By Daniel Velasco
In 1851, Henry David Thoreau (and lifelong crush of Louisa May Alcott) wrote the short story Walking, where he opens with the statement,
“I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.”
In reality, 170 years later, Thoreau’s message as an avid believer in the concept of transcendentalism, or the idea that a very real and tangible force of spiritual truth, moral law, strength, and creativity is present within the natural world that surrounds cars, streetlights, asphalt, buildings, and any number of bluetooth devices you have surrounding you. This is ridiculously far from becoming the true utopian reality in comparison to the offset way public, environmental, and trade policy is created within developed western nations today.
The existential irony of the Thoreau’s statement itself is that even his ideas about environmentalism were in many ways, butchered up western regurgitations of what indigenous communities had been advocating to the federal government for generations:
Kinship, solidarity, and union between the human and nonhuman variables of the environment.
While Thoreau’s ideas acted as the catalyst for American counter-cultural movements that centered around finding the concept of a higher presence in nature, the ways it did so always involved distilling the image of Indigenous values, culture, concepts, and the ontology itself into some novel idea that always resulted in the oblivious belief that these communities were caricatures of what they really were, ambiguously assuming of their own extinction.
Which is to say that environmentalism has always avoided the real problem: addressing colonialism as intrinsically immoral.
Today, America’s relationship with the environment at the level of the federal government has always involved the commodification of its natural resources for capital gain. At this point, it has warped itself into a hellscape reality that has only been hammered into the collective psyche of the public through every ear-piercingly abrasive public policy change by Trump over the course of his entire administration.
Whether it be Trump’s poor attempt at catering to private interest groups by reversing over 70 different environmental rules and regulations, to the bureaucratic warfare he waged over the field of science, each effort made towards the further exploitation of reason has resulted in real measurable and uncomfortable impacts.
The degradation of credibility towards federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, has resulted in a doublethink level of miscommunication, as the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that:
“61 percent (258 respondents) reported that the expertise of EPA scientific advisory committees has deteriorated over the past year”, while “82 percent (345 respondents) agreed that the level of consideration of political interests hinders the EPA’s ability to make science-based decisions”.
In a chaotic, yet subversive year of failed republican conspiracy coups, and successful, gamer-led financial protests against the 1%, there has never been a more critical time for us to decolonize the ways in which our federal government operates on the level of policy.
Structuring the way in which the environment is managed through the prioritization of the economy (i.e. expediting the publication of Environmental Impact Statements so that the public has no idea what’s being done in their backyard) is not only unsustainable, but further reinforces the idea that the concept of land is meant to be purchased, owned, settled.
In fact, this month marks the fifth anniversary that The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved its plan to encroach part of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota for the sole purpose of extracting natural resources (such as oil) while further exploiting the individual communities that belong to it. There is a violent display of the many ways in which the federal government continues to view the natural ecology of our globe as a commodifiable product, begging to be manufactured, and, in its eyes, just asking to be made a profit of.
The raw emotion, and deep cuts made by a complete systemic disregard for communities that do not prioritize capitalism over the preservation of ancestral roots is the very basis for the investigative work of minds such as Nick Estes who was on the ground during the #NODAPL protests. He exposed the ways in which our government’s policy failed to secure the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux community in his book, Our History is The Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. In chapter 7, Estes explains the reality that,
“Indigenous resistance is not a one-time event. It continually asks: What proliferates in the absence of empire? Thus, it defines freedom not as the absence of settler colonialism, but as the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth.”
However, in the face of an administration that has amplified every outlet for the roots of colonial power to rise from systematically gutting key ancestral indigenous sites such as Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, the backlit solace of the dystopian circumstances that have led to events such as the unprecedented attack on capitol hill, is that as Estes claims,
“the answers lie within the kinship relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and the lands we both inhabit.”
In the case of these relationships, one key obstacle that prohibits any environmental policy from effectively creating a cooperative outlet for non-Western concepts of thought is the neglect of epistemological divide between western world views and indigenous world views.
In this example, Epistemology is defined as the philosophical principles that drive how knowledge is exchanged.
In a separate case study of the colonial structures in which environmental policy operates underneath, the Confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers acts as a prime example of the legal hurdles and challenges that are involved with establishing a geographical area as “sacred” in relation to a given community that has deeply rooted cultural ties to it.
Many indigenous communities [The Hopi, Zuni, Navajo (Diné), Havasupai, Southern Paiute, Apache, and Hualapai] have long been victim to unnecessary, marginalizing, systematically oppressive, and downright Kafkaesque bureaucratic processes straight out of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, in their collective efforts to legislatively establish an area referred to as “Sipapuni”, as a “sacred site of cultural emergence” in the eyes of the federal government.
The bulk of the dim light at the end of the tunnel that is continuously fading in and out through the monotonous and frustrating legal process highlights key differences in worldviews contributing towards the impacts and threats that colonial thought poses to the confluence. According to the case study published by the Journal of Water Research and Education, these factors are:
- A Western concept of land and water devoid of spiritual meaning
- Federal management of land and water resources stemming from colonial power dynamics
- The Treatment of water as a commodified property lacking spiritual/cultural purpose
- Hopi and Navajo Nation (Diné) tensions stoked by colonial territorialization
- Unsustainable and unregulated groundwater withdrawal in the LCR basin.
Along with potential strategies for protecting the area are:
- Relationship building between tribes, NGOs, agencies, and stakeholders
- Advocating for inclusion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in resource governance.
While the challenges laid out in the case study illustrated the groundwork needed in order to facilitate an effective sociological impact on indigenous communities in relevance to resource management, the article also highlights potential ways in which the confluence can be protected as well (i.e. relationship building between tribes, NGOs, agencies, and stakeholders, advocating for inclusion of Indigenous Knowledges (IK) in resource governance, invoking federal trust duty to protect resources vital to a permanent homeland, strategically adapting colonial policies to achieve anticolonial protections).
In an effort to answer the question on why and how these circumstances came to be, the control that industry groups have had on our politics through the social status granted to them through colonialism is an uncomfortably disturbing variable behind why such unbalanced power distribution exists in the first place.
In fact, as a marker of today’s political climate of natural resource management, over 33 private corporations and industry groups exerted their power in a very direct and public display of their influence in a letter sent to the CEQ. In the letter, entities such as the Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute urged chairman of the CEQ, Mary Neumayr to
“expeditiously proceed” with efforts to “modernize” National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations.”
This will inevitably result in an open outlet for federal agencies to become less transparent about the potential environmental degradation occurring in cooperation with private industry groups, due primarily to the fact that NEPA rollbacks favor more pollution and less community input, meaning that federal agencies can no longer evaluate the “cumulative” effects of projects—such as their impact on climate change—or how multiple projects collectively affect a community”.
The reversal of historically bipartisan environmental policies pose an immense threat not only on the lives of Americans today, but the lives of every organism that makes up our surrounding natural environments, and the environments of planet earth as a whole. Decolonizing environmental policy on the federal scale requires self‐determination, autonomy, and sovereignty to be established as inherent rights to self‐governance, independence, and freedom which needs to include the inherent right to make decisions about traditional waters and lands, according to Indigenous Political Discourse.
If the tedious legal processes, reversal of bipartisan environmental policies, commodification of land resources, and upheaval of immorally degrading systems of governance act as anything, they should be a living testament as to why public policy making with the intention of capitalist gain only serves to benefit the elite class, while contributing to the cycle of socio-ecological exploitation that has only repeated itself through the racial chokehold it maintains on differences in power dynamics created from concepts such as settler colonialism.
Lastly, because the scope of colonialism in capitalist politics stretches beyond systematically manipulating individuals by race into systems of complacency, it’s important to acknowledge the haunted warnings of forces that predetermine your life, and false sense of free will, even if they come from a source of uncomfortable truth and reality.
In his painfully cathartic exposition of addiction, Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs created the concept of “Total Demoralization” to explain the legislative efforts his characters endured when being interrogated, brainwashed, and controlled in this statement:
“The Subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”
This piece is a thought journal consisting of a mix of research between my classes, work, and personal interest that I’ve been putting together. I wanted to feature some ideas I’ve had about the issues that are currently in the way of successful progressive environmental laws being passed. I also wanted to feature some photography I took while doing fieldwork in Utah, and some of the social issues I saw happening during my time there.
Great article, worth the read! Such an important topic not getting enough attention. Very informative and inquisitive. Cannot wait to read more from this scholar! The photos were great as well!