Tuesday, April 9, 2024

It’s our choice: Back to the future or no future at all

                                                                    CC Jean Stimmell 

What would an old Yankee think? Around Jenness Pond, it used to be an April Fool’s joke to tell folks the ice was out when it wasn’t. But this year, it’s no joke: the ice is long gone, along with skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing…, and a whole way of life.

‘Is winter really gone?’

I posed that question to my local shaman, Andiron Owl. She responded fiercely, withered grass sprouting from her eyes, a nagging reminder of the deadly effects of climate change, ‘Can’t you see the havoc you two-legged creatures have wreaked on us and the Earth itself? 

‘Now,’ she promised, ‘it’s time to face the consequences!’

Right on cue, I woke up the next morning to howling wind and a foot of wet snow, heavier than concrete, flattening my shrubs and small trees. Worse yet, it knocked out my electricity, causing my old generator to have a panic attack and die on the spot.

 There was no doubt that Mother Nature was exacting her punishment by casting me back in time: I  found myself once again a homesteader like my forebearers, warming myself by my woodstove, toting water from my farm pond, and writing by an ancient family oil lamp.

“Behold! This is your future,” the owl snarled. But if you are smart, it will teach you an invaluable lesson, a paradoxical truth: Learning again how to subsist isn’t a curse but the path not only to sanity but to earthly bliss. As a refresher course, she referred me to a recent Atlantic Magazine article, “A 600-Year-Old Blueprint for Weathering Climate Change.”⁠1

Beginning in the 13th century, the Northern Hemisphere experienced extreme climate change. “First came drought, then a period of cold, volatile weather known as the Little Ice Age.” It snowed in Alabama and South Texas. Famine killed perhaps one million people around the world. 

European countries doubled down, carrying on as before, concentrated in large cities with centralized, top-down organizations.  The end result was a disaster. Although it is little recognized, Native Americans had also “built grand cities on the scale of those in Europe with hierarchical class systems ruled by powerful leaders.”

But in response to the climate crisis, Native North American societies transformed themselves, spurred on by “a deep distrust of the centralization, hierarchy, and inequality of the previous era, which they blamed for the famines and disruptions that had hit cities hard. They turned away from omnipotent leaders and the cities they ruled and built new, smaller-scale ways of living, probably based in part on how their distant ancestors lived.”

They left behind ruins, such as those at Chaco Canyon and Cahokia, for smaller communities with more sustainable economies that encouraged balance and consensus. Oral histories from the generations that followed this radical shift described their new lives as greatly improved over the old. 

The secret of their success involved decentralizing governing structures with a variety of political checks and balances to prevent dictators from arising. “Power and prestige lay not in amassing wealth but in assuring that wealth was shared wisely. Many policies mandated councils of elders and balanced power by pairing leaders: a war chief alongside the peace chief” and a female counsel next to the male counsel.” 

As the historian Cary Miller has written, Native American nonhierarchical political systems “were neither weak nor random but highly organized and deliberate.” By living simply and sharing power widely, they were able to weather this 600-year mini-ice age with aplomb while the top-down European societies were mired in misery.

We would be wise to follow their lead today. Indeed, leading political theorists on both ends of the political spectrum have proposed decentralization as a means to bring democracy closer to the people – and, in the process, slow the rate of destructive climate change by learning to live sustainably like the first inhabitants of this land. 

Left and right could help make it happen by joining forces to break through our current political stalemate: Create a more grassroots democracy that fosters greater freedom while ensuring it is fair and equitable for all.

My shaman, Andiron Owl, tells me what we already know in our hearts: the alternative is bleck: a continuing upsurge in name-calling, insurrection, famine, and plague.



1 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2024/04/little-ice-age-native-north-america-climate-change/677944/