From the Desk of Robert Woods Sayre: Indigenous Peoples and the Ecological Crisis

The following contribution comes from Robert Woods Sayre, author of Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century (December 2017). Sayre is a professor emeritus of English and American literature and civilization at the University of Paris East, Marne-La-Vallée. He is the author of several books, including Solitude in Society: A Sociological Study in French Literature, and the coauthor (with Michael Löwyof Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity.

Modernity and its Other is a study of eighteenth-century North America, and of the interrelations between Europeans and Native Americans in that context. I argue that this particular historical moment—temporally and geographically—is unique in the way it brought into immediate proximity and confrontation, before the one gained dominance over the other, the early development of capitalism, with its attendant civilizational traits (“modernity”), and premodern, precapitalist indigenous societies, its “Other”. Given this emphasis on the specificity of the situation studied in the book, it might seem paradoxical to want to highlight ties to, and relevance for the present. But I feel that there is a strong connection, worth insisting on, to an issue that is of crucial importance for us today: the ecological crisis.

One of the main points of contrast between “modernity” and its “Other”—or between the British settlers most especially, and Amerindians—as they faced each other in eighteenth-century North America, was their relation to the non-human natural world. On the one hand, the newly burgeoning market-dominated society treated land and other elements of nature as raw materials to own and accumulate, use up, exploit and transform—or “improve” as was said at the time—as a source of profit. On the other hand, Native American groups saw the natural world as a shared environment, divided only by customary usage, and although they did shape that environment they did so in ways that generally maintained ecological equilibriums rather than exhausting and depleting them. The dynamic of the new, market-driven society was in principle one of unlimited expansion, with its corrolary of limitless consumption and destruction of natural resources, whereas traditional indigenous societies practiced broadly sustainable relations with their environment.

Various travelers in Indian territories that I discuss in my book were aware of this basic difference of approach to the natural world between their own and the cultures they were visiting, but none more so than William Bartram, a Quaker botanist and artist who felt at odds with the colonial society he was born into, and largely in sympathy with the Amerindian ones that he encountered and sojourned with. In his writings he mounts a fierce critique of the cruel domination and exploitation exercised by so-called “civilized” human beings over the non-human parts of the natural world, as contrasted with the Indians’ egalitarian dwelling within it. Bartram was prescient in condemning the waste and destructiveness of some of the settlers’ and traders’ practices in relation to Nature, at a time when its resources could—and did—appear boundless to many, and he can without exaggeration be considered as an early, or proto-ecologist.

Today we are faced with a major ecological crisis that brings to a disastrous culmination the tendencies that were only beginning to develop then, and that were only visible to a few like William Bartram. But the link that I want to establish between the subject matter of my book and the present is not only that one. A further, striking tie is to be found in the fact that in the present-day struggles to turn back the worst consequences of the way of dealing with Nature that began to predominate in the eighteenth century and greatly intensified with nineteenth-century industrialism, indigeneous peoples are playing a key role. Drawing on their traditions as they understand them today to defend their ways of life, these peoples are at the same time contributing to a movement the import of which is universal—for human beings, and beyond them, for all life forms.

As documented by Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), the defense of their lands and resources by traditional, tribal groups in alliance with conservationist or ecological activists is a phenomenon to be found in different parts of the world, one of the earliest such movements having occurred in Africa—against oil and gas extraction in the Niger Delta. But perhaps the greatest concentration of these “eco-indigenous” coalitions are to be found in the Americas. In South America there have been numerous indigenous revolts against mining ventures destructive of local environments, particularly rainforests, in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and other countries as well. The indigenous leader Evo Morales was also responible for calling the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010.

But closer to home in terms of my book, the twenty-first-century battles in North America—both in Canada and the U.S.—against the corporate and governmental pursuit of high-risk extraction of dangerously polluting fossil fuels, have been carried on with the crucial participation, and in some cases the leadership of American Indian nations. The resistance, over a vast territory, against the Keystone XL project has brought many different indigenous groups into action, sometimes in a collaboration with white ranchers that has been dubbed the “Cowboy and Indian alliance”. Just as importantly, the more focused Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock have been led by Indians, especially the Sioux, although at the height of the confrontation Indian tribes from all over North America joined the blockade.

These are only two of the most visible examples of the significant role in combating ecological devastation being played by Native American and First Nation peoples—descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of the continent that my book explored encounter with three centuries ago. This native participation has been an important source of strength for the ecological movement, and at the present juncture, when such gains as the latter have made are highly imperiled, it is to be hoped that it will further develop and find new forms of agency.