Editor’s Note: Language is one of the most significant elements of any culture. If a language goes extinct, the culture will go extinct within a few generations. Languages are not just a way of communicating, they represent a worldview. Relation to the natural world is a clear example. In the English language, natural elements are referred by a neutral gender pronoun, “it.” It is not a coincidence that the same pronoun is used to refer to inanimate or nonliving beings. On the other hand, many cultures (both indigenous and nonindigenous) refer to natural elements with a gendered pronoun, similar to the ones used to refer to a person. For anyone who is a part of the culture, the language that they learn shapes how they view natural elements. An English speaking child is more likely to view nature as inanimate, compared to a child whose language ascribes personhood to nature. In the following essay, Mankh explores the origin of the language and its relation to our worldview.
Upside Down Ox Houses and Indigenous Place-Based Languages
“And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” ~ Genesis 1:26
What if Indigenous languages hold some of the keys to rectifying climate chaos, habitat destruction and the overall insatiable global commerce structure aka “dominion over…,” while English and other alphabetized languages are part of the problem, in fact they have been encouraging an upside down approach for approximately 4000 years?
Nowadays you can hear people comment how the world seems inverted, topsy-turvy, upside down. What if the roots of that go back to the alphabet. I have good reason to think that is at least part of the conundrum because the letter A is based on the picture of an Ox head, but upside down; at one point sideways, too, but eventually upside down.
Livestock are domesticated animals and one aspect of that domestication is that Ox are often castrated male cattle. “Oxen are thought to have first been harnessed and put to work around 4000 BC.” Estimates are that the alphabet began to take shape around 2000 BC, but of course the lettering system was based on previous experiences and lifestyles put into picture forms which then became the AlphaBet (Greek, Alpha Beta), otherwise known as Ox House, or more accurately, Upside Down Ox House.
“House” is from “B” representing an enclosed structure. The ancient Egyptian “reed-house” B gives a sense of organic architecture and Hebrew includes the nuances “container” or “vessel” – “the created world is meant to house within it the spiritual.” Yet the prevalent association with B is House. On your way to work, perhaps you drive by a temple Beth-El or “House of God.” The “B” from “House” is not upside down (though the Etruscans had it facing the opposite way) and has various spellings/pronunciations, including: Bayit, Beith, Bet, Beth, Beh, or Vet. Picture of Hebrew “Beith” ―
The AlphaBet is based on phonetic abstractions which have shaped the minds and thinking patterns of people worldwide. “An alphabet, being the most abstract form of writing, enhances left-brain values the most.” And more than that, “The alphabet-people’s god became indisputably male and he would become disconnected from things of the earth. He was abstract, nowhere, and yet everywhere at once.”
While doing research for this article, the only possibility I found as to when and why the Ox shape became inverted was when the alphabet was being adapted from Phoenician to Greek and perhaps “the adapter didn’t seem to be certain of the orientation of the letters, because several were rotated or inverted,” also, changes with regard to “sound, name, letter shape and order.” Regardless of why it happened, this essay is putting forth that what the inversion represents rings true because the civilizations that followed have proved it so: The inverted Ox represents domestication and the ensuing dominion over “every creeping thing” ― which, by the way, reads as the precursor to the US Empire’s “full spectrum dominance.”
As a side note, mathematics got the Ox angle correct, but interpretations are up for grabs. “The ∀ symbol may look like the familiar capital ‘A’ written upside down, but in mathematics (specifically in predicate calculus), the ∀ is a logic symbol or universal quantifier. You can use it in place of ‘for all.’”
Speaking of universal quantifiers, along with the monetization of language (the first cuneiform wedges recorded transactions) was the religiosity, which when both of those (commerce and religion) merged with the mechanical, made for a world change comparable to the computer/Internet about 500 years later. The confluence of Gutenberg’s press, beginning circa 1450s, and Columbus’ commericalized colonization crusade, beginning 1492, cannot be overlooked. Along with Columbus on the boat came The Book aka Bible and the eventual franchising of religious concepts which have converted much of the world with the Word of God and the barrel of a gun, both foreign concepts to the Original Inhabitants of Turtle Island and Indigenous Peoples elsewhere.
And the book became a product to sell. The letters traveled, while Indigenous place-based languages stayed (you can guess it), where they’re at.
If you consider the upside down Ox as domesticated and the House as the modern emblem of success (think billionaires with more than one, or the goal of the average American to comfortably maintain one), then it becomes clearer how AlphaBet has and continues to shape people’s priorities as well as societal behavior patterns. Ownership of domesticated land and property is the key ingredient of predatory, colonized, commercial wealth. And domesticated cattle became the, ahem, cash cow of the fast-food industry.
Gutenberg’s press fostered a mechanical way of thinking and behaving, an assembly line of movable type promoting a book consciousness, the production format of which Henry Ford and then McDonald’s would ‘master’ ― the essence of the modern American lifestyle, faster and cheaper, a perfect storm of on-the-go religious colonialism mixed with corporate and state backing, or what I call “drive-thru theofascism.” The more recent propulsion of technology, gadgets, and AI (Artificial Intelligence) has exacerbated all that.
Now, flip all that upside down for the Indigenous perspective. Or for trying to navigate both the natural world and the mechanical world, be aware that excessive mechanical-ness dulls spontaneity, the ability to think for one’s self, and embrace the fact (yes, the fact) that plants and all manner of beings have spirit.
Some years ago on TV I saw a documentary, of which the title now escapes me, and it cited one of the roots of modern English as Frisian, a West Germanic language. What stood out to me was the following which I made note of – the language reflected the following characteristics: warlike; adventurous; greedy; religiosity/Christendom. If that’s not the essence of colonialism and empire, what is?
So the language of adventure that sought its jollies through warring, greed and enforced religion is at least some of the reason for our current troubles. In the film was mentioned a rather poetic phrase, “bone-house”… for “body,” yet many a con man has been known to have a smooth tongue.
Another linguistic reference to cattle and war is found in the Sanskrit, gáviṣṭi (गविष्टि) translated as “desire for more cows, desire for battle.” The only way one can desire for more cows is if they are domesticated. You can desire wild Ox, but to own them or go to war so as to control more of those four-leggeds indicates they are no longer wild.
Did faster language predict fast-food?
“The eye that can read is immediately caught by advertising and propaganda.” ~ Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D., The Rape of the Mind (1956)
Perhaps the seeds of fast-talkers and fast-food were baked into the language. Several examples of how languages became faster, turning into a kind of shorthand, give a clue as to how people may have been conditioned to talk faster, and eventually fast-food on-the-go, a reflection of industrialized assembly line speed with humans as active parts of the machine.“The invention of papyrus as a writing material gave the Egyptians a quicker way to record information than carving into stone.” & “Hieratics eventually gave way to demotic, an even faster way for Egyptians to write.”
From thirty years of sporadically studying and doing brush calligraphy of ancient Chinese pictographs, I have learned that the pictograph for Sun was originally a circle with a wavy line in the center (Large Seal – Ta Chuan, 1122-256 BC), which then morphed into a a circle with a dot in the center (Small Seal – Hsia Chuan, 221-207 BC). But then with Clerical Style – Li Shu, 207 BC-588 AD, a small rectangle with a horizontal line. I suspect this, too, made for speedier communications, though the following alludes to other factors at work:
The Clerical Style “evolved from the late Warring States period” and “The Warring States period was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation.”
Has not much changed since then? As with the above mentioned flavors of cuneiform baked transactions and Frisian war adventures, there appear similarities with the evolution of the Chinese ‘script.’ As to the most current form of “consolidation” along with warfare and bureaucracy, “The largest shareholder of 88% of the companies on S&P 500 is either State Street, Vanguard or BlackRock. And you can see their influence in defense contracts.“
While it’s tricky to pin down, a general progression of peoples and places that contributed to making the current AlphaBet is as follows: Egyptian, Ugaritic/Semitic > Sinai > Palestine and Phoenician > Greek > Etruscans > Latin/Roman and Slavic. The Latin/Roman dominates to this day, as English is made of some 60% Latin-based words. A significant layer of that is the influence of the Roman empire that lingers under the radar in our AlphaBetic consciousness. But more than that, it lingers in the US legal system and echoes the Old Testament, which, as mentioned above, was “the first book written in an alphabet.”
As explained by Peter d’Errico, who has “been involved with Indigenous peoples’ legal issues for more than fifty years”: “The sovereignty claim of ‘Christian discovery’ underpins the entire edifice of US laws regarding Indigenous land rights. It is a US claim of ‘title’ and ‘dominion’ over Indigenous lands. ‘Christian discovery’ necessarily underlies ‘LandBack’ campaigns because the doctrine is embedded in US property law. See Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).”
The language effects the legal system which effects the way in which we relate – or don’t – with the Earth.
Much of humanity doesn’t relate with Earth because of the concept of property and having been domesticated. The word “domestic” has roots mentioning “house, lord, property,” from “domo-” which is also the root of “dominate.”
“Depends on what you look at obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see” ~ Bruce Cockburn, from “Child of the Wind”
AlphaBet was also a precursor (no pun intended) for the current screen-fixated world, as the AlphaBet is a veneer of the actual environment/land, because the letters are phonetic representations, the pictures of each which you have to study to learn. But how many people who talk, talk, talk actually know the basis for what they are saying? How many people literally connect the language with the land and activities in their immediate environment? Indigenous Peoples do:
“These Indigenous languages that are more at risk than ever — that will be almost extinct at the end of the century — are the most powerful languages, they speak of quantum physics and how to communicate with Mother Earth, and you can’t find them in libraries or on your computers, you have to live them.”
~ Tiokasin Ghosthorse (Cheyenne River Lakota), from keynote talk at the COP 24 Climate Summit, Katowice, Poland, December 2018
Instead of looking at an Ox, the AlphaBet trained people to see an A, as nowadays the screens train people to more so see images of the natural world rather than caring for the actual landscape! And while one could argue that various incidents of deforestation happened in time before AlphaBet, it’s helpful to remember that AlphaBet is a condensed product of those already existing cultures.
Breaking the yoke of the Upside Down Ox House
While reading the excellent book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science (2022) by Jessica Hernandez, PhD, the phrase “place-based” stood out to me. So I considered a flavor of that: The Inuit/Iñupiat identify many types of snow, and probably ice; according to a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) friend, there are numerous types of Hawaiian rain or ua; the title of the book If You’ve Forgotten the Names of Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way by Russell Means and Bayard Johnson tells me that the Lakota identify numerous types of clouds; a key aspect of Japanese haiku is kigo or season-word, a poetic-scientific format for identifying a specific time or moment of a season. The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter identifies sixteen for cherry blossoms, including: “hana no hagoshi – [moon] through [cherry-] blossom petals” and “rakka – fallen [cherry] blossoms.”
I am not qualified to speak for Indigenous Peoples about their languages, but the gist I glean is that when a People have been in a place long enough to study and deeply experience that place in detail, the language, as well as the songs, reflect that – holding keys for the maintenance and sustainability of the place; the land speaks to the People and the People speak back to the land. This rootedness is the opposite (does that count as upside down?) of the AlphaBet that traveled in boats and made its way around the globe, and has been and continues to be an instrumental part of colonization and commercialization.
When a People have place-based knowledge and longstanding experience, those People are voted most unlikely to behave with “dominion over,” rather deep relationship with all the beings there and traveling through there, and whether those relationships are based on survival or love or both, they are still deep relationships. In my little suburban patio/backyard there’s a so-called weed that spreads and takes over; most people remove the plant. One spring into summer I let it grow and then one day I noticed a sparrow nibbling on and thoroughly enjoying something about the tiny clusters of miniscule pink flowers. I learned that those plants are called Pennsylvania Smartweed, yet I’d bet there’s a Native/Indigenous name because, for one, “The Menominee used [and probably still do] this plant to treat hemorrhage, and to aid in post-partum healing.”
Outside the Upside Down Ox House grows a weed to eradicate; for the place-based Native Peoples there thrives a plant-medicine. And therein is at least one of the keys to rectifying an inverted worldview too-often seen through an AlphaBetic mind-frame.
More upside down examples:
“The buffalo is first domesticated somewhere in the near-tropical regions of Asia.” The Plains Indians buffalo was wild and revered. But then:
“In 1800 there were around 60 million buffalo in North America; however, that would drastically change over the next century, changing the lives of the Plains Indians. This is partly due to individual hunters looking to make a profit on the buffalo hides, the government starving the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their primary food source, and the coming of the railroads. The buffalo, like the Indian, was in the pathway of civilization.”
Another upside down:
Man has evolved and progressed from a cave man to his/her/etc. current advanced and ever-advancing status. But then again:
“Because we humans arrived last in this world, we are the ‘younger brothers’ of the other creatures and therefore have to learn everything from them.” ~ Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Lakota)
AlphaBetic technology and spirituality
Now that this essay has properly dissed the AlphaBet, a few comments about its usefulness. What a technological marvel! From twenty-six letters come a daily stream of news and articles along with the seemingly relentless publishing of books, (however, a modern form of deforestation but are e-books any better? Think e-waste dump sites). As a writer and avid reader I can’t help but appreciate the letters and books yet I’ve also come to realize their limitations.
Another aspect needing mention is a kind of eye of the needle of consciousness, as for example in Hebrew, the letters can have sacred sounds and can serve as gateways to other than physical dimensions; the Hebraic Aleph connects the above with the below, as the letter shows. In this case the original Ox horns were somehow rearranged.
Because the core of my path is mystical Kaballah in which the Ox is one of four sacred tetramorphs – in Hebrew the Chioth ha Qodesh (“holy living creatures”) – along with the Eagle, Lion, and Human Being, I had to reconcile this with the aforementioned domesticated Ox. My educated guess, based on how things have played out for some 4000 to 6000 years, is that: In a purer form, the Ox represents patience and productive hard work, and is a provider of many things (akin to how the buffalo has provided for the Plains Indians). However, the Ox’s domestication, castration, and AlphaBetic inversion has morphed into such modern horrors as mega-corporate, agri-business, mono-culture, so-called farming, and concentration camp treatment of animals for consumption.
In an impatient world where lazy entrepreneurs and slave-drivers seek maximum profit from the cheapest labor, I’m sticking with my inner, wild, not castrated, Ox. This Ox, however, is not restricted to being an Ox because the form of hard-worker can be a Buffalo, Horse, Dog, Goat, and so forth.
Although I’m stuck with AlphaBetic English as my main form of verbal expression, I strive to go beyond that barrier, getting glimpses of another perspective as seen through Indigenous and other languages. Because direct experiences often go beyond words, I pay more attention to music, laughter, love, physical exercise, ecstatic states of being, quiet contemplations, to name a few.
In my book Moving Through The Empty Gate Forest, which addresses topics related to this essay, I encourage people to:
“Go through the eye of the needle, go through the empty spaces in the A and B, move beyond the framework the gatepost outlines of the letters, every day move through the mumbo-jumbo, the trickster spells entangling the mind and emotions, the propaganda and lies, move through someone else’s word of God, move through someone else’s letter of the law, move through someone else’s hierarchy of A to F to Z unravel the bandages of your mummified consciousness…”
Because it is clear to me that Indigenous languages are essential for the well-being of the Nations and Peoples that know and speak them, and essential for the well-being of the Earth and us all, I close this essay with a quote, albeit in English, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), from her well-known book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants ―
“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.”
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) writes, small press publishes, and is the author of 17 books. He travels a holistic mystic Kaballah-rooted pathway staying in touch with Turtle Island and the cycles of the Seasons. His website: www.allbook-books.com
Editor’s note: The FPIC (Free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) are international standards, that some companies have adopted into their policies. The FPIC is an international human rights principle that protect peoples’ rights to self-determination. UNDRIP delineates and defines the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. Both of these are important principles that improve the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. However, neither of these are legally binding, which has disastrous outcomes.
Companies and countries alike are bypassing these principles in favor of profitable ventures, most recent of which are clean energy projects.
Right now, companies that advance the “clean” energy transition are threatening the land and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and peasants. Demand for minerals like copper and lithium is skyrocketing, as every economic sector is being transitioned towards the fourth industrial revolution. But indigenous peoples need to have their right to a say in decisions affecting to their land. Ecosystems and people living with the land are being victimized to serve an economy that is desperately trying to save itself from collapsing.
When Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, spoke at the 22nd United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, last week, he listed clean energy projects as some of the most concerning threats to their rights.
“I constantly receive information that Indigenous Peoples fear a new wave of green investments without recognition of their land tenure, management, and knowledge,” said Calí Tzay.
His statements — and those made by other delegates — at what is the world’s largest gathering of Indigenous peoples, made clear that without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous people, these “green” projects have the capacity to seriously impede on Indigenous rights.
Free, prior and informed consent — known as FPIC — has always been an important topic at the UNPFII, but this year it’s taken on a renewed urgency.
Mining projects and carbon offsets put pressure on indigenous groups
“The strong push is because more and more of climate action and targets for sustainable development are impacting us,” said Joan Carling, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, an Indigenous nonprofit that works to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide.
Indigenous peoples around the world are experiencing the compounding pressures of clean energy mining projects, carbon offsets, new protected areas and large infrastructure projects on their lands as part of economic recovery efforts in the wake of Covid-19, according to The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs 2023 report.
Green colonialism threatens ecosystems
As states around the world trend towards transitioning to “clean” energy to meet their national and international climate goals, the demand for minerals like lithium, copper, and nickel needed for batteries that power the energy revolution are projected to skyrocket. The demand could swell fourfold by 2040, and by conservative estimates could pull in $1.7 trillion in mining investments.
Although Indigenous delegates say they support “clean” energy projects, one of the issues is their land rights: more than half of the projects extracting these minerals currently are on or near lands where Indigenous peoples or peasants live, according to an analysis published in Nature.
This can lead to their eviction from territories, loss of livelihoods, or the deforestation and degradation of surrounding ecosystems.
“And yet […] we are not part of the discussion,” said Carling. “That’s why I call it green colonialism — the [energy] transition without the respect of Indigenous rights is another form of colonialism.”
Companies and governments don’t abide by communities
Because of this, delegates are calling on countries and companies to create binding policy and guidelines that require FPIC for all projects that affect Indigenous peoples and their lands, as well as financial, territorial and material remedies for when companies and countries fail to do so.
However, there is some push back. The free prior, informed consent process can lead to a wide variety of outcomes including the right for communities to decline a highly profitable project, which can often be difficult for countries, companies and investors to abide by, explains Mary Beth Gallagher, the director of engagement of investment at Domini Impact Investments, who spoke at a side event on shareholder advocacy.
Indigenous Sámi delegates from Norway drew attention to their need for legally enforceable FPIC protection as they continue to protest the Fosen Vind Project, an onshore wind energy complex on Sámi territory, that the country’s Supreme Court ruled violated their rights.
“We have come to learn the hard way that sustainability doesn’t end colonialism,” said a Sámi delegate during the main panel on Tuesday.
Across the globe indigenous peoples face eviction
In the United States, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the People of Red Mountain and members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe filed lawsuits against the federal Bureau of Land Management for approving the permits for an open-pit lithium mine without proper consultation with the tribes. In the Colombian Amazon, the Inga Indigenous community presented a successful appeal for lack of prior consultation from a Canadian company that plans to mine copper, molybdenum and other metals in their highly biodiverse territory.
While delegates put a lot of emphasis on the lack of FPIC, they put equal emphasis on FPIC as a crucial part of the long-term sustainability of energy projects.
“FPIC is more than just a checklist for companies looking to develop projects on Indigenous lands,” said Carling. “It is a framework for partnership, including options for equitable benefit sharing agreements or memorandum of understanding, collaboration or conservation.”
The focus at this year’s conference has emphasized the growing role of FPIC in the private sector. Investors and developers are increasingly considering the inclusion of FPIC into their human rights due diligence standards. Select countries such as Canada have implemented UNDRIP in full, although First Nation groups have pointed out irregularities in how it is being implemented. The European Union is proposing including specific mandatory rights to FPIC in its corporate sustainability due diligence regulation. Side events at the UNPFII focused on topics like transmitting FPIC Priorities to the private sector and using shareholder advocacy to increase awareness of FPIC.
Gallagher of Domini Impact Investments said companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, which includes FPIC: “If they have a human rights commitment or they have a commitment in their policies not to do land grabs, we have to hold them to account for that.”
Indigenous leadership at the center of negotiations
In 2021, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, published an expectation that companies “obtain (and maintain) the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples for business decisions that affect their rights.” Large banks like Credit Agricole have included FPIC in their corporate social responsibility policy. But in most cases, even when companies have a FPIC policy it doesn’t conform to the standard outlined in UNDRIP and is not legally binding.
“It doesn’t do the work it’s supposed to do to protect self-determination,” said Kate Finn, director at First Peoples Worldwide. “It becomes a check-the-box procedure that’s solely consultations and stakeholder consultation instead of protection of rights and self-determination.”
“If communities aren’t giving their consent, a company has to respect that,” said Gallagher, who added “There’s obviously points of tension where investors have different agendas and priorities but ultimately, it’s about centering Indigenous leadership and working through that.”
Not properly abiding by FPIC can be costly to companies in countries that operate where it is a legal instrument. It comes with risks of losing their social operation to license, and financial damages. According to a study by First Peoples Worldwide, Energy Transfer and the banks that financed the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline, lost billions due to construction delays, account closures, and contract losses after they failed to obtain consent from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the United States.
Ultimately, Indigenous people need to be part of decision-making from the beginning of any project, especially “clean” energy projects mining for transition minerals on their territories, said Carling. “For us, land is life, and we have a right to decide over what happens on our land.”
Banner by Carolina Caycedo. Lithium Intensive, 2022. Color pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist.
Editor’s Note: In the Fight for Who We Love series, we introduce you to a species. These nonhuman species are what inspires most of us to join environmental movements and to continue to fight for the natural world. We hope you find this series inspiring, informative, and a break from news on industrial civilization. Let us know what you think in the comments! Also, if there is a species that you want us to cover in the upcoming months, please make suggestions. Today they are polar bears.
By Kim Olson and Benja Weller
When there’s talk about climate change affecting other species, people often think of polar bears. Because yes, their habitat is being destroyed — and we’ll get to that.
But the reason we’re writing about polar bears today is because long before I (Kim) knew anything about climate change or melting ice caps, they were my favorite wild animal. Because to me, they represent patience and intelligence, strength and resilience, playfulness and beauty.
FOOD + BEHAVIOR
A polar bear stretches in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
Like much of the wild world (what’s left), polar bears must put in some serious effort and time to acquire their next meal, and as the largest terrestrial carnivorous mammal on earth, that’s no small amount.
So how much food do they need, then?
“Polar bears need to consume approximately 4.4lbs [2kg] of fat daily or a 121lbs [55kg] seal provides about 8 days’ worth of energy. Polar bears can eat 100lbs [45kg] of seal blubber in one sitting.”
A typical polar bear meal doesn’t vary a whole lot and includes one main course: seals (ringed, but also bearded, hooded and harped). But when food is scarce, they’re opportunistic eaters and will munch on berries, fish, plants, birds, small mammals — basically whatever they can find, which unfortunately also includes human garbage.
Hunting patiently on an ice sheet
While polar bears use their semi-webbed, big-ass paws (about 12in / 30cm, which is bigger than most human heads!) to wander the snowy ground and doggy paddle around the Arctic Ocean like nobody’s business, they aren’t aquatic animals. So they have to hunt usually at the edge of sea ice or next to a seal’s breathing hole.
Once the bears locate a suitable place to hunt, they get comfortable and prepare themselves for a potentially long wait. This most common “still-hunting” method, which they’re the most successful at, requires that the bears barely move for hours and sometimes even days.
Days! I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of commitment and patience remarkable. Because in an age where instant gratification is a thing, us civilized humans may sometimes feel it’s unbearable to have to wait longer than even thirty minutes for a meal when we’re hungry. But polar bears? They’ve got the patience thing down. I mean, they have to. Because, contrary to popular belief, food doesn’t actually come from the grocery store.
When not about to pounce on a seal, polar bears are generally slow-moving creatures, ambling leisurely and deliberately to conserve their strength. At times they may wander for miles, their huge paws helping to keep them from sinking too deeply into the snow.
A bear walks across the snowy ground in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
EVOLUTION + HABITAT
Harsh climate made polar bears become specialists
Polar bears diverged from brown bears but it’s not clear when — some estimates say a few hundred thousand years while newer guesses put it at a few million years.
But no matter when the split occurred, polar bears developed some unique characteristics that help them survive in a harsh climate where average winter temperatures are around -29°F / -2°C.
Most bears live north of the Arctic Circle in the US, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia, and spend much of their lives on sea ice hunting (some sources say up to 50% of their time).
3 fun facts you may not know about polar bears:
Their skin is black, which helps them absorb heat from the sun (when they have it, which is not much in the winter that far north!).
Their fur (the thickest of all bears) is not white and is not actually hair. The outer layer of fur is in fact clear, hollow tubes. But because of the way these tubes reflect the visible light wavelengths, the fur appears white. And the hollow tubes provide insulation against the frigid temps and repel water.
They don’t (typically) hibernate. Since their main food source (seals) is available only during the winter, only pregnant females hibernate (and in case you’re wondering, twins cubs are the most common), and even then it’s not a full hibernation like other bears do.
A mama bear with her two cubs in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
Paws: webbed paws up to ~12” [30cm] across, which makes them good paddles
Lifespan: 20-30 years in the wild
Running Speed: 25mph [40kph]
Swimming Speed: 6mph [10kph] for up to 62mi [100km] continuously
Walking Speed: 3.4mph [5.5kph]
A solo polar bear walking in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
THE BIGGEST THREAT
Melting ice sheets due to global warming
Most of us have seen pictures or videos of starving polar bears in the news. Skinny polar bears searching for food or sitting on an ice sheet with nothing around them but water are heart-wrenching to watch.
Photos and videos like those show the devastating effects of global warming, and are warning signs that express the conclusion in a BBC article by Helen Briggs and Victoria Grill: “Polar bears will be wiped out by the end of the century unless more is done to tackle climate change, a study (by Nature Climate Change) predicts.“
The single most important threat to the long-term survival of polar bears is loss of sea ice due to global warming, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. National Geographic writes about the bears in the Beaufort Sea region, who are among the best studied: “Their numbers have fallen 40 percent in the last ten years.”
Polar bear babies need fat
In our times of warmer climate, sea ice melts earlier in the spring and forms later in the autumn, forcing polar bears to walk or swim longer distances to the remaining ice sheets.
The second effect of melting sea ice is that the bears stay on land longer fasting and living off their fat stores. In both cases, the extra energy loss affects their ability to effectively reproduce and raise babies. When the mother is too skinny, a couple of problems arise:
Initially she can’t have as many babies as a healthy mom can. But when she does have cubs, they have a greater risk of dying by starvation due to the lack of fat in the mother’s milk. This can only mean that the entire population of polar bears decline.
Fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic
Pollution and the exploration of new oil and gas resources are also major threats to these white predators. As we’ve outlined in the article about Adélie penguins, there’s persistent organic pollutants (POPs) being moved from warmer areas to the cold Antarctic and Arctic.
If bears eat seals, they also consume POPs, and high levels of POPs rob polar bears of their vitamin A, thyroid hormones, and some antibodies which impairs their growth, reproduction, and the strength to fight off diseases.
Oil is toxic for animals in the Arctic
As easy-to-access oil and gas resources become scarcer, the industries explore in the most remote places to find this so-called “black gold.” Unhinged, they try to exploit the beautiful Arctic, even though offshore oil operations pose a great risk to the polar bears.
When oil spills into the sea, it affects the bear’s fur, reducing its insulating effect. The bears unknowingly ingest the oil which can cause long-term liver and kidney damage, even if it’s a small amount. Oil spills can wipe out entire populations when they happen in places where there’s a high density of polar bear dens.
Despite sitting around most of the time, National Geographic says that these high-energy beasts can burn through 12,325 calories a day, which is equivalent to 40 (!) burgers.
The polar bears can’t just adapt to melting ice sheets and change their hunting methods in an instant — evolution doesn’t work like that.
Two polar bears play fight in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
WHY THEY’RE SPECIAL
If you ask us, a world without the magnificent polar bears is a world worse off. So they are one more reason #whywefight.
Polar Bears by Ian Stirling, Photographs by Dan Guravich
Featured Image: A female polar bear with her two cubs in Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo: Kim Olson
The 2023 DGR conference is scheduled for late August in northern California. This annual gathering is an opportunity for our community to share skills, reflect on our work, strengthen our connections, and plan for the future. While this conference is only open to DGR members, we do invite friends and allies on a case-by-case basis. If you’re interested in attending, please contact us, and if you’d like to donate to support the conference, click here.
Editor’s note: In order to create a culture where the greed of humans reigned supreme to the needs of life on the planet, the human civilization had to create myths. Categorically claiming that the past was worse, in terms of human rights and equality, stopped any discussion over the detrimental state of both in present society. All of these myths directly or indirectly form the basis of human supremacy, male supremacy and the Eurocentric perspective. Challenging these assumptions are just one of the ways to bring cultural changes. The following article talks about three of such myths about our past that have been dismissed by recent evidence.
This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The New Gilded Age, wars along the Russian border, a global pandemic, battles for women’s rights, even the Titanic: history does rhyme with the present. Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”
That’s something we can realistically change. And if we do, we’ll have an easier time addressing the macro and multiple challenges humanity faces, and finding the pathways to necessary compromises and alliances with people across all borders.
But our blinders and misconceptions about the past constrain the knowledge that we have to plan for a better future. Societies don’t get much out of living memory because the longer-term ramifications from recent decisions generally remain unsettled, and most of the big problems we face are the cumulative products of decades or centuries of the wrong approach to humanity’s histories and transitions. To leverage and learn from humanity’s history regarding what fostered sustainability in the past, we need to know the outcomes.
The good news is that through concerted research in history and archaeology, we now know a great deal more about the different paths that people have taken and their outcomes than we did just fifty years back. Long-term perspectives on cities, states, and empires are now much fuller and more regionally diverse than was known decades ago. Synthetic, comparative analyses have been undertaken. We now know what worked and what did not.
To draw better inferences and learn from past human histories, it is necessary to challenge three pervasive myths, which fundamentally shape not just what we think about the past, but why so many see history as irrelevant when it comes to guiding the present and shaping the future. Each myth is pervasive and entrenched as the ideas and presumptions behind them were born and entangled with the roots of the Western tradition of social sciences, baked into the frameworks through which researchers traditionally study the past.
The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state. Clearly, humans do have the capacity for great selfishness, but as a species, we also are better cooperators with non-kin than any other animal. This seeming paradox is explicable if we recognize that people are not by nature either uniformly cunning or cuddly, but rather humans, past and present, are capable of both cooperation and selfishness depending on context. Our nature is not one-dimensional. Cooperative behavior is situational; we engage when an individual’s wants dovetail with their larger social network. Lack of alignment short-circuits cooperation whether the network is large or small.
The first supposition or myth undergirds a broadly held second one—that large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization. Autocratic governance kept the ever-selfish in line, the argument goes. Ancient Athens and republican Rome generally have been categorically distinguished as the unexplained exception to this presumed premodern path, which came to an end just a few centuries ago when ideas from the Classical era were rediscovered, giving rise to The Enlightenment, when Europeans adopted reason, science, democracy, and more.
The latter scenario became the mid-twentieth-century justification for the third myth, the walling off of modernity from the deeper past. Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.
These three myths underlie the severing of deep history, especially non-Western pasts, from the present. Often in the absence of robust historical information, contemporary observations of non-Western peoples were categorically slotted into imagined pasts that led stage-by-stage to modernist Western presents and futures.
Progressive visions of human history spurred research in history, archaeology, and related disciplines. What we have learned over recent decades does not conform with those starting myths and expectations. Change was not linear, nor was it uniform from region to region. Likewise, premodern governance was not consistently despotic, especially in the Indigenous Americas. Yet in every global region, how people governed themselves shifted over time.
When it comes to the past, we also know the outcomes. And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically. A similar pattern, albeit less definitive, was also found for a global sample of states and empires. More in-depth study is necessary, but these historical patterns seem worth investigating in other regions and probing further where they have been documented. The role and success of governance and institutions in facing and meeting the challenges of the past unlock a treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.
Gary M. Feinman is an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
The 2023 DGR conference is scheduled for late August in northern California. This annual gathering is an opportunity for our community to share skills, reflect on our work, strengthen our connections, and plan for the future. While this conference is only open to DGR members, we do invite friends and allies on a case-by-case basis. If you’re interested in attending, please contact us, and if you’d like to donate to support the conference, click here.
Editor’s Note: As a continent with abundant “resources”, Africa has been a target of colonial powers, who have plundered her land for centuries. This is not merely ecocide, but a violation of indigenous and human rights as well. Colonizers have destroyed Africa and continue to do so under newer guises, all in the name of, they say, advancing the lives of African people. People whose advanced cultures were destroyed along with their land. While DGR believes in community control over decisions related to energy, we not believe that renewable energy is the key to the ecological problems we are facing.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. This article is an edited version of a speech the author delivered at Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Conference with the theme ‘Advancing Environmental Justice in Africa’ held in June 2023 in Abuja, Nigeria.
The struggle for environmental justice in Africa is complex and broad. It is the continuation of the fight for the liberation of the continent and for socio-ecological transformation. It is a fact that the environment is our life: The soil, rivers, and air are not inanimate or lifeless entities. We are rooted and anchored in our environment. Our roots are sunk into our environment and that is where our nourishment comes from. We do not see the Earth and her bountiful gifts as items that must be exploited, transformed, consumed, or wasted. The understanding of the Earth as a living entity and not a dead thing warns that rapacious exploitation that disrupts her regenerative powers are acts of cruelty or ecocide.
We bear in mind that colonialism was erected on the right to subjugate, erase, or diminish the right to life and the right to the unfettered cultural expression of the colonized. In particular, the colonized were dehumanized and transformed into zombies working for the benefit of the colonial powers. Ecological pillage was permitted as long as it benefited the colonizers. This ethos has persisted and manifests in diverse forms. Grand theft by the colonial forces was seen as entrepreneurship. Genocide was overlooked as mere conquest. Slavery was seen as commerce. Extractivism was to be pursued relentlessly as any element left unexploited was considered a waste. What could be wasted with no compunction was life. So most things had to die. The civilizers were purveyors of death. Death of individuals. Death of ecosystems.
Thus, today, people still ask: What would we do with the crude oil or fossil gas in our soil if we do not exploit them? In other words, how could we end poverty if we do not destroy our environment and grab all it could be forced to yield? We tolerate deforestation, and unregulated industrial fishing, and run a biosafety regulation system that promotes the introduction of needless genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and by doing so, endanger our biodiversity and compromise our environment and food systems.
Plunder is presented as inescapable and desired under the cloak of foreign investment. Political leaders in despoiled regions offer ease of doing business, tax holidays, sundry lax rules, and other neocolonial governance policies.
The reign of exploitation and consumption without responsibility has driven Africa and indeed the world to the brink. The current civilization of death seeks ready investment in destruction through warfare and extractivism rather than in building resilience and adapting to the environmental changes that result from corporate and imperial misadventures.
We are in a reign in which condescension is the hallmark of multilateralism. The collective action needed to tackle global warming has been reduced to puny “nationally determined contributions” that add up to nothing. Rather than recognizing and paying a clear climate debt, we expend energy negotiating a loss and damage regime to be packaged as a humanitarian gesture. Pray, who negotiates what is offered as charity?
Today, Africa is facing multiple ecological challenges. All of these have resulted from the actions of entities that have seen the continent as a sacrificial zone. While the world has come to the conclusion that there must be an urgent shift from dependence on fossil fuels, we are seeing massive investments for the extraction of petroleum resources on the continent. And we must say that this investment comes with related infrastructure for the export of these resources out of the continent in a crass colonial pattern. A mere 1 percent of the labor force in the extractive sector in Africa are Africans. A mere 5 percent of investment in the sector is in Africa. More than 85 percent of the continent’s fossil gas infrastructure is for export purposes.
The shift to renewable energy brings the same old challenges to Africa. Extraction of critical minerals for renewable energy is done without prior consultation with and consent of our people. The continent’s environment is being degraded just as it has been with the extraction of oil, gas, gold, diamond, nickel, cobalt, and other solid minerals. The array of solar panels and wind turbines could well become markers of crime scenes if precautionary measures are not taken now.
Are we against renewable energy? No. They provide the best pathway toward ending the energy deficit on the continent. However, this should be pursued through discrete, autonomous, and socialized ownership schemes.
While the world knows that we must rebuild our biodiversity, what we see is the push towards more deforestation in Africa and for monoculture agriculture, all of which are against our best interest and that of the world. A sore issue, land grabbing has not disappeared with the coming innovations.
As Chinua Achebe writes in his classic 1958 book Things Fall Apart about Eneke the bird, “Since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.” For us, until the despoilers of our environment halt their destructive acts, we will intensify our resistance and never give in to their designs. We believe this conference will not only break the yoke of colonialism but will also puncture the hold of coloniality. Our book, Politics of Turbulent Waters, is one of the tools toward these ends.
Every African nation should:
Commit to issuing an annual State of Environment Report to lay out the situation of things in their territories.
End destructive extraction no matter the appeal of capital.
Demand climate debt for centuries of ecological exploitation and harm.
Require remediation, restoration of all degraded territories, and pay reparations to direct victims or their heirs.
Support and promote food sovereignty including by adopting agroecology.
Adopt and promote African cultural tools and philosophies for the holistic tackling of ecological challenges and for the healing and well-being of our people and communities.
Promote and provide renewable energy in a democratized manner.
Recognize our right to water, treat it as a public good, and halt and reverse its privatization.
Recognize the rights of Mother Earth and codify Ecocide as a crime akin to genocide, war crimes, and other unusual crimes.
Ensure that all Africans enjoy the right to live in a safe and satisfactory environment suitable for their progress as enshrined in the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights.
Editor’s Note: In the following piece, Mankh talks about the detachment of technology from the natural world and urges people on the need to be in touch with nature. The promise of these gadgets is freedom but the reality is they’re tyranny. It is good to know that everything that corporations tell you is a lie. Believe the results of their actions and not what they say. Their only goal is to make a profit. We thank the author for offering this piece to us.
“But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.”
~ Bob Dylan, from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
The deception of technology is that its easy accessibility belies both the violence of production and the lack of consciousness of spirit or what East Asians refer to as “chi/qi – vital energy.”
The rapid reach to a global audience via gadgetry has created a plethora of productions – from podcasts to social media platforms – affording anyone with access the ability to project their opinions and viewpoints. This has its democratic positives and is helping to fill the rotten-toothed gaps of corporate media. Yet the instant gratification of social media gadgetry has dulled the respect for deep preparation, maturity, ripening on the vine, and right-wise timing. To my knowledge, East Asian and Indigenous Peoples show the most respect to elder generations.
To follow the epigraph metaphor, “songs” have become a fastfood buffet of opinions and unchecked or manipulated facts. The darker side of the coin is the outright squelching and censoring by the powerless that don’t know how to be, thus they incessantly spew new bits of information into the media/social-media sphere, to which the populace then reacts, re-spewing their karaoke of opinions. This ongoing ping-pong of songs perpetuates a binary of yays/nays, likes/dislikes, you’re right/you’re wrong — all of which is leading to a demise of nuance, and an increase of divisiveness.
The fear is that if you miss a minute, you’ll be out of touch and not up to date with the most current info. You’ll lose the argument, and, as with the Pavlovian repetitiveness of advertising, jeopardize your career.
This is the prevailing hyperactive, narrow-minded wind I notice, as the masses of would-be stars, bombastic pundits, and plastic shaman jockey for position of likes, hits, comments, applause, boos, and OMG will you marry me?! It’s a seemingly endless open mic karaoke, where only a few songs get covered by almost everybody.
Needles in a haystack
At its finest, the gadgetry landscape provides a global community bulletin board. Yet the gadgetscape is detached from land, and, as with all colonial capitalist-based products, the consumers become detached from the violence toward earth, rivers, songbirds, bees, front-line minorities and minors. Two recent books I’ve read give ample examples: Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives and The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies; the gists are: pollution and destruction of natural habitats along with the beings that live there, and too-often slave/torture labor, sometimes ending in death.
Add to that a most recent hotspot in Nevada, Thacker Pass (Peehee Mu’huh), where Lithium Americas Corp. has already destroyed sacred Paiute and Shoshone lands and habitat in an effort to landgrab lithium for electric vehicle batteries for GM. The Natives have recently put up a tipi on the dirt road (created by Lithium Americas Corp.), blocking truck access. What’s happening could be a watershed moment, as other such mining projects are on the charts. And by the way, an immense amount of water is needed to produce the lithium in a drought-ridden area, for faux clean energy. See Protect Thacker Pass & Ox Sam Camp for more:
My daily research efforts to combat the monsters involves a list of news sites, Twitter and FaceBook posts, along with intuitively following the trails of mentions of phrases, people, organizations and such like from which I find needles of truth in a haystack of propaganda (though some would argue whether they are “truths”). And with even a few minutes of research, one can sometimes find out what corporation owns what corporation owns the opinions of what people. Don’t just follow the money, ask to speak to the manager, no, too much hold-time; instead, websearch to find who the head honchos are, for example, website pages “about” “who we are” and Wikipedia business listings.
Once more, with feeling!
At the interpersonal and psychological levels of behavior, except for emoji hearts and faces, exclamation points, ALL CAPS, and select videos/podcasts/radio shows, the use of gadgetry lacks consciousness of spirit, chi/ki, or more colloquially, feelings! En masse, we have been conditioned into becoming one-click shoppers and button-pushers who then overreact if our buttons are pushed, if our opinions are challenged or we didn’t get exactly what we privilege entitlement wanted.
In his 1956 book, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing, Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D. wrote:
“Increasingly the population has been seduced by the idea of remote control. The arsenal of buttons and gadgets leads us into the magic dream world of omnipotent power. Our technical civilization gives us greater ease, but it is challenge and uneasiness that make for character and strength.”
Where’s the originality? The tried and true? The tried and true originality? Why the incessant need to have a message? Why the need for constant approval? In the documentary film The Social Dilemma, the gadgetry, especially cell-phone, is referred to as a “digital pacifier.” To avoid feelings of loneliness, discomfort and anxiety, people, especially younger generations, have been programmed to reach for the hardware. The difference between today and the TV of my generation is that the gadgets are interactive and beckoning for your attention, even when OFF. A quote from the film: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
How many times a day do you reach for the gadgetry?
How many times a day do you gaze at the leaves of a plant, the sky, look within?
In my experience, the art of preparation, maturity, and right-wise timing is nurtured by quiet, by listening, being open to receive, careful study, finding reliable sources (ay, there’s the rub), staying vigilant, learning from mistakes, and being content with off the radar successes.
In his brief almost 14 years, Mattie Stepanek was conscious of what he called his “heartsong” and that everyone has one. “Stepanek suffered from a rare disorder, dystautonomic mitochondrial myopathy” and, sadly, passed away at age 13. He “published seven best-selling books of poetry and peace essays.” (Wikipedia)
While the ripening vine mode is a steady, guiding and reliable energy source, an openness to the immediacy of the present with all its potential and timeless heartspace can intermittently override the evolutionary progression model.
Actually, both modes intertwine. Haiku master Matsuo Bashô expressed it neatly:
at the old pond–
a frog jumps in
sound of water
While maintaining the day-to-day well-being of and caring for the pond (protecting sacred waters and/or your sacred space), be calm, alert and ready for a frog jump and subsequent splash! It could be fun, it could be traumatic, or in- between. Ah, the Mystery.
By aligning our heartsongs and rhythms with the pulses of Earth, the cycles of the seasons, the wheeling of the stars, and those we hold dear, we have a better chance to thwart the untimely knee-jerk behavior of those who seek to destroy the inherent ebbs and flows by enforcing a perpetual boom-time based on violence and numbing distractions. The folly of their efforts and perhaps your participation as consumer is obvious. Yet to hasten the demise of such folly, I suggest that each person must muster the vital energies, know the song, and start singin’!