Editor’s Note: Jane Anne Morris’ 2005 essay “Help! I’ve Been Colonized and I Can’t Get Up” is considered a classic text within the community rights movement. It criticizes the regulatory regime of environmental and public health protection, which has ultimately helped corporations standardize and de-risk investments, while failing to prevent ecological collapse. Instead of participating in this system, Morris proposes six legal changes which would substantially limit corporate power.
The problems described in this essay have only become even worse since 2005. Barriers to challenging corporate-friendly legal structures are numerous, deeply embedded, and well-defended by teams of lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians who are entrenched in government and other institutions like military units employing defense-in-depth. Seventeen years of anti-corporate-power organizing, since this essay was written, has yet to breach these barricades.
Morris’ essay today can be read in at least two ways: first, as calling for a populist effort to reign in corporate power, as she originally intended the piece; and second, as a historic account of advancing corporate power which calls for strategic and ethical escalation in defense of planet Earth.
Take a Lawyer and an Expert To a Hearing and Call Me In a Decade
By Jane Anne Morris
A third of your friends are locked down Reclaiming the Bill of Rights, Building a Movement in an old growth grove or at a corporate headquarters, with law enforcement officers rubbing pepper spray in their eyes. Another third are preparing testimony so you can be persuasive at a generic regulatory agency hearing while you’re begging them to enforce a tiny portion of our laws. The third third are trying to raise money to pay lawyers to get your friends out of jail (after they’ve been released from the hospital) or take the regulatory agency to court (after it declines to enforce the law).
The pepper spray, groveling and money-grubbing might not be so bad if we could honestly say that the earth is better off today than it was four years ago. I can’t honestly say that.
This diatribe is an effort to take a hard look at what we’re doing and insinuate some new elements into the debate. It’s not intended to belittle any of our efforts, point fingers, or assign blame, so don’t take it personally. We are all earthlings.
Our campaigns follow the gambling addiction model. The last bet didn’t pay off but the next one might if… if… if we just had a new, improved tripod, three more experts, more labor or church support, ten more elected officials on our side, a hundred more people at the demo, or a thousand more letters in the mail…. Who are we kidding? We are just doing the “same old thing” over and over again and fooling ourselves that it might work next time.
We are stuck in a feedback loop where our failures are interpreted as signs that we should repeat our failed tactics, but try harder. This is what it is to be colonized. The telltale sign is not that we’re failing, but that we’re fooling ourselves, and don’t see it as a feedback loop.
If our minds are not colonized, then how come almost every Earth First! Journal action piece starts with a banner or a lockdown and ends with a plea to write a letter to a white male bigshot? (Go ahead, look through back issues. It goes on for years and years.)
Over at corporate headquarters they have a steeper learning curve.
Despite the occasional bag of guts on the committee table or clever banner, it must be reassuring for corporate executives and those who serve them to sit back and smile at the success of their containment efforts, and the predictability of our campaigns.
The issue of whose minds are colonized is a delicate one. We all know people whose minds have been colonized. Who are they? They are other people — people out there. They are somebody else. Not us.
It’s time we did the unthinkable and asked ourselves if we have been colonized. What do we see when we compare our strategies to corporate strategies?
Many of our groups are organized to save wolves, butterflies, trees, prairie flowers, rivers, deserts, or estuaries. But corporation executives don’t organize to destroy the wolves, butterflies… flowers… estuaries. Nor do they organize to pollute the air, spoil the rivers, or promote five-legged frogs.
This asymmetry should give us pause as we try to understand why corporations are on a roll while we’re stuck in a feedback loop. Let’s look again.
Corporate strategy leverages their power; their efforts reinforce and magnify each other. Our strategy splits our resources and dissipates our power.
Corporate strategy aims to increase the power that corporations have over people. That means that when a single corporation gets a victory, it helps all other corporations, too. They are all stronger, they all have more power, and the people have less.
We work on separate harms. When we lock down to one old growth stand, others go unprotected. When we protest about one chemical, others go unprotested. When we testify to preserve one watershed, others are not spoken for.
We have whole campaigns directed at one chemical, one corporation, one species, one grove of trees, one article of clothing.
In doing so, we fracture our resources. While we’re out working on a “Chlorine is Bad” or “Wolves are Good” campaign, we’re not working on all of the other chemicals, animals, trees, etc., that also need attention.
Some of us argue that this fracturing is inevitable, because there’s so much wrong in the world. (Declaring a problem to be inevitable is a great way to justify not talking about it. Another gift to the corporate world view.)
Others of us think that the fracturing results from not being organized enough, or not being organized right. This opens the door for endless bickering about whether we should organize by bioregion or by article of clothing, by species or by chemical, by issue or by occupation. Either way, we’re still fractured.
Being fractured is another way of being colonized.
Another sure sign of being colonized is when you censor yourselves, and don’t even wait for others to do it. Some of our self-imposed limitations are right off of a corporate wish list.
We have a strange “but it’s the law” syndrome. Why can’t we bring up important issues at EPA hearings? It’s regulatory (administrative) law. Why can’t we get our views accurately presented on TV? It’s (corporate) private property law and FCC regulations. Why can’t we imprison corporate executives for what their corporations do? It’s liability law.
So what do we do? We toe the line at the EPA hearing. We dress up as animals to get a moment on TV. We let lying corporate executives lie.
That is, we work around the defining laws that are the groundwork for a rigged system. We’re looking for favors, lucky breaks. We don’t even dream of control, yet we call this a democracy.
This is being colonized.
Corporation representatives do not feel constrained in this way. Nothing is too destructive, too audacious, too outrageous for them to attempt. After all, they have most of us believing and not even objecting to the idea that corporations have “rights.” In early 1998 an association of corporations (itself a corporation that supposedly has “free speech” rights, according to prevailing legal opinion) sued a talk show host in Texas for saying that she’s going to stop eating hamburgers.
Then there’s the Zen of “Describing The Problem.”
We need our storytellers, we need our scribes, we need our analysts, we need our own human fonts of crazy ideas. We needed Silent Spring. By now we have the equivalent of Son of Silent Spring, Daughter of Silent Spring, Second Cousin Once Removed of Silent Spring. But habitat destruction continues as fast as we can describe it, if not faster. Our compulsion to Describe The Problem (something we do really well) serves a purpose, especially for people who think there’s no problem, but the people who need to hear it the most aren’t hearing it. We’re Describing The Problem to each other in lavish detail, which crowds out efforts to rethink our whole strategy.
Are we doing anything other than lurching back and forth between Describing The Problem and then buckling the seatbelt on our feedback loop? I for one think I’ve heard enough “Bad Things About Corporations,” and I’m pretty tired of working on campaigns that will not only fail, but fail in predictable ways.
How have we been colonized? Let me count the ways. We interpret failures as signals to do the same things over again. We are predictable. Our strategies and styles of organizing fracture and dilute our resources. We either accept this dilution as inevitable, or blame each other for not organizing right. We censor ourselves, in thought and action. We act as though if we Describe The Problem to each other enough, it might go away.
And now, we can argue about whether we’ve been colonized or not. Corporate management is popping extra popcorn for this one.
But enough of what we do. What do corporations do? (The question should be, “What do people do behind the fiction of corporations?” One of the signs of our being colonized is that we personify corporations. I’ve been trying to avoid that in this piece but… help, I’ve been colonized and I need help getting up….)
Corporate management figured out a hundred years ago that fighting against each other, competing and diluting their resources was weakening them and limiting their power. So they don’t do that any more.
So what do people do while hiding behind the corporate shield? The short version is that they write a script for us, and we follow it. Then they write a script for themselves, and we don’t even read it.
A big part of the script written for us involves Regulatory Law (including environmental and administrative law). It assumes that corporations have the rights of constitutional “persons.”
It outlines procedures for what We the People can do (not much); what government can do (a little more); and what corporations can do (a lot).
At regulatory agencies, corporate “persons” (that is, corporations) have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, do not have. For non-corporate human citizens there’s a “Democracy Theme Park” where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry, they’re not connected to anything and nobody’s listening ‘cept us.
What Regulatory Law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior. So when we cooperate in regulatory law proceedings, we are following the script that corporation representatives wrote for us. We’re either colonized, or we’re collaborators. That the regulatory agencies fail to protect the public is clear. Why they fail is another matter.
One reason is that they were set up with the cooperation of and sometimes at the urging of big corporations. Today regulatory agencies and trade associations work together to do the work that the “trusts” of the last century were set up to do.
A second reason for regulatory failure concerns the nature of the corporation, to which we turn briefly.
Corporations are not natural entities, like karner blue butterflies or white pines. Corporations are artificial creations that are set up by state corporation codes. These state laws, plus a bunch of court cases, form the basis for the notion that corporations have powers and “rights.”
This law is Defining Law. This law is the script that corporate lawyers write for corporations. This law is the law that we don’t even read.
It’s right there in the law books in black and white, just like the “regs” that we spend so much time on. But this Defining Law is invisible to us because we’ve been colonized and have accepted it as a given. We leave this defining law — in corporation codes, bankruptcy law, insurance law, etc. — to corporation lawyers, who rewrite it every few years without so much as a whimper from citizen activists. Then we wonder why the parts-per-million regulations aren’t enforced.
So, the second reason that regulatory agencies fail to protect the public is that we have allowed corporate lawyers to write the Defining Law of corporations. This law bestows upon corporations powers and rights that exceed those of human persons and sometimes of government as well. It seems pretty obvious, then, that we need to rewrite the Defining Law.
Sooner or later we come up against the claim that all this stuff about “rights” and so on is just too legalistic. None of us wants to be involved in narrow and excessively legalistic strategies.
However, a glance through any Earth First! journal will confirm that we’re constantly dealing with The Law, whether we’re filing testimony or engaged in direct action. As long as we’re in the legal arena, we might as well be dealing with Defining Law, and not the regulatory frufru that we’ve allowed to distract us.
If the civil rights movement had been afraid to touch the deep defining “law of the land” we’d still be laboring under “separate but equal.” For as long as we stick with Regulatory Law and leave Defining Law to corporate lawyers, we’ll have corporate government.
What are we going to do tomorrow morning?
We could keep doing what hasn’t worked in case it works next time; we could denounce people who suggest that what we’re doing isn’t working; we could declare victory so our folks won’t get so depressed and discouraged. I’d like to steer clear of those options.
I’d also like to avoid “negotiating” with corporations as though they were persons with a role in a democratic system, and avoid doing anything else that accepts that corporations have the constitutional rights of human persons.
Here is one cluster of ideas for rewriting the Defining Law of corporations. It’s not a 3-point plan, and it’s not the beginning of a twenty point plan — just some ideas to think about.
1. Prohibit corporations from owning stock in other corporations. Owning stock in other corporations enables corporations to control huge markets and shift responsibility, liability, resources, assets and taxes back and forth among parent corporations, subsidiaries and other members of their unholy families. By defining corporations in such a way to prohibit such ownership, much of the anti-trust regulatory law becomes unnecessary and superfluous.
2. Prohibit corporations from being able to choose when to go out of business (in legalese, no voluntary dissolution). This would prevent corporations from dissolving themselves when it came time to pay taxes, repay government loans, pay creditors, pay pensions, pay for health care, and pay for toxic cleanups.
3. Make stockholders liable for a corporation’s debts. People who want to be stockholders would reallocate their resources to corporations that they knew something about, that weren’t engaged in risky, toxic projects. (This would encourage local, sustainable businesses and healthy local economies. Imagine that.)
These three measures might seem “unrealistic” to some, but it beats the heck out of a voluntary code of conduct, or a wasted decade at a regulatory agency. All three of these provisions were once common features of state corporation codes. No wonder corporate apologists prefer that we hang around in the regulatory agencies with our heads spinning with parts per million and habitat conservation plans.
These three measures were quite effective, which is why corporation lawyers worked so hard to get rid of them. But they address only a tiny portion of what needs to be done.
Here’s another cluster of ideas for ways to shape a democratic process that is about people. (The idea that corporations have “rights” would seem nonsensical to any but a colonized mind.)
1. No corporate participation in the democratic process. Democracy is for and about human beings. Corporations should be prohibited from paying for any political advertisements, making any campaign contributions, or seeking to influence the democratic process in any way.
2. Corporations have no constitutional rights.
A corporation is an artificial creation set up to serve a public need, not an independent entity with intrinsic “rights.”
3. Corporations should be prohibited from making any civic, charitable, or educational donations. Such donations are used to warp the entire social and economic fabric of society, and make people afraid to speak out against corporations.
These probably seem even more “unrealistic” than the first batch. Imagine how good it is for corporate executives that we find these ideas “impractical.” And by the way, these were all once law, too.
The final objection to be raised is that we’ll never get anywhere as long as the “news media” are against us, refuse to cover our issues, and distort our views. Agreed.
But the “news media” are corporations, key players in a system of propaganda that encompasses not only television, radio and newspapers, but also the entire educational system. The “airwaves” belong to the public.
Why have we allowed a puppet federal agency to “lease” the public airwaves to huge corporations? Ya wanna lock down? Lock down to a TV or radio station and make the public airwaves public again. Not for a day but for a lifetime.
Ya like boycotts? What if a regulatory agency gave a hearing and nobody came? The outcome would be the same but we wouldn’t have wasted all the time and resources, nor would we have helped grant an aura of legitimacy to a sham proceeding.
What could we do instead? We could get together with the lawyer and the expert and begin to figure out how to stop being collaborators.
Editor’s note: People who confront the destruction of the planet find a legal system that prioritizes corporations and not uncommonly become the targets of police surveillance. Unless we take precautions, police surveillance tools can uncover our plans and organizational structures—and can contribute to a culture of paranoia that discourages action.
This training, from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, consists of interactive materials for learning what sort of tools law enforcement agencies use against journalists, but the material is practically applicable for organizers as well. We encourage our readers to study this material and consider appropriate countermeasures.
by Freedom of the Press Foundation
The Digital Security Training team at Freedom of the Press Foundation works with news organizations to better protect themselves, their colleagues, and sources by upgrading their security posture. In an environment where journalists are increasingly under attack, experiencing targeted hacking, harassment, and worse, we want to see systemic change in the way news organizations learn about and address their digital security concerns. While journalists come from many professional backgrounds, one place we can most reliably address this need for digital security education systemically is within journalism schools, where students are already learning many of the skills they will need in a contemporary newsroom. We know many programs feel underprepared for education of this kind, so we built this curriculum to better support J-schools’ goals for digital security education.
Below, we have created modules responsive to a variety of digital security topics. We intend for this resource to be used by journalism professors and educators looking for a starting point for digital security education. Ultimately, it’s our hope that by tinkering with these materials, you might take advantage of the parts most useful or inspiring to you, and make this curriculum your own.
Police Surveillance Tools Training
This section on surveillance tools used by law enforcement is discussion focused, and intends to get students to think critically about the relationship between surveillance, privacy, and transparency. It begins with lecture canvassing a variety of law enforcement surveillance technology, based on research from from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Afterward, the module opens into an activity to investigate surveillance technology used in a location of their choice, followed by a discussion of their interpretation of law enforcement surveillance technologies they’ve discovered.
Upon successful completion of this lesson, students will be able to distinguish between technology commonly used by law enforcement to conduct surveillance in physical spaces.
Students will be able to identify which of these tools are used in a specific physical location, based on publicly-accessible reporting tools.
Why this matters
The technical capabilities of law enforcement actors may affect journalists’ threat models when conducting work in risky situations. For example, when meeting a sensitive source their location may be tracked through a constellation of surveillance equipment, or their phone numbers and current call or text data may be scooped up when covering protests.
Have students open up Atlas of Surveillance and report back for the group with surveillance technology used in a location where they’ve lived in the U.S. (e.g., where their hometown is; the campus).
Questions for discussion
In terms of their ability to compromise journalistic work, which one of these technical law enforcement capabilities is most concerning to you? What makes it concerning?
If that’s not especially concerning, why is that?
Out of respect for peoples’ privacy, are there any issues you think should be “off the table” for journalistic coverage? If so, what are those issues, and why do you think they should be off the table?
We often talk about privacy for people, but transparency for institutions. Why the distinction? Are there times when individual actions demand transparency, and when institutions have a meaningful claim to privacy?
Editor’s note: Online privacy is an essential layer of self-defense and security in our modern internet-driven world. This issue can be confusing and overwhelming. This article is aimed at beginners, and will provide a starting point for you to consider these issues and improve your security.
Why should I care about online privacy?
“I have nothing to hide. Why should I care about my privacy?”
Much like the right to interracial marriage, woman’s suffrage, and freedom of speech, we didn’t always have the right to privacy. Generations before ours fought for our right to privacy. Privacy is a human right inherent to all of us, that we are entitled to without discrimination.
But despite this, governments and corporations around the world regularly abuse our right to privacy for profit and power.
What should I do?
First, you need to make a plan.
Trying to protect all your data from everyone all the time is impractical, expensive, and exhausting. But, don’t worry! Security is a process, and by thinking ahead you can put together a plan that’s right for you. Security isn’t just about the tools you use or the software you download. Rather, it begins with understanding the unique threats you face, and how you can counter them.
Your Security Plan
Trying to protect all your data from everyone all the time is impractical and exhausting. But, have no fear! Security is a process, and through thoughtful planning, you can put together a plan that’s right for you. Security isn’t just about the tools you use or the software you download. It begins with understanding the unique threats you face and how you can counter those threats.
In computer security, a threat is a potential event that could undermine your efforts to defend your data. You can counter the threats you face by determining what you need to protect and from whom you need to protect it. This is the process of security planning, often referred to as “threat modeling.”
This guide will teach you how to make a security plan for your digital information and how to determine what solutions are best for you.
What does a security plan look like? Let’s say you want to keep your house and possessions safe. Here are a few questions you might ask:
What do I have inside my home that is worth protecting?
Assets could include: jewelry, electronics, financial documents, passports, or photos
Who do I want to protect it from?
Adversaries could include: burglars, roommates, or guests — as well as government or corporate agents.
How likely is it that I will need to protect it?
Does my neighborhood have a history of burglaries? How trustworthy are my roommates/guests? Am I involved in risky political activity? What are the capabilities of my adversaries? What are the risks I should consider?
How bad are the consequences if I fail?
Do I have anything in my house that I cannot replace? Do I have the time or money to replace these things? Do I have insurance that covers goods stolen from my home? Will our movement be harmed if the information or digital files I have are seized?
How much trouble am I willing to go through to prevent these consequences?
Am I willing to buy a safe for sensitive documents? Can I afford to buy a high-quality lock? Do I have time to open a security box at my local bank and keep my valuables there? Can I use encryption to protect my files?
Once you have asked yourself these questions, you are in a position to assess what measures to take. If your possessions are valuable, but the probability of a break-in is low, then you may not want to invest too much money in a lock. But, if the probability of a break-in is high, you’ll want to get the best lock on the market, and consider adding a security system.
The risk that something bad might happen, and the potential level of harm should it happen, should both be taken into account.
Making a security plan will help you to understand the threats that are unique to you and to evaluate your assets, your adversaries, and your adversaries’ capabilities, along with the likelihood of risks you face.
How do I make my own security plan? Where do I start?
Security planning helps you to identify what could happen to the things you value and determine from whom you need to protect them. When building a security plan, answer these five questions:
What do I want to protect?
Who do I want to protect it from?
How bad are the consequences if I fail?
How likely is it that I will need to protect it?
How much trouble am I willing to go through to try to prevent potential consequences?
Let’s take a closer look at each of these questions.
What do I want to protect?
An “asset” is something you value and want to protect. In the context of digital security, an asset is usually some kind of information. For example, your emails, contact lists, passwords and access to websites, instant messages, discussion forums, notes, plans, location, and files are all possible assets. Your devices may also be assets.
Make a list of your assets: data that you keep, where it’s kept, who has access to it, and what stops others from accessing it.
Who do I want to protect it from?
To answer this question, it’s important to identify who might want to target you or your information. A person or entity that poses a threat to your assets is an “adversary.” Examples of potential adversaries are your boss, your former partner, your business competition, your government, or a hacker on a public network.
Make a list of your adversaries, or those who might want to get ahold of your assets. Your list may include individuals, a government agency, or corporations.
Depending on who your adversaries are, under some circumstances this list might be something you want to destroy after you’re done security planning.
How bad are the consequences if I fail?
There are many ways that an adversary could gain access to your data. For example, an adversary can read your private communications as they pass through the network, or they can delete or corrupt your data.
The motives of adversaries differ widely, as do their tactics. A government trying to prevent the spread of a video showing police violence may be content to simply delete or reduce the availability of that video. In contrast, a political opponent may wish to gain access to secret content and publish that content without you knowing.
Security planning involves understanding how bad the consequences could be if an adversary successfully gains access to one of your assets. To determine this, you should consider the capability of your adversary. For example, your mobile phone provider has access to all your phone records. A hacker on an open Wi-Fi network can access your unencrypted communications. Your government might have stronger capabilities.
Write down what your adversary might want to do with your private data.
How likely is it that I will need to protect it?
Risk is the likelihood that a particular threat against a particular asset will actually occur. It goes hand-in-hand with capability. While your mobile phone provider has the capability to access all of your data, the risk of them posting your private data online to harm your reputation is low.
It is important to distinguish between what might happen and the probability it may happen. For instance, there is a threat that your building might collapse, but the risk of this happening is far greater in San Francisco (where earthquakes are common) than in Stockholm (where they are not).
Assessing risks is both a personal and a subjective process. Many people find certain threats unacceptable no matter the likelihood they will occur because the mere presence of the threat at any likelihood is not worth the cost. In other cases, people disregard high risks because they don’t view the threat as a problem.
Write down which threats you are going to take seriously, and which may be too rare or too harmless (or too difficult to combat) to worry about.
How much trouble am I willing to go through to try to prevent potential consequences?
There is no perfect option for security. Not everyone has the same priorities, concerns, or access to resources. Your risk assessment will allow you to plan the right strategy for you, balancing convenience, cost, and privacy.
For example, an attorney representing a client in a national security case may be willing to go to greater lengths to protect communications about that case, such as using encrypted email, than a family member who regularly emails funny cat videos.
Write down what options you have available to you to help mitigate your unique threats. Note if you have any financial constraints, technical constraints, or social constraints.
Security planning as a regular practice
Keep in mind your security plan can change as your situation changes. Thus, revisiting your security plan frequently is good practice.
Create your own security plan based on your own unique situation. Then mark your calendar for a date in the future. This will prompt you to review your plan and check back in to determine whether it’s still relevant to your situation.
Specific online privacy tools, methods, and apps
From here, you can start to consider and put in place specific protective measures. These might include things like:
Shredding or burning old notes and files.
Using a password manager and ensuring that your passwords are unique and strong.
Stop using non-private services such as Google Drive and Dropbox with end-to-end encrypted alternatives such as Skiff, Tresorit, Sync, and Cryptpad.
This article has been assembled from a mix of sources including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PrivacyGuides.org, and our own knowledge here at the Deep Green Resistance News Service. We will publish additional guides on this topic in the future. This article is published under the Creative Commons-Share Alike Attribution 4.0 license.
The Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, one of the country’s most ecologically and culturally significant waterways, is facing proposals of further agriculture and mining development, including irrigation and fracking.
In response, First Nations communities in the region have developed different methods to promote the conservation of the river, including curating cultural festivals, funding awareness campaigns, and working with digital technologies.
First Nations land rights are held along the length of the Fitzroy River, the first time this has occurred across an entire catchment area in Australia.
The catchment is the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis) and is home to the threatened northern river shark (Glyphis garricki).
WEST KIMBERLEY, Australia — November marks the end of the dry season in the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia, the country’s largest state. As the monsoonal rains start to fall, the country comes alive with the cries of red winged parrots (Aprosmictus erythropterus) and the Fitzroy River begins to run.
Stretching more than 700 kilometers (435 miles), the Fitzroy River is one of Australia’s most powerful waterways, a free-flowing system that passes through range, savanna and desert country to empty into the Indian Ocean each year.
Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa traditional Indigenous custodian of the river, said it’s her duty to care for the Martuwarra, the river’s original and enduring name.
“Martuwarra is a living, ancestral being,” she said. “It has a right to life, to live and to flow. We live by an obligatory law to protect the River of Life. It is the essence of our spirituality, identity, culture and law.”
The river was granted National Heritage Listing in 2011 due to its spiritual, cultural and environmental values. Native title, a federally recognized titling to traditional Indigenous lands and waters, is now held along the entire length of the river, the first time land rights have been held across an entire catchment area in Australia.
The Fitzroy is also the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis). According to a 2019 study, its continued existence in the waters is due to the low level of human disturbance — namely mining and agriculture — compared to other rivers around the world. The authors recommended that any “further anthropogenic disturbance [to the Fitzroy River] should be minimized to maintain what is still a relatively pristine habitat.”
However, on the world’s driest inhabited continent, these life-giving waters are now a source of contention. Currently, agricultural and mining development proposals are being assessed to develop the Fitzroy catchment and the greater Kimberley region.
Such is the cultural significance of the river, that proposals have been met with scrutiny by traditional owners, and have led some to implement methods to preserve the river’s cultural and ecological significance.
Agriculture debate continues as fracking proposals arise
Chief among the industrial proposals earmarked for the Fitzroy are those linked to agriculture. Pastoral opportunities have long been debated in the Fitzroy catchment, with dams unsuccessfully planned along the river since the 1990s. In 2018, however, the incumbent state government pledged that there would be no future dams along the Fitzroy or its tributaries.
Despite this, the future of the Fitzroy remains uncertain. First announced in November 2020, the WA state government is currently assessing the feasibility of allowing up to 300 billion liters (79 billion gallons) of surface water to be taken out of the river each year through irrigation development to grow fodder for livestock. Conservationists say this will affect the flow of the river and, consequently, the diverse and unique ecosystem it supports, with threatened species including the northern river shark (Glyphis garricki), one of the world’s rarest fish.
While the debate rages on over pastoral activities in the catchment, there are other questions being raised about opening up the catchment to hydrofracturing stimulation.
Commonly known as fracking, hydrofracturing stimulation is an extractive process that involves injecting a high-pressure fluid made of sand, water and chemical additives into a drilled well to crack the rock and free natural gas from deep underground.
As much of the Fitzroy catchment sits on the Canning Basin, the largest shale gas reserve in Australia, the region has become a central focus of the federal government to boost the country’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and strengthen the local energy market.
As Mongabay previously reported, a 2016 moratorium on fracking in WA state was lifted three years ago, allowing fracking in just 2% of the state. Much of that area falls in the western Kimberley, including parts of the Fitzroy catchment. In October 2021, the state government further backtracked on this minor concession and granted an exemption to the policy for an oil and gas company, Bennett Resources.
A subsidiary of Texas mining company Black Mountain Metals, the company has proposed drilling 20 exploratory wells, one of which lies just a kilometer (0.6 miles) from a tributary of the Fitzroy.
Bennett Resources did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay. However, the company announced that it is seeking to extract up to 900 terajoules (953 million cubic feet) of gas a day once the gas fields peak.
In Australia, companies are able to secure mining leases that incorporate land recognized as native title. Rather than grant First Nations complete autonomy over their land, native title legislation mandates that communities enter into negotiations with mining companies regardless of whether they welcome industry on their land or not. Consequently, mining leases can incorporate the lands of multiple groups divided over development. As such, while the wells proposed by Bennett Resources are located in the territory of one community that has entered into fracking agreements, other groups on the lease either remain opposed to the process or are still undecided.
Roger Cook, the WA minister for state development and deputy premier, did not respond to requests by Mongabay for comment on industrial development in the Fitzroy catchment. However, in October, Cook told national broadcaster ABC that the exemption for Bennett Resources was granted because the project would help build gas pipelines to connect the area to the broader WA energy network.
Just how significant the resulting pipeline will be or whether it will cross native title land or the river itself remains to be seen.
Bennett Resources’ proposal says potential impacts could include contamination of surface aquifers due to well integrity failure. WA’s Environmental Protection Authority is currently assessing the proposal to ascertain whether the catchment will be compromised and the effects on species.
A festival to protect the river
For Joe Ross, director of the Bunuba Dawangirri Aboriginal Corporation, his connections to the river are ancient. An Indigenous Bunuba man whose ancestors come from the area, Ross is a seasoned advocate for the protection of the Fitzroy River catchment. In the late 1990s, he was influential in stopping the damming of the river for irrigation proposals.
In July this year, Ross organized a festival on his ancestral territory of Danggu, also known by its colonial name, Geikie Gorge. Named Yajilarra, meaning “let us dream” in the Bunuba language, the three-day festival included traditional stories told through stage performance. According to Ross, this enabled Bunuba children to interact with their elders and explore their identity.
“The aim of the festival was to celebrate our culture and revitalize our language,” Ross told Mongabay. “In doing so, we were promoting local industry, leadership for our younger people and our connection to country and the river itself.”
Following this, the festival featured a night of music and discussion about the river’s cultural and ecological values, bringing together some of the most influential and powerful individuals and corporations in Australia, including Australia’s richest man, mining mogul Andrew Forrest.
Significantly, Forrest’s investments in the Kimberley in recent years relate to the industrial proposals the Fitzroy catchment now faces. In 2019, Forrest’s privately owned energy company, Squadron Energy, bought into fracking interests in the western Kimberley. And in December 2020, he finalized a deal that saw the purchase of two pastoral stations bordering the Fitzroy River, giving livestock access to the water.
“We are passionate about the unique environment of the Kimberley, and the precious waterway and lifeforce that is the Fitzroy River,” Forrest said in a media statement last year.
“We strongly believe in the principle of balancing the need for sustainable agriculture and job creation for local communities, with the need to preserve culture and heritage sites, while restoring the land and its original fauna to its natural habitat.”
However, shortly after the Yajilarra festival, Squadron Energy abandoned its fracking interests in the Kimberley, calling the move a strategic decision given that the process is at odds with the organization’s climate policy.
For Ross, the festival achieved what it set out to.
“The feedback we have received is that the Yajilarra festival was as good as could be,” he said. “What this shows is that we have the capacity to continue these events, to promote our culture and to build ongoing dialogue about the future of the Kimberley.”
A campaign to encourage public engagement
The Kimberley Land Council (KLC), one of Australia’s most prominent First Nations land rights organizations, has also backed proposals to protect the Fitzroy catchment. Though the KLC is tasked chiefly with advocating for its member communities, taking a stand against disputes is rare given the organization is constantly entering into negotiations with government and industry. However, the KLC’s stance became unequivocable in regards to the future of the river.
Declaring that traditional owners “have never consented to the extraction of water and oppose development of the river and its floodplain,” the KLC encouraged the general public to support the protection of the river. This was done by making submissions to the state government’s call for public consultation titled the “Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper.”
The KLC followed this through with an awareness campaign that involved running an advertisement in WA’s highest-selling daily newspaper. This resulted in more than 43,000 submissions to the discussion paper, one of the largest results in public feedback for an environmental issue in state history.
According to a media statement by the KLC, the river should be preserved in its current state as a cultural and linguistic landscape.
“The cultural management of the Fitzroy River catchment is a responsibility that traditional owners have had since creation and take very seriously,” said the organization’s CEO. “Traditional owners have not consented to large-scale irrigation extraction processes and want to see the river protected as a healthy and thriving ecosystem.”
New media and digital technologies
When the proposals began, Anne Poelina, an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of Notre Dame, Australia, who focuses on Indigenous environmental policy, was driven to act, given the risks she felt were posed to the river system and beyond.
“The first element that needs to be acknowledged is that we believe these living water systems are already fully allocated,” she said. “Any alteration to the river, the taking of water or the compromising of the catchment, will impact our lifeways, our culture, our conservation and our values.”
Concerned at the potential for industry to hinder the flow of the river and its consequential effects on culture and ecology, Poelina, as executive chair, helped unite six native title nations along the river together to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC).
Formed in 2018, the MFRC brought nations from across the river’s reaches into a united body through which to engage with government and industry. Under Poelina, the council used digital technologies to promote the cultural and ecological values of the river, producing multiple films to encourage traditional owners throughout the catchment to promote the multiple values of the river.
“Digital storytelling has had a remarkable impact,” Poelina said. “We have a global platform from which to discuss our relationship with the river and the response to our work has been overwhelming. We have been asked to address global forums and be a part of multiple film festivals around the world.”
These resources have also helped in the preservation of Indigenous and scientific knowledge. By engaging with scientists and geographers, Poelina has been able to orchestrate studies that have confirmed the ecological, cultural and legal significance of the river country, one of which has included Martuwarra itself as a co-author. This has advanced the argument for legal recognition of the river as a living ancestral being and granting it certain rights.
“We have also used technology to create a whole database of maps, like the water and vegetation types of the river,” Poelina said. “This has helped map and conserve our cultural heritage, our songs and our ongoing, ancestral connection to the Martuwarra.”
Questions for the future
Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering emeritus at Cornell University, told Mongabay there’s no straightforward way to answer how many fracking wells would be needed to produce Bennett Resources’ goal of extracting up to 900 terajoules of gas a day.
Drawing on examples from the United States, Ingraffea said that at a certain rate and with advanced technology, “it would take a few hundred wells to produce 850 million cubic feet a day over a sustained period of time.”
However, he said that in any case, three factors are at play: the length of time for a certain production rate, how quickly the operator can put wells into production, and the quality of the shale gas produced.
“All shale gas wells experience what is called a decline curve of production, that is, the rate of production rapidly decreases over time,” he said.
Ingraffea highlighted a case in Texas in which approximately 2,000 wells were drilled over a cumulative period of six years to produce 850 million cubic feet a day, the same output that Bennet Resources is aiming for.
Given the significance of the Fitzroy River’s aquatic and mineral resources, the future of the catchment will be discussed at all levels of government as the feedback from the Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper is released and future fracking development is proposed.
Ross and Poelina say they would like to ensure that the ecological and cultural significance of the river to First Nations communities is taken into account in that conversation.
“The Kimberley is one of the last places in the world that has not been taken over by mass industrialization,” Poelina said. “Our people have walked this country since the dawn of time, we know it better than anyone. We want to continue to care for the land as she looks after us.”
Lear, K. O., Gleiss, A. C., Whitty, J. M., Fazeldean, T., Albert, J. R., Green, N., … Morgan, D. L. (2019). Recruitment of a critically endangered sawfish into a riverine nursery depends on natural flow regimes. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-53511-9
RiverOfLife, M., Poelina, A., Bagnall, D., & Lim, M. (2020). Recognizing the Martuwarra’s First Law right to life as a living ancestral being. Transnational Environmental Law,9(3), 541-568. doi:10.1017/S2047102520000163
Banner image: The Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis pristis) is the most Evolutionary Distinct and Greatly Endangered (EDGE) animal in the world. Its last stronghold is the Fitzroy River catchment. Image courtesy of Peter Kyne/Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image: Barge transporting oil drums in the Niger Delta. Image by Stakeholder Democracy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Oil has been spilling from a wellhead in Nigeria’s Bayelsa state for a month now, with the local company responsible unable to contain it.
Experts say the scale and duration of the spill is so severe that it’s imperative that local communities be relocated for their safety.
Oil spills and other forms of pollution caused by the industry are common in Bayelsa, the heart of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Companies, including foreign oil majors, are largely left to self-declare the spills that frequently occur, but face only token fines for failing to respond quickly.
Crude oil from a blowout has been pouring into creeks in the Niger Delta since Nov. 5, with the well’s owner, Nigerian energy firm Aiteo, unable to contain the spill and specialists called in to help.
The blowout, at a non-producing well in the Santa Barbara field in Bayelsa state, has caused extensive pollution of rivers and farmland in the Nembe local government area, according to the state governor, Douye Diri. According to the News Agency of Nigeria, he said Aiteo should not think that “this criminal neglect of its facilities and disregard for human life and the environment, as demonstrated by its conduct, will not be accounted for.”
In a statement released Nov. 22, the company blamed the incident on sabotage. “Aiteo remains committed to ascertaining, immediately the well head is secure, the immediate and remote causes of the leak which will be driven by a [joint investigative visit] that will follow,” it said.
The oil industry in Nigeria attributes many oil spills to sabotage by people trying to steal crude. Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), which relies almost entirely on the industry itself for access to on- and offshore oil facilities, reports that around 75%of spills are caused by sabotage and theft.
The joint team initially despatched to the Nembe spill was unable to determine the cause of the spill, as the wellhead could not be accessed “due to hydrocarbon fumes that saturated the atmosphere in the area.” A video of the spill site, captured Nov. 29, showed a high-pressure stream of brownish liquid spraying through the creeks from a wellhead as technicians worked on the site.
The scale of the spill has overwhelmed local disaster response capabilities, and U.S.-headquartered oil-well control specialist Halliburton Boots and Coots has been drafted in to “kill the well,” a process that involves injecting cement into the well to plug it.
“Work is still ongoing at the site to stop the spill,” NOSDRA director-general Idris Musa told Mongabay last week, but all activities around the well were temporarily suspended Nov. 29 to allow the well-kill operation to proceed.
Decades of destruction
The Niger Delta is rich in biological diversity and natural resources. Its creeks, swamps and mangrove forests are home to fishing and farming communities as well as threatened species including manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti), and the Niger Delta red colobus (Piliocolobus epieni).
But decades of oil production have made the region one of the most polluted places on Earth. NOSDRA recorded 639 oil spills in just the past two years, resulting in 28,003 barrels spewed into the environment, according to the agency’s data.
Bayelsa is where oil was first discovered in Nigeria, in 1956. In the decades since, oil spills from wells and pipelines have contaminated farmland and water bodies, and exposed residents to toxic chemicals. Flaring of gas has led to acid rain falling on the area, while contributing to making Nigeria the 17th largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
This environmental destruction has been caused by oil majors including Shell, Chevron and Eni. The Nembe well was bought from Shell by Lagos-based Aiteo in 2015.
“It is extremely disturbing because the trend we are seeing now is that international oil companies know that their equipment are dilapidated, and to avoid responsibility, they move offshore and sell to gullible local companies who think they can make profit and are not ready or equipped to [deal with] this kind of emergencies,” said Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist and founder of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), a prominent green NGO in Nigeria.
Consequences — just not for oil companies
The impact of the Nembe spill on local communities and the environment is still to be determined, but Samuel Oburo, an environmental activist affiliated with Friends of the Earth, who lives about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Nembe, says villagers in the area have been badly impacted.
“I can tell you that the people there face great danger. They have started crying out. They have started experiencing strange illnesses due to the unfriendly atmosphere this spill has exposed the community to,” he told Mongabay over the phone.
But getting oil firms to clean up or pay for environmental crimes in Nigeria is difficult. Legal claims for compensation can take years, even decades, and companies are expected to pay relatively little in fines when they err.
NOSDRA’S regulations say oil companies have 24 hours to respond to the discovery of a spill. A joint visit by government agencies, company officials and community representatives should take place as soon as possible. But a 2018 study by Amnesty International found frequent delays, with some spills continuing for months after they were reported.
Shell, one of the largest operators in the country, visited spill sites within 24 hours on just 26% of occasions, Amnesty said. The slowest response time recorded was when Eni took 430 days to respond to a spill in Bayelsa state. “These delays point to serious negligence. Shell and Eni are wealthy, powerful multinationals: why can’t they act faster? Why can’t they do more?,” the report said.
But the penalties for noncompliance are negligible: 1 million naira ($2,400) for an initial default, and an additional 500,000 naira for every day after that.
“How much is N500,000 to an oil company?” NOSDRA’s Idris Musa said. An amendment increasing the fines is in progress.
Speaking to the ongoing spill at Nembe, HOMEF’s Bassey said that considering the apparent scale and duration of the latest spill, the safest option for residents of the area is to be relocated. “This area does not have pipe-borne water, and when the river is covered with crude oil, it means they have to depend on imported water,” he said. “Some may drink from that river because these areas are permanently polluted and they have no option. Children will swim in that river and people will drink from that river.”
“Crude oil contains very toxic heavy metals like lead; you know, lead affects a lot things concerning people, the nervous system, causes cancer. You have mercury in oil, you have cadmium, you have arsenic and benzene and many others,” he told Mongabay.
“So anybody eating fish from that river is in trouble already. So the relief that they are giving, I believe they should actually evacuate people from that territory at this time.”
Oburo agreed: “So long as the spill continues, there is nothing that can be done to restore the air quality. The only solution is to evacuate those people from there because their lives are precious.”
Bayelsa government spokesperson Dan Alabrah said the state is providing relief materials to communities, but had no plans to relocate them.
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.