On April 15, 1935, a gigantic dust cloud bears down on a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma.
There exist two opposing views of the Earth we live on that have thus far been incompatible with one another. And one of those viewpoints is destroying the ecosystems of this planet and the animals that live within them.
The first viewpoint is that the natural world is sacred, and that all creatures (including plants) deserve respect as living beings. Even if a life is taken (e.g., for food), that life is honoured with a prayer, and no more is taken than needed to sustain the life of the taker.
This is more or less the viewpoint of indigenous people around the planet, and has been for tens of thousands of years.
The second viewpoint is that the world is made up of spiritless matter; it’s the materialist world view that has dominated science for several centuries since the Enlightenment intellectuals conceived of it — a clockwork universe made up of dead atoms, as opposed to the superstitious world view the church had pushed for centuries.
For about three hundred years the latter viewpoint has ascended, and issued in the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution that continues unabated to this day with the digital revolution.
Of course, the materialist and technocratic world view has delivered all kinds of goodies to mankind, as anyone driving a car or listening to music on an iPhone knows. But it has a dark side, which is fairly well known also, in the form of environmental destruction.
Simply put, if people view nature only as a source of raw materials for producing goods or energy, they’ll treat it in an exploitive way that’s very different from those holding to the sacred nature viewpoint.
“Squaring the circle” and somehow bringing technocratic, industrial society into harmony with the nature-as-sacred viewpoint is the biggest challenge currently facing human beings, dwarfing any other social or economic issue. It’s often called “sustainable development” — a philosophy and goal in the face of which we’re failing. Badly.
This situation is so well popularized now that it’s a cliche. So the challenge in thinking about solutions involves getting people to think about the current predicament in fresh ways.
In that regard I offer a very interesting suggestion to readers — which I confess is a bit offbeat — and that is to watch two documentary film series back to back. If you act on this suggestion, you’ll understand the history of how we got into the current predicament a lot more profoundly than most people.
The first documentary series is entitled The West (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115418/) and was filmed by Stephen Ives, and produced by Ken Burns (the documentary film maker whose famous creations include a terrific history of the US Civil War and a history of baseball, to name but a few). The West was created using Burn’s successful formula that combines narration and interviews with glorious shots taken from archival photo collections, interspersed with film from today.
The West offers a very fair and well-researched presentation of the history of the American West was settled, from the first European explorers through the wagon trains (made famous by Hollywood) and up to and including the California Gold Rush and its lasting impacts.
What was special to me about this series (produced for PBS) is the detailed story of how the settlers and US government systematically degraded and destroyed the indian tribes that stood in their way. Like most of us, I had a sketchy knowledge about some of what had happened, but this film left me with a robust understanding of the series of destructive acts and policies that robbed the original inhabitants of this continent of their lands and culture.
I leave it to you to watch the documentary series to learn the details, but safe to say it involved deliberately spreading disease, breaking treaties, moving tribes to different parcels of land with which they had no history, then forcing them off those lands, wiping out their food source (the buffalo) etc. etc. etc. And when that wasn’t enough, men, women and children were simply massacred (with Wounded Knee being the best known example).
(I was fascinated to learn that by the time the settlers and their wagon trains started invading the Midwest and West, most of the lands were emptied out by European diseases like Measles and Chicken Pox which were fatal to 50 per cent or more of the natives who once lived there. Half the genocide was complete before the first white person set foot in places once populated by the Great Plains indians. In one terrifying scene a band of indians comes across the village of another tribe where every teepee contains men, women and children all of whom have died from a disease that has spared no one.)
In summary, The West shows how an invasion of technical materialists displaces a society of nature spiritualists.
The second documentary is a two-part series created by Ken Burns himself (also for PBS), entitled The Dust Bowl (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/). I also watched this program on Netflix.
The Dust Bowl is a great follow-up to The West because it shows what the Americans did to the natural environment once they’d driven the indians off their land. Simply put, they destroyed it. Completely.
Like many people I thought the famous “dust bowl” farm lands of the “dirty thirties” or Great Depression were just an anomaly of Mother Nature temporarily suspending the rain.
Not so. Turns out that it’s natural on the Great Plains for slightly wet periods of a few years or a decade, perhaps, to alternate with period of prolonged drought. But that wasn’t taken into account by the settlers who, with the encouragement of the federal government, invaded those areas with a kind of Gold Rush fever and set about ploughing up the land in a period of only a few years. (It came to be known as The Great Plough Up, and coincided with a relatively “wet” period on the plains that, of course, didn’t last.) The Buffalo grass and other low-lying shrubs that formerly held the soil together were replaced with shallow-rooted wheat crops, plowed hastily by people who were often speculators. (Many acres were owned by “suitcase farmers” who knew nothing about farming; these were speculators from the East who paid others to plant wheat and traveled by train to inspect their lands from time to time.)
Simply put, when the typical drought conditions returned to the Great Plains, the near-constant winds picked up all that loose, dry soil and turned into enormous dust storms that rained dirt on farms, towns and people for thousands of miles. In addition to the impossibility of growing anything, the rainless, dusty conditions made life horrible for rural people, whose floors and surfaces were constantly covered in dust. It penetrated the lungs and many people died from what came to be known as “dust pneumonia.”
Again, I’ll let you watch the two-part documentary and enjoy the details of how this all unfolded. In part the dust problem was eventually solved by changes in farming methods, deep or terraced plowing techniques, and returning large areas of land to their former buffalo grass-covered state. The point I’m making is that these two film series need to be watched together, because The Dust Bowl shows the end result of the tragic events in The West.
But there are two points I want to make, which are really the point of this article.
The first is that I can already hear the objections. Hasn’t farming in the US Midwest been a huge success? Doesn’t that area produce bumper crops year after year, as the “breadbasket for the world”?
Well, yes. Except there’s a very dirty, dark secret behind it all that I only learned from watching The Dust Bowl, and it is this. The reason farmer have avoided droughts and have grown crops in the US Midwest is because, for 60 years or more, they’ve been pumping water from below ground, from the Ogallala aquifer, which runs under all these states from South Dakota in the north down to Texas, and from Kansas in the east to Colorado and parts of New Mexico.
Drawing down the water of the Ogallala aquifer and applying it to farm fields has allowed farmers to insulate themselves from the boom and bust cycles of dry and wet weather on the plains. Except there’s a little problem. The Ogallala aquifer acquired its water from millions of years of rainfall. In just 60 years, 80 per cent of it has been drawn down by the farmers. There are likely only a couple of decades left in the 20 per cent that remains.
When that water runs out, the “free ride” the Midwest farmers have enjoyed will come to an end, and their farming operations will no longer be viable.
The whole enterprise has been unsustainable from the start, and the good times will eventually end.
I said I wanted to make two points. The second point is that what happened in the US West is currently happening in South America, in the Amazon basin. The parallels are chilling.
We have the same dichotomy: a materialist, technocratic society in Brazil, Peru and the other countries that surround the Amazon basin, and a network of tribal indigenous people living sustainably in the forest, revering nature as alive and scared.
Not surprisingly, the governments of the materialist societies view the Amazon area as a vast treasure chest of unexploited resources, waiting to be tapped. Mining companies are invading, oil & gas companies are exploring and drilling, illegal sawmills are being set up all over the place to cut down the trees, and farmers are using slash-and-burn techniques to convert the ecologically complex rainforest into a monoculture of soybean and grazing fields.
The consequences of all this for indigenous people, and the forest they live in, are obvious. The whole area is set to be sacrificed for short-term profits made from pulling the oil and gas and metals from the ground, and growing crops on former forest soil that’s not suited for long-term agriculture.
Chillingly, in documents related to the Camisea petroleum project that was recently given the green light, the government of Peru actually promotes that oil & gas workers interact with the indigenous people, exchange consumer items with them, etc. Half or more of the population of these formerly uncontacted tribes will — and this is an absolute certainty — be wiped out by European diseases acquired from this contact.
There’s no other way to interpret the government documents: they’re a deliberate plan to commit genocide, couched in banal terms that would fit nicely in a tourism brochure.
What happened in the US West in the 19th century no doubt seems far away. That was another time, right? “Those” people in the old days were racist, and treated the environment and native people in a way we wouldn’t put up with today, right?
Wrong. It’s happening right now. And most people aren’t even aware of it, much less doing anything to stop it. We’re busy watching sports, paying off mortgages, following fashions and shopping for consumer items. Just like the inhabitants of New York, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia did in the 1800s while the American indians were betrayed and wiped out.
So watch those Ken Burns documentaries, and think about what’s happening today.