We Are Nature: An Attack On The Environment Is An Attack On Human Communities

Speaking on protests in North Dakota staged at Standing Rock reservation over the construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline, American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks had this to say:

When they threaten the environment, they’re threatening you. We are part mountain. We are part ocean. We are part river. We are part flower and grass and tree. All of this, we are part of all of it, so that when they threaten the environment anyplace, they’re threatening you.

In one sense, nothing could be more unalienable and self-explanatory.  Human beings exist within a great chain of multisplendent flora & fauna, within a wonderful array of seismic, hydrological, chemical, meteorological, climatological processes.  As a species, we are inside everything in nature and outside nothing.  Dial any of nature’s processes up or down even slightly and human existence, human society, human civilization faces massive change and disruption.

We need the sun.  Our planet’s distance from the sun provides a temperature range where life can flourish.  The sun provides energy for plants to metabolize through photosynthesis.  No ecosystem exists without plants, and without plants every other being tumbles into non-existence, there being no sources of food for anything living.  We need the land in a state of arability so we can grow or farm.  Without rich topsoil to grow things, famine rules the land.  We need water, clean and drinkable, non-toxic to the biology of everything from a plant to a person.  Any person goes without water about three days, they will die.  We need every step of the ecosystem, the various creatures and plants, in so many ways.  Ways often unforeseen but crucial — just look what the extinction of bees may do to the entire earthly system of life.

I cannot make this point enough: we are nature.  We are inside of it all.  We are a part of it all.  Our existence as human beings depends on and is affected by every process and living entity that collected together we call nature.

Again in one sense, nothing could be more unalienable and self-explanatory.  Yet in another sense,  in a sense that may be the default view of technological, industrial society, no concept is more alien and hard to understand than our own human connectedness to nature.

Many of us live in a world abstracted from nature.  Intellectually, we could assent to the fact that we would die without water, that we need a cornucopia of sustenance from the soil to be healthy, that breathing air burdened by a thousand toxins will kill us if not immediately then probably of some kind of cancer as our years in the poisoned air accumulate.

Yet many of us, especially in the modernized industrial world, are removed several layers from the necessity and vitality of nature that under girds our everything as human beings.  These basic facts of human existence remain merely an intellectual thing.  As if we are several stories up a massive tower, where it is hard to even see miles below to the foundation our whole structure depends upon.  We can logically assent to there being a foundation, but often don’t connect with it in a way that registers as being of high importance.

The cause and effect is not so easy to see when we live in glass and concrete megaliths, surrounded by so many miracles of the progression of knowledge and science.  Our electrical girds, modern medicine, blocks of asphalt, the domicile cellworks of apartments and suburbs, the water that appears from the tap almost as if magic, seemingly infinite and summoned with ease, the grocery store housing every variety of food, it all has an obscuring effect on much of society.  It is hard to see our human roots in the water, earth and air through so many abstractions of convenience.

This fog of abstractions is so thick that many people simply cannot see through it and ask questions like: why would you fight an oil pipeline?  And the answer is simple, yet perhaps needs reiteration: because it could poison the water, and water is life.  What would any of us be without clean water?  Water is a foundation and every single other thing we may stand for topples without clean water to drink.  Our human communities are not separate from their most foundational needs for water, air and soil.  The roots might be hard to see, as far advanced into the rarefied clouds propelled by technology and progress that we have risen.  Yet sever those roots of water, earth and air, and all of this comes crashing down quickly.  We eventually find we are part of the chain we are so determined to poison and dominate.

In a sense, this should not need to be explained.  Yet the fog of abstractions has removed many of us so far from the viscerality of the natural world human communities are inextricably dependent on.  So I think maybe some benefit exists in going back to step one: we are nature.  Our communities are nature.  Our well being will forever be tied with the health of the rivers, the oceans, the mountains, the forests, the soil.

Until the day comes where we can drink toxic potpourri instead of water, where we can subsist on desertification rather than fruits of the earth, where we can breathe the contents of poison smog instead of air, then we need to care about what happens to all these things.  For the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our families and communities, and for the sake of the generations that will follow us.

And for all the technological marvels and wonderment this society has bestowed on its inhabitants there is one place I think it has often significantly erred.  That error is viewing humankind as separate from all the naturalistic processes we are always and have always been encompassed within.  It is foolish to think we can destroy or pollute with impunity and think it will not eventually come back around to hurt us most of all.  For how backward and primitive industrial society thought Native Americans were throughout history, many Natives understood this basic human connectedness to the natural world, like this quote from Chief Seattle illustrates:

All things are bound together. All things connect. Whatever happens to the Earth happens to the children of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. (Chief Seattle)

To come full circle to what is occurring right now at Standing Rock, and many frontlines for indigenous struggles around the world, I think many of us retain some understanding of this basic truth of connectedness.  Even if we walk in two worlds, and adopt some of the technological world to fit our current situations, we still understand our communities will suffer and die if the natural world is poisoned, if the clean air, water and soil is allowed to be desecrated with toxins.

Though it may be hard to see beyond the fog of all the abstractions of convenience, I wish more people would try to connect with those basic necessities of water, soil and air.  Realize how important they are to protect.  How much more infinitely precious they are than the temporary monetary gains of a handful of persons at the top of an oil corporation.

It is not just an indigenous issue or struggle, though it tends to affect us lopsidedly as we are toward the bottom of society and seen as an acceptable place to offload the risks of these oil ventures.  It is something that affects everyone, as soon as they see past the fog, and realize the foundation every human thing rests upon, that the air, water and soil is everything.