In the wake of Earth Day, as protests against the Keystone XL pipeline continue this week in Washington D.C., concerns about climate change reign paramount in the minds of many. Indigenous Peoples have been observing the environment for thousands of years and have seen up close how fast things are changing. As Nobel laureates, climate scientists and celebrities have pointed out, Mother Earth is reaching a temperature tipping point. Carbon dioxide has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The most it should be to avoid a tipping point is 350, according to calculations by climate scientist James Hansen.
But problems are not all that Turtle Island’s original inhabitants can see. There are also solutions. In 2008 environmentalist Bill McKibbin formed 350.org, named for Hansen’s CO2 number. Earlier this year, Indian Country Today Media Network asked some leading indigenous experts what it would take to get back to 350. Here, the Anishinaabe activist and author Winona LaDuke, who is this week standing side by side in Washington with other tribal leaders as part of the Cowboys and Indians Alliance protesting Keystone XL, begins with a hard look inward at the Native contribution to these ills—and some innovative programs that are counteracting them.
Stop doing stupid stuff. Combusting coal is, well, so last millennium, and Navajo and Crow tribal leadership are intent on resurrecting and staying wedded to a dysfunctional and archaic fossil fuels economy. Crow’s Cloud Peak Mine, for instance, the tribal government’s newest proposal, would add 28.3 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. The Navajo Nation’s decision to buy the BHP Billiton mine, a 40-year-old coal strip mine, will add another big chunk. And it doesn’t matter if that coal is burned in the U.S., or if it’s burned in China. We all live in the same world.
We need a moratorium on fossil fuels extraction and exploration. Here’s how the math works: In order to keep our planet’s temperature from rising about two degrees, which is what we really, really want to do, we can only combust 565 gigatons of carbon. That sounds sort of like a lot. The problem is that fossil fuel companies, whether Cloud Peak, the Navajo’s Billiton, Exxon, Suncor or whomever, hold an estimated 2,795 gigatons of carbon on their books as assets or reserves. The Alberta oil sands alone represent 240 gigatons of carbon if the other 95 percent is extracted. No idea on the carbon footprint of fracking, and other forms of extreme extraction, like blowing off the top of 500 mountains in Appalachia to sell coal to India, or drilling in the Arctic. All I know is that that is extreme, and a bad idea.
Stop wasting money and time. There are the pipelines—the Keystone XL is about $7 billion of bad investment idea, and then there are the Enbridge, Sandpiper, Kinder Morgan, West East and Line 9, all billions of dollars that could be spent on things like infrastructure, efficiency and a smart grid. That money and those investments, frankly, are going to benefit mostly some guys like Enbridge, Trans Canada and the Koch brothers, and they are all doing fine. They don’t need our help.
Do the right thing. North Dakota baffles me. That state is the windiest state in the darn country, and what does it do for an energy policy? Frack hydrocarbons. At the Fort Berthold Reservation, Chairman Tex Hall is priding himself in creating the Kuwait of North America. Yet that reservation has 17,000 times more wind energy than it could use. And instead of putting up turbines, which would be like investing now in the upfront costs and then projecting the price of fuel into the future (this is an energy security and economic security strategy), the Hall administration is keen on fracking most of the reservation, and putting up an oil refinery, to extract, say, 20 years of oil, tops. Then there’s Montana and the Crow. Crow has 15,000 megawatts of potential. Same story.
The Navajo Nation’s aging coal-fired power plants—Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners, Page and San Juan—are hopelessly inefficient dinosaurs. Why spend millions of dollars when the renewable potential of a combination of solar and wind is the answer? That works like this: Utility scale solar matched with utility scale wind, and some smaller projects along the way. The models can be developed in places like Rosebud, Navajo or Crow. The latter two have plenty of energy transmission infrastructure already. Rosebud needs access to power lines, and tribal leaders need to demand access to these WAPA lines, which after all were built on our lands, with power from flooding our territories. Someone needs some new math and economics classes in Indian country, honestly. And tribal sovereignty is not a carte blanche for burning up the planet.
Then there’s the decoupling of our food from fossil fuels. One quarter of the carbon accumulating in the air is generated by our industrialized, globalized food system. This is a really bad idea. Some 91 percent of our seafood is imported, for instance. That’s a lot of carbon, and frankly, some unknown harvesting and growing conditions, from Fukishima to the mangroves of Indonesia. Say we re-localized things a bit, and maybe cut a few things out (would hate to give up coconut milk, avocados and coffee … so maybe we can hang onto a few essentials). Re-localizing food and organic agriculture can reduce our carbon pollution by 25 percent. Then we have the added benefit of rebuilding our local food economies, our traditional ways of life, and we have food security into the future. There are some amazing farmers and farming projects at Hopi, Tesuque Pueblo, Ponca, Red Cliff and here on White Earth, as we try to tackle this. And of course those Oneidas and Six Nations kept their agricultural economies pretty strong, but I am sure they could use some support and investment. The rest of us need to do the same.
Those old seeds—the traditional seeds—are nutritionally superior, and far more resilient in a time of climate change. They just demand a relationship with us, not Monsanto.
I find it ironic that the largest agricultural and trade empire in the north, the Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara territory, is not restored to its glory, and instead faces loss of all that is, and could be, with groundwater contamination from fracking. That is a lack of vision. New glasses over there, please. And once again, it affects all of us—the cloak of invisibility under which tribal sovereignty makes bad ecological, environmental and cultural decisions is not contained within one Indian nation. We are all affected. I just happen to live where a pipeline from the Fort Berthold reservation would cross, if we let it.
Grow traditional foods, and grow smart. Then there’s hemp. Yes, I said it, it’s a four-letter word for sure. We’ve become the people who slather ourselves with petroleum byproducts, and we seem to like it. From plastic, to more plastic, to body-care products, to fertilizers and car parts. We are becoming petroleum byproducts and GMO corn syrup. Honestly. Now, get real, is that a good idea? Hemp was a mainstay crop, in early industrialization, used in everything from sails to fabric to—these days—hempcrete. Both the Navajo Nation and Pine Ridge have tried to grow this, only to have their crops seized by the DEA, which is a sham, to say the least—since hemp has no THC.
Hemp is considered a carbon negative raw material, and has some other agriculture potential (North Dakota even thought about it and Colorado legalized its production). As well, hemp is one of a few plants that is successfully working in phytoremediation. That’s the use of plants to make an ecosystem healthier. Examples where phytoremediation has been used successfully include the restoration of abandoned metal-mine workings, reducing the impact of contaminants in soils, water or air. Contaminants such as metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil and its derivatives have been mitigated via phytoremediation projects worldwide. Plants such as mustard, hemp and pigweed have proven to be successful at hyper-accumulating contaminants at toxic waste sites. Cleaning up a mess or two is a good idea while we’re at it. Have a little courage, and climb out of some boxes. Put in renewable energy and relocalize our economies, from food to housing, to health and energy.
There is vision out there. Thunder Valley Community Development Plan on Pine Ridge is an example of vision being actualized. There, a collection of young and elders, coming together from a spiritual set of teachings and instructions, is creating a community that they envision—local food, renewable energy, sustainable housing and a way of life that was intended for Lakota people. In their thinking, they define sustainability as “honoring those who came before us. Meeting the needs of the present generation, not compromising the future so that the coming generations are able to meet their own needs and guide our vision and renew each cycle of life.”
We have a prophecy about this time, as the time with a choice between two paths, one well worn but scorched, the other green and un-trod. I think that this time I know, and the choices for First Nations are clearly demarked, with some torches of enlightenment and leadership already illuminati for us.
We define a sustainable way of life as:
Honoring those who came before us.
Meeting the needs of the present generation.
Not compromising the future,
So that coming generations are able to meet their own needs.