Embracing the Commons in the Age of Trumpism

“As we enter the twenty-first century,” Thomas Berry observed in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000), “we are experiencing a moment of grace.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” is the understandable response. Certainly, anyone paying attention to the news these days has good reason to challenge this seemingly naive claim.

What Berry means, however, has less to do with a positive assessment of our current circumstances than with the narrow window of opportunity we have to turn back from the disastrous road we are on. We have an all too brief moment to transform our exploitation of the Earth and each other into a web of relationships that is, in Berry’s words, “mutually beneficial.” Unless we act now to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, Berry contends, we will become “impoverished in all that makes us human.”

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These are important words to remember as we come to grips with a level of political polarization in our nation’s history unprecedented since at least the days of racial, ethnic, and class conflict in the 1890s, when lynchings, virulent opposition to immigration, and widespread  attacks on labor dominated the U.S. landscape. In particular, the threat that Trumpism poses to democracy is all too real, and the implications of “America First” for global efforts to stabilize the climate and confront inequality in the developing nations are alarming.

How should we respond? For those of us privileged enough to have the resources, it is all too easy to fall into despair and retreat into our respective cocoons. But that is moral cowardice and, at any rate, will end up being self-defeating. As Van Jones has pointed out, ” eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco-apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.”

What does it mean to embrace eco-equity? Conventional politics offers two opposing points of view: conservatism, in which the unfettered market is seen as the way forward, and progressivism, in which the expanded state is considered to be the solution. But the hard truth, as George Monbiot contends, is that “the market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state.” In Monbiot’s words, “One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

What are the commons? Monbiot provides an admirably concise explanation: the commons are “an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights.” It can, at least in theory, include land, water, air, knowledge, scientific research, and culture. Historically, the commons in pre-industrial England were an integral part of the manor. They existed as part of the estate owned by the lord of the manor, but to which the tenants and others held certain rights.

By definition, then, the commons as an idea holds itself over and against the concept of private and exclusive ownership. Perhaps the most compelling current example of the commons is the Missouri River, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans, have fought to protect against the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Knowing the clear risk that a potential oil spill could pose to the drinking water not only of their own people but also all those living downstream, the “water protectors” have taken a stand against the argument that the rights of corporations have precedent over the rights of all those whose lives depend on the commons, including those yet to be born.

To understand the crucial place of the commons in determining the future of what it means to be human, in short, is to see that the “moment of grace” to which Berry refers insists that we resist Trumpism and the corrosive atomization of community and radical individualism that it engenders. It is the most effective and humane way that we can bring about the kind of eco-equity Van Jones rightly views as the only viable option left for avoiding an otherwise inescapable eco-apocalypse.

The Pearl in a Swinish Year

There are lots of reasons to bid 2016 good riddance. But there was one moment that stood out in striking contrast to the tawdry events of the last twelve months: the day earlier this month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was denying an easement to Dakota Access to drill under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed and alternative routes are explored.

By the time this announcement hit the news wires, more than 550 activists known as “Water Protectors” had been arrested as a result of their peaceful and prayerful protest against DAPL over the past nine months.

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As Rebecca Solnit noted, the victory was “not necessarily the end of the road, but a really great milestone.” It underscored “the importance of knowing that we don’t know what will happen next,” the need “to live on principles, hunches and lessons from history,” and the essential value of “standing up for what you believe in, even when victory seems remote to impossible.”

The proposed pipeline route generated intense opposition because, aside from the threat posed to the Missouri River ecosystem, it cuts through the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other members of the Oceti Sakowin or Great Sioux Nation. These lands and waterways are sacred to the Oceti Sakowin.

The 1,172-mile DAPL would connect the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, shipping roughly 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The Bakken Shale holds an estimated 5 billion barrels of oil, and is producing approximately 900,000 barrels per day.

What does this incredible level of production mean for climate change? This past spring University of Michigan researchers concluded that the Bakken field alone accounts for about 2 percent of the world’s ethane, about 250,000 tons per year into the air, directly affecting air quality across North America. These emissions, combined with combustion of Bakken oil, are major contributors to the global climate crisis that threatens our well-being and that of future generations.

The fear that a break in the pipeline could have a devastating impact on the Missouri River and the millions of people who depend on it for their drinking water is not merely theoretical. Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas company behind Dakota Access, has a long history of violations of environmental laws. These infractions include citations for releases of hazardous materials from its pipelines and facilities in Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii.

In one year alone, there were over 300 pipeline breaks in North Dakota. Numerous pipeline spills of millions of gallons of oil and contaminants into the Missouri River and its tributaries have already occurred. Most dramatic was the release In January of over 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana. The lesson is painfully clear: pipelines fail, despite the many claims about their safety, spilling oil across the land and into nearby creeks and rivers.

DAPL may yet get completed. But the struggle against its construction has brought together the greatest single gathering of native North Americans ever, inspiring a new generation of tribal activism. Just as important, the resistance has demonstrated the many ways in which the environmental and social justice movements are intertwined as well as the crucial role that indigenous people play in the climate movement.

In a year in which reactionary and racist forces have combined with greed and corruption to produce an unending wave of unsavory developments, the courage of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock reminds us that when we come together as subjects in history, not just objects of history, great things can be accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds. It comes as no small comfort that 2016 closed on such an inspiring note.