All nations are not created equal. Understanding this is a prerequisite to effectively stopping the colonial forces destroying the world.
I’ve been thinking this for the last few days watching members of two First Nations I love – the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and Kanaka Maoli of what we now call Hawai’i – come under direct, physical attack. In the last 16 months, I’ve had the privilege to go to work in support of both these nations as they struggle to protect what is left of their lands from the imperialism of nations like the United States and Canada.
In May 2014, I went to the Unist’ot’en Camp to stand with the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation on their unceded territory in so-called British Columbia. The Unist’ot’en are blockading pipelines that would carry tar sands oil from the Fort McMurray area to refineries on the BC coast at Kitimat. After being processed, the tar sands oil would be shipped to burn in markets worldwide. Helping to build a bunkhouse on the precise GPS coordinates of one of the proposed pipelines routes, walking the trapline in fresh, deep snows, and supporting the Camp with fundraising and organizing efforts from Victoria and Vancouver, I fell in love with the Unist’ot’en Camp.
I ran completely out of money, found it difficult to find much work as a non-citizen, and had to return to the States. While I was looking for work, I was encouraged to go to Hawai’i and write about what I saw. So, I went to Hawai’i Island to support Kanaka Maoli on their occupied land as they protect their most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, from the destruction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. Sleeping for 37 nights under the best stars in the world (that is of course why the telescopes want to be there) and walking through ahinahina blooms during the day, I fell in love with Mauna Kea.
Right now, the Unist’ot’en Camp reports that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have set up check-points on roads leading to the Camp to harass Camp visitors and that the territory is crawling with police. On the one bridge over the Morice River that leads onto Unist’ot’en territory, RCMP have already attempted to force their way past the soft-blockade operating there only to be turned back when Unist’ot’en Spokeswoman, Freda Huson, demanded they leave. The Camp expects that the corporations involved in the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) to apply for a court order to evict the Unist’ot’en and their allies, so the PTP may begin construction.
Meanwhile, in Hawai’i, the TMT has tried to force its way up Mauna Kea with an armed police escort twice. The TMT’s aggression has yielded 43 arrests on Mauna Kea, but so far no construction has been completed. Since the last time the TMT attempted to bring construction equipment to Mauna Kea’s summit and were stopped, the State of Hawai’i has forced through “emergency rules” that purportedly make it illegal to camp, or even to possess sleeping bags or tent, within one mile to either side of the Mauna Kea Access Road. Rumors that the National Guard might be called to remove Mauna Kea Protectors have become so strong that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser even ran a poll asking Hawai’i residents whether the National Guard should be applied against Kanaka Maoli on Mauna Kea.
This morning, as I was preparing to write, I was browsing through my newsfeed reading the reactions and commentary surrounding the hottest political stories as I always do to let the coffee soak in. I always find it a mix of exasperation and profound sadness to read comment after comment expressing surprise at police violence against people of color, at the total disregard for the lives and land of indigenous peoples, at yet another toxic “accident.” I feel despair reading the beyond tired question, “What is happening to America?”
I find it terribly sad because the vast amounts of surprise I see expressed demonstrate that many people are unaware that this is what America does. As any doctor will tell you, the proper cure requires the proper diagnosis. Before we can solve the problem, we must name the problem. Before we can can undermine this violence, we must accurately articulate what this violence is. Are we still so far from effectively resisting this violence that we’re surprised when cops kill another person of color? when the National Guard is called to neutralize native warriors? when another pipeline leaks more toxins into soil and water?
This violence is what America and other imperial nations were founded on. This violence is how America and other imperial nations gained their power. This violence is how America and other imperial nations continue to dominate the world. This violence has a name: civilization. The willingness to engage in civilization is one way we can distinguish between truly sustainable nations, and truly insane nations.
Before I go on, I know the positive connotations the word “civilization” carries with it. Is he really going to attack civilization? I can hear some asking. Regardless, these positive connotations must cease. Civilization is a bad word.
The most accurate definition for civilization – defensible both linguistically and historically – I have ever come across was developed by Derrick Jensen in the first volume of his work Endgame. The root word in “civilization” is “civil.” “Civil” derives from “civis” which comes from the Latin “civitatis” meaning “city-state.” From there, Jensen defines civilization as a “culture – that is a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts – that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined – so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on – as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”
By Jensen’s definition, neither the Wet’suwet’en or Kanaka Maoli were civilized. They did not require the importation of food or other necessities of life. They developed cultures where one of the most sacred rules is never taking more than you need, never taking more than the land freely gives. In fact, I’ve heard that Kanaka Maoli sometimes punished the taking of a fish’s life out of season with death. Before you call this barbaric, remember whatever problems Hawaiian culture might have had before European contact, total ecological collapse was not one of them. Total ecological collapse of the Hawaiian Islands is a possibility today. Consider, too, that a fish’s life is just as valuable to it as yours is to yours and a fish’s life is just as ecologically important (maybe more important) than a human’s.
The beauty of this definition is that it accurately captures the material reality of civilization. It does not rely on the typically abstract definitions of civilization which often include vague allusions to “developed” and “advanced stages of society.” Another way to say this is Jensen’s definition contemplates what civilization actually does to the real world. I’ll let Jensen explain, “The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.”
Imagine you live in a nation that requires the use of a non-renewable resource. Imagine that resource is, I don’t know, fossil fuels. Imagine your nation becomes so addicted to fossil fuels that your food requires them, your system of medicine requires them, the shelters you build requires them. Imagine you run out of fossil fuels, but find out that indigenous people occupy lands where they can be found. Imagine those indigenous people refuse to give, sell, or barter away those fossil fuels because accessing them would destroy their, more sustainable way of living. What will your nation do? Will your nation voluntarily transform and embrace more sustainable ways of living? Or, will your nation take those fossil fuels by force because your nation requires them?
The anthropologist, Stanley Diamond, summed up the actions of civilization writing, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” Diamond recognized that eventually civilized nations like the United States strip their land base of the necessities of life and turn to conquering other lands to gain what they need. The second part of Diamond’s sentence – “repression at home” – explains phenomena like police violence. Civilized nations rely on soldiers to occupy foreign lands and cops to enforce order at home.
I am often challenged with the question, “What about the comforts we get from civilization?” It is true that civilization brings us hot showers, chocolate, and lossless audio files, but would you rather listen to crystal clear versions of your favorite song or live on a planet free from the very real possibility that life might not survive the century? My favorite band in the whole world is Phish. I would give every Phish show they’ve ever played (I’ve been to 48) including New Year’s ’95 to live in a truly sustainable nation.
My favorite answer for this common challenge comes from my favorite Kanaka Maoli thinker, Haunani-Kay Trask, who took to responding “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Her point is that defending civilization for the comforts it brings ignores that these comforts come at the expense of the oppressed. Civilization establishes a hierarchy that gives a few vast privileges at the expense of everyone one else – human and non-human included. Another way to think about this is: Has civilization been good for indigenous peoples who have been systematically dispossessed of their land and murdered? For women, as a class, who were, perhaps, civilization’s first victims as they have had their reproductive capabilities and labor extracted as surely as oil from the Earth? For old-growth forests? For American bison? For polar bears?
To those who will tell me it’s too complex, you cannot say civilization is definitely bad: Yes I can. The needs of the natural world are primary. Clean water, healthy soil, and breathable air are essential to life. To destroy these things is to destroy ourselves. To destroy these things is suicidal. Civilization is destroying water, soil, and air. This is what civilization does. It must be stopped.
Oppression is always connected to resource extraction. Those in power seek to destroy the Unist’ot’en Camp because the Unist’ot’en clan stands in the way of tar sands oil extraction. Those in power seek to violently remove Kanaka Maoli from Mauna Kea because they dare to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope. The TMT views Mauna Kea as a resource – the world’s perfect night sky – and would destroy Mauna Kea so it can fantasize about other planets to conquer in its insane desire to fuel a violent, wet dream to build an interstellar civilization.
If we are going to effectively resist, we must recognize the way some nations have become addicted to civilization, addicted to the short-term power gained by a willingness to take more from the land than the land willingly gives. We must move beyond being surprised by the murder of civilization. I’m not saying we should become callous. No, let that pain burn, but use the pain to work effectively.
We must move beyond saying things like I’ve often heard in Hawai’i, “The United States might be the greatest nation in the world, but Hawai’i is not the United States.” Yes, the United States illegally occupies Hawai’i in a similar way that every square inch of the USA exists on stolen native land. But, the United States simply is not the greatest nation in the world if we’re measuring by any sane standard like health of the land or lack of coercion of citizens. We must stop asking, “What happened to America?” “What happened to Canada? Nothing has happened to America or Canada. This is what America and Canada do. This is what civilization does. It must be stopped.