Reflections on Context: Salish Sea Bioregional Gathering

October, 2017
By Louise Mangan

There is a longer and lovelier story about the Earth than the one most of us have been taught to believe. This older wisdom story is grounded in the beauty and goodness of the natural world including the beauty and goodness of human nature. Right now, with the human community at a crossroad together, many voices are speaking out on behalf of the Earth to help us re-learn who we are.

The First Nations elders and traditional knowledge-keepers in our midst are among the ones who remind us most clearly. They keep showing us the courage in holding to truth, the kindness in forgiving, and the integrity in doing no harm. And they assure us that sacred wisdom belongs to every community, for each to express in its ways.

Except by way of caution, this older story is not about domination. It’s not about competition, or accumulation, or taking, or any of the false securities of ego. The everyday miracles are foundational virtues like gratitude and sharing and caring. The sacred wisdom this story cultivates centres minds and hearts in thankfulness for the oneness of everything that exists, generosity in the presence of differences, and empathy with the natural world and one another.

Traditional wisdom cultures view domination-based cultures as inherently unstable. Through the long sweep of millennia, they’ve watched inequity compromise both the exploiters and exploited. They’ve seen systemic violence gut even the mightiest empires, starting from within, ruining the life-supportive ecosystems of the environment, and collapsing intricate civilizations into nothing. And at the cost of persecution, dis-placement, and genocide, they have survived by holding firm to a way of knowing that is rational, mature, coherent, compassionate – and wise.
For many of us this is a different way to understand the cultural story of native North Americans who share the sacred places we love. They have thrived when other cultures completely disappeared because their operative values sustain ecological balance and resilience. And we, who have been raised with more de-moralizing stories, are now blessed to receive their regenerative wisdom to guide us through this dangerous time.

This is our practical situation. Every human community is facing profound societal change. Because the world delayed in implementing climate solutions, much of the global carbon budget has been used. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels and also keep global temperatures safe for the climate systems of the planet. So every society will have to wean itself from fossil fuels at a pace that won’t be easy or painless. And they will do this while also bearing the costs and suffering of accelerating climate chaos.

The underlying problem is that economies, as they currently operate, depend on growth to survive. As they grow, increasing economic activity burns more fossil fuels so carbon emissions and global temperatures increase as well. The global carbon markets cannot fix this. They follow the same rules and patterns as other present-day markets, which means they’re better at making money than at achieving goals for which they aren’t designed.

To preserve a livable planet, all economies will have to be fueled by renewable energies instead of carbon. And we no longer have the luxury of time to slow-dance this transition. The UK and other countries in Europe have a plan and are taking steps to decarbonize. But here in North America real change has been impeded by the heavy investment of governments, corporations and extraction-based workers in extracting and exporting fossil fuels. So our decision-makers keep on approving new fossil fuel initiatives and expansions.

Responding to this situation, on September 7, 2017, more than 220 climate scientists and environmental advocacy organizations from 55 countries called for a managed decline of fossil fuel production, and specifically for the cessation of all new exploration and production. In effect, The Lofoten Declaration effect asks governments to say yes to de-carbonization and no to doing business as usual. “Assertions that new fossil fuels are needed for this transformation are not only inaccurate; they also undermine the speed and penetration of clean energy.”

The Declaration affirms, ”it is the urgent responsibility and moral obligation of wealthy fossil fuel producers to lead in putting an end to fossil fuel development and to manage the decline of existing production.” This task should be addressed first by countries “who are best positioned in terms of wealth and capacity to undergo an ambitious just transition away from fossil fuel production.”

Meanwhile, here in the Salish Sea Bioregion on the Pacific coast of North America, the federal government of Canada has approved several new fossil fuel projects. The Coast Salish peoples, who have cared for the lands, waters, and animals of this region for millennia, are now the local inhabitants whose traditional cultures and territories, hunting, fishing and food security will be most directly affected. Nearly 57,000 Coast Salish people from many distinctive nations live between Tillamook, Oregon to the south and Campbell River BC to the north. Most remain rooted in traditional wisdom understandings and attuned to the needs of local ecosystems.

The Salish Sea Bioregion is also home to thousands of animal species, including many found nowhere else. If the approved fossil fuel projects proceed, the Salish Sea will face increasing dangers of catastrophic spills that would devastate the marine environment, coastal communities, and local and regional economies. And as the Lofoten Declaration confirms, it is more than plausible that the combined upstream/downstream emissions from these projects will increase global temperatures beyond what humans — and most species — can survive.

In this crucial moment, the Coast Salish peoples have emerged as pivotal, high profile, place-based communities that accept responsibility for moral/ethical and spiritual leadership on behalf of regional ecosystems and human cultures. In so doing, they invite their non-native sisters and brothers to work with them to shift societal commitments and expectations, and to withdraw – without violence — from dominance-based conduct that is de-stabilizing planetary systems and causing the progressive extinction of living species. As the Lofoten Declaration puts it, they are part of “the growing wave of impacted communities around the world who are taking action to defend and protect their lives and livelihoods in the face of fossil fuel extraction and climate change.”

Perhaps the most important shared insight for this moment is the ancient wisdom expressed by the Coast Salish ethic of “Nuts-a-maht” (Musqueam spelling). We are all one. Everything is inter-connected. Coast Salish and other Indigenous peoples teach and model for their children that Nuts-a-maht is to be lived with every breath and each decision, to sustain the gift of life we all share.

Societies that consciously uphold Nuts-a-maht to care for nature and one another are truly authentic civilizations. They understand the direct connection between honouring and protecting what supports all life everywhere, and the survival of everything worth loving. Cherishing the natural world, including human beings, is their deeply successful strategy for resilience and continuing sustainability.

May we listen and learn. “Huy ch q’u” Thank-you. Nuts-a-maht.