-Thasunke Witko, Crazy Horse
"A very great vision is needed and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky."
-Thasunke Witko, Crazy Horse
Robin Kimmerer, PhD Dir. of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, SUNY.
Some friends saw Robin speak at a recent conference held by Chicago’s Center for Humans and Nature and suggested I listen to her TED Talk. I did and was struck by the quality of her vision—revolutionary in the best sense, which means evolutionary, again, in the best sense. An Honorable Harvest, and its foundational epistemology, may enable us to “find the soft green path”, as Robin says.
Robin’s work embodies the ideas on which the Tecumseh Project began: a reclaiming of human values by looking back at indigenous epistemologies and ways of life that were crushed by expansionist modernity. She is a western scientist, a botanist and part Potawatomi, yet she says, still a new student of this culture, which is part of the Anishinaabe, or the “original people.” Her First Nations name is Light Shining Through Sky Woman, an apt description of her gift. “Instead of walking forward,” says Robin, “we should first turn around and pick up what our ancestors have left behind for us, gather up the teachings, then we will be prepared to find the soft green path.” We all have ancestors whose wisdom and knowledge and values have been swept away by the now dominant ideology. We all have some place to look for a better understanding of the world.
It is this very ideology, whose vessel of implementation is capitalism that has brought us to the edge of ecological and social collapse. We can give this ideology a name: neoliberalism, which is the transubstantiation of competitive markets into metaphysics. It is revolutionary in the worse possible way: neoliberalism divides, discards and concentrates resources and power leading to fragility and collapse. In her new book Expulsions (Harvard Press 2014), Saskia Sassen, Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, describes the process as an “economic cleansing”, or the expulsion of the many, whether human or nonhuman, to strengthen the few. It is evolutionary in the most painful sense: as we might overcome a disease, our immune systems are strengthened. But sometimes we don’t overcome a disease.
Over the past twenty five years of practicing, and thinking deeply about, environmental and social justice, it has become clear to me—and an ever growing many—that we cannot engineer out way out of our condition as long as we operate within the dominant ideological frame. That frame has created the World Picture and keeps us trapped, conscripted to abide by its precepts. Unfortunately, nearly all efforts to address our problems operate within this frame, whether they are “market-based” solutions or well-meaning work in the fields of social justice or ecological restoration.
The pending, and inevitable collision of the economic with the ecological signals a collapse and a dystopic future. As evidence mounts this scenario becomes increasingly likely by the day. Yet it is not—not yet—a forgone conclusion. As Robin says, adopting a new understanding of the world as a place of gifts offers us the chance to flourish as individuals and communities. Indeed, she says, plants—who are higher beings than we—teach us that all flourishing is mutual; it is never singular, never concentrated. This she learned from her elders. Unsurprisingly, we can find something very similar in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics--eudemonia, or flourishing, is not accomplished alone, but within a polis, a community. And it can never be accomplished within a neoliberal frame, which today Aristotle might recognize as pleonexic. Pleonexia is a Greek word often translated as “greed” but better understood as an insatiability that leads to injustice. As I have written elsewhere, neoliberalism is a pleonexic and psychopathic system; it is a system that forbids satiety and externalizes anything that does not add to its progress.
And so I hope you find Robin’s talk as enlightening and hopeful as I did. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass appears to be sold out, but a new paperback edition is due soon.
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