Update: Protests Continue in Iran

Update:

At least 83 protestors, including women and children, have now been killed in Iran since the beating death of Mahsa Amini by the regime’s morality police. The protests, led by women, continue and will be joined world-wide on Saturday.

The Biden administration would do well not to renew the nuclear treaty with this brutal regime, releasing billions of frozen funds as a payoff for Iran’s signing the treaty. Doing such only advances Iranian repression and exporting of terrorism abroad.

While protests do matter, what hurts regimes like Iran most are freezing their assets and sanctioning trade.

Please support the valiant women of Iran!

A Revived Treaty’s Hidden Menace: Iran’s Growing Missile Arsenal

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Up to 50 Iranian protesters, largely female, have now been killed since the beating death of Mahsa Amini on September 21 by Iran’s moral police for improperly wearing her hijab.

Iran is a thoughly brutal Islamic theocracy that may soon develop nuclear capability. At present, the Biden administration, in its precipitous rush to revive the former nuclear treaty before the mid-terms, hasn’t insisted on including reining-in Iran’s growing ballistic and cruise missile prowess, with Tel Aviv now easily within targeting range.

Despite Iranian denials, U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments believe Iran’s supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with missiles lay behind the devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in 2019. Subsequently, Houthis have launched missile attacks on Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and fired supplied drones at Dubai.

In January 2019, the largest base housing U.S. troops sustained a prolonged attack, employing 11 missiles, that resulted in an estimated 100 service personnel suffering Traumatic Brain Injury.

Ominously, Iran has equipped Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah with missiles, while opening underground factories for their storage and local manufacture.

Presently, our intelligence sources estimate Iran now has a minimal 3,000 ballistic missiles, potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads, not including land attack cruise missiles.

Despite concerted Israeli lobbying in Washington to address Iran’s missile program under a revived deal, the Biden administration hasn’t done so.

Rushing the treaty into finalization without addressing the missile threat will leave Israel little alternative, but to launch a massive attack on Iran’s offensive arsenal, leading to a much wider conflict with devastating fallout for everyone.

—rj

No Longer Do the Seagulls Cry: Humanity’s Wounding of the Seas

The sea sings out for its singular subjects:
Arching whales that wave from their waves,
Turtles that teeter down their shining shores,
Coral reefs shining brightly as cities.

The sea sings out its suffering,
Knowing too much of waste, screeching sounds
And pernicious poison, its depths bruised by
Atrocities in the Atlantic,
Misery in the Mediterranean,
Its tides the preservers of time past.”
–Amanda Gorman, from “Ode to Our Ocean”

This morning comes dismal news that a fifth round of UN talks to reach agreement on a treaty to protect and manage our highly vulnerable oceans has stalled once again. No further discussions are scheduled.

The proposed treaty would protect 30% of the high seas lying 200 nautical miles off national jurisdictions and a legal means to enforcement.

Since the seas don’t belong to anyone, this apparently gives nations license to plunder and trash, imperiling biodiversity and, ultimately, fisheries on which a growing population will increasingly depend.

The seas, supplying 50% of the oxygen we breathe, home to the majority of earth’s biodiversity, is languishing, and humans are the source. 90% of big fish populations are depleted; 50% of coral reefs, formerly harboring abundant marine life, gone.

Let me give you just one stark example of human dereliction fouling our seas. There are many others:

Located halfway between California and Hawaii, there lies the drifting human debris known as the Pacific Garbage Vortex, its estimated size twice that of Australia. It doesn’t exist as a single entity, but rather as a vast garbage soup, much of it just below the surface, coagulating in ocean currents as a defiantly boundless  repository of ship castoffs and swept-up coastal discharge, the vast majority of it plastic substances.

Reliable aerial and trawl estimates (2015-16) inform us that 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are floating in the patch, equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world. That was six years ago. Currently, 1.15-2.41 million metric tons of plastic are added each year (theoceancleanup.com),

Plastic infiltration of our oceans poses an immense menace to sea life. The International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN) reports that 700 marine species have encountered sea debris, 17% of them endangered species, among them, seals, dolphins, and sea turtles entangled in abandoned fishing nets. Many sea creatures mistake the plastics for food, imperiling themselves and their offspring.

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Collectively, these plastics block sunlight to the plankton and algae below, which are the primary feed resources of fish and turtles. Ultimately, this has consequences for predators like sharks, seals and whales. A world without whales? Our grandchildren reduced to viewing photographs?

Bad as all this is, the Pacific Garbage Vortex isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s simply the biggest. Located in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, these vortexes manifest humanity’s global trashing of the ocean:

Is there any hope at all? Only if we reduce our use of plastics, a formidable challenge in an economy built on their low costs, or adopt biodegradable alternatives that are no easy sell. It’s simply cheaper to rely on plastics, a carbon-containing product present in the clothes we wear, our computers, laundry detergent, and even our children’s toys, ad infinitum. Plastics tend to ultimately find their way into landfills. And yes, into our oceans.

Greenpeace laments that “failure to deliver a treaty at these talks jeopardises the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world.”

Sadly, I find their admonition, though well-meaning, typically anthropocentric in its solely human focus, or the essence of what birthed these vortexes in the first place.

Have sea dwellers, many of them preceding Homo sapiens, no right to a space of their own?
–rj







Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”: A Reading

Dickinson House (Courtesy: Dickinson Museum)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

This poem, widely read, typically exhibits Dickinson’s syntactical subtleties, meriting close, repeated readings.

At its primary level, it counsels the circuitous in communicating with others in difficult circumstances: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” “Slant” connotes the angular, or indirect, anticipating the sun and lightning analogies in the lines that follow.

Just as we cannot view the sun directly, so it is with harsh realities that need filtering, given the “infirmity,” or sensitivity, of humans unable to absorb truth undiluted: “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight.” Although the sun isn’t specifically mentioned, “bright” confirms its presence..

Likewise, to disclose the truth directly is analogous to the lightning’s surprise flash, frightening children, whose anxiety is only eased with softened explanation: “The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind.”

The poem’s final lines reiterate the poem’s opening counsel, while warning of the consequence of not doing so: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/
Or every man be blind.” That is, we may otherwise do greater harm.

Ethicists may argue with the seeming absolutism in the all of “Tell all the truth.” Surely we can think of circumstances that demand otherwise. A lot depends on the motives we bring to troublesome situations, whether centered in ourselves or on others. Dickinson unequivocally chooses the latter, with kindness the arbitrator.

Dickinson was hardly naive. As poet Camille Dungy observes, “We can’t truly know comfort unless we know its opposite. Writers who think carefully about how to render the world in a truthful and realistic way have to handle, bare-handed and, thus, ever so carefully, the double-edged sword of comfort versus discomfort” (poetryfoundation.org).

We would be wise to adopt a cultural approach as well. We’re not sure of when Dickinson wrote this poem, but most scholarship suggests between 1858 and 1865. In short, it may have been written in the context of America’s Civil War. The conflict was cataclysmic, with an ultimate casualty toll of 600,000. The majority of leading scholars think she internalized the struggle to reflect her psychological wrestlings.

This isn’t to say she wasn’t mindful of the war’s gruesome realities. We have, for example, her “It Feels Ashamed to be Alive” poem, which opens: “It feels a shame to be Alive—When Men so brave—are dead.” We also have her letters and journal. It’s conceivable Dickinson had in mind families and friends receiving grim news of their loved one’s demise. Amherst was a small, close-knit community.

But the poem can also be read in quite another way as Dickinson’s aesthetic of concealment, or how poetry should be written. Good poetry should show, not tell; hint, but not reveal, a credo consistently realized in her poetry. Sound poetry engages readers in discovery, fashioning a poem’s constituents into pattern, yielding coherence, or like pieces of a puzzle, fitting into place.

Through such methodology, poetry acquires universality, the reader becoming the text. This doesn’t mean readers can impose any meaning. On the contrary, astute readers map a poem’s clues and observe its boundaries. Like a good mystery, the clues are planted, awaiting their discovery.

With this in mind, it’s conceivable we can pursue the poem at a metaphysical level as well. What is this “truth” to be shared cautiously? Has it to do with the mystery of Deity’s doings; His ways beyond our “infirm Delight,” or capability to comprehend, necessitating Divine truth be a fragmentary unfolding?

In both Judaism and Christianity, the Shekinah, or divine immanence, is traditionally associated with light. Light dominates this brief poem: “too bright”; “lightning”; “dazzle.” Did Dickinson have in mind Exodus 33:20?: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (KJV).

A devotee of the metaphysical poets, Dickinson may have read Henry Vaughan’s “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness” (“The Night”). Did she have this in mind in her summation, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind”?

We know that Dickinson wrestled with traditional Christianity and a Deity allowing suffering and death. She did not attend church. In an earlier poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” she writes of a light “That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes/Heavenly Hurt, it gives us.”

Less than a dozen poems of 1779 total were published in Dickinson’s lifetime. This poem was published in 1890, four years after her death. It remains one of her most popular poems.

–rj

Salman Rushdie’s Home-Brewed Adversaries

Once again, fundamentalist Islam has shown its ugly side in the attempted slaying of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. After two decades in hiding, he thought he was safe from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (1989). He was wrong.

We expect secular regimes to impose imprisonment and death on those who quarrel with their governance. Think Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, currently center stage, Kim Yong- un, the Myanmar military regime, Xi Jinping, Putin, Maduro, and Ortega.

But religion sponsoring terrorism? For the most part, no; but not when it comes to much of the Islamic world.

Ironically, Islam has remained a largely medieval faith, inimical to change. A PEW Center Analysis (2019) surveyed 198 countries and territories and found that 40% had laws prohibiting blasphemy, defined as irreverence against God and sacred objects. 11% had laws against apostasy. Most of these countries are Muslim.

In 2019, Pakistan sentenced seventeen individuals to death for blasphemy, though the sentences haven’t been carried out as I write.

Iran executes “blasphemers” regularly as public policy, often as means to quell dissent, i.e., to oppose the regime is to oppose Allah.

Iranian execution doesn’t exclude stoning, usually for adultery. Human rights groups report that between 1980 and 2009, 150 people have been stoned to death. Currently, leaked prison documents reveal 51 individuals slated for execution by stoning, 23 of them women, 28 of them, men (thesunco.uk).

We are, indeed, back to ancient ways.

The publisher, Penguin, kept a stiff upper lip in pursuing publication of The Satanic Verses, despite death threats to its executives. An anomaly in a film-dominated time, books still had power to move the needle!

In 1989, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa and $3m award for killing Rushdie for blasphemy in writing The Satanic Verses (1988).

This is the same holy man who sanctioned the execution of up to 5,000 Iranians accused of conspiracy in 1988. He would die a natural death four months after his fatwa.

What followed the fatwa was a bloodbath, forcing Rushdie into hiding under protection of British intelligence. Though he would apologize, the current Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, rejected his apology. (Rushdie has long since recanted his apology: “The worst thing I ever did.”)

Subsequent to the fatwa, thousands of Muslims assaulted bookstores, threatening to bomb those selling his book.

In 1991, the book’s Italian translator was knifed, but survived.

A few days later, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death.

In 1993, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot, fortunately surviving his wounds.

In Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, two clerics protesting the fatwa, were fatally shot.

Riots broke out in Iran, India, and Pakistan. An estmated sixty people died.

Then, as now, many of Rushdie’s writing cohorts came to his defense, among them, Martin Amis, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens.

I like how Steven King took on J. B. Dalton, one of three book chains refusing to sell Rushdie’s novel: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” It reversed course immediately (vanityfair.com).

There were holdouts, arguing we should refrain from offending the sensitivities of others, much like what we hear in today’s cancel culture.

Among the holdouts was John le Carré, who wrote in The Guardian that “nobody has a God-given right to insult a great world religion and be published with impunity.”

In similar vein was former American president, Jimmy Carter, who wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”

Rather strange, I think, for someone who permitted the detested shah to enter America, commencing the seizure of embassy hostages and the bringing to power a theocracy of repression and terror that remains with us still.

They were not isolated cases. Children’s author Roald Dahl depicted Rushdie in a letter to the London Times as a “dangerous opportunist” who “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims.”

In a tear-down New York Review of Books piece, “The Salman Rushdie Case,” author Zoë Heller wrote that “a man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast” (NYRB, Dec. 12, 2012).

It seems a strange twist of fate that there should erupt a groundswell of sympathy for perpetrators of violence rather than for a fierce defender of freedom of speech. But such are the times in which we live, trolls abundant and thought police, both Left and Right, ready to pounce and, not infrequently, message death threats to those it deems adversaries.

The climax in sympathy for rampaging Muslims seen as victims occurred in the aftermath of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being awarded a freedom of expression courage award by PEN America. You may remember that eight of its staff and four other people, including two policemen, were murdered in Paris by Islamic terrorists (January 2015). Some 200 prominent writers wrote to PEN, criticising it for “valorising selectively offensive material” (“Observer Opinion”: The Guardian, 14 August, 2022).

Fatwas need not emanate from distant ayatollahs. They can be home-brewed.

Rushdie got it right in his 1990 essay “In Good Faith,” that “individuals shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.”

Let us hope that our wounded freedom warrior mends well and soon. Early medical reports say he will likely lose an eye, that nerves in his arm have been slashed, and his liver stabbed.

Freedom of speech defines a vital tenet of civilization as essential as the air we breathe, yet many of us take it for granted. We need voices like Rushdie’s to remind us that it can slip away and one day be gone if we forfeit being its sentries.

As for the repressive theocracy that prioritizes hate over love and its apologists, my sentiments lie with writer Jill Filopic’s eloquent summation:

Religion is a belief system. If yours cannot stand up to criticism, interrogation, and even mockery or insult – if you need to threaten or punish, up to the point of death, those who insult an idea you hold dear – it is perhaps worth asking if your beliefs are as strong as you believe they are. And this is the lesson of Salman Rushdie: it is courageous and necessary to stand up against tyrants and those who would use violence to suppress words and art – even when those tyrants claim to have God on their side” (The Guardian, 14 August, 2014).

The Inflation Reduction Act: Fossil Fuels Become Law

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 21: Sen. Joe Manchin(D-WV) faces reporters as he arrives at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee at the Dirksen S.O.B. at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The so-called Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 promises much, but better read the fine print in this massive 700 page proposal.

A patchwork compromise with coal baron Senator Joe Manchin, its motivation is the Democratic Party leadership’s desperate need for a legislative victory in addressing escalating inflation, the primary concern of American voters, as the mid-term elections loom. Thus the bill’s name. (The previous version was called Build Back Better).

With close analysis, you’ll discover it isn’t up to the hype. While an unprecedented $369bn is dedicated to mitigating climate change, it locks in reliance on fossil fuel expansion by hamstringing the Interior Department: no renewable energy development on public lands unless drilling leases are also offered to oil and gas entities.

As such, this bill is pure political charade. Fossil fuels cause climate change, yet they’re locked into the bill’s provisions. There is no mechanism to phase them out.

What we get is the loosening of regulations regarding environmental review and, horribly, mandated drilling leases in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Mexico. The result? More pipelines, oil leaks, methane leaks, wilderness lost, species endangered, and continuing temperature rise. In 2016, the U.S. averaged one crude oil spill every other day (undark.org).

There are no caps on carbon admissions!

While the legislation features tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration, the fallout is that this could extend the life of polluting coal plants, exposing the public to toxic fumes, and making it difficult to achieve clean power goals.

Not talked about is an ominous separate agreement to move a bill in September that could potentially weaken protections under the Environmental Policy Act, which grants communities a say in what happens to their local environment. This is subterfuge, pure and simple.

You’re told the legislation will reduce greenhouse gas admissions 40% by 2030 (Rhodium Group, rpg.com). Considering the pressing problems we have with securing energy resources, it’s dangerously possible that fossil fuels will gain the upper hand over renewables, upsetting any trajectory of even-handedness. As is, the Biden administration in early July held its first onshore lease auction, releasing a proposed plan for off shore drilling, despite Biden’s campaign pledge to cease new oil and gas development on federal lands and waters (insideclimatenews.org).

In short, the Inflation Reduction Act takes back what it gives out, a Faustian wager that forfeits the future for a short-sighted political shell game in the present.

I’m not saying there aren’t good things in the bill. And, yes, there are groups like Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and Earth Justice, urging speedy passage of the legislation. They may be willing to drink the Kool-Aid, but not me, nor should you.

I go by the late E. O. Wilson, “Darwin’s heir,” my icon in environmental matters, who repeatedly denounced such organizations for their compromises, perpetuating environmental demise. They’ve thrown in the towel, their credo, Nature is already gone. We live in the Anthropocene. Wilderness must serve human needs (Wilson, HalfEarth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life).

This is a climate suicide pact,” comments Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “It’s self-defeating to handcuff renewable energy development to massive new oil and gas extraction.”

–rj

Corporate Gauging and Rising Prices

The U.S. Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates to slow raging inflation. The root culprit isn’t the consumer, but the greedy corporate sector, which is using inflation as cover to maximize its profit margins. We know this every time we shop and see goods priced double, or more, the rate of inflation. What’s needed immediately is a windfall profit tax.

Meantime, the average worker faces an insufferable erosion in purchasing power, and the plight of those living on fixed incomes exacts the ultimate cruelty.

Three principal parameters to assess market expense are labor costs, nonlabor inputs, and the “mark-up” of profits beyond the first two. Recent measurements (economic policy institute.org) reveal record profit margins over the former two, or plus 53.9% growth in corporate profits, as opposed to 38.3% for non-labor cost, which includes the supply chain crisis induced by the pandemic, and just 7.9% for labor costs.

Certain sectors of the economy have especially profited, averaging above 20% in profit margins such as information technology and fossil fuels. Exxon, for example, has just published a record profit of $17.9 bn for the second quarter (NYT).

Fueling inflation is the accelerating corporate buy outs, lessening competition. You’re aghast at rising meat prices? That happens because just four meat conglomerates now control the market. Since 1990, some 75% of corporations have consolidated and control as much as 80% of the market, reports the Official Monetary and Financial Forum (OMFIF).

And things may likely get worse as a looming recession makes itself felt and corporations cut expenses to stabilize profitability. Amazon has laid off 100,000 workers, even as profits bulge. Others include Twitter, Google, Netflix, Peloton, Best Buy, Tesla, Ford, General Motors and Exxon Mobil.

Corporations aren’t by nature altruistic. They exist to reap maximum profit for their CEOs and investors. They think in numbers, not individuals.

–rj

Democratic Republic of Congo to Auction Oil Rights to Virunga Park

I’ve been watching Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Our Planet series on Netflix, despite the pain it exacts as I witness the devastating plight of wildlife to survive in the context of climate change, largely the result of human exploitation and ubiquitous indifference.

In and around the Bukima tented camp, located in Virunga National Park. Bukima camp is the base from which to see eight separate groups of mountain gorillas, including members of the Rugendo group, pictured here.

In the third episode exploring jungle habitat, Attenborough takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its endangered Silverback gorillas, so strikingly like ourselves. Lamentably, their numbers have dropped by fifty percent, says Attenborough.

The good news is that their numbers have actually increased, according to methodical estimates by The World Life Conservation Society (May 2021). Previously around 600, they’re up to 1,000 due to concerted conservation efforts, a number still perilously low. Their principal habitat is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

In and around Mikeno Lodge. Virunga Park Rangers work with hounds and a spaniel. The hounds help hunt poachers while the Spaniel helps to find weapons and ivory. Ranger Andre Bauma has been taking care of orphan gorillas for more than four years.

The bad news is that the DRC has just announced its intent to auction oil and gas permits in the park, which also features the world’s largest tropical peatlands, constituting the earth’s most extensive carbon sinks. These beautiful creatures have already endured grevious injury due to habitat loss, hunting, poaching, population encroachment, disease —and yes—human conflict, with splinter rebel groups hiding out in the park.

Virunga is a cornucopia of wildlife, both flora and fauna. Africa’s oldest reserve, its 1.2 million acres provide sanctuary for 700 types of birds and 220 species of mammals, including elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees. I shudder to think of the horrid consequences of its demise, wrought by human greed. In the last decade, more than 150 of the park’s rangers have been killed.

Were I younger and financially able, Virunga is where I’d be headed. I believe strongly in eco-tours. For the Congolese, it’s been a money maker, with $2 million in annual earnings.

Hats off to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for his 2014 Netflix documentary, Virunga, and commitment to the survival of the imperiled Silverbacks. It proved successful in halting oil exploration in the park at the time.

My hope is that we can exert pressure on oil corporations to refrain, as we successfully did in 2014. The best way is to discourage insurers and banks from financing the project. As I write, Congolese and international NGOs have submitted a petition of 100,000 signatures, requesting Congo’s President to halt new oil development

–rj

Wade Davis Defends the Indigenous

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I’m a big fan of history, authentic history that’s unshackled from bias. I like knowing what really happened, when and how, and the lessons we can draw from history, lest we repeat its follies. Sometimes, though, history is like lining up for my morning cod liver oil as a child, good for me, but awful tasting stuff I want desperately to spit out, especially when learning of our continuing abuse of indigenous people, not only in America, but worldwide.

In North America, where I live, our crimes against native peoples comprise an unparalleled holocaust even by WWII’s blood-curdling horror show of 10 million Jews, Slavs, and Roma slaughtered in Nazi death camps. It began even before the notorious Indian Removal Act (1830), ordering Indians east of the Mississippi to move westward. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence decries the Indians as “savages.”

Just how many indigenous people lived in North America, not including Mexico and Central America, prior to 1492, is a calculated estimate at best. The consensus, however, led by scholars Russell Thornton and David Stannard, poses a reasonable estimate of 7 million, with 75 million in the Western Hemisphere at large (see Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987; David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 

Thornton thinks that of some 5 million indigenous peoples within today’s continental United States, the vast majority were decimated by disease, starvation, forced labor, relocation, alcoholism, declining birthrates, and genocide. By 1900, that number had dwindled to 250,000. Of the 75 million indigenous in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 70 million have perished consequent with European colonization since 1492.

Anthropologist explorer and advocate of indigenous interests, Wade Davis, wrote a definitive account of their plight, worldwide, in his 2001 book, Light at the Edge of the World: a Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. It navigates, in particular, the pressures of modern civilization on ancient ways of life, harboring unique wisdom acquired over thousands of years of living in close contact with the natural world.

Wade explores several cultures, among them, Borneo’s Penan, northern Kenya’s pastoral nomads, and, tragically, the fate of Tibet and the coerced extinction of an ancient way of life. His book concludes with a model of hope in Canada’s designated vast homeland for the Inuit, Nunavut.

Passionate and eloquent, Wade delivers a salient polemic for doing everything we can to preserve these ancient cultures with their unique ways of imagining the human experience.

In our ethnocentrism, we may dismiss these cultures devoid of modern amenities as anachronisms, their loss of no consequence, perhaps even desirable: cessation of inter-tribal violence, improved health, social equity, education and employment options, etc.

Wade argues persuasively that when these unique societies fade, their former constituents most frequently find themselves adrift, subject to discrimination and poverty. He gives many examples such as the sad aftermath of the 1956 evangelical missionary intrusion of the Waorani, or Auca, habitat in remote Ecuador, its culture vanquished and displaced tribespeople reduced to menial labor in a modern landscape.

Space is crucial in positing who we are. When lost or compromised, we become adrift, flotsam in a larger current, severed from what conferred identity. This has also been the fate of Native Americans at large.

Spatial encroachment seems everywhere now, accelerated by corporate interests, technology, and human indifference. 98.9% of historical indigenous lands in North America have been lost since 1492 (environment.yale.edu). It continues unabated worldwide: Central America, the Amazon forest, Africa, where logging, mining, dam construction, oil drilling, pipe line installation and agribusiness, the foremost instigator, exact their toll upon historically indigenous land.

An estimated 370 million indigenous live in 90 countries and are notoriously abused. They exist as 5,000 distinct peoples, speaking 4,000 languages. 70% percent of the indigenous live in Asia.

Did you know that indigenous life expectancy is 20 years less than the rest of us? Or that comprising five percent of the world’s population, they’re 15% of the world’s impoverished?

We do a lot of talking about climate change, but how many of us realize the environment’s greatest defenders are the indigenous?

Occupying 25% of the world’s surface, they are guardians of “80% of its remaining biodiversity and 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes” (Amnesty International).

20% of the world’s tropical carbon forest is stored in indigenous lands: the Amazon, Central America, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (worldbank.org).

What’s more, their demise poses a visceral loss to all of us in the forfeiture of a unique diversity, reducing the world to a “monochromatic world of monotony,” Wade writes.

Tragically, in the last fifty years we have witnessed not only the loss of 1 million species of inestimable value to the biosphere upon which our existence depends, but the uniqueness and wisdom of cultures from which we can learn much to ameliorate our own. The parallel fate of these cultures, despite the UN’s passage of the Indigenous Bill of Rights, poses one of the urgent issues of our time.

Worldwide, some 300 million people, roughly 5 per cent of the global population, still retain a strong identity as members of an indigenous culture, rooted in history and language, attached by myth an memory to a particular place on the planet. Though their populations are small, these cultures account for 60 per cent of the world’s languages and collectively represent over half of the intellectual legacy of humanity. Yet, increasingly, their voices are being silenced, their unique visions of life itself lost in a whirlwind of change and conflict.

Wade argues that the loss of language diversity, in particular, underscores the accelerating demise of ethnosphere diversity through loss of habitat, acculturation and assimilation:

Of the more than two thousand languages in New Guinea, five hundred are each spoken by fewer than five hundred people. Of the 175 Native languages still alive in the United States, 55 are spoken by fewer than ten individuals.

….each language is, in itself, an entire ecosystem of ideas. and intuitions, a watershed of thought, an old-growth forest of the mind. Each is a window into a world, a monument to the culture that gave it birth, and whose spirit it expresses.

I’m very receptive to Wade. I’ve long been a student of culture. Wade’s book continues that interest and I recommend it, and all his books, as a collective, informed defense of the right of indigenous communities to a way of life, often superior to our own; the interplay of gathered insight through intimacy with Nature in its many vicissitudes.

I believe strongly in the gifts diversity confers, every culture a contributing chapter in the human narrative. Any diminishment of the ethnosphere consequent with cultural leveling alarms me. I believe it constitutes cultural genocide, whether by intent or omission.

Climate change is today’s most ardent threat to indigenous peoples, their ecosystems, upon which they depend for subsistence, vanishing rapidly as increasing temperatures; a greater suspectability to illness via vector borne and water borne diseases; drought; forest fires; and desertification exponentially occur.

In Northern climes, the Inuit, for example, are now facing a potential hunger crisis consequent with melting glaciers, rising seas, and diminished wildlife; on tropical islands, storms of increasing velocity occurrence and rising seas menace as never before.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees informs us that there presently exist 37 million climate refugees, a disproportionate 15% of whom are indigenous peoples.

I find this an unfolding tragedy. Indigenous tribes have been stalwart stewards of the biosphere from whom we can learn, but conversely set upon by agriculture expansion, logging, and mining interests. Activists have been murdered, most recently, journalist Dom Philips and indigenous advocate, Bruno Pereira in Brazil. Pereira had been investigating criminal activity within the Amazonian indigenous reserve of the Javari Valley. Philips was there to document.

In 2020, Frontline Defenders reported that at least 331 human rights activists, mostly in Central and South America were murdered, 69% of whom were defending indigenous lands. Between 2017 and 2020, 25% of those murdered were indigenous, who comprise only 5% of the world’s population. In 2021, a known 33 indigenous people were killed.

As I write, photos of many of indigenous victims lie before me, a good number of them women along with their children. I can give you country by country analysis of the continuing bloodbath, with governments such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro indifferent to the crisis and the perpetrators remaining free.

Unfortunately, the indigenous often live in areas most vulnerable to climate change: the Arctic’s Inuit, Scandinavia’s Swami, the Amazon’s Yanomami, for example. Thus, their ardent defense of their diminishing environment made worse by exploiters.

Their demise poses an incalculable loss for all of us. Wade, with his typical acuity, summarizes its meaning well:

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience.

Indigenous People’s Day will be observed October 10, 2022 in the U.S. in 26 states as part of a growing movement to replace the traditional Columbus Day.  For me, it’s everyday I remember them, Earth’s guardians, beleaguered and increasingly vanishing along with their sacred habitat. They need your help.

—rj

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