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Sacred Law and Traditional Wisdom

Environmental Justice and Indigenous Peoples

by TOM STEPHENS

Earlier this month, on March 5, I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel at the Law Union of Ontario’s annual conference in Toronto. Another speaker was Kate Kempton of the Toronto law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend. Kate’s discussion of what she has learned representing indigenous peoples regarding rebuilding sovereignty and self-determination holds profound lessons regarding environmental justice, which I will try to briefly summarize here.


Different World Views

The applicable world-view of "environmental law" in 21st century post-industrial society is linear, hierarchical, and based on dominance. This dominance permits and provokes subjugation of nature and peoples who hold nature as sacred and internal, and provokes creation and recognition of rights in individual and especially corporate property, in the form of precisely defined and carved-out parcels. These property rights, in turn, are valuable for purposes of commodification and exploitation of resources, primarily for their narrowly defined economic benefits. Environmental regulations and law are "linear," in the sense that they assume a direct progression, from proposals and initiatives about resource exploitation and protection, to the outcomes of regulatory and legal proceedings. Interests, all themselves defined within boxes, are weighed and ostensibly "balanced" against each other, not with each other as a model of sharing would create. That ostensibly rational, linear, ahistorical and economistic model does not accurately describe the fundamental issues and values at stake in today’s world-reshaping and -defining conflicts over resources, sovereignty and environmental health and justice.

One characteristic of the dominant, linear world-view that distorts our perceptions and our decisions regarding our relationship to nature involves putting the environment in a box, separated from issues of cultural and economic survival. Under this view, "more" is "better," including more exploitation of the environment by dominant economic and cultural forces. The false ideological and psychological "box," separating the environmental from the socio-economic and from self-identity, blinds us to the permanent and irreversibly damaging consequences that more exploitation of a rapidly diminishing resource base threaten for us all. In our time, the "line" that symbolizes this world-view depicts us, through the transnational corporate forces of dominance and hierarchy, patriarchy and white supremacy, driving ourselves to the end of the line (lines end in "dead ends"), and off the edge of the cliff of social, ecological, economic and civilizational survival.

The contrasting indigenous world-view, symbolized by the circle, in which our environment, humans and our culture are embedded within and intrinsically sharing with each other, is the basis of indigenous sacred and traditional law and wisdom and, at its best, also of environmental justice. Kate Kempton has an indigenous client/associate who describes her practice, in his language of Cree, as "ses-qua", or "Wait! Pull back!" That is what we must do to meet the fundamental environmental justice challenges of the 21st century, by recognizing and consistently acting upon the interrelationship between our environment and our cultural and economic survival. Such practices and philosophies encountered our natural resources in their spectacular fullness millennia ago, they established ways of living on sacred ground in peace and justice, and they continue to safeguard a remnant that remains subject to their jurisdiction today. When will we ever learn?

 

Change or Die

Trying to protect the essential environmental interests and fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples, and other people of color and low-income people, within the dominant, hierarchical and linear framework of what we know as "environmental law," is like trying to fit a big round ball into a small square box. It is bound to fail. And because of the huge global issues at stake in today’s world regarding environmental health and human survival, if we continue to pursue this failed strategy, we will eventually fail ecologically, socially, economically, and as a matter of human survival. No amount of scientific regulation or careful legal or administrative weighing of data will change this stark reality.

Unlike the line, the circle never ends (it has no end points), yielding a very different and much more authentic version of cherished human "freedom." This is potentially the basis of a different, more holistic, sustainable, fair, and potentially successful environmental law. Only within a sacred (and truly democratic) circle is it possible to see how things weighed in dollar amounts do not always outweigh things that are beloved, irreplaceable, unique, invaluable, and necessary for survival; to effectively assert rights, power, and control over vital interests, without falling into the trap of dominance and subjugation that denies them to others; to implement sustainability on individual, local, state/provincial and national/ international levels. On all these levels, dominance systematically threatens human and ecological survival today. Therefore we have to implement alternatives to dominance. Both to preserve material survival of the environment, and to establish justice among humans, we urgently have to implement alternatives. To continue with unfettered exploitation, with the illusion of the separate environmental "box" and the potential for infinite "growth," is a death sentence for both humans and our cultures.

We urgently have to remember the sacred wisdom of our childhood, that (in Kate Kempton’s words) what we "need" is not the same thing as what we "want." And what we think we want, in the world of lines, is not what we really need ­ for identity, survival, and happiness. We need to say "wait," to "pull back," and "we need to take this whole assembly of lines apart" in order to provide both a human future for our children and a natural future for our world. The long-overdue recognition that environmental justice must become an integral part of the public policy of democratic governments around the world, and that environmental racism and disproportionate exposure to environmental contamination and risk must be opposed and eliminated, is just one necessary step on this sacred road.

I would like to express his appreciation to Kate Kempton, KKempton@OKTLaw.com, for her review and editorial assistance with this essay.

TOM STEPHENS is a lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at: lebensbaum4@earthlink.