Science is Never Certain (and Lichens Don’t Cure Cancer Either)

By Madronna Holden

updated 12.11.2013

Lichens don’t cure cancer, or rather, we don’t know whether they do — in spite of the article accepted for publication by over one hundred scientific journals touting the lichen cure.  The article  is a fake created by the journal Science, and it has some large bloopers, including the assertion of findings not related to its research, and promises to forge ahead with human testing without any safety protocols.

This bogus study is meant to demonstrate the importance of peer review and prestigious “first tier” journals as against “open access” journals. But not all “first tier” journals like Science caught the problems in the fake, whereas the open access journal PLoS ONE did. According to an analysis published on October 19, 2013, contemporary scientific work in general is riddled with errors.

Indeed, the larger issue in need of discussion here is the intersection of science and culture—and science and profit.

Science itself recently published a research paper that has since been widely discredited– and it is not the only prestigious scientific journal with such problems.  Of 73 articles recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine, 50 were co-authored by drug company ghostwriters. 

Rather than tightening their peer review process in light of this, the Journal decided to de-emphasize the critical assessment of industry funding   Lest we think industry funding has little impact on research results, we should note that research sponsored by drug companies portrays drugs as positive 3.6 times more than the same research funded by government or non-profits.

Notably, certain journals have taken a more proactive stand in this respect.  The British Medical Journal  (as they write in an editorial just this month) have joined PLoS Medicine, PLos One, PloS Biology, The Journal of Health Psychology, as well as journals published by the American Thoracic Society, in the refusal to publish research funded in whole or part by the tobacco industry.

Such a stand acknowledges the ways that industry shapes knowledge to amplify profit as in the cases of those  who hid health effects of lead on children,  of plastics manufacture on workers—and of heart irregularities in those taking Vioxx and Avandia–and the company who launched a secret research program to vindicate asbestos.

By burying and tinkering with scientific data, companies postponed the loss of profit resulting from making good data public.

The profit motive calls into question the work of the American Council on Science and Health, an advocacy group that is a self-proclaimed attacker of “junk science” — going after environmental and health legislation and defending the likes of fracking, BPA, and pesticides.  Secret documents recently made public indicate that that group is directly funded by industries selling the products it defends.

Gilbert Ross, the research group’s director, previously had his medical license pulled while he served time in prison for defrauding the New York State Medicaid program to the tune of 8 million dollars.

And even if we take the profit motive out of the equation, cultural values play a large part in scientific findings.   Peer reviewers for instance, may unwittingly add to social prejudice.  Social psychologist Laura Purdy makes a case for hiring seemingly less qualified women in order to give women an equal chance, since not only do scientific discoveries take longer to be accepted if made by women, but both men and women in the contemporary US evaluate the very same resumes and articles as “better” if attributed to a man rather than a woman.

Respected scientist Shirley Strum relates how her own groundbreaking research on baboons was at first locked out of regular academic and publishing channels. The “old boy” scholars did not want to give up their position on innate baboon aggressiveness and male dominance in spite of Strum’s research, which was more meticulous than their own.  She was the first to actually follow baboons on their daily rounds in the field, as well as to record  social interactions of particular troops and individual baboons.

Geneticist Barbara McClintock was forced to finance her own work when universities and research institutions refused to hire her.  Her breakthroughs eventually won her the Nobel Prize, but in the context of Western science, her method of “listening to the corn” traveled a hard road to acceptance.

Eileen Pollock’s recent New York Times essay outlines the ongoing problems of gender prejudice in evaluating scientific work—as well as in assessing potentials of students going into science.

Such prejudice effects acceptance of knowledge from non-mainstream cultures as well.  I am old enough to remember the dismissal of indigenous ecological knowledge by mainstream peer reviewers. Today the burgeoning of ecological science and the number of indigenous individuals earning advanced degrees has created a social context in which such knowledge can take its rightful place in scientific understanding.

Predisposition shades our scientific observations in purely physical ways as well. Purdy also cites an experiment in which observers recorded the performance of one group of rats in a maze as better than another—even though the groups were in fact entirely equal.  The difference?  The observers were told beforehand that one group was smarter.

Maintaining that “objective” science circumvents social and personal values only makes such values unconscious. Goethe once observed, “all fact is really theory”.  A presumed “fact”, that is, exists in the context of a particular worldview  which is itself a theory of the world entailing assumptions, perceptions, and choices. As Thomas Kuhn’s history of Western science details, science has persistently ignored data that does not fit the worldview of its time—only accepting such data after a shift in worldview.

This history provides a solid case for the critical assessment of scientific values. What we are conscious of, we can compensate for.  What we don’t recognize, on the other hand, we can’t fix—as in the tragic medical errors that kill at least 98,000 annually in the context of a culture within medical schools that encourages doctors to ignore mistakes—since it teaches that doctors don’t make them.

It is this same culture that causes scientific errors in general to be denied-– and problems of data fraud to be passed on to “others”.  A compilation of twenty-one surveys of researchers in various scientific disciplines shows that whereas only 2 per cent admitted fudging their data, 28 per cent claimed to know colleagues who did.

Science will never live up to its claims of being self-correcting until scientists are able to admit their mistakes:  as Bruce Alberts, then editor of Science, recently testified before Congress, scientists  “need to develop a value system where simply moving on from one’s mistakes without publicly acknowledging them severely damages, rather than protects, a scientific reputation.”

But the idea that scientists don’t make mistakes is part of the arrogance endemic to the Western worldview– expressed by DNA co-discoverer James Watson’s question, “If we do not play God, who will?” This question has nothing to do with science and everything to do with cultural values that cast humans as dominators of the natural world—a trend in Western thought longstanding as it is unfortunate.  Ancient Greeks termed unwarranted human arrogance hubris –and their literature is full of examples in which hubris fated human downfall.

“Playing God” with the natural world has brought us to our current condition—in which every natural system on earth is in decline. It is neither science nor wisdom to cling to a worldview with such results.

Other values inherited from our current culture contribute to the ineffectiveness of science’s self-correcting mechanisms.   Studies replicating previous work are rarely funded. Researchers generally assume that replication is done with those with a “bone to pick”– the characteristic interpretation in a culture based on the value of competition rather than cooperation.

Paul Woodruff’s Reverence offers an alternative to the arrogance that closes scientific minds– and the competitive stance that stops scientists from admitting and learning from their own mistakes.  He details how wise historical traditions have cultivated reverence toward other lives as a means of combating  tyranny and authoritarianism.  Reverence facilitates the opening to the world essential to good science expressed by McClintock’s “listening to the corn” and Strum’s getting to know baboons as individuals making their own choices.

The indigenous value of acknowledgement discussed by Oneida elder Joanne Shenandoah, also pays homage to the value of other lives:  “We acknowledge their worth, acknowledge that we are equal with the woodland, the trees, the berries, the two-legged and the four-legged. We share the same air, space, and water.”

I can only imagine how our science might evolve if it held such acknowledgement of the world it hopes to know.

This would certainly prompt us to replace human arrogance with an appropriate dose of humility—and to make self-reflection an essential part of good science. After all, if science is based on observation, shouldn’t we know as much as possible about the observer?  Indeed, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, indicates that a physicist’s expectations change the physical outcome of an experiment.

Heisenberg ‘s observations were focused on the arena of quantum dynamics, but philosopher David Hume, termed by the Stanford philosophy site “the most important philosopher ever to write in English”,  argues that there is no such thing as scientific certainty period.

Hume notes that scientific methodology develops its theories from observed experience.  Such theories can only be only our best guess at the way the world works—that is, they are hypotheses that give us probability rather than certainty. As in a coin toss, we can predict the chance that heads rather than tails will come up. We can elaborate the things impinging on the outcome.  We can even assign a statistic to that outcome.

But no matter how many times we toss the coin, we cannot say for certain that heads will be our next result. The issue of significance in scientific research is intimately intertwined with judging probability.

Unfortunately, this is not something with which enough scientists are familiar.  In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University showed why, as a matter of statistical analysis, “most published research findings are probably false.”

In other ways, as well, science is constitutionally incapable of knowing everything about our world.  But if we base our science on careful observation, along with a critical assessment of our perceptions and values and an understanding of the limits of our knowledge, we can do good science.

However, if we skip such critical self-assessment, we have the type of Monsanto-science that asserts that its genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically engineered soy seed actually produces less than its traditional counterpart.  The Monsanto claim also ignores the key issue of food distribution.  Indeed, Monsanto’s activities occasion the consolidation of small farms taken out of the hands of the hungry.

In general cultivation techniques in industrial agriculture that many term “progress” without evaluating what progress actually is– lead to the deterioration of global farmland in escalating use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and water.

In assessing the scientific claims for such agriculture, we might well consider Mark Twain’s caution:  “It’s not what he doesn’t know that worries me. It’s what he knows for certain that just ain’t so.”

Keeping our minds open to what we don’t “know for certain” helps compensate for our selective perception– illustrated by a video in which a group of students play basketball while a man in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Viewers told beforehand to count the number of times the basketball bounces miss the presence of the gorilla entirely– as I myself did the first time I saw the film.

Distraction works.

Enough of the TV audience viewing drug ads fix their attention on people depicted in healthy poses to miss the voice-over rattling off a drug’s sometimes fatal side effects. And thus drug ads are commercially profitable despite the side effect listing.

We see what we expect to see. We also see what we are rewarded for seeing.  If we keep our eyes on the ball of career success, on corporate profits, on the prestige of science—or simply on the habits of our modern lifestyle—we easily miss the side effects of our choices.

Just as we need humility that honors the limits of our knowledge, we need a perspective that takes our whole interdependent world into account.

Assessing our values is the first step in doing good science.

Choosing our values is the next one.

We have considerable historical precedent to help us in making such choices. We can choose values that have accompanied human survival over thousands of years:  values such as humility, care, reverence, and thanksgiving– and get to know our world as a friend rather than a dominator.


See also

Why Science will Never Know Everything.


And for a profile of scientists who have done the right thing, working to share accurate information, see these personal profiles of of science “champions”.

This essay is copyright, 2013 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to share. These are important issues to discuss.

Wolves and the Wild: Expanding the Human Household

By Madronna Holden

“‘We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, a cure for             anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.”

—  Linda Hogan,  “Deify the Wolf”


Pioneers in the Willamette Valley gathered in the so-called Wolf Meetings” to establish a territorial government.  Why this label?  Given their personal disagreements, the pioneers  failed to create a common government.  But the one thing they did agree on was the extermination of local wolves.

In those days, in the words of PBS’s “The Wolf that Changed America”, wolves “were the very embodiment of America’s vanishing wilderness”.  That wilderness was vanishing according to the rubric of Manifest Destiny, which saw both wild creatures and indigenous peoples fated to fade away before the onslaught of ” civilization”.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, reflects this view in children’s terms.  Here the wolf represents the savage wilderness, and Red Riding Hood the naïve girl-child delighted by birdsong and flowers, who puts herself in mortal danger because she has not yet learned to fear the land and its creatures– and must thus be saved by the huntsman. This fairytale dates from Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries —the heyday of the colonial takeover of the Americas.

But there are notable exceptions to the image of the wolf as mythical evil: as the in case of wolf hunter Ernest Seton turned environmentalist explored in the PBS documentary above.  The intelligence of a particular wolf, his communications with the wolf hunter, his self-possession and dignity—and finally, his dying loyalty to his mate—all moved the wolf hunter to see the world entirely differently.  Indeed, we might say this wolf domesticated Seton—if, tragically, at the cost of his own life.

Seton spent the remainder of his life fighting to save habitat where wild creatures might have a natural home.  He helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt to preserve US wilderness and founded the Boy Scouts—in line with his belief that humans needed intimacy with the wild.

Willamette Valley Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman relates how wolf skins brought in for bounty to the trading post at Scottsburg, Oregon, were stacked in shoulder high piles before being pushed into the Umpqua River to dispose of them. We can only imagine what this meant for those whose origin story told how First Woman entrusted her children to the care of Mother Wolf when she went out to discover her land.  First Woman found her children well cared for on her return.

Mother Wolf thus gave human children an experience of the natural world as family. We might well follow this model of learning from the natural world that succors us.  And we might hope to do so in a way that does not require the death of other natural creatures as happened with Seton’s wolf-hunting.

Mary Tallmountain spoke a telling poetic acknowledgement to the “last wolf”who made its way through the  “ruined city” to lay its muzzle on the hospital bed where she battled cancer. “Yes”, she told the wolf, “I know what they have done”.

What they had done was wage a war of extermination on wolves and their wild kin. Shortly after the “Wolf Meetings”, wolves were largely gone from Willamette Valley– though there were a few hold-outs in wilderness areas until the last wolf in Oregon was killed for bounty in 1947.

But the wolf gone from official records was not gone from sight.  There were mysterious wolf sightings long after this, as in the gray wolf sighted in the Opal Creek Wilderness half a century later.  As wolves will do, this creature would stand and look back at a human for a moment before it turned to vanish.

I don’t know anything more about the wolf at Opal Creek. Young wolves generally disperse about 40-80 miles, but they have gone as far as 500 miles to find a new family.  Until they find their family, in turn, they cannot realize their nature as a wolf.  It was a wolf’s fierce loyalty to his  mate that caused Seton to write WHY? in his journal with respect to his own actions —and to turn from wolf killer to wolf protector.

He is not alone in this change.  According to a recent US survey 74 per cent of US citizens now agree that the wolf should have a place in natural ecosystems. The Nez Perce did not need a survey to determine their own opinions on this: they offered their land as a site for wolf reintroduction– and then held a ceremony to welcome the wolves back.

Among the 26 per cent who do not favor the wolf’s comeback are ranchers who see their livestock at risk with that return. Tactics to support both the ranchers and the wolves are being worked out in the wake of Oregon’s “no kill” court ruling. One side effect of this process is that humans are spending more time with the domesticated animals they raise for meat– since the primary method to inhibit wolf killings of this type is human presence.

Now we are also learning more about wolves–and thus how to treat them according to their own nature.  A recent editorial in the Oregonian concurred with the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill two yearling lamb-killing wolves that refused to be relocated and were roaming without a pack.  That editorial also argued we should not be killing wolves in the wilderness who are doing what wolves naturally do.

There is much to learn about wolves’ essential roles in ecosystems:  observations of reintroduced wolves in the Yellowstone indicate their presence fosters the return of aspen groves, changing the way elk graze—higher up on the branches, so they can keep a lookout.  Wolf kills also feed at least twelve other species—not counting insects.

Even in the Red Riding Hood story, there is embedded an older memory of wolf as kin—indicated by his dressing in the clothes of the young girl’s beloved grandmother.  Though the moral of this fairy tale is the foolishness of such a guise, there are those who find a different moral—and a different possibility—in our relationship with wolves.

As Chickasaw Linda Hogan sees it, the wolf is “a relative inside our own blood, an animal so equal to us that it reflects back what we hate and love about ourselves.”

Indigenous peoples are not alone in this view.  In a much older European story than that of Red Riding Hood, twins suckled by a wolf founded Rome.

Here we find two contrasting stories of domestication. In the one humans domesticate the wild by setting it under human control—and in the other humans and wild creatures share the common household of earth. In this latter view wild  creatures domesticate us as much as we domesticate them.

Paul Shepard’s thesis is that the latter has been the predominant type of domestication– whether humans realize it or not.   He argues that though humans assume they are domesticating animals and plants, the latter are really domesticating humans, since they have changed our humanity over time so we might accommodate them in our lives.

We are all too familiar with the contrasting idea of  domestication as control, which affects both what industrial societies consider wild and what they consider feminine.  In this framework, both women and wolves according to Clarrisa Estes, “have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious.”

We presume to own what we thus domesticate even as we presume to control it:  thus genetically engineered lives are patented by their designers.

But in the older view of domestication, both the wolf and the feminine are empowered by their wildness: by their intuition, their attention to detail—and most of all, their loyalty to family (a family that extends to all natural lives)—and their protection of their children with a singular fierceness.

In this view, humans are familial partners with the wild world, as illustrated by the case of lions who shared their kill with certain indigenous peoples of South Africa, and the dolphins who fished with the indigenous peoples of Australia– a practice initiated by the dolphins.

This view of domestication is not about taming the wild, but in the apt terms of ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, about tending the wild.  Rather than shrinking the lives of other species into an arena controlled by humans, this type of domestication seeks to extend human consciousness to embrace the whole of the natural world as family.

There were the wild hedgerows in indigenous farms in Peru, and peasant farms in England and Eastern Europe—where hedgerows both fed and provided habitat to other species and provided a reservoir of learning for the farmers.  They obtained many seed varieties from them, for instance.

Here there is no line drawn between the “weeds” that are not under human control and a single plant chosen by humans. Indeed, research published this month supports Vandana Shiva’s observation that the plants declared “weeds” in agribusiness monocultures constitute essential nutritional, medicinal, and material (e.g. housing and basket making) resources for indigenous farmers.

Instead of attacking biodiversity to bolster the one seed or one animal—or part of an animal as in the case of genetic engineering—humans favor at the moment, the Kalapuya who sustained themselves for at least six thousand years in place, fostered an abundant diversity of local animals and crops–such that their valley was known as the “gourmand’s paradise” by early European explorers for its abundance of available food.

Kalapuya also echoed the practice of the wolf in their hunting:  early pioneers near Albany witnessed native hunters surround a herd and conscientiously let its strongest animals go before their took their own kill.

Wherever humans have lived they have interacted with and thus changed the natural world.  They have taken what they need for survival, as do all natural creatures.  But there is more than one way than one way to do this.  We can attempt to bring other lives under our control, making monocultures of our favorites—and declaring war on all other natural lives as we erase natural habitats.

Or we can embrace other natural lives as our kin—expanding our sense of family to all natural life.  Creatures that share our gardens, our farms, our cities, and our houses—as well as the habitats we dedicate to them—take us, in Hogan’s words, “across the boundaries of ourselves,”  teaching us the language of life which may yet sustain us.

Wangari Maathai 1940-2011

By Madronna Holden

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

–Wangari Maathai

 Growing up in her Kikuyu village in the sight of Mt. Kenya, Wangari Maathai learned to revere that mountain as the glacial source of rivers and rain that sustained her land and people.  When her people climbed that peak, they walked barefoot out of reverence, for they felt they were approaching the realm of God.

Heaven, Maathai asserted, is right here, in our lives and the presence of the other lives of all species that share the earth. Thus the Kikuyu recognized the presence of divinity on the mountain.  As long as the people looked up and saw the clouds on the top of Mt. Kenya (that mountain, Maathai wrote, is a “shy mountain” and usually covered), they knew they could rely on the rains to come and the rivers to run full.

That reliance has grown shakier as the glaciers recede with climate change and logging denudes the land.  Maathai asserted that the land does not like to be “naked” in this way.  It wants to be covered with green life: with the trees that also yield protection for water resources, food, firewood and building materials for local villages. By tradition, her Kikuyu people never cut the streamside trees whose roots protected the abundance and clarity of precious water resources.

From her culture, especially as passed on to her from her grandfather, Professor Wangari Maathai of Nairobi University, the first African woman to hold a Nobel Prize and the first person to earn that prize as an environmentalist, learned to look at the mountain and “understand the future”.  Her reverence for the mountain motivated her work in the Greenbelt Movement, along with her continued emphasis on the relationship between social and environmental justice for the people of Kenya– as she  emphasized in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 1977, she founded the Greenbelt Movement, ultimately responsible for planting 47 million trees in Africa and billions of trees worldwide. Such planting was primarily the work of poor women carefully tending and watering their trees.

Without culture, Maathai wrote, humans have no real security in the world and easily succumb to the lure of material goods as a short term “fix”. It is a poor substitute for real security.  Maathai acknowledges there are negative things in some African cultures—but also positive ones that counteract the colonial assertions of African “backwardness”.  Essential among these is the ways in which traditional peoples know how to sustain their lives and health of their lands together.

As the current tribute to her life on the website of the Greenbelt Movement states, Wangari Maathai’s experience increasingly supported her view that “poverty and environmental destruction” were intertwined with “deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures”.

Founding and guiding the Greenbelt Movement that included over 900,000 African women was not always easy.  Maathai and other Greenbelt members were consistently jailed and harassed by the authoritarian regime of Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

Even as Maathai considered environmental protection and human justice intertwined, she continued to speak out for both.  At one point she was beaten unconscious by police in a demonstration seeking the release of political prisoners—a demonstration that ultimately resulted in the release of 51 men.

Even as leaders were by tradition accountable to their people, Maathai used her own social status to support the cause of justice, as when she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her sister Nobel Laureates to advocate for peace, justice and equality worldwide.

It is with good reason that women were at the center of Maathai’s priorities as she developed ways to empower poor women globally.  Elected parliamentary representative after the demise of the authoritarian Moi regime, Nobel Laureate, professor at Nairobi University (the first woman to assume that position), winner of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003), the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984), and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, Maathai still could not obtain a divorce from her husband who protested that she was “too outspoken for a woman”. Indeed, she was jailed for criticizing the judge who failed to grant her that divorce.

From the time that as a child Maathai lived in terror of the crushing violence of colonial authorities putting down the Mau Mau insurgence, Maathai experienced firsthand the effects of such violence on women and children.  Still she was tireless in enacting her vision even in the face of such violence. “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times”, Maathai wrote, “But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Sadly, the world has just lost this remarkable leader though ovarian cancer. But in her 71 years on this earth, she left a powerful legacy.  Her example is a distinctive one for meeting the environmental and social crises we currently face.

She taught us the importance of holding to our vision in the face of overwhelming odds—even as she worked in her own life to supplant the violence levied against her and the earth with compassion and justice.

Maathai modeled the way in which a simple act such as planting and caring for a tree can give poor women their power back at the same time that it can change the world for the better. And multiplied in community, such an act can become billions strong.

The roots of the billions of trees newly planted in Wangari Maathai’s wake are testimony to the hope and persistence that each of us might express in our lives, wherever and whoever we are.

————————

I want to acknowledge my former student Julie Bovett for emailing me about the sad fact of Wangari Maathai’s passing.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Standing in Front of Speeding Cars and Other Modern Pastimes

By Madronna Holden

Andrew Light, director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University, observes that just as we look both ways before crossing the street, we should exercise precaution in releasing new technologies.  Failing to do so is like assuming that if we don’t look as we cross a busy highway, no cars will be coming. In the European Union, the precautionary principle remedies this irrationality with its REACH program, which mandates that new chemicals be proved safe before their release.

The current US policy, by contrast, allows the release of over 2000 untested new chemicals annually—some of them taken directly into our bloodstreams through the use of untested Nano-carriers, as in sunscreens and cosmetics.   In this scenario, our own bodies become the experimental subjects with which to test these chemicals, creating what social historian Ulrech Bech terms the risk society”

Bech notes that untested technologies hurtle us into a fatalistic world in which society is at the mercy of technological effects rather than controlling them or nature.  In  a recent interview, Bech asserted that our survival dictates we reverse this “organized irresponsibility” through a global program of justice– giving those affected by new technologies a say in their release.

It is, after all, a basic premise of democracy that we get to approve or disapprove social choices that affect our lives.  Essential to such voting is knowledge. This is why the labeling of genetically engineered foods is so important—and the concerted campaign of the US biotech industry to stop such labeling is clearly undemocratic.  In a democracy, you don’t get to hide what you are doing just because your market research says you might lose profits if you reveal it.

Likewise, corporations fighting the passage of the US Disclose Act (which would require disclosure of funding sources of campaign ads) are clearly acting in bad faith. So are those who oppose the Safe Chemicals Act currently before Congress. Putting profit before ethics sets the stage for amplifying the “risk society” Bech outlines.

We need both the precautionary principle—and a change in worldview– to create a secure society instead. We are several centuries behind modern knowledge when we adhere to the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature—asserting with Francis Bacon that all scientific technology is automatically good in its control of nature.

Take the case of the scientific management of ocean fisheries– in particular, of the cod fishery in Newfoundland studied by Dean Bavington. Bavington makes the case that the fishery collapsed as a direct outcome of management stemming from a dualistic worldview.  Such management quantified fish as “biomass” and ocean habitat according to its “carrying capacity” in an attempt to yield a rationally managed, predictable and sustainable cod fishery. But this representational approach to the fish missed a good deal, discounting the “anecdotal” observations of onshore fishermen that the cod were actually disappearing.

It turns out the onshore fishermen were right.  In attempting to smooth out the variation of the cod runs by location and year, management by numbers missed the destructive effects of their own technology, which took fish during spawning, allowing for huge by-catches as it scooped up whole schools of offshore fish, and changed the genetic populations of cod to smaller fish at older ages, even as it caught “mother fish” principally responsible for breeding.

Notably, the traditional fishermen—both in Newfoundland and in Britain—lobbied against the use of new technologies such as bottom-trawling nets on the basis of their destructive potential.  In effect, they asserted the precautionary principle.  But their voices were not heeded.  Pointedly, what Bavington refers to as an ethic of “honor” between the fish and fishermen caused them to observe essential factors that “value-free” management overlooked.

In fact, that management wasn’t value free: it was based on an ethic of dominating the natural world —and the assumption that living creatures could be adequately represented and dealt with as numbers. Today the once abundant cod fishery is in limbo, the result of a moratorium on cod fishing imposed by the Canadian government in the hopes that the fish will come back. But that moratorium has been in effect twenty years, waiting for the cod to come back.

Bavington cites a recent Dalhousie University report indicating that by the year 2050, ocean fisheries worldwide will go the way that the cod fishery if we don’t change our approach quickly. He concludes that wild fisheries are incapable of being “scientifically” managed—and the attempt to do so in a way that objectifies fish as catch numbers is leading to the precipitous decline of ocean fisheries everywhere.

One response has been to create fish farms that are more susceptible to human management:  but these have problems of their own, including the fact that farming carnivorous fish means drawing more protein stores out of the ocean to feed them than they actually yield.

Bavington proposes a return to “honorable” relationships between wild fish and fishermen to save the fisheries:  a return to the worldview, that is, of traditional Newfoundland fishermen, who once worked with the diversity and agency of the fish, rather than reducing them to numerical masses.

Science historianBruno Latour seconds this view:  he asserts that if we do not heal the dualism that sets ourselves apart from the natural world as its supposed “managers”, we are headed for sure disaster. We need a stance of both caution and care to replace the worldview of domination.

The need for such caution—or “fore-caring” (caring for the future) as the precautionary principle has also been called– is precisely why it is so important that we pass the Safe Chemicals Act instituting the precautionary principle in the US.

Even if we choose to stand in front of speeding trains, we have no right to push other lives in front of them.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

No real apples need apply: lost in the world of images

By Madronna Holden

When is an apple not an apple?  When it appears in an ad for an apple.

Many years ago ad makers decided that a picture of a real apple was not good enough, so they created models of apples to photograph for their ads. Today there is computer retouching to create the  image nature never presents us.  That is how women in ads get so impossibly thin and unblemished, as Jean Kilbourne details in her films on women’s images in the media.

And when is a doctor not a doctor?  When you saw him in a pharmaceutical ad—at least until a few years ago when the American Medical Association came out with guidelines discouraging the misleading practice of selling pharmaceuticals with actors posing as health care professionals.

Unfortunately, the shamming did not stop with these rules in 2006.  Last year investigators uncovered the fact that many research articles in peer- reviewed medical journals were not written by real doctors. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry was ghost writing them. Merck outdid them all by writing an entire fake scientific journal that came out for a year before anyone caught on.

Not surprisingly, an article published this summer in Business Ethics presented the “blemished record” of doctors on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies. It seems that the manipulation of image for profit does not do well in maintaining the ethics of medicine.

Unfortunately, large pharmaceutical corporations spend more money on advertising than on research and development and use a number of “hidden” marketing tactics.

And today it is patient testimonials that are the perview of actors.

A good example of the importance of image– and its danger to our health is the use of food coloring. According to a recent issue of Nutrition Action,  the FDA has been aware of data for several decades that clearly shows the negative effects of ingesting chemical food coloring.  Such dangers range from cancer to hyperactivity.  Given the fact that the coloring does not add anything to food, Nutrition Action urges that we simply ban it.

We might have done that long ago–or never developed such colorings in the first place, if image were not so important to us.

Many food colorings appeal to children—who are also most vulnerable to their negative effects. This was the protest of a doctor who complained to her pharmaceutical employer in the 1980s that putting dyes in children’s antibiotics was a health hazard. She was summarily fired.

Children also have a harder time with the mental effects of ads.  You can spot many an unhappy parent with a small child in tow in grocery isles, as the child insists on adding to their basket something they recognize from commercials. The advertisers have done their research. They test their ads before audiences of children, adjusting things should the children’s attention lag.

They are testing adults too.  As documented in Spellcasters, “neuromarketing” uses  MRIs to design ads bypassing decision-making centers of the brain for those that act on impulse. A few decades back laws forbade the use of subliminal images in advertising–images shown so quickly that they registered on the subconscious but not the conscious mind.  But we haven’t passed legislation to deal with this new twist.

The idea that buying things should replace community and familial connections predates any of these technological niceties.  Stuart Ewen documents the history of advertising’s image manipulation in creating the social values that ground consumer culture.  Nearly one hundred years ago, a group of influential CEOs met to decide the goals of social engineering through advertising.

Specifically, they wanted to foster  loneliness and anxiety in the general populace—so that they could entice them to buy products in order to relieve their discomfort.  And having made the consumer bereft of a sense of kinship with others, they planned to substitute the idea that the modern corporation is our social milieu– or in the words of the meeting minutes, the “father of us all.”

Many of us feel we do not pay attention to ads–or are oblivious to their messages.  The fact that the average US citizen spends over three years of their lives watching ads gives pause to this claim, as does the fact that the ads continue to be effective in selling us things, as careful research done by the advertising industry indicates.  A recent study shows that patients visiting their doctor’s office having seen an ad for Paxil are nearly seven times more likely to leave with a prescription for it than are those who simply show up and describe their symptoms.

In analyzing consumer culture, we need to ask what ads sell use besides– or along with– their products.

For one thing, ads govern media content.  For years, corporations have been telling magazines that if they run particular articles (e.g. positive articles on aging in women’s magazines), they will lose their ad accounts.

The most egregious case I know is the pact network TV made with advertisers at the beginning of the first Gulf War not to show body bags– since this “downer” made consumers less likely to buy things.  At that time I was teaching a class consisting of parents of a number of Gulf War soldiers. These parents of soldiers were livid at this network deal: they themselves knew well enough that there were real men and women dying in the War.

Persistently, ads sell us the idea that all life’s problems can be solved in a few minutes by purchasing a product.  And that we have a right to a life of convenience and privilege based on such products.

We are also sold an addictive consumerism, as ads urge us never to be satisfied, so as to consume more and more. Thus ads express the values that “new” is better (and the past must be discarded, not learned from), and larger is better (as in fast food servings), in a world of technological delights and “magic bullets”.

Perhaps most insidiously, ads sell the importance of image itself. This severely impacts young people coming to adulthood in the US.   In her observation of the lives of girls in different ethnic and economic neighborhoods, Schoolgirls, Peggy Orenstein observes a direct connection between girls’ measuring themselves against images in the blitz of ads they experience and their falling self-esteem– which currently plummets by half as US girls reach adolescence. This dynamic siphons off the energy and potential in these girls as they focus on creating the right image rather than following other goals.

Along with other young people, these girls struggle with the idea that their self-worth is bound up in buying things, as Juliet Schor documents in Born to Buy, which details advertising’s grooming of the consumer personality from birth through childhood.

Collectively, ads sell us the idea that images are important enough to risk our health and the future of our children for– as in the case of pesticide-manicured lawns.

Or  they sell us carefully groomed candidates for public office  in the ads mushrooming in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate funding of campaign ads. We are in a dangerous image-land when politicians take corporate money to air ads proclaiming they are on the side of “Main Street” rather than “Wall Street”.  With the proliferation of such ads, we are giving ourselves over to rule by image.


In order to address the dangerous potential of rule by image, I have a few suggestions for changes– feel free to add your own.

In a democratic society, we should not be  hawking  our candidates for public office according to image.  We sorely need campaign finance reform.  With such reform, we would also take an essential step toward putting lobbyists out of the money business, so that citizen groups could speak to their representatives on the issues rather than with campaign monies on the table.

We could also do without ads for pharmaceuticals. After all, most of the developed world disallows these: we could follow their lead in taking medicine out of the media business.

And we ought to disallow any ads that appeal primarily to children.

And in each of our lives, we can work to undermine consumerism by creating a sense of community and caring with real persons.

We can engage with the natural world that sustains us: the world that is fragile and precious rather than infinitely susceptible to manipulation, as is the world of images.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.


The Elephant in our Living Room, the BP Oil Spill, and Albert Einstein

By Madronna Holden

Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote an essay in which he predicted the unhappy future of “pure capitalism” or “economic anarchy”. as he called it.[1] He observed that the system based on individual competition for profit derives from a history of conquest.  As such, it expresses the “predatory stage” of human development which we must transcend if we are to survive.

A worldview which teaches us to value individual profit-taking at the expense of our fellows causes us to resent the society we inevitably also rely on—and anyone’s telling us what to do with our money is considered a major affront.  This is the logic of those who opposed a national health plan on the grounds that they might have to join it—even if it meant their families would have security from health catastrophes that can easily become economies catastrophes.

In this perspective, government is perceived as bad, since it is social. There is no sense that it might actually do something good for us. This worldview also leads us to declare hands off the money makers, who are supposed to be doing something good and essential for society.

It is this worldview that underlies the declaration of corporations as legal “persons”. The Supreme Court recently asserted such corporate “persons” had the protections of the first amendment to free speech—and could thus spend as much as they wished on advertising in political campaigns.

This decision brings us closer to Einstein’s prediction that “private capitalists” would inevitably “come to control… the main sources of information (press, radio, education).”  Corporate “freedom of speech” also extends to advertising pharmaceuticals on television in the US—and a growing push to allow this in other countries such as Britain.  Today US television networks, news media, newspapers, book publishers and even phone and internet delivery systems are owned by a handful of corporate entities, which increasingly control not only advertising, but news and other program content.

However, these corporate “persons” don’t follow the rules that human persons have to. In their application for offshore drilling permits, BP was excused from submitting an emergency plan to deal with an accident like the one currently fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil gushing into the Gulf is every bit as visible as the proverbial elephant in the living room as a wake up call that we need to change course. Yet in the month since the oil began gushing out of BP’s deep wells, regulators have approved 27 more offshore drilling projects, including 2 for BP. 26 of these received environmental exemptions.

Further, this comes in the wake of revelations of sex, drug use, and graft among Interior Department regulators.

If an individual human paid officials for the privilege of ignoring traffic signals on a busy street, we would be rightly outraged. We would be even more outraged if their exemption from the law resulted in the deaths of eleven individuals and uncounted members of other species.

So why do we excuse corporate “persons” from culpability here?  The answer can only be Einstein’s:  when we live in a capitalist society in which profit-making rules the day, we give unthinking leeway to those making the profits.

For instance, we have a “revolving door” through which corporate executives go to and from the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. This was the subject of an exposé in the Ecologist—though the issue in which this exposé was to appear was quashed in press after legal threats from Monsanto.

The “revolving door” is exemplified by George Bush’s appointment of Linda Fisher, a former executive vice president at Monsanto, as deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. The documentary, The Future of Food, notes that Fisher has been back and forth between Monsanto and the EPA three times.

It is no surprise that under such leadership The Union of Concerned Scientists found that researchers in federal regulatory agencies are consistently pressured by their superiors to hide their research findings if they are unfavorable to industry.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Union as well as “Integrity in Science” for revealing the funding sources of contemporary researchers– facing head on the question of just how independent scientific research can be when it is funded by pharmaceuticals or agribusiness.

In his article, Einstein laments the way our educational system stokes the “exaggerated competitive attitude” in its students, who are  “trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for future careers”.  In a follow up comment to the post in which former gmo researcher speaks out about the shaky scientific standards of that research, he observes this process firsthand: “They may think the company is totally evil and a threat to the planet, but when their bank account starts filling up, the next thing you know, they’re in a suit at a board meeting discussing profit objectives for the next quarter.”

The biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical industries (many of which share board members) not only hire researchers but bribe them outright.  They have blatantly tampered with the scientific peer review process, paying researchers to write articles and even draw up experiments in support of their products whose resulted are fudged.  In one case, Merck published an entire fake academic journal.

There are still the independent scientists worthy of the name.  The data they developed has led particular chemicals to be listed by the EPA as known, probable or suspected carcinogens. However, these chemicals are still marketed in the US—if not in the EU, where their regulatory system prioritizes human health over profit.

Our own lack of regulation here illustrates what happens when an economy is at odds with the well being of its people. Put through the wringer of the competitive profit motive, the laudable idea of freedom for all ends up as privilege for the few.

Take, for instance, the case of one of the hundreds of farmers sued by Monsanto for having genetically engineered seeds in their field as a result of wind drift.  In the Future of Food one of these farmers observes that once upon a time  if your cow trampled your neighbor’s field, you were responsible for the damage since you were responsible for the fence to keep your cow  confined. But in the context of current corporate privilege, the farmer is responsible not only for keeping genetically engineered seed out of his field, but sued for the privilege of having it trample his crop.

In a society in which competitive profit-making rules, the profits of a few inevitably wind up trumping the costs to the many. The President’s Cancer Panel notes the health care expenses for those who contract cancer from environmental causes, for instance.

No less than the father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith, chronicled his worry that capitalism would set societies adrift in the valueless “economic anarchy” that Einstein predicted.  Smith resolved this dilemma with the idea that free markets would express social “preferences” and thus exert ethical constraints on doing business.

Frances Moore Lappé’s response to the idea that free markets enforce social ethics is like Gandhi’s response to Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea”.

She notes that the free markets are a fiction:  they don’t respond to social preferences– they respond to money.  At a talk at Linfield College, she noted that “eating is right up there in terms of human preferences”, but when the numbers of hungry people are growing worldwide, it is obvious the current market system is not responding to human preferences.

Neither is the market for employment. The market in which we sell our labor is not determined by the usefulness of our work to society or its satisfaction to ourselves— but by the ability of our employers to make money.  The handful of US corporations currently controlling the production, transportation, processing, and marketing of food argue that they are doing something useful to society. They are feeding us. But they are feeding us junk food that is unsustainably raised using inhumane practices for farm workers as well as for farm animals.

The argument that large corporations are doing something essential because they are making a profit ignores the elephants they themselves are riding on:  their workers and the natural world.  If we don’t care for these, we will have no economy, growth or no growth, innovation or no innovation.

To do otherwise is following the logic of a bank robber who tells us if we don’t hand over the money, the system will collapse.  If we don’t turn over the money, it will certainly collapse for the bank robber.  But there is economic blackmail that makes it harder for us to respond to this as we should. The weapon large corporations are holding on us is our ability to hold down a job and to feed ourselves and our families.

But the idea that these corporations are “too big to fail” only holds if there is no alternative. It only hold, that is, if we assume they have a  monopoly on  providing for our needs–if there is no other way to get jobs or food but through them.

But this doesn’t jive with the facts. The folks at Good Jobs First have researched the ways in which subsidies for corporations result in economic losses for communities that hand them over. Notably, communities that have the most stringent environmental and labor regulations also have the best family wage jobs.  In “Regulate Me, Please”, on CSwire’s responsible business forum, CEO Jeffrey Hollender argues the case that “regulation is good for business”.

Political democracy entails economic democracy, in which we have regulations that level the playing field so that the power of one person/one vote is not subverted by the money behind a corporate “person’s” vote.

Regulation is not a dirty word. But blackmail—economic or political—is.  So are poverty, pollution, addiction, obesity, and cancer.

Einstein made some dire predictions for the future of “pure” capitalism.  But he also had a vision, based on the cross-cultural history of humankind which tells us how adaptable and creative we are.

Once we acknowledge the elephant in our living room, we can send it back to the jungle and busy ourselves creating a society based on care,  justice and sustainability–  in which we celebrate both our individual potential and our connections to one another.


Here are some suggestions as to what can individuals do to change the corporate power that is currently undermining our democracy.

  1. We can follow our political process carefully and support efforts to place limits on campaign spending –or publicly fund elections—and to reveal sources of funding for candidates or initiatives.
  2. We can support community job creation, “microenterprises” on the model of the Grameen Bank, which won the 2006 Nobel Prize for fostering development from the ground up.
  3. We can support small farmers and organics and community co-ops that do labor exchanges, seed saving, sustainable farming and urban gardening.
  4. We can buy products –and only those products– that are good for us, the environment, and our children.
  5. We can lend our support to alternatives that undermine the idea of profit first not only with the dollars we spend, but with our interest and personal presence, our intelligence and creativity.
  6. We can do whatever possible to change our society from an egoistical one to a caring one in our daily choices.

In short, we can design as many ways as possible in which we refuse to be bought.


For an update of the millions-strong movements all over the US to “turn anger into action” in response to the oil spill, check out this essay in Sarah van Gelder’s blog for YES magazine.


[1] I want to acknowledge Molly Saranpaa, who sent me a copy of Einstein’s article just as I was developing this essay on the same topic.

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.

A Solstice Story: Putting the Pieces Back Together Again

By Madronna Holden

Just after the US set up their space program, NASA hosted a group of Asian scientists, treating them to a tour of their facility– with which the visitors were duly impressed.  There followed a presentation of the benefits of Western science, during which the NASA administrators touted the importance of specialization.

The visitors listened attentively, but when the time came for questions, one asked, “Your technology is excellent at taking the world apart.  What is your plan for putting it back together again?”

To me, that is one of the central questions of the modern age.

There is an ancient answer to that question, in the storytelling technology that bridged so many aspects of the world, bringing them together.

Such stories bridged generations– and brought human culture itself into being.  Though we might not recognize passing stories between generations as a technology in the age of digital phones, such stories are the basic human tool that empowered us to expand our reach in both time and space.

This technology is  a powerful tool for not only bridging generations, but for linking human life with the larger community of natural life. When Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim tells the story of the salmon’s struggle to return to their home waters to carry on the the generations of the salmon people, that story brings humans and the salmon into  special solidarity.

Such stories not only bring communities together across generations and species. They have the potential to bring us from times of relative hopelessness and fear into vision.

The Chehalis knew how valuable such stories were, since they would bring those who heard them to a place where they “could take care of themselves”;  where they knew “how to get along with one another.”

Children would “pay” for stories by doing a task designated by the storyteller. The nurturance and wisdom of such storytellers was signed by the tasks they designed for these children. A child afraid to go to a certain place in the woods, for instance, might be told to fetch a stick from a place nearby–and then to repeat that task until he or she drew so near to the feared place, their fear would disappear.

Thelma Adamson’s  Chehalis fieldnotes (drawn up in 1926) record the profound insight that the power of our past will haunt us until we turn and face it. At that point it will become a vision power for us to use.

There is working knowledge here of the links between past and future– between wisdom learned from our past and vision for the future.  There is the working knowledge of how human generations depend upon and may nurture one another.

According to Jacob Bighorn, former administrator of the Chemawa Indian School, Native American education works from the premise that each child is given a natural “life plan” by the Creator that is theirs alone.  Certainly, giving children the understanding that each of their lives is a unique story the Creator waits to hear is an antidote to any future smallness imposed on them.

In this context, education is a “natural process” of supporting the child as his or her spirit-calling emerged.

In cultures throughout the world, the time of year surrounding the winter solstice is the season to draw inward and pay close attention to our dreams–and to tell stories.  Indeed, many indigenous peoples  only tell their traditional stories in the winter.

As Adamson’s recorded statement about the haunting of the past that chases us until we can learn to face–facing up to it may take considerable courage.  But certainly each of our pasts as well as our past as a society will continue to haunt us until we face it. Only then might we gain the wisdom of our past and the power to guide our future with vision.

This is the process that traditional stories enable.

Today we stand together on the verge of the longest night of the year, which is also the moment when our dreams are strongest. This is the moment when we need stories and their vision– when we need the hearth of community in which elders and young people come together to share their gifts with one another–and with our precious ravaged world.

The faith in the returning sun celebrated by solstice ceremonies is more difficult to hold to today, in the face of such things to face as climate change — or the 252 toxins recently found in the umbilical cords of 10 babies.

If you were an elder, how you would create the stories that are called for at this moment?  What gift would you share? What trust would you express in the actions of the next generation?

These questions were answered in the wisdom, generosity, and trust of the speaker at a gathering honoring indigenous environmental knowledge at OSU.

Here is the story she created, a story that truly brings us together as it teller Val Goodness notes, in relating a bit about the event where it took place, which she helped to organize.

The speaker, Elder Gail Woodside held a handmade clay pot in her hands.

This clay pot was decorated by native hands and she proudly said it was her Grandmother’s pot. It showed wear, and even had a small crack, which Elder Gail said happened when her daughter dropped it when she was young.

This pot was 100 years old. Elder Gail told us that the pot resembled her Grandmother’s knowledge about things in nature, full and complete knowledge handed down generation after generation through oral history. Her Grandmother’s indigenous knowledge about sustainability and the practice of her father’s use of fire to help things grow.

Elder Gail then held the pot up over her head and let the pot drop.We were shocked, and held our breath as the pretty little pot broke to pieces.

In her soft voice, Elder Gail bent down, picking up a piece of the broken pot, and said, “This….is the knowledge I have.”

She said the old ways and the knowledge are broken. Small pieces are used–borrowed from Native peoples– while the rest ignored as un-specialized or not scientific.

Elder Gail then asked all of us to come forward and take a piece of the pot. She challenged us all to come back this coming spring to put the little 100 year old pot back together as a symbol of unity in sharing our efforts to present indigenous knowledge in sustainability as an all day event for spring term.

So that the knowledge of sustainability can once again be whole.

Kiowa writer Scott Momaday once noted that oral tradition is as fragile as it is precious, since it is always “one generation away from extinction”.

The story created by Elder Gail illustrates this.  It is only the fact that pieces of this precious pot of tradition are in the hands of community that it has a chance of remaining whole.  But only if its members are each willing to keep and share and enable their piece so that it remains alive in the whole.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

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.