“In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them.” — Oren Lyons, Iroquois tribal leader
As the quote above suggests, the Native Americans believed in making decisions that would not only benefit themselves, but also the next seven generations. This philosophy, I imagine, allowed them to avoid rash decisions and encouraged environmental stewardship.
Cultural communication expert Geert Hosfede developed a set of five measures that can aid us in understanding differences in culture. One of his measures is called “long-term orientation” (LTO). As the name implies, LTO is about forward-thinking, looking beyond the immediate short-term. Oren Lyons’ quote above is a great of example of a high LTO, where his perspective isn’t just about the immediate present, but the long-term ramifications of choices and how they impact not only their descendants, but the world they live in. On the other side of this, we have present-day mainstream American culture. On a global scale, the USA scores quite low in long-term orientation, unsurprisingly. We can see this reflected in all sorts of activity within our culture–the inability to save, our reactionary political system, even the mainstream food system. Everything has to be now, now, now, spend, spend, spend. What does all of this mean? For sustainability and earth stewardship, it spells trouble.
Case in point: fracking. I visited North Dakota this month. North Dakota is currently experiencing an “energy boom” (their term, not mine). For a number of years, they have been tearing up the landscape, removing native prairie grasses and land, to get at a layer of rather crappy coal. These lands are replanted when they are done, but the burning of coal itself to generate electricity certainly has its share of problems. This kind of behavior has been going on for decades, and the bulk of North Dakota industry that isn’t centered around farming is centered around the power plants.
Now, however, the newest energy craze is fracking for oil. In the last 1-2 years, many North Dakotans have been getting rich by allowing fracking and drilling on their lands. But what happens to these beautiful rolling hills, native prairies, or massive lakes in 20, 50, or 100 years after the fracking chemicals are introduced? What happens to the water table? Its a good time to mention that Lake Sakakawea is nearby. This is an artificial lake created by the Army Corp of Engineers to help regulate the Mississippi in the 1960’s. The dam holds back the Mississippi river, so it feeds into the river that flows through most of the Midwest USA. I should also point out that nearly 6000 oil wells, created by fracking, are present in the lands surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park (in Western North Dakota) alone.
All this fracking is being done without, as far as I can tell and from what my relatives tell me, any serious public discussion, research, or consideration of the long-term environmental or social effects. When enough money exchanges hands, all nay-sayers have a way of being silenced. While everyday citizens are concerned, there are no protests, no public discussions, little mention of it in the papers. The power, as usual, is concentrated in the hands of the few.
In a small, centrally-located town called Stanton (where I took the photos), the mayor of the town is making bank by selling fracking chemicals. I’m told by my friend (who owns some property there and visits often as part of her work) that on windy days, the open piles of fracking chemicals and sands awaiting pickup on the train line blow all over the town of Stanton, creating clouds of toxic dust.
The fracking craze is mostly about plain human greed, of course. But when we combine reed with a lack of long-term orientation, we end up with environmentally destructive activities in the name of economics. What happens to the lands of North Dakota and their inhabitants in three, six, or seven generations? When the oil is gone, and the companies have long-since raked in their profits, the individuals long since spent their oil dividends, and left the area to whatever fate might befall it?
I’ve experienced this post-economic frenzied fallout all too well. To better understand this, we turn to Southwestern & Central Pennsylvania, my homeland. In their exploration for coal and steel production, numerous companies built up an industry in the 1800’s and 1900’s. They dug up the land, put men in the ground, and proceeded in digging out the coal, shipping it to the cities, and using it to produce boatloads of steel. Of course, these companies have long since left (and some are still in business in places like Mexico), the individuals profiting from them long ago passing on, taking their
profits with them. As part of the mining process, the mining companies created mountain-sized “boney dumps” that still remain centuries later. The dumps, the same size as the Appalachian mountains that surround them, contain a lot of the materials that weren’t minable, exposed to the surface and the elements. The land suffers from the runoff of these old boney dumps: nothing will grown on their toxic contents, which include mercury, sulfur, and many other heavy metals and toxins. These dumps, exposed to the elements, make their way into the waterways. All of the creeks in the area, which locals dub “sulfur creeks” are so polluted that no life can be found in them. Cancer rates are high, along with asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases (all found in my family and in the families of everyone else I know). Some of the streams are bright yellow and full of sulfur; others are a pale cloudy blue/gray—all are devoid of life. And of course now, fracking also is taking place throughout Pennsylvania. It is just one more blow to the land that has been repeatedly logged, poisoned, and now, fracked.
So to conclude, I wish to return to the beginning, to the Native American philosophy of seven generations. I think I’m about the 6th or 7th generation who grew up in Western PA with those boney dumps, and I see the effects of a lack of long-term orientation and bad decisions. And now, visiting North Dakota, I again see how these decisions take place, and the larger systems of power, privilege, greed, and profits that support them. Until we fight this system, change this system, our lands and our bodies become victims of that system. We have to understand that individual activities can reinforce–or we can shift to new ways of seeing, new practices, new systems that support sustainable outcomes.
I don’t have any easy answers. I’ve seen too much, experienced too much, firsthand. I have a hard time dealing with the powerlessness I feel when I watch these horribly destructive activities taking place firsthand. We need to fight, to band together, to raise awareness about these environmentally destructive processes. We need to seek alternative, sustainable solutions and reduce our energy dependence. We must be the change we want to see in this world.