Why the indigenous campaign “Mni Wiconi” has put extractivism under question
Against a backdrop of the howling white noise generated by this year’s U.S. presidential elections, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, supported by a coalition of more than 250 indigenous nations, along with allies and supporters from all over the world, are busy fighting the $3.7 billion, 1,134 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline.
In our age of bailouts and ecological crises, a who’s who of global financial capital has joined forces with the oil industry. It is counting on the political establishment in Washington D.C. to give the Dakota Access project the green light in the face of various legal challenges, including a suit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux accusing the project of threatening its supply of drinking water, sacred sites and burial locations. Meanwhile, thousands of Native American anti-pipeline (#NoDAPL) “Water Protectors” have congregated in the Sacred Stone Camp in the Standing Rock Sioux heartland since April of this year, near where the pipeline would pass under the Missouri River.
Extractivism, embodied by projects like Dakota Access, appears as a planet-straddling corporate colossus, with backing from the centres of political and economic power. It is rationalised by an ideology that threatens to elevate abstract financial considerations above that of wealth equality – and even above common sense, as the drinking water of 17 million people could be affected. Extractivist mega-projects rely on the application of overwhelming force – military, legal and financial – in order to impose the policies of this western market onto the sovereign homelands of self-ruled peoples such as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The single-minded avarice of industry management faces competing worldviews. Values held by populations living in the vicinity of resource removal meet the aims of the federal government, who have been acting as a kind of referee between the local communities and the extractors. Visions of a “sustainable” or “green” industrialism, through wind, solar and other energy generation technologies, add a further dimension to the discussion of energy infrastructure projects.
In what is surely a sign of strength, the Water Protectors recently forced a halt to construction on one stretch of pipeline until further review by the Army Corps of Engineers, who are in charge of consulting the communities, including sovereign tribes, along its route. By winning this resounding, albeit temporary, victory in their resistance, could the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe expose the workings of a once-powerful industry in collapse? Indigenous delegations from as far afield as Ecuador and Hawaii have travelled to declare their support for the mission of the gathered Protectors, to stop the pipeline where it endangers life, demonstrating an encouraging resolution to the environmental movement at large.
The momentum behind the enormous, global system coordinated to drill, dig and burn fossil fuels from underground and under-sea is the near-silent engine animating and carrying those of us in the west through our everyday lives. It is epic in scale. As an end in itself, extracting every last drop of oil, every last chunk of coal, is patently absurd. And yet it infuses the strongest market forces in the world with an epochal, almost unassailable, potency – at least on a psychological level. These substances from beneath our feet are fundamental to our being; the same is true of the atomic material central to nuclear power generation. They are undoubtedly useful in a myriad of applications, generating historically unmatched economic power due to their stored biological versatility. But a fire is a fire, and smoke is smoke. The consequences of unchecked extraction industries are all but ignored in the halls of power, in spite of voluntary efforts like the Paris Climate Agreement. Global climate change, due to aggressive resource exploitation and rapidly declining habitats worldwide, is likely initiating the opening stages of the earth’s sixth great extinction, which threatens to cause the disappearance of 75 per cent or more of existing species. This is the actual physical stuff that belies the claims of the present global order.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, if completed, will snake through four U.S. states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois) and cross 209 creeks, streams, and rivers, including the Mississippi and Missouri, carrying half a million barrels (25 million gallons) a day of what its owner, Energy Transfer Partners, calls “light, sweet crude oil”. Currently, more than 85 million gallons of oil flow through pipelines in the Midwest every single day. At the present price of crude oil, around $45 per barrel, Dakota Access investors would likely generate double the pipeline’s $3.7 billion cost in gross profit in the first year of operation. Pretty sweet for Energy Transfer Partners, right?
The construction halt, ordered by an Obama-appointed federal judge only after the project was met with significant resistance, can be read as a sign of the Democratic Obama Administration’s political vulnerability in the face of the white nationalist movement behind the Republican presidential campaign of Donald Trump. The 2016 presidential election takes place on 8th November, with the Obama White House and Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, relying on Native American and environmentalist support.
The election is a background issue in the tribe’s fight to protect the waters of the Missouri, a source of drinking water for millions. But the federal role in approving petroleum infrastructure projects is not simply a legal or policy question – it is also a more enduring political and moral issue. The confrontation currently taking place at the Sacred Stone Camp is one of repression, with prayer meetings and gatherings of Water Protectors being met with escalating force. The Protectors, though their resources pale in comparison to the oil companies’, have raised almost $500,000 for legal defence.
In policy terms, the U.S. government already provides cover to the extractive industries. The fact that the Obama Administration is playing a role as any kind of mediator between the Water Protectors and the polluting industries may indeed represent election-year pragmatism, to be quietly abandoned in the favour of corporate interests after November’s results at the polls. On the other hand, approving dirty infrastructure that threatens substances necessary for human survival on a continental scale effectively amounts to indemnifying such projects.
The determined action of the Water Protectors may cause fossil fuel industries to be treated with a different kind of urgency. Whereas, before, industries like the automotive industry and the banks enjoyed massive bailouts of private interests, serious re-evaluation may be near. The risks associated with oil pipelines are unacceptable for the Water Protectors, precipitating direct action that is increasing the costs associated with an already-risky industry. If those costs rise fast and high enough, smart money in finance and insurance may encourage investment in less controversial alternatives, further undermining oil’s market position.
Protest and direct action do work, but in this case what the Water Protectors are offering fellow travellers, organisers, and activists may be more significant. Their critique of the extraction-dependent industrialism threatening their homeland is spiritually and emotionally resonant, fused with an activism focused on the environmental ravages at the deepest cosmological and cultural levels. Such a fusion forms a hardy united front against Big Oil, and through the example provided by indigenous theories and practices, points beyond to a future governed by inclusive communities, capable of the shared cultural, moral, political and intellectual coherence required to stave off aggressive and increasingly toxic extractive capitalism.
This may be wishful thinking, but the forceful moral and philosophical claim, “Mni Wiconi – Water is Life”, is not an assertion of feeling alone, but of living, breathing, bleeding reality. We can only hope that this intellectual and moral clarity, that this prophecy, reaches us from our future, and not our past.