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.
The now dominant ideology has replaced human values, and human relationships with each other and nature, with an aggressively reductionist and transactional understanding of the world. It is a world in which life is abandoned in favor of growth and accumulation, all seeded and driven by competition as its central organizing principle. The result impoverishes people and nature while spreading unhappiness and dis-ease globally.
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.