“An Ecological Civilization: The Path We’re On” was a YES! Presents online conversation held on Feb. 25, 2021. It was produced in partnership with YES! Media and the Institute for Ecological Civilization. The video and transcript have been edited for clarity.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Good day everyone and welcome to YES! Presents, a YES! Media production where we discuss global issues that impact us all and stories featured in our print magazine.
I’m Zenobia Jeffries Warfield, executive editor at YES! Media, an independent, nonprofit, reader-supported publisher of Yes! Magazine, based in Seattle, the ancestral land of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. For more than 20 years, YES! has been inspiring people through its reporting to create a more just, sustainable, and compassionate world.
In fact, YES! turns 25 this year, and we hope you all will be able to join us in celebrating in the coming months. So be sure to subscribe to our newsletter, A Better World Today, if you don’t already, so that you can receive event information and get your daily dose of YES! You may visit yesmagazine.org/email.
Before the term ecological civilization was coined, YES! was telling the stories of communities creating such a society, one that is life-affirming and connected to nature. And so now joining me today to co-host this event is Andrew Schwartz, co-founder and executive vice president of the Institute for Ecological Civilization, our partners for this event.
Andrew Schwartz: Fantastic. Thanks, Zenobia. Happy to be here and very excited for this conversation today on an ecological civilization. As Zenobia said, we’ve got a great group of conversation partners that we’ll be featuring:
Leah Penniman. She is co-director and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black as well as the upcoming book, Black Earth Wisdom. Looking forward to her contributions.
Joining us is Winona LaDuke of the Anishinaabe. And she’s a renowned author, speaker, and activist focusing on Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and sustainable tribal economies.
And then last but not least, Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Another contributor to The New Possible book. Jeremy is also author of an upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science And Traditional Wisdom To Find Our Place In The Universe, which will be published later this June.
So actually out of the gate, I think it would be wonderful—actually all the panelists to turn their videos on, and we’ll get started—having you sort of frame the conversation for us. You frame the magazine issue with the opening article there. And in your piece on sort of what ecological civilization looks like, you challenge us to transform the very basis of how human societies are organized. We’re talking new systems, new structures that are guided by new values, new worldviews. And I say new here loosely, now, ’cause you’re clear to indicate that this is different than our dominant cultural norms, but it’s certainly something that’s been around for a very long time.
You also identify six design principles found in nature that you say could help guide us. So those are diversity, balance, fractal organization, life cycles, subsidiarity, and symbiosis. So just as a snapshot, sort of, where does this idea of ecological civilization come from and how did these principles that you just named represent a new civilizational paradigm?
Jeremy Lent: Yeah, yeah, sure. Thank you, Andrew. Well, what gets me so excited about this vision of an ecological civilization is it’s both new and ancient, right? ‘Cause ultimately where these ideas come from is in all of our heritage going back thousands of thousands and thousands of years in Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous wisdom. And that’s what we’re basically… what people in the Western mainstream culture have the ability to rediscover now, to learn from that ancient wisdom and from other wisdom traditions around the world that are essentially not part of that Western one.
And what those wisdom traditions all point to is our deep interrelatedness with each other and with all of life. And in a nutshell, that’s what an ecological civilization is about. It’s actually changing the very foundation just like you talked about, of our civilization.
We know, and all of us tuned in today, know that this current civilization is leading us to destruction. But ultimately it’s not about changing a few tactical things here and there or investing in some new technology or whatever. The way in which we can turn things around is we have to look at the underlying basis of our civilization, which is about wealth, just wealth-affirming values. It’s about extraction. It’s about seeing nature as something separate, as a resource, even seeing other human beings as a resource to exploit.
And it’s replacing that with a civilization, an entire civilization based on the principle of life affirming, on flourishing for all, on a flourishing human species, on a flourishing living earth. In a nutshell, that’s what it’s about.
Andrew Schwartz: I know sometimes people talk about ecological civilization as an idea connected to China. So I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about sort of how this idea relates to China, but also how what you just described seems to extend far beyond any particular Chinese context.
Jeremy Lent: Yeah, I know it’s interesting because it’s kind of a complex issue because in a way we see the actual Xi Jinping, the actual leader of China talking about how we need to transform our economy to be towards an ecological civilization.
If we saw our president or if we saw people at the U.N. standing up saying that we’d all be going “great.’ The problem is that while China speaks a good language in relation to that, some of the fundamental principles we’re talking about in an ecological civilization are being basically totally trodden on in what we see in China right now.
But one part of an ecological civilization, as we’re describing it, we look at what life tells us about principles is basically grassroots self-determination. The exact opposite of an authoritarian centralized regime, telling people what to do. It’s about groups self-organizing as part of a fractal whole. And so that’s one way in which China’s actual actions are very different from those words.
And the second part is the whole way in which China is one of the greatest contributors to the damaging, the devastating impacts of climate breakdown, ecological devastation, right now its economy is based on growth and an ecological civilization is all about moving to balance and regeneration with the living Earth.
So if we see China change both of those major changes, then that’s great. That’d be wonderful to see. Until then, we have to build a global sense of an ecological civilization with or without any whichever nation states choose to be part of what we’re talking about.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah. Winona, what you focused on in your article was about the work that you all are doing with your hemp farm and as part of that sustainable and the work is around sustainable tribal economies.
You’ve been farming hemp, which is the nonpsychoactive cousin—as you called it in your article—of cannabis. And we know that cannabis is a billion-dollar industry where Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have mostly been criminalized, leaving the door wide open for White people, mostly White men, to thrive. And so and you acknowledged that in your piece.
And so your tribe and a growing number of others have found hemp to be the way, as you put it, toward a just transition or the new green revolution.
So if you could talk a little bit about why hemp. And then share how your business went on to hemp operate and then how that connects to this idea of an ecological civilization.
Winona LaDuke: Okay, I’m gonna do it in the reverse order. Is that all right?
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: That’s fine. Perfect.
Winona LaDuke: Yeah. OK. So I wanna talk about what Jeremy was saying. So look, I live in a place where the wild things are—that’s Indigenous people.
We’re about 4% of the world’s population and about 75% of the world’s biodiversity. And we didn’t do that recently. Pretty much, that’s what ecological civilization is: People who get to hang out with all that biodiversity are people who live in ecological civilizations. Right?
And so, my gig is I’m just trying to maintain the ecological civilization. That seemed like a cool thing to do. You know what I mean?
If you figured out how to harvest rice from the same lake for 10,000 years, wild rice—wild rice, that’s what we have, wild rice—only place it grows in the world, you could do that for 10,000 years, you’ve got something going, right?
Maple sugar from a tree. I mean we get sugar from a tree and rice from a lake. That’s awesome. So of course, if you respect Mother Earth, you kind of could get those gifts if you figure out how to live with her.
If you spend all your time making a civilization which transforms Mother Earth, instead of transforming to be with Mother Earth, it doesn’t work out. And you end up kind of in what I call Wendigo economics. That’s like the economics of cannibals, right?
And we all kind of acknowledged the situation we’re in, which is, the U.N. even says it: Corporations can’t control the world because we can’t survive if that’s the way it goes. Right? So we’re all on this like how you deconstruct, decolonize. I kind of look at it as that, kind of like, let things go, get a little space in it, and figure out how to get back the way we’re supposed to be.
Now, I agree with what Jeremy said. I mean, everything he’s saying is the same thing that we would be saying. He says it just a different way. Reaffirmation practices, reaffirm relationship.
So I’m a hemp farmer, but I’m a hemp farmer but first I’m a harvester, I’m a farmer. I grow, I harvest all these things in my territory. I spend most of my time trying to keep bad guys from messing up the cool things in my territory like maple sugar or pipeline projects, the middle of our wild rice.
And it’s been way too much time on dealing with stupid ideas. So y’all wanna give me any help on that, that’d be great. Because I got a lot of better ideas than dealing with stupid dead ideas in the last century that should not be here at all. Right? We should just be done. We’re all ready to move on.
Leah and I are right there, we’re going, right? Right Leah? Leah’s like, yeah, I’m with you sister.
Leah Penniman: I’m absolutely with you.
Winona LaDuke: I’m a farmer because of this whole transition. I’m a hemp farmer because I’m all ready for the next economy. And what you gotta do is you gotta move from fossil fuels, right? That’s just it. You can’t sit here and be the way we are.
Long time ago, our people told us, our history told us, leave that stuff in the ground. I was like, what our folks said? Apparently y’all didn’t get the same instructions. I don’t know who missed out sort of that memo, but don’t let all that stuff out. Carbon is supposed to be in the ground, not in the air. Look what happened?
So now we gotta get everything back going the right way. Rebuild soil. That’s why Leah and I are farmers. Right? Make love back with our relatives.
So I grow cannabis because the thing is is that long time ago I heard this farmer say it.
He said, 100 years ago, or I don’t know, we had a choice between a carbohydrate economy and a hydrocarbon economy. Right? And we made the wrong choice.
So what I want is that other one. And that’s what hemp represents. It’s the antidote to a fossil fuels economy, besides just quit doing stupid stuff.
Anyway, there’s my two best to answer yours and I just …’cause he was said some cool stuff.
I wanna say a little bit about it.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Absolutely. Thank you.
There was what, in our exchange, you had mentioned a lot of what a lot of the other tribes are doing and some of the uses. And you said this thing about, we have the land, we have plenty of land and just need the finances and support to get us to doing what we’re doing.
However, even within that, a lot of the other tribes have kind of latched onto the idea of hemp farming and are doing that. Can you talk just a little bit about how that’s growing?
Winona LaDuke: I was a latecomer to the hemp economy strategy. I was busy growing corn, beans, squash, cool stuff. Didn’t even, like, wasn’t growing hemp at all. I just became a hemp grower about five years ago. Didn’t even grow marijuana or cannabis before. We didn’t, just till now.
And I’m really good grower, it turns out. ‘Cause I like the plants, and they’re perfect.
So anyway, the thing is that Alex White Plume and John Trudell are really the “hemperors,” the grandfathers of that movement—and jail time. And John Trudell, my inspiration, passed on to the spirit world, but he’s looking at us giving us a thumbs up.
So those guys started talking about this but these tribes are very interested. And there’s a lot of tribes that have tried this, and now there’s this movement. And at the same time so we’re looking at the technology for fiber hemp.
The reason I’m talking about this is I’m not talking about medicinal or recreational cannabis for make your head more clear. I’m talking about making canvas, like them sails that those guys came over on. Right? The word canvas comes from cannabis.
I’m talking about making a materials economy out of a plant instead of plastic, right?
We have a lot of land that’s been stolen and alienated. We have the same issues that Black farmers have, but we are still landed people. And we have a lot of acreage and it’s prime hemp territory.
But what we want is control of production. That’s whatever…We all know that from the Marx class, I mean: You gotta control the means of production, right?
So anyway, I want a hemp mill, and I’m looking out there, there’s all kinds of crazy technology. There’s guys in China, there’s guys, I don’t know, in Belgium. But we want it here, we want it at a scale that makes sense, appropriately scaled, a set of regional mills.
Scaled mills like all that everybody here is talking about ’cause size matters. You don’t want it too big ’cause it’ll make an ecological mess.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah.
Winona LaDuke: So that’s what we’re working on. And a bunch of tribes are interested. Winona’s Hemp and our Anishinaabe agriculture (I’ll make sure I put up the links to it), but that’s our work there. Yeah.
Andrew Schwartz: That is fabulous. What you’re describing, right, is this just transition. You talk about it as a new green revolution, right? This sort of revolutionary alternative economy that’s based on hemp. I think you just talk about the transition from plastic to plant, it seems super revolutionary, but there’s something to me that I think also intersects with what Leah has written about and talked about, the sort of intersection of environmental and social issues.
And I was struck by Leah, your article, where you say that you talk about racial capitalism as the commodification of our people and the planet for economic gain. Can you say more about how our current economic system commodifies people, especially people of color and how a system that is modeled after Afro-Indigenous wisdom would be different?
Leah Penniman: Oh, sure. And thank you sister Winona for framing, teeing that up so beautifully. I am with you. We need to put that carbon back in the soil.
So yeah, our entire food system and by extension our entire economy in the West is based on the exploitation of land and labor, full stop. I mean, if you look at the the current situation in this country, 98% of the value of arable land is White-owned. 95% of the acres are White-owned. The people who farm are over 85% people of color, not protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Yet only 2 1/2% of farms are controlled by people of color.
Our Black and Brown folks are going hungry and suffering from diet related illness at disproportionate rates. At every stage you see this monster of racial capitalism eating the essential workers, essentially, and turning them into a profit.
And I think that it is not just a material problem. It’s a spiritual problem.
And I opened my article with a story I like to tell of some of my elders and mentors in Ghana, West Africa. These are Indigenous, Black Indigenous women, like, the queen mothers who are in charge of the cultural history of their community. They take care of the sacred groves. In other words, they’re watershed scientists and stewards. They do the conflict resolution. They take in orphans, run micro-enterprises, I mean, just wonderful elders. And I studied with them for six months.
And every morning they would ask me some question in disbelief about life in the U.S. ’cause they hear things through TV and what not. And one day Manye Nartiki, who’s the paramount queen mother, she said, Leah, is it really true that the United States a farmer will put a seed in the ground, and they don’t pray or dance or sing, or pour libations, or even say thank you to the ground? And then they expect that seed to come up and nourish them?
And so I sort of tucked my head and hands like, yes, it’s true. That is true. That is by and large the way it’s done.
And they said, well clearly, that’s why you’re all sick, right? You’re all sick because you treat the earth as a commodity and not as a relative.
And fundamentally, if we make that shift in our hearts that the Earth is a relative and not a commodity, the Earth is a grandmother, not a natural resource. The Earth is an aunty, not the environment, right? Then everything flows from there. Everything flows from there.
For example, in our communities, we have a practice of asking consent of the land before we make big changes to the land. And that seems borderline insane in a Western Christian civilization. But the reality is that of course you would ask consent of another human being before you did something to their body, right? That’s what we teach our children I hope.
But if you see the Earth as a thing and not a being, then the consent thing starts to sound strange. But we have tools of divination like Ifa Divination or Dafa, also Obi Divination, Marion Diloggun. These are tools that we use to communicate with the Earth to understand, do you want that swamp dug out to become a fish pond? Do you want that forest cut down to become a barn?
And if the Earth says no, it is a no, and we don’t do it. And that level of ecological humility, that level of really acknowledging that we as human beings are not supreme, but we are the younger siblings of creation. And the mountains, the rocks, the wind, those are elder brothers and sisters.
We need to be listening to them, heeding their guidance, learning from them about what it is to be a person.
And I think it is really a principle of Sankofa that’s about going … we need to catch up to our ancestors and then build from there.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Well, everything that you all are saying is just resonating so much. And it was why that when we were putting this together, we wanted to have the framing, the theory, concept or whatever, but then bring in those who are doing that work, the practices. Because we often get at YES! questions about, how do I do this?
How am I a part of making this transformation happen? And as disruptive as COVID has been, it’s also provided a way and an opportunity. It’s stilled some people, brought folks to themselves, I guess, if you will, to just be open and available to what it is you all are saying now.
And so just as we get ready to transition into questions—because some great ones are coming in—and I want folks to have an opportunity to share this moment with you all as well.
I just want you all to kind of to respond to that feeling of overwhelm and all of this is we’re saying that we we’re in this transformational moment, right? We’re in this moment that these things have been happening already. And Winona and Leah, you all just laid out very well just the work in detail that you all have been doing for a very long time.
And so now that more people are coming into this, how do you respond to those who experienced that overwhelming, wanna go back to normal, whatever, that was ’cause it was so abnormal for so many of us anyway.
But who are just overwhelmed by the idea of transformation and what that looks like.
Winona LaDuke: I think you tell them to take a breath. It’s gonna be OK.
And then just say, hey, look around in my life, I saw stuff happen this year that nobody thought would happen. What about all them darn Columbus statues? Man, how many years we’ve tried to get those guys down? They all toppled along with those Confederate soldiers and a bunch of conquistadors, right?
Look at the social movements surging. I mean, more people voted than in history. Right? And half of us didn’t even wanna vote for Joe Biden, but we was all lining up, man. I mean, just, I mean, look at that. And we was like organizing like heck. And then you have all the…
Do you notice that Exxon isn’t even in the top 10 anymore? Who’s that? That’s like Elon Musk and Bezos, right?
Everything is changing around us. I always go with that. Pandemic as portal. That’s Arundhati Roy. And so she says, pandemic is portal. Everything is changed. The whole thing is destabilized.
You got a chance to take a breath, grab your pal’s hand and walk through the portal. That’s what I say. Let’s make something beautiful because obviously the food system didn’t have a plan. Obviously, Texas did not have a plan, right? Nobody has a plan, but we have a good plan. And it’s already happening and now we just breathe life into it and work together.
Don’t let them take your power, just keep going. You know what’s happening.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: But when you talked about asking Mother Earth for permission, how do you know, how do you get the answer? How do you know that it’s a yes or no?
Leah Penniman: I’ll answer that, but I wanna … this last question was enticing. And I think sister Rowan White is the one who exposed me to the idea that we as Black and Indigenous people have actually been survivors of apocalypse.
Winona LaDuke: Yep.
Leah Penniman: And so there is a way that change is really understood as inevitable and something we need to lean into and go with. And so for those folks who have not been survivors of apocalypse, it’s time to lean into the wisdom of Black folks, Indigenous folks, Jewish folks, right? Folks who have seen the worst of days, the darkest of days as a people confronted near-annihilation and then have been able to move on.
And so I think it is also time to think about shifting of leadership, shifting of who we value as experts.
But as far as how do you know what the Earth says, here’s the good news. Every single one of our traditions, our ethnicities, if you go back far enough, has an Earth-centered cosmology with a way of communicating with the Earth. You just look up divination on Wikipedia and you’ll see like hundreds of divination systems.
So I will tell you that as a person of West African descent, specifically Dahomey and Yoruba, I use my lineage practices of divination, which I mentioned as Ifa Divination, Marion Diloggin Obi is something you train in for years. It’s something you learn how to use the oracle. It is something that you do with the permission of your elders.
But I guarantee that in everyone’s tradition, in everyone’s ways, if you go back far enough, you will find your own ways to do that. And I think it’s very important that we do that step, that we don’t appropriate other people’s culture, that we cultivate our own Earth-centered ways of being and that we learn to tune our ears to the Earth.
Jeremy Lent: Yeah, sure. What I hear you saying so much, Leah, what comes through my mind a lot is what I see as the primary lesson that I wrote about in this article that we can learn from nature when we’re applying ecological civilization to our own human society, which is concept of mutually beneficial symbiosis that we don’t do something to extract from some other party.
We don’t do something to see them as a resource, whether they are the people or any part of our fellow more than human creatures all around.
But we look at how can we relate so that what we do is in everyone’s benefit. So that’s that part of like looking at the Earth as a part of that so we can regenerate. Not try to minimize the harm, but actually regenerate.
And then when we think about how we are with other people, how can we be in symbiosis with them? Which kind of relates to your other question, Zenobia. One of the things we saw when the pandemic hit is this realization around the world we can’t trust in our nation states and those corrupt elected leaders to look after us. And all these amazing mutual aid community groups spring up, just like mushrooms around the world, with communities looking out for each other and that hasn’t been lost.
And that’s even been expanded in some places with its recognition ideas that have never even been acceptable to even be talked about before now come into mainstream thinking, things like universal basic income, actually recognizing that everyone has a moral right to be able to have enough money coming in to just give themselves the basics, to look after their fundamental needs. That was something that couldn’t even be talked about. And now it’s like, how much? How long should it go on? At least it’s in the discourse.
Andrew Schwartz: Something that stands out to me is this sort of relationship between changing the way that we think, changing the way that we live, and of course changing our practices and the way that we live also affects the way that we think.
And then there’s sort of relationship between thought and action, theory and practice seems to be sort of mutually enriching either toward destruction or maybe toward flourishing. And there’s so many good things that obviously you’re all saying and things that are also in the issue of YES! by other authors.
Vandana Shiva is not with us right now, but I know her piece on reclaiming the commons is actually absolutely beautiful. And she talks about how reclaiming the commons and creating an ecological civilization go hand-in-hand.
And that there’s sort of that today the commons are being enclosed, and she describes a variety of ways in which that’s happening, including among other things, the enclosure of information.
I’m just curious how you all might see the sort of an alternative frame, like moving toward a commoning approach toward information, toward resources, toward the natural world. How that would contribute to the creation of an ecological civilization?
Winona LaDuke: Can I just say something? It’s not an alternative frame.
Andrew Schwartz: [Laughter] Thank you.
Winona LaDuke: It’s like not even sensible. It’s the good one. This is an aberration. It’s like saying is industrial like agriculture, conventional agriculture. That’s not really conventional agriculture. That’s an aberration of 10,000 years. And so let’s not affirm like that’s a reality. It’s a mistake.
We hung out for a long time, didn’t make that mess over here.
Andrew Schwartz: There’s stupid ideas, and there’s good ideas. This is the good one.
Winona LaDuke: Yeah. Yeah. Right?
Andrew Schwartz: Beautiful.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: I love it. Thank you, Winona.
Andrew Schwartz: Thank you.
Leah Penniman: I think something we struggle with when we talk about commons is that now we’re existing in this frame of what we affectionately termed White man’s law, right?
And so we bump up against these limits even as we try to reclaim the very, very good idea of commons. And I’m talking about land in this case. ‘Cause I’m a farmer, that’s sort of the world that I live in. And so I’ll give you two examples of bumping up against limits.
One is that Black folks pretty much for all time have always had a way of caring for land where it’s what’s called, kinship commons, where you and your siblings and your aunty and your grandma and your children and your great grandchildren care for land together. There’s never any, any thought of selling the land, of excluding others from use of the land, of depleting the land in a way that it wouldn’t be there for generations to come.
But you try to do that over here, and that’s what Black farmers tried to do, and it’s called heir property. H-E-I-R property. Now, if you don’t leave a will to just a certain heir or just a few designated heirs, suddenly it becomes sort of dispersed in this legal soup, and it becomes very vulnerable under U.S. property law. Not eligible for USDA loans, not eligible for mortgages, not eligible for financing and programs, and all it takes is one unscrupulous developer to find one distant heir that’s moved all the way to Portland, right, from Virginia and convince them to sell their 1/100 share and they can force auction of the whole property.
Then grandma’s out and grandpa’s out, and the farm is done. And that is the leading way that Black farmers are losing their land today, because they are trying to hold the land in commons, in kinship commons, and that doesn’t fit with the way that the states structure property law.
We’ve also run into this because I’ve helped to form a land trust. Our land is on a co-op. And when we go try to fill out all the paperwork to become a co-op and to become a land trust, we suddenly realized, oh, New York state doesn’t allow children to have rights to land. Right?
We realized that New York state doesn’t allow nature to have the rights of sovereignty and self-determination, so our whole divination that you can’t put that in there. We tried to establish a cultural respect easement so that the Mohican people upon whose land we’re on could have perpetual rights. And we ran into blocks there.
Now, luckily we have a really cool pro bono legal team, and we’re working it out, and we’re figuring it out. But it should not take years of efforts to figure out how to make a paper that says these people are gonna share the land in their ancestral ways. Right?
And so fundamentally there’s some dismantling to do of the the assumptions of U.S. property law that go all the way back to the B.S. doctrine of discovery and up into what we have now, so that we really can restore the good ideas Winona said of sharing the land.
Why wouldn’t we do that? Right?
Jeremy Lent: Beautiful. And if I can just add one more thing to that, like as you were saying, Andrew, what Vandana Shiva wrote about in that article was so, so great was to look to realize that the commons of course, land is fundamental just as you were talking about Leah, but then so much else is part of our commons.
Our air, our water, just the soil is being depleted and our oceans. And then even beyond that, is this realization that the vast bulk of what we all take for granted in terms of human knowledge and understanding just everything from the basics like language to the basics of technologies, even more recent technologies like electricity and the internet, all that is part of untold generations of people, of our ancestors working hard to create something that is everyone’s heritage.
And then some high-tech entrepreneur comes along, puts a couple of things together and then earns like tens of billions of dollars and basically takes advantage of that commons that is available to all of us.
So it’s this concept that I get excited by this notion of the common wealth and the common wealth is all that is available to us as human beings. And what we need to do is actually build a civilization based on this recognition that every human being who’s born, and it has that as part of their heritage, has a right to share in that common wealth.
It’s a fundamental change from our current enclosure-based society.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Thank you, Andrew, for bringing Vandana into the space too though, because she had made this and one of her talks a while back. She had said that the way you design the world in your mind is the way you relate to it in reality. And I’m paraphrasing just a little bit.
When you design the world as dead matter to be exploited, you will exploit it. When you design without any understandings of limits, you will violate those limits. But if you design it with recognition of interconnectedness, you’ll nurture it.
And I’m just wondering, Jeremy, because you do write about this a little bit in your piece. Examples of that are happening in other places in the world that are reclaiming those commons outside of the US.
Jeremy Lent: Yeah. Right. Well, of course the two of you, Winona and Leah, just the best possible examples of what we’re doing here in this country.
And well, I think, one great example of what’s going on is this movement to declare ecocide a crime, where it’s this recognition that the corporations come along and cause pollution. They actually destroy ecosystems, which again is our global commons that we share with all of life. And there’s this amazing movement that has actually been so powerful now to look seriously at changing jurisdictions that were at the international criminal court in the Hague. And to actually define ecocide as a crime.
So some big corporate executive who thinks they’re above the law, because, to the extent any nation state tries to do anything to them, they know they can just bribe their way out of it and they basically own them anyway, but suddenly they could get hauled into the court and accused of a crime that could lead them to serving time in jail.
That’s the kind of example where we have to recognize. We’ve got to stand up as a global community and bring back the commons from us being enclosed.
Andrew Schwartz: I think this actually ties nicely into the questions and answers …
So we’re getting great questions from our audience right now. And a lot of these are getting up voted, right? And the most popular question we have is about applying and learning from Indigenous cultures and applying Indigenous cultural practices without appropriation.
And I’m wondering, Winona, if you can speak to that, perhaps some guidelines.
Winona LaDuke: You know what I’d say? There’s two things I’d tell you to do prior to start with. I always tell everybody to go to the river and pray. That’d be good. That’s what I tell everybody.
And in the middle of March, they’re gonna try to … Enbridge is getting ready to drill under 22 rivers in Minnesota. So we tell you all come to Minnesota rivers and pray. There’s 22 of them. You can do that on a map.
But the second thing is be a water protector. I mean, what I’m trying to say is that I could say do this or that, but part of it is the gratitude of the action.
And the action is like really cool to eat some Indigenous food and have some things, but who are we as spiritual beings?
Be those spiritual beings and pray hard. And wherever you are, there is some struggle that is a mirror of mine. Everywhere there is these same things, it’s this conflict between—I call it Wendigo economics—economics of a cannibal.
There’s this conflict between the cannibals and Mother Earth, and it’s going on everywhere. And we’re on the right side, that’s what we’re working on but sometimes you get that cannibal tendency so you gotta knock that one out. I just mean being the country that consumes a third of the world’s resources or something. We ought to just not pretend. Right?
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah, and in prisons, the most people in the world too. Which is a great question in here about how does this ecological civilization vision in practice connect to prison abolition and transformative justice, and migrant justice because those are real issues that we’re dealing with in the U.S. right now.
Leah Penniman: I think they’re also connected because that’s why we need to frame this as fundamentally a problem of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, because the project is to gobble up the Earth and gobble up folks of color to create profits. And it’s really the same beast, right?
And so I do not think that you can have the liberation of land without the liberation of the people, and you cannot have the liberation of the people without the liberation of the lands, absolutely abolition.
And these things have been so tied historically. Like take for example, the loophole in the 13th amendment which says you can go ahead and have chattel slavery so long if you’ve managed to convict someone of a crime. So the south freaking out about the end of formal slavery creates a whole bunch of new laws. It’s illegal to loiter. That means standing around. It’s illegal to be a vagrant. That means not having a job. It’s illegal to not be upright, industrious, and honest. Tell me how you define that one, and the punishment for which is to be thrown into prison and then to be rented back to the plantation, the mines, and the railroads, a practice which continues to this day.
So you can see how the incarceration, mass incarceration and the exploitation of the Earth are fundamentally about othering. They’re fundamentally about seeing the Earth and all of the beautiful human and nonhuman siblings who dwell on the Earth as a resource to be gobbled up for the few.
And we are not. And we are not.
And I think when we stand together like arm-in-arm with the buffalo and with the rivers and with the rainforest, and we say we are, we are all people, and you cannot exploit us, we’re actually stronger in that.
Andrew Schwartz: When you talk about how everything’s interconnected and we talk about how all of our challenges they’re connected, doesn’t it get overwhelming? Where do you start?
How do you tackle sort of this complex web of global oppression?
There’s historical roots there. There’s obviously issues of power. Where do you …
Winona LaDuke: Andrew, don’t get it all twirled up there. Come on.
One thing at a time, man. Everybody’s got their little part. Right? You know what I’m saying? Is this like so some people are good at some different things.
I get it, but you just go, you just start. And I look out there, and I know some sister is working on prison abolition, and I’m with right with her. I mean I’m working on getting rid of slavery of Mother Earth. It’s the same thing. Right?
And then I look out there, and someone’s doing this healing work, well, my job is gardening. That’s healing. I mean, we all got our pieces. So that’s it.
And if you look out there, well, first of all, I always wanna say a little while here. Our word is Akiing. Akiing, that means the land to which the people belong. And Akiing Amin, the very land to which I belong.
Now, I wanna say that because we’re talking about the commons, we use this other term, the land to which we belong, not that the land belongs to us in common. It’s that we actually belong to the land. Right?
That’s a different construct, and that’s what I think part of what we need is change that construct. ‘Cause that all that property is definitely is right dead on on that. That’s all like not…
That’s not right. And we all know it’s not right. At some gut level, we know that we don’t own any of that stuff. The creator owns us. We don’t own…
And then the other thing is, of course, we’ve gotta deal with our addiction to stuff because we’re at this point in our society where we rent places to store stuff. I mean, and we just got too much stuff, and there’s more stuff than the world. Isn’t there more stuff than the whole like the biological world now?
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah.
Winona LaDuke: Right? There’s more stuff than elephants. Right? I was like, come on, quit with the stuff. Right?
So, you just start one piece at a time, and go back to relationship like what Leah is saying. And also what Jeremy is saying. This is about reaffirming relationship, getting back. And in that process, there’s a lot that are…
I just look like globalization, the antidote to globalization has to be localization. And how’s that happen? Well, it’s happening right now. ‘Cause I can’t get a shrimp from the…that was growing in Scotland, deveined in China, and arrive at a Walmart near me anymore. I mean, I’m saying it’s happening because of these crises. Right?
And so keep making local. That’s how you make the change, and that helps deconstruct and holds responsibility. ‘Cause everybody here knows if you buy from somebody you know, you’re gonna have a better relationship than if you buy from someplace that has like food slavery.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Right.
Jeremy Lent: Yeah. That’s amazing. Winona, thanks for that.
If I can add one more element to what you were just saying, one of those principles that we learned from nature when you think about society is this notion of what’s called fractal organization.
In nature, we look at a vast ecosystem. It’s so vast, and yet it arises from tiny little thing like single cells and tiny little organisms, all expanding out as part of bigger and bigger concentric wholes. And there’s like a fractal organization meaning that the principles that apply in those little things actually apply to the whole ecosystem.
So the kind of same holds true. Like adrienne maree brown talks about this notion of activism as a fractal engagement with life. And we can learn from that and take that wisdom and just think in terms of we don’t have to solve all the problems ourselves.
We look at what we can be engaged in. We apply those principles of ecological civilization, those principles of life-affirming relationship to our small communities and to be part, a small part of those bigger global system changes.
We need to always keep that in mind, but we don’t all try to fix it ourselves. Just be part, connect to that, like that mycorrhizal fungal network of all the different changes happening underground. That’s what we need to be doing.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah. And Leah, you bring that up in your piece, adrienne maree brown working in emergent strategies, about the one element of ecological civilization, cultural biomimicry. You wanna respond or just kind of tag onto that?
Leah Penniman: Absolutely, and I just feel like sister adrienne’s ears must be ringing because I just had a conversation with her right before this. I just read all the things, just read all the things. Undrowned most recently, you gotta read that.
But yeah, cultural biomimicry is roughly defined as the idea that to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing as humans, we should be paying attention to our elder brothers and sisters, which is the Earth. So for example, right, if a pine tree is at the edge of the forest getting a whole lot of extra sunlight because it’s south-facing, it does not actually take all its photosynthates to become 10 times taller than the other trees around it. It takes those sugars and minerals and messages and goodness and dumps it down into a network of fungal mycelium who share with kin and nonkin, so that the trees can grow together, so they can mass together. So that they are able to share resources in times of trouble, warn of invading insects.
That’s how the forest superorganism works. There’s Western science to back that up. I’m not just being metaphorical.
But we as human beings get really confused. We’re like, oh, I’m getting a lot of extra sunshine.
Let me just accumulate. Let me become super wealthy. Let me put higher fences.
And so a form of cultural biomimicry would say, well how do we actually share the forest? How do we become interdependent like the forest?
The fractal patterning is another example of the uniqueness of waves, the dispersal of the dandelion. We can look to nature and realize that she’s always talking to us and always reminding us of who we actually are.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Andrew, you?
Andrew: I’m so enjoying just listening to all of you. This is so much fun.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: I know it is, right?
Andrew Schwartz: Leah, there is a question about permaculture and the relationship between the sort of ecological civilization frame and the permaculture frame. I’m just wondering if you could say from your perspective, how they’re similar or different or does it matter what we call it?
Jeremy Lent: I think the permaculture frame is one of the most profound and significant ways of rethinking our relationship with the natural world, rethinking how humans contend nature and the whole notion of stacking functions. And what I love in it is it, again, it learns, it recognizes an Indigenous knowledge as the foundation for these deeper layers of understanding.
It looks at what nature does and then says, how can this be applied in a broader context, all around the world?
I think it’s an absolute integral part of an ecological civilization. And at the same time the concept of an ecological civilization extends to basically every aspect of how we organize on the living Earth.
So it extends to everything like how we change ideas of education, change ideas of law, just like you were mentioning before, Zenobia, this notion of going from justice being this kind of revenge-based to restorative justice and transformative justice. It’s recognition of the individual dignity of all beings on Earth together.
And so in every aspect, the ecological civilization can apply and permaculture principles … would be a central part of that. Absolutely.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: How does this capitalistic system that we all are suffering under play a role in this as well?
Winona LaDuke: Well, I just feel like here in Northern Minnesota, we’re just kind of living in this moment. And I’m looking at… One day I’m driving down this country road, and I get there and I’m like, and there’s a slow-moving traffic guy. I had like lights flashing coming towards me, and I’m like, holy buckets, man. I gotta pull over aside till later on. And my car is parked on the pipeline. Right? And right by me comes these giant wind turbine parts.
And I was like, whoa, it looks like there’s this intersection of these two economies at this very moment in this very place. And I feel like that’s exactly where we are. I mean, we’re in this place where you have this whole, the global economy is not doing well. It’s kind of a big mess. We’ll go with that description right now.
And I feel like at the same time, you know what I did, I got quarantined, and you know who I got quarantined with? Fabulous. I’m having the best time of my life. (Don’t tell anybody, except for I do miss my friends.) So I got quarantined with like six 14-year-olds who wanted to farm.
Go to the sugar bush with my neighbors, the Amish. So I just saw the restoration of a local economy between the Amish and the Anishinaabe. We call it the Amishinaabe economy, actually. Guys, you’re the first time hearing this publicly, but it’s like a little joke, but it’s like so you do with what you got or you make what you have work. Right?
So I got this like really interesting moment where I used to fly, but you all used to fly too. I don’t fly at all anymore, right? Stay home. All good.
You look out there and you see the opportunity to rebuild something and you take that time. So we got this growth of this local, this resurgence and that’s what happens because globalization and all those guys are predicated on endless access to fossil fuels and energy. And that’s kind of a big gamble and so just bet on Mother Nature and keep doing the right thing.
That’s what I think, is now’s the time to just keep building it and fight those guys. Divest.
Starve them. You gotta starve ’em. Take their money. And then just build something better. That wouldn’t take much, would it?
It’s a mess, their ideas. So make cool stuff.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah. And it’s possible too.
I was watching one of Vandana’s pieces where she talked about how—I think it was Monsanto at the time—how when they reclaimed their seed production, right? And they weren’t using their seeds and how Monsanto had lost like $11 million or something. I mean, it was a billion dollar industry at the time, but that was still a dent. That was something, right? So we’re not hopeless in that end. There is something that we can do.
Leah or Jeremy, you all wanna respond to that question about capitalism?
Leah Penniman: I’m not an economist, but I don’t think you need to be to see that it’s not working so well. I mean, it seems to me to be fundamentally predicated on taking more than it returns because the Earth is getting sucked dry, and then wages need to be kept low to leave a profit margin.
And then all of the bad stuff needs to be externalized. Like all the problems that result from polluting the air and people’s health and freezing over of the south and wildfires have to be externalized. So those costs end up on the public instead of being for by the corporations that caused them. So I think the math just doesn’t work out.
And there are ways that people try to tweak capitalism, things thinking like a wealth cap or a wealth tax or universal basic income, universal health care. And I think those are steps in the right direction and they save a lot of lives in the short term.
But capitalism isn’t that old. And so I think we might wanna fundamentally rethink if this economic system is going to be compatible with ecological civilization.
And even though it’s a microeconomic system, again, I always look to our ancestors and what they figured out. And the women of West Africa and later the Caribbean, later African Americans had an economic system called the Susu, which fundamentally was like everyone puts a little bit in at a designated time of the month. And then the Susuma who’s the trusted elder who’s not gonna steal anyone’s money or lose it, holds onto it. And then when it’s your turn, you get something out of the pot that you need so that you can send your kid to school or rethatch your market stall, or buy a cow or whatever it is that you need.
And you continue to be part of this reciprocal economy that’s about sharing and equality, and each person contributing according to their means and taking according to their needs.
So we could scale up something like that, and rethink an economy that actually serves the people on the Earth who comprise it.
Jeremy Lent: Well, Leah, for someone who says she’s not an economist, you sure have some great economic wisdom that a lot of those traditional economists could really learn from.
Yeah, I mean, what I would just add to that is one: If you’re interested in really getting a sense of thinking about economics from a different point of view, the best thing you can do is to just get that book by Kate Raworth called Doughnut Economics, which really gives us amazing, clear, and structured way to rethink about it and throws out a lot of those mainstream ideas.
And if you’re thinking about from a practical standpoint, a couple of things are simple.
Just recognize those transnational corporations: 69 of the largest 100 economies of the world are actually the transnationals. And they are driven, their DNA is to basically exploit, to keep growing shareholder profits at all costs, and to turn humans into basically consumer zombies, to turn the Earth into nothing but a resource to exploit.
One of the best things we can do is just make those decisions not to take part in anything, not to buy anything, to drive to take part in other parts of the economy that doesn’t subsidize that.
And if you’ve got great ideas, and you’re part of something you wanna grow, try to avoid studying it in some sort of for-profit way. Look at a cooperative work, a co-op based structure, look at a common space structure just like Leah and Winona have been talking about.
And that’s the way in which each of us can move together towards a fundamentally different economy.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: If you all have some last words or something you wanna leave folks with, I welcome you all.
Leah Penniman: I’ll say my last words for now. And this builds off of what Winona was saying about each person sort of having their niche. One of the models that I really appreciate is the four wings of the butterfly of transformative social justice.
A butterfly doesn’t fly with one, two or three of its winglets. It needs them all. And so if you imagine sort of on this wing over here that you have “Resist” — that’s the blockades, the protests, the work stoppages, right? And then on the next wing down here, you have “Reform.”
So that’s the folks who are trying to infiltrate the system—the schoolteachers, the elected officials, the people getting into the prosecutor’s office and trying to get sentencing lower and all that. And then you have on this third wing over here, the builders. So those of us who make alternative institutions like freedom schools, farms, health clinics, so on. And then the final wing is the healers because there’s a whole lot of trauma. So we need the conflict mediators. We need the therapists, we need the preachers the singers, the dancers, the artists, all the folks that are gonna make us well.
And that together makes that butterfly fly.
And so it’s not about which is the one right thing to do or which is more holier than thou, but really about supporting each other to find that intersection of what the world needs and what makes us each come alive.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Love it.
Jeremy Lent: And yeah, I guess the one thing I would just leave everyone with is just to recognize that this whole vision of an ecological civilization, it’s not like somebody else’s vision. If you care about life, if you are working anything that’s life affirming, it’s your vision.
And it’s not gonna happen because some people out there are kind of changing this or making this happen. It’s gonna happen because all of us connect with each other to actually move towards what is really ultimately the largest movement ever in history, this movement towards a life-affirming future that millions of organizations around the world are all part of.
Once we recognize we’re all pushing in that same direction, it’s like all of us together can co-create that life-affirming future. We can see how dismal things are looking in so many ways out there, but we know that it’s possible to transform it when enough of us actually work together to make that happen.
Winona LaDuke: Just honored to be here for everyone today. I think of our phrase, Minobimaatisiiwin—that means the good life. It’s kind of like gross national happiness indexing. And that’s what we do. It’s ’cause quality of life is associated with that, which my fellow panelists are talking about, relationship to Earth, to each other, intergenerational relationship, responsibility, and that everyone has their opportunity or their moment in time and this is ours.
And so whatever it is we do, do it your best and then do it a little better. That’s what I say. Do your best and then do a little better.
And I believe because there’s a lot of people out there that are doing good things, and that’s how it change is made. That’s how it change is made, together.
Thank you, Miigwech.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Thank you, Winona. Andrew, you wanna just share a little bit about the Institute of Ecological Civilization? I mean, because this is y’all’s work, what you all are doing, so you wanna just say something?
Andrew Schwartz: So the Institute for Ecological Civilization is a U.S.-based nonprofit in this sort of new possible paradigm, the right way of doing things, right Winona? Getting rid of those bad ideas and replacing them with good ones.
So Jeremy Lent and I are actually gonna be collaborating on a dialogue series that sort of is taking what we’ve just done and go deeper and go further. So please check that out with us. It should be a lot of fun.
But yeah, I think this is a great cross-section of what the YES! issue on ecological civilization demonstrates. And it’s just brilliant. And I actually I’m so honored that you’re all here.
It’s wonderful to listen to you all day long.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: Yeah, I mean, and we’ve had so many questions and continue to have still—the hows and the whys and the not-sures. And so I just wanna invite all of our participants to follow the work that Leah’s doing at Soul Fire. She’s on Twitter.
So just @soulfirefarm, not dot anything, but @soulfirefarm on Twitter. Winona is @WinonaLaduke on Twitter. And @JeremyRLent, you can find him on Twitter.
And get, look, OK. … Y’all need to pick up this, right? If you don’t have it already, subscribe and get it and you can find our contact information in our latest issue and online at yesmagazine.org.
I think that is about all the time that we have right now. And so I just wanna thank you all for joining us. It was such a pleasure to just see the numbers of people who joined us for this conversation and just to be in community right now with Jeremy, Leah, and Winona.
This talk will be emailed to all the registrants. And so it’ll also be made available at yesmagazine.org. So just look out for that. In the meantime, you can check out our other events on “The Pandemic Portal” and “This Uprising: How to Make Black Lives Really Matter,” which are available on our website now.
Every day at YES! we seek to elevate hope and inspiration among our readers with our Better World Today newsletter. So I invite you again to sign up for that and to just also think on this: What would change if what I do, what you do is a response of equitable transformation? And just remember every change is first and foremost, a personal one.
And so I just wanna just send love out to Winona, Leah, and Jeremy again, and Andrew for co-hosting with us and to all of you and have a good rest of your day.