When humankind first began to traverse the planet, people and the natural environment were practically inseparable, symbiotic even. This “spiritual interdependence”, as articulated in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit’s Principles of Environmental Justice, was simply the natural state of things.
But as humans evolved, we began to forge deep divides between us and Mother Earth. With the emergence of capitalism in the late 18th century, we began to commodify - whittling every product, every service, down to its potential profit. In the same way, we began to profitize and dominate the natural environment - putting a price on lumber, oil & natural gas, even water. We distorted what was once a cyclical, reciprocal system of existence, into what is now an imbalanced, linear cycle of take→make→use→dispose.
Indeed, this commodification of Nature had disastrous consequences for the Earth, and eventually for its inhabitants. Years of oil spills, hazardous gas leaks, and toxic industrial waste sites have made the call for environmental justice ever more compelling. Recognizing this indivisible relationship between Human and Earth, Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide, says:
“All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of Earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
So, what now? At the Grand Canyon ABCs, Minimizing Human Impact in a Changing Climate, participants made an individualized eco-friendly commitment - eating vegan or vegetarian for the week, recycling and composting, or even simply monitoring their trash output for the days to come. In this way, students began to explore and expand their understanding of the root of active citizenship - community - to include more than just human beings, but all other aspects of the Earth: soils, water, plants, animals… the land. We acknowledged that if the path toward environmental justice is active citizenship, it must be forged with an understanding that, “when we [also] see land as a community to which we belong [as opposed to a commodity belonging to us], we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold 1949).
Improving the trajectory of our natural environment goes beyond conscious consumerism, which, supports our approach to take→make→use→dispose. Instead, we must also address systems and structures that contribute to environmental degradation: we must reinvest in a circular economy - one which mimics the natural cycle, thereby realigning humans with the land and all other living beings. By taking our time, our votes, and our dollars away from the profit-motivated economy that industrializes land, and by reimagining our relationship to community as one that incorporates and, even originates, from the natural environment, we may be able to save ourselves and our community from, well… ourselves.