A true ecological movement must reflect the way nature works – decentralized, non-hierarchical, nurtured and fed from the roots, biologically and culturally diverse

Posted July 2nd, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on A true ecological movement must reflect the way nature works – decentralized, non-hierarchical, nurtured and fed from the roots, biologically and culturally diverse

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

I want to talk about the work in which we are engaged. I want to talk about what an ecological movement is and must be. I want to raise some issues for our reflection. And I want to do that in the context of the acceleration of the human drive for more and more intensive energy to fuel this burgeoning population and feed its appetite for devouring things in order to have what it wants (different from what it ‘needs’).

Nature has a genius, or an ingenuity, that is the reason it works so well. It’s based entirely on the interrelatedness, the interconnections, among living and non-living beings (actually, everything on the planet is alive in one way or another). We know this well now – ecology is about those interconnections, about relationships. Mess with them, interrupt them, break down the patterns of biodiversity, tear things apart and separate things out from one another, and you start to have serious problems.

Raising real food

Raising real food

An example of what I mean: What have we learned about food systems? That intensive large-scale top-down models of agriculture, mono-cropping, and spraying to keep out the weeds, ruins the life that would otherwise be burgeoning from the soil and our waterways. It is a very destructive process, contaminating soil and waters, depleting aquifers, overusing land and causing erosion, replacing natural growth with chemically-induced growth, and putting very unhealthy food on the market. It  has also destroyed rural economies, family farmers and small towns, who were far better protectors of the land and water than these highly centralized, hierarchical industries.

Now we know this. In response to this knowledge, we turn little by little from such a system to fiercely local food-growing, backyard vegetable gardening, community gardens, CSAs and farmers market, becoming “localvores.” We see this as a way to create vibrant, resilient local economies, as a way to heal destructive land-use patterns, and then to eat healthy, tasty food once again.

To make this happen, we cultivate the soil, we nurture the land and seeds, we encourage local growth, we make way for all these diverse expressions of healthy food and life to emerge – and this grows community, and it renews neighborhoods, and citizens begin to learn why this was lost in the first place, why there are still harsh political and economic forces trying to discourage us. It is one of many paths to a new kind of citizenship – led from the roots, not from the top.

Alice's Garden, in the heart of urban Milwaukee

Alice’s Garden, in the heart of urban Milwaukee

What leadership means then is nurturing this movement from below, and embracing the kind of horizontal leadership of a community of people deeply embedded within their own communities. Leadership becomes very humble, encouraging, as in nature, the coming-together of these individual expressions into a real movement claiming its own resilience and power to create a different kind of world, one that matches the workings of Gaia and begins to cooperate with Gaia’s wisdom.

Here’s another inspiring example from my state of Wisconsin. We’re in a pretty bad political era here. Not only have the most strident corporate-backed rightist ideologues taken control of government, but the political opposition has been remarkably irrelevant in mounting any effective response, any effective defense of the poor, the discriminated-against, the land and water and forests of our state, and on and on. Meanwhile, the state is being handed over to some of the dirtiest of industries: a section of our North Woods to a coal-mining company that wants to clear-cut, tear up,  and drill a 22-mile long open pit iron ore mine through the Penokee Hills; frac sand mining companies tearing off the top of rich Wisconsin farmland to get the perfect sand for the fracking boom around the nation, building sand processing plants, and polluting the air, water, and the farmland where food is grown; tar sands oil companies that plan pipelines and freight rail and barge transportation of the toxic stuff through the heart of our state, and its lake shores and rivers.

Frac sand mining in Pepin County WI. Source: Pepin County Government

Frac sand mining in Pepin County WI. Source: Pepin County Government

It has been an ongoing beef of mine that all the attention to the Keystone XL has left out a far greater plan for WI and the Upper Midwest that could make Keystone irrelevant. Groups opposing that pipeline could win a tactical victory but lose the war to stop the expansion of the tar sands industry. Now we hear that the Bureau of Land Management has opened 850,000 acres of beautiful Utah for exploration for tar sands exploitation, to begin creating an exact copy of the toxic wasteland in Alberta.

Feels pretty depressing and, despite the speech, there is no indication that Pres. Obama will slow down the production of tar sands oil, or the fracking industry – nor will Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat who wants to be president.

So, what’s a bottom up, integral eco-community to do in the face of these mounting threats and the steamrolling of the fossil fuel industry over our lives and our lands?

Well, here’s what’s happening in Utah…
[Compelling 28-minute video at this link]

Children and families camp out in protest to save the pristine Tavaputs Plateau from America’s First Approved tar sands operation

And here’s what’s happening in Pepin County, Wisconsin…


Which led to this…


Or this: finding their waters degraded, their lakes being sucked out from below, and discovering the threat of high-capacity wells used for industrial agriculture and frac sand mining, some Friends of the Central Sands in Wisconsin got together and made this:


None of the people you see here are rock stars of any movement. They are citizens who love the “places” where they live and who feel compelled to do something about the threats to those places. They are citizens deeply engaged in the real front lines of the struggle to save the ecological communities of our planet. They are acting as participants in those communities, responsible for their intimate [inter]relations. They need our encouragement and support. They need our solidarity. As these shoots of hope, love, and compassion begin to sprout from the earth, expressions of the earth’s cry to stop the damage and begin the healing, they need the nurturing of movements that often get a bit star-struck, overly centralized (and therefore energy intensive), and sometimes a bit tunnel-visioned.

And this, too. A truly ecological movement has got to finally address deeply, organically, and integrally some of the more egregious aspects of injustice, racism , and poverty if it is to have any success at all, beyond saving a few natural areas and resources here and there (a losing battle because we can no longer single out any one place to save from the ravages of industrial society, just another reminder of the interrelatedness of everything).

Think of the Kochs dumping petroleum coke, an industrial waste product, on Detroit. Has there ever been a more blatant example of environmental racism! Or think of Gogebic Taconite pressuring a poor county in northern Wisconsin for a few hundred jobs in exchange for the demolition of huge swaths of the pristine Penokee Hills, or Canadian tar sands companies pushing their transhipment business on our nation and our politicians claiming this will help with our “energy independence” or our “national security” even though most of the tar sands oil will be exported far from us leaving ecological wreckage to be paid for by future generations.

So an even deeper humility is called for here – the willingness to engage the social and economic realities that keep opening spaces for these industries to flourish. First Nation communities near the Alberta tar sands are suffering plagues of cancers, asthma, and other diseases even while they hold jobs in the industry because it is the only viable economy offered to them (viable only in the very short term. When the viability ends with the inevitable collapse of the industry, they will not only no longer have jobs, but their region will be an ecological ruin for centuries to come).

So the work of ecological healing, regeneration, and wholeness must grow into a work that reflects the way nature actually works, engaging all the interconnections that create the crises. It must become a movement of true localvores willing to help till soil of organic growth so that more of the local expressions can become known.

Bad news for Utah...rich in fossil fuels. Good news for Utah...the people just saying, "NO!" Source: BLM

Bad news for Utah…rich in fossil fuels. Good news for Utah…the people just saying, “NO!” Source: BLM

The movement to stop fracking is a last example I want to iterate here. It has been largely a fiercely local movement that arose out of people’s actual experiences with wells and drilling, the manipulation of their friends and families by the companies, the environmental impacts which have been profound and terrifying (poisoned groundwater, earthquakes, methane releases, the frac sand industry, to name a few). From the ground up, people are getting organized, showing up at local hearings, beginning to get regulations and even outright bans in some communities in New York and Pennsylvania.

While a lot of media attention is paid to singular national campaigns, most of the real organizing and basis for changing this culture is happening at these local levels. We need to do more to empower these efforts, make them visible, offer solidarity, enter into conversation (humbly, not as outside experts or leaders), help develop the interconnections that build a real movement, and allow space for these expressions to, well, be expressed! The real leaders are there at the grassroots where they go door to door, neighbor to neighbor, to their church communities and town halls, and get upset and inspired to defend life in the places where they live.

When people around the world proclaim the slogan, “another world is possible,” this is where that new world will come from. That slogan began with small movements in Latin America, indigenous, poor peoples movements, human rights groups, displaced farmers, and workers whose livelihoods were/are threatened by the corporate global economy. As in nature, this is where the genius lies, because we are nature, too, and we do best when we mimic its way of working.

New Creation emerges from below. I learned that lesson over decades in my Central America solidarity work. That movement rose up from local solidarity groups all around the country, resisted top-down organizing models, took its lead from the communities under siege in the region and the refugees here to escape war and political repression. It was sometimes a clumsy, disorganized mess, and sometimes brilliant in tactics and strategies when humility won the day and multi-sector collaboration broke out. What we accomplished over 25 years still takes my breath away and serves as my model for how to create real societal and political change.

Go to the woods, the lakes, the shore, organic farms, your own backyard garden, and just see how creation is made there. When we do our best to mimic that process, we get our richest harvest and our deepest resiliency.


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