Plants grow from the roots – the ecology of social movements

Posted March 4th, 2015 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

I think we’ve kind of neglected that fact.  All life emerges. Plants come from roots. Forests grow from tiny seeds that fall into the ground. The shell breaks open or dissolves. Little sprouts shoot up. One day, we are hiking in a forest on a beautiful summer day…


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Gardeners know. As we feel deep within us that the time for planting is soon, despite the cold and snow, we know this. The light tells us. The warmth that comes from the sun now even on the coldest days is pregnant with this keen anticipation. A few weeks from  now, we’ll put seeds in the ground. Later this summer, we will feast.

I never get over that miracle – that from those tiny seeds I put in the ground, I will feast.

And so of social movements as well, revolutions that transform societies and cultures. They don’t come from above, though last century that was too-often attempted, with rather dismal results. The movements that transform our world come from below, from seeds planted in good soil, nurtured, cared for, allowed to be and to rise and to grow and to enlarge…

Until they change the world.

Since I returned from my Athabasca River Pilgrimage 17 months ago, and after all these months of presenting and workshopping the connections among the tar sands of Alberta, the Bakken oil fields, fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, pipelines and oil tanker trains – trying to lay out the map of this interlocking reality that is destroying our future on this planet – during these many months I have longed for a coming-together of activists in the Upper Midwest to share stories, strategies, inspiration, and solidarity as we build a human network to counter this vast destruction underway, an ecological response from this species to what is being done to the Earth where we reside.

tar-sands bakken summitAnd then it happened, on very short notice, activists were invited to gather together in Madison on Feb. 21 for a Midwest Tar Sands/Bakken Petroleum Summit: Building the Momentum in the Midwest (see the list of sponsoring organizations at the end of this post. To view the packed agenda, click here).

One of the things that happened was that so many people wanted to be there that they ran out of space in the room at the Pyle Conference Center on Lake Mendota. They had to create a waiting list.

Many seeds have been planted over the past several years – from Minnesota across Wisconsin to Michigan and south to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska – and now here they were, the shoots that had sprouted up from the soil of the places we love, the threatened places, the contaminated places, the mined places, the places still beautiful, the places we are determined to protect from the industrial sacrifice zones of the corporate fossil fuel predators.

Some rock stars were there for sure, including Winona LaDuke (Honor the Earth), who offered a stirring presentation that evening to a standing-room-only crowd, and Jane Kleeb who brought with her the story of Bold Nebraska‘s brilliant campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from snaking across her state.

Kathy Hollander and Andy Pearson of MN 350 addressing the summit

Kathy Hollander and Andy Pearson of MN 350 addressing the summit

But it was from grassroots organizers ranging in age from mid-20s to 70s who, one after the other, offered evidence of what is emerging in this region of our world – a movement, a growing and expanding movement, emergent, unstoppable now, becoming more effective and expert in knowledge and experience as we keep learning, experimenting, reaching out, educating, raising awareness, and organizing to show that another kind of world really is possible.

That other kind of world was gathered in that space – not perfect, still growing and maturing, but earnest, sincere, full of passion, and commitment to preserving a world for future generations that is abundant, healthy, and beautiful.

Also fun.

Overhead Light Brigade at the summit. We revere them here in Wisconsin.

Overhead Light Brigade at the summit. We revere them here in Wisconsin.

It often feels like a privilege to have this vantage point. I returned to Milwaukee to pursue this work from my old home ground because a part of me never left the Upper Midwest. I spent 25 years working for the Religious Task Force on Central America & Mexico in Washington DC, a national office that was one of several groups that helped lead a national solidarity movement to support liberation struggles in the region, and to stop US support for military dictatorships and government repression. I came back to Wisconsin with this kind of national reach and so it made sense for me to maintain those connections and work with and through them as more and more of that old solidarity community was moving in this direction. I found colleagues everywhere working to deepen our understanding of what was happening to this planet, finding old spiritualities and religious understandings being transformed by what we were learning about the cosmos and of our place on this precious little life-bearing planet, while beginning to bridge long-standing divides between the work of ecological and social justice.

One outcome of that history is that I have been gifted to “see” the transformation underway in so many of our ecological communities – from the Bay Area to Long Island, from the Utica Shale play in western PA to the prairies of central Wisconsin, from the Alberta tar sands to the BP refinery in Whiting IN, and many points between these places.

Flaring in at the new fracking well pad in Western PA on the boundary of Villa Maria

Flaring in at the new fracking well pad in Western PA on the boundary of Villa Maria

If I begin to add to this picture the time I spent with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in Western PA where fracking has begun in earnest, or a recent first-time visit to the Holy Wisdom Monastery near Middleton WI where a group of ecumenical Benedictine women is restoring prairie surrounding their new LEEDs-certified monastery building, or visiting Alice’s Garden and Walnut Way in Milwaukee’s inner city, or Will Allen’s Growing Power, or the work in Dane County to block Enbridge from constructing the one more pumping station they need to complete their vast pipeline expansion across my state…

When I add all that together, well, despite the often-grim news about our political culture right now, all of this amounts to a stunning level of social change work taking place in conscious awareness of and directly related to the ecological crises of our times. And they are spaces where the crucial connections are being made between ecological and social justice. The day will come soon when there will be no “between” there at all, when we will see the organic interrelationships between these two expressions of injustice, when they are so bound together in our work that we will wonder that we ever thought we could have one without the other.

The seeds are many, and often they are seeds of our tears, our grief, at what is being lost – the sand hills of western Wisconsin sacrificed to the frac sand industry, the more than 600 Appalachian mountaintops that have been blown away for coal, the boreal forests of northern Alberta, the millions of acres of land and groundwater sources being ruined for the hundreds of thousands of fracking wells pumping from the Earth what ought to be left there (oh, this list is long).

MTR in West VA - Photo: Vivian Stockman

Mountaintop removal coal mining in West VA – Photo: Vivian Stockman

They are often seeds of our fears as the threats come home to our places – the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin where a vast open pit iron ore mine was being planned for the Lake Superior watershed (looks like we may have won that battle), northern Alabama, part of Kentucky and Utah “cursed” with tar sands, communities threatened by oil tanker (bomb) trains, my state and so many others where pipelines are being constructed or expanded for the transport of tar sands and Bakken oil…

The seeds are also of our love for these places – a most natural love before industrial/consumer anti-civilization came along to replace that love with addiction to stuff. After all, where does the grief and the fear come from except from that love?

So while I share a lot of bad news here, the amount of time I am privileged to spend in other communities, with so many caring, creative people, opens this enormous window on the other crucial part of this story. Humans are indeed responding. This human species also has instincts – for survival, for protecting our loved ones, our most intimate relations, for what we need so that they may thrive in a world rich in abundance for all.

Alice's Garden, in the heart of urban Milwaukee

Alice’s Garden, in the heart of urban Milwaukee

Plants grow from the roots. So do social movements. So does authentic social, cultural, and political transformation. Something truly significant is occurring now, and it is part of our task, our vocation, to protect the spaces from which it is emerging, to help nurture it so that it can continue to grow. There will be a new forest soon, teeming with life.

The work of ecological hope – the work of social justice – the work of “new creation.”

~ Margaret Swedish

Some wisdom from Winona LaDuke, Feb. 21:

We’ve all become fossil fuel addicts. Our whole way of life is dependent on fossil fuels. And we’re hanging out with the dealers. We live in an economy that is taking stuff out of the Earth and making garbage. This stuff should be left in the ground. It should not be removed. The oil is in the ground for a reason…

Fracking is rape of Mother Earth. We are exploding the bedrock of Mother Earth. When you know a child next door is being sexually abused, you have to do something. You know that child is going to be messed up. We should not accumulate the rape…

We have to think differently. We need to be changed. God is at work in this world. We need to begin putting this world back into right relationships. Being partners means being co-creators. We have to unite in a multi-racial way.

Sponsors of the Midwest Summit: 350 Madison, Family Farm Defenders, Four Lakes Sierra Club, Grassroots Pipeline Awareness Group, Madison Action for Mining Alternatives, Madison Union Cab, Midwest Environmental Activists, Midwest Tar Sands Group, Wisconsin Tar Sands Action Coalition, Wisconsin Safe Energy (WiSE) Alliance, Minnesota 350, Milwaukee 350, 100 Grannies for a Livable Future

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One Response

  1. Dr Carolyn Reinhart

    Thank you for this Margaret. A good article, perspective and reminder of both the great difficulty and the hope as we connect together as people responding to the desire to care for our shared earth home.