With battles raging and saber rattling, America embroils herself in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Columbia and on countless other fronts. We must ask the question- why? What are the historic origins of the American empire and what is the impact of the American empire on biodiversity? With the expansion of American territories and corporate globalism through wars and saber rattling for natural resources as oil, minerals, bio-cultural properties and strategic locations; the American empire stretches itself thin, as it destroys the ecosystems and cultures of the occupied nations. Empire need not have been the result of the American experiment. Two paths could have been taken in the creation of the American experiment called democracy. In the following passages, I chart out the ramifications of those original choices on the biodiversity of America and consider opportunities for change in the future.
If you look at the symbols that represent America with an inquiring eye, you will see in the Great Seal of the United States the concept of a confederacy of states with that of manifest destiny. You might say that the choice of symbols set the precedent and foreshadowed the future actions of the United States to this day. Democracy was a concept foreign to the monarchies of Great Britain and the European continent. The precedent of a confederacy, the use of the native bald eagle and the bundle of arrows are American by origin.
The concept was not original but was based on the oldest continuous democracy found by the colonists on these native soils. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy represents the peaceful union of five tribes: the Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk to live by the Great Law, which sets forth a vision of right relationships between people and the Earth. Oral history says their arrows, which can be broken singly, were bound together in a union of strength that could not be broken. The Bald Eagle depicted on the Great Seal of the United States holds a scroll within his beak, which reads E pluribus unum, which translates from the Latin, “Out of many, one.” The Haudenosaunee Confederacy tribal government included both the Bill of Rights, with equality and representation for all; as well as the Bill of Responsibilities, which defined their relationship within the web of life to Mother Earth. Thus was born what the European settlers understood as the Great League of the Iroquois, the oldest continuous democracy on Earth.
The colonists were aware of the Native cultures and efforts were made to translate their words. Invitations were extended for native delegations to visit Washington as treaties of understanding were being drafted. However, the Continental Congress selectively edited the Great Laws of the Haudensaunee Confederacy to suit their expansive intentions. An Onondaga elder relates that the colonists adapted the Bill of Rights but did not include the Rights of Responsibility within their new Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The Articles of the Confederation were replaced by the United States Constitution, on June 21, 1788.
On the opposite side of the Great Seal of the United States is a thirteen stepped pyramid, representing the thirteen colonies, with the Eye of Providence at the pyramid’s pinnacle. The motto- Annuit Coeptis, translated from the Latin reads: “God is favorable to our undertakings” or Manifest Destiny. At the base of the pyramid, a scroll unfolds which reads Novus Ordo Seclorum, which translates as “New Order of the Ages”. MDCCLXXVI is carved into the pyramid’s base, which sets the date of the new American era as 1776.
Thomas Jefferson began the calculated exploration and documentation of the new frontier, which doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Jefferson quickly ordered “exploration and documentation” of the vast territory. In 1804, he appointed Lewis and Clark to lead an expedition "to explore the Missouri river, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce." The push to the Pacific was providential and commercial.
American Progress, John Gast, 1872
John L. O'Sullivan, a columnist for the Democratic Review, coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" in an editorial entitled Annexation in 1845. He stated that "the annexation of Texas and the whole of Oregon was our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." The preordained and imperial drive of Manifest Destiny across America was so successful that by the late 1800's to the early 1900's, the natural and cultural landscapes of America had been radically transformed from estuary to port, from forest to city, from prairie to farmland, from plains to rangeland, and from mountains to mines. The privatization and commodification of land reduced the landscapes, species and cultures to a fraction of their former whole.
We live in a time of vanishing landscapes and endangered species. E.O. Wilson states that “Over the next half century, up to one third of the world’s plant and animal species may be lost forever. Conservation biologists regard this as the first mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs.” In the United States alone 30% of the nation’s plant and animal species are at risk of disappearing and over 500 species are missing or may already be extinct. We have lost over half of our nation’s original wetlands, 98% of our tall-grass prairies and virtually all virgin forests east of the Rockies. Since the colonization of America, four American bird species have gone extinct, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. Today there is recognition that change is progressing with such speed that shifts and loss of plants and species can be documented within our lifetime.
The industrialization and dependence on extractive technologies for fossil fuels has accelerated the loss of landscapes and species. Recent projections on the velocity of climate change by scientists at the Carnegie Institution, Stanford University, the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California at Berkeley calculated the temperature velocity for different parts of the world based on current and projected future climate models. The findings pinpoint those ecosystems of critical environmental concern where biodiversity is most threatened by the speed of climate change. The study found that global warming would impact flat areas as mangrove swamps, flooded grasslands, coastal marshes and savannas with a velocity of 1 km a year. At higher elevations of the montane grasslands and shrublands, the projected velocity is charted at 110 meters per year. Within the tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, the movement of landscape boundaries would average 80 meters a year. This will lead to a relocation of plant and animal species to shifting landscapes or to extinctions within a lifetime.
Perhaps our Founding Fathers should have listened to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to live by the Great Law, which sets forth a vision of right relationships between people and Earth; and included both the Bill of Rights, with equality and representation for all; as well as the Bill of Responsibilities, which defined their relationship within the web of life to Mother Earth. Today indigenous people of the world are forming their own Confederacy to protect what remains of their cultures through actions such as the passage of the Pachymama in Ecuador, which includes the Rights of Nature. Rights include the protection of ecosystems, organisms and cultures, including bio-cultural heritage from corporate “bio-piracy” and the colonial extraction of ecological wealth.
2010 has been named the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations. An urgent call to action has been issued to all nations of the world to cooperate and collaborate as a global community to protect the biodiversity of Earth. What is biodiversity you ask? According to Dr. Eleanor Sterling, Director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, “Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it.”
Why should we care? Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon states that the reasons are ecological and economic. He outlines the ecosystem services that protect people and their infrastructure, like coastal wetlands minimizing the impact of storm surges, sadly realized too late when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans or the cutting of the mangrove swamps for unsustainable shrimp farms and beach development and the tragic loss of life and property from tsunamis in South East Asia. Ecosystems protect infrastructure. New York City enjoys cheap and clean tap water because the city chose to protect the Catskills watershed, saving several billion dollars in the process. According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, “Ecosystems provide services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, and control of agricultural pests.”
According to the Secretary, “A UN-backed study estimates the loss of natural capital due to deforestation and land degradation alone at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion each year.” Environmental protection and economic protection are two sides of the same coin. He urged member states to invest in sustainable development, which will assist indigenous people to protect the biodiversity in developing countries and meet the Millennium Development Goals and build resilience to climate change. Programs as the UNDP Equator Initiative, and the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program have been put in place to provide assistance. Norway has pledged 500 million to prevent deforestation, though questions remain of reforestation of monoculture crops within rainforest settings. According to Veerle Vandeweerd, UNDP Environment and Energy Group, three quarters of the world’s population rely on the natural environment for survival. 1.5 billion people live in dry lands and 1 billion people rely on sustenance fishing. There is a need for poverty reduction and biodiversity protection.
We need a new strategy that links climate change, biodiversity, and the Millennium Development Goals with concrete targets and implementation in cooperation with the developed and developing countries. According to Stas Burgiel in Convention on Biological Diversity: a progress report, “The UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) is the single most important international agreement designed to protect the world’s biodiversity, to encourage the sustainable use of biological resources, and to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from such use.” The Convention was signed at the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1992 Conference on Environment and Development- known as the Earth Summit. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted on 11 September 2003. It establishes rules under which crops and other organisms, which have been genetically modified, can be transferred from one country to another. According to Stas Burgiel’s Convention on Biological Diversity: a progress report- “The United States was perhaps foremost among developed countries in resisting potential restrictions on biotechnology and intellectual property rights. Indeed, President Bush (senior) refused to sign the CBD at the Earth Summit in Rio. Although President Clinton signed the Convention two years later, so far, the United States remains one of a small handful of countries that has not ratified the agreement, and so has refused to frame its own national laws in line with the CBD.” Policies must be put in place to protect indigenous knowledge of medicines and cures from the extractive and exclusive corporate explorers who patent local knowledge without proper recompense.
The Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, (COP-10) and the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety, (COP-MOP 5) will be held in Nagoya, Japan on 29 October 2010. Perhaps the cataclysmic loss of life within the coastal ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico broadcast around the world will galvanize our President and members of Congress to act responsibly to represent the best interests of her people on this blue planet we share with all life in this time of crisis. The nations of the world must be like the bundle of arrows in the talons of the eagle- united, strong and just, if we are to come to a common accord to exercise our collective Rights of Responsibility to protect and restore Earth’s biodiversity from extinction. A welcome has been extended to the United States to join the Family of Nations in this Year of Biodiversity.
© Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby, 2010
Joseph Ingoldsby, writes and advocates for biodiversity. Recent works include Vanishing Landscapes and Endangered Species, The Science Exhibition: Curation & Design, Museums etc Press, UK, 2010; Icons of the Vanishing Prairies, 2009; Vanishing Landscapes: The Atlantic Salt Marsh, Leonardo Journal, 42-2-2009 MIT Press and Requiem for a Drowning Landscape, Orion Magazine, March/April 2009.
Web site: www.JosephIngoldsby.com
Blog site: EarthElegies.blogspot.com