Humans:  One Thread in the Web of Life

by Theresa Peluso

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. Chief Seattle, Leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1:26

Two very different points of view.

Chief Seattle

As we know, the most powerful civilizations on our planet, regardless of whether their religion was based on the Bible, seem to have followed the words in Genesis to the letter, interpreting the instruction to “have dominion over” as “dominate”.  With few exceptions, humans have exploited Earth’s resources for millennia:  clearing and tilling vast areas of land for food; blasting mountains for mineral ore; dredging the oceans for fish; chopping swaths of forests for lumber; powering their houses, factories and vehicles with a constant stream of fossil fuels; and recklessly dumping the resulting garbage and effluent on the ground and in waterways.  A tradition that continues today at an ever accelerating pace.

In addition, humans have exploited other humans to enrich themselves.  In fact, despite our supposed enlightenment, this continues even now:

There are more people in slavery today than at any time in human history.  The best estimate, according to the U.S. State Department, is 27 million, and that does not include bonded labour.  This is more than double the total taken from West Africa during the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  However, in percentage terms, it is smaller than the African slave trade – with today’s massive global economy it has become only a tiny fraction of the whole.

(https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/10/23/more_slaves_now_than_at_any_other_time_in_history.html)

But – what if we each saw ourselves as just one of the many elements that form our planet as we know it?  What if we saw other humans as connected to us, and as deserving as us, of a safe and healthy life?

Like the Squamish and Duwamish First Nation tribes in the West (of which Chief Seattle, quoted above, was a member), the Anishinaabe, which include the Odawans, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, Mississaugas, Chippewa and Algonquin peoples, have the same basic philosophy.

This philosophy is explained in a 2013 thesis by Natasha J. Szach titled “Keepers of the Water: Exploring Anishinaabe  and Métis Women’s Knowledge of Water and Participation in Water Governance in Kenora, Ontario”.

In the Anishinaabe tradition, water is one of the four elements – earth, fire, wind and water – made by the Creator. Because all other Creation is derived from these elements, each must be respected with the highest appreciation.  The four elements are also conceived of as “place”, which the Anishinaabe identify strongly with. This refers not just to a physical place, but an all-encompassing relationship with the elements. Without these elements, cultural impoverishment and physical demise is inevitable. Water, as the “lifeblood” of Mother Earth (and a living and conscious being), must be kept clean so it can continue to fulfill its own purpose.

This stewardship responsibility fundamentally characterizes First Nations’ relationship with the environment and guides governance….  For Aboriginal people, “the use of waters is governed by a natural law, by which the taking of waters without due regard to the environment and the needs of current and future generations can only lead to disaster.”

“…Trout Lake is…part of our great Mother, the earth, with which we have a very special relationship. This relationship includes those with whom we share that home – our aunts, cousins…the moose, bear, gulls, ravens, mice, moles, flies, mosquitoes, fish, the trees, the grass and rocks. [This] relationship is characterized by a spirituality and sacredness, an intimate knowledge and huge reciprocal respect and reverence where we all know our rights and responsibilities.”  (Please note that references to sources have been removed from the original text to improve readability.)

Isn’t there some way we can move from our current exploitative approach to our planet’s resources, to this environmentally sustainable one?  Will we continue to fall back on the old excuses that people can’t change, that the market knows best, and that we are powerless against major corporations?  If that’s the case, it means letting the natural gifts we grew up with – clean air, pristine lakes, plentiful fish, masses of butterflies and bees, and so much more – become just a vague concept in our grandchildren’s eyes.  It means humans resigning themselves to the role of cogs in the wheel of money-making for corporate behemoths.

Most people have a good understanding of how human life is entirely dependent on a healthy natural environment – for clean air and water, productive soils, food, shelter, medicines, protection from extreme weather events, exercise, and so much more.  Historically, it has been environmentally aware people and organizations, in reaction to wide-scale pollution and exploitation by people in the past, who have pushed for the establishment of many of the institutions and programs that we value today: health care, labour standards, building codes, environmental agencies, provincial and national parks, etc.

Although some past problems have been satisfactorily resolved, many other problems are worsening as our population increases, so that more people are consuming more than ever.  The world’s middle-income population has doubled between 2001 and 2011 from 398 million to 783 million, and its high-income population has increased during the same period from 340 million to 428 million.  As a result, the impact of consumerism on our planet has multiplied, so that now humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 Earths every year to obtain the resources we use and to absorb our waste.  The trouble is, we have only one Earth – the one we live on.  Many people are finally getting the chance to provide adequately for themselves and their families, but many are also going beyond that, spending their disposable income and borrowing money to follow the call of the sirens of consumerism. (Income/population data taken from http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/07/08/mapping-the-global-population-how-many-live-on-how-much-and-where/.)

What can we do? Do we wait until people actually start getting ill and dying as a result of environmental degradation?  Until the economy comes crashing down around our ears? Until we have killed off so many species that our complex ecosystem collapses? Until wars are triggered by nations to gain access to the resources they’ve exhausted in their own nations? Or do we try to mend the tears in the web of life by reconnecting the threads – human to human, human to flower, flower to insect, and so on?

The world is desperately in need of a more environmentally sustainable approach to living, based on Chief Seattle’s philosophy.  As in the past, people are joining groups to actively lobby our elected officials for enforceable legislation to protect our natural environment.  We can help by contributing our energies and resources to these groups.  We can also help by changing our own habits. For this to happen, people will need to re-evaluate their current way of life.  When we’re bombarded with advertisements that brainwash already heavily indebted people into borrowing money to buy stuff they don’t even need, it’s hard to break free of that way of life.

It can be easy to assume that “Government” is taking care of these issues.  And while it’s true that we have ministries whose raison d’être is “environment and climate change”, “fisheries and oceans”, “natural resources and forestry”, “conservation”, etc., etc., the fact is that time and again government decisions seem to be influenced and manipulated by major corporations and their exploitative strategies – towards people and natural resources – to make huge profits and move them off-shore.

Another concern is the difficulty for traditional media to survive in this age of Internet monopolies, mass advertising, and alternative facts.  Our own community newspapers are fortunate to have escaped the cutbacks by Postmedia and Torstar, and of course Mississippi Mills is blessed to have the Millstone, an independent newspaper that survives on its readers’ donations.  Without reliable media, we are deprived of accurate information about government decisions and local events.  We need to do our part to seek out accurate reporting, and support the media that provide it.

As an indication of human resilience, people are managing to get around this morass of fake news by establishing their own lines of communication, and by peacefully and persistently pooling their energies and resources to affirm their rights.  Hence, the success of the Women’s March following the 2016 U.S. presidential election,  last year’s Climate March, Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, and even some environmental achievements, such as  Greenpeace Canada’s successful efforts to protect the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia.  In Ontario, the community of Elora is persisting in its efforts to keep Nestlé from being granted a water-taking permit to pump 1.6 million litres of water per day from one of Elora’s wells.  It appears that Nestlé has not (yet) made any attempts to occupy its newly-built facility at the site of this well.  (Here is a link to an update last October: http://saveourwater.ca/2017/10/31/water-warriors-a-small-communitys-struggle-to-keep-water-public/ .)  The Save Our Water group mobilizing support for this issue has vowed to make water-taking a big issue at this year’s provincial elections.

Groups have formed at national and international levels to publicize environmental and social-justice issues and mobilize support:  Zero Waste Canada (https://zerowastecanada.ca/), David Suzuki Foundation (https://davidsuzuki.org), Environmental Defence Canada (www.environmentaldefence.ca/‎), Avaaz (https://secure.avaaz.org/en/), Ontario Nature (www.ontarionature.org/‎) and Lead Now (https://www.leadnow.ca/) are just a few.

While these organizations are a great way to support the causes you believe in, it’s also essential to connect locally.  After all, it’s YOUR community, with YOUR neighbours, YOUR woodlands, rivers, fields and wetlands, and YOUR municipal policies and regulations.  Being a relatively small community, every action we take has a significant effect on our surroundings.

You can weave your own thread into the web of your community by:

Connecting with other people.  Make a point of greeting the people around you, and living in the moment.  You can adopt a trend started in London, England, by getting a Talk to Me button and wearing it. (See http://talktome.global/.)  In any meetings or conversations you have with others, LISTEN to what others are saying and try to understand their point of view.  When presenting your own views, be respectful.

Restricting your use of technology, which is being increasingly identified as a source of isolation, depression, harassment problems and poor health.

Physically exploring your community on a regular basis, and getting out into the local parks and countryside for walks or other non-motorized activities (skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, etc.).  Leave your technology at home so that you can hear the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the leaves, the burbling of the water, and the crunching of your footsteps.

Learning about the world beyond humans by taking up outdoor activities such as nature photography, bird-watching, gardening, and by exploring nature through lectures, books, films and group activities.

Developing your creative side through art, dance, music, quilting, woodworking, gardening, cooking, etc.

Treating your body with respect by eating healthy meals, and getting enough sleep.

Reassessing your consumption habits with a view to reducing your ecological footprint – and improving your financial health in the bargain.  Some changes may entail spending less, such as buying less meat, and other changes may cost more, such as ensuring that the meat you do buy is from ethically raised animals.

Joining a group, or forming one of your own, to contribute to your community.  This could be the parents’ committee at your child or grandchild’s school; or it could be one of our many service groups, such as the Civitan Club, the Hub/Rebound, the Neighbourhood Tomato Community Gardens, Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, Mills Community Support, Big Brothers/Sisters, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, Almonte Celtfest, the Pakenham and Almonte Horticultural Societies, Almonte in Concert, the North Lanark Agricultural Society, or any of the many sports clubs and associations in Mississippi Mills, to name just a few.

Keeping informed about municipal and provincial issues with a view to encouraging your elected representatives to make decisions for the good of our social and environmental well-being.

In all of this, remember:  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  All things are bound together.  All things connect.