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Beyond Standing Rock

November 19, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since I left Standing Rock to return to my life as a carpenter in Portland Oregon. I’ve had ample time to reassimilate myself into western society; ample time to conveniently forget the lessons I learned there. But one thing has stuck with me, and that is the certainty that what’s going on at Standing Rock is simultaneously the most important environmental action happening right now, and the least.

If you believe climate change is real the first part is obvious: pipelines represents a clear and present danger to the planet’s viability for human life. Carbon sequestered in oil gets released into the atmosphere, raising its temperature to unsafe levels. There is also the hazard to the Missouri River and 18 million people’s drinking water if the pipeline breaks.

The second part will take some explaining. First off, I don’t in any way mean to belittle the people on the ground fighting the pipeline. Their work is crucial, as are the contributions of everyone who’s donated money or supplies or their time to support the cause. But if defeating the Dakota Access Pipeline is the only thing that comes of this, it might as well not have been fought against at all.

I say this because there is nothing different or special about the circumstances surrounding this particular pipeline: it’s business as usual for western society. At this point stopping one is little more than a symbolic victory, unless you’re directly downstream; in order to prevent a full-scale climate catastrophe every last oil well and coal mine and fracking operation will need to be shut down.

I believe the water protectors will be successful in North Dakota. I believe the victory will be, and should be, an indigenous victory. They deserve the credit for putting their lives on the line to protect their homeland and their children’s future.

But where does that leave the thousands of non-indigenous activists whose hearts have been opened by visiting their native cousins? Where does that leave all the white people who are so desperately looking for something deeper than industrial society has to offer?

To answer that I have to rewind back to September 26th, the day I returned to Portland. I’d been driving for twelve straight hours. At first the roads were empty and the going was easy, but as soon as I reached Spokane traffic picked up and the closer I got to Portland the more aggressive and unfriendly everyone became, until I found myself shaking a fist back at them. I’d gone from the company of people willing to risk their lives for the planet to the company of people willing to risk their lives for a few seconds’ head start on traffic. And I’d been one of them.

In the following weeks I came to see that while I’d made the trip to support the protest, I was really there for another reason: the experience of being surrounded by people living with a deep sense of purpose. Without even knowing it, I had gone on a pilgrimage.

It’s saddened me to realize how purposeless so many people in our society are. I think it’s because we’re disconnected – we live in apartments, our vehicles are like bubbles, and now we stare at our devices when we’re in public instead of engaging with the people around us. It’s like everyone has PTSD, but most of us have normalized the trauma or accepted it as a personal issue.

I’m here to tell you, it’s not your fault: our society has gone completely fucking insane.

This is what I think: Standing Rock is more than a symbol; it’s a model of how we can live together, and that model needs to be implemented in places besides North Dakota. We need to connect with the people around us and work toward concrete goals. Wherever there’s a threat to the sanctity of our natural resources, we need to gather. Wherever corporate interests threaten people, we need to unite. I’m not saying living in community is easy, either at Standing Rock or anywhere else, but doing that work is exactly what it’s going to take to heal our trauma.

I am calling out to celebrity environmentalists like Leonardo diCaprio and Mark Ruffalo; I am calling out to the philanthropists of the world: open up your land to the people. Let us build eco-villages like the ones being built at Standing Rock, with natives and non-natives working side-by-side. Give us a home. Give us a place to meet and organize and learn how to live in community again. Use your influence to shelter us from western culture, and we’ll build a movement that will change the world.

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