Growing up, my mom, sister, and I moved around from apartment to apartment in the urban sprawl that I call home, Houston. We finally settled down in Alvin, Texas, just a half hour from the city, when we moved in with my great grandparents, one of whom was suffering from lung cancer and the other from Alzheimer’s disease. Our home sat on two acres, bordered on each side by a narrow country road, lush woods, a golf course, and a bayou. It was quite the adjustment for me to move from the bustling city, filled with people, covered in concrete, littered with strip malls, and towered by skyscrapers, to what seemed to be an endless expanse of natural wonders waiting to be discovered. I believe it was this abrupt change during my formative years—coupled with my mom’s insistence that we form our own belief system—that enabled me to consider myself a citizen of the Earth with a responsibility to care for all human and non-human life.
The belief system my mom followed was that of Unity, one originating in New Thought. Unity believes that God is the Spirit, which is everywhere, in all that exists. God is divine energy, forming all creation continually. Unity churches are non-denominational and accept all who wish to participate in prayer and meditation. Though we occasionally attended this church because it was the closest to mom’s beliefs, she actually formed her own belief system, rooted in some Unity principles and speckled with Buddhist and Hindu ideas. The only nearby Unity Church was in the city, so we attended even less when we moved away. Grounded in some of the thoughts my Mom held, I began developing my own beliefs while also exploring place: that of the Houston-Galveston Gulf Coast region, the coastal prairies, the post oak savannah, and the piney woods.
As I played in the edge habitats surrounding our home, I often contemplated the workings of modern society. I was enthralled by the outdoors, being among different plants and animals, feeling the warm sun on my face, digging in the dirt, and helping my Dad grow vegetables in our garden. Equipped with my own imagination and free time, I embraced my internal thought while observing natural relationships abundant in the areas around our abode. This coupling of inquiry and environment led to the formation of nascent bioregionalism ideas, specifically concerning the divisions between nature and culture as emphasized in Rediscovering Turtle Island by Gary Snyder1. I always returned to the same overarching question: Why did humans create their lives in such a way that deliberately separates us from nature, of which we belong? Why do we construct spaces separate from nature like office buildings, lavish homes, grocery stores, gyms, and more? Why do we insist upon exploiting nature and suffocating it in man-made materials, of items that are perverse reformulations of nature? Why do we kill non-human (and human) life to fulfill our greedy ends? Why do we fill our homes and businesses with so much useless stuff2 that requires precious resources?
Though these questions were not as well developed as they are now, they demonstrate some of the ideas that I grappled with while lying in the wet turf grass of my backyard, seeking solitude in the woods, and looking for artifacts on the banks of the Mustang Bayou. I especially was fascinated by the ways indigenous people had lived. Their lives seemed so simple, true, and connected to the land. I dreamed of a day when humans could live simply and honor the earth again. I now recognize that many scholars would criticize that romantic notion: the idea of the noble savage. Who was I but a curious girl seeking understanding about my place in the world and how I would like to live? Then, I began forming personal philosophies about spirituality and God. I didn’t consider myself a Christian nor part of any other organized religion. What I did believe was that all life is connected by some energy, that there is a piece of something in all of us: plants, humans, and animals. Some would call that energy God, but all I could bring myself to believe was that some spiritual connection existed between all living organisms. Now as an adult, I rarely contemplate the metaphysical, but that idea of spiritual connection has formed into something greater for me—a notion that guides how I live as a citizen of the Earth. Perhaps what I saw during my childhood, playing near the water and in the woods or growing food in our yard, was a thriving ecosystem—with me as a character wholly integrated in it.
In a world hinging on human action (and inaction), how can we begin to live as a members of a biotic community rather than members of a completely socially constructed, superficial existence? Depending on your traditions, ethnicity, upbringing, and place, your culture may likely be one of obsolescence—guided by the ever-pressing desire to amass fortunes that enable us to purchase the newest, material items, which we are artfully convinced of needing. In the United States especially, our culture reinforces the idea that humans are thriving when they make and spend money, and we are called to contribute to our society primarily by being consumers. Take food for instance: we fill our kitchens with gadget upon gadget to make cooking a little easier. Then we purchase pre-made mixes and processed food made in factories. Rather than empowering us to learn to grow our own food, to have connections with farmers, to care for our soil, we have stores that take the hard work out of it for us and that sell several different types of any one product. For those “enlightened” consumers, we spend substantially more for organic meat and produce because we believe that we are choosing the morally right action. In reality, many of those buying USDA organic still don’t have a relationship or connection with the farmer, the animal, or plant, nor do they understand what that organic label really signifies.3 We are empowered as consumers to be loyal to a brand, to a company with the number one priority of generating profit, not creating an ethical, sustainable or healthy product or restoring our relationship with the Earth. What information do we verify before making what we convince ourselves are ethical purchasing decisions? Most consumers don’t know how many years animals live before slaughter, how many gallons of water, acres of land, and pounds of feed were needed to produce that organic ham they use for dinner. We are still going to a store and purchasing meat that may have traveled several hundred to several thousand miles away. We aren’t respecting the animal nor understanding what it takes to raise them for consumption. We don’t know how many acres of habitat were destroyed to build the farm. What about that pineapple we bought to serve with the ham? Do we know how many “defect” pineapples were thrown out before the perfect pineapple that meets unnecessary aesthetic standards was selected for shipment?4
Since all life depends on nourishment and all cultures are deeply rooted in food, reminding humans that food is of the earth, not of the store, or the factory, or the industrial farm, may be one of the most direct ways to reclaim nature in culture. Considering principles of bioregionalism, we can start by understanding where the food that we currently eat originates and investigate its entire supply chain. We can continue reigniting this human-nature relationship via food by knowing which policies encourage wastefulness and pollution, by acknowledging how ecosystems may be affected by our consumption, by simplifying what we eat to locally grown, in-season staples, by reducing our consumption of animal products, and by growing our own food based on our local soil and climate.
When I read about the Lakota,5 I was reminded of the spiritual questions that I grappled with playing in the woods of Southeast Texas. Their worldview offers an example of how nature is culture, exemplifying that not only should humans be a part of nature, but we are nature. They see humans as those who exist within the natural world, as members of an earthly family consisting of children who represent all life on earth, who were given life by mother earth and father sky and who embody one Great Spirit. Again using the example of food, you see that what they eat and how they obtain their food comes not only from a place of necessity, but also a place of mutual dependency and sacrifice. The Lakota did not have a moral dilemma when they used plants and animals, their very kin, if their use was rooted in good will and necessity rather than wastefulness or plenty.
I am not calling for modern societies to completely abandon their ways of living and return to hunter-gather societies nor am I asking people to have a panentheistic understanding of the spiritual, like the Lakota or my childhood self. However, what we can learn from the Lakota—and other indigenous cultures—is how to live in place, how to prioritize healthy ecosystems over greed, and how to make ecological identity a prominent piece of our personal and collective identity.6 The Lakota, along with many others, continue to exemplify these ideals today just outside of the Standing Rock reservation where they are protecting the Missouri River—on which much life, including non-human, depends—from a proposed oil pipeline.7 The Army Corps of Engineers recently sent a notice calling for the water protectors to leave the corps-operated land where they have been engaged in direct action and have sacred burial sites.8 In response to this letter, tribal and youth representatives held a press conference.9 Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network of Turtle Island had this to say, “This is the land where our ancestors dreamed of our existence, of our songs and of our future lives, and in defense of those dreams, in defense of our ancestors, we stand strong to protect the sacredness of mother earth, we stand strong to protect our rights as indigenous peoples, we stand strong to defend our territorial treaty rights. This movement that you see before us is not a movement of hate, but a movement of our undying love of the land and the people, and the water.”
We are part of the biotic community, whether we like to admit it or not; however, we currently live as if we can control the biotic community—that it is at our disposal to use however we like, without any repercussive consideration to individual biota, to ecosystems as a whole, or to humanity’s own livelihood. We must decide if we are going to be respectful and productive members of that community or continue to be destructive and authoritarian. In order to live as members of the biotic community, we must eradicate the artificial and physical divisions created between nature and culture. We must understand that truly thriving ecosystems, with humans as members not rulers, will result in healthy, sustained prosperity for all life on Earth. We must replace the desire for stuff with the desire to use only what we truly need and do so in the least destructive way possible.
– Sarah Kelly
Context for subject matter: This paper was finalized on Dec. 1, 2016 for an assignment in Worldviews and Environmental Values taught by Tony Vogt. The following prompt was given: Consider what it might mean to learn to live in place, or become at home on the earth, or become citizens of a biotic community. How do these phrases, in the context of the course readings, call into question (if they do for you) the larger social arrangements of which you are a part — your workplace, household, community, campus, region, or your part of the planet? And in terms of the worldviews and values that accompany and often provide legitimization for these social arrangements, what (if anything) would have to change?
References and Further Reading
- Snyder, Gary. The Rediscovery of Turtle Island. The Great New Wilderness Debate.
- Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff. Story of Stuff Project. http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff. 2007.
- Friedland, Michelle T. You call that Organic? The USDA’s Misleading Food Regulations. New York University Environmental Law Journal. 2005.
- Gunders, Dana. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. National Resources Defense Council. ccrrc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/24/2014/03/wasted-food-IP.pdf. 2005.
- Callicott, J. Baird. Far Western Environmental Ethics. Earth’s Insights. 1994.
- Kimmerer, Robin Wall and Moore, Kathleen Dean. The White Horse and the Humvees—Standing Rock Is Offering Us a Choice. Yes! Magazine. yesmagazine.org/people-power/the-humvees-and-the-white-horse2014two-futures-20161105. 2016.
- Barajas, Joshua. Army Corps issues eviction notice to Standing Rock protest camp, tribe chairman says. Public Broadcasting Service. pbs.org/newshour/rundown/army-corps-issues-eviction-notice-standing-rock-protest-camp-tribe-chairman-says. 2016.
- Emergency Press Conference in response to Army Corps letter. Lakota People’s Law Project Facebook. facebook.com/LakotaPeoplesLawProject/videos/10154152749497029/. 2016