Movements of Survival: A Conversation with Rebecca Adamson & Bill McKibben about Idle No More & 350.org

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by Dan Morrison

Idle No More
A few years ago, I wrote a piece titled, The Art of Slacktivism about how young people were Tweeting and Facebooking away from their dorm rooms and sofas to support causes they believed in. Millions donated $10 to relief efforts in Haiti from their cell phones and then went on with the rest of their lives feeling as if they changed the world. Slacktivism seemed a perfect philanthropic transaction for the ADHD-riddled 21st century – fast, convenient and cheap.

Then all of a sudden people filled the streets Tunisia and a dictator fell. Wael Ghonim, a Google employee in Egypt, started a Facebook page that rallied Egyptians to oppose the now fallen Hosni Mubarak regime. The Arab Spring spread and dictators tumbled in Libya and Yemen, and uprisings and protests continue throughout the region.

The United States wasn’t immune. On September 17, 2011, people emerged from behind their laptops and mobile phones and marched on Wall Street to protest corporate greed in the wake of the economic meltdown. Occupy Wall Street soon became Occupy Chicago, Boston, Portland and spread across the world.

These people were not “slacktivists” but activists, revolutionaries and heros. Social media was finally living up to expectations – inspiring people online to take offline action.

But two of the biggest movements may be yet to come.

The first is Idle No More, a movement that caught many by surprise. What began with four indigenous women protesting Bill C 45 for violating Canada’s Indian Act became a movement of Indigenous People circle dancing in the streets across Canada, blockading rail lines, and hunger striking to speak with the Prime Minister and Governor General. By using the Twitter hashtag #IdleNoMore, the movement spread across North America and the world. It came to represent Indigenous Peoples fight for self-determination, cultural respect and a healthy environment for all. It is as powerful as it was spontaneous.

350.org‘s climate movement is different. It was a planned, concerted effort by environmentalist Bill McKibben and his students. They have worked hard over the last few years to build up a following of people concerned about climate change and asking them to act. 350 has mobilized its followers to petition the US Congress to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, “Connect the Dots” by sharing photos of the impact of climate change on social media, “Do The Math” and pressure universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry, and most recently to take to the streets in Washington, DC and pressure President Obama to act in climate change. 350.org is no less grassroots, but it has a center from which it coordinates its efforts.

With Idle No More and 350.org dominating the headlines (at least of Huffington Post), I had the chance to interview Rebecca Adamson, an indigenous leader and founder of First Peoples Worldwide, and Bill McKibben, environmentalists and co-founder of 350.org, to find out what makes a movement and what the future holds for Idle No More and the Climate Change movements.

 Rebecca: All we hear about today is that a new exciting movement has started, only to find out that it is a repackaging of something old. What is a movement in your mind and what makes Idle No More and the Climate Change movement any different?

Movements originate from a genuine community concern. Authentic members of society, not our leaders, stand up and take it upon themselves to come together and address an issue. The origins tend to be spontaneous. They don’t come out of academies, businesses, or institutions, which manage the status quo. Movements come out of us, the People, who want to affect change. In that sense, Idle No More is right on. Over the years, the environmental movement has become stale and institutionalized, but 350.org is breathing new life into it so it can become relevant again and regain itself as a Peoples movement.

 Bill, you wrote The End of Nature in 1989. What role have indigenous people played in the environmental movement and what role are they playing in 350 today?

The first thing to say is, 350.org is rooted in place in every country on earth but North Korea–and in most of those places indigenous people are at the forefront. That’s true from the Andes to the forests of India, and from northern Scandinavia to the boreal forests of Canada. Some of our closest allies in the fight against the tarsands–the people who really started the Keystone XL Pipeline fight–come from the Indigenous Environmental Network. The first person I ever heard about the tarsands in depth from was Melina Laboucan-Massimo and her great colleagues in the White Buffalo area.

Rebecca, you have been an activist for indigenous rights since the 1970s. Why is the Idle No More movement important?

Idle No More is important because it is a genuine movement. It is unique because for the first time in our history as indigenous peoples, members of non-indigenous society are joining us in mass. Peoples like Bill have joined us are waking the public up to the issue of not only climate change, but a peoples’ right to self-determination. Bill tied our movement into a global audience. Indigenous rights and climate change have always been reported on as two separate issues. Now, peoples are seeing them as parts of a larger global issue and movement.

But it is important to remember that Idle No More is not new movement. It is the latest manifestation of our Indigenous Peoples movement that we have been fighting for hundreds of years. It is human kind’s movement that fights for what every human being wants – the right to determine their own destiny and make a better world their children. 

Bill, when did you know that the 350 climate movement was taking off? Did you have a plan or did it just happen?

We had a plan, but we didn’t know it would work. We started with myself and seven undergraduates–since there are seven continents, each one took one and we went to work. And somehow a year later we pulled off a global day of action with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called ‘the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.’ I think it’s because there was such unrealized demand for climate action

 Bill, you mentioned in a recent Huffington Post piece that indigenous people control the lands where much of the fossils fuels are in Canda and that, “The choices that Native people make over the next few years will be crucial to the planet’s future.” What if they choose to exploit the fossil fuels to pay for the development they often need so badly?

Well, if they do, the carbon will have the same effect as if the Koch Brothers pour it into the atmosphere. The good news is these lands are also the prime sources of sun, wind, and geothermal power in the continent.

Rebecca, a critical tenet of First Peoples is to strengthen the voice of native people and ensure they have self-determination and decision making power. An indigenous community may decide developing fossil fuels on their land is their right and the best thing for their people. Bill has a clear point of view that we must keep the fossil fuels in the ground if we want to prevent catastrophic climate change. How do you deal with this dilemma?

All of us want the right to decide their own destiny and that of our children. However, decisions about access to clean water, food security, and the allocation of resources are being made by a small, elitist group. This should concern ALL of us. Who doesn’t want a say in what happens in their neighborhood? On indigenous lands, companies and governments are stripping away our assets, polluting our waters, and selling our land to the highest bidder. Which is why for us, Indigenous Peoples, the issue is the right to self-determination. Idle No More is first a movement to ensure Indigenous Peoples have the right to decide for themselves, which is why it is spreading so rapidly from Canada to around the world.

Indigenous Peoples are the miner’s canary in a development process gone haywire. Indigenous Peoples have a sense of enoughness and equitable distribution. But development takes all of our land, water, food and other life supporting assets away and sends them up market to make iPhones and Big Macs for the consumer society. If we are stripped of our life-sustaining assets, there is not much else we can do but profit from the oil beneath our feet so we can survive.

Personally I feel and intrinsic affinity for the land. It heals me. It sustains me and I am obligated to sustain it. The Indigenous paradigm for conservation is one of protection-production and production-protection. You take care of your place because it produces for you. And it produces for you because you take care of it. Not every indigenous person acts in this way, but I strongly believe that ensuring the right of self-governance for Indigenous Peoples will bring about new, sustainable ways to live in harmony with Mother Earth.

In order to do what Bill is saying, we have to come up with a radical new way on how to distribute benefits and wealth equitably. But the fix is not having indigenous peoples be over-romanticized tree-huggers. Bill and I both agree that the reality of climate change is that if we don’t fix it, we are all going to die. 

Bill, How does 350.org work with and support other movements like Idle No More? How do you ensure there is not competition?

We’re not really an organization, we’re more like a campaign. We try to just set up ways for everyone to play together. And we always pay attention to great leaders–like, say, Clayton Thomas-Muller who is one of my absolute favorite allies. Or Tom Goldtooth, or Reuben George, or Bill Erasmus, or Melina Loubacon-Massimo, or any of the other great indigenous leaders we get to work with. There’s no group of people I’ve learned more from.

To learn more about First Peoples Worldwide and 350.org, visit www.FirstPeoples.org and www.350.org.