By Dr. Simona Perry, Director, LiKEN Civic Professionalism Program
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The Elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.” (Indigenous teachings from ChoQosh Auh’Ho’Oh’)
These medicine words are attributed to the Iroquois Elder, Uncle John. And in my work and relationship with communities and families on the frontlines of unconventional oil and gas energy developments, Uncle John’s medicine, more than any other teaching I have found, captures the paradoxical feelings of fear, expectation, and at the same time, hope that grips these communities. It is also a teaching for each of us about each of our roles in overcoming prejudice and fear of the unknown, celebrating and cultivating collective action, and fostering resilience and hope in what sometimes feels like a hopeless situation.
From the fractured shale fields of rural Appalachia to my work with the Pipeline Safety Coalition, I have walked along the right-of-ways, driven along the rail-lines and roadways that transport hazardous materials and natural gas across the mountains and farm fields, under the rivers, across the suburbs, and into metropolitan cities and ports. I have followed the lives of local citizens and communities as they experience a variety of painful and sometimes life-changing lessons. Lessons about water and food security and access to appropriate health care. Lessons on right-to-know laws and what it means to expect (and demand) more from your government at the state, local, and national levels. We’ve learned lessons about the power and at the same time the fallibility of Western science and scientific methods. And there have been critical lessons on how our civil and human rights, current well-being, and future prosperity are so intimately linked with ecological processes and environmental protection.
I have witnessed alongside these communities the disregard for environmental laws on hazardous wastes, the gaps in our country’s drinking water and air regulations, how national security threats and demands for patriotism are used as tools for silencing and criminalizing dissent, the ways that corporate corruption has infected our democratic processes, and the disgraceful lack of moral grounding among politicians and decision-makers. However, what I have also learned is that there is a strength and contagious power to the voices of these courageous citizens and local leaders who have let me into their lives… the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and grandchildren… who have chosen to speak up against corruption and moral and scientific bankruptcy that have allowed for permits to be issued and developments to take place without consideration to the complex and intertwined environmental, health, labor, cultural, and social consequences of oil and gas extraction and transportation and all the related industrial developments. Even farmers who swore up and down to not be environmentalists or activists are now crying out for a new way. As Paul Hawken put it so eloquently, the environmental movement is humanity’s immune response. We are activating healing by speaking out on the part of the earth. Maybe that is what humans being the stewards of all life on earth is really all about.
As an applied environmental scientist and ethnographer, I have conducted research that seeks to understand human-environment relationships, how everyday lived experiences relate to environmental changes, and what this can tell us about social and psychological change as it relates to the places where people live, work, recreate, procreate, grow up, and find solace. In my applied work with frontline communites, this has become a life’s calling. Hand-in-hand with landowners, students, farmers, and some brave local leaders, we have activated grounded knowledge and that wide and deep grassroots network to better inform how we educate and facilitate dialogue around our common struggles regarding local development projects, energy transitions, disaster preparedness, climate change, and long-term planning and public policy, and importantly how we can turn these struggles into strengths.
Remember– banish that word Struggle!
Personally, what drives me beyond the struggle is an intellectual curiosity to understand and document human culture and behavior, and what keeps me driven is the engagement of the emancipatory and empowering potential of simply asking individuals and groups, whom are rarely asked, what is YOUR story? What is important to YOU? What is the glue that holds you personally to your community and place? What does this glue, these connections, say about how the social fabric of your community holds together? And, what does this mean for understanding how this social fabric can become frayed or unravelled? And, here today what does this all mean to US in imagining solidarity across issues, maybe even solidarity beyond issues?
Take the case of just one octogenarian farmer and his family from Bradford County, Pennsylvania. When this 80-year old gentleman signed a subsurface and surface lease with a gas company out of Oklahoma for a Marcellus shale gas well and associated infrastructure to be developed on his property he did it for the good of his family, the future of the farm that had been in his family for more than a century, and what he believed to be his own financial best interest. After the gas well was drilled, neighboring families living on the road where the gas well was located found their tap water turning black and producing a smell they said was “hard to describe.” When his adult daughter, who had recently returned from the West Coast to start an organic operation on the farm, found out that there had been problems with the construction of the gas well she wondered, and worried, that the changes in their neighbors’ water could be the result of the drilling of the gas wells on her farm. During an interview she told me, “I mean even neighbors whose wells have been contaminated by our well pad they are so gracious. They don’t even say anything. I would be so angry. I was worried about that. Like I started telling them I am so sorry. They said ‘You didn’t do it. It’s not your fault.’ But, I am so sorry. Our families have generation-after-generation relationships.” These are moments where the struggle is articulated. But they are also the moments when it becomes clear that we are all in this together. That it is about US not ME. And it is about learning from these collective struggles to create a more thriving and resilient collectivity. These very personal and sometimes heart-breaking realizations that what appears to be so good for one person or family can end up being so harmful to other people or an entire neighborhood and place bound together across generations has been a recurring theme throughout my seven years of work on this issue. And, I believe in this work lies one of the other critical teachings from Phillip Deer, an Arapaho Elder, that we all must heed: “The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!”
It is time we let go of the river’s bank, look around and see who is here with us… and I dare you to say, “Celebrate US!”