Climate change, desertification and mass extinctions represent the culminating ecological crises that are the natural consequence of globalized oppression and conquest. The acceleration of the extraction of wealth from the earth by elite ruling classes has been going on for a very long time.
This pattern of social organization, given the name “civilization” and assigned the positive spin of “progress” has been spreading for several hundred generations. (See my blog: The First Principle of Being Human: Seek Kindness in all Relationships – Part 2) Over time, and focused in many different places on the earth, the charge of “civilization” has been advanced by expansionist regimes led by people of every race. Under colonial and industrial expansion the European capitalist brand of “civilization” reached every corner of the earth and is now considered to be both “normal” and “inevitable”, a natural extension of human greatness at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. Go us!
In every single “civilization” (differentiating from culture, tribe or nation), society is segregated into horizontally organized classes. Some version of an elite minority controls economic resources and the social and political culture of its empire or nation. The elite class resides at the top of the social pyramid. A useful majority resides below. They perform the work, provide the manpower and economic resources to make the elite rich and to support the army and the police that serve the elite. Usually there are tiers of classes in the middle. They are on the ground and manage the interests of the elite in exchange for privileges unavailable to the lower classes of workers or slaves. This is the basic pyramid.
Additionally, it is necessary to cultivate warfare between varying empires in order to maintain the fear of imminent conquest from outsiders. “Organized crime” is also a necessity—a more ruthless version of civilization that lives within a larger empire, feeding parasitically and justifying civil control and a militarized police force. Not a pretty picture, but accurate in a general way. Obviously there is a range of overt brutality that different nations, political ideologies and religious and ethnic versions of civilization express. Some are less abhorrent than others if one does not look too deeply into the shadows.
As a natural consequence of this hierarchical state of affairs, some of us—few on a global scale, by no fault of our own but simply by the condition of our births—have access to rights, privileges and resources that others, the vast majority, do not.
For most people on the relatively privileged side of this global equation, much of lifeʻs activities are related to maintaining or increasing oneʻs upper social and economic position for oneʻs self, oneʻs family, oneʻs business or oneʻs nation. “Security” is the greatest conventional concern for the upper and middle classes. (As well it should be because the system is inherently top heavy and thus unstable.) At the same time, for some members of the “educated owning and middle classes”, global inequality, war, civil rights abuses and the pillaging of the earth generates a crisis of conscience. This crisis of conscious, or Awakening of the Privileged is of a completely different nature than the Awakening of the Oppressed.
For most people on the other side of the global, economic and social justice equation—the side to which the vast majority of people belong—lifeʻs primary activities are related to survival in a system that is stacked against them and wants to keep things that way. Awakening on this side of the equation usually comes not from a crisis of conscience but from anger about injustice.
Both kinds of awakening want to take us to an authentically better world for our children and our future generations. Building unity across these two differently positioned stances is necessary in order to address the global crises we are facing. The poor represent the vast majority of the human resources on the planet. The privileged control the vast majority of the economic capital and the economic and social infrastructure. Both sets of resources must be mobilized effectively and massively if we are to deal with the catastrophe that we have been cooking for the last several thousand years. The non-indigenous elite have been advancing paradigms of conquest and extraction for so many generations that most of us cannot even remember that the bulk of human history happened before agriculture, writing and standing armies emerged.
This is understandably problematic.
The hundreds of thousands of years that we lived in relatively horizontal societies with sophisticated and usually balanced economic relationships within nature, form the bulk of our genetics. This statement often incites the “we canʻt turn back the clock” reaction people who assume that this is what I am advocating. I am not. I agree that there is no going back, technologically speaking. But the essence of my thesis is that we cannot move forward without renewing the practice-based skills and the embodied understandings that allowed our indigenous ancestors to live in horizontal societies with sophisticated, ecologically integrated skill and awareness sets. What we have lost and forgotten in modern conventional society is at the root of our global crisis, not what we have invented.
People from all races, nationalities, ethnicities, religious and spiritual traditions and economic and social classes are waking up to issues of injustice and ecological decline. However, even as allies working to address global and local problems, we can not expect to come together in true unity, with authentic equality of participation, mutual respect and shared leadership without addressing the legacies we inherited from history. We have absorbed the patterns of thinking and the habits of action and reaction of the culture of conquest without realizing how deeply these patterns control our words and behavior. This is true of both the privileged and oppressed sides of the social equation of contemporary, modern, industrial society. It is nearly impossible to come together in authentic unity when our stances toward social and cultural transformation are so diametrically opposed. Privilege stands on one side and oppression on the other. (Of course it is not as clear cut as this. In reality, most people in the United States and Europe embody both sides of this history in our blood.) Awakened persons of privilege and awakened persons of disempowered classes want the same things, but we often find it very uncomfortable to be in the same room with each other. Working through our historical and personal discomfort is usually trumped by the urgency of action for the “cause”. This setting aside of discomfort often leaves allies in a cause with buried feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, guilt or shame.
These negative feelings, in turn, reinforce attitudes, stories and judgements that divide and separate people who could be working closely together on our common interests. Instead, resentment simmers beneath the surface until it reaches a boiling point or something triggers an outburst. Unfortunately, this usually precipitates even more resentment, anger, guilt and shame. The cycle continues.
(Finding a New Unity – Part 4: Parallel Play in the Cauldron of Ancestral Reconciliation will address these dynamics and some of their solutions.)
The movement for environmental justice has been struggling with this problem for three decades or more and making tremendous headway. This headway is expressing itself in the “Occupy” movement, the Climate Justice movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and in Hawaii’s Aloha `Āina Unity Movement. Most recently this new unity is expressing itself at the Standing Rock Camp earth protectors actions, opposing the Dakota Access pipeline.
We are now creating provisional unities that reflect a significant shift in consciousness and the ability of persons with very different historical relationships to privilege and oppression to work together respectfully. These unities are by no means perfect and are frequently uncomfortable on all sides of the cultural spectrum. Transition requires transition strategies. The kind of provisional unity we are currently forging is capable of great power and posses the capacity to achieve the kind of results we desperately need at this time.
For the first time in United States history, a broadly supported mass action is being led by the descendants of the first nations. Genuine support is showing up en masse from non-native citizens from all over the country and world, while news reports featuring the faces and voices of politicized Native Americans are going viral on the internet. The spiritual and cultural leadership of the tribes is now framing the debate over the risks that the extraction economy poses to the water, the land and the people along the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. Native spokespeople are naming the global dangers we are all facing from climate change due to a runaway economy of greed and selfishness. All of this is framed by a deep understanding of the sacredness of nature and its desecration, within a historical relationship to cultural genocide against indigenous peoples. Even a recent mainstream editorial by Lawrence OʻDonnell of MSNBC that has gone viral addresses this issue head on, calling Native Americans our “Original Environmentalists.” He goes on to describe the Dakota Access Pipeline as an extension of genocidal history against the original inhabitants of the land of North America. The struggle is about standing up for the inherent sacredness of the earth and water, for the sanctity of the peopleʻs cultural relationship to their tribal lands, with special emphasis on the places their ancestors used for ceremony and burial. This is a unique and potentially pivotal historical moment.
People of privileged ancestry are bringing respectful and passionate support to the leadership of the tribes that are banding together to stop the pipeline. In spite of the awesome show of unity and broad support, I can only imagine that things inside the action camp are not “all good”. But authentic mutual respect and gratitude are showing up in a profoundly new way. This is a “provisional unity” or a “transitional unity”. We have made enough progress that we can fight together and, to some extent, vision together. We are reaching a place where our expression of unity is “good enough” for effective action. This is huge!
The placard saying “Bulldoze Your Own Temple” says it all. This slogan comes from another example of a “first nations led action”, the successful earth protection movement that has halted construction of a multi-billion dollar, internationally funded telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai`i. The slogans saying “We Are Water!” at Standing Rock and “We Are Mauna Kea!” in Hawai`i emphasize clearly both the sacred connection of people to the earth and our dependence upon the health of nature for our very existence. This core message is the one that unifies us from a place of common truth and common self-interest, regardless of cultural background. People from all walks of life are showing up with resources and a passion to protect the sacred in ways that are reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties.
If you look at the language and mixed leadership of the climate justice movement that stopped the Keystone Pipeline you will see the “new unity” at work there as well. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is another example. In these two examples the political message is being articulated by a entirely different leadership model than social movements of the past. It is much less vertically oriented and not dependent on charismatic oratory. There is no equivalent to Dr. Martin Luther King, the global and prophetic voice of inspired speeches that propelled the Civil Rights Movement so far forward. The leadership voices in these new movements are greater in number and there are many more women leaders and spokespeople. These “new unity” movements have a more gender diversified and horizontal quality. Interestingly, these two qualities alone reflect and harmonize with indigenous cultural influences. In addition, there is a powerful new emphasis on showing genuine cultural respect within these diverse activist communities. Again, this is due, in large part, to consciousness raising work around the cycles of oppression that have been incubating for the last three decades in the environmental justice, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and “Occupy” movements, among others.
These new expressions of social action are not perfect in their call nor their practice of “unity.” But they are effective. In crisis, effectiveness is much more important than perfection. Again, we must remind ourselves that we are in a period of transition. Metamorphosis looks really messy and confusing inside the chrysalis. In the long run, we will fail to progress through transition to emergence if we do not each address the ancestral legacies at work below the surface. Even if we temporarily set aside this awareness so that we can MOVE effectively forward, much pain and grief remains hidden in our social and mental habits as well as our cultural assumptions. The contexts wherein we can heal the wounds of history are very different than the contexts wherein we are organizing for unified, urgent and dramatic political action.
It is very important not to fall in love with fighting the disease. There is an excitement and an aliveness that comes from battling injustice and taking heroic and sacrificial stands for the benefit of future generations. It is fine, perhaps even necessary, to engage with that excitement wholeheartedly and ride it for what it’s worth. But there is a danger in it, too. All too often political urgency can be used as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. I have been down that road myself. It takes difficult and nuanced personal and cultural self-examination to move out of the excitement and chaos of transition toward authentic, lasting, mutual respect and equality of participation. We all long for a genuine experience of unity that truly understands and honors diversity.
So what do we do with that longing? How do we mature our fledgling unities?