Driving While Technologically Drunk

We need a healthy critique of the dominant role of science and technology in the modern world to avoid crashing the planet.

Based on a few centuries of scientific rationalism and the ensuing technological muscle its given us human beings today live with a sense of domination over the planet. But at the dawn of the 21st century, nature itself collides with this dominance model as we are threatened by erratic climate, interruptions to the food production system, disease, fires and exaggerated natural disasters due to weather.  Our pollution-based prosperity has made a toxic mess of the planet.  This blog post is inspired by my reading of various (unrelated) science writing that, each in their own way, challenges the popular perception that the scientific worldview has all the answers for our modern civilization to find its way forward.  Picking our way forward requires vision and adaptation, but reliance on the western model of scientific inquiry and technological innovation would, by itself, drag us only into a deeper hole.

Let’s be clear on the terms first. What exactly is science? Science might be defined as the pursuit of a style of rational inquiry that yields insights into how the world works. By using specific methodologies the scientist, himself or herself, is separated from the insights and conclusions. Scientific knowledge is viewed as “disembodied”.  The popular perception is that, unlike other human endeavors, science produces independent truths about the properties and relationships of things (“the laws of nature”).  (Scientists themselves have a much more nuanced and humble view of their understanding of a vast, infinitely complex and intelligent universe into which scientific inquiry provides a partial and often fuzzy lens, but popular culture uses this convenient notion that science produces truths about how the universe came to be and how it works.)

Science is an enormously potent force in the modern world. We valorize the scientific approach as a kind of supreme achievement of human beings.  Over and above politics, art, or the search for meaning, purpose, and morality, modern man hangs his hat on an orthodoxy of belief that says “scientific rationalism”, as a mode of thinking or an organizing principle, is at the top of the hierarchy of human enterprise. Julian Huxley, the evolutionary biologist asserted that Scientific Man has become “the growing point of evolution”.

The points I have assembled together challenge the notion of science as disembodied” or objective knowledge independent of a social context of values, financial interests, and power relations. The investigations of science are themselves, critics say, a complex skein of purpose and intent.  Other critiques direct focus on the fact that the tradition of scientific investigation is rooted in culturally-specific, historically-situated, notions of personal identity and moral beliefs about the world.  Finally, some critiques relate to the importance given to science and its excessive weighting at the expense of other types of knowledge and human faculties such as ethical negotiations, spiritual belief, aesthetics, kinesthetics, compassion, intuition, and cultural understanding.

  1. As a product of human social institutions, science reflects their prejudices and interests. In particular, scientific inquiry reflects where power is located.  John Horgan writes about how American science is shaped by the capitalism and militarism of its culture.  More than half of the U.S. budget for research and development is allocated to military agencies according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The science on genetically modified foods is influenced by its sponsorship by large agri-chemical business conglomerates (e.g. Monsanto, now Monsanto-Bayer after the merger between the seed and the chemical firm).  Their conclusions, not surprisingly, promise that GMO foods are safe for consumption and will provide bigger yields.  Independent scientists in Europe challenge claims that GMO seeds lead to lower herbicide use and higher yields.

  2. Professional and academic scientific associations, responsible for the peer-reviewing process, are in theory committed to the freedom of scientific inquiry, but in practice subject to competing political positioning. Scientists are conscious of socially acceptable norms, corporate funding of research, and competing interests and have frequently jockeyed to marginalize and discredit scientists who challenge norms with unusual conclusions and unpopular associations.  Societal values, funding agreements and restrictions, and power struggles curtail scientific publishing (and autonomy) all the time.

  3. “Culture” refracts the investigations of science and sometimes blinds it to the contributions of other ways of knowing. Patriarchy, male chauvinism, and sexism have interfered with the contributions, lines of inquiry, and insights put forward by (all but the most tenacious) women scientists in history.  Stories of research questions biased towards men rather than women are frequent in the history of medicine and pharmacology.  When Rachel Carson challenged the male-dominated, scientific establishment that disregarded the links between environmental and human health as they used military aerial technology and chemicals to spray agricultural chemicals indiscriminately in the 1960s, she was undermined, discredited, demeaned, and threatened in all kinds of ways including at a personal level.  As a result of her indefatigable persistence in science research and writing, she is viewed as the mother of the modern environmental consciousness in the United States. (Read more in Fire Ant Wars: Nature Science and Public Policy in Twentieth Century America by Joshua Blu Bluhs)

  4. The capitalistic model produces a plethora of technological development based on science. Technology innovation drives profit in industry and commerce. Therefore science research is often focused on technological tweaks, to gain a leading edge.  But few people ask critical questions about how the technology will be implemented.  New technology has become an unquestioned addiction and has been associated with growing inequality in the U.S. because it often works in the interests of some groups of people over others. (Erik Brynjolfsson co-author of The Second Machine Age has written about this.)

  5. Science in health care illustrates some contortions of research in which funding is channeled towards science research that serves specific goals of technology and pharmaceuticals (which are directly associated with greater profit). In the United States spending per capita on health care is more than 50 percent higher than Norway, the second biggest spender, yet results and outcomes of care in terms of patient healing and wellness are no better. Cancer treatment and psychiatry are two branches of medicine that demonstrate the perversions of the health care science in the United States, focused on expensive drug treatments, technology, and administrative costs over the focus on preventative care using diet shifts, life-style shifts, and so on.

  6. Scientific inquiry is somewhat of a victim of the phenomenon of a diffuse modern media. Science journalism helps to keep scientists honest and open debate about science research in civil society at large. In the context of social media where ill-informed public comments feature as highly as, and sometimes more highly than, the actual content conveying science research, thoughtful science journalism is the loser. Shouty voices that either laud or criticize scientific conclusions on the basis of beliefs and special interests prevail.  Who loses? Long-form and meaningful critical treatment of the ramifications of research.  Science is all too often subject to popularity contests just like any other commodity in a commercially driven society. (Check out the How Do We Fix It podcast #35 “The Backlash Against Science” featuring Alice Dreger)

  7. Cultural superiority and cultural domination have conveyed as a kind of normative superiority of western science over other forms and ways of knowing. One example of this is in the field of ecology where traditional ecological knowledge held by indigenous people is diminished as “traditional” or “folkloric” or “specific to a place”, while ecological science is recognized by western institutions of research, education, and governance as “real science”.  The assumptions of the western ecological approach went long without critical examination, for example, the historical bias that kept the human realm distinct from the realm of animal and plant communities. This bias had long blinded western ecologists to the possibility that plant and animal communities have adapted to take advantage of human participation/interference for their own evolutionary advantage.  For example, the health and vigor of certain plants communities such as American native sweetgrass is related to the selective harvesting done by traditional people.  The propagation of certain plant communities is linked to fires intentionally caused by humans.  The western scientific predisposition was to not acknowledge plants as having their own “intelligence” and rational “agency” in directing the course of their own development. Ecological scholars who have recognized the limits of western science are now doing groundbreaking reconciliation to point out the rewarding complementarities with knowledge from the indigenous way of understanding ecology. (See Traditional Forest-Related Knowledge by Parotta and Trosper (eds), Springer 2012. And read more about the intersection of indigenous wisdom and traditional science in “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer)

  8. Just as sexism and cultural imperialism/racism influenced the practice of science, species-ism also has blinkered science. The Christian creation myth sets up ‘mankind’ as an inherently superior being that God created above all else in creation. Western scientists operate from a fundamental species chauvinism that denies the animated, rational intelligence of other non-human beings. Animals are frequently measured against a human yard stick, through reasoning such as “Animals are incapable of moral reasoning in the same way as a human being” (so consequently they don’t deserve the same treatment and protections as humans nor is there any other moral standard of respect for animal life). The cultural belief that the only “intelligence” which counts is our own is reinforced by a scientific worldview (or in other words, the scientific approach reflects the cultural underpinnings of the scientists).  In contrast, consider indigenous creation myths that do not rank humans as superior to other species on earth, rather asserts that humans are part of a democracy of species in which other species are viewed as ‘distant relatives’ with whom humans have co-evolved in nature.  This has ramifications for language, cultural ethics, and scientific research.  It sheds light on the sadistic and fatal outcomes for non-human species as a result of science. Science feeds industrial resource extraction and commercial activities that have resulted in the mass extinction of millions of species and continues today, seemingly unstoppably. Science feeds the complex of systemic, torturous, captive breeding program of animals, in the service of animal agriculture for modern humans to consume grotesque quantities of meat.

    An abattoir that gets its products from a factory farm processes chicken into consumer friendly breasts and thighs.

  9. The scientific worldview is married to specific spiritual beliefs and values. The cultural values we hold about the terrestrial substrate of our lives—the earth itself—has ramifications.  In the Christian belief, corporeal life on earth is viewed as a temporary, transitive phase while true eternal life is found in heaven, the spiritual realm.  And for the duration of your time on earth, the earth itself is viewed as an inert platform for human activity; its resources free to be used, cultivated, and exploited for the benefit of humankind.  Consider the extraordinary emphasis in scientific and technological research on mechanizing extractive resources to get at earth’s ores, biological gene manipulation, and innumerable efforts to replicate natural systems with artificial ones.  Consider that western science has given us technological developments to destroy entire mountain ranges to strip coal from the soil beds within the mountains. We have the most advanced science and technology to dam rivers and straighten them into canals for all kinds of human purposes.  Yet these technological ‘developments’ destroy the functions of life for myriad other species that are interwoven into the natural course of mountains, watersheds, and rivers.  These ‘developments’ display an underlying ethic of exploiting the earth for its resources purportedly (and self-justifyingly) for human beings to exploit. Contrast this ethic, with another spiritual understanding of the earth, held by indigenous people, as an animated being with her own intelligence and rationality, “a mother”.  Indigenous people view their relationship with the earth as a heavenly gift of life, which comes with a sacred reciprocal responsibility to be a good steward for future generations.  Wrapped into the idea of a sacred relationship between humans and an animated, intelligent earth are values of ecological compassion, caring, and limits that help protect the longevity of earth rather than a short-sighted resource cultivation and profit.  Consider the kind of science that might flourish if this cultural view were held as dominant.

  10. The practice of science is descended from a specific cultural history and set of beliefs about what it means to be a human being and our place in the world. It stems on a particular western European notion idea that the individual human mind was created with special faculties (restricted to only human beings) that give a unique cerebral capacity to understand the physical world. William Whewell who first coined the term “scientist” in 19th century England believed that God created the universe in accordance with certain divine ideas, and God created capacity in the human mind in accordance with those same divine ideas. He felt that knowledge of science—geometry, mechanics, chemistry—originated in “ideas” in the human mind rather than empirical observations of the world. Human beings used their divinely created, exceptional, scientific mind to explore those “ideas” and thus arrive at ‘necessary truths’ about the physical world.  Scientific development was a process of “discovering” more and more of these necessary truths, progressing towards a complete understanding of the natural world and a deepening conviction in the existence of a Divine Creator.Although much has evolved in our understanding of the universe since the 1800s, there is no denying that scientists’ culturally inherited beliefs inform their science.  The fissure between the practice of science and all other human faculties—the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and morality, is indefensible and false.  Scientists are a product of historically and culturally transmitted beliefs about what it means to be a human being.  They inherit ethical constructs and specific outlooks on personal identity and spirituality from families and social groups.  They develop complex linguistic and kinesthetic abilities from these groups. There are real consequences in terms of our knowledge throughout the history of science that persist today, because the scientific worldview has been informed by such beliefs about human exceptionalism. The value of dominance of humans on the planet translates into an arrogance of outlook, the opposite of humility. If we held humility high as a value, we would understand that we have to learn the language in which other species express their intelligence and learn how they find their place on the planet.  We would not swagger scientifically-derived truths as the most important truths of the universe, and acknowledge wisdom in other ways of being and knowing.


Posted in Cultural Commentary, Environment, Nature | Leave a comment

A Last Christmas: Ode to George Michael

Christmas Day 2016 didn’t end well.  The news of George Michael’s death flashed across my social media and stopped my evening.  It stung.  His songs were integrated into the soundtrack of my youth.  I felt like a part of my own life had just been wrenched out.

I was also filled with regret.  For the countless times that George Michael’s songs and passionate on-screen persona had filled me with feelings, I had left business unfinished with him.  I had taken so much from this star as he put his music out into the world.  By not expressing gratitude, telling him–in some way–how much his effort and artistry meant to me, I squandered a chance to make this one-sided relationship whole.  Now I was left only hoping he—in some way—felt the gratitude and attachment I felt in my heart.

The horrible irony of his death at Christmas made this ending more sad.  For as long as I can remember, Christmas is only complete when I’ve heard his emotional rendition of the story-ballad “Last Christmas” being played at least once, somewhere.  When it was first released, in 1984, I was a fledgling, gawky, brooding early-teen, awaiting life in a changing body.  To top it off, I was growing up straddling three cultures: I was Indian, living in Berlin, Germany, and going to a British school.

I must become particularly sodden at times, because I remember my mother forcing me to go run around outside because she felt I needed to expend physical energy and shake off a bad mood.  I trudged through the snow to the park and did a round there.  I remember singing “Last Christmas” to myself.  I plotted that when I grew up, I would have a fabulous set of friends who would rent a ski chalet with me for a holiday.  And there, I’d exchange shy glances of affection and intimacy with a special someone by a fire place, in a cosy room around a softly twinkling Christmas tree.

In the 1980s, George Michael was a broad-mouthed, gorgeous, Mediterranean-looking man, who practically jumped out of the screen with his vervy, flopping, big hair and sexy dance moves. His vibrant energy was sufficient to sanction my own tenuous circumstances sanction.  He gave all the meaning and color to a thirteen year old’s misplaced life. I latched on to him.

I picked up my second-hand acoustic guitar and finger-picked the melody of “Careless Whisper”, repeatedly pressing rewind and play on the tape recording that I had made from the radio.

My sister, with whom I shared a bedroom, felt the same way.  We played his songs on our silver cassette deck over and over, and danced around the little space, whiling away time.  We had lots of it, then.  I’m convinced that his songs are embedded deep in my subconscious, in my amygdala at the base of my head where the brain and spine fuse.   On my death bed, as my cerebral faculties fade away, and I can no longer speak or be rational, if someone were so kind as to play George Michael songs, I probably will respond by instinct. His songs will stir my emotions and give me pleasure.  I will still be able to anticipate the phrases and crescendos.

The name Wham! itself, was bold and brash. Their music pulsated with the synthesizer.  Their beats were infectious and fresh. Just hearing the name makes me smile to this day, at the happy, excited feeling it brought on in my youth.

Wham!s music takes me back in time to a world in which Europe was divided by an iron curtain and Berlin was walled.  I was a teen, in a walled city, making up a future, anticipating life.  Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael dancing with Pepsi and Shirlie (their back-up singers) in an easy, seamless, inter-racial ensemble seemed to present exciting possibilities then.  They sent a message of a vibrant, out-loud life, inspiring me to feel my own such aspirations in an unknowable future.

At the time many male performers often wore a veneer of edginess, a disaffected, tough sneering perhaps (think Billy Idol or the boys of Duran Duran) but George Michael was different.  He was characteristically, unabashedly expressive.  He appeared on his sumptuous videos with an out-sized articulation using his angular Greek jaw, big eyes, and thick eyebrows.  He was a sex symbol sure, but his masculinity was not oppressive.  It seemed fluid and easy.  Although I had no such words to describe his style at the time, looking back, I was drawn by his emotive qualities.  At the time I didn’t have eyes to see that he was more gender fluid and didn’t come in the mold of a traditional man.  He seemed like a man who was respectful of women.  I noticed that in the way he danced.  He didn’t objectify the girls, rather he was a partner.  He danced with the girls.  To a teenage girl this mattered.  He spoke to our female spirit.

I had heard he was of Greek origin, and I appreciated that.  I recognized that he too knew what it was like to speak a different language at home and not fit in seamlessly with the culture at school and the world around you.  I felt he might share something of what I felt.

Over the years I moved to the United States, began working, and lived in Washington D.C.  In the 1990s I didn’t have a television and was no longer captive to the “Top of the Pops” curated playlist.  In the more diffuse American world of the 1990s and 2000s, I had a wider repertoire but I still heard his music, and listened to his later CDs.  I admired his evolution from afar. I heard him grow up.  The new songs were more jazzy, syncopated, and spiritually-alive.  “Faith” and “Father Figure” were profound and emotional in a way that the shouty-guitar sounds of the 1990’s couldn’t begin to reach.

In his adult transition, he brought the sensibilities of soul into jazz and worked them both into pop.  The songs were masterful and moving, whether in irrepressible dance-y numbers, or in deeply personal ballads.  In his lyrics he let us know he never forgot the working man, he never eschewed working class sensibilities.  The songs about loss and attachment (to his mother, to lovers) were unflinching.  His perky, upbeat songs got onto my gym play list.  Always, his trademark, pure vocal touch stirred a chord of resonance.  He gave it all without the overbearing, didactic clobbering of a Beyoncé.  The production was masterful.

As a star, he effortlessly sang duets that dazzled with their piques and purity.  He could stand toe to toe with Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, and Whitney Houston with a kind of self-possession, and humility that both showcased them, and displayed his own brilliance.  As he wove in his voice and body into songs with these powerful divas, I again saw that respectful, real way he had with women.  The dancing was delightful.  There was honesty.  There was a touch of angelic purity in his voice.  It was so, so beautiful.

He evolved in his own path, as I too changed, inevitably buffeted by life.  I wondered how that lively, hip-shaking George Michael had become a mature, man.  I saw how time deals life, punctuated by meaning and growth, destruction and disappointment. I saw slivers of the former young star but largely, I didn’t know this mature man. Once, I caught an interview with him. I heard his rich voice saying he was grateful for all that he had in life.  His words connected me back to him.  I trusted that spirit.  (And I was glad he was finding peace and truth.)

I know the universe doesn’t work in a lop-sided way.   When you receive something, you have to complete the circle by giving something back.  A gift is also a responsibility.  Of course, in the consumerist, fast-paced world of today, that may seem lost.  However, these principles are still beating in heart of life. When Michael Jackson died in 2010, I felt an enormous loss that I had taken so much pleasure and excitement in the music he made and devoured it without finding a way to say, “Thank you”.  It especially hurt that this man who was rather vilified by the press and seemed often misunderstood, might not have known the love that millions of fans such as myself felt for him.  I made up my mind then, to write a letter to George Michael.  I abstractly composed it in my mind, while driving sometimes.  But shame on me, I didn’t put it down on paper.

For decades, I consumed his musical gift, his toil, thought, and energy.  He gave, and I took.  I suppose the commercial music model has an exchange mechanism for that. Yet music lifts us and defines our lives in invaluable ways that the price of a CD can’t begin to capture it.  Innumerable times, I have felt uplifted, comforted or smoothed over by George Michael’s music as invaluable medicine, and there is no way to “pay” for that.

I knew that life was full of hard knocks.  I knew he strove to maintain a private life that he didn’t like to have pried open for the rest of the world.  I knew that his voice had been choked with depression and darkness caused by a too-prurient world in which social suffocation and profit-motivations got the better of well-meaning souls.  But this person, who just like the rest of us, had struggled, had given me so many wonderful moments that I wanted to give something back.

The only thing I had to offer was language and words.  My friend Michi suggested I still write the letter to him, even though he was no longer with us.  Back in the 1980s, the inner fold of the cassette tape had a mailing address of the record company-managed fan club, and that’s how you could send a fan letter.  But today, it would have been so easy to tweet him or send him a letter on the Internet. It was so easy in fact, that I didn’t find the time.  Send it to him in heaven, Michi said, he’ll get it.

So here is my late letter.

To: George Michael, Singing Angels Way, Amazing Light, P.O. Box: L.O.V.E. Heaven

Dear George Michael,

You don’t know me from millions of others whose lives have been touched forever by your profound and beautiful music.  I wanted you to know, that I, like others, heard and appreciated the effort, hard work, thought and artistry you put into perfecting your productions.  Your voice was instantaneously recognizable and listening to you gave me a range of feelings: happiness, melancholy, empathy, and love.

No matter how weighty or full of drivel the world could be, your music that took me into a sublime place. You voice gave us insight into beauty and love, the things that let us know we are alive.

I especially like the fact that you stayed true and close to the material that hurt you, the social constructs which choked people, searching for the truth of emotion between people, laying out the vulnerabilities of personal change, and about getting older.  I felt you when talked about running out of time, letting go, of mothers, of father figures, of angels, and of misplaced love, of aspirations, and of trying to get to a better life.  “Strange”, is a word, you used exquisitely, to let us know we aren’t alone in the unease of living slightly askant from what was expected. Thank you for putting it all out there, in your unique style.

I am grateful that you expressed your compelling, inner thoughts with your poetry and lovely voice.  Thank you for not playing it safe with your music, but for sublimating pain and love to something we could hear and enjoy.  Thank you for not hiding behind shouting thrashing loud guitars, and abstracted words that hid behind a veneer of remove.

Thank you also for your infectious, instantaneous dance sound, your syncopated rhythms, and melodious tunes.  I ran a lot of miles to your music, and sweated off pounds!

Your fans are now pouring out their hearts with stories of how you touched them, and how you helped them.  You touched my heart.  It was real.  It was my life. Your music helped formed my dreams, my sense of beauty, my sense of what was possible in life, my sense of how I saw the world.

It’s a little late to have to write you from my silly computer on earth, but I hope your spirit will always feel how much we cherish you, with deep love and abiding regard.



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The Deep North: Civil Rights Protections for Native Americans

Native American lawyers advising the Oceti Sakowin camp and the elders at the pipeline resistance movement are encouraging all #NoDAPL supporters to call on the Department of Justice’s agency called “Community Relations Services” to intervene on the ground in North Dakota to mitigate the abuses, life-threatening physical attacks, and human rights violations that native Americans and their supporters are facing from State and Local authorities.  E-mail askcrs@usdoj.gov or call the Federal office: (202) 305-2935, or the regional office: (303) 844-2973 and speak to them directly.

A sample statement of request:
“The Oceti Sakowin camp is one of the largest settlements in North Dakota, and it is led by native Americans. People from this camp are facing harassment and life-threatening physical assaults from state and local police because of their cultural and religious positions about protecting water. We urge Community Relations Services to mediate with State and Local authorities to deescalate and prevent the dire physical threats that native Americans and their supporters are facing in the middle of North Dakota’s winter.”

Historical precedent

The vindictive and violent abuses of native Americans in North Dakota by state and local authorities in 2016 have a long precedent in the United States.  They are rooted in harassment and colonial violence based on racial and cultural differences.

The southern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas offer a sordid parallel for these types of abuses, intimidation, and harassment based on race.  During the 1960s, as the winds of modernization and progressivism swept through the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the growing “civil rights” movement was met with great resistance in these southern states.  The Civil Rights law was passed under Johnson’s administration in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act.  State and Local officials flexed their muscle against communities of African-Americans who were technically able to exercise their now legal rights to equal treatment in stores, hotels, county offices, schools, and colleges. Things got ugly.  Entire communities of African Americans faced difficulties, while individual African-Americans faced physical threats and attacks on personal safety.  State and Local authorities were implicated in these abuses both directly, and indirectly, by their unwillingness to fully implement civil rights guarantees in the manner in which they were intended, and by allowing crimes against African Americans to go unpunished.

The Federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) created a special division called “Community Relations Services” to intervene and mediate in conflicts between authorities and communities caused by race, color of skin, religion, and the other provisions governed by civil rights.  In their own words, Community Relations Services (CRS) “works with all parties, including State and local units of government, private and public organizations, civil rights groups, and local community leaders, to uncover the underlying interests of all of those involved in the conflict, and facilitates the development of viable, mutual understandings and solutions to the community’s challenges.  In addition, CRS assists communities in developing local mechanisms and community capacity to prevent tension and violent hate crimes from occurring in the future.”

This DOJ agency acts as a Federal government watchdog on State officials and organizations.  In dire circumstances (as in the 1960s deep south) it can have the effect of mitigating excessive abuses and threats by State authorities.

We are now at a time when native Americans are facing an incredible range of harassment from the local police and local community, including police advising local businesses not to sell fuel to the native Americans in the middle of brutal North Dakota blizzard conditions.  The aid and monitoring provided by exactly such a Federal watchdog cannot be under-estimated.

The threat of an official State emergency evacuation order on the camp

The latest action by North Dakota state and local authorities to harangue and harass Native Americans and their supporters into backing down from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests came from the Governor of North Dakota on Monday November 28.  Governor Jack Dalrymple issued an “emergency evacuation notice” to the thousands of water protectors camped out near the Cannon Ball River at the Oceti Sakowin camp. It didn’t deter the good Governor that the camp was on federal land, so technically, not entirely under his jurisdiction.

The North Dakota Governor’s evacuation notice was purportedly in the interests of the safety and wellbeing of people who are outside camping in snow and sub-zero temperatures.  The protesters would, he said in bald-faced hypocrisy, be able to congregate in a ‘free speech zone’ a few miles away, as if the dangerous snow and sub-zero temperatures would be magically erased there.

To add more confusion and threat, Morton County Sheriff’s Office told media outlets that the Governor’s evacuation notice would be accompanied by state police stopping and issuing fines of thousands of dollars to anyone bringing food and other supplies to the camp.

The evacuation notice created confusion and fear. It became an opportunity for local law enforcement to create threats and generate harassment against the thousands of native people (and their supporters) congregated in Oceti Sakowin to physically stand between the river and the proposed oil pipeline.  Later press conferences with state officials offered more clarification on the initial communication, saying that an emergency evacuation indicated that the State is ‘advising’ people to leave the area because it is a dangerous area and that there are threats to their health and safety. The Governor’s evacuation order didn’t specify any action to be taken against protesters who wouldn’t comply and a spokesperson said no action would be taken to enforce the eviction order.

This latest action follows on the heels of multiple confrontations with unarmed native people and their supporters in prayer ceremonies and peaceful protests, during which State and Local authorities have unleashed violent physical attacks.

Unarmed, facing a six hour-long military assault in sub-zero conditions

On Sunday November 20, 2016, unarmed water protectors had been protesting a blockade made of barbed wire and concrete blocks by state police on a state highway, intended as a barrier for people trying to reach the camp.  This blockade also blocks anyone traveling on the road, the most direct route between Bismark, ND where there are hospitals, shops, and services, and a number of rural outposts and communities to the south, including the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The state blockade directly impacts the safety and well-being of the people at camp and of nearby communities.

That night, State and Local militarized police units used highly dangerous weaponry, including Specialty Impact Munitions (SIM, also known as Kinetic Impact Projectiles or KIP), explosive “blast” grenades, other chemical agent devices, mace, and a water cannon and water hoses in freezing temperatures, directly aimed at people, at point blank range. Rubber bullets were aimed at people’s heads.  Percussion grenades which are supposed to be shot into the air were instead, diabolically, aimed and shot directly at people. For six continuous hours, State police sustained their water cannon and high-velocity munitions attacks, ripping people’s skin off, causing hundreds of cases of hypothermia, and causing some near-fatal injuries which will result in permanent disabilities.  400 people were triaged by the “Medic Council” of the Oceti Sakowin camp.  During this assault, State police deployed an arsenal of dangerous implements and devices, including SIM (such as lead-filled, shotgun-fired ‘beanbags’ and high-velocity plastic and foam rubber ‘sponge rounds’); explosive flashbang-like grenades such as “Instantaneous Blast CS grenades” and Stinger grenades; other chemical agent devices; and a high pressure water cannon and fire hoses, despite the subfreezing temperatures, on unarmed people who defended themselves with plywood.

A month previously in late October, another State police confrontation with Native American and their supporters resulted in hundreds of violent arrests during which unarmed protesters were beaten and chased by police, and medical personnel tending to hurt protestors were shot in the back.  During the arrests, native Americans were strip searched in humiliating ways (for example, male police officers involved in strip searches of female native Americans), kept without cover in dog kennels, inscribed with numbers on their bodies, manhandled with unwarranted force and violence, and subject to traumatic abuse.

There have been numerous instances of native people being harassed by police while driving the roads of North Dakota around Bismarck and Mandan.  People have been aggressively treated for routine traffic stops and even taken to jail and strip searched.  Native people have been stopped by local authorities while driving, simply for the subjective judgement by police of the appearance that there may be some potential illegality.

Given this litany of abuses, it is particularly galling when the North Dakota Governor cites safety concerns for native people, who remain, as they have from the beginning, without weapons, unarmed, standing in prayer in solidarity with earth and with nature against polluting, extractive fracking, and oil pipelines.

It’s the law to protect the human rights of native Americans.  It’s the law to protect the first amendment rights of people enshrined in the United States constitution, to be able to gather and express their opinion, express their religion and spirituality, and assert their right to free movement.  The Department of Justice must be on the ground.


Posted in Anthropological, Environment, Fossil Fuels, Indigenous, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Union Market Utensils

“What a shame that these utensils are going to be thrown away,” remarked my father after finishing up a plate of tasty masala dosa that was just made and served fresh from a food stall. We’re at Union Market, a recently gentrified warehouse-turned-covered market in the industrial eastern outskirts of Washington D.C.

Nearby, a historically African-American neighborhood with streets of narrow row-houses are slowly, but surely, being bought up and renovated by a younger generation of white families. The house facades are painted attractive colors, a sign of the character shift that is underway as the more affluent newcomers raise housing values. With progressive ideals of community, livability, and walkability they eschew the automobile-bound, ex-urban and suburban majority-white enclaves where they were raised. They recognize that their parents’ lifestyles–and the 20th century design of American cities and infrastructure that created and bolstered it–assumed endless fossil-fuel consumption. It has driven the planet to climatic and existential crisis. Their own lives express new values; more public transportation to reduce their fossil fuel consumption; more recycling at home; more community; more farmer’s markets; and everyday walking contact with people than suburbia ever afforded.

As a gathering spot, Union Market appeals to their sensibilities. These new consumers eat dosas, tacos, smoked salmon bagels, croissants, empanadas, oysters, crepes, and pho, other like their parents did baloni sandwiches and hot dogs. But their progressive ideals lack a fundamental value about consumption that–through intentional marketing, messaging, and cultural inertia–still pervades the American psyche: they lack a self-consciousness about hyper-consumption.

When my Dad pointed out that these once-used utensils and the still-intact, firmly-constructed dining plate were going to waste, I immediately felt a twinge of pained recognition for his truth. Daily a voluminous amount of such ‘waste’ is generated by the numerous food stalls here, perfectly good cutlery that could be rinsed and reused a few more times at least. The contrasts he has witnessed in his life give him perspective: things could be so different, we could live with so much less (and waste less).

When he was growing up in India, food to go was deftly tied into rectangular sections of banana leaf, and then double wrapped with actual old newspaper. It wasn’t entirely leak proof but it was impermeable, at least for a little while. We might have used a crudely-fashioned wooden spoon. We chuckled about food spills but it wasn’t the end of the world. Plastic waste was not as sorely visible in India as it is now, all over the city, in gutters, on train tracks, around the bushes, a phenomenon that ballooned starting in the mid-to-late 1990s when the Indian economy opened up to free-trade.

It rather hurts, I thought, to have a conscience. To take half a minute to remember that this plastic cutlery was going to be jumbled with thousands of other such pieces and hauled to some landfill, where it would lie inert and unnatural, never biodegrading back into good soil felt rather sickening. It disappears in a quick second, out of my hands, into a waste-stream but it never disappears off Mother Earth’s cancerous landfill-sores which we keep feeding, only to make it blister and grow more putrid and fatal.

The advertising industry has seduced us into believing that we need chemical disinfectants, disposable napkins, one-time use cutlery to protect human health. Yet, on the flip side, using these disposable artefacts with so much fossil-fuel expenditure built-in already into their production and transportation and packaging, is harming the health of the mother of all beings, earth herself. It feels sickening to live as though we are the only beings that matter on this planet.

How wantonly cruel we are for consumptions that provide us convenience and pleasure that last all of a second. How willfully blindly we are to the choking impact of our “stuff” on every other being with whom we share this precious planet.

Contrast Consumption with Gift
In contrast to our consumption model, all around us are incredible gifts of life that we receive without even asking: air to breathe and to make wind, water that provides life, top soil, the amazing sunlight that sets up photosynthesis, the tiny insects and birds that pollinate plants so they grow food. Yet, our culture has trained us to live in a manner that is oblivious to and ungrateful for these gifts of life. We would be thought of as odd for recalling and considering these basic but enormous gifts as “riches”.

We selfishly carry on as though we are the only existence that counts on the planet. It’s as if we have hardened a wall around us, so we cannot admit to ourselves that other creatures on earth are not ‘beings’ like us, filled with spirit, intelligence, love, family, and associations.  My father’s humble moment of notice of how we would add to the miserable treatment of the earth by tossing away our perfectly-good used cutlery, made me ashamed for participating in this throw-away lifestyle and disposable mindset, without thinking of the “next steps” as the earth receives our garbage.

I suggested to him that I believed the cutlery was biodegradable and I would put it in the right waste-stream. There had to be a saving grace here right?  Surely I could produce some compost from this cutlery? I was partially right. The foodstall had provided what appeared to be biodegradable cutlery.  But there was no separate collection for organic and biodegradable waste.  I had to dump it in the regular trash because the fancy “artisanal foods” Union Market doesn’t organize or contract out separate food and biodegradable waste collection.

We desperately need more such moments of recognition. We need to have flashes of memory and awakening about what we are doing on a daily basis in terms of consumption and wasting. We need to notice that our momentary consumption has a cost. As a matter of principle, I believe that by being mindful, we can reduce the harm we wreck on the planet as a result of our modern lives.

By remembering the gift of food each time we eat, we honor every energy and intelligent process that plants and water and sunlight have gifted us. By receiving food as a gift, we wouldn’t grab more and more of it until there was no more, instead we would say thank you and appreciate it. We wouldn’t take more than we need. We wouldn’t waste more than we ought to. By modifying our thinking at each step, our behaviors would be more careful to mitigate the thoughtless harm we do to the planet.

As I found out, it’s more complicated than being mindful. We are cogs in the wheel in vast networks of technology, infrastructure and market forces. If Union Market doesn’t provide separate recycling and separate food waste collection, it makes it so much harder to do the right thing. I felt pretty helpless having to toss single-use cutlery, that albeit was ingeniously crafted to be biodegradable, straight into a waste receptacle intended for the landfill. The technology for making compost out of cutlery exists. Yet it relies completley on the human being, conscience, right thinking, values, and a mindset that respects and wants to protect Mother Nature.

It would take someone of conscience and persistence in the management of Union Market to insist on separate waste collection, to go the extra mile to make this market environmentally less harmful. It would take a decision maker who will go to bat for the environment, insist on the little extra monthly cost for waste hauling. It would takes someone who recognizes that the health and protection of Mother Earth is as valuable as the hygiene of all the human consumers who frolic and feast off Mother Earth at the market.

Technology in and of itself is useless without the right human thought, without the right values, and without a culture that places emphasis on the spirit of recognizing other creatures of the earth as equally vital and alive and worthy of protection as humans themselves.

Union Market management: Are you following?

Here’s the official Web site: http://unionmarketdc.com/
Here’s where you can find Union Market:

Posted in Anthropological, Cultural Commentary, Environment, Fossil Fuels, Social Documentary, Urban Environment | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Market Under the Highway

A vibrant farmer’s market sprouts up every weekend in an improbable location–underneath an elevated, 6-lane highway that snakes right through the heart of Baltimore.  The culture and people of this market also, improbably, defy the billion-dollar, corporate-market structures that define our agricultural and food systems–feeding us mass-produced, chemically-fed, engineered ‘designer’ food-products that are arranged in sterile supermarkets where meaningful exchange with food growers is eliminated entirely.

The market scene under the highway

The market scene under the highway

Reverberating booms of traffic in high-speed motion form the base notes of the market’s exuberant Sunday morning symphony.  Hundreds of sellers form a grand orchestra, tuning up, and then playing multiple melodic strands in unexpected harmony.  They hawk produce at makeshift stalls, and offer samples, explanations, sing-song, and humor to draw people in.  Waves of city-dwellers shuffle past, inspecting food, corralling their children, exchanging cash with vendors, sniffing the aromas of sweating barbecued meats and fried street food, standing in line for warm drinks, playing with hula hoops, and stepping lively around the street musicians.  My family are swept into this polychromatic, slow-moving hubub of people, and we were suffused with the warm flow and spirit that permeates this marketplace.

Speciality producer selling mead at a makeshift stall in the Baltimore Farmer's Market

Speciality producer selling mead at a makeshift stall in the Baltimore Farmer’s Market

We crowd around with others to buy honey from the wry, wizened man who showed off his picture of a bee beard (he sticks a queen bee on his chin to attract hundreds of worker bees to his chin and neck, forming a ‘bee-‘ beard).  We pass well-heeled yuppy families piling pumpkins and potatoes into their babies’ push-chairs.  They rub elbows and bump shopping bags with the old-timer, blue-collar folks, buying their greens and beans.  Long-lines at the pork barbeque joints are offset by long lines at the gourmet, shade-grown organic coffee store.  A young Mexican couple explains that while living in Mexico City they had never encountered the comapeno pepper, but here, in Baltimore, they found a connection to a community in Veracruz that cultivates these unique peppers; now they sell salsas and jellies using the comapeno pepper.  A local distiller of flavored vodkas is offering tastes that fortify anyone for a chilly morning stroll in the market. The children are bouncing around the one-man band whose jingle bell anklets are enlivening the market as he taps his feet for rhythm on a wooden board while playing the fiddle.

A one-man band plays lively bluegrass and creates a musical space in the Baltimore Farmer's market.

A one-man band plays lively bluegrass and creates a musical space in the Baltimore Farmer’s market.

The contrast of the market’s vibrant communal spirit and sense of local roots couldn’t be more marked from its severe and alienating urban setting.  The highway’s concrete pylons have been thrust down upon an older city grid of cobbled street corners.  The sagging lines of 19th century row-houses are nowhere to be seen, but in their place empty paved lots and rectilinear lines of modern buildings with windows that don’t open.  This is not a landscape where people live; entire communities of people who have generational memories here were shoved aside to make way for the modern reincarnation of the city. Yet, some of the disaffected of this urban shift have remained.  They set up tents on flat ground, and use broken concrete pieces as anchors.  With piles of blankets, they have made sleeping pads in the entryways and doorways of office buildings.

Seller at the Baltimore Farmer's Market.

Seller at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market.

The city’s juvenile delinquents facility, a prison, extends its high-walled facade to the street, complete with curved barbed wire lacework at the top.  The unwelcoming city blocks are not designed with lively human beings in mind, no steps and benches to sit and feel the sun, perhaps call out to or just watch the antics of other people making their way down the street.  Above, the suspended highway is a conduit for automobiles whizzing by at 65 miles an hour.  Nobody knows where those cars have come from, who is driving them and why, nor nor where they are going.  They are dissociated from this place.  Like canyons walls, modern high-rise buildings with rows of windows glinting in the sun form imposing tableau screens on either side of the highway.  While driving, you would see only the impersonal rows of window panes of closed, climate-conditioned buildings; no life, no people, no faces, no eyes.

Farmer's market shopping with an organic warm coffee in hand, under the roof made by the elevated highway through the city.

Farmer’s market shopping with an organic warm coffee in hand, under the roof made by the elevated highway through the city.

Ironically, the massive concrete pilings buttressing the highway above, are colorfully painted with symbols of African American jazz culture, central American and indigenous agricultural icons of corn, and various other motifs from the local community.  The market is filled with people, faces, eyes. Old and young.  All shades of skin pigmentation.  All states of dress–disheveled, thrown-together attire and spanking, colorful specialized gear.

In many U.S. cities, farmers’ markets have become a locus where gentrified rich folks seek out a bucolic connection and healthy food through farmers who supply organically-grown produce at a premium.  Not here.  Prices are reasonable and produce is varied.  This market is inclusive of communities from different economic strata and cultural backgrounds.   The gathering is genuinely diverse.

It’s impossible not to respond viscerally to the variegated array of feasting goods in the market.  I’ve already tasted a honey vodka, when I notice my parents crowding around the “traditional hard cider” brewer.  They’ve taste an impossible concoction of fermented non-commercial varieties of apples to which the brewer added fish peppers for heat, and honey for sweetness.  The brewer tells them how to rest the cider in their mouth, and allow the heat to tingle their sides, then swallow down the throat smooth.  Appropriately seduced, they fork out the money for a bottle.

A warm mulled apple cider is sold in cups.

A warm mulled apple cider is sold in cups.

I’ve been pulled into the pie stall with their delectable descriptions of lamb and chile verde pot pies. I imagine eating them this week for dinner with side salads; they are reasonably-priced.  My sister drags us over to the pickle seller who has set up his curing barrels filled with olives, cucumbers, and gherkins in brine at various levels of heat and sourness.  After a generous sample of the spicy pickle, I salivate thinking of how the brine might kick up a mixture of vodka and tomato juice.  I’m walking away with a tub.

Brined vats of pickles at the Baltimore Farmer's Market.

Brined vats of pickles at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market.

My sister orders up two servings of batter fried oyster mushrooms at the mushroom stall and while they are getting ready, my father stands in line for the organic coffee.  I have a sip of his…it’s nutty, robust, and satisfying.  A blustering chilly wind kicks up and threatens to knock over the canopies that sellers have set up.  A lady struggles to pull her stand down and batten down her signs with more rocks.  People wait and applaud her efforts.  My mother buys a warm apple cider from her when she’s sorted out.  It’s mulled with ginger pieces and cinnamon, and the cup warms her hands.

We each pick up a spicy comapeno pepper salsa; I can imagine making egg and potato tortillas with this to add a fiery kick to it.  The musician is belting out some fine bluegrass.  I’m inadvertently bopping my head and stepping to the beat as I walk around him.

On our way back to pick up the fried mushrooms, I am drawn to the kale and carrots sitting in open tubs from farms all around the Baltimore hinterland.  The girl who is selling me kale says, “There’s a lot more where this came from.”  I ask her if she’s tired, and she admits it,  “I can’t wait to go home and take a hot bath.”  A few tables down, the carrots look rotund.  I wait patiently for the seller to sort out another customer, when the wind gushes again and I giggle as he chases some plastic bags.  He appreciates my patience and throws in a few more carrots than I pay for.  These connections with the vegetables grown and picked from (fairly) local soil makes me feel connected, alive, responsible, and responsive to the place around me.  It feels rooted, buying vegetables from people who have spent time growing them, not far from here.

The unique Mexican comapeno pepper is featured at this stall in their salsas and jams.

The unique Mexican comapeno pepper is featured at this stall in their salsas and jams.

I’m struck how people have created the oldest and most symbolic of all social gatherings: the marketplace, in this most dissociated of landscapes, a no-man’s land in the inner city.  I feel it speaks to a deep cultural need within people, to connect themselves to their food in a meaningful way.  Happiness and humanity is tangible in the market.  When people grow the food and you buy it from them, there’s an exchange of gratitude and appreciation implied in the transaction.  In contrast, the supermarket experience seems artificial, sterile, and muted.  You are not tantalized by the calls of sellers, the smells of different foods, the visual variety of the stalls.  You make no mental maps of all the sellers you need to go back to.  You cannot feel the human connection of exchanging a few words with a seller who probably had a hand in growing the food or storing it or piling it into the truck from the farm.  The modern supermarket experience strips away the dimension of human emotional engagement and connection to the food grower, based–at least partially–in gratitude and recognition of their effort.  Food is simply reduced to a commodity you value in coins or credit cards.

The commercial food economy is backed by the awesome financial structures and overwhelming might of the U.S. government and agri-business complex.  So it’s all the more powerful to see the creativity of the local food growing economy represented at this market.  And it feels in some way like we are honoring this human creativity, by participating in the rich response to this farmers’ market.  People of this city, rich and poor, who recognize the value of the food and support this economy with our presence and our money.

A little child contemplating the vagaries of a squash at the Baltimore Farmer's Market

A little child contemplating the vagaries of a squash at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market

I find boundless spirit and an uplifting atmosphere at this market where you can turn on your heel and buy freshly-made burritos and Thai street noodles, smoked trout, organic falafel wraps in kale, or pit-roasted barbecued meats dripping with sauce.  I find exciting creativity in the small economies where people are making fine vodkas and wines, growing sweet potatoes, making fresh-cut flower arrangements and displaying tubs of just-pulled collard greens.  I marvel at the creative spirit and capacity of people who create a fountain of life where human community itself has been stripped and denied, and replaced with machinery, automobiles, and impersonal, massive structures of concrete.  We wolfed down the fried mushrooms served with a fresh salad mix and soft feta cheese.  Piping hot, fried, and crunchy on a cold morning, we had happy bellies.  And left happy.

Here’s where you can find the market:

Here’s what we bought:

Pumpkin pie
Lamb and chile verde personal pies
Lemonade concentrate syrup with cardamon and ginger
Comapeno salsa (x 2)
Hard cider laced with fish peppers
Zeke’s coffee
Hot mulled cider
Spicy pickles in brine




Posted in Anthropological, Urban Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The River is Our Relative, Not a Resource

When I went looking for Standing Rock, I blew right past the diminutive monument with its unremarkable parking lot and had to circle back.  The rock is about two feet tall and mounted on a brick pedestal about six feet off the ground.  Its humble appearance belies the worldwide recognition of its eponymous Native American reservation and people, the Standing Rock Sioux.

The Standing Rock monument on the banks of Lake Oahe, on the Standing Rock reservation, North Dakota

The Standing Rock monument on the banks of Lake Oahe, on the Standing Rock reservation, North Dakota

Armed with not much more than their slogan “Mni Wicconi” (“Water is Life”), prayers, banners, and songs, they have become known as “water protectors” for their non-violent resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.  It is poised to pump fracked oil across the American heartland and threatens to pollute their sole source of drinking water, the Missouri River.

Prayer march to a site where Native American burial sites were dug up by bulldozers used to dig an oil pipeline

Prayer march by ‘water protectors’ to a site where Native American artefacts were identified but irreverently dug up and destroyed by bulldozers used to dig an oil pipeline, September 2016

I notice that someone has wrapped a flower garland around the base of the monument, a reminder that the rock is regarded as sacred.  Although different native communities tell variations of its origin story, all agree that Standing Rock symbolizes a woman wrapped in a blanket and carrying a baby on her back.  You can imagine it in the rock’s shape, broader at the base where she sits, and slightly conical, as though the top is a profile of her head.

The defense of ‘sacred sites’ and ‘sacred burial grounds’ against the profit-conscious and irreverent trajectory of the fracked-oil pipeline is a central strategy to block the pipeline entirely or re-route it away from the Standing Rock reservation.  The sacredness imbued in Standing Rock however, symbolizes core values in the Native American culture–their ways of “being” and their relationship with the animals, plants, and geography of their ancestral land.

In the 19th century, these values were trampled upon by greedy colonizers.  Today, in the face of climate change and planetary-scale environmental catastrophes, perhaps the modern American might be ready to hear what Native Americans have been asserting about the profound meaning of nature in their sense of themselves and the world.

The Native American creation story helps to explain these values. “Sky woman”, the original human, falls out of the sky into the oceanic world, pregnant and wholly without resources.  This lonely, hapless soul needed help.  Brave animals went out of their way to help her find footing.  The Turtle offered his shell so she could have a platform to stand on.  The brave Muskrat and Beaver dove down to the bottom of the ocean to bring up mud to make ground on the Turtle’s back for her.  Sky woman danced to spread this tenuous mud, accrete more soil, and eventually develop the continent that her descendants could walk on.  In Native American traditions, the planet’s continental mantle is called “Turtle Island”.  Sky woman relied on non-human creatures to survive and find her foothold in this world.  Animals are viewed as distant relatives.  Human beings are embedded within the intelligent, animated plurality of nature.

How Sky woman behaved on Turtle Island is also instructive; she took care of the world so that her unborn daughter, in her turn, would be able to enjoy its resources to survive. In return for the ‘gift’ of nature’s sustenance, she, in return, nurtured and protected nature to sustain it for future generations.  Wrapped into the belief of nature as a gift are two paramount values: reciprocity (you give back) and limits (you take only enough, rather than grabbing as much as you can for the purpose of accumulation and profit, without a thought for appropriate limits).

When David Archambault III, Chairman of Standing Rock asserts to the press, “Water is our relative, not a resource,” he is expressing a value system that reveres the gift of life from water, and makes a reciprocal gift–to protect the river, now threatened by oil pollution, from harm.

The semantics of Native American languages supports the idea that non-human species and land features have potent agency.  Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the ‘grammar of animacy’, in Braiding Sweetgrass, her book merging the wisdoms of traditional knowledge with the perspectives of modern science.  Language constructions themselves force speakers to recognize that plants, rivers, and trees possess their own rationale and have specific qualities and character.   Plants, animals, rivers, and bays for example, are considered animated beings with an autonomous will and motivations.

These notions may well seem alien to the western European for whom nature and culture are separated by a ranked, dividing line.  The European cosmology (after having whittled away any remnants of their indigenous, pagan religions that viewed nature as an intelligent being) resists the notion that humankind was derived, just as all other life, from the context of nature.  Thanks to Eve—the equivalent, perhaps, of Sky woman—who consorted with the Devil-snake, the world is ‘fallen’ in the Christian tradition.  Heaven is the real reward; earth just a temporary, corporeal, pass-through to be suffered through, before we reach that infinitely better place.  This is hardly a basis on which to ‘take care’ of the earth.

There are powerful consequences to these underlying beliefs.  In the native American stories narrative structures always include animated relationships of intention, action and motivation of nature.  The ‘human’ self is always in negotiation with ‘non-human beings’, and the moral and ethical framework of the culture encompasses connections of compassion, understanding and respect with ‘non-human beings’.

In the European world, other non-human species are not given the same moral standing as human beings.  The ethical consequences are enormous.  Nature is relegated to an inanimate, inert platform on which to build human enterprise.  You use and take from it as if it is a resource that is there for the grabbing, without mindfulness of gratitude, reciprocity, or limits.  Animals, rivers, and plants have no legal rights, including habeas corpus—the legal right to live without harm and to seek punishment for those who cause them bodily harm.

European languages reflect this limiting lens within which nature is an ‘object’ of use.  In English a non-human entity is treated as an ‘object’; the appropriate pronoun in English for a tree or a moose or a river is ‘it’.  When viewed as a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘being’, a tree is stripped of its intelligence, its motivations, and its relationships within the ecosystem.  English grammar literally robs non-human life of animation and spirit.  It also robs us of our own spirited and animated response to nature.

The language of Science used to ‘study’ nature strips away the human experience of nature.  Science relationships described in terms of the interactions of physical particles.  It has no language for the reciprocal experience of nature with humans.  Only poets, who can use metaphors and fluidly refer to the emotional and spiritual faculties of being human, can acknowledge the entire range of human experience in relationship to nature: delight, love, reciprocity, healing, and beauty.

Sadly, the modern environmental movement reflects those limitations of language and the terms of Science.  Rachel Carson successfully pierced the male-dominated 20th century technocracy with environmental awareness, but it was framed in terms of Science: the environment is important to protect for “public health” or for “ecosystem services”.  Decades after her sad demise from cancer (linked to toxic chemicals sprayed into the environment at the time), the environmental movement is still relegated to an impotent role on the sidelines of extraction industries that sees the Earth as an ‘object’ rather than a ‘being’.

So, in this moment of planetary crisis, it’s perhaps fitting that it has taken a group of Native Americans, rather than the science-based environmental movement, to elevate the fight to protect nature, and sear the uneasy conscience of many Americans.

On an especially cold October day, police, who look like formidable robotic war machines rather than human beings, used especially violent tactics against the water protectors.  Over 140 people were arrested in front of the pipeline work site.  When Native Americans standing in freezing Dakota rivers take body blows and cry from the sting of tear gas, it goes beyond limiting a pollutant to a particular threshold beyond which the river cannot be used as a drinking water source or a recreational resource.  It’s because they see their history as interwoven with the gift of that river, and at the same time, they want to secure it for future generations, both of people and other creatures in nature.  They see their identity in the river.  What it means to be a human is wrapped into their need for and bonds with the river.  They defend the river out of love for both their children and their “relatives” in nature—its rivers, birds, and fish.

Americans of many stripes now rally around the slogan, “I stand with Standing Rock”.  I like to think their solidarity with the Sioux marks an internal awakening to a reciprocal, spiritually-alive relationship in which self and nature are linked.  Modern Americans who observe or mimic Native American prayers and ceremonies can begin to accept and perhaps imitate in their own way, a language and attitude that respects nature in all her infinite intelligence, and limitless variation.

I realize more profoundly that people who see nature as an animated being can see the sacredness of Standing Rock.  The people who took care of Standing Rock for generations recognized its significance without carving and chiseling the rock into a human form of a woman and a baby.  They knew that the “human” form is not the only form that matters; we are only a part of this rich and complex diversity of creation–human and non-human–that make up the world.

How we use our significance and influence as humans in this world matters.  Just consider the untenable imbalances we, as a species, have wrecked on the planet.

I wonder if the words “I stand with Standing Rock”, might contain a deeper symbol of a transformation of modern hearts and minds.  Animals, trees, mountains, rivers, and nature might hold deeper meaning for us than just “resources”.  We may yet recognize the truths of the Native American values that were crushed in the 19th century.  We have the ears to hear now.  We recognize that those values offer us the wisdom we need to survive.  We are bound together with nature, like family, in need, love, and reciprocity.  We need nature to live, and she needs us to find our better selves so we can see, respect, and care for her.

Posted in Anthropological, Indigenous | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Deepwater Horizon: Hollywood’s Spin on Oil Villains

When it happened, we all knew that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was unprecedented in scale. The whole nation watched the black, billowing smoke from that rig with a sense of horror and foreboding. They were justified. The crude oil gushing out from a drill- hole on the seafloor wouldn’t be plugged for months. Nobody seemed to be able to offer the right technical fix. Chemicals dumped in the ocean to disperse the oil volatilized it into tiny light molecules and made an oil-dispersant cocktail vapor that blew ashore on wind.  People in Gulf communities couldn’t escape the smell and the irritation in their respiratory systems and skin. Nightly news images of birds soaked in black sludge drew contemplation of all the dying wildlife that we could not see. Life was under threat in the most dire way, and most of us watched the nightmare unfold like it was a movie on a screen. If we stopped to admit the truth, we knew we were complicit in the tragedy—willing or not. We are the demand for the oil that they were drilling for.

Six years later, our carbon-linked planetary crisis looms even larger, with more tangible evidence and urgency. So Deepwater Horizon, the Peter Berg directed 2016 movie seems even more relevant. Yet in spite of its stunning and moving disaster sequences, it leaves me feeling that the traditional Hollywood story-telling model is inadequate to help us face this crisis. My impression, of lessons not learned, is driven home by the fact that the movie doesn’t point to what we should do to change course.

At the outset of the action, the camera puts us viewers inside the chopper carrying oil workers to one of the Gulf’s many off-shore drilling platforms. These mechanics, electricians, navigators, and crane drivers operated the thousands of feet of pipes, pressure valves, and clamps that tapped into oil beds 35,000 feet beneath the ocean floor. The floating-platform, drill-rig technology used by Deepwater Horizon had been designed for shallower conditions as follow-up investigations after the disaster uncovered (and were reported in-depth in the New York Times.)  The movie hints at this in the opening sequence: neither the rig’s pipes nor robotic detection of pipe corrosion could be fail-safe when pushed to greater depths than ever before.

The plotline sets up the characters’ corporate allegiances and hierarchies, critical to understanding how decision-making was done on rig operations (also the subject of intense scrutiny in the investigations): BP leased the drilling/exploration platforms from Transocean, a company with a good safety record. Transocean’s top-ranking official in charge of rig operations, Jimmy Harrell—or “Mr. Jimmy” as he is called in the movie—receives an award for the rig’s continuous safe operations early in the movie. (He’s played by Kurt Russell.)

This upbeat scene begins to fade fast, with inconclusive tests of the cement walls’ integrity, so Mr. Jimmy orders a further negative-pressure test. Again, the results suggest instability. As the tension builds, the movie paints BP executives as Hollywood’s anti-heroes—the profit-conscious risk takers who insist on pushing to drill despite questionable equipment testing.

Finding fault with a bad actor palliates us when things go awry, but blaming disasters on a specific decision made by a specific actor at a point in time presents a false narrative, according to James Meigs in Slate, who is writing a book on the science of disasters. Based on his study of organizations responsible for big technology failures, e.g. NASA, Meigs faults the misplaced tendency to home in on a single point of malfeasance. A more robust explanation is that a series of small, questionable decisions become accepted practices, and organizational delusions are perpetuated. People easily forget the limits of safety ‘as designed’. Practices that are in fact operating in the risk margin become normalized through repetition. If, as luck would have it, no untoward incidents happen, people in the organization develop a general feeling of confidence, whether warranted or not.

The movie hints at innumerable irregularities, as the chief electrical technician (played by Mark Wahlberg) recounts a never-ending list of problems. The awesome technology of the floating drill-rig notwithstanding, its thousands of moving and electrical parts are in shambles. In spite of its brilliant design, the rig is deployed to untested depths at the ill-fated Macondo site in the Gulf.

Meigs also discusses the inherent weakness of human optimism: We favor data that conforms to our expectations; we question the veracity of data that defies them. BP executives undermined the Transocean operators who hesitated at the problematic pressure-testing results. In the movie, BP’s Don Vidrine insists that the results cannot be trusted because the sensors are faulty. He goads the Transocean operators to override the problematic results. Power plays, social acquiescence, and monetary pressure (BP was losing money at this complex drill site) overcome adherence to safety procedures. Even people with a strong concern for safety standards, such as Mr. Jimmy, were inevitably drawn into compromise.

Almost immediately, those results became tangible. The drills had tapped into a bedrock seam of oil and gas under tectonic pressure and the unstable pipe system could not contain it. Mud, water, gas, and oil shot up and out onto the rig surface, throwing workers off their feet and soaking the rig with oil. The flammable natural gas in the mixture was sucked into the air intakes of the rig’s generators where it quickly caught fire. Moments later, the rig began to burn. Shortly thereafter the fires blew so big that the inferno showed up on satellite images. Try as they bravely did, the crew could not cap the oil well on the ocean floor—the blow-out preventer and clamps did not respond as pressure from below continued to build. Multiple safety systems failed under duress.

Supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, April 2010. Source: U.S. Coast Guard.

Supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, April 2010. Source: U.S. Coast Guard.

Crew members scrambled to escape from a raging inferno, some jumping directly off the platform into the murky, oil-slick waters. I had been unaware of the harrowing stories and dangerous escapes of trapped rig workers because they were largely unpublicized back in 2010. The movie puts a deserved spotlight on their ordeal. Eleven rig workers died under horrifying circumstances. The others were rescued by Coast Guard and nearby vessels.
A poignant moment in the movie shows rescued workers on the deck of a nearby craft, having stared down death by fire, asphyxiation, and explosions. Traumatized, they get down on their knees, hold each other’s shoulders and pray aloud together, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name, forgive us our sins, deliver us from evil…”

I ponder the nature of evil as the movie closes. Evil, the word, may seem overstated, but as the movie closes, I feel there is no other word more suitable. This however, is a kind of evil that surpasses the movie’s set up of Hollywood-mold archetypes: the heroic oil workers versus the evil, greedy executives who drove the machinery to failure. Hollywood does like its villains. It understands the satisfaction of embodying all the prejudices, warts, and fears we have about ourselves. When villains threaten the world, we can feel good about defeating them. But this archetype represents an utter failure of imagination in our culture, literature, and art to come to terms with the larger, existential threat to the planet caused by us, and by our seemingly unappeasable production of dirty fossil-fuel energy.

To build upon Meigs’ premise, I believe the movie missed a larger narrative. Evil was not only in the deaths of eleven men on that oil rig and it wasn’t only in BP’s focus on economic considerations over safety.

You and I use carbon-spewing energy in every aspect of modern life. Our banking and financial futures are tied to oil, gas, and coal. Even as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide destroy the climate on a planetary scale, our bureaucracies permit firms to pursue fracking and drilling for more oil in new sites. The pursuit and use of oil is exterminating entire species, changing oceanic chemistry, and undermining the basis of life itself. Willfully we pursue paths that undermine our own food production and freshwater sources at the service of oil profits. We are on an irrational path. Therein is evil.

The movie makes only passing reference to birds that will never fly again but nothing of other aquatic life. Allowing 200 million gallons of black crude to gush into the Gulf of Mexico is evil because it murdered millions of living creatures, decimated ocean ecology, and caused long-term toxicity in the reproductive organs of surviving animals. So attribute more evil to our self-absorption that keeps us from perceiving value in life that isn’t human.


Gannet covered in oil and emulsified tar washed ashore in Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 2010. Source: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Newsweek recently reported that as a result of exposure to the toxic oil-dispersant chemical cocktail six years ago, people in Gulf communities continue to suffer epidemic-scale neurological, reproductive, and respiratory system ailments today. Evil is the continued glorification of a business system whose profit logic destroys life, pollutes water, and runs roughshod over people’s lives. We have no mechanisms to check the businesses and stop their excesses. The irony that online ads touting BP’s culture of “production safety” appear on my Web screen as I write this galls me. Evil is a massive judicial system that cannot find a way to prosecute or jail BP executives as an example for other industrialists.

Evil is continued governmental support for firms that are doing the equivalent of what BP did six years ago. Witness militaristic police in riot gear using batons, rubber bullets, sonar blasts, and tear gas to intimidate and arrest Native Americans protesting an oil pipeline in North Dakota that will inevitably develop leaks and send toxic crude oil into their sole freshwater source, the Missouri river.

It is difficult to confront the evil in ourselves. Yet it is us, our political structures and our courts, that fail to stop sociopathic business leaders who put short-term oil profits ahead of an emergency-paced transformation to a carbon-free future.

Our cultural stories are grand deceptions about who we are. We operate on the illogical theory that endless growth is possible despite finite resources held in delicate balance by nature. King Kong won’t destroy the world. We will—by failing to appreciate the true nature of our agency on earth. The evil is in our limited imaginations. This is what we should make movies about.


Deepwater Horizon (2016) Official Movie Poster. Lionsgate.

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