As the Delphic oracle laconically informed the Spartans, Erasmus paraphrased in Latin, and someone later rendered into English, “bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Regardless of one’s ideas about what is signified by the word “God,” the statement could be broadly interpreted to mean that the universe in general and the earth in particular function the way they do as a result of structure and laws—“God,” if you like—that are always operational, regardless of what anyone thinks about the matter. On earth, these operations, governed by the laws of chemistry and physics (among others), include both the behavior of the atmosphere when its greenhouse gas proportions are altered and the subsequent cascading effects on the functioning of the biosphere: our home.
No longer do I think that anyone doesn’t “believe” in climate change, particularly the money-fueled “deniers” and “skeptics.” The disastrous effects already are too much with us. Everything is more or less as usual, only more—or less—so, sometimes unbearably more or less. There are the generally intensified floods and droughts, new warmth, and new extremes of weather, sometimes unseasonable, often deadly. To my mind, at the terrible center of the refusal to take serious action regarding global warming stand the orphaned children of Aleppo. They are victims of a war caused in part, some say, by an unprecedented, climate-change-fueled drought. Those children have the misfortune to live in an already climatically fragile, over-populated country and region that would benefit by people working together to help improve resilience, but that instead has become enmeshed in nihilistic, zero-sum conflict. Even where there is not war, along the Atlantic seaboard, in the “global south,” and the American heartland—lives are becoming increasingly uneasy due to climate change’s effects. This is true even in places where the changes continue to be denied, a stance satirized by a recent New Yorker cartoon caption: “Dad, your basement is flooded with over ten inches of left-wing hoax.” The language we use to describe things is important. It is how we construct reality and make sense of the world. What the deniers are doing, really, is not only denying reality, but also denying people’s ability to describe that reality and take appropriate action.
But all this has been written, tweeted, filmed, and spoken about before, on and on, while the atmosphere keeps on getting loaded up like a giant piñata full of unusual surprises to be released in the future when a few more childish hits break the structure. The real question could be what to do about it. Actually, that’s not even a real question any longer, either. Answers are to be had, ascending in levels of complexity from the very simple, such as that those of us who own cars could drive less and walk or bike more, to the most complex of technological, social and political structures and processes. And this, too, has been endlessly discussed—and in some places, appropriate actions taken. To me, there are other, related questions I would love to see at least beginning to be answered, that maybe are beginning to be answered: How can we make important the idea of sacrifice as something desirable, in the old sense of making something sacred, of giving something up or away for the sake of continued health of the community? How do we revalorize the idea that the community, from which we are not separate, though we are an individual species within it, is “Nature,” aka the biosphere, and every aspect and part thereof? And finally, how do we re-learn the value of reciprocity in our relations with the natural world, our community? These are big questions, big enough to be pondered for a lifetime and more, and I have no answers. I’m trying to figure it out for myself, and mostly, writing helps me figure out what I think.
What would we give our lives to protect?
A recurring theme of Tana French’s brilliant series of detective novels focused on the Murder Squad of the Irish city of Dublin is the question posed by Detective Frank Mackey’s father in “Faithful Place”: “What would you die to protect?” Different characters in the series reflect on, act upon, and through events and actions come to answer some version of that question for themselves. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they figure out who perpetrated a crime. Sometimes simply parsing the question causes a realignment of fundamental relationships in their lives.
One could ask this question in slightly less dramatic terms. Many of us in the US mostly don’t encounter the kind of life and death situations giving murder mysteries their heightened drama. So: what are you willing to at least risk your life to save; or, what are you willing to sacrifice, to give up or give away—make sacred to god—in order to protect something dear to you? This question, really, is about love. What is it that you love so much, is worth so much to you that you would give your life in order to make sure it survives? Sometimes the answer is so self-evident it goes without saying. For me, images of my children and husband immediately come to mind, though further reflection offers other ideas as well. Often, though, it’s easy to avoid even considering this question, especially in a wider sense, unless forced by circumstance. To have thought about it—or not—and to take decisions and follow a course of action based on whatever one’s answer is—or not—brings one face to face with what is most important in one’s life. And the answer is often discovered through action rather than cogitation. Sometimes it is the threat of losing something taken for granted that forces a person—or a community—into this kind of self-discovery. Sometimes the self-discovery leads to new discoveries about the world and about relations with it. Often the answer is not only about family, but also about our home, our land, about that which gives us sustenance, material and spiritual.
It is in this light that I think about the water protectors who gathered last fall to defend, non-violently, the Standing Rock Sioux’ sacred sites and the Missouri River, sacred in and of itself, as all rivers are sacred, because of their life-giving benefits to all living things within their watersheds. I do not put that title in quotes, as so many in the media did, marking it out as a new, not quite legitimized version of the term protesters. To me the epithet is brilliantly accurate, emblematic of the action they were taking and sacrifices making. They were not protesting against something, but were, in truth, protecting, in service to their personal values, and the larger set of values and beliefs that leads a person, a group, a tribe, a people, to honor the earth for what it is and what it does, to value and protect those things, perhaps intangible, that are of inestimable value, and on which their lives depend. The water protectors were making a sacrifice, a chosen sacrifice. They were voluntarily giving up comforts, livelihoods, and certain kinds of social and legal standing while risking their lives to protect what they love, in service to a reciprocal relationship with the earth.
The word “sacrifice” is sometimes suspect nomenclature denoting a troubled, complicated history. At root, the word means making an offering—making something sacred—to god(s). That idea has had wildly differing interpretations and applications in different times and places, ranging from the Aztecs’ habits of daily human sacrifice to the sun, to Mother Teresa giving her whole life in service to the poor, to parents making sacrifices in their own lives so their children may succeed, to the current president’s claim of having made sacrifices as he avoided duty, obligation to family and society, and integrity in his wealth-fueled quest for greater riches and adulation.
In early days, making something sacred to god often did involve killing some living thing, human or animal. The Aztecs and Mayans may seem like poster cultures for human sacrifice, but in fact, prior to modern times, wherever humans practiced nature-centered fertility religions, the custom was pretty usual. This includes South and Meso-American cultures, the ancient Celts, Scandinavians and other pre-Christian European cultures, and others.
The understanding that human sacrifice was not necessary to appease various gods, assure luck in a dangerous venture, or restore the fertility of the earth prior to planting season must have marked a major turning point for many cultures. (Though of course most have invented other, equally spurious religious or ideological excuses for killing people). This realization by, among others, the ancient Greeks, Old Testament Jews, Buddhists, and North American Indian tribes, is a great invention. The idea and practice then had room to enlarge into something less literal and transactional; it could become symbolic, as in such different religious realms as the Christian custom of communion, representing Christ’s eternal sacrifice, and certain old North American Indian rites in which pretend “arrows” were “shot” at “victims” during adoption and renewal ceremonies. It also became personal—regardless of belief, adherents have often made—and make—physical self-sacrifices of various kinds, including living lives of poverty and service, and putting their lives on the line to carry out non-violent resistance in the face of oppression.
And sacrifice and reciprocity do exist in a gift-giving context. On a basic, transactional level, something is given in order to get something back. A more mature person, group or culture will think in terms of reciprocity, that subtler and more complex concept that has moved beyond the transactional to include altruism, mutual benefit, and love. We give back because we understand what great gifts we have been given, or how others have sacrificed so we might thrive, and to make the family or community stronger and healthier. Regardless of the particular elements in a given case, reciprocity involves true relationship that benefits all involved, and respects, rather than attempts to exploit, other parties. Our friends have us over for dinner. If we wish to continue a strong relationship, we subsequently have them back to our house, or we buy them a meal at a restaurant, or we do something else that lets them know we appreciate them and want to continue the relationship in a way that strengthens the love and support we provide one another. By contrast, if we buy dinner from a restaurant, we are under no obligation to do so again, nor is the restaurant under any obligation to us. The distinction might seem painfully obvious, yet our culture has confused these two kinds of relationships, and in too many cases substitutes the transactional for the reciprocal.
“Ecosystem services,” a term that has come into vogue in recent years, along with the idea of putting a dollar value to those “services,” takes us along the transactional path. I understand the concept, and why monetary terms are used, as though to appeal to capitalists in language they can understand, in an effort to save ecosystems. To me it’s a little like calling “parental services” those things loving parents do for their children—providing love, discipline, food, clothing, housing—and then putting a dollar value to them. Who will pay? Why do not parents get a salary—from some large corporation—for their trouble? How does this explain the essential nature of a parent-child relationship, especially the love part? It is mysterious and complex, the parent-child bond, and when it goes right, is a relationship not transactional, but reciprocal, in a way that grows in reciprocity and mutual benefit over time, and further, benefits the community of which the parents and children—the family—are part.
Thus our relationship with nature, with the biosphere of which we are a part. It is not true that “Nature,” that entity over there, separate from us, provides services either because somehow subjected to us, and there for the exploitation, or because we could somehow pay Nature a salary. We ought not to say to nature, “We’re going to plant five or a thousand native trees in this city or along this rural stream bank for you, Nature, so you’d better pay us back with cleaner air and stream water” (and meanwhile, the city or farmer might expect payment from some government entity for doing this). We are all familiar with this way of looking at things. The trees of New York City, for example, are considered to provide 22 million dollars a year worth of carbon sequestration and air pollution filtering; but that is missing the point, as might be expected, given the transactional nature of our culture’s dominant ethos. We are misunderstanding the actual relationship and in so doing, making a grave mistake.
The crucial point is that Nature, or the biosphere as a whole (the global, interconnected community of which our species is one in possibly eight or nine million), which is subject to the laws underpinning the functioning of the entire universe, though impersonal in its actions, offers us gifts, a livelihood, if we are smart enough to recognize this; and at the same time, lays on us the obligation to give back for the benefit of the whole. In a context of reciprocity, more questions abound: What can and should we humans offer of ourselves, or that is precious to us to ensure the continued health of the biosphere? What actions can we take to maintain the reciprocal relationships so necessary to the proper functioning of ecosystems local, regional, continental and planetary? How can we best use our talents, to benefit the whole enterprise, especially those, whether in kind or degree, that make us uniquely human?
Getting to choose is important
Another important thing about sacrifice and reciprocity is the element of choice. These days, a prevailing ethic seems to be that if sacrifice is to be required, better that others should be made to sacrifice for the personal gain of those who are better off. This attitude pinpoints the difference between willing and unwilling sacrifice and the importance of the context of reciprocity. Not for nothing are the environmentally damaged places where poor people, often of color, live called “sacrifice zones.” Not by choice, these people lose freedom, health, livelihoods and communities, family bonds, and often their lives to the grinding demands of an economic system and society run by powerful entities and people that prize transactional, exploitive relationships above all else. There is no reciprocity involved. Nothing is being made sacred. These places ought to be called “scapegoat zones,” in the sense of the Ursula Le Guin parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” And what happens when a civilization makes pretty much the whole planet a scapegoat zone?
In the question of the DAPL, the investors, the pipeline company and the mostly white citizens of Bismarck avoided making a potentially dangerous environmental tradeoff that would disadvantage their community by “sacrificing,” or scapegoating, the poorer people downriver and, with the collusion of the Federal Government, denying them the right to choose what tradeoffs and sacrifices they, themselves, were willing to make. And none of these corporate and governmental entities were willing to give the Missouri River (including the watershed and all living denizens thereof) any “say” in the matter. This, the water protectors turned on its head by rejecting imposed sacrifices and embracing others in alignment with their own values—and the river’s requirement that it be able to fulfill its life giving role in the landscape.
Any successful mitigation of climate change and environmental degradation on the necessary planetary scale will require a similar flip in societal values—and actions—from the merely transactional and exploitive to the reciprocal and regenerative. It will require millions, actually billions, of humans to change aspects of their lives, to become earth protectors, ecosystem protectors, and biosphere protectors. This change will look very different in different parts of the world and will require very different kinds of sacrifices, from different groups of people, some of which actions might not be obvious or evident to the affluent westerner. It will also require certain kinds of social and environmental justice to take place that the wealthy and powerful will resist, are already resisting, mightily. The reader will, I’m sure, immediately call to mind individuals, governments and corporations engaged in this last-ditch, retrograde resistance. Yet even they need clean air and water as a condition of life.
Besides choice, a further crucial component of sacrificial, reciprocal relationship is a social milieu in which group social values uphold the practices, and in which all members are in good standing of the group. What is defined as sacrifice will depend on attitudes, individual and societal. Long ago I gave up eating meat. Vegetarianism, in the context of our industrialized agricultural system, is the quickest way for a relatively affluent American such as myself to lower her carbon footprint. I suppose it is a sacrifice in keeping with my social and cultural identity as an ecosystem protector. Other people have other reasons, beliefs and habits. For some, meatless Mondays, or, for Catholics, not eating meat on Fridays, or for others, giving up meat for a certain holiday is a chosen sacrifice. But this is a sacrifice relatively affluent people who can afford to buy meat get to decide to make. It is not a sacrifice malnourished people necessarily can choose, since it might be a condition imposed by poverty and politics, to deleterious results. Successful vegetarianism, while better for the planet, and good for religious practice, depends nutritionally on having both enough to eat and access to plenty of other healthful foods, and these, in turn, require agency in society; for it is not true that there is not enough food to feed everyone, rather it is that poor people cannot afford to buy much food, healthy food least of all. Their economic—and social—standing bars access.
Sacrifice and reciprocity are not easy, either to talk about or to do, particularly in this America in which the idea of the public good is in such disrepute. Getting to choose means many won’t choose. For one thing, there is required an acknowledgement of privilege, and the need for imposing restraint on a comfortable way of life, a step many are not prepared to take. For example, climate scientists are among the privileged members of society, and among the global top ten percent of carbon emitters, in part owing to their propensity to fly around the globe attending conferences. Only recently have a few come out and publicly stated that they, themselves, perhaps ought to be part of the solution in a material way. It has been estimated that if the top ten percent of carbon emitters, including elite climate scientists, Davos attendees, members of the US House and Senate, billionaire cabinet members and all the others, including your average frequent fliers and, not least, the denizens of any middle to upper-middle class American enclave, were to reduce their personal carbon footprints to the European average, planetary carbon emissions would be reduced by as much as 30%. What kinds of “sacrifices” would this entail?
Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems that having enough wealth means never having to exercise carbon restraint, or if one does, it means one’s house can be that much larger. Al Gore could have avoided a lot of trolling had he opted to build a smaller house. Peter Thiel and certain other members of the global financial elite are in a position to benefit the public good enormously, yet they abdicate any idea of social and biosphere-related reciprocity by indulging apocalyptic fantasies with real-world bolt holes.
The people and the bison
Recently, I went to see a film, “Little Wound’s Warriors,” by a colleague of mine. It is composed of a series of interviews with residents of Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, a curtailed remnant of the homeland of the Lakota people. The main interviewees were the high school students at Little Wound School, which educates grades kindergarten through high school. An affecting portrait is built up, as they, and others from the community, describe life on “the rez” and their efforts to strengthen the community after a series of suicides by young people. The miserable history of the US Government’s genocide and double-dealing, and Anglo culture’s attempt to obliterate native culture by actively suppressing language, religion, and ways of life, is not a matter for history books for the Lakota, who are living with both the direct experience and its pervasive after effects. While honest in its portrayal of the devastation caused by poverty, drug and alcohol use, there was hope in social engagement and a renewed emphasis on traditional culture. Besides the renewal of ceremonies, beliefs and the study of Lakota language, the people have embarked on the project of bringing bison back to the reservation.
This last is significant. George Apple, a leader at Pine Ridge, was there with several others for a post-film panel discussion, during which the subject of the tribe’s relationship with the bison came up. He said the Lakota have always believed that the strength of the tribe is dependent on the strength of the bison. The Lakota people are bonded with the buffalo in a relationship of deep reciprocity. As the fortunes of the bison herds go, so go the fortunes of the tribe.
Afterwards I asked George to explain more, and he told me this creation story: long ago, before time began, the people were living underground. Life was good, and they lived happy lives. At some point they were tricked—how, he didn’t say—into emerging into the land we now call America. The people promptly began to suffer, because they didn’t know how to live here where life is so hard. Not knowing how to get along, they were starving, and had no homes or way of living. The buffalo came to them and taught them, and in fact sacrificed themselves so the people could live. The people learned ceremony, to help them stay healthy and keep in good agreement with the spirits—the forces—that govern the world, and they learned how to use every part of the bison—meat for food, hides for warmth and shelter, and bones from which to craft tools. No part was wasted. George then told me that so close is the physical and spiritual bond that Lakota people say that they and the buffalo share DNA. Now, the herd is increasing. As part of tribal renewal, they have a buffalo hunt each year, during which one animal is killed and the young people are taught the old ways regarding the bison and its uses.
A lesson I drew from that story is that with reciprocity comes responsibility. In the terms of the story, the buffalo sacrifice themselves, but the terms of that sacrifice entail the human responsibility to live on the land so that the bison might thrive, and this requires ceremony, as well as practical actions in the material world, such as careful stewardship —and sacrifice of our own greed, arrogance and lawless behavior vis a vis what we call the natural world.
Giving our lives, rebuilding relationships
Sacrifice is another word for giving. We give so that all might benefit. We give to improve the public good. We give because we are given so much and want to continue a relationship of reciprocity. We talk about helping biodiversity increase, about creating habitat for wildlife, for bees and butterflies, for birds. When we do that, aren’t we also creating habitat for humans? What do we most need to thrive? Our and other living things’ habitat needs really are one and the same. Saving butterflies and bumblebees, mangroves and seagrass, mountain lions and prairie chickens—and bison—means saving ourselves. Humans need what all other living things need, including space to live according to the ways of our species, appropriate food, clean water, clean air and a stable climate regime. If we only focus on what we imagine to be strictly human needs without cultivating reciprocity, there is no productive way forward.
All other species suffer the consequences of over-success and overpopulation, and endure natural correction in one way or another, often tailored to the particular way the species inhabits its niche. Too many deer browsing a woodland understory in the absence of predators will encounter certain starvation, disease and death until some kind of equilibrium is achieved. A virus too efficient at killing its host will itself will die out over time. You could say climate change is our own special corrective, tailored to the particular traits that mark us as the species Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, every other living thing—all our plant and animal relations—will be caught up in the dreadful consequences. “Nature,” as we personify the planetary biosphere, is not kind, nor merciful (nor malevolent); but nature will allow our species to live and thrive if we practice reciprocity, which, among species, we are uniquely able to consciously do. In the long run, we do not get to bargain, nor to we get to choose the conditions for continued survival. We do get to choose to find ways to live in accordance with the laws nature sets. Millions of people are already engaged in this work, in multiple realms, from the religious to the most steadfastly pragmatic.
At present, ecocentric ideas are reappearing in some religions, monotheistic or not, without also bringing back the idea that we must kill some people in order to ensure the earth’s continued health and fertility. Old, nature-centered religions have been resurrected, morphed into gentler versions of their blood-soaked prior incarnations. And quite a few Americans who do not subscribe to any religion, who may in fact not merely be secular but actively anti-religion because they adhere so strongly to the ideology and methods of scientific materialism, nevertheless have embraced a conservation ethic because that is where the weight of evidence moves the scale.
Though there has been progress—world emissions have been flat for three years now—help is mostly not coming from the powerful and rich, the politically connected. There is no Deus ex Machina. It is up to all of us to do what can and must be done. There is hope, but the time is growing short.
Two books that give an overview of Native American history and ceremonies are “The First North Americans: An Archeological Journey” by Donald Fagan (Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition [February 7, 2012]) and “An Archeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual” by Robert L. Hall (University of Illinois Press [April 1, 1997]). Archeology and anthropology can be controversial among native peoples, for good reasons. These books are sensitive and informative. Robert Hall was Native American himself.
A webinar in which British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and John Shepherd discuss the necessary carbon reductions, including reductions by the top ten percent of emitters, can be found at http://securityandsustainabilityforum.org/restoring-the-carbon-budget-session-1-the-budget-imperative-7856.
Info about “Little Wound’s Warriors: Voices from the Badlands,” directed by Seth McClellan, can be found at http://www.thorncreekproductions.com/.
Teaser image caption: Bison grazing in the Black Hills.