A New Years letter to Canada's Prime Minister
Dear Mr. Trudeau,
This is a love letter to Mother Earth, to the keepers of the fire, and to the next seven generations, yet to join us on this beautiful planet. My words are a pledge to nature, expressing my sorrow regarding your approval of the two major pipeline projects — Enbridge’s Line 3 and Texas-based Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain. Please be reminded that your decision contradicts your promises in many ways: to the environment, to work with First Nations communities and to revamp the review process for energy projects.
Briefly, your rhetorical gestures towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada are profoundly at odds with your actual approach to projects like these. The Tsleil-Waututh, whose territories are directly affected by this project, have unmistakably told you that the answer is “No.” You’ve also claimed that “only communities give permission.” In return, Vancouver and Burnaby have told you that the answer is “No.” Hence, I cannot understand how it is in any way democratically legitimate for you to approve these projects anyway. After all, your intentions seem to turn into empty words – making choices based on market based mechanisms and profit - continuing to feed the insatiable thirst of the fossil fuel industry. Which irony, in a time where our feverish planet needs us to realize, more than ever, that humans’ separation from Nature is an illusion.
This New Year’s letter is a reminder that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom. You are politically in charge of a land in deep need of transformation: where Jim Crow is still a contemporary, a country where colonization is ubiquitous, a nation overshadowed by the ghosts of its past and demons of its present.[i] The needed social change is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge, and it is your responsibility to intertwine science, spirit and story – old ones and new ones - that can be medicine for our broken relationship with the Earth. The time has come for a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other. We need policies that support renewable energy projects and social justice for Fist Nations.
In Search of Humans’ Heritage: The Wolves within
The complex case of the pipeline projects and the climate crisis at large are not only rooted in the economic, environmental and the scientific dimension. At their core, the problems are ethical and spiritual, related to humans’ understanding of and respect for the Earth.[ii] As the prime minister of Canada, you are leading a nation with opposing cosmologies and understanding of the spiritual bonds between humans and nature.[iii]
On one hand, indigenous peoples’ relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all.[iv] On the other hand, the creation story of settlers presented another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from paradise and the gates clanged shut behind her. Like creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation in the world, telling us who we are and where we come from. We are inevitably shaped by them, no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness. In this case, one story leads to the generous embrace of the living world and the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a co-creator of nature, the other an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven. Shaped by this understanding, planet management has become the dominant worldview among scientists and policy makers in western societies.[v] It is the silicon version of the Judeo-Christian ethic of stewardship, which sees the earth as a garden that we are to dress, keep and humanize, with us in the dominating role.[vi] In Native ways of knowing, however, our species is often referred to as the “youngest of Creation,” with the least experience about how to live and thus the ones that has most to learn from animals and plants. Taking the analogy of Eve’s exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship and by further supporting the fossil fuel industry we can see that it is not just land that is broken, it is, even more importantly, humans’ relationship to it. In this sense, it is essential to understand indigenous creation stories not as an artifact from the past but as instructions for the future. This way, a nation of immigrants can become native again, creating a new story, with values based on respect and gratitude. The main task in our modern world is to find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to understand our relations with the world as sacred. We need to remember our dependency on the Earth.
In an old Cherokee legend, called The Wolves Within,[vii] a grandfather teaches his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside of me” he said. He talks about two wolves - one evil, angry, arrogance and greedy, the other one good, peaceful, loving, humble and faithful - suggesting that this conflict is going on inside every human. When the grandson asked which wolf would win, his respond was “The one you feed”. This is a profound metaphor and applies to your situation, to Canada and to the the world at large, currently ruled by the greedy one, dressed up in the costume of capitalism. For the upcoming year you have countless political choices to make, many of them related to the environment. On the personal level I recommend you choose wisely which wolf to feed. Keep your promises: to yourself, your children and grandchildren. On the national level: feed the right wolf by recognizing Nature as nothing separate from humans and step up for a new governance paradigm that respects indigenous rights.[viii] On the global level, be a visionary, for a new trajectory where climate change policy reflects the understanding that humans are privileged members in a sacred community of life and not the masters of Earth, entitled to dominate and exploit her “natural resources”.
Naming the Sacred
In the past, people had a unified vision of their world, a cosmology, usually provided by the origin stories of their own religious or cultural traditions. This vision gave a sense of purpose, of spiritual meaning, even of enchantment to the world and to life itself. Human evolution provided us with scriptures, sutras, and myths, full of wisdom and inspiration, but we know they are not literal descriptions of the universe. Therefore, for the real story, where do we look? These cosmologies have been vastly replaced by modern science in the western world, which is purely rational, mechanical and logical, leaving no room for the “great mystery”. My question is, can we create a new narrative that honors Nature as part of ourselves without any “recognized” method to define the sacred, the myth and the spiritual dimension?[ix] Is it enough to rationalize our interconnectedness or does it go beyond our rational comprehension and needs to be experienced through rituals and ceremonies rather then through science alone? As Native Americans call it: ceremonies are the way we “remember to remember”.[x]
One profound and recent example for this gratitude for Nature is the ongoing protest in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where more than 200 indigenous tribes and thousands of environmental activists are peacefully gathering since April, to prevent the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline. In this sense, the protesters are not just standing for themselves, but holding a symbolic line to remind us of the sacredness of nature and humans’ dependency on the planet. Slogans like #waterislife and #protectthesacred went viral over the last couple of months, which is why an increasing amount of people all over the world come to realize: it is not only economic value that defines nature.
In the case of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, it is known that the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands contaminates water and emits greenhouse gases on a scale entirely different from their conventionally-derived counterparts. To allow the contamination of water on this scale is to approve a mass assault: to life and the sacred. It is a political approval of cancers that result from waterborne toxins, the destruction of fish populations, the obliteration of the last remaining orca pod in the Salish Sea and the reckless endangerment of public health, as well as destruction of sacred land.[xi]
Environmental policy decisions need to take into account moral questions, linked to equity and justice for Nature herself. It is at the time to understand that the boundaries of what we honor are bigger than the country we are citizens of and rather to pledge reciprocity with the living world, to be mutual allegiance as human delegates to the democracy of species. If what we want for our people is patriotism, then let us inspire true love of country by invoking the land herself. If we aspire justice for all, then let it be justice for all of Creation. Indigenous peoples can offer particularly valuable guidance for this, to make us remember that our relationship with this planet is one of sacredness and not one of exploitation. Based on the direction we are going, we can not meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without "re-story-action". The threat of destruction has come about because people have forgotten that everything is connected. I ask you to make 2017 a year to remember that we are here, all together on Turtle Island, trying to make a home.
To all my relations,
Svenja Telle is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Vermont and Research Fellow at the Gund Insititute for Ecological Economics.
[i] Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler Colonialism and the elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.
[ii] White, Lynn. (1974) The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Ecology and religion in history. New York: Harper and Row.
[iii] Brown, P.G. & Garver, G. (2008) Chapter 5: Governance: New ways to stay in bounds and play fair, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
[v] Elliott, H. (2005). Chapter 1: The Factual Refutation of Moral Theories, Chapter 2: A Critique of Western Ethics Ethics for a finite world: an essay concerning a sustainable future. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Pub.
[vi] Merchant, C. (1995). Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative. In W. Cronon (Ed.), Uncommon ground: toward reinventing nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[viii] Leopold, A., & Schwartz, C. W. (1966). Part 4: The Upshot A Sand County almanac. With other essays on conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford University Press.
[ix] Sideris, L. (2015). Science as Sacred Myth? Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age. Journal For The Study Of Religion, Nature And Culture, 9(2).
[x] Kimmerer, R.W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Milkweed Editions.