pumped at the rate of 1500 gallons per minute onto flaming rail cars for ten hours before they were cooled down enough to accept fire suppressant foam without simply evaporating it.

Three years ago the Quinault Indian Nation filed an airtight expert report that should have stopped expansion of the Westway Terminal in its tracks, but the Washington State Ecology Department recently came out with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with some shaky mitigation ideas.  One of them is that the City of Aberdeen might build new roads several years in the future to mitigate the problem with traffic delays of up to 77 minutes caused by oil train passage– during which time the report acknowledges no traffic movement will be possible, since there are no alternative routes.  That is, if an accident like that in Mosier  occurs in this area, there would be nowhere for residents or local traffic to go to evacuate.

The EIS also relies on limited geographical analysis.  The oil tankers loaded in the expanded terminal would be going to sea through Grays Harbor– not incidentally, periodically crossing Quinault tribal fishing lanes as well as salmon runs. But the EIS neglected federal ocean law standards, an oversight against which Earthjustice and the Quinault Nation recently filed suit before the Washington Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear their case. 

In the post below on our responsibility to “remember to remember” in this Thanksgiving month are many examples in which native peoples of Western Washington taught pioneers how to live on this land.  It seems they are doing it again:  working to protect the environment upon which we all rely. The Warm Springs and Yakama and Chehalis have also weighed in against the Westway expansion– their statements are included in the EIS above.  Tragically, the Quinault themselves are facing a direct assault from the climate change that would be exaggerated by the burning of the millions of gallons of bakkan crude transported by rail into the Westway terminal to be shipped overseas.  Their home village, Taholah, needs to be moved inland to avoid being washed away by rising seas due to climate change.

You can write the City of Hoquiam protesting the permitting of the Westway terminal expansion, as well as weighing in on behalf of those fighting the pipeline in North Dakota.  And when you sign this petition be sure to emphasize that simply finding another route for the pipeline is not acceptable.  It should be stopped.

Bernice Johnson Reagon: Singing in Harmony against the Disorder

By Madronna Holden

“What is it you want to do with the time you have left on this planet?”

— Bernice Johnson Reagon

As we celebrate Martin Luther King this January of 2015, we will do well to remember the elders who have dedicated their lives to ensuring justice and democracy– such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, a self-defined “songtalker”– whose life models hope and vision.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, professor emeritus at American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and founder of the acclaimed a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was an original member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in 1962. She sang in jail and she sang in marches where she and her friends traded off leadership to share the risk of the violence levied against them.

When Civil Rights protesters were faced with such violence, the Freedom Singers continued to sing, affirming their purpose as expressed in Sweet Honey’s, “Stand”, with its refrain: “We will not bow down (to racism, to exploitation)”.

Today, as an elder who sees it as her responsibility to encourage visionary leaders of the next generation, Reagon travels the country speaking as she did at the University of Oregon last year. She begins her talks with a song, inviting her audience to sing along in their own harmonies.

In her words, “We always sing in harmony.  We may not know the tune, but we always join in”. Of course, there are conditions to that:  one must sing softly enough at first to hear what others are singing.  Listening is key:  ceding space to one another, as Ella Barker did for decades in her NAACP leadership, working behind the scenes to locate future leaders.  Her vision was strong enough that the leaders she mentored were in place ten and twenty years down the line.

Barker is the heroine of Sweet Honey’s “Ella’s Song”, whose chorus insists “We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes”.

For Reagon singing is an expression of personal power, a gathering of courage—and a “grounding in place”. “It’s something about cleansing or preparing the air. I was born amidst singing. I don’t know of breathing or eating without singing. Like walking and talking, like the air you breathe, it was woven inside you, the house you grew up in, the yard you played in, the school you went to, the church you went to.”

Each of us has our individual voice, but we do not have to begin all over again as we sing our songs, Reagon tell us, listing the influences that stood behind her. We have history to inspire us, an inherited song to carry on. This is how the long term strategy for change works, as it did in her community.  At the turn of the century black leaders who protested against lynching located other leaders who emerged in the 1940s—and they in turned located the leaders who emerged in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

Even so, public action was often difficult to learn for those who had been told for generations, do not stand out, and especially do not call attention to yourself with respect to the police. But for change to take place, Reagon says, you must be willing to become “outlaws” with respect to the disorder of an unjust system so as to enact an alternative vision– such as the vision Reagon and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement outlined this fall (2012) in the face of what they saw as the “hijacking” of the US government by greed through the “citizens united” Supreme Court Decision.

They re-gathered at the historical site of lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. There they drew up the Greensboro Declaration, stating their vision of the current disorder and the alternatives they vowed to struggle for in support of the generations to follow. They invite each of us to sign on to the Declaration—as we enact and re-vision it in our own terms, according to the rules of community harmony that Reagon learned with song.

Reagon cautions that those around you “will not always love you for…speaking out against the disorder”. Even those who are part of your community, for whom you act on behalf of justice, may speak against you. Some of those who spoke against her came back to offer their friendship twenty years later.  But there was a lonely time in between.

Still, “if you are true to yourself, you will always have yourself as company.”

As a student, nonviolence was a hard lesson for Reagon to learn, given the violence levied against herself and other civil rights workers. But non-violence was a “long-term survival strategy”, fully in line with the long term strategy of locating inter-generational leadership. It took her years to really learn that lesson. “It’s not l-o-v-e. It’s saying ‘Good morning’ to somebody. It’s you saying, ‘I don’t know what they’re going through, but I’m going to say a little prayer for them.’ ”

There was fear for their lives felt by those involved in the Civil Rights protests, but there was exhilaration too, wonder at what a community could do, working together. A dramatic moment that stays with Reagon today is the effectiveness of the bus strike in protest of segregation. She remembers her awe at seeing the buses going by one after another, emptied of their riders. It was a profound statement of how powerful community action could be.

Whatever we choose to do to take our stand against the “disorder”, Reagon also warns us, we can be sure we will do many things wrong.  The important part is not to look for perfection, but to begin—to take that step affirming our personal vision in seeing the world clearly.

And we should be aware of the long term vision. Though we may not be here when the changes our actions prepared for finally come, we will have started the necessary process that made something better possible.

In her own life, there was a time when the “vicarious sense of life” she got from her college education, inspiring as it was, urged her to something more.  Instead of just telling that story, she began to live it.

When it is time to live our story, in turn, Reagon advised, “don’t copy, but learn from history”. And then become a force of nature.  Then bombs cannot stop you, just as they did not stop the Civil Rights movement and they did not Sweet Honey’s unity performance in Washington, D. C. in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

Reagon leaves us with perhaps the most important question each of us can answer with our lives, “What is it you want to do with the time you have left on this planet?”


The Greensboro Declaration

Excerpts (with a bit of my own wording) from the Greensboro Declaration:

• Click here to see the whole declaration and add your personal endorsement

September 12, 2012

We are the National Council of Elders. We are veterans of the Civil Rights, Women’s, Peace, Environmental, LGBTQ , Immigrant Justice, Labor Rights and other movements of the last 60 years. We have come together in Greensboro, the birthplace of the Sit-in Movement in 1960, to birth a movement that can share the torch of freedom, justice, peace, and non-violent action with those who have risen anew in the 21st century.

We are moved by a shared sense of national and global crisis and the resultant suffering being inflicted on millions of people in our nation and around the world. As this declaration will attest, our country is gripped by an interlocking, multi-layered economic, educational, social, political and moral crisis. This is part of a worldwide crisis that reflects the end of the industrial era.

The lack of certainty about what the future holds, the dysfunctionality of many of our structures and systems, combined with narrow-minded, manipulative leadership breeds confusion fear, and destructive reactions. As a new era dawns, we are challenged, therefore, to not only hold political and social leaders accountable, but we, the people, must strive, with love at the forefront, to forge more democratic, just and creative structures and ways of living that are consistent with the emerging era that affirms the dignity, worth and unrealized potential of all the people of our country.

We speak, in this time of crisis, out of our commitment to justice and non-violence and to add our collective voices to the unfolding conversation of this historic moment. We speak out of thousands of years of combined experiences of working for the betterment of this nation and our world. It is with compassion, the scars of yesterday’s struggles, and a deep commitment to advancing the well being of our nation and all humanity that we call upon the people of our nation, including our national leaders to live out the highest ideals of our humanity and national calling by struggling to make the radical revolution of values not only against racism but against materialism and militarism that Dr. King advocated in his historic BREAK THE SILENCE speech.

We affirm our deeply held conviction that the Creator has granted every resident of our country a place on this earth as part of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” that place ought to be respected by our nation. In our experience it is the people who must move forward, developing 21st century leaders in the process of making this non-violent revolution of values. For that reason, we are grateful for the newly emerging movements of young people. We applaud, support, and join them in our mutual struggle for justice and human rights.

Voting is an important tool of democracy, which must be more fully utilized and further developed. We strongly urge all citizens to vote in the coming elections and to intervene where necessary to ensure As we move towards the November election, we see that the deepest needs and aspirations of the great majority of our 300 million U.S. citizens are largely ignored in the Presidential and Congressional campaigns. Therefore, we call the following critical concerns to the attention of both our fellow citizens and all of our nation’s leaders who we hope will search for just and viable solutions:

  • The well-being and potential achievements of our children are being jeopardized by the destruction of our public schools system and the essential health and welfare services necessary for their development.
  • The hundreds of thousands of our young adults who must try to establish their lives with limited employment prospects and a staggering weight of debt from student loans. This burden must be eliminated or greatly reduced.
  • The “Citizens United” Supreme Court Decision, to which we profoundly object, that administers the final blow to our already faltering electoral campaign system by making corporate money practically the ultimate determinate of who wins and loses and, thereby, puts money and greed in charge of critical life or death decisions for many people.
  • The scandalously lawless practices of bankers and other lending agencies have led to home foreclosures and homelessness, impacting African Americans and other people of color inordinately.  Such practices grow out of greed but also a deeply flawed financial/monetary system. We call on the U.S. government to monitor and ensure the implementation of programs to rectify this economic disaster and to bring restitution to citizens who have been victimized. We call for a moratorium on foreclosures where unfair lending practices are involved.
  • We call for full employment of the U.S. workforce. It is not true, as some politicians claim, that Americans do not wish to earn a living. History affirms a strong legacy of productivity and industriousness among American workers.
  • We support ending the marginalization of the poor, ensuring greater work opportunities and a higher standard of living for them, as well as for the middle class.
  • We celebrate the recent legislation of the current administration which extends medical care to greater numbers of citizens, but continue to urge the implementation of a health care system that will ensure equal access and adequate health and medical care for all our citizens.
  • We affirm the value of our Social Security and Medicare systems. Over several generations, these programs have been absolutely essential lifelines for millions. We oppose all efforts to restrict or diminish them in any way.
  • We speak out against the virulent racism that continues to fracture our society. This bigotry is manifest in many arenas of our national life. One telling example of this is the manner in which President Obama has been disrespected and demonized, without public outcry at this unprecedented disregard for the Office of the Presidency.
  • We lift our voices against all of the attacks against the full humanity of women, including physical and mental abuse, economic inequality, and the freedom of conscience and choice.
  • Although, there are legitimate criticisms of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, we are stunned by the publicly professed determination of the Republicans in Congress to create a congressional “gridlock,” blocking legislation that would provide for the people’s needs, fueled by the singular, deliberate intention of sabotaging the Obama Presidency.
  • We are outraged by the continuation of U.S. “justice” system’s policies that have led to the incarceration of 2.5 million U.S. citizens, two-thirds of whom are African American or Hispanic, constituting what writer Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”

Without exception, we supported the full elimination of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and abuse. Many of us were on the front lines of that struggle. Today, we are appalled by the extent to which systemic racism taints the interactions of Americans in mundane and unacknowledged ways – in our workplaces, schools, and courts, even in our places of worship. We call on our fellow citizens to bring their moral principles and spiritual insights into our engagement with each other, trusting that through the consistent practice of being mindful of every human being’s dignity, we can begin to rid our society of the poison of racism.

We raise our voices against violence and the ways in which it pervades our national life. The acceptance and propagation of violence has been an essential part of the national culture, from the dispossession of the Native Indians and Mexicans of their land, to the enslavement and exploitation of Africans, Chinese and others, to contemporary wide scale police brutality and massive incarceration. Our deeply rooted culture of violence is increasingly taking the form of targeted as well as random murders; it is entrenched in all our institutions and systems. It characterizes our international engagements, including interventions in Third World countries to seize control of resources and the support of dictators who support US interest and oppress their own people. The United States Government instigates wars of aggression where there has been no threat to our country, and now uses drones, an even more insidious form of war and the culture of death.

Those in power have abused and exploited the environment, rather than co-existing with it or practicing mindful stewardship. This will to exploit, which does not take into account the ways the Earth may be destabilized, has brought us to the environmental crises that we face today, including massive pollution of our air and water resources, global warming resulting in climate chaos, and other threats to the ecosystem of our planet.

Too many citizens have supported these forms of environmental abuses, domestic and international violence and oppression by not speaking out against them. We call on our leaders and our fellow citizens to break with the preference for violence, and to insist that national resources be put to the healing of the natural environment, and to the creation of programs that will bring a higher quality of life for all people, to further insist that funds previously allocated to the buildup of nuclear weaponry and other military programs be diverted to the repair and building up of the national infrastructure, educational system, health and welfare services, all of which will provide much-needed employment for the millions of jobless among us.

We acknowledge that the reality picture we have painted is challenging and reflects a period of danger; it can be a cause for despair by many. We urge you, however, to believe with us that inherent in great danger is also great opportunity. Let us seize on the opportunity and in the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “to hew out of the mountain of despair” stones of hope. History has given all of us – but especially the young generation of the 21st century, the opportunity to forge non-violent hearts, non-violent lives that will result in a caring, nonviolent society.

We urge you to help make this Declaration a living, growing reality by discussing it among diverse organizations and individuals, including family members, young people, workers, teachers, professors, scholars, community groups, and faith communities. Further we invite you to sign onto this Declaration or to produce your own declaration. For as we declare and live into our “revolution of values,” we will also be creating a lively national alternative to the multi-million dollar super PACs that increasingly endanger the entire democratic process.

Finally, as elders, we pledge to our nation and especially to our younger brothers and sisters, that we will be faithful to our own history as human rights workers. We will undertake with you the work we have called for in this statement as fully as our lives allow, doing everything in our power to bring a greater measure of justice, equality, and peace to our country and to the world.

Endorse the declaration: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dG1COGdzMndxZTJ1am9xTDNleExRRnc6MQ

Money Doesn’t Need a Bill of Rights–but our Children Do

By Madronna Holden

This year’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations unlimited campaign spending is as unconscionable as it is frightening.

Money doesn’t need a Bill of Rights.  It already has rights aplenty– rights  directly linked to US economic woes.  A recent report of the Institute for Policy Studies  indicated that the differential between salaries for the the top 50 CEOs responsible for worker layoffs in the US and those same workers are 42 per cent greater than the global average.

In other words, those with more money have the right to lay off those with little money– and to gain more in the process.

Do these folks really need to saturate the airwaves with ads about problems with the national debt, scapegoating welfare programs (responsible for one per cent of our national budget), while tax loopholes for the wealthy cost US taxpayers 20 billion dollars annually in lost revenue?

In a democracy we can’t choose without information, but the Supreme Court decision has given corporations the right to manipulate that information any way they wish.

For instance, oil-linked corporations have financed billions of dollars worth of ads undermining scientific information on climate change, such as the ad that asks, “If the climate is getting warmer, why is such is and such a city getting colder?”  In fact, the cities mentioned in these ads are not getting colder, but posing the question in this way leads the viewer to assume s/he has seen proof positive against global warming.

Congress recently tried to safeguard our right to know with the The Disclose Act— which would require that campaign ads state who paid for them.  However, this bill went down to defeat in the Senate as a result of a Republican filibuster.  In a strange twist, those who killed it claimed to be supporting the Constitution.

If money did have a conscience, the Supreme Court might have been justified in giving corporations comparable rights to human beings.  But too many believe the famous statement of Milton Freidman that the ethical responsibility of corporations is to increase their profits.

And in this goal all others  get shunted aside.  A recent article in the Annuals of Internal Medicine found that research funded by the pharmaceutical industry yields results favorable to its products eighty-five per cent of the time. That is four times the rate at which positive results are produced by independently funded research.

This tabulation reaffirms the importance of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who see getting out public information as essential to their role as scientists and Integrity in Science, who follow the money in terms of scientific research funding.

A few states do have disclosure laws for campaign ads.  This is how citizens found out that Target supported the anti-gay Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer with big bucks.

In California, oil-related industries Valero, Koch, and Flint, gave huge contributions to an initiative campaign to overthrow the state’s green energy bill.  As the Union of Concerned Scientists observed, the main focus of the ads supporting this initiative is to “muddy the waters”.   Such corporate spending sprees are off target in a democracy.  Monied interests should not have the right to protect their interests—and to do so secretly–  at the cost of the rights of our children to inherit a natural environment that sustains life.

Corporations can do the right thing when their interests are on the side of good science, as in the case of the insurance industry that has had to deal with claims resulting from increased tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, and fire in the past few decades.  The Hartford Insurance Company’s “Statement on Climate Change” is illustrative.

In fact, as the folks at Ethical Markets and CSWire illustrate, corporations can do the right thing because they are smart enough to see that their success is linked to social justice and environmental sustainability. But we are not encouraging that trend by allowing corporations to twist the Bill of Rights to protect their profits.

In a democracy, a Bill of Rights should protect the most vulnerable rather than the most powerful.  Protecting the rights of all humans with whom we share our earth was the goal of the International Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN in the wake of World War II, when the nations of the world saw just how far things could get out of hand if such rights were not protected.

Rather than to corporations, we need to apply such rights today to the millions of girls who are kidnapped and forced to serve in brothels.  In their book, Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn report  from the field on both the horrors of ruined and lost lives for such girls—and the models some of them provide for courageous resistance.

The current UN report on violence toward women underscores the tragic fact cited in this book that it is statistically more dangerous to be born a woman than it is serve as a soldier on the front lines of battle.

These are the heroes among the most abused of women who have started schools or networks providing legal protection for other women.  Wu Dunn and Kristof not only share their stories but indicate the importance of the international community’s shining the spotlight on the situation of such women, as Amnesty International has done. Heroic as well as inspiring are women like Sunitha Krishman of India, legendary for her fight against local slavery at substantial personal danger to herself. Her work is also supported by the Ashoka foundation who support such “social entrepreneurs” worldwide.

WuDunn and Kristof also indicate ways in which others have become “social entrepreneurs” who change the world for the better in remarkable ways.  Zach Hunter, raised in Atlanta, began his activism at age twelve when he heard of human slave trafficking and instantly became a self-declared “abolitionist”. After raising money to get women out of slavery with his Loose Change to Loose Chains campaign, he published a book for potential teenage activists and fostered chapters of his anti-slavery organization throughout the US.

There are other vulnerable ones who deserve the protection of a bill of rights as well—earth’s others upon whom our ecosystems—and ultimately, our own sustenance—depends.  Takelma Siletz elder “Grandma” Aggie, chair of the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers sees her own role as a “voice for the voiceless”—speaking on behalf of those lives, human and more than human, that have relatively little power in the contemporary global society.

In the context of such generous acts, the corporate fight for their own “human rights” seems especially perverse.  Twenty years ago, Carl Meyer published an extensive article in the Hastings Law Journal detailing the ways in which corporations have garnered not only legal “personhood” but every one of the protections of the Bill of Rights for themselves through their legal maneuvers.

Our country did not set out to grant such rights to corporations. Indeed, the original framers of the Constitution were so leery of corporate power, they made corporations subject to short-term operating licenses  periodically assessed to make sure that the corporate activity was still necessary to the common good.

Our precious constitutional rights—such as the right to avoid “chemical trespass”—should belong to our children, who have a right not to be exposed to toxic chemicals so that a few can earn greater profits.  As David Korten observes in his Agenda for a New Economy, the status of our children’s well being presents an “a remarkably clear picture of society’s state of health”.  Korten also notes that Adam Smith, hailed as the “father of capitalism”, had a “substantial antipathy toward corporate monopolies and those that use their wealth and power in ways that harm others.”

It is time to assess who we should be protecting with our Bill of Rights:  the vulnerable lives that represent our social and environmental future or the corporations acting as if the only thing we need to protect is money. I know my own answer:  I have signed on to the “motion to amend” our constitution stating that corporations are not persons and should not be allotted their rights.

Money doesn’t need a bill of rights, but our children—and all the children of the world– do.

Why Science Will Never Know Everything

By Madronna Holden

“Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery.”

— Stephen Hawking (courtesy of M. Goldstein’s Physics Foibles)

———————

James Watson, co-discoverer of the code of DNA famously declared,“If we (scientists) don’t play God, who will?”

It is comparable arrogance that has brought us so many environmental crises today.  We have been going full steam ahead with the idea that whatever we can do we should do, evidenced by the 84,000 human-made chemicals released into the environment without testing. I would argue that nothing better supports our need for the precautionary principle.

Watson’s statement licensing scientists to play God indicates the disjunction between scientific achievement and self-knowledge—a hazardous disjunction indeed. When our power outdistances our knowledge, there is trouble ahead.  This dangerous attitude is summed up by a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Report assessing geo-engineering plans that include placing mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in order to compensate for global warming.

The report noted that such a plan assumes that though we are not smart enough to manage our own behavior, we are somehow smart enough to manage the behavior of the entire planet’s climate system.

Unforeseen consequences have already arisen with the idea of seeding oceans with nutrients to encourage the growth of tiny creatures to lock up carbon.   Larger creatures ate the smaller ones before they had a chance to do their carbon-sequestering duties.

This reminds me of Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s essay (in her book, Dwellings)  featuring a wizened grandmother’s tongue in cheek response to grandiose experiments to prove something that careful and respectful observation of the natural world would just as well tell us:  “We knew that probably would be true”.

As to the mirrors in space proposition, there is already a drawback to this plan on grounds of justice—since it is predicted to change weather patterns for the worse in certain poorer countries.  Seems like we have enough of that result already, as a film on the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples in Banglades documents.

Still, there is something in us that wants to believe that any unforeseen consequences to our actions can all  be handled by some magic bullet.  I don’t find this vein of thinking comforting.  To the contrary, I find it troubling when anyone offhandedly asserts that science will one day know everything–as now and again one of my students asserts.

They might easily get this assumption from the “magic bullet” instant-fix attitude in our culture.  But I will give them more credit than that and assume that science majors are getting this idea from the scientific search for a unified field theory:  a  “theory of everything” with which scientific laws might predict the consequences of all actions in the natural  world. Currently, physics is grappling with the fact that the laws by which it describes the operations of large bodies do not match the laws that describe the operations of very small bodies– such as those on the quantum level.  A “unified field theory” would purportedly solve this dilemma.

I second the attempt to discover the interconnections in our cosmos, but this is a far cry from knowing—or being able to predict– everything. Indeed, I would argue that our own connections with the living world must honor its ability to surprise us.  If we think we are simply “managing” that world, we are obviously missing its own living essence.

At the very least a theory of everything should include a theory of ourselves that entails responsibility for our choices. Whereas I hold out hope for better ways of understanding ourselves, the most sophisticated scientific theory counters the idea that science might yield the knowledge to allow us to act as God of nature.

I am thinking of the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his “incompleteness theorem”.  What he proved with this theorem for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize is that no conceptual system can prove more than it originally assumes. That is, the proofs that derive from within any conceptual endeavour are only elaborations of what we already know– or assume we know– to begin with.

Thus we will never have a “theory of everything” that applies to our universe unless we are standing outside of it. And even if there are multiple and parallel universes, one could only understand the “everything” they are part  of by standing outside of them. I think even those engineers designing mirrors to deflect sunlight in outer space will find moving outside everything that exists a daunting task.

This perspective necessary for understanding our assumptions is why standing outside our own worldview gives us such important material for self-reflection.

As observers, we are intimately caught in the net of our observations, like the Hindu “net of jewels” that weaves the lives of  the world together– an analogy that coincides with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that  on the quantum level, wave-particles can only be observed as waves or particles but not both.

And why should that be?  Because, Heisenberg postulates, the dynamic relationship between observer and observed is such that the very way we observe a quantum particle changes its essential nature.

There is more:  some modern physicists have documented how the very laws of physics may be changing over time.

This coincides nicely with the indigenous view that the world is alive- since change is a characteristic of life.

Two linguists, Benjamin Whorf and  Edward Sapir, speculatethat modern science might have come to quantum theory more quickly had we been speaking Hopi rather than Indo-European languages.The latter’s dualistic subject-object configuration more nearly coincides with the Newtonian worldview than does the space-time quanta that characterize Hopi languages.

In the traditional vision quests of the Coast Salish people, finding your spirit-power was linked to humbling yourself before the spirits of the natural world—who might thus find favor with you and speak to you in a language a mere human could understand.  The spirit power-knowledge found on such a quest was exercised throughout one’s lifetime as a joint affair, rather than as a manner of controlling the world.  One should always “ask permission” to use it—as a Snoqualmie traditionalist once told me.

According to such belief systems, children become mature adults who understand how to act in the world by humbling themselves to the more than human world.

My own belief is that the universe will always be  mysterious to us —for which I am grateful.  I find considerable hope in our human limits—perhaps this will someday motivate us to partner with nature rather than attempting to rule it as a god.

Sophisticated scientific theory and indigenous views of the world both indicate we can only get perspective on our culture by seeing it through the eyes of an alternative–and perspective on our humanness though the more than human world.

This is humbling.

It replicates the insight of Paula Gunn Allen’s Laguna Pueblo people who asserted that we need our enemies to show us who we are .  And thus if we outcast “others” from our world, we only diminish ourselves.

On the bridge between modern science and indigenous philosophy, there is this insight:  knowing the world is a matter of relating to it–and such knowing is bound up in the self-reflection we can only gain by suspending our egoism.

The discussion of the scientific certainty continues. here.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.


And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.

“When the Soldiers Come, the People Leave”: Life Under Israeli Occupation

 By Madronna Holden

“There is a Palestinian saying that all the politicians should be sent to the moon so that they can look back and see that we all live on one world”– a Palestinian-American teacher at BirZeit.

During the recent US election, Canadian Sabina Lautensach observed in her editorial in the Journal of Human Security that those outside the US have no vote in the US election—even if  US policy radically affects their lives.  Democracy implies that those effected by an action have some say in determining it, but not only does the rest of the world get no chance to  vote on the US policy that impinges on  it– but those who do vote in the US election have too  little sense of the affects of their government’s policies on the rest of the world.

Take, for instance, the Israeli Military Occupation of Palestinian territory.  Few US citizens have any sense what is it like to live under such an occupation—which is heavily financed by US dollars.  I certainly did not before I taught at BirZeit University in the Occupied Tterritories.

You might  guess how naive I was by the fact that I brought my two month old daughter with me to live there.

Though it has been many years since then, the dynamics I witnessed have grown no better for the civilian Palestinian population–especially in Gaza. In this context, it is timely to fill out the record of my personal witness of the occupation that I first wrote a bit about here.

October 1982

One of my students in my early morning class comes up afterwards to tell me, “I am sorry I did not participate in class. I did not exactly sleep so well. Last night the soldiers came.”  Palestinian Diary more

Legal Rights for Nature

By Madronna Holden

10/6/2012 update:

New Zealand grants river rights of personhood at the instigation of an indigenous people

“In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, legal personhood. The decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway.”
-Stephen Messenger

“Today’s agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally.
Christopher Finlayson, quoted in “Agreement Entitles River to Legal Identity” by Kate Shuttleworth, in the New Zealand Herald.

1.27.2011 update:

Plants as Persons

The groundbreaking Plants as Persons, by botanist Matthew Hall, recently put out by SUNY press, explores the philosophical perception of plants, beginning with the ancient Greeks.  His conclusion: plants deserve moral standing for a number of solid scientific reasons, in spite of the fact that they have often been excluded from such consideration by Western dualisms that shape human-nature interactions in a way that excludes plants from community with us.

UPDATE : (4.22.10)

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia has passed a people’s agreement as a proposed part of the “Universal Declaration of  the Rights of Mother Earth” which include:

  • The right to live and to exist;
  • The right to be respected;
  • The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue it’s vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;
  • The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;
  • The right to water as the source of life;
  • The right to clean air;
  • The right to comprehensive health;
  • The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;
  • The right to be free of alterations or modifications of it’s genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;
  • The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.

(Thanks to Andy Sinats at the British Columbia Environmental Network for passing this news along to us. See the link above f0r more info on the peoples’ declaration).


Discussion:

“We talk about the state sovereignty and the tribal sovereignty, but those ant communities under the big fir trees are sovereign too.. some nights you can’t see the stars at all [because of city lights]. That’s wrong.  Those stars are sovereign. They have a right to be seen”.

Billy Frank, Jr., in Messages from Frank’s Landing


In order to respect the sovereignty of the natural world as expressed in this quote, we must treat “earth others” (as ecofeminist Val Plumwood has termed them) as agents. We must honor them as having a purpose and place in the natural order–a life of their own with all the rights attached to this. The partnership worldview expressed by Billy Frank’s Nisqually people sees all members of the natural community, human and more-than-human, as agents acting in reciprocal mutuality with one another. This is the perennial view of our human ancestors in indigenous societies.

Such peoples characteristically recognize the rights of self-determination of all natural life. As agents,  that is, “earth others” have the rights of subjects–and cannot be ethically treated as mere objects for human use.

In the modern industrial context which divides the world into active subjects and passive objects in hierarchical fashion, it is rare that even all humans are treated as agents.  To do so would make considerable inroads against racism, sexism, and classicism.

And  “deontological” (duty-based as opposed to risk-benefit based) standards of business ethics stress that others should never be treated as mere objects to be used for gaining profit. This idea is related to the current move to allocate legal responsibility of businesses to “stakeholders” (all those effected by their actions) as opposed merely to stockholders” (those who might profit from an action).

Legal suits redressing “chemical trespass” and upholding the “precautionary principle” (which prohibits harm to others both now and in the future and adds community decision-making into its process), are based on the premise that we have an obligation to respect all those whom our actions effect as subjects in their own right.

The Alliance for Democracy tracks such suits on its website. It alsogoes further, arguing that the extension of the rights of agency not only to all humans but to all natural life is an essential way of protecting the commons upon which earthly life depends.

Legal scholar Christopher Stone’s work is seminal in arguing for the rights of nature. Stone soundly critiques the agency legally allotted to that artificial human creation, the corporation, while asserting the agency of both of human and more-than-human life.  William O. Douglas’ dissenting Supreme Court decision asserting the rights of trees used Stone’s ideas.

Environmental philosopher Thomas Berry also emphasized the rights of natural life. Here is a summary of Berry’s stance on this point:

Berry stated that all earth others, including not only plants and animals but natural landscape features such as rivers, have three essential rights: the right to existence, the right to habitat, and the right to “fulfill their role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community”.   Human rights do not cancel out the rights of earth others to exist in their natural state. Indeed, human rights are limited in a community which recognizes the rights of all life.

Whereas Berry saw the rights of nature as enduring, he also noted that they are  limited to the unique identity of those involved:  rights of a river or a tree are specific to themselves.  It would mean little to a river, for instance, to have the rights of a tree—or a human or an insect. Thus these rights are not in competition with each other, but an expression of the interdependent cycle of life in which each plays a role. In this context humans also have a right to wonder, beauty and intimacy that only our connection with a vital earthly community can fulfill.

Recognizing agency in  “earth others” is also emphasized by Val Plumwood. She sees objectifying others and objectifying the natural world as resulting in multiple devastations–and a way to counter this  is  treating all earth others as subjects rather than objects.

After  Christopher Stone’s rush to get his article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” published in a law journal in 1972– so that it could weigh in on a Sierra Club suit, a flurry of suits were quickly filed in behalf of other natural “others” –including a polluted river, a marsh, a brook, a beach, a national monument, a town commons and an endangered Hawaiian bird.

Arguments against Stone’s theory on the legal standing of trees express the contemporary industrial worldview.  One writer railed against Stone’s idea on the basis of the fact that giving rights to nature would bring down the capitalist system of ownership–since it implied those who share the earth with us are not owned by humans but own themselves.

A persistent legal argument against those who filed suits on behalf of certain “earth others” was that those who brought such suits had no compelling self-interest in these cases.  In our modern system legal suits are supposed to express such self-interest.  This is in decided contrast to Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker’s emphasis on becoming a “voice for the voiceless”.

As a recent Boston Globe article notes,  the idea that humans must prove harm in order to bring suit on behalf of more than human life  leads to some convoluted legal argument.  In  bringing suit against the bludgeoning of baby seals for their fur, animal welfare advocates  first argued that this action harmed them by robbing them of their rights to view the seals in the wild.

Christopher’s Stone response: ” “Oh, for Pete’s sake, just sue in the name of the seals.”

Stone also points out that under our current legal arrangement, when suits  behalf of nature prove successful, it is human persons who are compensated,  rather than nature that is restored.

Meanwhile, the recognition of more than human agency has been put into law with striking success in the Pacific Northwest.  To remedy the devastation of the salmon runs resulting from dams on the Columbia River, the Pacific Northwest Power and Conservation Act of 1980 specifically designated migrating fish such as salmon as “co-equal partners” with human interests of energy production on the Columbia River. Not incidentally, this perspective came partially from the understanding of the billions of dollars lost in the careless devastation of the fish harvest to gain “cheap” electricity. The council that resulted from this law continues to be a powerful and progressive force in the Pacific Northwest today.

In another legal precedent, the Swiss Constitution guarantees three distinct rights to all natural lives (including those of plants):  the right to species protection, the protection of biodiversity, and the right for their natural “dignity” to be considered in their treatment by humans.

Since this provision was put into the Swiss Constitution three years ago, a few researchers have complained that it stymies their research projects, but others have argued that if research projects destroy biodiversity or species outright, they should not be carried out.

What the “dignity of natural creatures” means in the modern context is more complex.

The question as to whether genetic engineering violates this law resulted in a complex legal document which concluded that gmo research would only be legal  in Switzerland under two conditions. Firstly, it must not damage existing biodiversity. This is a serious issue, for instance, in the contamination of non-gmo seed–since genes from this seed migrate in ways that are not understand, much less controlled, by gmo users.  This the reason for the current contamination of organic yellow corn by gmo seeds.

Until such contamination can be contained, gmo research is illegal in Switzerland.

The second condition for the legality of gmo research under Swiss dignity of natural life” laws is that no “terminator genes” may be used.  These are genes that cause a plant– or anything fertilized with it– not to be able to reproduce. The Swiss legal decision finds  patent-protecting insertion of this gene not only dangerous in the context of uncontrolled gene migration, but going against the natural cycles in which plants partake.

Switzerland is not the only European nation to move to protect the rights of more than human lives.  Almost two years ago,  the Spanish Parliament granted great apes the same rights as humans.

Such modern laws indicate a profound change in the Western worldview, in which humans formerly held unquestionable rights to treat other nature life as objects in whatever way they saw fit.   Such laws indicate a growing awareness that respecting other natural life is part not only to the better aspects of our humanity, but our survival within vital ecosystems.

Altogether, the indigenous idea of agency in the more-than-human world touches the modern world in a number of ways—perhaps most strikingly in the new Ecuadoran constitution, influenced by the Pachamama, an activist group started at the initiation of indigenous elders. Pachamama is an indigenous term for the (sacred) personhood of nature, and in the Ecuadorian constitution, Pachamama and her natural cycles are given comparable legal standing to humans.

Here are words from the Constitution of Ecuador, overwhelming passed by Ecuadorians in fall of 2008:

Rights for Nature (translated from the Spanish)

  1. Art. 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.   Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public bodies. The application and interpretation of these rights will follow the related principles established in the Constitution.
  2. Art. 2. Nature has the right to an integral restoration. This integral restoration is independent of the obligation on natural and juridical persons or the State to indemnify the people and the collectives that depend on the natural systems. In the cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including the ones caused by the exploitation of non renewable natural resources, the State will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration, and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.
  3. Art. 3. The State will motivate natural and juridical persons as well as collectives to protect nature; it will promote respect towards all the elements that form an ecosystem.
  4. Art. 4. The State will apply precaution and restrictive measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles. The introduction of organisms and organic and inorganic material that can alter in a definitive way the national genetic patrimony is prohibited.
  5. Art. 5. The persons, people,communities and nationalities will have the right to benefit from the environment and from natural wealth that will allow well-being.  The environmental services cannot be appropriated;  their production, provision, use and exploitation, will be regulated by the State.

A revised edition of Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?” is due out from Oxford University Press in 2010 and currently some dozen US communities have ordinances giving legal standing to nature.  In February of this year (2009), the town of Shapleigh, Maine passed into law an ordinance stating that “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.”

A parallel move to give legal rights to natural systems  is underway in Europe, garnering  support for a UN Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights on  the model of the current Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though some critics of allocating legal rights to nature raise the issue of how we know what nature wants, it appears fairly clear the above seals would prefer not to be bludgeoned to death.

Berry’s philosophy addresses this issue by  stating that aspects of nature have a right to fulfill their historic natural role in their ecological communities.

And perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to spend some time and energy trying to figure out what nature really does want–as did religious leaders of peoples on the Middle Columbia  or the Klamath Rivers, for instance, who acted as ambassadors between human and more than human spheres–and controlled the salmon runs accordingly.

Following such leadership resulted in practices on the mid-Columbia River that sustained salmon runs at seven times the modern take.

We could do worse– for both nature and ourselves.


A number of other philosophers speaking out for the rights of nature are represented in the Alliance for Democracy’s “Tapestry of the Commons” site.