The Risks Of Taking a Morning Shower

The other morning, having been awakened way too early by the whining of our sweet rescue dog Callie (obviously she’s not yet accustomed to Eastern Standard Time), I popped into the shower. And as articulate as any song of earth might be if only we could hear, came the words foreign oil, foreign oil. Foreign oil. Over and over. Foreign oil.

I don’t hear earth songs with the frequency I long for, but I do hear them, and although this was certainly a departure from what I (ridiculously) call the norm for earth songs, I began to pay attention. Foreign Oil. The tone was questioning. Foreign oil? Not surprising, I suppose, that I would hear these particular words, given the rhetoric of the past months, but they weren’t coming from political campaigns; they were coming from earth’s depths. I picked up on a few more pieces of the song: what does that mean, foreign oil? How can something be foreign when it’s ours? When its been ours for millions of years, made from our oceanic plants and creatures? What could possibly be foreign about that?

I began to play with the questions just to see where they’d lead. If earth claims oil as its own, what is oil’s purpose; what is its role in earth’s ecosystems? I didn’t get very far with that question, by the way, only that oil serves as the liquid burial ground for ancient species gone extinct.

Then came a slew of questions: who claims they own it, and who gets to decide; who has rights to it, and who can sell the rights to it; what makes it foreign, and foreign to whom? Not foreign to earth, not foreign to oceans. Who has the rights to sell drilling rights to BP? Who has the rights to sell drilling rights to Shell? Whose oceans are they? And then how about fracking, injecting vast quantities of questionable fluids into rocks and rock formations literally to blast them open for the sake of natural gas and other gas extraction? Whose rocks are they? Whose gas?

It’s not that I am being deliberately naive. It’s no secret that claims are being made, claims sold, rights awarded, from nations to private land owners – the money principle holds. The only economy we seem to understand is a growth/production/marketing economy. It is not an earth friendly, or even an earth collaborative economy.

 As I continued to bounce these thoughts around in my brain, I was searching, searching for something, some other economic paradigm, one that might accord certain rights to the natural world, rights to existence and habitat, for example, rights that might require human decisions to be made on the basis of ecological health. I want to share what I found, an analysis that required the hours remaining in my morning.

 The article is entitled Leaving the Oil in the Ground ~ A Political, Economic, and Ecological Initiative in the Ecuadorian Amazon
by Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas, Esperanza Martinez, and Joseph. H. Vogel

Below are excerpts.

 The government of Ecuador has presented a novel proposal to not exploit the oil reserves of the Yasuní National Park. The economic benefits of exporting crude oil are limited compared to the social, economic, and environmental costs of extracting oil from the Amazon, with its enormous ecological and cultural diversity (italics mine).

This initiative is the first post-oil development proposal, a precursor of a condition that will be inevitable for many countries in the near future. Moreover, this proposal is in line with the new Ecuadorian Constitution that recognizes the rights of nature and seeks to use available economic instruments to fulfill a mandate of “Buen Vivir” or “Good Living.”

The initiative calls into question the logic of extractive development based on primary products and exportation, and accepts the goal of “sumak kawsay,” or “good living.” It embodies a deep respect for the natural environment and the cultural choices of the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation that still inhabit Ecuadorian territory. The proposal is called the Ishpingo, Tambobocha, and Tiputini (ITT) Initiative.

The General Context Created by the New Constitution

Ecuador’s new constitution converts several key ideas, concepts, and demands directly related to the ITT case into law. The text creates a strong mandate for social justice and the defense of nature. This is expressed especially in the recognition of the rights of nature and in the direct link between the protection of natural resources with a development model conceived as broad-based and oriented toward “good living.”

The ITT Initiative clearly follows this logic of social and environmental justice. The decision to protect the area stems from an evaluation on its importance due to its ecological wealth, human communities, and the high social, environmental, and economic costs of oil drilling. The initiative is grounded in viewing a wide range of values when designing and debating public policy, and recognizes that the traditional cost/benefit analysis based on market values can no longer be the sole criteria of public policy. In particular, it recognizes that environmental values cannot be separated from social values and that many values are not quantifiable. In accordance with the new constitution, the focus on “good living” must be based on both human rights and the rights of nature.

Recognizing this range of values—aesthetic, religious, cultural, environmental, etc.—permits the incorporation of the rights of nature according to the mandates of the constitution. Consequently, decision-making becomes a political process rather than a technical decision based on cost/benefit analysis.

At the same time, the initiative is also a response to shared but differentiated global responsibilities regarding climate change, the preservation of biodiversity, environmental deterioration in general, and the financial crisis.

The impact of the ITT Initiative and its relationship to the new constitution make it a public policy, in the same way that health and education are public policies. The initiative should not be cubby-holed as a specifically environmental policy since it also has major repercussions in social and economic areas.

The ITT initiative is revolutionary in its challenge to the limits of a growth/production economy, a paradigm that refuses to calculate value that can’t be measured in currency, wealth, and personal, corporate, and national power. The customary first world cost-benefit analysis has no context for evaluating the roles and functions of ecosystems and species.

As I begin to think about the implications of what I am reading, two things come to mind. One, I don’t believe it is possible to address the social injustices of this world without understanding their intimate relationship with environmental justice. In fact, I lean towards the notion that environmental justice is prior, that issues of social justice emerge from the realm of environmental justice. Environmental justice, which, in concert with the Constitution of Ecuador, insists that the natural world has rights, rights which do not come at or near the end of a long list of goals. If you look to the excerpts above, to the words I framed with italics, the ecological diversity comes before cultural diversity. I am of a mind that cultural diversity can emerge only from ecological diversity. Regardless of which is prior, one cannot exist without the other. I am thinking in particular of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which list environment as next to last. (I will hold off on my analysis of what is meant, generally, by sustainability – not the same as environmental health.)

Two, it has become pretty clear to me, among others, that it’s not the big and powerful nations, such as the United States or China, that will chart the course of our future, presuming there is to be a future. It will be the smaller nations such as Ecuador, Costa Rica, and others who are able to develop the paradigms for a future of Buen Vivir or Good Living.

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