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July 23, 2011

Creating a Climate of Change: A Sustainable Future for the Living Earth (live blogging the 2011 Living Earth Symposium)

Tim Johnson (Mohawk), NMAI Associate Director for Museum Programs, is introducing the symposium, with a brief review of the museum's interest in environmental issues as Native issues. We have come to realize that one of the things that needs to happen is a change in values. Right after the symposium, the museum will have a ribbon cutting for Conversations with the Earth, an exhibition of video, audio, and photographs documenting indigenous responses to climate change around the world.

José Barriero (Taíno) introduces Lambert Torivio and Cornell Torivio, of the Pueblo of Acoma Buffalo Dancers, who offer the opening blessing and honor song.

The symposium's keynote speaker is social thinker and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Commentary will be offered by Gregory Cajete, chair of Native American Studies and associate professor of education at the University of New Mexico, and Melissa K. Nelson, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University.

Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

Jeremy Rifkin apologizes for beginning on a very somber note, wondering climate change will have an apocalyptic impact on human population within a few generations. Rifkin: The primary economy on the Earth is photosynthesis, and human beings are now consuming 31% of that economy’s productivity. "We are devouring the Earth." Iroquois leaders considered the impact of their behavior on their children's children's children. They did not live for the present. We would not be where we are now if we had had the same consciousness.

Rifkin outlines three key events that factor into his forecast of the end of the current industrial age:

Petrocarbons impact virtually everything we do; they are especially key to productivity in agriculture. In 2008, the oil price shock of $147-150 a barrel was the earthquake. The collapse of world markets in the months afterward was the aftershock. 50,000 years from now, the 1st (18th-century) and 2nd (19th-century) Industrial Revolutions will be seen as the Carbon Age, an era that almost collapsed the planet.

Comparing global peak oil production and peak oil per capita: There is disagreement over when we reached/will reach peak oil production—the moment when half the planet’s recoverable reserves have been used. Earlier forecasts were for 2020 to 2035, then 2010 to 2015. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes production peaked in 2006 at 70 million barrels a day.

Peak oil per capita, however, was reached a generation ago. Every time we try to re-grow the economy at the rate achieved before 2008, oil prices are going to spike, and that will ripple all across the supply chain. We can see it happening in the current recession: As oil prices rise above $90-100 a barrel, the economy begins to stall. "This is a wild end game between growth and collapse."

The second event driving Rifkin’s forecast is the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of 2009. "You cannot escape the laws of thermodynamics." Quantitites of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gasses are already in the atmosphere. How serious is climate change? Worse than anyone will admit. "For 30 years, I have gotten it wrong; I have underestimated the feedback loops in the atmosphere." Scientists' midrange scenario of a temperature rise of 3 degrees centigrade worldwide during this century now looks optimistic. A greater increase would create a climate similar to that during the Pleiocene Age. The droughts, the floods, the hurricanes we see now are all the result of dramatic changes to the hydrological cycle caused by climate change. 

But atmospheric physicist James Hansen says these projections are wrong, because our understanding of feedback loops in the atmosphere was incomplete. Calculations of greenhouse gases at 300-350 parts per million (ppm) of in the atmosphere are too low. Instead, Hansen estimates greenhouse gases to make up 400 or more ppm, and foresees an increase in global temperature of more than 6 degrees C this century.

For Rifkin, a large part of the problem is that we're living off unworkable ideas about the meaning of the human journey and our place in the world. Here he offers a quick review of Western concepts of human nature, from original sin to the notion of enlightened self-interest to Freud’s emphasis on id and ego. And then we wonder why we feel so isolated: Our ideas have made us monsters. 

Yet for 94% of our history as a species, we did not have a concept of private property.

Contemporary neurological science shows that human beings, many primates, elephants, and no doubt some other species have mirror neurons, where scientists now locate the mental experience of empathy. For Rifkin, we are social animals—homo empathicus—not models of autonomy. Countless experiments show that we are wired for empathic distress. Empathic evolution is integral both to selfhood (it’s happening to someone else, no to me) and to the moral imagination that let’s us recognize other people's experiences as equal to our own.

Empathy is our transcendent value, and it evolves over history. Historians chronicle the out-of-the-ordinary, the pathologies. Rikfin is interested in what we can learn the blank pages of history. (See his latest book, The Empathic Civilization.)

During 90 percent of human history, human power was the primary source of energy. The hydraulic civilizations, powered by water technology, followed; by these, Rifkin means the civilizations from the Fertile Crescent to the empires of Mesoamerica. This age also saw the rise of the great religions and their extension of empathy beyond the clan or tribe. The coal/steam/oil energy revoltution of the 19th century created new needs for organization and communication and a new unit, the nation state. These different consciousnesses—mythological, theological, ideological—are not lost, but are layered within human development.

Now the infrastructure built on carbon has become unsustainable. This new age is being defined by an explosion of distributed, lateral connectedness. When distributed communication is combined with distributed energy, we will have a 3rd Industrial Revolution.

What is meant by distributed energies? Coal and oil are not found in everone’s backyard; their exploitation is centralized and requires centralized administration. But we all have all the distributed energy we need in our backyards, as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy.

Rifkin has been consulting with the European Union (EU) to support this 3rd Industrial Revolution. The first pillar was working toward using renewable sources for 20 percent of the EU’s energy. Now the goal is 30 percent. Large solar, geothermal, wind, etc., energy projects are a necessary step to get us off carbon. But why would we only collect them in central locations?

Pillar 2 in the EU is infrastructure to allow for more distributed energy-generation and collecting, Specifically, that means converting the entire building stock of Europe to be independent power plants. Actually, some of the new construction in Europe will generate more energy than it consumes and will contribute energy to the grid.

Pillar 3 is the development of fuel cells to store energy when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Space exploration has been running of hydrogen fuel cells for 30 years, so we know it can be achieved. We also know that the conversion loss from fuel cells is much less than the loss entailed in central energy distribution.

Pillar 4 will be the energy Internet.

Pillar 5 will be fuel-cell vehicles. The EU is already working on creating energy tracks at stoplights, etc., that can power up fuel cell cars as people use them.

Rifkin applauds the Obama Admnistration for its interest in forward-thinking energy development. The problem with the Obama Administration's approach is that U.S. policy-makers don't have a narrative to counter the existing centralized structure, which is served by lobbying interests. With this new narrative in Europe, the specific steps to take are becoming apparent.

It's a system and a paradigm change to distributed capitalism. The music companies didn't understand the distributive economy. Encyclopedia Britannica didn't understand Wikipedia. Newspapers didn't understand the Internet. Distributed energy has the same potential.

The key is to become aware that energy is not a few reservoirs sitting under the ground. It is sources all around us that we have the capability to connect. Can we do it? Our way of thinking about the issue is already changing. Children are coming home from school asking why we do the things we do. They are becoming aware that every activity has an ecological footprint that affects everyone else and the future. This is an understanding that Indian cultural traditions always had.

How do we extend empathy beyond the nation to the human race, to our fellow creatures, and to the planet Earth? Rifkin: "I don't know if we'll get there in time. You young people will find out. Send me a postcard." To date, Europe is leading this effort, but no one can tell a story like America. And once we understand this story, we can change things very quickly. Until the 14th century, very few human beings had seen themselves in a mirror. The manufacture of mirrors changed our sense of consciousness, our self-reflection, our understanding of how we are different from others and how we are the same. The Apollo astronauts' view of our planet is accessible to every child who hops on Google Earth. That's a shift of consciousness.

"How many of you took part in National Geographic's genetic project? My family did, but I can save you the cost." Genetic research shows us that we all came from 2 individuals. We come from family.  

And all the other life forms on Earth have a right to be here, too.

This is the legacy for our time: Move this story out. Don't get sidetracked. If we are truly at a pivotal point in the history of our species, we have to make this new distributed, collaborative energy revolution happen.

Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo): Creating Sustainable Communities in a 21st-Century World: An Indigenous Perspective

["Good day" in Tewa.] Every day we get up and are alive is a good day. Thank you, Jeremy, for underlining the criticality of this event. What I have today really parallels Jeremy's thoughts."

Many of the environmental issues we're dealing with today are not things we can solve as individuals. So creating communities becomes central. [Cajete shows an image of a Mimbres plate with a positive/negative design of a human profile and a sandhill crane.] Like many forms of indigenous art, this plate embodies a people's understanding of what it is to be empathetic. The two images cannot be separated.

In many ways, indigenous peoples are the canaries warning of climate change. We have stories that our parents and grandparents have told us about changes to the places we live. A recent conference of indigenous peoples in Asia also made this clear. "I like to describe our role as 'the indigenous mind rising.' And when I say 'indigenous,' I want you to remember that we are all indigenously human."

At Santa Clara Pueblo, we have lost our watershed due to enduring drought. We are shifting to conservation. Indigenous people have been affected by climate change all over the world and have been speaking out about climate change, about how to preserve our communities, how to use our traditional technologies.

Climate has always been in a state of change, but in many ways this process it's snowballing. We were noticing subtle changes 30 or 40 years ago. Those cumulative effects—since it is a feedback system—are now becoming very pronounced in every region.

How do we survive as indigenous communities? Survival requires the exercise of knowledge and sovereignty, but it also requies collaboration and collective action. Community is something that has to be practiced, that evolves, with every generation. Like everyone else the world, we see our sense of community being challenged. And we see the need to re-create ourselves.

Indigenous societies were intelligent enough and wise enough to find ways to reinforce our sense of empathy and the essence of what it is to be human within a community through ceremonies and the 7-generation thinking we've been talking about.

The response also has to be about indigenous ideas of knowledge—from traditional knowledge to observed knowledge to spiritual knowledge to contemporary knowledge. When you look at indigenous languages, you see that indigenous communities seem to operate from biological metaphors that express life principles. Somewhere along the way, the human community moved to metaphors based not on life but on the machine. Our consciousness of community is deeply connected to the metaphors we live by, including these increasingly mechanical metaphors.

So it's not just about changing the way we live, it's about changing the metaphors we live by. We, as Americans, lack a sense of communal good and of taking responsibility for the impact of our actions on every other being. Our ceremonies, like the First Salmon Ceremony in the Northwest, often exist to help us remember to remember this connectedness to other living things.

The indigenous example can represent an example for non-Natives, though Native peoples have often been off the radar for most people. This movement for creating community is one of those examples. Cajete: "We are all related, we are all related, we are all related. And we are all part of Turtle Island." Indigenous people have always known that we are part of the Earth as a living entity and that we are responsible for it. Now we need to take a hard look at the education policies and other policies that make us complicit in the current crisis.

What I have been advocating is the recreation of cultural economies around indigenous paradigms, to find ways to translate these ways of living and knowledge bases into present practice. So I've been involved in creating indigenous schools and other forms of Native education to bring these ideas forward in economically viable indigenous communities. Cajete: "Is that possible? It has to be possible, Otherwise we have no hope."

For us, as indigenous people, we have culture and community. I ask young people to think of our amazingly rich cultural histories and bring that forward. Some of the key concepts are environmental integrity, spiritual purpose, relationship and respect, and commitment.

"We are all kernels in the same basket. So I want you to come away with the thought that there is also great human resilience that I am betting on, that we are up to the task" of living sustainably and richly.

"Thank you from a deep place in my heart." 

Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa): Re-Indigenizing our Bodies and Minds through Native Foods

Nelson is the editor of Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future.

"Thank you. I want to talk today about indigenous health and indigenous foods. As we're facing these crises, I believe it's indigenous learning and the best of Western learning that are going to get us through."

I've been privileged to do this work for the last 18 years through the Cultural Conservancy in San Francisco, which has been focused primarily on California's Native peoples. We do our work through research, education, advocacy, and alliance-building.

As you know, the foods of the Americas have fed our peoples for thousands of years, and have fed the world for the last 500 years. Ecocultural revitalization is a way to restore our place-based understanding of community. 

This is in contrast to the arrogance of modern thought. How do we move to a post-Conquest world in which we recognize our empathic nature? One way is through the foods we eat. Native foodways can help us to reconnect back to the earth. 

What are Native foodways? All the different ways we learn to find, produce, and use foods. Native foodways are also about restoring the land bases and resource bases of communities. In Northern California, for example, abalone was an important Native food. Where once there were 11 species of abalone, now there are 3. So following Native foodways is about restoring native seed banks. It's about reconnecting consumption and ceremonies.

One of the concepts we discuss is food sovereignty: "The right of peoples to define their own . . . policies . . . appropriate to their own circumstances. . . . All peoples have the right to culturally appropriate food to sustain themselves. . . ." Reconnecting with our Native foods connects us to our land-based cultural identity. Reconnecting with our Native foods is also a source of security. It relies on the human community and the more-than-human community. It is, with the water we drink and the air we breathe, how human beings become our environment and how our environment becomes us. "We are not only what we eat. We are where we eat." Here, I think of Winona LaDuke’s wonderful capsulization of this principle: "Wild rice should taste like a lake."

Food is also a part of indigenous medicine. It is part of a sacred cycle between humans and plants and animals and among human generations.

So how did we shift from this concept of food as a sacrament to our existence as a fast-food nation? For indigenous peoples, it was pretty systematic, beginning in the 15th century, as lands and waters were stolen. For others, somehow industry has taught us that wild rice shouldn't taste like a lake. "The value of food is weighed in dollars . . . not in its ability to nourish." —John Mohawk.

At the extremes, our bodies will take what they need from the unreal stuff all around us, from radioactive iodine to the estrogen in plastics. Illnesses correlated to our lifestyle and the loss of heritage foods are pervasive in the United States and increasingly around the world. "We have eaten the poison and it is only matter of time before it attacks a vital organ." Those vital organs include our soil and water resources.

Native peoples are addressing these issues. Re-indigenizing our diets and our way of life is a way of decolonizing our bodies and restoring health to our communities. One of the most important reasons we are here on Earth is to feed each other, spiritually and imaginatively, as well.

Question: For Mr. Rifkin: Can you comment on the future of jobs for us?

Jeremy Rifkin: There are two things happening at the same time. With new technologies we are seeing the end of mass wage labor, just as carbon energy brought about the end of slave labor. It's not happening just in the U.S., it's happening everywhere. The silver lining is that we have a 40-year period in which we will need to build the infrastructure I talked about. That entails hundreds of millions of local jobs for two generations. We have to prepare young people both to do those jobs and to be ready for the distributed economy that will follow. What I imagine at mid-century is that half the population of the world will be working in the not-for-profit sector. This is where we're headed, if we can make it. If we can get people up to par and can live more sustainably, people will not have to spend their lives as machines.

Question: Do you support free choice or government coercion to bring about these changes? And hasn't modern food made it possible to feed much larger populations? 

Melissa Nelson: I did not mean to imply that we need to eliminate the industrial food system. I would say that the system needs to be changed. And I'm skeptical about the promise of genetically modified foods and chemically dependent agriculture.

Jeremy Rifkin: We need to talk about the shift from food to feed. One-third of the grain produced in the world today is used to feed livestock. At the high end of the scale we gorge ourselves on an animal diet and die of diseases of affluence. Those at the low end suffer diseases of poverty. And forecasts are that livestock production will double, so in the near future more than 60 percent of the world’s grain stocks could go to produce meat. The answer is to move down the food chain, to restore local agriculture (it's happening around the city of Rome), to recognize that we will not be able to afford the energy cost of bringing ourselves grapes from Chile. It makes sense from a business and cultural point of view.

Question: I'm from Ojibwe, and one of the things we're really concerned about is water. It's not just the climate we need to be worried about, it's water, including industrial pollution. My community is involved right now in trying to keep mining away from the oldest mountain range in the world, the Penokee Hills.

Melissa Nelson: Migwitch. Thank you for those important words. Water is the first medicine. There is a lot of exciting work being done in green technologies, using plants to heal water.

Question: Corporations should not have the same rights as people. How are we going to change corporate structures?

Jeremy Rifkin: In the last industrial revolution, everything became big. The three largest corporations are still energy companies. The 3rd Industrial Revolution will be distributive, connecting thousands of small producers with millions of buyers. Think of Etsy, the Internet site that empowers independent craftspeople to market the things they make, or the car-sharing programs around the world.

In my next book, one of the sections is about how we will move to a corporate culture that's more network than market. We need to rethink economic theory based on the laws of energy. But we also need to rethink what the good life is.

We've been relying on GDP to define economic progress. Now there's a movement toward developing better ways to measure quality of life. It will be a struggle, but if we can create distributive power, it will happen. Young people's thinking is very different from my generation's thinking. We still think ideologically. When young people judge behavior, they ask, “Is it centralized, authoritarian, top-down, and closed? Or is it distributive, egalitarian, lateral, and open?” Power is never surrendered easily, but history is not on the side of the centralized model.

Gregory Cajete: I'm wondering where the Indian is in this. We've been marginalized and ignored, and I suspect that very few people are aware of the resistance that's been going on for 500 years to maintain our lands and our traditions. So I guess I would ask Jeremy, where is the indigenous voice? Because to do what he is talking about will require the contributions of all the people of the world to change our consciousness and bring back the sense of community and communal ownership.

There are several ways you do that: through education (which has been for Native people too often a tool of indoctrination and assimilation). What we're taught and how we're taught does not match well with the kinds of things we've been talking about. In some ways, the social media revolution is a good example of distributed education, of people educating each other. Look at the Middle East. In the United States it's just as bad, if we could see it: The battle of the budget, which is nothing more than a quick fix, is really a crisis of community. For too many people, there's a deep apathy about people's sense of self and of meaning.

As it turns out, there are about 600 million indigenous people in the world, and for some time they have been meeting among themselves. This museum was created in some ways as a place where they could share their voice with the national psyche. I'm hoping the next generation will be able to change the larger educational system.

Jeremy Rifkin: The greatest beneficiaries of the revolution I'm talking about will be the developing countries. 25 percent of the human race today has never had electricity. Another 20 percent have only very limited access to electricity. We know in Africa that when you can have a solar cell on your roof, it liberates women, because women are the beasts of burden of those societies.

When we flatten the distribution of power, we will all become indigenous. Not to romanticize the past, or go back to the past, but every culture wants to share its wisdom, to share its experience. I think that's the mission of indigenous cultures: To take the gifts you have and share them with the world to change all our stories.

Question: Is there widespread consciousness of climate change in Europe?

Jeremy Rifkin: We started sort of top down with the environmental organizations. But we quickly realized all the parties to the economy had to be involved—industrial and governmental, as well. The key is who controls the power, which is why we brought the cooperative associations—the ICA—to the table. The key will be who controls the power. And indigenous peoples will play a key role in showing us that culture is primary, and that our story, or what a human being is, revolves around our narratives, our beliefs, our connections.

From José Barreiro, on behalf of the museum, out heartfelt thanks to everyone who took part today.

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It was good to know about the museum's interest in environmental issues. Solar energy is turning into a viable Large Scale Energy Source.

It all helps , every little change for the better, every little watt of energy. We are a Native owned company and are involved in helping Native Communities ( as well as non native) change to energy efficient outdoor lighting. The large savings can go back into the budget or we can add even more lights where needed and at a lower cost. If your Tribe is interested and we have not contacted you yet please call us, generally there is NO UPFRONT cost as we utilize what is currently being paid. LED Street Lights


I love green projects. Keep up the good work!

Creating the sustainable future for natives and the earth is important. I agree with the green projects. Very important.

Really good info.Keep up the good work!

Great Work..

>>"Petrocarbons impact virtually everything we do; they are especially key to productivity in agriculture. In 2008, the oil price shock of $147-150 a barrel was the earthquake."

So true.. And history is almost repeating itself now in 2013. Crude oil prices are back in the $110 a barrel range and people are waking up to Alternative Fuels/Renewables and Climate Change issues.

I wish we had the political hoodspa to purse to a consistent energy and climate change policy and not just do window dressing.

your blog has a wonderful story,thnx for sharing us...

Yes, you are right the daily changes should be going on in our climate means so many disasters are going on in our environment..So its time to save our world and takecare about the climate of earth. The tree plantation is one kind of good idea to save our world, and save the people's.

Every green project doesn't matter how big or small it is contributes to our sustainable future and the future of our kids and our Nature.According to collected data renewable energy sources provide about 18% of world energy, but much of the energy is produced in the traditional way, with use of biomass for cooking and heating from 13 from 18%. We all have to go for green energy and i mean not only for solar but for all other types like wind, geothermal, biomass...

it's already 2014 and still climate change is a very huge problem, because not everyone cooperates, and not everyone knows what impact/s it could bring us.

I was very pleased to find this site and wanted to thank you for this great read!! I am definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

I just wanted to add a comment to mention thanks for your post.

"Petrocarbons impact virtually everything we do; they are especially key to productivity in agriculture. In 2008, the oil price shock of $147-150 a barrel was the earthquake."

it is necessary to inform about the climate change.

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