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The Secret Library of Hope

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This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Indians, Environmentalists, and Utopians

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is the author of fourteen books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities...

Also by the Author

We've already lost a lot to climate change, and we'll lose more unless we take collective action.

The struggle over the meaning of one man’s killing spree may prove to be a watershed moment in the history of feminism.

One spectacular book along these lines already exists: Charles Wilkinson's Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. For us non-native people, Native Americans became far more visible during the huge public debates around the meaning of the Quincentennial of 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in this hemisphere. They reframed the history of the Americas as one of invasion and genocide, rather than discovery and development. But the story was not a defeatist one; simply in being able to tell their own stories and reshape their histories, native people of the Americas demonstrated that they were neither wholly conquered, nor eradicated; and, since then, the history of the two continents has been radically revised and indigenous peoples have won back important rights from Bolivia to Canada.

In the United States that reclaiming of power, pride, land, rights, and representation began far earlier, as Wilkinson's book relates. A law professor and lawyer who has worked on land and treaty-rights issues with many tribes, he begins his story of ascendancy with the 1953 decision by the US government to "terminate" the tribal identities, organizations, and rights of Native Americans and push them to melt into the general population. This represented an aggressive attempt at erasure of the many distinct peoples of this continent and their heritage. Told to disappear, "Indian leaders responded and by the mid-1960s had set daunting goals... at once achieve economic progress and preserve ancient traditions in a technological age.... Against all odds, over the course of two generations, Indian leaders achieved their objectives to a stunning degree."

Wilkinson's monumental history of the past half-century concludes:

"By the turn of this century Indian tribes had put in place much of the ambitious agenda that tribal leaders advanced in the 1950s and 1960s. They stopped termination and replaced it with self-determination. They ousted the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] as the reservation government and installed their own sovereign legislatures, courts, and administrative agencies. They enforced the treaties of old and, with them, the fishing, hunting and water rights. Nowhere have these changes been absolute and pure. In most cases the advances represent works in progress, but they have been deep and real."

Late this November, Canada set aside 25 million acres of boreal forest as a preserve to be managed, in part, by the Native peoples of the region, a huge environmental victory for the largest remaining forest on Earth--and for all of us. How did it happen?

I am still looking for an environmental history with the strength and focus of Blood Struggle or Bury the Chains. An exhilarating 2006 article in Orion magazine by Ted Nace describes how a bunch of North Dakota farmers killed off Monsanto's plans to promote the growing of genetically altered wheat worldwide. The essay concludes:

"On May 10, 2004, Monsanto bowed to the prevailing political sentiment. It issued a curt press release announcing the withdrawal of all its pending regulatory applications for [its genetically altered] Roundup Ready wheat and the shifting of research priorities to other crops."

We need books on victories like this, books that tell us how this dam was defeated, this river brought back from being a sewer, that toxin banned, that species rebounded, that land preserved.

In fact, a broader history with some of those threads did appear this year, geographer Richard Walker's The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. It describes generations of struggle to preserve something of the richness of this extraordinarily diverse region by defeating some of the most awful proposals most of us have never heard of--to, for example, completely fill in the San Francisco Bay--back in an era when water and wetlands were just real estate waiting to happen.

The book does justice to a whole unexpected category of unsung heroines--the often-subversive affluent ladies who have done so much for the environment and the community--then moves on to document the emerging environmental justice movement that took on toxins, polluters, and the overlooked question of what ecology really means for the inner city. It's a great, hopeful history of a region that has long created environmental templates and momentum for the rest of the nation--and Walker makes it clear that this trend was not inevitable, but the result of hard work by stubborn visionaries and organizers.

A decade ago, Alan Weisman wrote a profile of a town in the inhospitable savannah of eastern Colombia, a miraculous community in which that unfortunate nation's turmoil and our age's environmental destruction was replaced by a green, utopian approach that involved reinventing the roles of both technology and community. It worked, though Weisman ended his 1997 book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, on a prophetic note of caution:

"[The] fading of the Cold War has revealed clearly that a far more incandescent and protracted battle--a potentially apocalyptic resource war--has been stealthily gathering intensity throughout the latter part of the twentieth century.... Yet a place like Gaviotas bears witness to our ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances."

Weisman's deservedly successful 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, takes an extreme approach to getting it right, by showing how the planet might--in part--regenerate itself if we were to go away, all of us, for good. The chapters on nuclear waste and plastic are dauntingly grim, but the descriptions of New York City reverting to nature go two steps past Mike Davis's Dead Cities in praise of entropy, weeds, and the power of natural processes to take back much of the Earth as soon as we let go.

While Gaviotas stands out as a rare, realized utopia, our choices among the unrealized ones--except as literature--are legion. In 2007, I finally got around to reading what has already become my favorite utopian novel: William Morris' News from Nowhere. Best known during his life as a poet, Morris is, unfortunately, now mostly remembered for his wallpaper. He designed it as part of his lifelong endeavor to literally craft an alternative to the brutality and ugliness of the industrial revolution through the artisanal production of furniture, textiles, and books--all as models of what work and its fruits could be.

That attempt had its political and literary faces, which is to say that Morris was also a prolific writer and an ardent revolutionary. He was more anarchist than socialist, as well as an antiquarian, a translator of Icelandic sagas, and so much more. News from Nowhere, published in 1890, portrays his ideal London in the far-distant future of 2102, a century and a half after "the revolution of 1952."

It's a bioregional and anarchic paradise: The economy is localized, work is voluntary, money is nonexistent and so is hunger, deprivation, and prison. The industrial filth of London has vanished, and the river and city are beautiful again. (They were far filthier in Morris' time, when every home burned coal, while sewage and industrial effluents flowed unfiltered into the Thames.)

Most utopias, of course, aren't places you'd actually want to live. Admittedly, Morris' is a little bland and mild, as life on earth without evil and struggle must be. But his utopia is prophetic, not dated, close to many modern visions of decentralized, localized power, culture, and everyday life. It is, in short, an old map for a new world being born in experiments around the globe.

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