Colonizing Nature-- It's Our 'Manifest Destiny'!

by Hendrik Van den Berg
UNL Professor of Economics

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a project that has involved nearly 10,000 scientists from around the world, a few weeks ago once again reconfirmed earlier conclusions that climate change is underway and that human activity on Earth is the main cause. Scientists have also concluded that if we are to keep temperature increases below two degree celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit), we can only burn a small portion, perhaps just 20 percent, of the known reserves of carbon fuels. And yet, Congress just came within one vote of approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is intended to carry the dirtiest possible crude oil from the isolated Alberta tar sands to the world energy market to be burned into the atmosphere. Our political leaders do not seem to be paying attention to what is happening to our environment.

One of the common themes of those who either voted for the pipeline or those who went along with the decision is that the pipeline will bring economic growth and employment. This argument holds little water since resource-destroying economic expansion is not really growth and the pipeline creates almost no new permanent employment. But, the idea that economic growth comes first resonates with Americans, accustomed to a high-energy lifestyle. Of course, many of those legislators who voted for letting more tar sands crude oil flow into the international energy market claim that they just do not believe the climate science. A popular reaction is that global warming is some kind of socialist plot against the American way of life.

Such statements suggest that there is something uniquely American about our unwillingness to accept the unmistakable conclusions of climate science. After all, polls routinely show majorities of people in other countries in agreement on the need to deal with global warming, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity. Then I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014), and I now understand why it is Americans who are most likely to deny the clear scientific facts on global warming, climate change, and dwindling biodiversity.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the U.S.

Dunbar-Ortiz examines U.S. history from the perspective of the Native American nations that were in present-day North America before European colonial powers invaded. This perspective makes it clear that the growth of the United States was a continual process of invasion, theft and genocide. As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted shortly after the Spanish-American War (The Frontier in American History, 1920): “The U.S. had had a colonial history and policy from the beginning of the Republic.” We all know that the colonists who became our founding fathers were here because of British colonialism. But, what we like to forget is that independence did not change the colonial mentality one bit. Perhaps the expansionist desires even grew. We should not forget that the first law passed by the Continental Congress (note the word “Continental”) was the “Northwest Ordinance”—a law that reversed the British prohibition on settlement on land west of the Appalachian Mountains. The newly formed nation was just itching to occupy more of the ‘empty’ land!

Said the often-glorified President Thomas Jefferson in 1801: “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar form by similar laws” (quoted in Dunbar-Ortiz, p. 3). Jefferson made no mention of the indigenous nations that would have to be destroyed for the Thirteen Colonies to expand westward. Today, U.S. historians like to talk about the ‘clash of cultures’ perpetrated by U.S. expansionism. But what actually happened was simple theft and genocide. Worse, this theft and genocide was justified under the guise of freedom and civilization. Soon the theft and genocide was covered up under the term “Manifest Destiny,” which gave the elimination of indigenous nations a moral dimension.

Dunbar-Ortiz provides all the horrible details of how our Manifest Destiny was carried out by means of violence and theft. Many Americans have vaguely heard about the forced migration—known as the “Trail of Tears”—of Native Americans from today’s southern states, yet our history books almost never link Andrew Jackson directly to that act of pure genocide. Dunbar-Ortiz is careful to check the United Nations definition of genocide before making her charge; her case is solid. Dunbar-Ortiz depicts the obvious: Jackson was a ruthless murderer of Native Americans, and he inspired others to do the same. He authorized bounties for Indian scalps (yes, white settlers did most of the scalping, not Indians) that turned most settlers in the southern states into bounty hunters. In the process, the Native Americans lost their land and their populations were annihilated.

In 1860, six of the seven divisions of the U.S. Army were stationed west of the Mississippi River, effectively operating as a colonial army. Interestingly, the longest military counterinsurgency in U.S. history did not happen recently in the Middle East; rather, it was the war on the Apache Nation from 1850-1886. Then, once the insurgencies were ruthlessly put down, the theft could continue in a more ‘civilized’ manner.

For example, Senator Henry Dawes in 1887 sponsored the “General Allotment Act,” which divided commonly owned land on Indian reservations into individually owned plots, often just 180 acres of arid land or less. Incredibly, Dawes argued that if the communal ownership of land on Indian reservations was not eliminated, there would be no economic development: “[t]he defect of the [reservation] system was apparent. It is Henry George’s [socialist] system and under that there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.” In the name of improving their economic well-being, Native Americans effectively lost more of their land because somehow the allotments never used up all of the land given to Indian Nations under earlier treaties. The remaining land—which included much of present-day Oklahoma—was then opened to white settlers. Laws such as the “Homestead Act,” “Morrill Act” and the “Pacific Railroad Act” further legalized the theft by describing it as ‘free’ land for farmers, education for farmers’ children and economic development.

Most Americans simply refuse to entertain such facts or revise their take on American history. To test the blindness of Americans to our colonial theft and genocide, Dunbar-Ortiz writes that at the beginning of every course she asks her students to draw a rough map of the United States in 1776. She reports that nearly all students draw the U.S. as the contiguous 48 states today, despite the fact that in 1776 there were numerous other nations of indigenous peoples occupying much of the continent. When questioned, those same students admit to knowing that indigenous nations occupied the lands west of the Appalachians. Students, like most Americans, simply took for granted that the full continental U.S. was the natural shape of the country—our Manifest Destiny.

We could take this colonial experience within our continental borders and extend it to our current activities across the globe. A self-acclaimed ‘exceptional’ nation that is the natural leader of the ‘free world,’ we still engage in theft and genocide to promote the interests of the mostly descendants of white Europeans who confiscated the territory of indigenous nations. Note the indiscriminate war on terror and the multiple bombing and drone campaigns abroad that kill unknown civilians in our quest to eliminate the modern-day equivalents of indigenous ‘savages’ who dare to resist what we believe we are entitled to do. The violence is still followed by forced ‘economic development’ (like the allotments), carried out by Western corporations and financial firms. But I will leave you to ponder these parallels with regard to our foreign policies. Here, I instead shift to another manifestation of our delusional destiny: our active theft and destruction of the natural environment.

Colonizing the Earth

The only way to explain the lack of concern for climate science by our politicians (and the majority of Americans who vote for these people) is that we view the natural environment with a typical American attitude of Manifest Destiny. Never mind that it is well-known that if everyone in the world lived the way Americans see as their natural right, then we would need the resources of seven planet Earths… Or that about one-third of the carbon currently in the atmosphere can be traced to the exceptional economic growth of the United States. Yet, our political leaders, attuned to their voters’ shortsightedness and the money of the special interests, ignore or minimize these facts.

Unfortunately, this short-sighted behavior is far from uncommon for humans. Our evolution has led to a complex mixture of basic survival instincts, extraordinary mental capabilities and social cultures that have enabled our species to grow and expand on Earth. Paul Seabright (The Company of Strangers, 2010) and Anne and Paul Ehrlich (The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, 2008) detail how humans developed the intelligence to engage in abstract thought, which gives us the ability to analyze complex issues and project the consequences of current actions into the future. All living species are expansionary in nature. But we humans are indeed exceptional in terms of how successfully we have been able to overcome limits to growth and thus expand our footprint on Earth.

Shouldn’t then our mental capabilities also allow us to understand the damage we are doing? After all, as the Native American historian Jack Forbes writes (quoted in Dunbar-Ortiz):

While living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of the past.

The answer to this question though is, unfortunately, negative. Our ‘culture’ often gets in the way. Seabright, Ehrlich and Ehrlich, and many other social scientists have also detailed how humans have developed group institutions like culture. Culture is necessary for us to function in the complex societies that humans have been able to build by means of our extraordinary ability to develop new knowledge and technologies. Culture consists of a huge set of information; it is a set of norms, stories, rules of thumb and shared beliefs that get us through the day. We have to make thousands of choices and decisions every day, and have little opportunity to engage in time-consuming deliberations. Culture also provides the overall philosophies (beliefs) that permit us to give meaning to our lives amid the growing complexity of our existence. Our mental abilities and group interactions have made economic growth possible, but they have not been sufficient to enable us to understand the full meaning and implications of what we have brought about.

In short, humans have the ability to carry out sophisticated scientific research that clearly explains global warming and the unprecedented losses of biodiversity. But, when this science crashes head-on with a culture that glorifies economic growth, our myth of ‘American exceptionalism,’ and our sense of Manifest Destiny to take over the Earth, we are also quite capable of simply tuning out the environmental destruction we are engaged in.

If we can completely ignore the fact that our nation was built by means of invasion, theft and genocide, is it any wonder that we have a similar predisposition to mindlessly invade and annihilate our natural environment?

This is the existential challenge that lies before us as Americans. We are going to need to rapidly confront these unpleasant truths, because our very survival depends on it.

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