Category Archives: Affinity

Opinions about a new attitude to nature i.e. the idea that all of life on the planet is connected

Superiority and Race

 

People of European descent have long had a grossly exaggerated sense of their own superiority to indigenous people around the world. After all weren’t they politically and technologically dominant around the world? They must be superior. What other explanation could there be? This is part of what I have called the Original Sin.

From that robust sense of superiority sprang the notion that they must have sprung from a superior race.  Even though that notion has been intellectually discredited, this feeling of superiority runs deep. It is easily sublimated when under siege, but invariably bobs up somewhere else.

At one time such notions were convenient. For example, they were used to justify first the destruction of native societies and then slavery and later more subtle forms of dominance over other races. That allowed Europeans to prosper unimaginably from an economic perspective.  It also allowed them to sleep at night, or perhaps, put their conscience to sleep.

It is difficult for us to comprehend objections to what is to our advantage. That is why slavery and  racial bias were so difficult to defeat.  These were convenient biases. Bias has in fact not been defeated in centuries of trying.

Yet this entire feeling of being a superior race is a feeling built on sand. There is no secure foundation for it at all.  Partly because the entire notion of race itself has been discredited. As Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis said in his book The Wayfinders, “science in fact suggests an end to race, when it reveals beyond any reasonable doubt that race is a fiction.” Of course racism is not a fiction!

Science has clearly demonstrated:

“The genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum.From Ireland to Japan, from the Amazon to Siberia, there are sharp genetic differences among populations. There are only geographical gradients. The most remote society on earth contains within its people fully 85 percent of our total genetic diversity. Were the rest of society to be swept away by plague or war, the Waroni or the Barasana, the Rendille or the Tuareg would have within their blood the genetic endowment of all of humanity. Like a sacred repository of spirit and mind, any of these cultures, any one of these 7,000 would provide the sees from which humanity in all its diversity might be reborn.

What all of this means is that biologists and population geneticists have at last proved to be true something that philosophers have always dreamed: We are all literally brothers and sisters. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth.”

This of course is a recurring theme in my blog. I come back to it over and over again. We are connected. None of this should come as surprise to anyone. After all, we are all descendants of a small group of humans, perhaps as small as 150 people, that migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and proceeded to colonize the world. And guess what, those people were likely dark skinned! I remember when we were in Africa a few years ago in what was called “the Cradle of Humanity,” when I mentioned this fact to an evangelical Christian in our group, he was obviously disturbed by that possibility. Why should that be?

The consequence of this is, as Davis said,  “all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth—a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia—is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities.”

After all how can one say the people of the west who created a great technological society are superior to the indigenous people of North America who learned to flourish and not just live in North America where the Europeans who arrived on contact would have starved or frozen to death? Who can say Europeans are superior to the people of the Amazon rainforest who have learned to live with robust knowledge and experience amidst the natural splendors of their homeland? In particular, when modern industrial society, of which the West is inordinately so proud, has led to the destruction of about half of life on the planet, does it even resemble sense to hold the western ways superior?

Davis got it profoundly right when he said,

“There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilized, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited—indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial conceit that it was.  The brilliance of scientific research and the revelation of modern genetics have affirmed in an astonishing way the essential connectedness of humanity. We share a sacred endowment, a common history written in our bones. It follows, … that the myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us.  They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?  When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the next 2,5000 generations, even as we continue this never-ending journey.” And we need that entire repertoire.

The ignorance of western cultures mired in the excrement of  feelings of superiority is magisterial in its colossal stupidity. There really is no ignorance like it–anywhere any time.

 

E pluribus unum

 

 

Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.

David Suzuki and the Indigenous Attitude to Nature

At the University of Winnipeg talk after showing the film Beyond Climate, Suzuki also discussed a new attitude to nature. He  began by talking about the American economy.

After World War II and the end of the Great Depression, America President Franklin Roosevelt realized that the war economy had saved capitalism from self-destruction. But a war economy carries with it enormous unpalatable costs far beyond mere economic costs. He realized that what it needs is consumption. Constant relentless consumption. That was his solution.

Of course what the United States has actually done is to maintain both a consumer economy and war economy. The U.S. spends as much on the military as the 9 countries that are next in line, spend combined.

Suzuki thought we needed a better way. Climate change was just one of the things such an attitude had ushered in. He said  he had learned a lot from indigenous people. In fact he said, “Indigenous people have taught me all I know.” This was important because much of the film dealt with the opposition of First Nations to the plans of Alberta and the Canadian government to build pipelines from the Oil Sands of Alberta to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil or bitumen to the coast of British Columbia. Alberta was upset that the federal government could not ram through the pipeline approval process. Of course that is just not feasible. Those days are done. The Supreme Court won’t put up with it.

In the late 1970s Suzuki realized that we needed a new attitude to nature. And he found it. He found it in the 1980s when he went to interview indigenous people at Haida Gwaii. He wanted to talk to them about the protests by indigenous people over logging on their land. He talked to forest company executives, environmentalists, politicians, and, most importantly Haida. That was how he met Guujaaw a young artist who was leading the Haida opposition to the logging.

Suzuki wondered why the Haida were so vehemently opposed to logging since many of their own people got jobs with  logging companies. And many of them badly needed jobs. Suzuki asked him, “What would happen if the trees were cut down?”  His reply was profound, but Suzuki did not realize at first how profound. Guujaaw said, “Then we’ll be like everyone else, I guess.”

A few days later Suzuki thought about that answer and it “opened a window on a radically different way of seeing the world.” As we keep getting reports from the World Wildlife Fund and others about the incredible impact humans are having on the world, I think a new attitude to nature is exactly what we badly need. Suzuki explained it this way,

“Guujaaw and the Haida do not see themselves as ending at their skin or fingertips. Of course they would still be around physically if the trees were all gone, but a part of what it is to be Haida would be lost.  The trees, fish, birds, air, water, and rocks are all part of who the Haida are. The land and everything on it embody their history, their culture, the very reasons why Haida are on this earth. Sever that connection and they become ‘like everybody else.”

Indigenous people around the world have similar attitudes. They  are based on a deep attachment to the land they occupy. They are connected to that environment. It is part of who they are. Suzuki like other people from the west had a different attitude to nature and that has made all the difference. To the Haida, and other indigenous people, and as Suzuki concluded,

 

“…there is no environment ‘out there,’ separate and apart from us; I came to realize that we are the environment. Leading science corroborates this ancient understanding that whatever we do to the environment or to anything else, we do directly to ourselves.The ‘environmental’ crisis is a ‘human’ crisis; we are at the centre of it as both the cause the victims.”

 Suzuki realized he had found the new perspective he needed. It allowed him to see the world through different eyes.  He realized, as the Haida had before him, that what we needed to survive and thrive was not more money in order to live rich and healthy lives. This new attitude to nature was reflected in all the Haida did and found its fruits in how they wanted to interact with the land. As Suzuki said, “Rather than being separate and apart from the rest of nature, we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the generosity of the biosphere.” I use the word “affinity” to describe this new attitude to nature. I will comment on again in these blogs.

It is this attitude that Albertans don’t understand. It is not just a matter of paying the Indigenous people money. They want jobs, they want money, but not at any cost. They don’t want it at the cost of their identity. That is why some of the indigenous people, but not all of them, do not want pipelines on their land and will sacrifice the jobs if necessary. I know that seems bizarre to Albertans and most Canadians for that matter. Alberta and Canada have to learn to respect that. Only then will they be able to successfully deal with Canada’s first nations.  And perhaps Canada will learn something valuable in the process. Perhaps there is something of value in that new attitude to nature.

Gimme Some Truth; Beyond Climate

I attended the showing of a new film on climate change at the University of Winnipeg in November  2018 as part of the Cinematheque Gimme Some Truth documentary film festival. The film was called Beyond Climate Change and was directed by Ian Mauro of the University of Winnipeg and narrated by David Suzuki. Cinematography was by Len Peterson. The showing was followed by a discussion between Mauro and Suzuki during which  Suzuki delivered a stirring address that all the ingredients of a lively religious Revival. I called it a secular revival.

The film was preceded by an important message by First Nation elder Dave Courchene of Manitoba. He emphasized some important matters. I will paraphrase his remarks since it was impossible to make an accurate word-for-word transcription. He said that climate change was a direct consequence of our moral failure to follow our moral obligation to moderate our consumption and protect the earth. Our consumptive society, he said, is based on fear, greed, anxiety, stress, discontent, and ultimately genocide. Those were unsettling words. He said, “We are a species out of control.”  This attitude comes from looking at the earth as a non-living entity.  “We need a change of heart to survive as a species,” he quietly but powerful said. We must remember, as aboriginals have always preached, “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.” This of course follows from the fundamental premise of many indigenous people that we are fundamentally connected to the earth; we are not separate and apart from it. We have to renew the spirit—i.e. we need to awaken our deep feeling of kinship and affinity with each other and the earth itself. I have already blogged about how this is in my opinion a deeply religions notion.

Courchene added, “We need to disengage with a life that is not in alignment with the earth and aboriginals have an important role to play in this process. They can help the rest of us do this.”

Early in the film Suzuki quoted from American poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder. He was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Petr Kopecký called him “the Poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Snyder, according to Suzuki said that the two most important words were “Stay Put.” I think he meant that we should resist being removed from the place we call home. We should stay connected to it. That is our base for all we do. We should not sell that home to anyone for money. That is what the first nations of British Columbia are doing when they refuse to sell rights to oil and gas companies to build a pipeline over their land to the Pacific Ocean.

Suzuki pointed out that “climate change is the critical—the existential issue of our times. The science has been in for 30 years. We know that the problems our children and grand children face will be immense.”

If you think this is alarmist or bat shit crazy here is what the World Health Organization had to say. Climate change is “the greatest threat to global health in the 21stcentury.” “Climate change is a global emergency.” But it is not all bad news.  The policies that we must adopt have demonstrable health benefits beside the climate benefits! However our Canadian government that held such promise when the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was committed to the Paris agreement on climate change, has been disappointing. Committing billions to supporting the purchase of a pipeline for bitumen without adequately assessing its effects on health or the environment is a big step in the wrong direction. As Tim K. Takaro and Jennifer Miller said, “Our government must invest in solutions to, not the causes of, climate change.”

The film emphasized what we already know, particularly after this horrific year that brought us record wild fires, spectacular storms, and brutal heat waves, and that is that extreme weather events will relentlessly plague us and we had better get ready for that. This is not how things are supposed to be, but this how they are. As Suzuki said, “the entire planet is at risk because humans have become so powerful that we are actually impacting the water, the air, the soil in a way that no other species has ever done.”

Albertans are very upset that BC and some indigenous nations are objecting to their project to bring liquefied natural gas and oil to the Pacific coast through the province of British Columbia and over indigenous land. But what do they think gives them the absolute right to bring a project to the land of others without their consent? Just because such projects produce a lot of money? As one indigenous leader said in the film, “Fundamentally there are just some projects that Canadians, and indigenous peoples, and British Columbians have the right to say no to.” As another leader said, “It is not just about corporate quarterly profits.” Another indigenous leader said, “I don’t feel comfortable pushing this off to my children.” These leaders summed up the issue precisely. Albertans by and large don’t understand this. Each of us has to take responsibility for this issue. We all have to do our part.

I liked many things about the film. For example, I liked the sign held high by one of the protesters: All you need is less. That is what we always forget and this is the problem. We always want more. I loved another sign, “Live gently upon the earth.”

I liked the scene in the film where a young aboriginal boy made a sensational jump when he drove his bike into the wall of a sandbox filled with a big mattress. The photographer caught him in midflight as he lifted off after hitting the board “flying” through the air completely horizontal, with a massive grin on his face and a bright gleam in his eye. The boy was obviously confident that he would hit the mattress. He knew he was resilient. He had hope.

I loved the comments about British Columbia and Vancouver in the film designed to explain to us why many of them  opposed pipelines into their bay up the coast. I did not know it, but Vancouver is the major city with the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emission in North America. This has been achieved at the same time that Vancouver has undergone significant growth: 27 per cent increase in population and 18 per cent increase in jobs. They are justifiably proud of that.  Why would they want to lose that? I wonder how much of this achievement is the consequence of their carbon tax?

Suzuki was interviewed for his views a number of times in the film. He was clearly sad that although fishing had always been a very important part of his life from the time he was 4 years old, he could not fish in the streams outside of Vancouver anymore. He could not bring his grand children to those streams. That is a pity. Not only that, it is important. It is not all about money. As one indigenous leader said, “you can’t eat money.”

I won’t say that I learned a lot new from the film, but it did inspire. The talk that followed did more than that. Suzuki in particular was in fine form. His speech was powerful. It was a secular revival. My kind of revival.