11/07/2012 07:18 EST | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

Ecotopia Or Fossil Fuel Corridor? Extraction Resistance And The Future Of The Pacific Northwest

The courage and resilience of the First Nations people in general, and specifically through their ongoing resistance to and suffering from mineral extraction such as the tar sands mining in Alberta, further affirms that we have a great deal to learn from the aboriginal peoples of this region and elsewhere.

The threatened transformation of the Pacific Northwest into an energy corridor for fossil fuels may be the region's defining issue of our time. The battles against the pipelines, coal mines and coal plants, coal trains and coal ports, tankers, fracking and LNG export terminals in the Pacific Northwest are heating up. The Defend Our Coast rally was a pivotal moment, a milestone in an unprecedented process of coming together to occupy a common vision, shared aspirations and our collective, cross-border power to shape the future.

On Monday, October 22, I attended the Defend Our Coast rally in Victoria, BC, Canada. It was an inspiring, truly inter-national gathering of historic significance. Our giant Salmon (lent to us by artist Bill Jarcho), processed into the rally behind First Nations Elders and drummers. It was then positioned at the top of the stairs of the BC Legislative building, serving as an iconic symbol of our region. [CBC coverage begins with our image]

I was proud that Backbone could provide that icon, reinforcing the clear moral leadership of the First Nations peoples and the values they consistently spoke of from the stage. Repeatedly, the advice of elders was echoed by younger leaders. They reminded us that this is fundamentally a moral conflict that must be fought with the courage of the warrior, but grounded in love, respect for the land, and a deep spiritual commitment that transcends ego or bitterness.

The courage and resilience of the First Nations people in general, and specifically through their ongoing resistance to and suffering from mineral extraction such as the tar sands mining in Alberta, and the resistance to the Enbridge pipeline all along its proposed route further affirms that we have a great deal to learn from the aboriginal peoples of this region and elsewhere. I am reminded of what Tom Goldtooth, E.D. of Indigenous Environmental Network said in his First 100 Days video made as part of our Progressive Shadow Cabinet project in 2007. Tom, as our nominee for Secy. of Interior in the Backbone Cabinet spoke of the seventh generation or precautionary principle. This principle affirms that the protection of the environment and its long term capacity to sustain life should always override proposals that put communities and nature in harms way.

The Lummi people's traditional fishing grounds include Cherry Point, near Bellingham. That is where the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) is proposed to be built so that US coal can be cheaply transported to Asia. Recently, a number of tribal members symbolically burnt an over-sized check to make the point that the endangerment of their land and waters is "non-negotiable". Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has also come out against the proposed increase in coal trains Pacific Northwest coal ports.

The inland saltwater of the our region, now officially referred to as the Salish Sea (not a traditional name) and the rich and diverse inland passages to the north of Vancouver Island are truly the well spring of life in this region and beyond. To endanger them, the rivers and streams that empty into them, or the the communities who live along the tracks, pipelines, or proposed ports is completely unacceptable. To encourage additional unregulated burning of these climate cooking fossil fuels to power industry elsewhere, while we increasing reject their burning here is frankly, insane.

I believe that this conflict is part of a larger overarching battle between paradigms, and that we are at an historical pivot point. I will do a better job explaining and supporting this observation in an upcoming essay about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), but a new paradigm of "Investor Rights" or what I will call the "paradigm of profit with impunity" has declared war against the age of the social contract. Enlightenment and aboriginal inspired ideas of social contract, sovereignty, rationality, inalienable human rights, community rights and the emerging concept of the rights of nature are irrelevant in the paradigm of profit. In it, "interests" rule over rationality. The supremacy of the "right to profit" and "investor rights" trump all else, including the sovereignty of the state and its legitimacy based on its capacity to act in the best interests of its citizens.

Of course, all of this is entirely out of bounds, and has no basis in any social contract that We the People have agreed to. But it is the unnamed enemy that has infected our systems of government and threatens our future. It is the "right to profit" that is implicitly claimed by Shell, BP, Enbridge, Peobody Coal, Goldman Sachs, SSA Marine, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, etc. as they imperil our well being. Legitimacy of government must be questioned when it defends and legitimizes such rights at a time when we so obviously and desperately need to move in the opposite direction by reducing consumption and transitioning to clean, renewable energy and transportation.

Legitimate regional government would forbid such atrocities and folly, and facilitate a decisive pivot from an outdated frontier economy based on extraction to building resilient local economies based on sustainability. But the paradigm of profit has infiltrated and infected all levels of our system. And the national doctrines of preemption override state, municipal and community rights giving profiteers, dealing in the sale and transport of the climate cooking, ecocidal fossil fuel poisons the "home court advantage" in the so-called halls of power.

Or so it seems. As I stood on the sidewalk in Bellingham Thursday night, and Victoria on Monday, I came to understand that the real "home court" is the heart. Just as the elders counseled. People of this region deeply cherish and respect our waters and the bounty of our ecosystems. When I would speak from my heart about the place we live and love, real communication and power was sparked. Our aspirations are for sustainability, community, and the full blossoming of our own creativity as problem solving, social beings, springing out of, not separate from nature. Unified at heart, we are compelled and will stand against those willing to jeopardize our health, our water, our precious ecosystems, and the planet's climate. We are compelled and will stand up for a forward looking vision of sustainability.

Together, we will manifest:

  • The appropriate use of our rails, roads, ports and waterways (taken form the First Nations, and in the case of the railroads given freely to the railroads)
  • Distributed renewable energy, conservation, and the reduction of consumption
  • The greening of jobs and increasing the resiliency of local economies and communities
  • Cultural diversity, human dignity and the rights of nature

We have the opportunity to transcend many barriers that keep us weak. We are locking arms in a beautiful struggle for lives worth living and a planet we can feel proud to hand future generations. I look forward to joyfully walk into that future with you.

Bill Moyer is the executive director and co-founder of the Backbone Campaign, a movement building organization that provides strategic and creative tactical support and training to progressive activists, organizers, community based organizations around the country. Its local laboratory projects provide replicable strategies for building community power, and its bold national initiatives help frame the on issues ranging from corporate personhood and Citizens United to student debt and eviction protection.