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A Plea for Rio+20: Don’t Commodify Nature

Indigenous wisdom reveals a path to the future that does not include a buy-out of the earth’s natural systems.

“Time is life.”"As alert citizen groups are pointing out," writes Korten, "the proposals being advanced would result in the ultimate commodification and financialization of nature for the short-term benefit of the same global profiteers who created the mortgage bubble that brought down much of the global economy in 2008."

With these three words, Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission, ended his brief description of Bhutan’s distinctive approach to economic development. It caught my attention because of the striking contrast to our common Western phrase, “Time is money.”

The event I was attending was a small international gathering primarily of indigenous environmental leaders. I was privileged to be among the few nonindigenous writer-activists invited to join them.

Tshiteem was seated to my left. Winona LaDuke, program director of Honor the Earth and a celebrated Native American environmental author and activist, was on my right. Tom Goldtooth, global environmental leader and executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, sat directly across from me. Next to him was Pablo Solón, former Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations. Pablo was a principal driver behind the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics, has aptly observed, “There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.”

We were there to share perspectives on the work of building green economies based on the principles of indigenous wisdom. Several of the participants are involved in bringing an indigenous voice to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June—the 20-year follow-up to the 1992 UN Earth Summit.

Our venue was Pocantico, the former New York estate of John D Rockefeller, the legendary icon of ruthless capitalist expansion and extraction. We enjoyed the irony of meeting in the setting of this grand estate in our search for a different path.

A Prophetic Choice

On the plane I had read LaDuke’s report Launching a Green Economy for Brown People. Its opening paragraph set the frame for our discussions:

“Ojibwe prophecies speak of a time during the seventh fire when our people will have a choice between two paths. The first path is well-worn and scorched. The second path is new and green. It is our choice as communities and as individuals how we will proceed.”

Recognizing the need for a new path, indigenous peoples around the world are revisiting the wisdom teachings of their respective traditions as a guide to their survival in a world dominated by institutional forces that have long sought to wipe those teachings from our collective memory.

We, the peoples of modern Western societies, face the same choice referred to in the prophecy. Some among us are realizing that we, too, have much to learn from the traditional indigenous understanding of what Goldtooth referred to as “The Original Instructions.”

Our deliberations at Pocantico brought into sharp relief the contrast between money-centered Western and life-centered indigenous views of the proper purpose and structure of a high-performing economy.

The Original Instructions call us to recognize Earth as our living mother and to honor and care for her as she cares for us. In the West we have forsaken the Original Instructions in favor of an economic theory that calls us to treat Earth’s resources as saleable commodities.

Rio +20

A number of the Pocantico participants were involved in negotiations leading up to Rio+20, a UN global environmental conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They informed us that the document being prepared for approval by the world’s governments in Rio will fall far short of identifying and addressing the source of global environmental failure. Rather it will recommend that to save our Earth mother, we must put an estimated price on her waters, soils, air, forests, fisheries, and gene pool and offer them all for sale on the thoroughly disproven theory that whomever is able to pay the highest price for her will have a natural incentive to care for her.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the leadership for a new green path came not from global corporations and the official delegates who aligned with corporate interests, but rather from the representatives of global civil society... Rio+20 appears destined to repeat that pattern.

In the 1990s I was deeply involved in the global resistance against multilateral trade agreements through which global corporations sought free reign to colonize the world’s natural resources, markets, and technology. The 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protest focused global attention on this assault against the human future. The massive demonstrations that followed all around the world largely stymied the use of multilateral agreements to circumvent democracy and popular sovereignty in a global drive to divide up control of the world’s markets and resources among the ruling corporate oligopolies.

During our Pocantico conference it became evident that corporate interests have concluded that the best current hope for advancing their agenda is to play on the world’s concern for the environment, using multilateral environmental agreements as their new vehicle to get local communities and national governments to relinquish control of the natural wealth within their borders.

As alert citizen groups are pointing out, the proposals being advanced would result in the ultimate commodification and financialization of nature for the short-term benefit of the same global profiteers who created the mortgage bubble that brought down much of the global economy in 2008.

Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics, has aptly observed, “There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” If Rio+20 goes according to the apparent Wall Street plan, it will lay the groundwork for Earth’s ultimate going out of business sale.

There is good reason why the wisdom at the heart of the traditional indigenous worldview strikes a deep and appealing chord in the human psyche.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the leadership for a new green path came not from global corporations and the official delegates who aligned with corporate interests, but rather from the representatives of global civil society who drafted alternative NGO treaties presenting a people’s vision of a just, sustainable, and democratic human future. Rio+20 appears destined to repeat that pattern, with citizen groups already working on People’s Sustainability Treaties that align with the Original Instructions and give voice to the vision and values of the rest of us. Hopefully, the resulting contrast between the corporate and people’s visions of the human future—one grounded in the contemporary Western worldview and the other in the traditional indigenous worldview—may help us all see more clearly the choice between the two paths of the Ojibwe prophecy.

Competing Worldviews

Those indigenous people who maintain their cultural identity view the world through a very different lens than do those of us who view the world through a Western cultural lens. The implications of the difference are profound.

The summaries below represent my understanding of the contrasting Western and indigenous worldviews regarding our perception of time, relationships, and place. The Western lens leads further down the scorched Earth path we are currently on. The indigenous lens leads to the path to a viable and prosperous human future. For clarity, I’ve intentionally emphasized the differences.

Contemporary Western Worldview

  • Time: Time is money and plays out in an exponential unidirectional growth in financial assets, consumption, and the market value of economic activity. Decision-making properly gives priority to maximizing financial gain to grow the economic pie and thereby improve the lives of all. Indices like Gross Domestic Product that assess economic performance based on the rate of flow of money through the economy and stock price indices like the Dow Jones average that track the value of financial assets are natural and logical metrics for assessing economic performance.
  • Relationships: Individual liberty and economic efficiency are paramount and are maximized by basing human relationships on financial exchanges in which each individual seeks to maximize his or her individual financial gain. This in turn maximizes the general well-being and improves the lives of all. Nature exists for the benefit of humans, who rightfully control and dominate it.
  • Place: Earth is a resource to be owned, valued by the price it will fetch in the marketplace, and exploited for maximum financial return. Our individual identity is defined by the brands we consume. Our individual worth is determined by the price we command in the marketplace and our accumulated financial assets. We maximize our personal economic efficiency by minimizing our individual connection and commitment to any place, person, or community and maximizing our readiness to move on when presented with greater financial opportunity elsewhere. Property rights are properly treated as individual, total, and freely tradeable if the price is right.

The affirmation and celebration of extreme individualism, instant self-gratification, and alienation from one another and nature characteristic of the contemporary Western worldview resonates with the primitive core of the human brain, commonly known as the reptilian brain. This is the site of our most basic, individualistic, and predatory hide, fight, or flight survival instincts unmediated by the more highly evolved mammalian brain that is the source of our human capacity for compassion and bonding and the neocortical brain where our distinctive human capacity for self-awareness and reason resides.

Suppressing our capacity for reason, we raise the pursuit of money to the status of a sacred mission, failing to notice that money is nothing but a number of no intrinsic value and that we are destroying the real wealth of people, community, and nature to grow the numbers on financial asset statements.

The traditional indigenous worldview presents a very different, what we might call a whole brain, perspective on ourselves and our relationship to nature.

Traditional Indigenous Worldview

  • Time: Time is life and is experienced through the rhythms of life’s daily, seasonal, and generational circular flow. As humans we must be ever mindful of our responsibility to meet our own needs in ways that assure life’s continued healthful flow and balance now and for generations to come. The Gross National Happiness Index developed by the nation of Bhutan appropriately assesses economic performance based on indicators of the health and well-being of people living in harmonious balance with one another and nature.
  • Relationships: All beings are related and interconnected. It is our individual human duty to recognize and honor the rights of all beings, including the river, the rock, and the glacier. Mother Earth provides our means of living. Her bounty is a gift that we received in common and must share, respect and care for in common. None among us created that bounty and no one has a right to claim it for their exclusive personal benefit. We are entitled only to take what we need and bear a sacred responsibility to give back or share the rest—all the while respecting the natural balance of creation and the Original Instructions that constitute a higher law to which all human laws are inherently subordinate.
  • Place:  Earth is our sacred mother. Each being has intrinsic value and its rightful place within an interconnected whole. Our personal and collective connection to our place on Earth is sacred and inalienable. Individual human identity is linked to and defined by a deep and enduring relationship to our place and to the vocation through which we sustain ourselves and fulfill our responsibility to and for the community that in turn sustains us.

There is good reason why the wisdom at the heart of the traditional indigenous worldview strikes a deep and appealing chord in the human psyche. Modern science is now telling us what indigenous wisdom keepers have known and taught across countless generations. We humans evolved over millions of years to live and prosper in community with one another and nature. Our happiness and sense of well-being depend in substantial measure on our connection to nature and a caring community. Science now acknowledges that the Original Instructions are, in effect, genetically encoded into the more highly evolved mammalian and human centers of our brain. 

What we of the Western worldview embrace as progress is best understood from an evolutionary perspective as a regression to a more primitive state of awareness. Our Western separation from nature—from life—has allowed us to greatly deepen human understanding of the inner mechanics of life. It has, however, alienated us from our understanding of life’s purpose; life’s capacity for non-mechanical self-direction, adaptation, and resilience; and what is truly sacred. We are just beginning to wake up to the self-deflating truth that to find our way to the path of the new green future, we must turn for guidance to the indigenous keepers of the original instructions who have survived the brutally invasive cultural and institutional forces of Westernization.

The New Green Path

Consistent with the Ojibwe prophecy, a reawakening to our true human nature is sweeping through both indigenous and nonindigenous societies. For millennia, the wisdom keepers of indigenous societies kept alive the deep wisdom of their traditional indigenous worldview and passed down their understanding of the Original Instructions from generation to generation to be available to us all at this time of prophetic choice.

We must reject any proposal that supports the further commodification and financialization of nature.

This does not suggest a return to the traditional predominantly hunter-gatherer indigenous ways of living and organizing. That is not an option. Quite apart from personal life-style preferences, traditional indigenous institutions and technologies that served well in simpler times, will not meet the needs of a globally interconnected population of 7 billion people in a resource constrained world.

To find our way on the new green path of the Ojibwe prophecy, we need a worldview that builds on a foundation of indigenous wisdom, while selectively updating and adapting it to the realities of a densely populated world and the need for selective and responsible application of appropriately-adapted modern technologies and institutional forms. The result might be something like this:

  • Time: We will recognize that time is life and is experienced both through the spiral of life’s circular flow and the trajectory of its evolutionary unfolding across generations toward ever greater capacity and possibility. We will honor life, not money, as the proper standard of value, understand that individual worth is inherent in the gift of life, and accept as a sacred duty our responsibility to assure life’s continued healthful flow and balance now and for generations to come. We will evaluate the performance of our economies by indicators of life’s health and vitality.
  • Relationships: We will recognize that individual rights and responsibilities are inseparably linked and will rediscover and renew our deep sense of connection to one another and Earth based on mutual caring and sharing.
  • Place: We will recognize that the biosphere is our natural mutual heritage, the foundation of life, and beyond price. We will discover that identity based on place and community has greater meaning and is more satisfying than identity based on personal financial assets and the brands we consume. We will acknowledge that we receive the gifts of nature in common and that nature’s bounty is best managed by the peoples of place-based communities who have a natural interest in assuring the continuous flow of this bounty from generation to generation with no loss in the vitality, productivity, and resilience of Earth’s natural systems.

Our deliberations at Pocantico focused on the efforts of indigenous peoples to forge new economies within their territories based on the wisdom of the Original Instructions. Their efforts can be an essential source of inspiration and instruction for those of us long separated from our indigenous roots and the wisdom of the indigenous worldview. For indigenous people to serve this role to the greater benefit of us all, it is essential that we of the world’s nonindigenous societies honor their right to hold and manage their lands and resources consistent with their traditional teachings and practices. Therefore, we must stand beside our indigenous brothers and sisters in their struggle to prevent outside interests from gaining control of what remains of their lands and resources.

More broadly, we must reject any proposal that supports the further commodification and financialization of nature and call on the United Nations to initiate the drafting of a new framework that begins with a recognition that life is the foundation and proper measure of value, nature is sacred and not for sale, and stable place-based communities are the natural and proper stewards of Earth’s natural bounty.

Together we can choose the prophesied new green path to a secure and prosperous living future for ourselves and for all the world’s children for all the many generations to come.

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