Last year I began research for writing a novel. A main theme I’ve been diving into is the link between local, Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel extraction and how these battles are really becoming the most powerful challenge to the entire capitalist worldview that has endangered the planet through climate change. The implications of this go way beyond environmental issues. I believe these movements have a lot to tell us about how to resist in the age of Trump, when traditional allies or institutions don’t seem up to the challenge.
Standing Rock is only the most recent and high-profile example of how resistance to fossil fuel extraction has changed. For the last 40 years, big Green organizations who depend on wealthy donors and work with energy companies to balance economic growth with environmental concerns have dominated. This has not worked, and extractivist companies have only pushed into new and dangerous frontiers – including fracking and deepwater drilling. We’ve seen the consequences: The 2010 BP spill, man-made earthquakes, poisoned water, and train car explosions. This greed and recklessness will be further encouraged by Trump. The narrative that you shouldn’t limit fossil fuel companies too much because that might slow economic growth (i.e. profits for the rich) or result in los of jobs is so ingrained in both parties. Many mainstream environmental groups have bought into it, further enabling the carbon polluters and extractors. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable people around the earth suffer the consequences.
The strongest and most effective opposition to the fossil fuel giants’ work, though, no longer comes from the mainstream environmental movement, but from Indigenous communities, farmers, ranchers, and their allies, who see their activism as fundamentally a fight for cultural survival:
Naomi Klein writes:
The power of this ferocious love is what the resource companies and their advocates in government underestimate, precisely because no amount of money can extinguish it. When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No safety pledge will assuage; no bribe will be big enough.
It is no coincidence that the resistance movements have been framed not in terms of hatred against oil companies, but in terms of love of the land and protecting the water. Standing Rock is only the latest in a long line of water protector movements—First Nations in British Columbia organized in unprecedented numbers in 2012 to block a pipeline and tanker terminal that would have carried fracked oil from Alberta’s tar sands through their forests and salmon-rich coasts. The Lummi of the Washington Coast teamed up with the Northern Cheyenne 1000 miles away in Montana in 2013 because a coal mine there would have not only threatened local water, but the companies in charge wanted to build a terminal on the coast that would carry coal and oil to Pacific markets.
This understanding of the interconnectedness of life, communities, and resources –on a very local and concrete level, is what is so inspiring. The consequences of climate change and the impact of the relentless pursuit of growth on the environment are not abstract in Standing Rock. They are not abstract in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia, or in New Orleans, or in Flint, Michigan, or in South Florida, Nauru, Bangladesh, the Niger Delta, the Peruvian Amazon, or the Sahel. In these and other places, people are fighting local battles in what is increasingly a global war.
Many people now view the United States as a site of many battles in a larger war. This war is not just over abstract notions like the preservation of our Democracy and “American values.” People are battling on local fronts, inspired by the stories of their neighbors.
But we’ve had a lot of recent practice in this, most notably in the responses to the shootings of unarmed Black men in cities across the country. Those battles became part of a larger war.
Now the war has widened and there are more fighters.
This is why the spirituality of Standing Rock and other water protectors resonates. There is deep spiritual truth that fuels their action—and will hopefully fuel more of our action moving forward, even as it makes our individualistic culture uncomfortable. Matthew 25 movements in local churches are responding to injustice in more practical ways, rooted in a spirituality that goes much deeper than If it can happen to them, it can happen to us, or, I am my brother’s keeper.
At a time when leaders and commentators want us to think in terms of “Us vs. Them,” radical identification with the “other” is not just a spiritual or political act, but an act of resistance. The water protectors battling on the front lines of the climate wars surely understand what the oil moving through pipelines represents and they know they want to live in a cleaner, more just world. But the reason they fight is because they fundamentally identify with the rivers, animals, and land that are under threat. Their very existence—physically and culturally—is tied to those things. They are those things. Any distinction between nature and the people (a distinction that has been imposed violently by Western colonialism) is meaningless.
In the same way, Jesus taught in Matthew 25 that any distinction between God and those who suffer in the world was meaningless, from the standpoint of how we should act.
The question of how you identify with your neighbor isn’t just philosophical. The assumption is that if you identify with the person suffering, your reaction would be to do what you can to stop that suffering. Indigenous communities seem to instinctively understand this with regard to their defense of their land. The same should be said of the rest of us in this time when there are so many around us who need defending.