This week in Imperial Geography, I learn where we dump all the waste that no one wants… and why just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t gonna cut it. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in!
All Our Relations
When I first planned out this project (now over a year ago, woof!) I was really excited to take a tour around the continent through the eyes of Winona LaDuke in her All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. I know she is a well-known political activist, and I was expecting exciting and powerful stories of daring protests and demonstrations.
But that’s not what I got. What I got was an eye-opening spotlight into why environmental issues are so vital to many Native communities and activists.
We put… what? Where?
Remember wayyyyyy back in my very first book of this project, when the geography textbook I read freaked me out about nuclear (and other undisposable) waste?
Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…
Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.
Well, here I am at All Our Relations, and yes, I have learned more. I wondered where all the waste no one wants near them goes in this country, and the answer is, it goes to Indian reservations.
Incredulous? I was, too. But one thing this book doesn’t skimp on is examples. Here are just a few:
- “According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” (p.2 — yes, she hits you with that on PAGE TWO!)
- “Today, an estimated 25 percent of all North American industry is located on or near the Great Lakes, all of which are drained by the St. Lawrence River.That puts the Akwesasne [Mohawk] Reservation downstream from some of the most lethal and extensive pollution on the continent.” (p.15) This has led to Mohawk mothers having contaminated breast milk. The “progress” so far on this is that GM agreed to dredge some of the gunk out of the river… and then shipped it off “to some unlucky community in Utah” (p.23).
- In Florida, “America has lost half of its wetlands… due to agricultural conversion” (p.30), and the now-rare Florida panthers are being slowly killed off by infertility due to acute mercury poisoning.
- In Canada, a US Air Force base runs test flights low over the forest where the Innu live, creating “sonic booms” that are “generally exactly at or above the human pain threshold of 110 decibels” and “produce a constant shock wave, traveling along the ground like the wake of a boat over water” that can “lift the water off the lake and tip a canoe and can drive animals insane: foxes have been known to eat their kits, geese to drop their eggs midflight, as a consequence of the sonic boom.” (p.55)
And these are just the first few chapters! As I read through case study after case study of governments and corporations dumping their unwanted chemicals/sound/industry/etc. onto or near Native peoples and Native land (what’s left of it), I started to see why environmentalism isn’t just a fad for many Indian folks: environmental issues are literally killing them. LaDuke sums up this urgency well: “We are the ones who stand up to the land eaters, the tree eaters, the destroyers and culture eaters” (p3).
Seriously — what’s more innocent and natural than a woman breastfeeding her baby? And yet that, too, has been made poisonous. As LaDuke writes in the chapter on poisoned rivers and contaminated breastmilk, “Women are the first environment” (p18). It’s atrocious to think about our waste causing a Mohawk woman to poison her own child.
And why does this keep happening to them? Because in a country where they make up like 1% of the population Native peoples and nations are relatively powerless to stop it. LaDuke does share stories of lawsuits and protests and attempts to get companies and/or governments to respect their sovereignty and treaty rights, and there is a little hope… but it feels like a very David-and-Goliath sort of a battle.
The Mirage of “Clean Energy”
Another huge theme in this book is that the solution isn’t just about limiting ourselves. I kept being like “Okay, so THAT kind of energy isn’t ‘clean’ either… so what’s left?”
But that made me realize that the point isn’t finding an unlimited energy source that keeps our hands clean in terms of environmental sustainability — the point is that we place our desire for unlimited energy and productivity above all else. We only question HOW we will get “all the energy we need”, not WHETHER we actually “need” it.
So the core of the environmentalist conflict, for LaDuke, is not “clean energy vs dirty energy”, or even “conservationism vs extinction” — the conflict is really about an extractionist, resource-based view of the earth and nature versus one that views the earth as an entity in its own right. This giant paradigm shift is summarized well by this passage:
There is no way to set a price on this way of life. That simple truth more than anything else encapsulates the Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe] people’s struggle with the federal government, the miners, and the logging companies. For the past hundred years, Native people have been saying that their way of life, their land, their trees, their very future, cannot be quantified and are not for sale. And for that same amount of time, government and industry accountants have been picking away, trying to come up with a formula to compensate Indians for the theft of their lands and livelihoods. So long as both remain steadfast, there appears to be little hope for a meeting of minds in the next generation.” (p116)
Rather than urging us to exercise self-control within the existing energy-consuming paradigm, LaDuke calls us to completely transform our relationship with the earth. Instead of our current linear, resource-focused, consumeristic, anthropocentric worldview, she offers a more indigenous perspective — one that holds a more spiritual, holistic, circular, relational attitude toward life and the earth.
“When you step on one strand of a spider web, it all moves.” (p191)
“We are walking upon the faces of those yet to come.” (Iroquois teaching, p.194)
As I think I said at the start of this project, I never expected to be an environmentalist. I always thought environmentalism was like a hippie white people thing about saving the whales, and it seemed rather irrational and pointless to me, because humans > whales. What this book really cements for me is, (1) it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns without writing them off, because when you choose to care for the person by listening it lets you in to what really matters to them, and (2) environmental issues are less about restraint (aka only driving one car instead of two, or killing fewer whales) and more about fundamentally rethinking how our society and culture view our earth (aka why is our society car-based, and why do we feel we need to extract so much energy from the earth?). I’m excited to get practical with the last two books in this project!