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.

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.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.