Lind Initiative Recap: Winona LaDuke on Wendigo Economics

Winona LaDuke was the fourth speaker in the 2019 rendition of the Lind Initiative. A rural development economist who has focused on indigenous economics, food systems, and energy policy, Winona LaDuke is the founder of Honor the Earth, a Native American grant that raises awareness on environmental issues within indigenous communities. A member of the Objibwe band of the Anishinaabe Nation, LaDuke is also known locally as a specialist in culturally-based sustainable development strategies.

As this year’s theme is ‘America and the Climate Crisis,’ past speakers have covered environmental issues from various angles. Robert Bullard, the first speaker, discussed how minorities in the United States will suffer the most from the worsening climate. The second speaker, Elizabeth Kolbert, discussed how a sixth extinction event has already started due to rising temperatures. During LaDuke’s keynote, she argued that only by overhauling the current global economic order can the world effectively develop sustainable societies, as the current world economy profits from plundering the earth.

A mindset ‘beyond empire’

LaDuke opened her talk by pointing out if students wanted to study European art they studied Fine Arts, but if they were interested in indigenous art they studied Anthropology. Such are the gaps that still exist in our paradigms of the western and indigenous worlds. In order to fix this gap, she argues that we need to start thinking ‘beyond empire,’ as it is the shift of mindset that we need to start fixing the systematic problems that have allowed global warming to worsen.

And by shifting our mindset, this also means by revamping our entire economic system. Invoking the term ‘Wendigo Economics,’ which is named after the cannibalistic monsters in Great Lakes legends, LaDuke pointed out that a good portion of the world’s most profitable sectors, are derived from destruction of the land. These industries not only have polluted the world and caused staggering inequality, but have also caused societies to become irresponsible and arrogant.

Since most of the consumer goods we buy are now produced for cheap in developing countries, LaDuke presented that the average house might have around 100 slaves in it based on the things we purchase. We also live in so much comfort that we grow desensitised to everything that does not happen in front of our eyes. We are irresponsible in our power and water consumption because we don’t see the firsthand consequences, and we continue to be addicted to fossil fuels since most people have not experienced the real impact of climate change. And our arrogance leads to believe that everything will continue to be alright. She argues that we are so addicted that we are going through extreme lengths to extract fossil fuels, such as offshore drilling, fracking, and blasting mountains. And even with disasters like the Deepwater Horizon incident, we still have not learned our lesson.

The fight for climate action across indigenous communities

However, amidst all of our problems, LaDuke also shows the individuals, mostly indigenous communities, who have tried to make a difference. She presented several instances where both indigenous and grassroots organizations have rallied to make oil firms abandon pipeline projects, such as massive divestment campaigns in fossil fuels and the cancellation of numerous pipelines including the Sand Piper from LaDuke’s home of Minnesota. But some remain an ongoing battle, such as the completed Dakota Access pipeline, where indigenous protesters who fought against the project were repressed brutally by the military through the use of attack dogs, rubber bullets, and water cannons in freezing weather. LaDuke remarked that these protests were the ‘Selma moment’ of climate change, where indigenous protesters faced another level of brutality, as the military used attack dogs, rubber bullets, and water cannons in freezing weather in an attempt to halt the demonstrations.

LaDuke emphasised that those who want to build a sustainable future for the US must follow the Green New Deal, which is also known in indigenous communities as the ‘Sitting Bull Plan,’ named after the famous Lakota leader, who in the late-19th Century mounted several resistances against the American government.

Concurrently, LaDuke also promoted the use of goods made from hemp, a strain of cannabis that she grows within her community. Hemp materials are strong enough to produce building elements as well as composites in electronics and engines.

In her conclusion, LaDuke wrapped up by stating that the world’s decision to combat climate change or not is similar to the Anishinaabe legend of the Seventh Fire, where people will have to choose between two paths, one that is well-worn but scorched, or the other that is not but green. However, with proposals such as the Green New Deal, and grassroots movements across the world, LaDuke is hopeful that the green path will be eventual choice.

Final thoughts

LaDuke’s keynote not only highlights the scope of damage that our society has inflicted on nature, but ourselves. Her commentary shows that if are to end the threat of global warming, not only do we have to look for energy and technological alternatives, but we need a new mindset as well, one that is centered on less consumption, responsibility, and stewardship.

The Phil Lind Initiative is an annual speaker series led by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Funded by Rogers Vice-Chair Philip Lind, the series focuses on a new policy theme each year, and invites academics and professionals across interdisciplinary fields. To find out more, visit the official website.

This post has also been published on The Pub, the online magazine authored by Master students at the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA).

Photos courtesy of the SPPGA.

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