For David Gulpilil, Sunsmart and the Earth, with love and thanks.
Written December 6 – 16, 2021
This is still being revised because it’s so difficult to find the words and tie everything together, but I thought I’d put this out in the open now.
A week ago a longtime friend died on the same day as a beloved representative of Australian Indigenous culture, and all week I have tried in vain to bring myself to write about it, in my desire to honour both of them. Each time before today, when I sat down at the keyboard, my mind became as blank as the virtual page.
Each day I got through my morning outdoors chores, had lunch, and then fell into a paralytic kind of sleep, as my mind autonomously decreed, “And now you will let go and rest, and heal.” Two to three hours later my consciousness would surface into a vast sense of calm and of open space. I thought very little emerging from sleep. I mostly just was, immersed in the rustle of the wind in the trees, the patter of occasional rain showers on the roof, the chattering of birds in the garden, the cries of black cockatoos in the forest behind the house. I was aware of my heart beating and the breath going in and out of me, and I felt and understood deeply both that I am part of the ecosystem out here, and that I am loved. No small things.
I am loved most obviously and comprehensively by my husband, and too by some of my friends. But I also feel profoundly embraced by what Australian Indigenous people call country, and have felt that way since I arrived here as a blow-in from Europe at age 11. The Australian bush got under my skin, it welcomed me, it was simultaneously like a friend and a cathedral filled with wonder. Remnant pieces of ancient Gondwana, resplendent and humming with life, echoing with vast time and timelessness, to those whose senses and minds and hearts are open. Places that teach you about nature, and about who you really are. “Development” opportunities and cash cows to many of the non-Indigenous who came after, who are destroying country, culture and biodiversity at alarming speeds.
In my young adulthood, wishing to protect country from the harm being inflicted on it, I worked as an environmental scientist and soon found out for myself that the people in charge who make the policy decisions about the Australian environment largely ignore the advice of the professionals that are employed to offer it. I remembered then that as a 12-year-old beginning middle school back in 1983, we had been shown an episode of Behind the News in which environmental scientists were warning that the Murray River would turn into an ecological disaster unless we changed the way we did things. In 1995, the Murray was worse instead of better; and in 2021, it is a dying place, like the Great Barrier Reef, like so many places in Australia once glorious with life.
So I became an educator, teaching people about life and its intricacies, science, literature, language and respect for nature and community. In midlife we got the opportunity to tree change, and in doing so, to steward 62 hectares of country, 50 hectares of which had escaped the white man’s bulldozer and, thanks to the prior landholder’s use of Indigenous-style fire management, also on his adjacent blocks, is a rare example of fabulously biodiverse Australian remnant vegetation on agricultural land.
My husband grew up in the Perth Hills doing fire management with the rather enlightened volunteer bushfire brigade there, and between us we had the skills and passion to look after the place and defend it from harm, such as being bulldozed by a tree corporation for their blue gum monocultures, or being made into a picnic area for sheep and goats, which would have sounded its death knell; or indeed, being left without active fire management as much of the remnant bushland in the district is, inviting – especially in this era of anthropogenic climate change – future Black Saturdays, and doom for wildlife and people alike.
But even in the absence of catastrophic bushfires, lack of traditional fire management of the sclerophyll results in ecological impoverishment, in plant species being choked out by a few opportunists and by dead, dry material that, in this dry-summer ecosystem, isn’t adequately decomposed by the fungi and other microbes which break down dead materials and recycle nutrients in most ecosystems. The Australian sclerophyll has come to depend on fire to do this – not catastrophic bushfires, but the kind of small, controlled, small-area, comparatively cool patchwork burns conducted at the right time of year to avoid animal nesting and to quickly recycle the nutrient-rich ash into growing things at the start of the rainy season, in autumn.
Indigenous Australians had managed the land in this way for many thousands of years before the European invasion, and the absence of traditional fire management from these ecosystems is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss in Australia, behind wholesale destruction of Australian flora and fauna in land clearing for housing and agriculture, which has wiped out in excess of 80% of Australian ecosystems in many agricultural and suburban areas.
As a professional person in the environmental sciences, I was unable to effect the conservation of a single hectare of Australian ecosystem; as private citizens, my husband and I are actively conserving 50 hectares, as a service to nature and the community, and with no government help or tax concessions. Landcare was gutted long since, and most of the financial breaks for environmental work are designed to go to the big boys these days, even though they’re mostly just greenwashing, rather than being real environmental stewards.
My husband and I were so conscious, from the beginning, of the paradox that we were using white regulations about land title to follow in the footsteps of the Indigenous Australians who had stewarded the area for over 30,000 years before either of us ever breathed, or any European had set foot in this country.
Given the alternatives, we felt it was the right thing to do. Soon after we bought the place, we had a visit from one of the old residents born in the local farming community who had been involved in the fire management of our block and the surrounding areas since he was a young adult, who took Indigenous fire management methods seriously. “You have a patch of rare brown boronias – they need a fire this year so the tea-trees don’t choke them,” he said to us. We were newcomers, and so happy to talk to a person who knew the local bush intimately. He showed us the patch in question. We burnt it that autumn, and two years later we could smell the abundant flowers at our house on easterly winds.
We walk the tracks of our 50 hectare conservation area several times a week, which over ten years has added up to thousands of walks and a close familiarity with the landscape and its flora and fauna. After a couple of years of living here, we found it surprisingly intuitive to steward the place – if you look and listen, the land tells you what it needs. You understand which areas need a fire and which ones need to be left alone right now. You see the footprints of the foraging animals, you see where the tea-trees and dead wood are choking the place, you see the flush of healthy seedlings of species that were being crowded out and the sea of wildflowers two years after you burn a patch, and the native animals feeding abundantly in the lush regenerating areas, and the bandicoot tunnels in the adjacent dense old-growth areas where small marsupials find shelter – their “bedrooms” across the track from the “restaurant”. It is a joy and a privilege to be stewarding a piece of Gondwana, and to think of the people who did it before you for tens of thousands of years.
I went to middle school with exactly one Indigenous person, who sat next to me in what was called Social Studies class when it was read from the textbook that “Captain Cook discovered Australia” and we looked sideways at each other with wry smiles – the person whose ancestors had apparently lived in Australia for tens of thousands of years without discovering it, and the new arrival who was constantly told to “go back where you came from” by white people who didn’t get it when I said to them, “That’s funny, you don’t look very black to me!”
My deskmate, of course, understood my point, while the go-back-where-you-came-from brigade didn’t seem to understand their own hypocrisy – or how disgusting their behaviour was. They enjoyed disparaging others. On a daily basis, we heard “jokes” about boongsand poofters and spastics and dole bludgers, and heard various migrant groups referred to as wogs and teatowels and Nazis (…that last one, such an illustrative example of psychological projection). These “jokes” were especially favoured by immature, chestbeating males who would say, “Why don’t you laugh, don’t you have a sense of humour?”
Australian society is still a difficult, unfair and hurtful thing, masquerading under this national myth of mateship and the fair go, but as I said at the start of this piece, one place I always felt unequivocally welcome from the beginning in this country was the Australian bush which the settlers have been so busy destroying and neglecting. I’ve since heard Indigenous people saying that country loves you if you love country. I did and it did. The Australian bush was my safe, welcoming and nurturing place from the beginning, where I could get away from the pain of a dysfunctional family of origin and from the pain of a dysfunctional society, and be embraced in its wonder and beauty, in a very physical way. I’ve never felt out of place out in the bush, or afraid. It’s chiefly dysfunctional people who make you feel out of place and afraid.
It bamboozles me that some people just see unattractive scrub when they traverse bushland, something best turned into a European-style park, car park, suburban subdivision or shopping centre. It bamboozles me that people are seriously afraid of snakes and spiders and “creepy-crawlies” when they won’t harm you if you leave them alone and when people are a thousand times more likely to come to harm as a result of driving on a road, eating modern non-food, or falling over. Ecosystems support life and diversity, are our biological cradle, are the place that will recycle us for the benefit of other beings after death if we don’t go out of our way (as our culture does) to lock our chemically embalmed corpses away six feet underground in solid boxes in what I think of as the final act of greed from a species that sits at the top of the food chain eating, eating, eating everything and then unwilling to give itself back at the end.
My husband and I love the bush, spent much time in it from childhood, recreationally walk bushland trails in National Parks and other conservation areas, and attempt to conserve the dwindling wild ecosystems both directly, by our own stewardship of a conservation area, and indirectly by reducing our environmental footprint – i.e. by reducing the amount of energy and resources we consume, by not reproducing above replacement rate, by reducing waste and growing increasing amounts of our own food, by being actively involved in revegetation efforts, by accepting and sharing information and experience, by collaborating instead of competing. To be a conservationist runs in the opposite direction to being a consumer, and that’s not an easy thing when you’ve grown up in a consumer society.
These days I mostly walk bush trails with my own two feet – and we document some of this with photos and stories on South Coast Wilderness Walks. But it wasn’t always that way. A lot of my early exploration of the Australian bush was done solo on horseback, because I lived on a farm as a teenager. Horses were available, and were willing hiking partners long before I found other humans who were interested in spending time in the bush. It’s also much safer to be in the bush on a horse than by yourself, especially as a teenage girl – not because of nature per se, but because of the existence of dysfunctional people.
On a good horse you can stay away and get away very effectively from people who mean to harm you, even if those people are in 4WDs or on trail bikes. Horses will always be superior to people and their machines out in the wild, and if you have enough skill and partnership with the horse and you know where to go, the horse, who has an unerring instinct for danger and for effective flight, will actively keep you safe. No mechanised mode of transport will catch you on narrow, winding, obstacle-strewn trails. I was chased on a couple of occasions, presumably by idiots who enjoy making trouble for others rather than axe murderers (but it’s not that big a leap), and they never even got close before they lost us altogether.
There were other benefits to being on horseback when in the bush. For example, the wildlife always hung around more when I was on a horse, whereas when I was on foot it took off. I think it thought I was less scary on the back of a huge herbivore. So horses had a role in shaping my love of the bush, especially in being able to get close to wildlife. And this brings me to the death of a long-time friend I was telling you about at the start of this piece.
A week ago, I lost a horse I’d had for a long, long time to a horrible disease. We had to put him down because he was becoming so debilitated despite everything we did to try to help him. This horse loved the bush and spent 12 years with me riding on access tracks through bushland where we live. I’d known him since his birth nearly 25 years before and had a chance to adopt him in 2009.
Losing a horse like that is like losing a dog you’ve loved – a big dog, who’s carried you around and taken you on adventures. My horse seemed to think I had some kind of disability because I was so slow compared to him, and seemed to think of himself as my special-needs wheelchair. If I was off him between gates, as soon as we got through the last one back into bushland, he’d stop and look at me and encourage me to climb back on so we could get back to moving along at a more respectable speed and not just walk. Here he is from those days:
A link to a documented ride in the bush from three summers ago, complete with many photographs and ecological commentary, that will give you a better idea of what it’s like to ride a horse in nature: Aussie Trail Outing With Camera
And you might think 25 is old for a horse, but the others who have died here were 28, 32 and 34. The youngest of those had the same illness and the middle one had cancer. She had still been getting prizes in ridden show classes we’d entered her in on a whim at the age of 27 just because she was looking in such great shape. Here she is at age 28.
The oldest was totally out of molars in his lower jaw and the supplementary feeding that had extended his life for five extra years since he began losing teeth could no longer keep him in good condition, so we put him down before he experienced unacceptable loss of quality of life. Romeo spent much of these last five years hanging out with us around the house, with a gold access pass to the garden, in which he mowed the lawns.
The death of a friend is always tough, whether they have two legs or four. It’s even tougher when you have to arrange their death, make that decision on behalf of them, which is something you generally don’t have to do with other humans, but something you often have to do with companion animals. So I had to arrange the ways and means and setting, and gave it careful thought.
Sunsmart, who was named for his habit of finding shade to rest in from the time he was born, died in the bush he loved, and he was happy and relaxed that morning, on an outing with us and eating oats we’d brought along, and he didn’t know a thing about it because the person who put him down is great with animals and a fantastic marksman. His body is now going back to the ecosystem – we do natural open burials here – and the local songbirds will soon be powered by the insects that are recycling his body. I will like that he will return to me in birdsong, sad as I am that his time here is over.
The morning after my four-legged friend was put down, I heard that David Gulpilil had died the same day as him. That was again so very sad – and he too dying too young because of a horrible illness. And yet for some reason it was comforting to me that the horse I loved and David Gulpilil had gone on the same day. They were both from the bush and all sorts of fabulous. My horse had died on country, and if Gulpilil now needed a horse for whatever reason (I know, it’s irrational, but anyway), this one was certainly going to look after him. (Anna, a Maori woman who was staying with us last week, said to me, “Not irrational, it’s nice, and anyway, watch your cattle for disturbance because he’ll still be running around in spirit!”)
It was comforting to think of them riding into the sunset together. Brett says, “We make narratives with which to comfort ourselves, and that can be a good thing.” And indeed, starting from the time when euthanasia became a serious prospect several weeks earlier – when we were very consciously assessing the horse’s quality of life day by day – my husband started lending me another fantastic narrative to help with times like this and with life in general, in the shape of his Sandman collection.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is very cerebral and funny and sad and thought-provoking. It’s a constructed mythology about the seven Endless: Dream (main character), Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium – seven siblings who are anthropomorphic personifications who have to do their jobs in the universe. Death is the best of them I think – it’s a she, a very cool person, who’s nothing like the Grim Reaper, she’s more like a social worker and ultra compassionate and kind; and Dream is an interesting character. Delirium (who used to be Delight before she grew up) is kind of endearing. Destruction rebels against his role by withdrawing to the country to paint and write poetry, both of which are criticised by his talking dog. Brett’s one-sentence-summary: It’s the Prince of Stories in a story about stories. It also has a lot of beautiful visual art.
Often it is the art which confronts the difficult things about life while also celebrating the beautiful that is helpful when we’re faced with painful realities – whether visual art or film or written words or music. Sandman is one example, and Gulpilil’s work another. Gulpilil, in his art – he was a dancer, a painter, an actor, a storyteller – confronted terrible things, and celebrated beautiful things, and I thank him for it.
I heard about Gulpilil’s death on the radio, early in the morning the day after he and our Sunsmart died. My husband dropped the dog and me at our northeast gate on his way to work so I could avoid the ryegrass-laden pasture and associated allergic reactions, and take a walk around the outside boundaries of our conservation area – the forested ridge in the west, the valley floor transect in the south, and the forested ridge in the east, on the way back to the house. It was the first time I had been in the bush since the horse’s death the morning before. I was sad.
Yet as I walked along in the still-gentle light in the cool of the early morning, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and earth and wildflowers, listening to the rustling of the leaves and branches in the breeze and the morning song of over a dozen species of bird – honeyeaters, whistlers, wrens, robins, ravens, magpies, kookaburras, various parrots and cockatoos, their shapes flitting in and out of light and shadow in the canopy – I felt a lightening of my body and heart. I walked, I breathed, and I felt the place embrace me, and teach me about life and death, and sustain me, and I felt my own part in the sustaining of the place and the millions of unsung lives which depend on this place, lives that are real and valuable and sacred, as my own life is real and valuable and sacred. I felt the cycle of life, how we come from earth and return to it and how our building blocks are stardust and go around and around through different forms of life, and have done so since before the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.
And because it felt right, out there in the bush, I began to talk to Gulpilil in my heart. Yolngu Kingfisher, I said – for Gulpilil means Kingfisher – we are sorry to lose you, and thankful for the life you had. I talk to you from country. Not Yolngu country, from Noongar country – but from country nevertheless. Yesterday a horse I loved died on country, the day you died. You would have liked him – he was kind to me and loved the bush and moved like poetry, like lightning. If you see him, and you want to look after him, he will look after you, I can guarantee you that. And say hello to my grandmother for me, if you see her. Other side of the world, long time ago, but I loved her, and she loved me. I will remember all of you with love.
That evening I watched Storm Boy for the first time.
It’s a beautiful film. I cried buckets, including when Gulpili’s character Fingerbones says at the end, after he has shown Storm Boy the grave of his beloved pelican, and a just-hatched nestling:
“Maybe Mr Percival starting over again. Bird like him never die.”
Editor’s Note: Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture, and one of the central authorities in the dominant, globalizing culture is that technological progress is an unmitigated good. We call this “the lie of the techno-fix.”
The lie of the techno-fix is extremely convincing, with good reason. The propaganda promoting this idea is incessant and nearly subliminal, with billions of dollars pouring out of non-profit offices, New York PR firms, and Hollywood production companies annually to inculcate young people into the cult of technology. In policy, technology is rarely (if ever) subjected to any democratic controls; if it can be profitably made, it will be. And damn the consequences. There is money to be made.
Critics of technology and the techno-elite, such as Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, Langdon Winner, Derrick Jensen, and many others, have spoken out for decades on these issues. Technological “development,” they warn us, is perhaps better understood as technological “escalation,” since modern industrial technologies typically represent a war on the planet and the poor.
In this article, Helena Norberg-Hodge asks us to consider what values are important to us: progress, or well-being? Breakneck speed, or balance? She articulates a vision of technology as subordinate to ecology and non-human and human communities alike based on her experiences in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh.
The most recent topic explored by the thinkers and activists who make up the Great Transition Network was “Technology and the Future”. As writer after writer posted their thoughts, it was heartening to see that almost all recognize that technology cannot provide real solutions to the many crises we face. I was also happy that Professor William Robinson, author of a number of books on the global economy, highlighted the clear connection between computer technologies and the further entrenchment of globalization today.
As anyone who has followed my work will know, globalization is of particular interest to me: for more than 40 years I’ve been studying its impacts on different cultures and societies around the world. From Ladakh and Bhutan to Sweden and Australia, a clear pattern has emerged: as people are pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, ecological and social crises escalate.
I’m not the only one to have seen this. In the International Forum on Globalization – a network I co-founded in 1992 – I worked with forty writers, journalists, academics and social and environmental leaders from around the world to inform the public about the ways in which “free-trade” treaties, the principal drivers of globalization, have eroded democracy, destroyed livelihoods, and accelerated resource extraction. In countries as disparate as Sweden and India, I have seen how globalization intensifies competition for jobs and resources, leading to dramatic social breakdown – including not only ethnic and religious conflict, but also depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Professor Robinson wrote that we are “at the brink of another round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of entire global economy”. This is true, but the link between globalization and technological expansion began well before the computer era. Large-scale, technological apparatuses can be understood as the arms and legs of centralized profit-making. And while 5G networks, satellites, mass data-harvesting, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will allow the colonization of still more physical, economic and mental space by multinational corporations, technologies like fossil fuels, global trading infrastructures, and television have already helped to impose a corporate-run consumer-based economy in almost every corner of the globe.
For reasons that are increasingly evident, an acceleration of this process is the last thing we need in a time of serious social and environmental crises. What’s more, the technologies themselves – from the sensors to the satellites – all rely heavily on scarce resources, not least rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s richest corporations are now racing each other to extract these minerals from the deepest seabeds and from the surface of Mars. It has been estimated that the internet alone – with its largely invisible data warehouses (much of it manned by exploited labor in the “developing” world) – will use up a fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025.
And for what? So that we can all spend more time immersed in and addicted to virtual worlds? So that we can automate agriculture, and drive more communities off the land into swelling urban slums? So that drones can deliver our online purchases without an iota of face-to-face contact?
When thinking about technology from within an already high-tech, urban context, we can easily forget that nearly half the global population still lives in villages, still connected to the land. This is not to say that their way of life is not under threat – far from it. Ladakh, the Himalayan region where I lived and worked for several decades, was unconnected to the outside world by even a road until the 1960s. But today you can find processed corporate food, smartphones, mountains of plastic waste, traffic jams and other signs of ‘modernity’ in the capital, Leh. The first steps on this path were taken in the mid-1970s when, in the name of ‘development’, massive resources went into building up the energy, communications and transport infrastructures needed to tie Ladakh to the global economy. Another step involved pulling Ladakhi children out of their villages into western-style schools, where they learned none of the place-based skills that supported Ladakh’s culture for centuries, and instead were trained into the technological-modernist paradigm. Together, these forces are pushing the traditional way of life to the brink of extinction.
While that process began relatively recently in Ladakh, in the west it has been going on far longer, with deeper impacts. But even here, more and more people are becoming aware that the technologization of their personal lives has led to increasing stress, isolation, and mental health struggles. During the pandemic people have been forced to do more online than ever before – from classes to conversations with friends and family – and most have discovered how limited and empty online life can be. There is a clear cultural turning, visible now even in the mainstream, that goes beyond a desire to spend less time on screens. People are also beginning to reject the posturing of the consumer culture and its work-and-spend treadmill, wanting instead to slow down, to cultivate deeper relationships and to engage in more community-oriented and nature-based activities.
I see young people all over the world choosing to leave their screen-based jobs to become farmers. (This return to the land is happening in Ladakh, as well, which I find truly inspiring.) Informal networks of mutual aid are arising. Friends are gardening, cooking and baking bread together; families are choosing to live on the land and developing relationships with the animals and plants around them. We are seeing increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal and local. There is also an emergence of alternative, ecological practices in every discipline: from natural medicine to natural building, from eco-psychology to ecological agriculture. Although these disciplines have often been the target of corporate co-optation and greenwashing, they have invariably emerged from bottom-up efforts to restore a healthier relationship with the Earth.
All of these are positive, meaningful trends that have been largely ignored by the media, and given no support by policymakers. At the moment, they are running uphill in a system that favors corporate-led technological development at every turn. They testify to enduring goodwill, to a deep human desire for connection.
When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies – which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept an energy-and mineral-intensive technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%?
For a better future, we need to put technology back in its place, and favor democratically determined, diverse forms of development that are shaped by human and ecological priorities – not by the gimmicky fetishes of a handful of billionaires.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures. A pioneer of the “new economy” movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for over 40 years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Local is Our Future and Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
The points in time at which various ancient human societies began to go the wrong way (whether by force from outsiders, or by bad decisions made from within) are numerous and span thousands of years, but, thankfully for our future, some few remotely-situated Indigenous societies around the world never departed from those basic, ancient ways of seeing and living with the natural world and still have enough of their ancestral homelands not yet confiscated or destroyed by colonialist predators to make that continuance possible. The Kogi people of the northern Andes mountains in Colombia are a prime and now well-known example, as are some of the more remote tribes to the south and east of them in the Amazon rainforest. Other relatively intact traditional indigenous societies exist in remote locations in central Africa, the Pacific islands, northern and southeastern Asia, and a few other remote locations in the Americas and elsewhere. It is by learning from people such as these, and from all of our relations in the non-human world as well, that we might be able to find our way back to truly green, sustainable and regenerative ways of life. There are also many more Indigenous peoples throughout the world who have just a little or none of their ancestral homelands still accessible to them, retain only pieces of their traditional cultural values and practices, and have just a small number of tribal members who are still fluent in their ancestral languages. Colonialism, capitalism, cultural oppression, and intercultural relations have brought many changes to them, but, even so, for people whose encounter with wrong ways of living is more recent than most of the rest of humanity, the way back to truly green eco-harmony might be a little easier.
Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse.
As clearly as we now see that the concept of utopian societies was never meant to mean “perfect” societies, it should also be clearly understood that traditional Indigenous societies were never perfect either, just as no human society has ever been perfect and none ever will. But, model ideal societies do not have to be perfect to provide inspiration, wisdom, and direction for our paths forward into the difficult future. It is interesting to note that the first contacts that European colonialists and their descendants had with Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere (or, “the Americas” and the first people to be called “Americans”) inspired a small wave of utopian thinking that lasted for centuries, and now, in this time of profound global crises, many people are looking to Indigenous individuals, societies and cultures for guidance and leadership towards resolution of the current crises and for ways to create viable, Earth-sustaining and regenerative future communities. Many utopian community social experiments have come and gone over the last five centuries, and one reason why the vast majority of them failed is that they did not look closely enough at the models to be found in Indigenous societies all over the world. While some communities have mimicked Indigenous, eco-based, reciprocal economic models to some extent, and others have imitated Indigenous representative political models, there are two elements of the original ways of human social organization, which nearly all non-Indigenous-led utopian communal experiments have missed, and which are essential to ideal community success. One element is the understanding that humans are just one of millions of types of people (or, “species”) who all have the potential to make essential, invaluable contributions to the interconnected web of regenerative life on Earth. All species of the living world belong here and need each other. People from anthropocentric, “human needs first,” or “humans-are-most-important,” or “humans are superior to all other species” societies have an extremely difficult time trying to see that, unless they somehow acquire a special ability to break free from that very powerful mass delusion. Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse. A big step on the way to getting there is to realize that the greatest human need is to be in tune with the needs of the entire living organism to which we are all connected.
The second element is the need to learn how to have deep communion or interactive communication (listening, hearing, and being heard) with all of our non-human relations in the natural world (animals, plants, earth, water, fire and air). That idea sounds very unreal, or even impossible, to most modern humans today, but there are many stories and indications that most of our species once had and commonly engaged in such abilities, throughout most of our history as homo sapiens sapiens. Although I probably will not be able to recover much of our former fluency in such communion, after 70 years of living in this corrupt, lost, degenerated modern industrial world, I will remain committed to working on that quest for all of the remaining time that I have to live in this body, with all of the species by which I am surrounded. Why? Because I expect that we can learn more about what Mother Earth wants from us and how we can be healed and corrected, from our innocent, already-connected, harmonious, right-living, non-human relatives than we can from just listening to and following other humans. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muskogee), professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell University, helped to clarify this Indigenous perspective in his ground-breaking 2009 book, Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge:
Current scientific research on animal communication overwhelmingly verifies the existence of complex communication systems. Honesty and humility require us to acknowledge that indigenous knowledge, in its diverse substance and structure, is the result of collaboration, a respectful partnership, between us and our many other-than-human relatives. Several tribal elders I have known have been almost matter-of-fact about their ability to exercise interspecies communication with animals.
The old ability to also commune with and hear the languages of the plant beings is eloquently described by Potawatomi scholar and award-winning nature writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer in a recent essay that was re-published in Yes! magazine:
The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning. The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice….Traditional cultures who sit beneath the white pines recognize that human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world. Other beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons, possessed of their own gifts, responsibilities, and intentions. This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism….Trees are not misconstrued as leaf-wearing humans but respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans.
We definitely won’t get to successful, regenerative, natural Life-connected communities just from reading books written by other humans. This is not a simple philosophical exercise or an intellectual parlor game. We have to actually live the interconnected life, under natural laws and the wise limits of Mother Earth, on a finite but abundantly sufficient planet. That was the old normal way of living for the vast majority of our species, for the overwhelming majority of the time of our existence in Earth.
Some other essential elements for successful utopian societies at this particular moment in global history, besides the two most important elements mentioned above, include:
A group of people with a common enough vision or sense of direction, not excessive in population for the particular place in which they live so that they do not overshoot the carrying capacity of their local ecosystem or need to trade with the world outside their community for material goods, and can help to maintain regenerative processes and relationships between all species of life in that local ecosystem/community. Eventually, the community would need to determine their own membership or citizenship requirements and limits.
Access to sufficient land and clean water. This might require that people pool their financial resources and purchase land together. A more remote rural location would be safer, but for people who feel that they must remain living in urban locations, at least for the short-term future, city or town governments sometimes lease vacant lots relatively cheap for use as community gardens.
Sufficient collective knowledge and experience within the community membership about how to care for and nurture a wide variety of edible plants, either native to the place where the community lives or compatible with that ecosystem, to organically grow or gather for food and medicine. Knowledge in sustainable, respectful hunting and fishing might also be useful or necessary.
A commitment by all community members to expanding the community’s collective knowledge of the lifeways and connections between all species in the community’s ecosystem and learning how humans best fit into the interconnected purposes of life in that place. Knowledge of the lifeways of the people who were, or still are, indigenous to that place is an essential part of this process. As much as it may be possible, that knowledge should come directly from the people who are indigenous to the community’s place, whenever and how much they may be willing to share that knowledge, and such people should be invited into those communities and have leadership roles there, if they choose to do so. Generally, though, most Indigenous peoples would prefer to form their own ideal communities on their own ancestral lands or reservations.
Although ideal or utopian communities may need to use some money to get the community started, ideal communal economies should eventually become moneyless, direct-from-and-back-to-nature (ecologically reciprocal), mutually reciprocal, life-giving and sharing societies. In the formerly normal pre-monetary world, a society’s wealth was received directly from relationship with the natural world and was preserved or enhanced by maintaining a good, respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. If our economic dependency is on the well-being of local natural systems, that is what we take care of and if our dependency is upon money, then that is what we care about most. In old Indigenous societies, the honorable attitude was to look out for the well-being of all people (human and non-human) in the community, give generously without worrying about what you will receive in return, and NOT measure out individual material possessions mathematically, to assure exactly equal portions of everything to each individual. In a culturally generous gifting economy, sometimes individuals or families would be honored in a ceremony and receive many gifts from the community, making them temporarily rich in material possessions. On another occasion a family or individual might sponsor a feast for the whole community and give gifts to all who attended until they had no more possessions left to give. When such activities were frequent and commonplace and people knew that they were connected to a generous, caring, cooperative, reciprocating community, of both human and non-human beings, there was no anxiety or sense of loss about giving one’s possessions away. Generosity was such a highly-esteemed, honorable character trait, that people sometimes actually competed with each other to become the most generous. There was also social shaming attached to being stingy or greedy, which is seen in some of the old stories, along with the stories about generosity and other positive traits.
The community would need to mutually agree upon a governing structure and decision-making processes for issues that involve or impact the entire community (including the ecosystem and non-human members of the community). Community rules and laws should conform to and not violate nature’s laws. Effective government depends on mutual respect and/or love, listening and communication skills, common core vision and goals, honesty, transparency, and a commitment by all community members to working on and continually improving their self-governing skills.
Democratic or consensus decision-making about what technologies and tools will be allowed in the community, again giving highest regard to what would be best for the entire ecological community and for the connected biosphere of our whole planet.
Here again are the first two necessary elements of ideal community creation (explained above, before this list), reduced to nutshell, outline form:
Relinquish all anthropocentrism and any concepts of human superiority over all of the other species that we share interconnected life with in our ecosystems and in the entire biosphere of Mother Earth. Recognize the interconnected value of all species of life and keep that recognition at the forefront of all community decision making. (How can the species that is the most destructive to Life on Earth be rightfully considered “superior” to any other species, much less to all of them?)
All individuals in the community should commit themselves to actively developing our formerly common human abilities to commune deeply with and communicate (listening, hearing, and being heard) with other species in our inter-connected natural world. Since, for many of us, our ancestors lost those abilities hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a community should make no requirements about the speed at which those abilities should be developed. It should not be a contest, but, instead, a mutually-encouraging, enjoyable, natural process. With each successful step that any individual makes in this endeavor, the entire community gains greater ability to more closely follow nature’s laws and gains a better sense of how humans were meant to participate in and contribute to Earth’s living systems.
There are probably many more essential elements of community formation, structure, and actual operation which people may feel they need to consider and discuss. The reason that I titled this essay “Paths (plural) Forward….) was to acknowledge that there will be innumerable forms that ideal communities will take, throughout the world, depending upon the needs of local ecosystems and all of their inhabitants, the will of the particular communities, their sense of the common good, and whatever creative ideas that they come up with.
Some Obstacles and Possible Scenarios on the Near Future Paths Forward, both Good and Bad:
The idea of giving up and abandoning modern technologies is unthinkable and even abhorrent to most present-day humans. Besides those humans who have an abundance or excess of such things, many people around the world who own very few modern technology products are also repulsed by the idea that they might have to give up even the dream or desire to have such things. To abruptly switch to pre-20th century, or earlier, technologies would be excruciatingly painful to most modern, western industrialized people, and even a slow transition would be quite hard. It is possible that, to somewhat ease the transition to truly green and bio-sustainable living, we could just end the production of toxic modern technological products, while still using those things that already exist until they’re spent or broken (but cease immediately from using items that burn fossil fuels or emit other toxic wastes, in their production or consumption), and then not replace them. Some items could possibly be re-constructed from discarded parts, until such things are no longer available. During the time span in which the old manufactured goods are being used up, people would simultaneously need to be very actively engaged with learning to bio-sustainably produce the things that they actually need and that are actually green or Earth system friendly. That might be, at least in part, what a viable transition could look like. Obviously, most people today would absolutely reject and resist such a change, due partly to not knowing any other way to live, alienation from nature, fear of the unknown, and belief in, addiction to, or imprisonment by their normal material culture. Just wrapping their minds around the realization that so many things that they had always considered to be normal and innocent should probably never have been made, will be nearly inconceivable to most, at least initially. I remember how hard it hit me when I first realized that we just cannot continue to go forward with the status quo social systems and most of their by-products and still have a living world for very long. But how many will give it a second thought or change their minds after personally experiencing the increasingly common excruciating pain of global warming natural disasters? At some very near future point, relief agencies, all of which have finite resources, will not be able to keep up with the increasingly frequent catastrophic events, including more pandemics (connected to thawing permafrost, increased trade and travel, and increasing displacements and migrations of humans and other species). Is the creation of ideal or “utopian” local eco-communities, immediately and proactively—like building the lifeboats before the ship actually sinks—the best possible and most viable path forward, both for humanity and the rest of Life on Earth?
Because of the likelihood that modern industrial humans will not respond quickly or adequately enough to sufficiently (or even significantly) alter our present global destruction trajectory, the creation of utopian eco-communities might become more of a post-collapse source for places of refuge or survival and healing for those relative few who do manage to survive, than a means for actually providing an appealing alternative to continuing with the status quo, or just limiting the harm caused by our predicament. It may be likely that even those of us who would like to create utopian eco-communities would have a hard time doing so as long as the option of continuing with the status quo still exists, because we are so conditioned to depend on or desire many of the things that society offers us. Either way, though—whether prior to the collapse of the status quo or after—the creation of such communities would be a good thing and probably the least futile use of our time, attention and energy.
I offer here a brief assortment of some possible near-future scenarios, both positive and negative:
1. Sometime within the next five years, about 60% of humans around the world decide to create local eco-utopian communities, following the old Indigenous principles described above, and begin the process of abandoning modern industrial technological social systems and structures. Soon after that, we also begin the difficult process of safely de-commissioning all of the existing nuclear power and nuclear weapons facilities in the world and sealing away the radioactive materials therein. The bio-system collapse already set in motion to that point continues, but at a rapidly diminishing rate, as Earth’s regenerating systems are allowed to take over and bring gradual healing and an opportunity for a new direction for humanity, rather than repeating our former disastrous mistakes. As the human people begin to experience the joy of re-discovering our real purpose as part of Earth’s interconnected life-regenerating systems, while simultaneously grieving about all of the increased suffering of the humans who are still stuck in the collapsing, chaotic old industrial societies, and offering refuge to any persons that their communities can take in, many ask each other the question, “why didn’t we start doing this much sooner?”
2. In the initial first few years of the international, local utopian eco-community movement, very few people take it seriously and the vast majority of humanity knows nothing about it. Government security agencies in the wealthiest nations of the world know about it, but only because they spy on everybody, and not because they see the movement as a serious threat, as they assume it would never catch on due to the common unquestioning submission to the system and consumer addictions to modern technology and over-consumption. During those same first few years, the corporate-controlled wealthiest governments are much more concerned with the growing far right wing revolutionary movements in the U.S. and much of Europe than they are with the mild-mannered, willing to work through the system, so-called “left.” The fringe right, or the tail that wags the Republican Party dog, successfully breaks Donald Trump out of prison, and re-elects him as President in 2024, then designates him to be “President-for-life.” Though at one time useful tools for the ruling class’s divide and conquer strategy, at this point the rulers determine that they have become somewhat unmanageable, since an obvious one party state is not as useful or dependable as two parties masquerading as opposites, when they actually serve the same corporate economic masters. So, the corporate rulers decide to make the far right wingers of the U.S. an example to the far right in Europe and to any on the far left in the U.S. who might be encouraged to try something similar with the harder to wag Democratic Party dog. The U.S. military is called in, they stage a coup against Trump and his cohorts, and begin mass imprisonments, and some executions, of many of the remaining right wing revolutionaries (except for the ones who cooperate with the government, making deals and submissions in order to save their “me first” lives). It is only after that that the governments of the wealthy nations of the world and their corporate handlers begin to notice that the utopian community movement had grown exponentially during the years that they were pre-occupied with the far right. Of course they had noticed that consumer spending had diminished considerably throughout the “developed world,” but had attributed that to other usual economic factors and to the extensive hardships caused by the increasing natural disasters, including the most recent pandemics. Once they realize that the eco-utopian movement has the potential to completely bring down the prevailing economic system, they get right on it. One useful tactic they find for dealing with the situation is to employ the now scattered, frustrated, scorned, unemployable, and even more fearful far righters as mercenary soldiers against the eco-utopians, whom they easily scapegoat for the deteriation of the economy, with very little need for indoctrination. Most of the righters agree to serve just because of the promise made to them that they would get their guns back after they complete their service to the country. Simultaneously, the EU, Russia, China and other governments use their more conventional militaries and other methods of persuasion and suppression to deal with the situation.
3. Instead of rejecting modern industrial technological society altogether, the majority decides to try technological “fixes” to our predicament instead. They generally agree that saving the capitalist system, their precious, hard-fought-for careers, and their even more precious levels of material consumption are more important than saving biological life on Earth itself. But, in order to save capitalism and the status quo civilization, and avoid an international socialist revolution, they realize that some more significant and more convincing gestures need to be made toward CO2 reduction. In 2023, production and installation of solar electricity panels and wind farms begins to increase rapidly throughout the world, along with all of the toxic, CO2-producing mining, manufacturing, construction, deforesting and defoliating of natural habitats for new power lines as well as for the new power installations themselves, road-building, hauling of equipment, workers, and the products themselves to retailers and installation sites, and more—all of which involve a huge increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Even though the alleged purpose for all of that increased industrial activity would be to replace fossil fuels with “green energy technologies” at the scale needed to keep the precious system going and growing and create more jobs, the unexpected or oft-denied negative consequences soon become nearly undeniable (but humans have the ability to deny just about anything—or, actually, just anything). The oil, lithium, and “green energy” companies then use their greatly increased profits for advertising and indoctrinating people to trust the new “green” uses for fossil fuels. They also use some of the new profits to purchase the cooperation of additional politicians and entire governments in protecting their enterprises. The bio-system collapse, natural disaster and mass extinction trajectory then continues, at a more rapid rate.
4. By 2033, it becomes widely obvious to the majority of humans that the “green” energy techno-fix for the continuation and growth of modern industrial capitalism is not really that green and is actually exacerbating global warming and the continually increasing environmental catastrophes, while pulling attention and resources away from both the urgently-needed disaster relief and the struggle against the seemingly endless parade of new pandemic diseases. Because they still have not developed any proven technologies or machinery for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere at anywhere near the rate needed to get back to the 2° C “point of no return,” which we had already passed back in 2028, the ruling class then decides to proceed with the next great, unproven, theoretical techno-fix: injecting sulfides and/or other chemicals into Earth’s only, increasingly fragile, atmosphere in an attempt to block or reduce much of Father Sun’s gift of radiant light and warmth—a technology called “geoengineering,” or artificially forced Earth cooling. Very soon after the first widespread use of that techno-fix, we then get a “Snowpiercer” scenario, but without the horrific, impossible, perpetual-motion prison train “lifeboat.” We just get the entire planet frozen to death.
5. The complete collapse of the modern industrial economy occurs in the year 2029, due to multiple factors (too many to list here, but they include some of those listed in the scenarios above and many things that are actually happening RIGHT NOW). The radical left finally realizes then that a real opportunity for a successful socialist revolution is now upon them, effectively dropped right into their laps. They can actually just vote it right in, throughout the so-called “developed world.” Seeing the writing on the wall, the trillionaires and billionaires decide that the whole planet has become unmanageable and too out of control, so they make one last plundering of the planet’s gifts (a.k.a., “resources”) to build up their private spaceship fleets and build more space stations, in preparation for their last grand exit. Many of the millionaires and wannabe trillionaires do whatever they can to join them and those who fail to make the escape then also fail at a last ditch attempt to save capitalism. Many eco-utopians and eco-socialists advise the more conventional Marxist socialists that socialism will fail without putting the needs of the natural world first (instead of just the humans) and doing away with money. After much productive discussion around the world, in-person and by the internet (whenever the intermittent grid is up and running) it is generally agreed that nation states and empires have run their course, done much more net harm to life in Earth and the common good of humans than their assumed “benefits” can make up for, so the human people decide to abolish all such political entities. They also decide that, instead of nations, human societies should be small, local, eco-centered, non-monetary and truly democratic, while staying in touch with each other through communication networks, with or without the electric grid. For several decades after that glorious beginning, as the Earth begins to heal through natural regenerative processes and the humans begin to discover who they really are and how they fit within the Whole of Life, they also discuss whether or not they should continue to use electricity, and, if so, what limits upon such use does Mother Earth and all our non-human relations recommend to us?
6. OK, just one more possible near-future scenario to give here, although I am sure that we all could think of many more. Nuclear war breaks out between the U.S. and China in 2022, with additional participation from Russia, the EU, and North Korea. China targets both the Yellowstone caldera and the San Andreas fault. We get combined nuclear and volcanic winter, and the Earth freezes to death. A couple of the trillionaires, with their entourages, manage last minute, rushed, and not completely prepared, spaceship exits, and end up starving to death in outer space within a couple of years (having extended the time of their survival with cannibalism, of course).
Which of the above scenarios seems most likely to occur, in your opinion? Do you think that something else would be more likely and, if so, what? What would you like to see happen? Do you feel free to think with utopian creativity? If not, do you understand why that is? Would you like to have that freedom and engage in such creativity for the common good?
I realize that, for many of you, this may be the first time that you have heard of many of these dismal realities regarding the present condition and future prospects of life on Earth. As I began to say earlier, I have not forgotten the dismay, anger and other emotions that I felt when I first became aware of some of these facts (and other facts that I did not go into here), several years ago. There are many other people, around the world, who are going through the same thing and there are support groups and other resources that have been formed over the years to help people get through this together and peacefully adapt to it. For me, the way I deal with it best is to try to create alternative, natural living paths forward. Just because the status quo way of societal life is doomed does not necessarily mean that all life or all potential human societies are doomed.
I also realize that for many of you this may be the first time that anybody ever told you that utopian does not really mean “perfect” or impossible, and that exercising our utopian creativity might be not only a good thing, but an absolutely essential thing to do at this particular time. It might also be the case that you have never heard that traditional Indigenous societies and lifeways might provide us with models for viable, Life-saving, Earth-protecting, regenerative paths forward at this time, instead of being the “miserable,” “brutal,” “struggles for existence” that you might have heard about in some anthropology class. The future might indeed look like it is going to be a painful struggle for life, for both humans and non-humans, but engaging in survival efforts as communities with united visions, a common sense of purpose, seeking the common good for each other and for all species of life in our local community worlds, will be much easier and more enjoyable than trying to pursue mere survival as “rugged individuals” or rugged little nuclear family units. Embarking upon these paths forward to “utopian,” ideal, or best possible and ever-improving human eco-communities might be what our Mother Earth and all of our relations of all inter-connected Life have been yearning for us to do for thousands of years! I am excited to find out what we will learn in the actual doings.
Banner image: The Kogi village and tribal community of Tairona, in northern Colombia.
George Price (descendant of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag tribal nation of Massachusetts) has been living with his family on their five-acre organic, polyculture farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana since the summer of 1985. He retired from a 33-year teaching career in 2018, which included teaching Native American Studies, American History, and African American Studies at the University of Montana for 20 years. Since he is no longer working “through the system,” he is devoting the remainder of his life to Earth/Water protecting, organic farming, food sovereignty, constructive communicating, and replacing industrial technophile capitalism with local, eco-harmonious, EarthLife-centric, cooperative, alternative communities.
 Here is a link to the only free access to the amazing old documentary film on the Kogis, “ From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRgTtrQOiR0 The written introduction to the film at the top of the post, contains an excellent explanation on why the Kogi people do not want to receive tourists or other visitors on their lands. What humans who want to return to our original harmonious ways need to start doing is to work on listening to and following the voices of our relations in the non-human portion of this inter-connected life world. That is an ability that all First Peoples had for most of the time of our existence as humans on this Earth, and it is still the best source of true guidance. Stop looking to modern humans and guru types for the light that we all need that is freely available in our natural, inter-connected world (both within and outside of our bodies).
 I am afraid that if I name and give more precise locations for these model Indigenous societies, some eco-tourists, missionaries, or other modern humans might find them and corrupt or destroy them.
 I must acknowledge here that, like all human demographic groups, the multitude of Indigenous peoples, world-wide, have much variation among individuals within their unique individual societies—in personal experiences, adaptation to historical circumstances, retaining of cultural traditions, level of wealth or success within the imposed colonialist economic systems, and several other factors that impact cultural resiliency and recovery.
 Besides Thomas More, other colonial era European writers who imagined “utopian” societies and were inspired, in part, by what they had heard about Indigenous peoples of the Americas include Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762), Tomasso Campanella (City of the Sun, 1602, English translation, 1623), Thomas Bacon (New Atlantis, 1626), and James Harrington (The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656). Benjamin Franklin is known to have admired the form of government of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy and to have recommended to his fellow revolutionaries that they copy the Haudenosaunee, to some extent. See, Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991, pp.96-98, but really, the whole book.
 If not a need or dependency, such trade could remain optional, to preserve good relations with neighbors, and provide things not available in the community location that would do no harm if brought in to the community.
 Some of us old-timers who tried to go in that direction back in the late 1960’s on through the 1980’s and failed will probably have plenty to say about that. Barb and I lived communally (in shared houses and living spaces) from 1970 until 1973 and in intentional community (separate households on shared land) from 1982 to 1985.
 Although I do not agree with them about everything, two people who it has been said are very helpful with that kind of support are Joanna Macy and Michael Dowd (they work separately).
 That is enough about the “whys” of this for now, partly because the essay is getting very long. I’ll be glad to hear from others now, in the comments below and elsewhere, and will turn my attention now and in future blog posts to more about the “hows” of it all. But, I know that the real knowledge, wisdom, and joy, will come through the doing, not just the words.
In the midst of a long conflict and recent protest over a nickel mine in El Estor, in eastern Guatemala, police have carried out more than 40 raids and 60 arrests, and the government has declared a 30-day state of emergency.
Indigenous Mayan opponents to the mine say they were never properly consulted about the mine and its impacts on their lands, livelihoods and lake, and protested on the town’s main road, refusing passage to mining vehicles.
Four police were shot during the police crackdown on protests by what the government blames as armed protestors, although mine opponents say the assailants were not involved in the protest.
There are concerns mining operations will pose environmental damages to Guatemala’s largest lake, home to diverse fish, bird, reptile and mammal species, including the endangered Guatemalan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra).
EL ESTOR, Guatemala — Germán Chub was still sleeping when police and military personnel showed up outside his home. It was the fourth day of a month-long state of siege, akin to martial law, in El Estor, eastern Guatemala, in the wake of the latest flashpoint in a decades-long, multifaceted conflict over a nickel mine.
Chub’s wife went out the door a few minutes before six o’clock in the morning on Oct. 27, on her way to grind the maize she would make into tortillas for the day. Police waiting in the street informed her they were there to search the house and entered with personnel from the country’s Office of the Public Prosecutor. Chub was forced to get up and get into his wheelchair.
“It scared me,” Chub told Mongabay. “They just said they were there for a raid and that they had been sent.”
It was not the first time Chub had experienced fallout from the mining conflict. During protests against the Fenix nickel mine in 2009 over land rights, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by Mynor Padilla, the mine’s head of security, who also shot dead anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich Chamán. Mongabay first spoke to Chub in 2015 during the trial and again in 2017 when Padilla was initially acquitted. After appeals, Padilla eventually took a plea deal and was convicted this past January.
The Fenix nickel mine has been tied to conflict and violence for more than half a century, when it was formerly owned by EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of Canadian miner Inco. Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ residents were never consulted, and their exclusion from a court-ordered consultation process prompted protests, a crackdown and violence that left four police officers with gunshot wounds in October this year. The ensuing state of siege and raids targeting community leaders, outspoken mine opponents and local journalists — all Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ — have sparked alarm and condemnation in Guatemala and beyond.
“I do not even have the words to express myself about what they are doing,” Chub said. “Everything they are doing in El Estor is unjust.”
Police raided the homes of two journalists and at least nine community authorities, fishers’ guild leaders and protesters during the last week of October. In early November, Mongabay visited several families in El Estor whose homes were raided and spoke with other leaders in hiding. Hundreds of police officers, soldiers and marines were in the area, patrolling and stationed at different points around town, including fanned out along a stretch of road between El Estor and the mining complex 6 kilometers (4 miles) to the west.
The Fenix project is now owned by the Solway Investment Group, a private mining and metals corporation based in Switzerland, after decades of Canadian ownership. When it acquired the Fenix mine in 2011, Solway was based in another tax haven, Cyprus, and widely acknowledged to be a Russian company.
Protests and condemnation related to the state of siege continue to target both the Swiss and Russian embassies in Guatemala. Solway’s press office told Mongabay in a written statement that the company is fully owned by European Union citizens and that there is no Russian capital or investment in the company. Russian is one of the company’s working languages because Solway operated several projects in that country in the past, according to the company. Many high-level employees at the Fenix project in Guatemala are Russian.
The project includes mountaintop mining and ferronickel processing facilities near the shore of Lake Izabal, the country’s biggest lake. The lake, waterways and lands in the region are at the heart of sustained opposition to the mine. Indigenous communities in the region primarily live from subsistence agriculture and fishing, and want to ensure the environment can sustain those livelihoods for future generations.
“That’s why we were supporting the resistance. People want to look out for their children, their grandchildren,” Chub said.
Battles over proper consultation
The municipality of El Estor is home to some 82,500 people, more than 90% of them Q’echi’, according to the most recent national census. In 2019, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of El Estor’s small-scale fishers’ guild and other local plaintiffs, and determined that Indigenous communities in the mine’s area of influence were never properly consulted about the project. The court issued an injunction, ordering the suspension of the mining license held by Solway subsidiary CGN, pending consultation.
In a 2020 ruling, the Constitutional Court reiterated the suspension order and laid out guidelines for a consultation process to be carried out by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Free, prior and informed consultation is required under the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Guatemala ratified in 1996.
The defendant in the case was the Ministry of Energy and Mines, not the company, the Solway Investment Group’s press office noted. “The company received the order to suspend the license on February 4, 2021, and ceased its operating activities at the Fenix mine as of February 5, 2021,” according to the press office.
However, the ferronickel processing plant kept running. Operated by another subsidiary of Solway, Pronico, rather than CGN, the subsidiary whose license was suspended, the plant is now processing ore from other mining operations in the region. Mine opponents say the distinction between the subsidiaries is spurious and argue the suspension should apply to the plant because it is located within the mining license area.
The continuation of mining operations, long after the court rulings, has stoked discontent, as has the government’s management of the pre-consultation process. The Constitutional Court ruling addressed how formally recognized entities ostensibly representing local populations do not necessarily represent or speak for Indigenous peoples. Many Q’eqchi’ residents say that is the case with the pre-consultation dialogue, which includes a formally recognized Indigenous council that mine opponents have argued for years is coopted by mining interests.
“They just self-elect themselves. They were not going to look out for the interests of the people,” said Luis Adolfo Ich, a primary school teacher and community leader whose home was raided on Oct. 27, along with that of his mother, Angélica Choc. Ich is the son of Adolfo Ich Chamán, the community leader killed by the Fenix mine security personnel on Sept. 27, 2009, the same day Chub was shot. Padilla, the former head of security, was also convicted on Jan. 6, 2021, for killing Ich Chamán.
“The state really does not respect the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Ich said in a telephone interview from another part of the country, where he and some other community leaders had fled out of fear for their safety. “A decision was made to organize another ancestral council,” he said.
On Jan. 30, traditional local authorities, elders, midwives, fishermen, community leaders and other Q’eqchi’ residents from around the municipality gathered in El Estor at an assembly to form a new Q’eqchi’ ancestral authorities council. They elected representatives, including Ich, from several dozen communities. Ever since, they have been unsuccessfully attempting to get the Guatemalan government to recognize the council for inclusion in the pre-consultation process.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines held the first pre-consultation dialogue meeting Sept. 28 in Puerto Barrios, 120 km (75 mi) from El Estor. Thirty-eight representatives from 13 national and local government institutions, universities, the CGN mining company, and the controversial Indigenous council participated. The Q’eqchi’ ancestral council was excluded and called a protest that began Oct. 4 on the main road into El Estor, refusing passage to vehicles related to mining activities, and in particular trucks hauling ore out and bringing in coal needed to fuel the processing facilities. The protesters stood their ground for two and a half weeks, demanding inclusion in the pre-consultation process and the suspension of the mine’s processing plant operations.
Police and company officials attempted to persuade the protesters to clear the road and allow coal trucks to pass, but were turned away. On Oct. 22, police moved in, using force and tear gas to disperse people and clear the road. Police officers later escorted coal trucks heading to the Fenix mine complex, running alongside them to ensure their passage.
Dozens of raids and a monthlong crackdown
During the crackdown, four police officers were shot in the leg. They are recovering at home, a national police spokesperson told Mongabay. Q’eqchi’ mine opponents told Mongabay that some protesters threw rocks at police but that any armed assailants who shot at police were not involved in any way in the protest. The Guatemalan government issued a public statement Oct. 24, accusing the protesters of shooting police officers “after 17 days of illegal blockades by a small group of people who it is assumed do not live in the area.”
Cristián Xol was one of the El Estor residents there, including on the day in question. “I participated but it was a really peaceful protest,” said the 25-year-old. When police cracked down, the situation became chaotic and there were shots fired, but not by protesters at the action led by Q’eqchi’ community leaders, he said.
At least two of the several pro-mine Facebook accounts sharing local news insinuated Xol may have shot police, in a post that included three unrelated photographs: one of Xol, one of someone else with a gun, and one of guns. Police had a screenshot of the Facebook post in hand when they raided Xol’s home looking for guns, he said.
Finding weapons was also the key aim of a previous search warrant covering nine other properties. “Find firearms, homemade weapons, vehicles reported stolen and objects of unlawful origin,” reads an instruction emphasized in bold, underlined, and upper case on the final page of the warrant.
The raid on the Xol family home occurred a week after the government’s declaration of a 30-day state of siege in the municipality of El Estor. However, news of the Oct. 23 decree did not surface until the following morning. Under the dictatorship-era Public Order Law, Guatemala has five kinds of states of emergency — prevention, alarm, calamity, siege, and war — under which some constitutional rights and freedoms can be suspended and military involvement warranted.
By law, the military is now in charge of civilian authorities in El Estor for the duration of the state of siege, though spokespersons for the Ministry of Defense and National Civilian Police both told Mongabay that in reality it is a very coordinated, interinstitutional effort. Freedoms of assembly and movement are restricted and a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. is in place. The constitutional rights to legal detention and legal interrogation are suspended.
“This is a textbook intervention,” said Iduvina Hernández, executive director of the Association for the Study of Security in Democracy. “It is a pattern of systematic actions to halt the progress of the Q’eqchi’ resistance in El Estor.”
Roughly 600 police officers and 300 military personnel are currently in El Estor, according to the spokespersons for the two institutions. So far, police have carried out more than 40 raids and more than 60 arrests, according to the police spokesperson.
Some El Estor residents say they’re relieved the government declared a state of siege. “When there is a state of siege, one can sleep a little easier. There are many gang members that break into houses to steal,” a woman told Mongabay early one morning shortly after the curfew lifted while she fished from the edge of a lakeshore block the military was using as a staging area. She requested anonymity, citing potential retaliation from local criminals.
“The mine has brought quite a lot of development to the town,” she said, holding the line she had baited with pieces of tortilla to catch small fish for consumption. She also sells cosmetic products and said the wives of mine and plant workers are good clients, adding that workers spend their wages at local businesses. “Blockades affect the population,” she said of the recent protests. “They are people who do not want to work.”
While Mongabay was in El Estor, a few dozen people had traveled to Guatemala City to rally in favor of mining and the state of siege. At least one protest sign was already requesting the government to extend the state of siege for another 30 days. “The residents of El Estor collected more than 1,300 signatures on open letters of gratitude to the police, the Ministry of the Interior, and the President of Guatemala,” according to Solway’s press office, which added that neither it nor its subsidiaries had requested the police presence or state of siege.
National and international human rights organizations, on the other hand, have condemned the police crackdown on protests, the state of siege, raids, and attacks on local press. “The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the use of excessive force against protesters and members of Maya Q’eqchi’ communities as well as acts of repression against journalists and media outlets recorded in recent days in the municipality of El Estor,” the IACHR wrote Nov. 4 in a Spanish-language statement.
Local press targeted
The local Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a community radio station was a target on Oct. 24, day one of the state of siege. It broadcasts almost exclusively in the Q’eqchi’ language and is a means of news, communication and coordination for communities throughout El Estor, some of which do not have cellphone reception or even electricity. In some Q’eqchi’ areas, many people, especially women and elders, speak little or no Spanish.
“Companies have a hatred for the radio,” said Robin Macloni, executive director of Defensoría Q’eqchi’, a nonprofit local rights group linked to the volunteer-run radio it helped get off the ground in 2017. In practice, though, “the radio is the hands of ancestral authorities,” Macloni said. During the October protests, Q’eqchi’ council members used the radio to let people know which communities had turns maintaining the protest camp on which days, as they were taking rotating shifts around the clock.
When police cracked down on the protests, Defensoría Q’eqchi’ and Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a knew they would be targeted. On the morning of Oct. 24, they read the state of siege decree on air, announced they would have to suspend broadcasting, and removed all the transmission equipment from the building, Macloni said. Police did not raid the station as no one was present at the property.
Two days later, police raided the homes of local journalists Juan Bautista Xol and Carlos Ernesto Choc. As local correspondents for Prensa Comunitaria, an independent community-based digital publication, they had been covering the protests and crackdowns, later becoming targets of police violence in the mix. Since the raids, their relatives have reported being followed, questioned and surveilled by uniformed police officers as well as unmarked gray pickup trucks with tinted windows.
“Human rights defenders and especially journalists [like Choc] who have denounced this situation … are at high risk,” Francisco Vivar, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights Legal Action, said in early November outside the local prosecutor’s office in El Estor, where he was accompanying Choc.
Choc had fled El Estor for safety but had to sign a registry at the prosecutor’s office every month as part of his bail conditions. Four years ago, Choc had reported on El Estor small-scale fishers’ guild protests against the mine and was later criminalized alongside several fishermen. This included guild president Cristóbal Pop, whose home was also raided during the state of siege, and former guild vice president Eduardo Bin, who was arrested during the state of siege on an old, expired arrest warrant. He was later released.
Fears for Guatemala’s largest lake
Fishermen have noted changes and fish stock depletion for years in Lake Izabal. In 2017, a red patch of discolored water appeared in the lake, and the fishers’ guild blamed the mine, filed a formal complaint, and organized protests. With a surface area of 590 square kilometers (228 square miles), Lake Izabal sustains local livelihoods but also important ecosystems and protected areas home to diverse fish, bird, reptile and mammal species, including the endangered Guatemalan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). The lake itself, which drains into the Caribbean, is also home to a population of manatees (Trichechus manatus), the symbol of the town of El Estor.
Government studies have shown that “90% of the water pollution is generated not by the company’s operations but by the local communities residing along the Polochic River [that feeds into Lake Izabal]. The company’s contribution to the water pollution is minimal,” Solway wrote in a 2017 public statement. The company does not discharge any type of waste water and “carries out the most extensive environmental monitoring of water quality in Lake Izabal in the region,” the company’s press office told Mongabay.
Many Q’eqchi’ fishermen and community members do not trust the company or government. A private Guatemalan university, Universidad del Valle, was conducting research in the area when Solway acquired the Fenix project. The following year, in 2012, three biology students were killed on mining company property while monitoring crocodiles and taking water samples as part of a university-company exchange program. In 2019, a court convicted a CGN mining company biologist of culpable homicide and found CGN civilly responsible. The sentence was overturned in September 2021 and the legal battle continues.
The deaths fed local perceptions of mining pollution and a cover-up. “In the future we will see the consequences,” Luis Adolfo Ich said of all the mining and oil palm industry operations around the lake. “The struggle of the ancestral authorities and the guild is to protect the lake from pollution.”
Fishers’ guild protests in El Estor in May 2017 blocked the road leading to the Fenix mine, and riot police cracked down on May 27, firing tear gas and some live rounds. Local Q’eqchi’ fisherman Carlos Maaz was shot in the chest and killed, one of the latest in a long list of people killed in connection with the mine.
In 1965, a military dictatorship granted mining rights to EXMIBAL, a 50:50 joint venture between the Guatemalan government and Canada’s International Nickel Company (INCO). EXMIBAL’s operations took place during the 1960-1996 armed conflict between leftist guerrillas and the state. The military committed the first large-scale massacre of civilians in 1978 in Panzós, 26 miles west of El Estor, where Q’eqchi’ villagers were protesting for rights to their traditional lands, a massive swathe of which had been given to EXMIBAL.
Mining company personnel shot some El Estor community residents while they were on their way to the Panzós protest, according to a United Nations-backed truth commission into crimes against humanity during the armed conflict. A congressman and another member of an ad-hoc committee investigating EXMIBAL’s acquisitions were assassinated in 1970 and 1971.
Over time, EXMIBAL became CGN and Guatemala’s 50% stake decreased to 1%. In the 2000s, there were waves of evictions and crackdowns while the project was owned by Skye Resources and then Hudbay Minerals, both Canadian companies that tried to get the project up and running. Solway acquired the Fenix project in 2011 and restarted production in 2014.
“The story remains unchanged. It is the same,” said Olga Che, treasurer of El Estor’s small-scale fishers’ guild, a member of the new Q’eqchi’ authorities council, and a prominent figure at the recent protests. “The history of the armed conflict remains unchanged.”
In 1980, when Che was 2 years old, the military showed up and took away her father, who was never seen again. He was a very active member of the Catholic church at a time when the military government was targeting church figures openly sympathetic to human rights and land rights struggles. Che’s father is one of an estimated 45,000 people who disappeared during the armed conflict.
“We do not know if he is alive, if he is dead, or if they threw him somewhere. Who knows,” Che told Mongabay.
When soldiers and police showed up outside Che’s mother’s house on Oct. 26, lining the block, she was reminded of the incident in 1980 when the military took her husband. She has been unwell ever since the raid, said Che, whose own home was also raided while she and her husband and kids were at her mother’s place. Police dug holes in the dirt floor of the home.
A police officer threatened Che’s 11-year-old daughter with a beating and another grabbed her 8-year-old son by the arms, telling them to “tell the truth” about weapons on the property, Che said. Police also stole and ate tamales from the kitchen, according to the family. Che also said she and her husband were coerced into signing the written record drawn up at the end of the raid without getting a chance to read it.
Those claims are false, according to the national police spokesperson, who said that personnel from the prosecutor’s office were on site along with police during raids. Had something like that occurred, residents should have filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office or the police’s inspectorate-general, the spokesperson told Mongabay, adding that “anything like that would not have been tolerated.”
While Che discussed the raid, 182 km (113 mi) away in another department, the Ministry of Energy and Mines wrapped up the third and final meeting of the pre-consultation process concerning the Fenix mine. None of the meetings took place in El Estor, and two of the three were held during the ongoing state of siege. The actual consultation process, consisting of an informational phase and then “intercultural dialogue,” is set to begin during the state of siege and wrap up in December.
“If they do not listen to us we have the right to protest,” Che said. “I was there to defend our mountains and to defend our lake.”
Editor’s note: Sandra Cuffe has voluntarily contributed to and written for Prensa Comunitaria, including reporting fishers’ guild protests and the killing of Carlos Maaz in May 2017. She has sent photos and videos of other events.
Banner image: A group of riot police advance at the outset of a crackdown on a May 27, 2017, fishers guild protest over Lake Izabal pollution they associate with the mine. Image courtesy of Sandra Cuffe.
Editor’s note: Albuquerque is in fact too large. It is a city. It is actually the cities that are the cause of all those problems. This article mentions: “This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature.” The writers’ claim to the origin of the idea of wilderness is a false assumption. The point that we are in as a species demands we protect wilderness areas and any indigenous peoples living sustainably that are a part of it.
By Elizabeth Anker
A very typical response to my writing can be summarized as: “But… cities?!?” How are we going to fit cities into this future world? My feeling is that we can’t. Mostly.
I’ve never explicitly said that cities are not optimal, but I think it’s fairly obvious what my biases are. I will be honest, I don’t like urban environments. I don’t like the noise. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the mess. Just everywhere mess! I’m not fond of the pace or the congestion. In 24-hour places like New York City, I can’t sleep. I am generally uncomfortable (translate: nauseous) in structures that I can feel moving, and I can feel the sway in tall buildings. I absolutely hate elevators. In the city, one can’t have goats. Rarely chickens. There’s no horizon. Few healthy old trees. Utterly insufficient gardens. And there are no stars.
Now, I know there are cities that are not this bad. Or I know one, anyway. Albuquerque is a city of about 750,000 people with maybe a half dozen moderately tall buildings downtown. Yet it’s not too horizontally sprawling, being held in check by mountains and volcanoes and Indigenous lands. And a water supply that is strictly tied to the river valley. But within the city, there are many farms and gardens and a wide wetlands, the bosque, along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chickens and goats and alpacas are everywhere (except in the Rio Rancho suburb, which is also the ugliest, sprawling-est part of New Mexico). The skies are brilliant all day, all night, all through the year. You can go wandering at 2am and feel safe. Nothing is open past 10pm, so apart from a sporadic teen in a loud car, it’s quiet. Sleepy even. There is never a rush. It’s called the land of mañana only somewhat jokingly. It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else; it’s the largest small town in the world. And it smells like chile, rain on parched earth, cedar smoke, and sage brush. With the odd dash of manure…
So cities can be accommodating places. It depends on the people, I suppose. Burqueans are Westerners — laconic and lazy and not terribly interested in your issues. But I haven’t been in many cities like that. And maybe Albuquerque doesn’t actually count as a city. There are horse hitches outside buildings. With hitched horses.
But my preferences are hardly average nor all that important. What is important is that cities make no ecological or biophysical sense. And to get out of this mess we need to bring our living back within the realm of good sense.
I could begin by pointing to the ridiculously fragile locations of many of the largest urban centers. No amount of techno-magical thinking is going to keep Boston above water. Or New York. Or Miami. I could fill pages with that list. Then add on those that might be marginally above water but currently rely upon groundwater or coastal rivers for drinking water — which will be contaminated with seawater long before the streets turn into canals. Ought to toss extreme fire danger onto the list also, taking out much of California, Greece, perhaps most of the Australian continent. And then there’s Phoenix which may quite literally run out of water. Of course, many other US Sunbelt cities — including Albuquerque — are going to discover that a desert location can not, by definition, provide water for millions of people. Once fossil groundwater is pumped dry (in about, oh, ten years…) there won’t be water coming out of the taps. Same goes for most of the cities in the two bands around 25-30° latitude away from the equator that get little moisture because planetary air flow is uncooperative (though this may change… in ways that might be good… maybe). Then there’s just pure heat. Adding a degree or so to the global average — which is inevitable at the current level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere even if we were to miraculously stop emissions today — will turn urban areas that are merely hot now into uninhabitable ovens, with atmospheric heat magnified by urban heating. Just for completeness, there are quite a few places that will simply collapse as ground water is depleted or as permafrost melts. Oh, and then there’s Detroit and other urban disaster zones — places so completely degraded by industrial mess-making that soil, water and air in these locations will be toxic to most life-forms for many human generations. So. Yeah. There are problems.
Let’s give it a different framing. There are large areas — most of which contain large cities — in which property is no longer insurable for at least one type of disaster. You can’t buy flood insurance in broad swaths of New Jersey or Florida. You can’t buy fire insurance in Orange County, California. Some actuary — a person whose job is calculating odds and putting a monetary value on risk — has determined that the odds are not in your favor. Full stop. More precisely the probability of an insurance claim paid by the company being greater than all the money you pay that company to buy the insurance is too high for the company to even begin taking your money. (And they really want to take your money!) There will be a disaster that creates a claim, and it will happen before you can pay much into your policy. Best you open a bank account and start dumping all your paychecks in there because that’s what it will cost to live in these uninsurable areas. (Though for now in this country, taxpayers are serving as the bank account for the most costly uninsurable properties.)
The risk of a flood happening in New Jersey is so high and immediate that you (and the insurance industry) can count on having a flooded house. And there are many houses that will be flooded. New Jersey is a densely populated region, especially so where risk of flood is greatest. This is not an anomaly. New Jersey is not unusually silly in siting urban areas. The urban areas in New Jersey grew up near water, rather than in a less flood-prone area further inland, just as urban areas grow near water everywhere else in the world — because water makes for easy transport of large volumes of stuff, lowering the costs of trade. There is and always was risk of flooding in these urban areas. But the floods happened infrequently before ocean warming made energetic storms that could throw large volumes of water up on the coast a regular — and predictable — occurrence. The same sort of calculations can be made for fire, for structural damages and I would imagine for sheer uninhabitability — though I doubt actuaries will have much to say about that. There are no insurance policies for putting property where humans simply can’t survive.
Because we’re supposed to be smarter than that. No, we’re supposed to be above all that, able to engineer our way forward in any unfavorable circumstance. (Witness the “let’s move to Mars” idiocy.) And in much urban development it’s not even about overcoming the likely risks. Risk-prone and degraded properties are developed by corporations who have no intention of owning the property long term. They build structures and sell those “improved properties” to others as quickly as they can. If they even bother to investigate the risks of living in that area, they don’t broadcast that information. They often take steps to conceal any qualities in a property that will lower the sale price. This is such a commonplace it’s a clichéd plot point in movies and novels.
Cities are located in the best places to move goods around and in the easiest, cheapest places to develop property for sale. This last is more a feature of former colonies which made wealth through this process of appropriating, “improving” and selling land. In the hearts of former empires, cities existed before wealth extraction turned to development of land. But a good number of them have caught up with their former colonies. Los Angeles has nothing on London sprawl. This method of making money — acquire, build and sell quickly at the highest profit — will necessarily create concentrated development in places that historically were either farmland or empty land. In the latter case, there were reasons that humans had not built things there. Many of those reasons were ecological. It made no sense to put a structure there, let alone a whole city of them. But empty lands are cheapest to develop, so the reasons were ignored. Wetlands were drained. Forests were cleared. Grasslands were paved over. Wells were drilled deep into desert rock to pull up the remnants of the last glacial meltwaters. Homes and businesses were plopped onto newly laid roads with no concern for long term durability. That was the point of building in this way. If the costs of locating structures in ecologically sustainable places were paid, then there would be no profit. So the last few hundred years has seen cities grow in places where they would always be under threat from natural processes and in fact magnify those threats by ignoring them. By cutting those costs.
But then cities have never been great. They’re good for concentrating and controlling the labor pool. That’s it. A city is now and always has been a warehouse for laborers. It is the cheapest warehouse. People are packed into cities with no accommodation for their actual lives. No space for anything. No way to produce anything except through market mechanisms of centralized production. This is by design. Because the laborers are also the market. If they are meeting their own needs, they aren’t buying stuff. Cities are very good at stripping all agency from a large group of humans, making them completely dependent on the market for every need. You can’t sneeze in a city without it profiting someone who is not you. And you can’t even begin to feed or house or clothe yourself. There are no resources for you to do any of this in a city.
Cities may be marginally better at leveraging concentrated capital into cultural institutions than a more dispersed settlement pattern. Maybe. Not that rich folk won’t fund their favorite arts wherever they live. Witness the magnificent theatre, music, and visual arts thriving in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. But cities absolutely suck at meeting our biophysical needs — from food to companionship to a non-toxic environment. Call me what you will, but when the choice is between a secure food supply and cultural attractions, I’m going with food.
Some people have noted this conflict between urban living and actual living. There are efforts to clean up the toxic messes we’ve created (created, again, by design… toxicity happens because business will not pay the full costs of doing things safely and cleanly). There are urban gardens sprouting in empty lots. There are calls for less car traffic and more travel by bike and foot. There is a return to the idea of neighborhood. People are attempting to meet their physical and emotional needs within the structures of a city. I am not sure any of this is going to work. Because that is not how a city works.
A city works by depriving most of its inhabitants of the means to meet their basic needs, forcing them to work for wages so that they can buy those needs and produce profits. That is what cities are designed for and that is what they do best. There is not even the space in a city to allow its citizens to provide for themselves. Everything must be produced elsewhere and shipped into the city. And shipping is increasingly a problem both because we have to stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and because it is increasingly expensive to acquire fossil fuels. All the plans I’ve seen so far do not address this basic problem.
Here is one example: vertical gardens, growing food in a tower to maximize growing area but minimize the horizontal footprint so that a “farm” will fit within the confines of a city. I don’t think these are well conceived. Half a minute’s thought on what actually goes into growing healthy plants reveals several fatal flaws in the design. Attempts to produce food where there is no soil, where water has to be pumped, and where sunlight has to be synthesized with electricity are costly if not futile. And all these tools and raw materials still have to be sourced and produced elsewhere and then shipped in. It may be that we use more resources in building a vertical farm than if we just grew a real farm. And we won’t be producing very much food in this resource-sucking system. We may be able to grow some leafy vegetables, but those vegetables will be lacking in nutrition relative to food grown in a living ecosystem. There isn’t even space for grains and pulses in a vertical garden unless it’s very vertical. Which seems expensive. Not a project we’re going to be able to maintain in a contracting economy that is generally out of resources.
Even if it were not expensive though, vertical farming is not producing food. Synthesizing a growing environment will always fail because we can’t make living systems, and that’s what is needed to grow food. Human attempts to manufacture biology fail because we don’t fully understand how biology works and maybe can’t know being embedded within biology. Further, I suspect most synthesized foods will not meet human nutrition needs even if all the building blocks we know about are included. There are emergent properties and interdependencies and entanglements that we can’t begin to understand, never mind create. The chemical compounds in a berry do not make a berry. A berry is a particular arrangement of its chemical composition along with a large number of microbes and other non-berry materials all of which make up the nutritional content of the berry when you pop the whole living thing in your mouth. And we don’t know what of all that berry and non-berry stuff is essential to our digestive tract to turn that berry into food for our cells. We can’t make a berry because we don’t know what a berry is. What we do know is that it is always more than the sum of its broken down parts. And that is what synthesizing is, a sum of brokenness.
But these ideas keep manifesting because we think rather highly of ourselves. We believe that we can engineer our way over any problem. We really haven’t done that though. We’ve thrown a huge wealth of the planet’s energy and resources into creating this style of living. Our technologies are useless without that resource flow. Just as importantly, our technologies are useless at containing the waste flowing out of that system. And most importantly, our technologies are designed to work within a profit-driven system. When that breaks down, when there is no profit, there is no technology. We aren’t going to put scarce resources and effort into maintaining the tools; we’ll produce what we need directly at scales that don’t require those costly tool systems.
And that’s the main reason I believe that we will be abandoning cities. They will break down. They are a technology that only works while there are abundant resources, while there is capacity for waste absorption, and while there are profits to be made on all those flows. We aren’t going to put effort into maintaining this tool if it no longer serves us. We won’t have the time or the wherewithal. We will need to produce what we need to live.
Some are bemoaning the idea of humans dispersing into the countryside. And maybe that’s a problem if those dispersed humans are also bringing along their wasteful, resource-sucking lifestyles. But I’m not sure that will be possible. There won’t be resources to waste or suck. Not only that, but most people are not inclined toward messing up their own homes. Degradation of the land happens when those resources are sucked out of the land to be used by people living elsewhere. Humans have lived in dispersed settlement patterns, integrated within our ecosystems, for a very long time, much longer than we’ve been “civilized”. This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature. That humans uniquely have the potential to transcend nature and invent their way toward meeting biophysical needs independent of nature. None of this is in any way real. Putting a lot of humans in a confined space will not magically rewild the rest of the world. We will still be sucking those resources. More resources than if we lived in a place where we didn’t need to maintain an artificial living environment through transport and tools. More resources than if we lived within the carrying capacity of the lands we fully inhabit — as we have for most of our existence.
And make no mistake, the land is going to see that we do that. This is what is happening. We have exceeded carrying capacity at all scales. There are mechanisms in living systems that prevent this. We are experiencing those mechanisms. We are experiencing the consequences of exceeding carrying capacity for the planet. This will be fixed. And it will be completely out of our hands. Cities will be abandoned because we will be dealing with all the consequences of cities and returning to a way of living that we know works within nature. Lots of smallish towns and settlements surrounded by and interpenetrated with land that can produce our needs.
I suspect our urban centers will be very much like Albuquerque…
Ending systems of domination: Reclaiming our bodies and politics from global trauma
By Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick
As the sun goes down on a system that cannot save us from itself, our only option is to bring that system to an end. But what is that system, and how do we replace it?
We begin from the understanding that systems of domination are, both, inside and between us, and that transforming social and political relations starts as much from our hearts and the personal as from the predicament of the earth, and all our societal relations. We begin from Scotland where we live, and where COP26 will yet again make grand promises but do nothing to stop us all hurtling off the climate cliff edge.
Colonization’s torment continues
Scotland has been both colonized and colonizer. Without the history of colonization of Scotland and England, there would have been no British Empire colonizing overseas. Without the vicious clearing of highland communities from their lands here, there would not have been the families desperate for food and a future, with no choice but to work for a pittance in the factories and furnaces of empire, or to fight its wars.
The mass murder wreaked by empire, the evisceration of others’ cultures and stealing of their lands, and the forced residential schooling of the youth, has viciously harmed indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia, while being dressed up as a ‘civilizing mission’ or ‘progress’. The same is true of how this system treats the vast majority of those living precariously in the British Isles, who are told that they benefit from a system that blames them for the inequality they suffer. But do even the 1% who supposedly benefit, really benefit? Those whose empathy is broken through the boarding school system, and whose shallowness is groomed by a compliant fawning media perpetuating its life-destroying feudal, corporate and political world?
Finding a way through
It is not by chance that our system is stumbling us into extinction.
We need to find new ways to gather, to make decisions, to organize, and to take responsibility for each other, so that we can respect and nourish all life, since those tasked with this responsibility have so disastrously and inevitably failed, since the dominant system’s purpose is not to respect and nourish but to control, co-opt and exploit.
We also need to re-imagine how we rediscover, create and maintain the enduring or emergent alternatives. Too often they unintentionally include (or fail to challenge) assumptions based on our dominant lived experience of (mostly) patriarchal, racist, hierarchical cultures. The growing understanding of personal and cultural trauma – its ubiquity, its unconscious nature, its debilitating effects, and, most crucially, our ability to learn and heal from it, provide radical possibilities for uncovering and shifting those unconscious (traumatized) assumptions and for (re)discovering genuinely fresh and emancipatory ways of being and working together.
Trauma is a complex neurological process, but in brief it is the way our mind deals with events, which we experience as physically or emotionally overwhelming. These are not stored as memories, but are patterned into the nervous system: the unconscious: the body. These patterns can be ‘triggered’ when we are reminded of the initial experience. Because this triggering happens instantaneously and unconsciously, we rarely even notice that we have been plunged into an emotional state which now has little to do with what’s going on in the present.
We all accumulate some level of trauma during our childhood. This can show up in adulthood in disparate areas of life, for example public speaking, standing up for ourselves, managing our anger or coping with rejection, where we know we tend to act differently to how we would like. Dig a little into these uncomfortable feelings and the roots always lead back to childhood within a dominating system. Every one of us experiences our own versions of this, but the underlying reasons are rarely acknowledged. The socially condoned view is that because we largely forget them, these early experiences are over. In fact, unaddressed, they continue to shape our lives.
Imperialism, colonization, supremacy, stratification, capitalism… these are culture level traumas: legacies of past damage that continue to re-inflict it. They play out in the world in many forms: in the stratifications of class or caste, sexism and racism, in economic inequality, wars, biodiversity loss, climate change… and as with personal trauma, the root causes of our cultural traumas are obscured, making what are essentially breaks with reality seem absolutely normal and inevitable, at least to those experiencing it.
Power and society
This system of domination also lives inside of us, within our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, our attitudes, our social structures, the way we act towards those we see as different to ourselves, other species and the wider natural world. We can see it in the way we bring up our kids, in our family and work relationships, and also in our health, education, economic, and political systems.
The casualties of power by domination include those currently at its apex, many of whom have been through a traditional ruling class upbringing of distant or proxy parenting, separation, physical punishment and/or emotional denial combined with treats and rewards, sometimes with visibly crippling results, but intended to result in the smooth, controlled and controlling presentation of the elite. These child-rearing practices are designed to cauterize empathy in the next generation of the ruling class. This vicious cycle of unacknowledged intergenerational personal and cultural trauma, combined with a hereditary system of domination turbo charged by the neoliberal agenda over the past 40 years, is now running close to costing us everything.
Wherever any of us experience or perpetrate domination, it is traumatic and traumatizing. Our personhood, our capacity for loving connection, our innate health are defiled and traumatized by this system. The implications of this collective blind spot for our capacity to create collaborative, rather than dominating, cultures and social infrastructure is monumental: if we can’t name it, we can’t change it.
But at the same time as all this, that innate health (both personally and collectively) is still alive, active and accessible to us. And this is where hope lies. If we address the root cause of our problems – we may even yet be able to change some of our outcomes.
Changing the power dynamic
Given the rapid unraveling of the natural systems that all us living beings depend on to survive, only the deepest of change is enough. We don’t need system change, if that means some changes to this system. We need to turn the dominating system into compost that can nourish the living systems we are. Carbon emissions have never been the real problem; they are simply a consequence of the fact that our system leaves us too traumatized to act rationally, even in the face of possible extinction.
Personal and collective inner work is needed to unpick the systems of domination that play out in our bodies and psyches, in our personal and work relationships, in our organizations, our social systems, our relationships across cultures and with other species and ecosystems. Doing this difficult, often painful work is the only viable way out of this mess. Luckily, it is also the work of healing and liberation. It takes courage and determination to start, and it is not easy, but once we have begun it is a movement towards health and wholeness that brings with it increasing capacity for connection, pleasure, love and joy.
From shaming to learning
It is impossible to transform toxic power relations without venturing into the emotional realm. Without understanding and working to heal the unconscious drivers, which suppress our empathy, we inevitably end up disempowering others and ourselves, and often unintentionally replicate that which we are trying to change.
None of this is socially acceptable!
In dominating cultures we laugh at and judge harshly people who show their care too clearly – those who go to therapy (screw-ups), who show vulnerability (failures), who take care with language (politically correct) who work for the environment (tree huggers), who protest and get arrested (attention-seeking privileged, or dirty criminals), who dance (hippies), who cry (embarrassing), who try to make a difference (do-gooders).
Standing up to this can be tough, but we can support one another and know that the fact that we feel such social censure is a good indication that we’re successfully challenging the system. Transforming attempts to shame us into opportunities to learn more about the system we need to change is core to this work. We (collectively) need to be doing this work at every level: in ourselves and our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, in our professions, in the way we do politics, education, healthcare, nature-care, but we also need to be sure that the changes we are making are genuinely coming from a different root and will give us different results.
Resisting, and trusting our guts
Much of the cultural genocide practiced during the (ongoing) colonial period was and is done by people convinced that they are acting well: freeing others from ignorance and ungodliness, bringing health, education and democracy, stimulating new markets.
So how can we tell what change is genuinely helpful?
There are no road maps, but there are processes and practices that can help guide us. Understanding how trauma works, and how to process and heal it is crucial. We know how to work with trauma in the personal mind-body. Working with trauma in our social and cultural systems is not all that different: what we know works in personal therapeutic processes we can apply out in the world.
We can bring curiosity, tenacity, compassion, generosity, sensitivity, honesty, courage, spaciousness and patience. We can look at the history and the painful triggers together. We can express and unwind our hurt, shame and loss together. We can open our hearts, practice mindfully, use our imaginations and our creativity to build new ways of doing things (pretty much everything), get comfortable with making mistakes (and learning from them), with not knowing, with showing our vulnerability, and also with showing the strength of our care.
We don’t have to shrink from hard truths. We can make a stand when we see domination in action, we can pay attention to and resist the old patterning, and we can pick ourselves up over and over again as we inevitably fail. We can apologize, make reparations. We can forgive, build relationship across all kinds of perceived differences, prioritize connection over performance, treasure the local, challenge the global, center the earth, and learn how to trust our collective guts.
We need to resist the cultural programming that says there’s nothing we can do, that those in power know best, that genuine social change is a myth. Let’s resist it by proving it wrong: facing our fears and doing it anyway. Let’s take whatever first small, wise steps we need to towards creating a world where we know and act on the truth that our well- being depends on ensuring the well-being of others, not on exploiting them.
We can’t now stop the reckoning that’s underway. We can only wake up, take responsibility, get over our egos and start working together for our collective, planetary healing. This is the ONLY work that matters now. We don’t necessarily need to change what we are doing. We simply need to do it with this in mind/ heart, in community/ society, in relationship with all.
The Sunset assembly
As the sun goes down on the 29th of October, a unique assembly will begin. It will continue for 24 hours, following the sunset around the world, passed from community to community.
Community members will speak and listen to one another from the heart. Each community will use different forms of meeting, as we collectively seek a path towards a politics of wholeness where our decisions are based on being deeply present to each other, rather than speaking at each other. Our common focus is on:
“How the system is impacting on me and my community, and how we are resisting, creating alternatives and maintaining connectedness in the face of it”
The timing is no coincidence: COP26 starts on 1st November and will be no different to the previous 25. The Climate COPs are mind-bogglingly successful at pretending they are tackling the climate crisis, while enabling the fossil fuel industry to receive billions in subsidies, emissions to rise exponentially, and corporate interests to perpetually delay real action.
Grassroots to Global, which has sparked this assembly, is working to build alternatives to our current collective decision making processes. Most of what democracy we have has been wrung from the hands of those with power who have given up only the absolute minimum amount of power they have had to in order to stay in power – most often followed by their rapidly retracting the real power to decide.
We need to rediscover enduring – and explore emerging – ways to gather, to deliberate and to decide together – developing a ‘relational democracy’ that can deepen and replace an easily captured ‘representational democracy’, and that can prevent democracies from sliding into outright authoritarianism.
Enabling the future
This is an ongoing area of exploration (you can read early thinking on that here and here) and will continue to develop as we learn through processes like Reworlding and the Sunset Assembly. Some essential elements of such relational decision-making processes include:
Building relationship: Ensuring all groups are included, specially those that are marginalized – ideally as partners in developing processes – to ensure the whole picture is addressed and that everyone is included. Given experiences of co-option and marginalization, people may start out skeptical, and the proof of inclusion will be in the practice not the promise.
Dealing with power: Having strategies for managing those who are conditioned to take, or give away, personal power, e.g. ensuring those used to speaking, to listen; and, those used to listening, to speak.
Centering empathy: Having strong input to support the development of relational skills e.g. listening, confidence, self-reflection and expression, emotional self-management, empathy.
Addressing trauma: Dealing early and well with conflict and trauma responses when they are triggered, and taking a transformative approach to trauma, reactivity and conflict (they are complex, nuanced and full of incredibly useful information) while also maintaining safety to ensure care for anyone re-experiencing trauma, and to limit triggering of others.
We have to become slow and deep enough to swiftly make the fundamental changes that are needed.
It is not our humanity that is the problem; it is an inhumane system of appropriation and exploitation that persuades us to rely on it for our survival and well being, while it devours both. Our wellbeing can only ever rely on ensuring, not exploiting, the well-being of others.
From few to many, we are everywhere
Groups who will join the Sunset Assembly include:
a diverse group of people from the Andes, the Amazon and the coast in Peru
a group in North Sulawesi, Indonesia who will be opening with a sunset ritual held by Minahasa elders
elders from West Papua reflecting on the devastation of palm oil and other colonial impacts
the Ogiek of Mount Elgon in Kenya, who are holding over part of a wider community meeting so that it can happen within this assembly
And more, including from Aotearoa, Scotland, Australia . . .
Alongside these assembly-holding groups, anyone from anywhere in the world is invited to join as witnesses at any point. Witnesses are invited to deeply experience and listen to the holding groups. We believe witnessing is an active process in which attention and intention make a real difference to the process.
In between each section, we will hold a “Sharing Circle’ which is open to all, taking turns to speak for a few minutes each, speaking from the heart without the need to prepare, bringing our own feelings and reflections, and hearing other Witnesses’ voices.
We hope this can be the beginning of a whole-globe check-in. If you would like to participate as a witness, please sign up here.
Beyond the sunset, we aim to hold a Sunrise Assembly after COP, hopefully joined by many new collaborators, focusing on how communities can gather locally and trans-locally to make heart-centered decisions, and so take responsibility for the future in a way that can replace a global decision-making system that is paralyzed by its own trauma.
These around-the-world assemblies are sparked by Grassroots to Global, building on the Reworlding gathering. Our river is joining with many others on different versions of the same journey, and we encourage everyone who is not already engaged to explore and develop their own streams of inspiration, so we can flow together towards a politics of wholeness, which confronts and overcomes the very real obstacles in our way.
Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator, supporting sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation. She co-founded Starter Culture and is currently working on Grassroots to Global, a project which asks: can we co-develop a more empathic, democratic, political system which could connect internationally in a global assembly to address the root causes of climate change?
Justin Kenrick co-founded Heartpolitics, is a Quaker, and trained in Buddhist psychotherapy. He is an anthropologist and a Senior Policy Advisor at Forest Peoples Programme where he works for community land rights in Kenya and Congo. He is a director of Life Mosaic, and also works on land reform in Scotland. He lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where he chairs Action Porty which undertook the first successful urban community right to buy in Scotland. He writes in many contexts , and was on the Stewarding Group of the Scottish Government’s Climate Citizens Assembly which XR Scotland campaigned for but ultimately had to leave.