“The Critical State of Our Mother Earth”
Presented at the Gathering to Protect the Sacred From the Tar Sands Projects at the Yankton Sioux Reservation on January 23, 2013
Very Beloved Relatives,
More than 40 years ago during the early years of North American’s “new” ecological consciousness, my grandfather, Vine Deloria Sr. had a conversation with one of his elder cousins on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. As his cousin loved to learn new words in English, he asked my grandfather to explain to him what the word “ecology” meant. “Well” my grandfather said, “you know, we have places where you can go and learn to read and study books. Then you learn how to write about what you have read about. Finally you learn to talk about what you have learned to read and write about!
This is how our young people of today learn about life. Some people have learned this way for many, many years. After they have read enough books, written about what they have read about and talked about what they have written about, they are given a piece of paper that say’s they are a Doctor or a Wise Person of Life. These Doctors and Wise People of Life then get jobs where they earn a lot of money, so they can read, write, and talk some more. They have even have invented machines that can look at things that are very small and make them look big. There are other machines they have invented that can look at things far away and make them look close.
They even put different parts of Mother Earth in containers and pour them back and forth so they can find out more about the truth of Mother Earth. Anyway, they have spent a lot of time and money and studied Mother Earth for many, many years. From all this work they have made a new discovery. They found out that everything is interrelated. They found out that when you pollute the air which all living things breathe and pollute the water which all living things drink, you pollute all living things. What do you think about that?”
My Grandfather’s elder cousin smiled knowingly and shook his head. “I was wondering when they would get around to this understanding! Just look at what we do to our beloved Mother Earth. We cut her hair where it should not be cut and rip up her skin where it should not be ripped up, and then we drill holes inside her and suck all of her blood out and put things inside of her and blow her bones up.”
Then he looked deeply into the eyes of my grandfather, shook his finger and said, “And what would happen if you did that to your mother? She would die! And this is exactly what is going to happen to all of us if we do not learn to respect and understand the Spirit and Sacredness of our Mother Earth.”
The Critical State of our Beloved Mother Earth
Fast forward more than forty years and it is clear to see that what our wise elders and visionaries have prophesied for so many years is now upon us. Our sacred Mother Earth – who gives life to all living things – is critically wounded, degraded, poisoned, and depleted by the activity of our Human Family. Colonialism, industrialism, consumerism, warfare and a lack of spiritual understanding are primary drivers of this growing, relentless assault on our beloved Mother Earth. Our ancestors have long understood and wisely shared, many times, that these destructive forces are, in turn, driven by greed, selfishness, ignorance, fear, and materialism.
In recent decades we have heard repeatedly, from the best of our world`s scientific, educational, social and environmental institutions, that our collective human activity is increasingly threatening the future generations of our children and rapidly destroying our Mother Earth. Here are some of the urgent warnings over the last decade:
== 2002, Business Council for Sustainable Development report: A decade ago the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Antwerp, Belgium, calculated: “Reductions in the Industrialized World – in material output, energy use, and environmental degradation - of over 90% -will be required by 2040 to fairly meet the needs of a growing world population within Mother Earth`s ecological means.”
== 2005 United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Prepared by 1,360 scientists and UN contributors; reviewed by UN member governments and independent scientists, determined that:
== 2009 Planetary Boundaries: A report by 28 international scientists – including Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Will Steffen from the Australian National University, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, Goddard Institute climatologist James Hansen, and German Chancellor's climate adviser Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – in the science journal Nature, showed that human activity has pushed nine critical systems – biodiversity, temperature, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use, fresh water, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, and chemical pollution – near or beyond critical tipping points. The report warned that natural system feedbacks drive additional change and endanger other limits. The scientists warned that when human ecological impact passes certain thresholds – tipping points – we risk “irreversible and abrupt environmental change,” and that these changes risk human communities and all life on our Mother Earth. Their scientific research shows that since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have become the main driver of global environmental destruction.
They found that four critical systems – climate change, species loss, nitrogen removed from the atmosphere, and phosphorus washed into the oceans – have already crossed the safe boundaries.
== 2012, State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere: Last year, 2012, Nature published “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” by 22 international scientists led by bio-paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky from the University of California. This international scientific team warned that human activity is likely forcing a planetary-scale transition, far beyond simple global heating, “with the potential to transform Mother Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” Averting a planetary ecological crisis, they warn, now requires unprecedented effort of our Human Family. Canadian co-author, biologist Arne Mooers, said: “humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst. My colleagues … are terrified.”
== 2012, Planetary Overshoot: Dr. William Rees, creator of “ecological footprint” analysis at the University of British Columbia, has compiled data to show that humanity has overshot the productive capacity of Earth. We now use about 50% more resources each year than the Earth can replenish. In “the Way Forward” in Solutions Journal, Rees warns: “Climate change is just one symptom of generalized human ecological dysfunction. A virtual tsunami of evidence suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means. … The human enterprise has already overshot global carrying capacity,” says Rees, “and is living, in part, by depleting natural capital and overfilling waste sinks,” including our Mother Earth’s atmosphere. “Solutions,” writes Rees, require that we “rewrite global society’s cultural narrative” to replace a “culturally constructed economic growth fetish.”
These scientists confirm what our Indigenous spiritual leaders, visionaries and other members of the Human Family, who live close to our Mother Earth, have been warning us about for centuries: Our Mother Earth has limits. All members of the Human Family must humble themselves to the limits of our natural world so that we and our future generations may enjoy the continuing bounty of our natural world; we must share the world’s resources with all of humanity in harmony with all our non-human relatives.
What follows is a summary of what these scientists have discovered.
Summary of the Critical State of Our Mother Earth, January 23rd, 2013
Forests: Humanity has leveled over half the world’s once-great forests. Over 6-billion hectares (15-billion acres) of mature forests once stood on Mother Earth, and now we have about 3-billion hectares left. But it is worse: We have taken the best wood first and left behind degraded forests. We have taken 80% of the original, ancient, frontier forests. We are losing about 15-million hectares (37.5-million acres) of forest every year, an area about the size of Nepal. The remaining wood quality has declined.
Deserts: Because of industrial agriculture, global warming, logging, draining aquifers, and redirecting river water, some 6-million hectares (15-million acres) of productive land turns into desert every year. The Sahara desert, once productive grassland, grows at about 48km (almost 30 miles) per year. The Syrian Desert was once a beautiful cedar forest. The once great Aral Sea, full of fish and able to support many communities, is now mostly desert.
Soils: Industrial agriculture destroys soils. Throughout our Mother Earth, we have depleted over half the carbon and nutrients from the soils, polluted soils with toxins, and washed topsoil into the sea. In North America, for example, industrial agriculture has mined over half the carbon from the soils, from 6% carbon to under 3% carbon. In the past century, we have lost some 500-billion tons of topsoil. Meanwhile, we now lose about 26-billion tons of soil every year.
Species: Humanity is now causing the fastest rate of species collapse in 64-million years, since an asteroid hit our Mother Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and over 3/4 of all species on Mother Earth. Today, we are the asteroid, causing some 100 species extinctions every single day. Since 1974, terrestrial species biodiversity has dropped by 40% and since 1990, in twenty years; the marine species index has declined by 21%. Today, over 30% of all remaining mammals, and 20% of all birds, are endangered with extinction. Since we are destroying natural habitats, new species development has collapsed, except for micro-organisms and bacteria. Humanity is causing an Earth-changing species extinction disaster. With each lost species we lose a magnificent gift of our natural world that has been entrusted to all of us by our Creator.
Fish: The world’s fish are in crisis from over-fishing and pollution. We have depleted most of the large commercial species by 60-80% and some species by 90%, including the tuna, marlin, swordfish, cod, and halibut. We destroyed the North Atlantic cod fishery and now face the demise of west coast salmon. We have destroyed fishing communities around the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Bees Colony Collapse: Bees pollinate most of the world’s food crops and other flowering plants, but world bee populations are plummeting. Since 1960, the United States has lost half its bee population. Bee colonies are dying off in Europe, Central America, Asia, and elsewhere around Mother Earth. The die-off has been occurring for a long time and results from multiple causes, including pesticides, industrial gases, urbanization, and habitat and food destruction.
Global heating from industrial gases: The amount of carbon-dioxide in our Mother Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 43% since preindustrial days, from 280 parts-per-million (ppm) to nearly 400 ppm. During that same period, methane – a more powerful, shorter-lived greenhouse gas – has more than doubled (from 0.78 ppm to 1.76 ppm, +125%). Other industrial greenhouse gases include carbon-monoxide, halocarbons, volatile gases, and the black carbon from burning wood and diesel. After 20 years of climate conferences, including the1992 UN Earth Summit, with 255 governments participating, 144 sending their heads of state or government, along with some 2,400 representatives of NGOs and 17,000 people at the parallel NGO "Global Forum", who had UN Consultative Status; annual gas emissions have been greater and greater every year, not less.
Almost half the summer arctic ice is gone. The oceans are 30% more acidic because of these industrial gases in the atmosphere. Mother Earth now experiences land, air and water temperature increases, drought, deluge, flooding, forest fires, desertification, insect migrations, dying forests, and violent storms caused and aggravated by global heating from industrial activity. With Hurricane Sandy simply being the latest demonstration of the growing impact of global warming, with many more yet to come.
Runaway global heating: Meanwhile, the heating is now creating system feedbacks that cause more heating. The warmer atmosphere is now melting the polar permafrost, which releases methane, causing more warming. Receding forests store less carbon, reduced ocean algae stores less carbon, disappearing ice fails to reflect as much heat, and added water vapor increases the greenhouse effect. We now face the real threat of runaway global heating beyond anything that human actions could reverse. Scientists now warn of “irreversible” changes to our Mother Earth’s climate.
Coral reefs: We have lost over a third of Mother Earth’s coral, and most of the remaining coral reefs are in danger of complete destruction over the next few decades. Because of hotter and more acidic oceans caused by industrial CO2, destructive drag net fishing, and pollution, our world’s coral is dying. In 1998, in a single year, we lost 16% of the ocean’s coral reefs, which are the oceans nursery. By killing the coral reefs, we destroy ocean biodiversity and productivity.
Material Limits: We have depleted virtually every non-renewable industrial and economic natural material in the world including wood, aluminum, copper, phosphorus, nickel, tin, zinc, platinum, and so forth. Humanity took the best, cheapest, easiest materials first, so the remaining stores are more expensive to extract, with greater energy, human, and ecological cost.
Energy limits: For the first time in our human history, humanity can no longer increase its energy output. We have reached the peak of net energy input into society. More and more energy is drained away in efforts to retrieve the deeper, more expensive, dwindling energy stores. Conventional oil production has peaked and is in decline.
In one century, humanity used up the best of our Mother Earth’s store of easily accessible hydrocarbons – representing 500-million years of solar energy stored as biomass and oil in our Mother Earth’s crust. This energy storehouse has been squandered on wars, over-heated buildings, unneeded lighting and many other forms of wasteful consumption. The oil left is dirty and expensive. Today, when we invest one barrel of oil energy into getting new energy, we retrieve 30-times or 50-times less energy in return. The net energy available to our human society from one-barrel invested has dropped from 100 barrels in the early 1930s oil fields to 1:3 in today’s tar sands and 1:2 in deep oil wells.
Humanity has high-graded everything. We took the best land, best trees, best oil, best fish, and so forth. We now have to make do with the lower-quality materials, energy, and natural bounty.
Water: Over 1.2-billion members of our Human Family lack adequate water every day. Over 2.3-billion people, 1/3 of our human population, lack fresh, clean drinking water. We have polluted and drained our Mother Earth’s aquifers and rivers. Water tables have dropped by 50 meters (more than 164 feet) drops in Mexico City, Beijing, and Madras. Over half the lakes are gone in Qinghai China, some 2,000 lakes. Since glaciers are melting from global heating, many rivers don’t reach the sea. The Aral Sea has been drained to water cotton plantations, and former fishing fleets sit idle in growing deserts.
Human Population: There are now over 7-billion members of our Human Family and we add 75 million every year. Over 1 billion of our human relatives go hungry every year and 30,000 actually starve to death every single day.
Social Injustice: About 1 billion members of our Human Family consume 85% of our Mother Earth’s material and energy bounty. The poorer 6 billion of our Human Family must make due with 15% of the materials and energy. The richest 2% of our Human Family owns half the world’s wealth, while a billion of our relatives live on the edge of starvation. This growing scale of injustice and failure to practice common human decency is leading to greater and greater human conflict.
Warfare: The wealthy industrial nations spend some $2-trillion each year on weapons and military destruction, at the cost of millions of lives, destroyed communities and devastated ecosystems. Imagine if these resources were instead expended on uplifting our Human Family.
Industrial Disasters: These human and ecological disasters are not “accidents.” They occur daily, as oil spills, toxic dumping, mine tailings, and other normal operations of industry. In “cancer villages” of industrial China, for example, virtually every inhabitant suffers from cancer, birth defects, or other diseases.
The following are only a few examples of the ongoing destruction of Mother Earth and of innocent human communities:
1928-68, Minamata, Japan: The Chisso Chemical corp. dumped mercury in Minimata Bay for decades, poisoning an entire village. By 2001, 1,784 people died and over 10,000 people suffered birth defects and other disabilities.
1952, London smog: Over 12,000 people killed, over 100,000 suffered from respiratory illness.
1920–78, Love Canal: Hooker Chemical Company dumped dioxins and other toxins near the community and sold the land to the School Board. The chemicals caused birth defects, enlarged limbs and heads, deafness, miscarriages, retardation, and sight illness.
1975, Banqiao Dam, Hanan, China: During record rains, 62 dams collapsed; 26,000 people died at the time, and 145,000 died from resulting epidemics and famine. Six million buildings collapsed, and over 11-million people were displaced.
1976, Seveso Italy, Dioxins: A runaway reaction at a chemical factory poisoned four towns and 100,000 people with toxic, cancer-causing dioxins. Villages were evacuated, thousands of animals died, and children were hospitalized. People suffered skin lesions, diabetes, and some later died from cancer, immune dysfunction, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
1984, Bhopal, India: Union Carbide Chemical Company leaked toxic, lethal methyl-isocyanate gas. Some 8,000 people died within weeks, thousands more died in the following months, and over 500,000 people were severely injured. A community was virtually destroyed.
1984, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy: In the United Kingdom, the crowding of cattle led to a new disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow disease,” a progressive neurological disorder of cattle infected by a mutated protein.
1986, Chernobyl: Nuclear plant explosion and fire, irradiated millions of people locally and at least 1-billion people worldwide. Cancer deaths caused by the radiation have been estimated from 25,000 to one million.
1991, Sea Island, Kuwait oil spill: During the Gulf war, attacks on oil fields spilled 8 million barrels of oil – 345 million gallons – into the Persian Gulf.
1991, Ixtoc oil spill, spilled 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing sea life over hundreds of square kilometers; oil remains in the substrate to this day.
1996, Marcopper Mining, Corp., Philippines: Placer Dome Mining subsidiary Marcopper Mining, dumped 84-million tons of toxic mine waste into Calancan Bay, Philippines, poisoning thousands of people and virtually killing all life in the Boac River system. Toxic spills caused floods, isolated five villages, and buried the village of Barangay Hinapula under six feet of toxic mud. Local drinking water was contaminated; fish, shrimp, and pigs died; and 20 villages were evacuated.
1999, Tokai nuclear plant, Japan: A runaway nuclear reaction burned for 20 hours at the uranium enrichment plant owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. Ltd., releasing radiation. Two workers died from radiation sickness, and 68 other workers were irradiated. The public received radiation doses, and the company paid out over 7,000 damage claims.
2000, Romania, Baia Mare cyanide spill: The Aurul Company gold mining operation leaked cyanide into the Someş River, which polluted the Tisza and Danube rivers, killing fish from Hungary to Yugoslavia. Toxins contaminated drinking water for 3 million people. In sections of the Tisza River, all fish and animals died; in the Serbian section, 80% of aquatic life died. Foxes, otters, ospreys and other animals died after eating contaminated fish. Hungarian fish catches in the rivers dropped by 80%.
2009, BP deepwater oil spill: Three blow-out protectors failed, the deepwater well exploded, and dumped 5-million barrels – 210-million gallons – of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died instantly; birds, fish, marine mammals and other sea life perished; the region’s fishing and tourism industries collapsed.
2011, Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown: Following an earthquake, equipment failed, water boiled away, nuclear fuel rods melted, and three reactor cores melted down. Radiation contaminated air, water, and land in Japan, and moved with wind and tides across the Pacific. Two workers died immediately, over 300 workers suffered high radiation exposure, and over sixty elderly and infirm patients died during disorganized hospital evacuations. Future cancer deaths remain unknown, but will likely exceed several hundred, or possibly thousands.
These incidents are only a few of the more dramatic. We could add in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, the industrial deaths of coal miners, lead poisoning of ethyl-gasoline workers, mercury and dioxin poisoning from pulp mills in Canada, Lyme disease outbreak in the US, industrial radiation poisoning, world-wide cancer epidemics, and of course ongoing starvation, malnutrition, and deaths from water-borne disease. One of the most serious ongoing ecological crimes is the development of the Canadian tar sands.
The Canadian Tar Sands ecological disaster: The development of the Canadian tar sands may be the largest, most devastating ecological disaster in world history. The tar sands development starts with the destruction of the boreal forest, scrub plains, lakes and wetlands, and the displacement of the animals and the peoples that live there. The project drains and pollutes water tables and the Athabasca River. Toxins are released into the air. Local communities – primarily Indigenous communities, who have lived in this region for thousands of years – suffer from respiratory disease, cancers, and toxic poisoning of their food and water. Boreal lakes are turned into black sludge pits where all life dies, where migrating birds mistakenly land and perish.
The project requires so much energy to produce the bitumen (tar) that they require gas pipelines from the British Columbia gas fields to Alberta, gas which is retrieved by fracturing the geological substrate of northern British Columbia. The bitumen is so thick and toxic that it has to be diluted to move through a pipeline. The project imports liquefied gas condensate to mix with the tar. The diluted bitumen is then sent down pipelines, which routinely spill onto land and into wetlands, river systems, and ultimately our aquifers. The thick bitumen crude oil is then loaded on oil tankers in Vancouver Harbour for shipment, via the Salish Sea to China and the US, endangering the entire west coast of Canada and into the northwest coast of the US.
The recent bitumen spill in Michigan demonstrates the level of damage from a bitumen crude oil spill:
Kalamazoo River spill: In July 2010, a 30-inch bitumen pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy, burst, spilling 20,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The challenges of tar sands bitumen shocked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Costs of even partial cleanup soared to more than ten times historic crude oil costs. “I don't think anyone at the EPA anticipated that,” said EPA Incident Commander, Ralph Dollhopf. “I don't think anyone in industry anticipated that.” Now Enbridge is proposing a pipeline and related tankers through one of the last pristine temperate Rain Forests. The huge tankers they propose to carry the bitumen oil to China will have to travel through difficult to navigate waters in some of the most delicate ecosystems on Mother Earth.
Bitumen is a particularly dense, toxic version of crude oil. Bitumen, diluted with solvents, separates in the marine environment. Volatile gases – toluene and carcinogenic benzene – rise into the air, causing headaches, nausea, coughing, and fatigue among the local population. One may fairly assume all other animals experience similar symptoms. After the Kalamazoo River spill, toxic fumes remained for weeks and could be smelled 50 kilometres away. Two years later, 30 miles of the river remained closed to fishing, swimming, or even wading in the water.
Bitumen contains sulphur, paraffin’s, asphaltics, benzenes, and other toxic compounds. Animals and plants are suffocated and poisoned. In water, the die-off starts at the foundation of the food chain, obliterating the bacteria, micro-organisms, and vital biofilm that provide food for shorebirds and amphibians. Bitumen moves with wind and tides, kills bottom life, mixes with the intertidal sediments, and kills shellfish, ocean plants, fin fish, and marine mammals. Toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (“PAHs”) dissolve in the water and kill micro-organisms. Most of this damage could not be “cleaned up” at any price.
Connect the patterns: More people, hotter climate, less forests, depleted soils, melting glaciers, dry rivers, drained aquifers, disappearing species, acidic oceans, toxic pollution, dirty energy, and depleted material resources. Not only is each one of these environmental and related challenges before us monumental in themselves, but when we understand that they are intimately related and are rapidly meeting at an inevitable crossroads, it may seem almost overwhelming.
Yet if we don`t take urgent, bold, courageous and unprecedented unified action to mediate the depth and degree of these deepening, interrelated catastrophes, locally, regionally and globally, most recently illustrated by Hurricane Sandy, there will be grave and irreversible consequences for ourselves, our future generations and all life.
It is clear that piecemeal ecology isn't working. We must recognize, as our wise Elders who walked the Path before us, that we are all parts of a dynamic, interrelated, living system. Our reckless industrial activity now disrupts these natural systems at their fundamental core. We are unraveling the very web of nature. Our Mother Earth is resilient and will endure, but our careless actions are destroying life for millions of other species and ultimately for ourselves. We must remember that the “Hurt of One is the Hurt of All and the Honor of One is the Honor of All!”
We have critical decisions before us. Will we continue to walk the destructive path that has brought us to these growing global challenges or will we choose to walk the life-preserving, life enhancing, principle-centered path of protecting and restoring the Human Family, our future generations and our beloved Mother Earth?
The path we choose has clear consequences and the choice is ours. Our Mother Earth is in a Critical State. We can choose to urgently take unprecedented unified action to protect and restore our beloved Mother Earth, or we will witness the end of life as we know it, for ourselves and our future generations. As the age-old realization of the Oneness of the Human Family and all life returns with greater and greater understanding, it is clear to see that by choosing to walk the Red Road of love, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, and by standing up for our beloved Mother Earth we will fully realize the fulfillment of the prophecies, long foretold by our Wise Elders and Spiritual Leaders.
With Warm and Loving Greetings,
Brothers Phil Lane Jr., Ihanktonwan Dakota and Chickasaw Nations, and Chairman of the Four Worlds International Institute, and Rex Weyler, Co-Founder of Greenpeace and journalist, ecologist and author.