Updated: May 13
Can we learn to navigate the future by reflecting on our mistakes? This piece by artist, 'cultural bridge' and Upper Skagit elder, Jay Bowen (clak-a-deb), was written 9-10 May 2023 in response to an academic manuscript on our planetary crises risking global stability, on which he, Phoebe Barnard and Eileen Crist of Stable Planet Alliance, and other world scientists and sociologists are coauthors. Jay's essay is a powerful, personal insight into indigenous perspectives on the increasing brokenness and collapse of the western world and its global economy.
Jay Bowen on the Skagit River, filmed by Pat McDonnell of Medicinebleu Films for the 2023 global documentary series "Back to our Future: Climate Restoration and Survival" by Transmediavision USA.
It is a relief to read this paper, this issue of risks to global stability, outlined as a world event. Issues brought up in technical observations and studies paint a very vivid picture of our current status as humanity. Where this all comes to bear is when the groups unaffected (by our planetary crises) become much smaller. Almost everyone is affected now.
In the native communities around the world, these issues have been stark since first contact. What was brought to our shores and culture was the worst of what the western world had to offer. As an example, in the highlands of Scotland and now fields of England, once stood great stands of old-growth oak forests - all cut down and turned into weapons of war. It took 100 acres of trees to produce one fighting ship.
The western world sent our emissaries searching for new sources of resources to support the empires of Europe. With the Pope’s declaration of discovery, the world was there for exploitation, and that was 450 years ago, but this mindset is firmly entrenched in western philosophy. Left behind were any feelings of empathy or compassion. All this was led on by the East India Company, and others like the Hudson Bay Company that followed used their templates as a model.
Just a quick overview of how and why we got here. First, we must address the entrenched colonialism that permeates the psyche of the western mind. How to get information that resonates? The information that is outlined (in the paper we are coauthoring) is good firm science backed by decades of strong research. It can be said it’s indisputable.
In most every traditional culture around the world, water, air, and earth were sacred. And all their variations were embraced as a gift from the creator. A violation of any of these three was unforgivable. Now we suffer the sins of our forefathers and foremothers for embracing a way of life that has proved to be unsustainable.
First, we must find a common language that will resonate throughout the world. What words and symbols will fill that need? In my culture of the Northwest natives, it’s been done through what is called the arts, stories passed down in diverse media, cloth, clay, wood, and stone.
All reflect the connection each of us have with nature and the creator. We have been given signs of this impending calamity in everything around us , and now quantified through scientific observations.
We can look back to a time that mimics our current problem, and we can look to the Permian-Triassic boundary which occurred 251 million years ago, an event that lasted for 2 million years that led to the Triassic extinction event.
We are forced to look at all creatures large and small without anthropomorphizing them. The lens we are taught to look through under western eyes is a passage from the Bible, “we shall have dominion over all the earth.” This is a re-translation of this word. The original text said we shall have stewardship. Since that original rewritten passage, western civilizations have held to this alternative translation to our detriment.
The question before us, either known or unknown is: how do we go into the future? will we survive or thrive? I believe these two scenarios are not diametrically opposed. We just need to learn a different process.
We have been given tools by the grace of great, caring minds. An assessment has been made. Question was, do we or can we provide for a growing population of earth that will soon exceed 10 billion people? Science and technology tell us over and over again, yes. So I ask what are the impediments to change? It very well may lay in the hands and minds of a very select group of women and men that control the purse strings of industry. And we realize that until their lifestyles are affected, they may not see the need as immediate.
We are not without signs from nature. Even the microbial life forms are screaming out in protest.
As a native man, I look and wonder. We feel we can dictate by human law that nature submit to our will - re the UNFCCC 2015 agreement.
We have chosen a battle with nature. Nature not as an ally, but an adversary. Nature does not consider us in her decisions. Just a short time ago, glaciers covered what I now call my home. It carved out the Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, and redefined much of the western landscape, with no consideration for the human population. Nature recreated a great abundance we still prosper from. But there was no consideration for the animals that perished in the change. Gone are the cave bear, sabretooth tiger, giant sloths, mastodons, and giant bisons of the Northwest that were a staple food for the indigenous peoples here. Nature will offer us a solution under her terms. Our job is to learn her language. We have great advisors with us, giving us the technical readings nature has offered.
For eons the earth has worn a crown of boreal forests on her head, that has sustained and blessed our Earth, and at her waist a ribbon of tropical forests, we call jungles, crowned at top and bottom with a glistening cap of crystal water, held in reserve.
Our first step in addressing our issue is to take responsibility for this disaster. The consequences are well defined in predictable famine, crop failures, and weather patterns that change green areas to drought areas. Death from heat exposure. Our great minds have again given predicable numbers to expect on our present course.
The economies of the world will change, that’s a given, with melting ice caps and glaciers; coastal cities will be forced to be abandoned. And knowing that 40% of all people live within one kilometer of the ocean shores, we will have a huge shift in surviving populations through migrations. Migrations are nothing new to the human population. 850 years ago there was a mass migration on what is now western North America; drought caused the loss of many populations. Ancient populations will survive, we have the history of what to save and bring with us into the future. It will again be wisdom, culture and a relationship with the creator and all that was created.
What has yet to be brought into the mainstream conversation is what is held in the icefields of the north, what microbial life has been in suspended animation? For mankind it takes us 40,000 years to make an evolutionary change. And when these pathogens are freed we will have no defense against what they might bring into the new human population.
Our greatest weakness as a western culture is that we will try to understand nature with an objective of controlling it - rather than work with known obvious reflections of nature. As a native man and elder, I look in wonder as I see western man attempt to control the salinity of our oceans, not understanding the complex nature of salt and freshwater interaction. Or taking into consideration it takes 2500 years for waters from all oceans to cross the Earth’s ocean paths.
We must recognize we are similar to the coral reefs that live and thrive in a few degrees window, so humans live in a similar sliver of climate-envelope survival. I watch and read about the heat waves that hit India and the death tolls. And in Africa, similar stories. Now I watch as the waves hit Europe and its rivers and land, and the consequences are playing out as we read. We read of the Great Barrier Reef dying off, much of it caused by runoff from raising sugarcane or mining coal.
I was born into a time that when I went hiking, I never brought water with me. I did bring a cup, knowing water was everywhere and any stream would do. But without permission, municipalities have been air dropping effluents on forest lands as a way to dispose of waste. Along with it, giardia was introduced to all of our waterways.
Great minds have discovered that water runoff from our streets into the rivers has affected our salmon biology. Seems that ingredients in tires affect salmon reproduction. These are seen and known factors we need to address, but there are multitudes of others yet to be discovered that affect our lives. All very predictable. Nature has a built-in margin to accommodate fluctuations, and now we have far exceeded that margin.
For the human experience, it’s difficult to see what’s not there. Last winter the bird flu raced through the migrating population of birds in our area, and where last year there were flocks of 100,000 birds, this year a few thousand. The ripple effect caused declines in raptors and songbirds. But in an area that celebrates these winter visitors, it hardly was noticed, dismissed as just fewer birds. And a week ago it was a sensation when a bobcat appeared in a local community. What was once the staple of our ecological economy is now relegated to a novelty experience.
In 1990 I had a conversation with an elder medicine woman at Swinomish. It was a talk about nature and weather, and the conclusion was when nature sees us as a nuisance, she will wipe us away like a pesky mosquito.
The question before us as tribal members is clear, are we able to sustain ourselves with the bounty nature has to offer? World populations of salmon are in decline, and the whole infrastructure that supports it. Changing temperatures cause native plants to disappear, and we watch as a system that sustained us for eons evaporates.
We have always been a culture that has been able to adapt to changes. We adapted to the receding glaciers, and to the extinction of many great and small mammals. Our tribe sustained itself with the resources at hand, and from time to time new forms were introduced, i.e., the sweet potato from South Pacific. In our times we consider ourselves connected to the world, but not responsible to the world. It’s a whole new way of responsibility. When Europeans came to our country, we described it as turtle island. They did not understand why we referenced it in such a way until the pictures of the earth were seen in 1969 from the Apollo Mission, and the outline of North America resembled a turtle. We had an understanding of the whole earth and where we were on it. We understood global society. We understood that the earth was of one family.
I see now powers that control societies break them up, stratifying them. One very misunderstood term is developing countries: a name with a view that they are yet to catch up to western values, the same ones that are causing the demise of our earth.
The issue at hand for many traditional communities is that the environment is changing beyond their control.
I see this issue as one of resources and how they have been redistributed around the world. And looking at these figures so well outlined, I can only see hope. We have before us an outline and plan that opposes our existence, and we can act to prevent calamity.
In my native world things are defined as good, Light, and bad, Dark. The outline of information is neither dark or light; it’s just information. How we act on it defines its roles. I prefer to focus on light and give it all my energy.
I see we have the power to affect climate issues and all their tendrils to our advantage. If we begin to see nature as our greatest ally and work with her, we will prevail. Yes, things will be different. Change is part of humanity. But change may or may not include much of our humanity.
These are great times when we have an opportunity to recognize the many options in our next evolution as an earth culture. We can use this information to our advantage or our epitaph. Recognize first we are all indigenous to the earth, we are of one family.
It would be a wise time to connect with indigenous cultures around the world to ask for help and learn how many peoples have overcome great adversity. The population of my valley at its height was estimated to be over 15,000 of various bands that now compose four tribes. The population of the same area when I was born not too long ago of the same area was less than 10,000. It proves that our area can support a large population without the severe impacts we now see as a part of our environment.
I appreciate the opportunity to let my voice as an elder and representative of my culture be heard and read. To my knowledge, this is a first in this subject area. I look forward to an ongoing discussion on how to share this information that resonates in people’s lives and hearts and cause action to occur.
I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome the new peoples to my land, and to turtle island and the other great islands of the world. In accepting my invitation we agree that yes, we are our sisters' and brothers’ keepers.
Jay Bowen's latest book, Five Days in Heaven, about a brush with coma and death, is available from his art website.