Archive for October, 2020

National Parks’ horrific story needs to be scrutinized

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir

Peter Matthiessen’s powerful 1984 book Indian Country laid bare the genocide and ecocide that had taken place across North America for two centuries. “To judge from the ruthless treatment of ‘the wild men’ and the wasteful and destructive exploitation of the continent,” he wrote, “the view of primordial nature as a wilderness to be tamed and dominated has persisted in North America to the present day.”

The American Civil War was presumably fought to end slavery and prejudice, but its raison d’être was ultimately to permit all peoples to embrace a truly democratic republic. There are so many grim repercussions as a result of its failure to achieve that lofty goal. From the establishment in the northwestern United States in 1872 of Yellowstone National Park (and of Banff National Park, Alberta in 1885), the legacy of the national parks, which were stolen from Aboriginal societies and then called a ‘gift’ to other races, has been tainted by racism, colonialism and marginalization. Good intentions, some would suggest, were lost in whites-only exclusivity, and white people still appear to have an almost exclusive playground in the parks.

In a move called ‘fortress conservation’ by many critics, national parks were billed as protecting pristine lands against all humans. Please see tinyurl.com/parks-theft-indians for a closer look at these histories of exclusion.

Ever since the first national parks were announced in the western US, their Indigenous inhabitants have borne the brunt of their foundation. Throughout Africa, Australia, India, China, Sri Lanka, the USA, Canada – including Québec – to name just a few areas, forced evictions have been the norm. From the forest dwellers of the Amazon to the Pygmies of central Africa, numerous people have suffered enormously. Additionally, the ‘rewilding’ of forests without their consent and inclusion has become a nightmare for them.

The history of conservation racism goes back to the early 1800s. It is disturbing to realize that many famous naturalists and conservationists ‘owned’ slaves. John James Audubon used slaves to gather bird specimens for his paintings, and he was critical of efforts to emancipate black people from slavery. In 1834, he said that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in freeing enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.

When John Muir, the son of a Scottish immigrant, arrived in California in 1868 and built a small cabin in Yosemite Valley, he felt that he had entered the Garden of Eden, and throughout his life that garden included few people besides him. Open vistas, spectacular waterfalls and mountainous terrain were what mattered to Muir and other naturalists. A later photo of Muir with US president Theodore Roosevelt shows only a depopulated human landscape in the background. A decade before Muir entered the valley, white people had pushed out the Ahwahneechee people, killing many.

Thus had begun in the west the forced removal of Indian settlements that had been a part of a well-balanced ecology for a thousand years.
In the east, US president Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, culminating in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people. Muir and others who had no clue about the stewardship role played by the Indians in their territories desired that the new national parks be free of human settlement, and although there were those who thought Aboriginal peoples should stay, they were ultimately not listened to. Though I have read many of Muir’s essays and a major biography, nowhere can I find in them any reference to appreciation for Aboriginal peoples’ culture and deep knowledge of ecological matters. This lack of understanding limited Muir’s breadth of involvement in a larger focus on humanity’s place in Nature. He could have made a definitive difference for the reconciliation of cultures.

The national parks, as beneficial ‘gifts’ to the world by governments after the American Civil War, could have become windows of opportunity opening onto the wisdom of Aboriginal peoples who continued to prosper on their ancestral lands, creating a bridge of goodwill and tolerance for a new peace among nations. Instead, most of the parks forbade native groups to return, with a few places such as Wood Buffalo National Park exceptions.

The great tragedy continues in 2020, with 370 million Aboriginal people whose ancestral homes are in these wilderness places finding themselves under constant threat of becoming refugees (tinyurl.com/survival-conservation-refugees). Greed and abject racism have been the two main motivations for their continuing expulsion.

There have been some attempts in Canada in recent years to include First Nations communities in a Parks Canada policy dialogue, but judging by recent events those First Nations have little trust in the government’s intentions. See unistoten.camp/no-pipelines

It would surprise those ‘conservationists’ who praised the expulsion of Aboriginal people in the name of bringing back a resplendent wilderness of fauna and flora to know that much work has been done that repudiates such claims. In 2005, Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom and her colleague Tanya Hayes published a study, Conserving the World’s Forests: Are Protected Areas the Only Way?, which found that areas with the direct involvement of local and Indigenous populations had significantly higher vegetation densities than those without, regardless of their protection status.

White people’s domination of Nature accelerated with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The colonization of the world by western European countries with the rise of capitalism brought enormous suffering and the collapse of ancient cultures. Climate breakdown and unprecedented biodiversity loss, which began 180 years ago, could be halted were it not for the scourge of greed, and will undoubtedly cause the greatest hardship to those who have the least to do with those unethical and ignorant actions. If we are to survive, social justice must actively permeate all that we do.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Saving the planet begins with the food we eat

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years. The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits.”

Living Planet Report 2020

We all know that the planet’s ecological balance is tottering. Multiple scientific reports on the health of Nature that show precipitous declines in both vertebrates and invertebrates seem to make no difference to how world governments, policymakers or individuals commit to urgent and beneficial actions for stopping the massive slide towards catastrophic extinctions. Please see wwf.ca/living-planet-report-canada-2020

While national government subsidies for fossil fuel companies and for conventional agriculture are far outstripping any grants and loans that support both renewable energies and organic farming, individual cities have made great efforts and are producing viable results in fighting climate change’s insidious ramifications for all life.

As individuals we can all do our bit to bring about a more harmonious planet through steadfast support for organic agriculture. More and more people are buying organically produced food, but conversations about why we should commit ourselves to an organic diet often end with a single individual’s health and don’t consider the vast benefits that can accrue for our planet’s wellbeing. This article looks at what we can each do every day for our farmers, ourselves and the Earth.

When we buy organic foods, we are not paying for synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, so the soil is not contaminated with a deadly cocktail of ingredients. Around the world our destruction of soil and its microorganisms is well documented. By not contributing to yet another assault on the planet’s ecology, we are saying that farmers’ lives are respected as well. When we refuse to buy these harmful concoctions, we are helping farmers to protect themselves and their families against many maladies.

Not long ago an organic farmer told me that an ornithologist had visited their farm and the documentation of birds living there was truly astonishing. Through not introducing synthetic fertilizers and herbicides to the land, this farmer has been contributing to a remarkable abundance of wildlife and plants. Insects that pollinate our food crops or are a prime food for birds and bats are able to find a refuge in ecologically robust soils. Water is cleaner too, so people living downstream are not subjected to an influx of toxic chemicals, which have frequently shown up near non-organic farms.

Local communities are beneficiaries of sound agrarian practices; in a real sense organic farming is an insurance plan for all beings. In his new book A Small Farm Future, farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje argues that organising society around small-scale farming offers the soundest, sanest and most reasonable response to climate change and other crises of civilisation—and will yield humanity’s best chance at survival.

There has been huge coverage of litigation cases of people affected by pesticides. I have seen first-hand the disastrous use of pesticides in the tropics. Pristine lands and people have been tragically impacted by pesticides that are manufactured in North America (even though they are banned here) and sold to poorer countries. This is outrageous. Furthermore, people in those countries who do not know how to read the instructions pertaining to those chemicals are putting themselves and their children at extreme risk. At least one instance is documented where a mother was storing pesticides in her kitchen! The World Health Organization estimates that up to 40,000 people die each year from pesticide poisoning.

Until people fully embrace the reality that Nature is us and we are Nature, organic farms will continue to be just a small percentage of North America’s agriculture. On top of this, the chasm between humans and the rest of Nature will not reduce as long as social injustices continue unabated. If our very lives are contingent on the wellbeing of the rest of Nature, surely inclusivity and respect must be first principles for all our interactions. Social justice must flourish first.

Genetically modified organisms are forbidden in organic farming practices precisely because there are too many unknowns regarding their impacts on Nature. Because some humans believe that genetic manipulation has brought some successes in growing food, however, the capitalist drive towards unleashing a full-scale assault on Nature has been thought to be inevitable. It is not.

Organic farms are generally not monocultures. Diversity is a key ingredient in all ecological settings. Saving heritage seeds is an important and integral contribution to protecting communities’ resilience and independence, and there is cultural significance in growing seeds that have long been part of a community’s heritage. Organic farming celebrates what is local as well as our heritage. What is locally supported also creates strong social justice practices and encourages a love of place. Organically produced seeds are a great way to build community and are something we can seek out for our own gardens.

Please also consider buying food from local farmers. It is easy to do. Baskets of food can be picked up every few weeks at certain farms. Community Supported Agriculture enables family farms to prosper. Family Farmers Network brings together more than 130 organic farms in Québec and New Brunswick and can help you locate a farmer who can supply you with a regular basket of organically produced food. Here are two such farmers in our local area:

La Boîte à Légumes
Racines & Chlorophylle

Another way to have healthy, nutritious organic food is to buy your nuts, flour, beans and many other items online through NousRire, an organic buying group that delivers to pick-up points throughout Québec: nousrire.com

There are several organic food shops in town that can supply your day-to-day needs, as well as regular farmers’ markets such as Marché agricole de Lennoxville and Marché de la gare, Sherbrooke.

This is apple season, and it’s an opportunity to visit La Généreuse, which featured in an earlier article in The Record and is just 15 minutes away from Lennoxville. The farm produces several varieties of organically grown apples as well as delicious home-pressed apple juice. lagenereuse.com

There are many ways to help the planet, and our food choices are a major part of this. Even a small change can make a difference.

A tale of two dinner parties

“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.” 
– Anne Applebaum 

“You want it darker.” – Leonard Cohen

Anne Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism tells of her experiences with powerful right-of-centre political figures and makes the case that our democracies are in mortal jeopardy of being utterly eroded. She takes us on a tour to many European countries that are in the throes of becoming one-party states. 

The book is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the growing rise of authoritarianism, although undoubtedly Applebaum is capable of writing one, having won a Pulitzer Prize as a historian for her writing on the Russian gulag. Twilight of Democracy focuses on the people she feels are destroying democracy. Most of those she writes about were once her friends and one was even a future head of state, but they are no longer speaking to her. (It’s important to understand that she herself is a conservative.) In some instances they are the intellectuals and power brokers who allow one-party regimes such as those now found in Hungary, Poland, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Russia to flourish. She calls these disgruntled people “clerics”: the enablers of would-be despots. Most of them, she feels, have not felt appreciated in democratic societies and desire more power. Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s angry right-wing “what’s in it for me?” acolytes are helping to dismantle democratic states. Truth is the last thing these “advisers” wish to discuss, and “alternative facts” are the way to create division.

Applebaum speaks of “restorative nostalgia,” which is used to rekindle a nation’s supposed past “greatness.” The narrative goes like this: the nation has become a shadow of its former self; the nation’s identity has been taken away and replaced with something less heroic. She warns, of its proponents, “All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power. Alexander Hamilton warned against them, Cicero fought against them. Some of them used to be my friends.” She adds, “Eventually, those who seek power on the back of restorative nostalgia will begin to cultivate these conspiracy theories, or alternative histories, or alternative fibs, whether or not they have any basis in fact.” Sound familiar?

For many people in the UK who support Brexit it is the EU that has sapped the true greatness of Britain. For Trump’s restorative nostalgia gimmick “Make America Great Again” to work, it must have a list of ills that have befallen the USA for which Trump points the finger of blame at Democrats, immigrants, protestors/agitators, Black Lives Matter supporters, gun-control advocates, scientists, anti-fascists, climate change activists and even the coronavirus lockdowns that necessitate masks and social distancing. 

Understand that “reflective nostalgia” is quite different. We might study the past or mourn the past, but we realize that in fact life was more difficult then. Those old photographs, though they might have us romancing bygone days, are not going to help us revive those times again.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in 1973, gives us a nightmarish glimpse into the vast Russian prison holding areas. It tells us as much about the insane Kafka-like bureaucracy and Russian dictatorships as about the prisoners caught up in horrific, surreal incarceration. Only raw violent power is recognized as being worth pursuing. Solzhenitsyn’s book should be a reminder of how low all societies could descend.

It’s as if we need to find enemies so that we can justify our own insecurities and create a tribal response based on the fear of the “other.” This is not 1930s politics, but political camps have now metamorphosed into a redrafted belligerency. Words such as “freedom” have become the calling cards of white supremacists, though with that word they would take away the freedom of others.

America has hundreds of militias. The US constitution always has allowed for that, but since Trump came to Washington those militias have come off the firing range and into cities such as Portland, Oregon.

“The public embrace of militias and paramilitaries is clearly recognizable authoritarian behaviour,” says Steven Levitsky, co-author with Daniel Ziblatt of How Democracies Die. Veteran journalist Dahr Jamail concurs. In an interview with Truthout’s Patrick Farnsworth, he ponders, “Are we going to see clearly that we live in an autocratic state? … It also means that we are entering in an extremely darkening age, where whatever stress and chaos and loss that we see today, this is really just a prelude of what’s coming.”

Hannah Arendt wrote persuasively in the second half of the 20th century about fascism: “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” [Origins of Totalitarianism]

A levelling of capabilities and talents goes with the kinds of regime that embrace a blind loyalty to their leader. Authoritarianism rewards loyalty and creates corruption and mediocrity in government, as opposed to meritocracy, whereby talented people are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievements. 

Last Saturday’s Guardian carried an article by Nick Cohn titled “The meritocracy has had its day”: “Public service jobs once went to people who knew what they were doing. Boris Johnson would rather promote a courtier.” Take for example Australia’s ex-prime minister Tony Abbott, who has recently been appointed as an adviser to the UK government’s board of trade and is a climate denier.

Although many government administrations reward their donors and party faithful, present-day right-wing regimes, including the Trump administration, have severely harmed democracy by promoting utterly unsuitable and undeserving individuals to positions within the highest levels of government. In fact, the march towards totalitarian regimes requires that arm’s-length government-oversight commissioners, who can monitor compliance to high ethical standards in governance, be kicked out. After all, Benjamin Disraeli said, “What is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.”

Twilight of Democracy starts with a dinner party in 1999 and ends with one in 2019, both at Applebaum’s home. Although there were some return guests, some people she knew in 1999 were no longer friends and had become clerics of one-party states. This microcosm of the polarization of society now taking over the world and shredding democracy is one that she feels strongly must be confronted. The risks for our world are far too great. “Participation, argument, effort, struggle” are needed, as well as “some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.”

It is up to us to be vigilant, to speak out against the undermining of our hard-won democracy, and to use the power of our votes.

“Ring the bells that can still ring.” – Leonard Cohen 

Interview with Nick Gottlieb: giving young people a public voice

Nick Gottlieb is the author of Sacred Headwaters, a bi-weekly newsletter that gives critically important insights into how we can protect our planet.

Nick, you write that Sacred Headwaters “aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come.” What have been the catalysts driving you towards a co-learning and inclusive approach in these newsletters?

Climate change is a symptom of much deeper problems in the social, political and cultural structures that we collectively call human civilization. Overcoming those problems requires reimagining what we value as humans and what we expect from life. But the systems we’re trying to replace are so embedded that they constrain the way we think and the scope of what we perceive as possible. I chose this format for my newsletter because I – perhaps naively – believe that if people learn enough about how the system is failing and why, they’ll come to recognize the patterns of that system in their own cognitive frameworks, their own minds, and through that recognition free themselves to begin the process of change.

You move from climate change and planetary boundaries to current politics and ideas. “Defunding the Police,” “Indigenous Ways of Knowing,” “Environmental Racism” and “Degrowth” are a few of the titles of the newsletters. What are your overarching goals in sharing these newsletters?

The climate movement tends to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but this narrative fails because it identifies them as the “root cause.” We’ve known that GHG emissions cause global warming that threatens our way of life since at least 1959. In 1992, 88% of Americans believed global warming was a serious problem. But we live in a world where companies are incentivized to externalize costs and maximize “profit,” leading them to actually fight against solving climate change despite knowing full well its implications. We’ve seen parallel stories play out over and over again; climate change is just one manifestation. I’ve been writing about issues like environmental racism to try to draw those connections for readers, to make clear that if we want to survive the climate crisis, we need to recognize that it is a symptom of a much more invasive disease than GHG emissions.

In your newsletter “Introduction to Systems Thinking,” a memorable sentence, “The earth is a system,” stands out. You describe Sacred Headwaters as being “about the systemic nature of everything.” Can you explain this, please?

We have a tendency towards reductionism rooted in what our culture thinks of as “science”: we isolate every problem so we can solve it, but the real world is governed by deep complexity and interconnectedness. This is true in ecological systems, as we can see in the speed with which we’re exceeding most of the modelling of global warming’s impacts, and also in the systems of organization that govern human society. Climate change, environmental racism and widespread inequality are interrelated problems with systemic causes. My goal is to elucidate the deeper causes of these crises to enable more people to envision a world without them.

How do you feel about your generation’s response to the Earth’s crises? What, if anything, do think it needs to do better?

Personally, I don’t like the generational narrative. This isn’t any one generation’s problem. We need to rebuild our lost cultural capacity for multi-generational thinking and planning. That said, I think the millennial generation is facing some unique challenges that position us well to be a generation of change. We are the first generation in the modern era that’s worse off than our parents’. We can’t afford houses, wages are stagnant, jobs are rare. The life our parents had is not an option for most of us, but as challenging as that is it’s also a gift, because it’s forcing us to reimagine what life looks like, allowing us leeway to experiment, to divine what a life that’s compatible with a liveable future might look like. The more of us who give up the false hope that we can have the lives our parents enjoyed, the better.

What direct actions do you feel we must commit ourselves to in order to save our planet’s ecological integrity?

The oil industry is dying. Even before the pandemic, big players in finance were getting out of the fossil fuel industry. It’s only a matter of time, but those in power are trying to hang on. Here in Canada the government is doubling down on new oil and gas infrastructure that will likely never be profitable. This transition period – the next few years, probably – is important because once infrastructure is built it’s hard to stop using it. In a few years no one will be trying to build LNG export facilities or drilling for new oil and gas, but in the interim we need to do what we can to ensure that new infrastructure doesn’t get built. Part of that is what movements like Extinction Rebellion are doing, and it’s humbling to see people like Dr. Takaro hanging from trees in Burnaby to stop the Trans Mountain expansion.

What do you wish to flourish as a result of your efforts?

The big picture answer is that I’m working to radicalize as many people as I can. We will see untold human suffering in the coming decades and likely the end of what we call civilization if we don’t make radical changes in every aspect of our society. The more people who realize this, the better our chance to effect change. On a small scale, one friend credited me with motivating her to install solar on her house and buy an electric vehicle; another told me she moved to a small town to try to minimize the impact of her lifestyle, in part because of my work. These don’t sound like much, but they add up, and they mean a lot to me personally.

http://sacredheadwaters.substack.com/