No Hope for Earth without Indigenous Liberation

‘The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth’
This article originally appeared in Climate&Capitalism.

The Red Nation
Indigenous Action to Our Earth

Common Notions, 2021

reviewed by Simon Butler

As heat and severe weather records are broken again and again, it should be clear by now that there is no limit for capital. There will be no scientific warning or dire catastrophe that leads to a political breakthrough. No huge wildfire, terrible drought or great flood will make governments and corporations change course. To carry on as they are means extinction. And yet they still carry on: more fossil fuels and fewer trees, more pollution and fewer species.

Recognition that there is no way out of this crisis without far-reaching, social upheaval animates the proposals put forward in The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our EarthThe short book was authored by activists from The Red Nation, a coalition devoted to Indigenous liberation and made up of Native and non-native revolutionaries based mainly in North America.

The authors make clear that they believe the campaign to halt climate change and repair ecological destruction is bound up with the fate of the world’s Indigenous peoples. They say bluntly that “there is no hope for restoring the planet’s fragile and dying ecosystems without Indigenous liberation” and that “it’s decolonization or extinction.”

Land back

This is not just a rhetorical flourish. The Red Deal points out that the approximately 370 million Indigenous people worldwide belong to traditional lands that cover 22-25% of the world’s surface. These territories overlap with areas that hold more than 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. Regaining control over their traditional lands is essential for Indigenous people’s ability to protect, restore and care for them, as they did sustainably for millennia prior to their dispossession. This makes decolonization – which “starts with land back” to Indigenous peoples – a critical part of The Red Nation’s proposals to avoid planetary extinction.

The authors of The Red Deal emphasize that their vision of decolonization “isn’t exclusively about the Indigenous” but is instead meant to bring together non-Indigenous and Indigenous activists in a common fight for the future.

They say: “What we seek is a world premised on Indigenous values of interspecies responsibility and balance. We seek to uplift knowledges, technologies, governance structures, and economic strategies that will make these values possible, in the immediate future and in the long term, and which always have the future health of the land at the center of their design and implementation, Indigenous or not. In this sense, decolonization is for, and benefits, everyone. It also needs our collective cooperation to succeed.”

Some recent Indigenous-led movements against ecologically destructive projects have won international support and attention, such as the Oceti Sakowin-led protests to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s campaign to stop the huge Adani coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. But rather than focusing solely on what Indigenous movements oppose, The Red Deal aims to draw attention to “the revolutionary potency of what Indigenous resistance stands for: caretaking and creating just relations between human and other-than-human worlds on a planet thoroughly devastated by capitalism.”

Four principles

The authors of The Red Deal advance a “plan of collective climate action” based on four general principles. The first of these is What Creates Crisis Cannot Solve It. This principle means that the destructive, polluting industries that profit from the plunder of nature cannot be reformed and have no future. But The Red Deal extends this principle to carceral institutions such as the military, police and prison systems, calling for their abolition. The Red Deal insists such violent, repressive institutions also stand in the way of a safe climate future.

The second principle is Change from Below and From the Left. This is both a commitment to practice grassroots democracy in the struggle, and also a longer-term ambition to replace capitalism with a system of true democracy. The document says: “We must throw the full weight of people power behind these demands for a dignified life. People power is the organized force of the masses – a movement to reclaim our humanity and rightful relations with the Earth.”

Politicians Can’t Do What Only Mass Movements Do is the document’s third principle, which underscores The Red Deal’s skepticism that reformist politics can make significant progress against fossil capital. Although the authors say that they “refuse to compromise” they acknowledge the mobilizing potential of “non-reformist reform” that “fundamentally challenges the existing structure of power.”

The final principle is From Theory to ActionThis recognizes that the development of real social movements, in which people develop through struggle their own capacity to act and organize, is far more important than having “correct positions” on things. Rather, “correct ideas and theories of change that are worthy of reproduction only matter if they arise from, and directly nourish, our collective movements.”

Beyond the Green New Deal

The authors of The Red Deal do not see their proposals as a “counterprogram” to the Green New Deal, which they praise for its “potential to connect every social justice struggle – free housing, free health care, free education, green jobs – to climate change.” Rather, they see their ideas as a platform that builds upon and goes further than what the various Green New Deal proposals have yet offered.

However, the “primary inspiration” for The Red Deal was not the Green New Deal but the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba. The People’s Agreement was adopted by 30,000 attendees at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. The conference, which promoted a suite of radical, people-centered policies on climate change, was hosted by the former President of Bolivia and leftist Indigenous leader Evo Morales.

This inspiration is clear in the way The Red Deal tackles the issues of technology transfer and climate debt owed to nations of the Global South – topics not addressed in some versions of the Green New Deal discussed in Europe or North America. It notes that the past high carbon emissions of the rich countries have in effect “colonized” the atmosphere, meaning nations in the Global South are blocked from pursuing the same path of industrialization due to climate change. This injustice means “any climate policy must also be anti-imperialist” and include “the payment of northern climate debt to the rest of the world.”

The Red Deal also includes criticism of “some Western socialists” who downplay the Global North’s responsibility to reduce its ecological impact rapidly to make room for the South but instead fixate on “technological pipe dreams like mining asteroids, gene editing, and synthetic meat.” Reshaping the wasteful economies of the Global North so they can play a role in healing the planet should instead take priority.

Towards the end of the document the authors note wryly that it’s evident other people have not listened enough to Indigenous people in the past. “Why else would we be on the precipice of mass extinction?” they ask. Those willing to listen today will gain a lot of insight and inspiration from the radical Indigenous activists showing leadership in this fight to save the Earth.

Simon Butler is co-author, with Ian Angus, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He lives in Scotland.

3 thoughts on “No Hope for Earth without Indigenous Liberation”

  1. I disagree with the author on several grounds. For one, “indigenous” people are no solution, unless the term is more narrowly defined to mean indigenous people who have not been assimilated into the capitalist mainstream.

    Another misused term is “Global South” — given the hundreds of millions of people below the equator whose lifestyles are as destructive as those of anyone in the “Global North.”

    Nor is there anything inherently noble about living in the same geographic region as one’s ancestors. How many native Americans, for example, make their living by industrial agriculture, and deliver their products to market in carbon-belching diesel pickups? And what role do “Indian”-owned casinos play in saving the environment? On the other hand, one of the most Earth-friendly cultures on the planet is the Maroons of northern South America — descendants of enslaved Africans, who “went native,” and are largely responsible for the interior of Suriname being one of the best preserved ecologies in the world.

    Simon Butler is also known as the co-author of a book that openly attacks the premise that environmental problems are caused by overpopulation. While the underlying problem is our dominant political and economic systems, two facts are indisputable: Overpopulation gave rise to industrial capitalism, just as much as industrial capitalism facilitated the population boom of the 19th and 20th centuries. And it is axiomatic that the environmental problems we face today would be a small fraction of what they are, if we hadn’t quintupled world population since 1900.

    I largely agree with Mr. Butler, however, in his opening premise that no amount of temperature or sea level rise and no number of extinctions are likely to change the two most destructive principles of capitalism — both of which were summed up in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!” So long as we continue to be swayed by leaders who cite “growth” and “jobs” as being inherently “good,” we will continue to race downstream toward a self-made waterfall of ecocide and collective suicide.

    I leave the door of sanity slightly ajar, however, for the catastrophes of climate change, global pollution, deforestation, and mass extinctions to trigger a successful mass movement against capitalism and mindless growth. If something should occur to upgrade Greta Thunberg’s “Climate Strike” to “Global Youth Rebellion,” we might still defeat the exploiters, and become a species of redeemers. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.

    The real key is a mass movement demanding LESS material gratification, rather than MORE. In short, we need a world of de facto Buddhists, who recognize that the secret of true happiness is a liberation from desire. In other words: “More Love, Less Lust” — regardless of whether the lust is for sex, meat, gold, or fame.

  2. I fully concur with Mark’s sentiment: where a person is born does not convey any knowledge or wisdom on them. In fact, this is ethnocentric at best, racist at worst. White male radical environmentalists who live what they preach are infinitely better than indigenous sellouts who want to be just like modern humans. Most indigenous people in what is now the U.S. are “progressives,” which means that they want to assimilated into modern society, and they cause just as much damage as the colonizers if & when they do so. It’s only the traditionals who are helpful here and who deserve our support.

    Moreover, the Earth and its inhabitants don’t need humans to do anything except leave them alone. Everyone got along fine until humans came along (with the exception of some overly zealous volcanoes and a few meteors who lost their way), and humans have only been here for a tiny fraction of the time that life as we recognize it has existed on Earth. Sure, it would be great if TRADITIONAL indigenous people and radical environmentalists would be able to execute solutions to environmental problems, but with the exception of restoration of native ecosystems, plants, and animals, humans are not needed for anything here except to fight the dominant majority of humans who insist on destroying the Earth and all life on it, so just do that and move along.

  3. So long as there is civilization, life on the planet is destined for disaster. A culture creates it by trying to control nature. It is a culture of domination. It is based on the belief that the land is separate from humans. Rather than the land as being a part of the human being. What we do to the land, we do to ourselves. LandBack does not mean giving land back to the Indians. They will tell you it was never theirs to begin with. What it means is giving the land back to Mother Earth. It was stolen from the people protecting it. #ProtectTheSacred #ProtectPeeheeMuhuh
    American Indians have been leading the Resistance for 500 years.

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