Private Property: an oxymoron?
Private Property: an oxymoron?

These words of Chief Seattle, sent to me by cherished member of the Rozling community – Naomi of New York, who found them whilst browsing for a beginner’s yoga class – resonated deeply with me. Some of you might already have seen them when she posted them in a comment on my blog, but I wanted to make sure that they were also seen by those who get my blog by email rather than checking in at rozsavage.com.

These words seemed to appear at precisely the right moment. During the last couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship that humans have with the Earth. My cogitations have been given sharp focus by my two major upcoming speaking engagements, for National Geographic and at a one-off ocean-themed TED conference in the Galapagos. The latter, especially, has become a kind of existential quest. 18 minutes to present my message to the world. So who am I? What am I here for? What is the point of being me? Deep stuff. Important and energising, but also ever-so-slightly mind-boggling. This is part of the reason that my blogs have been rare and superficial. There has been a lot going on in my head, but during this formative period I’ve needed to keep myself to myself, until my thoughts are more fully formed.

And a lot of my thoughts have revolved around the interconnectedness of everything. No matter what your stance on climate change (and I become more and more reluctant to engage with that politically-loaded pair of words) there can be little doubt that we are changing the face of this planet as we resort to ever more extreme methods to extract the natural resources laid down many millennia ago. I am no scientist, but from a purely common-sense standpoint I cannot see how our current path can be sustained for more than a few decades – at most.

Two key questions are:

Do we have unique status?

Or are we just another animal?

My belief is that the answer to both is YES.

Yes, we are unique. We have free will. We have the ability to see into the future. We have amazing minds – and the ability to change the entire appearance of our habitat, in ways that are visible even from space.

But yes, we are also just another animal. When I am on the ocean I am keenly aware of this. Sure, I have GPS, satellite phone, and a supposedly unsinkable boat. But the ocean has no respect for my hopes, dreams, and schedules. Out there I am completely subject to the laws of physics and/or nature. There is no “conquering” of oceans – if the ocean is gracious enough to allow me to pass safely, then I am grateful. But it cares no more that I am a human than if I were a piece of plastic trash.

Anyway, enough of my existential angst. Over to Chief Seattle, who allegedly spoke thus in 1854 (and no matter the provenance of the speech – see notes at end – see if it resonates with you):

A contemporary photograph
A contemporary photograph

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them?

“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

“We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.

“The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

“The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

“If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

“This we know the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

“One thing we know our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.

“Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

“When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirits of my people left?

“We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.

“As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.”

[Another version, with cautionary notes, is online here]

[Wikipedia link]

22 Comments

  • Hello Roz,

    The above ethic I have expounded upon for most of my life. I have been condemned and persecuted as a radical romantic over the principles of Life First. I laugh and cry at the same time.

    A common question – Was there life on Mars? My response: If there was, and the dominant species treated the planet as we are treating this one, would the end result not be the same?

    Everything you, I, and the rest of US are doing is crucial to the health of our world! What we use must be used wisely. What we do must be done with the welfare of our progeny a constant forethought. Our message is slowly, very slowly, being recognised, and comprehension of the message is reluctantly growing. So..

    Please continue doing what you do, and validating our comments to you. Con mucho gusto,

    Achates

  • Roz, The notion that “modern man,” or at least “western man,” or specifically “capitalist man” is somehow different from venerated “Native Americans” is at odds with anthropological facts. The Sioux and Commanche originated somewhere northeast of Minnesota. How did they get to the Great Plains? By displacing tribes that were already there. The Ioway indians were terrified of the Sioux, as were the Kiowa, etc. And were they “keepers of the garden?” Contemporary thought is that Native Americans caused the extinction of much of the North American megafauna–mammoths, etc. And by the time “white men” got to the great plains with their superior technology, the bison may have already been in retreat because of the superior technology adopted by the Indians–ie, the horse. The point of this is that any notion of an “original harmonious kingdom” peaceably overseen by philosophical giants is nonsense.

  • Hi Steve – I can’t disagree with you, because I don’t know all the facts. That is why I deliberately cross-referenced the doubt cast on whether Chief Seattle even said these words, or if they were generously re-interpreted by a later writer.

    The point is that these words – regardless of who said or wrote them, and in what circumstances – absolutely chime with the Gaia concept (and my view) of the interconnectedness of Earth, animals, and humans. We poison our habitat, we poison ourselves. On a finite Earth, this seems to me to be patently obvious. On a finite Earth, there is no “away”.

  • Hello Roz, Ah, the Gaia hypothesis! A self-regulating homeostatic living world. A lovely thought. Does this theory extend to other planets? I have wondered. I have also wondered how alternating oceans covering Kansas/jungles/volcanic explosions/mile deep ice caps over London fit in with this theory. Is there any observation that could not be accounted for by Gaia? I have just wondered about its “testability.” Or would one argue that tropical jungles 200 million years ago in Pennsylvania are just part of an evolving earth–evolving towards….something? And then I suppose “man” is interfering with this “directed evolution?” Seems like geological and biological evolution are antithetical to “homeostasis?” I suppose Lovelock must address this. Many regards, Steve

  • Actually, I think everyone is correct on this issue, because it depends on one’s ability to “see”. Chief Seattle, was able to see the connections between the physical world and the spiritual, and that made him a form of shaman or mystic. Most people don’t have this ability, to find the spiritual doorways and see into other realms, and so they rely on their primary senses merely to glimpse the natural world around them. They’re not wrong, they’re just limited by their perceptions. And all of this is what makes it so difficult to convince people of the validity of other people’s ideas and conclusions concerning these kinds of environmental issues. I think most people are very well-meaning on the environment, and really want to do the right thing. But most people are also clinging to viewpoints that are the direct result of their perceptions, and the more limited the perceptions, the more limited the viewpoints. The answer is “not” to jam our own conclusions down other peoples’ throats, but to figure out how to broaden their perceptions, expand their consciousness. And therein lies the real challenge. There must be a reason that only a few people in each generation “see” the connections between things. Chief Seattle apparently had the gift, but it is a rare quality.

  • The “Gaia” hypothesis served its original purpose rather well, although it did (and still does) suffer from being so named. Had it been the “Planetary Environmental Stability Hypothesis” it would not have spawned the kind of nonsense that it did.

    As applied to our planet, it does not handle well changes that are now well documented, such as the greater concentration of atmospheric oxygen that allowed for creatures as large as some of the dinosaurs and, much earlier, the conditions that preceded the emergence of multicellular life forms.

    What is particularly interesting is the rate at which the evolution of various life forms occurs in response to geological and atmospheric changes. At any given point in time the mix of plant and animal life tends towards balace while never quite reaching equlibrium.

    Our current interest is in the possibility of causing changes to the total environment more quickly than can be adjusted to by evolution of flora and fauna.

  • Well, being an atheist I can see I’m the odd man out here. Once you include the ability to see fairies in the garden, all bets are off. I am sure there are none under my desk. But perhaps Chief Seattle could have seen them…

    Anyway, since there is a purported interplay between humans and the environment, one can only conclude that 1.) humans are animals, and 2.) we are part of the natural world (what else is there?), and 3.) the world will feed-back and develop an environment favorable to our existence. If that is what it has done for the last 5 billion years, why won’t it do it in the future? So what is the concern? Given Gaia, all we can be certain of is that the future world will be different from the present, and it will be better adapted for Homo sapiens….Gaia predicts a rather rosy future world, no?

  • Others can’t be made to see. But you can affect them by a comparative analogy that will then stir a sentiment toward this view. For you to say, “But it(the ocean) cares no more that I am a human than if I were a piece of plastic trash.” , ain’t gona do it for obvious reasons. That’s a construct of your experience. But what you were getting at was the indifference of nature. Except for the mind of Man, which is also nature. The oceans have no ability to create human laws. It’s from people that arises these concerns and potentialities. In that sense we can be an extension of those waters that have nurtured us. It’s an interesting approach you’ve found. One for which you might find many words. That we amoungst all the critters have this ability. The Earth, like a parent, sick now from the stress of raising us, dealing with our endless impulses. And we, leaving a mess everywhere. Like an old neglected man/woman, a billion years patient, and indifferent, ever caring and repairing as best he can. Ensuring that we still have a roof over our heads and hopefully time enough to realize, how nice the little act of thoughtfulness back . How far our souls would go with this kind of mindful moment.

  • It may sound like we’re talking about fairies, but we’re really not. We’re talking about “vision”. The same vision that allowed Newton to see gravity, and Copernicus to see and develop the heliocentric cosmology where the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, and Galileo to see that the laws of nature were actually mathematical. A few people have the gift of vision, while most people do not. And those that have the gift are usually mocked during their lifetime. But there is something that keeps driving these people onward, using and sharing the gift as they go along. Did Seattle possess the gift? Was his vision, of the interrelationship between the natural and the spiritual, true? Is the skepticism that greets his utterances merely the continuing story of the same response which greeted Newton, Copernicus, Galileo and uncountable others? Possibly.

    And are there others who have the gift, when it comes to the environment? I don’t know. I guess it depends on how you define the gift, or the ability to “see”, and on how you look at their pronouncements.

    Loren Eiseley: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

    Gandhi: “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”

    Jacques Cousteau: “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”

    Luther Standing Bear: “The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.”

    Cree Indian Prophesy: “Only after the last tree has been cut down…the last river has been poisoned…the last fish caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

    John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

    John F. Kennedy: “The supreme reality of our time is … the vulnerability of our planet.”

    Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

    Robert Louis Stevenson: “Sooner or later, we sit down to a banquet of consequences.”

    Ted Turner: “I see the whole field of environmentalism and population as nothing more than the survival of the human species. I have wanted to have some bumper sticker made up saying ‘Save the Humans’. At the bottom of it all, we are trying to save ourselves.”

  • Roz, I have been away at a 1Sky.org strategy meeting with a couple dozen other people the past week. A friend in New Hampshire who I met through 1Sky forwarded this video to me … http://j.mp/ClimateRefugees … It will touch a lot of hearts, and a few will be numb — that’s life.

    Keep up the good effort. We need more of the heart-felt support, gut-level commitment, and positive connections that you are promoting. In my own efforts, I try to live by the words of Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

    Thanks, fellow Rozlings, for your positive comments, especially Richard. Good stuff!

  • Richard, These are certainly lovely sayings. But of course what I’m saying is that lovely saying are not necessarily true; brilliant people making lovely sayings do not necessarily make true sayings. Newton believed in Alchemy. Muir was as certifiable genius, but he didn’t believe in evolution. Darwin proposed a mode of inheritance (the Gemmule theory) that was incorrect. Brilliant, but wrong. Einstein thought quantum physics was impossible. And the list would go on and on.

    Induction is only limited by imagination; sorting out the true and false is done by the hard work of deduction and hypothesis testing. Hence the above brilliant people were found to be in fact fallible.

    What we need is more science in the environmental movement. That is how we will move forward.

    What is intuitively obvious is often found to be wrong.

  • UncaDoug, My purpose is to NOT hi-jack Roz’s site, though she is probably thinking that about now! My purpose is to only point out what I believe to be factual-based errors in statements. The environmental movement will have less impact if it is perceived to be based on poor science–the current fiasco amongst the climatologists in Great Britain who were found to have falsified/ommited data in support of global warming may have done incalculable harm in public perception.

    However, Roz’s experientially based oceanic adventure is also exactly what we need–intelligent people out in the world reporting on what they see. Those of us desk-bound (and rowing machine-bound!) folks have to see the world as they report it. Watching her getting washed over the side of her boat and struggling back in doesn’t get any more real. She has “street cred.”

    When she reports trash in a huge ocean it may be anecdotal but it has a huge impact, at least on me. When she says Tarawa will be one of the first islands to be covered in the event of a rising ocean, we listen–she was there! As long as she has credibility she will have more influence than 100 scientific papers alone. If she and others lose their credibility then their impact is minimized. But they have to, in my opinion, stick to “facts,” and their own observations….both of which are very difficult to come by.

  • Steve: I’m not disagreeing with you that science is important. But it is my honest feeling that “both” approaches (scientific, and intuitive as you call it) are valuable. Yes, the intuitive approach is often wrong, but so is the scientific. Today’s science and medicine, when viewed in a hundred or two hundred years from now, with be considered profoundly limited and even medieval. But that’s the nature of the game, since they are based on incremental progress. What the intuitive approach offers are “leaps” in understanding, that might otherwise have taken eons to accomplish. And what bothers me occasionally about the scientific approach is “the hubris” of people involved. I am profoundly skeptical of people who spend an inordinate amount of time telling me how brilliant they are, and I developed this skepticism during my undergraduate years at the university studying economics, while hearing world-class economists tell me how only “they” really understood the nature of economic reality. I now understand that this affliction is present in almost all disciplines, with professionals sometimes spending about 50% of their time on their specialty, and the other 50% on marketing their product and updating their resume. I’m not at all saying that there are not brilliant scientists out there, but I am saying that the more time I see someone bashing the opinions of others, the more skeptical I become about their own standing. And the more “inclusive” I see someone become, willing to listen to and explore all possible avenues of progress and understanding (whether in science, or the spiritual), the more I feel this person might actually be on a better path toward progress for mankind. But these are just my personal feelings, and I’m respectful of those who feel other things. The historical battle between science and the intuitive approaches has been ongoing for millennia, and rather than pick sides, I prefer to view “both” as possessing the ability to contribute to human progress. I agree with you that the environmental movement would profit from more provable science on their side, but I also feel that it might not be the best “strategy” for the world to simply wait another three or four hundred years for this scientific evidence to be determined. Or as George Patton once said: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

    Doug: Welcome back, we’ve missed you. Well actually, I didn’t miss you that much because I was in Mexico City during the last couple weeks (surprising blue skies, wonderful food). 🙂 And I know what you mean about the shock of coming back to the real world, and work. 🙂

  • Welcome back Richard. Missed you too … good piece. Reading through these posts, I am reminded that Roz’s goal is to raise awareness “about the relationship that humans have with the Earth” using her words, including “plastic pollution, climate change and habitat destruction” as explained in her video http://j.mp/RozEcoUpdate

    My feeling is that we Rozlings find inspiration and motivation in what Roz has to say — in our heart and in our gut — and we don’t need her every word to be vetted scientifically. Like Steve said, she is there … she has credibility by being there on the churning ocean touching the docile whale shark and the colorful wise turtle, in the Pacific gyre seeing the myriad bits of plastic, and in Tarawa understanding the vulnerability of their water supply (like her own vulnerability to a failed water maker).

    Incidentally, Friday I met 22 bright energetic 13-year-olds who are engaged in GAIA (Global Awareness, Investigation and Action) elective activity at the International School of Monterey. These young students don’t need much inspiration, but they love Roz … I showed them Roz’s Eco-Adventurer video. During the discussion that followed, they identified plastic grocery bags as an issue they are concerned about. They are ready to go visit their mayor to find out what the city is doing to combat global warming, and to ask the city to ban plastic grocery bags.

  • I completely agree with Doug (and Steve) on Roz’s value to this entire endeavor. In an era where so many people have become only “commenters”, endlessly hiding behind their computer screens and commenting on what others are doing (and I’m certainly guilty of this, at times), Roz is one of the very limited number of people who are actually out there “doing things”. And the credibility she brings to the environmental movement, with a first-hand analysis of things she has seen and done, is of great value toward developing concrete action-plans for the future. I’m very much looking forward to the next stage of the row, with Roz’s commentary on what she encounters, although that map with all the wind vectors made me start thinking. Do we need to make some contingency plans for other possible landfalls besides Oz? Or did I not understand all those arrows?

  • I’m inclined to quibble about this and that, but I’ll leave it there. Said enough! Bowing out. Good work to all of you. Indeed looking forward to Roz’s next stage. Steve

  • Thanks for your kind words, Richard. And yes, you understand those arrows perfectly. But there is not much point making contingency plans at this stage. If I had unlimited amounts of time, money and resources, then in a perfect world I’d have contingency plans for PNG, Thursday Island, and Australia-non-Cairns.

    But there are so many possibilities at this stage. Who knows, I might even not make it past the Solomons. So any effort expended on lining up contingency plans would very likely be wasted. Last year Nicole put a lot of effort into making plans for Tuvalu, which was all wasted when I had to divert to Kiribati. And things fell into place remarkably quickly for my new destination.

    I have my passport, and I have friends. Which is all I had when I was trying to get home from Copenhagen and the Eurostar train was cancelled. And it all turned out okay, thanks to my amazing supporters. So without wanting to seem irresponsible, my feeling is that it makes more sense to wait and see what happens, and to have faith that we’ll manage to figure something out once we see what is most likely.

  • wow … what wonderful comments from all you guys … just skimmed them, but will come back later tonight to read them all. GREAT discussions here!

    Naomi

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