Spirituality, a road to sustainable worlds?

by Anton Vandevoorde

“Water is life, water is sacred” Dale told me, a strong Mi’kmaq water protector, while we were sitting in a strawbale house. The local Mi’kmaq First Nations are protesting since 2014 against the construction of an underground gas storage near Stewiacke, Nova Scotia. Alton Gas, a subsidiary of Alta Gas wants to dissolve ten thousand cubic metres of salt from the underground to make space for gas and discharge the salt in the Shubenacadie river.

The tidal river is of particular cultural and spiritual importance to the Indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia. Long before the colonisation, they used the river as a source of food, for orientation and the river plays a role in countless stories.

The strawbale house where Dale and I were seated was blocking the entrance to where Alton Gas plans to dump the salt. Today, the house, build and financed by a coalition of white and Indigenous activists, has been bulldozed, but when I visited Dale in November 2018, he was preparing himself for a second winter in the improvised residence.

What drives activists to exchange house and child for a life of struggle in the cold? “For me it was a spiritual quest,” was Dale’s reply.

Multiple worlds

When Dale says he is fighting for the water, it is implicit that a struggle for water is also a struggle for all life, for the life of his children, for the next seven generations and for the survival of the Mi’kmaq culture. The struggle against environmentally destructive developments are a continuation of the five hundred years of resistance against (cultural) genocide. Yet, too often the idea of water as a spirit is understood as a religious concept, which underestimates the political power of Indigenous epistemologies and – as a new generation of anthropologists would say – ontologies.

Taking a critical realist approach to this ontological turn, I will use Wittgenstein’s famous example of the rabbit-duck illusion as an illustration. Depending on the viewer, the drawing represents a rabbit or a duck. Two worlds exist, one where this drawing is a duck and one where the drawing is a rabbit. Nevertheless, there is also an underlying elusive world, the ink on paper without interpretation. Yet, also ink and paper are constructed concepts. For a non-human, like a tick, there is no difference between paper and ink. Its world only distinguishes between mammals and non-mammals.

If we’re always dependent on constructed concepts and limited sensing tools to understand something, we can never observe anything in absolute objective terms, making the underlying world unknowable or elusive. Thus, the demarcations between nature and culture, object and idea, ontology and epistemology disappear. For the critics: this does not make everything relative, because there is still a need for coherence inside a constructed world and all humans do have similar senses.

Yet, it is important to acknowledge that different worlds exist and that these worlds are not of lesser value than the hegemonic world. The Mi’kmaq ontology in which water, rocks and the earth itself are alive is not mystical. The spirituality is based on a different concept of life, based on the capacity of something to interpret, move, and its entanglement with other lifeforms. A tree interprets the surrounding vegetation and nutrients in the ground and also a stone reacts on the natural elements and it moves, albeit very slowly. And the earth is, just like humans, a system of systems. This does not mean the earth is conscious like humans are, but it is nonetheless a form of life that gives and that takes back, requiring a reciprocal relationship.

The Mi’kmaq ontology, grown historically from a nomadic way of life and their close living together with nature, is today experiencing a revival as a response to the world ecological crisis. It is not only a struggle against the unbridled economic development, threatening the health and landscape of the Mi’kmaq, but it is also a counter-hegemonic challenge of a world with its accompanying superstructure (as Gramsci characterizes, the whole of ideas, culture, morals and worldviews) to the hegemonic one. As if for five hundred years one group has claimed Wittgenstein’s drawing to be a duck and labelled seeing a rabbit as a belief. The struggle in Canada, however, as in many other places in the world, is less innocent than the struggle between a duck and a rabbit. The hegemonic world, which is based on the separation of nature and culture, has portrayed nature as empty, wild and unconnected, allowing nature to be chopped, polluted and used for the production of consumption goods. This view of nature, which increased its dominance since the enclosure of the commons and later with modernity and enlightenment, marked the loss of reciprocal relationships with nature and of the entanglement between nature and culture.

While the hegemony portrays spirituality as naïve and unscientific, the counter-hegemonies are strengthened by new holistic studies in scientific fields like systems ecology and Earth System science.

What about Europe?

The ecological crisis – which creates an organic crisis in the hegemony – has created an opportunity for the resurgence of the Indigenous superstructure. This has led many scholars in the Americas to the conviction that the solution to the current crisis will be Indigenous or will not be. But where does this leave Europe, where First Nations are less prominent than on other continents? The question arises if similar counter-hegemonic worlds also grow/exist in non-Indigenous protest sites.

With this question I went from Canada to Northern England, where near Blackpool on the Preston New Road a group of protectors slow down the incoming juggernauts and keep watch 24/7 on a development site from a half open shack next to the road.

They protest fracking in the United Kingdom, a method of unconventional gas, where water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals is inserted under pressure in the underground to open little gas pockets in the shale formation. In the United States, where the technique experienced an uncontrolled boom in the beginning of this decade, the technique caused enormous environmental damage, diseases and small earthquakes.

As could be expected, most fracktivists at Preston New Road don’t see water as a living creature, although there are people that do get inspiration from the Americas and refer to the earth as “Mother Earth.” Nevertheless, through their communication, actions and daily conversations all contribute to creating an ontology in which humans are more intrinsically connected to their environment. Just like the Mi’kmaq protectors, they emphasize the entanglement of nature and culture and through their emphasis on future generations, they expose an organic crisis in the hegemonic superstructure. The value of caring for children collides with the idea of nature as a resource in capital accumulation. Not surprisingly, both at the Treaty Truckhouse in Canada and at Preston New Road in England, women – mostly grandmothers – are disproportionally high represented in the movement. By exposing the contradictions inside the hegemony, they advance a new way of looking at the world, an ontology that might lead to more reciprocal, sustainable practices.

Anton Vandevoorde wrote his Master’s thesis “Changing Culture, Changing World: A Gramscian Approach to Ontologies in Radical Environmental Movements” for the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies. He studied at the Universities of Ghent, Dalhousie (Halifax) and Vienna.

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