Newsletter: September 2023

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of September.
Many of you will have children or grandchildren heading off to school in the coming week—and many of you may be starting a new school year yourselves. The same is true for me. Next week I start teaching a pair of introductory philosophy classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. It’ll be my first time setting foot in a large university since the start of the Covid pandemic. Watch this space for health updates as I return to the germ factory.
And then in early October I also resume my online classes. I’m very excited to explore environmental philosophy in The World Around Us: Philosophy and the Environment and I’d love to see you there. As a reminder, I offer a pay-what-you-can option to those who can’t afford the full course fee and I offer a full no-questions-asked money back guarantee up until the second week of the course. You can give the course a try risk-free.
I’ve had two pieces of writing appear in the last month. One is a blog post in which I ask whether philosophy risks distracting us from the here and now. The other is an essay on animals, persons, and things for the Line of Beauty newsletter, hosted by Dhananjay Jagannathan and Tara Isabella Burton (some of you may remember Dhananjay from our June philosophy happy hour). In that essay, I explore the peculiar difficulty of thinking of animals as animals rather than collapsing them into the categories of person or thing.
Toward the end of the month, we had our second-to-last philosophy happy hour of the summer, where we discussed the peculiar novel phenomenon of creating digital avatars of deceased loved ones. We talked about what this might mean for grief and the idea of “digital immortality.”
We’ll have one last happy hour in late September before my online course starts up in October. If you’re not already on the happy hour mailing list, let me know if you’d like to receive the invitation.
It’s also been a great month for getting outdoors. The photo below is of the Flatiron, a mountain in the Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area a few hours’ drive east of Vancouver.

I’m writing this newsletter on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. This land has been stewarded by them since time immemorial.

This sort of land acknowledgment has become a common statement at the start of events across Canada, ranging from hockey games to parliamentary sessions. They range from perfunctory or even insulting (don’t “thank” indigenous people for letting you use their land if you never asked their permission) to deeply felt acknowledgments of historical and present injustices that express a commitment to restitution.

The land acknowledgment also raises questions about the relation between the land and the people who live on it. These sorts of questions have been more on my mind than usual as I gear up to lead a course on environmental philosophy.

Humans are a highly mobile and adaptive species. We’ve spread out and populated almost all the land surface of the Earth, devising technologies that have enabled us to thrive in extreme settings. Waves of migration have settled regions as far-flung as the Canadian Arctic and the South Pacific. Nomadism has been the norm for much of human history. In short, we move around a lot. So what does it mean to describe anyone as “indigenous” to anywhere?

You find two crucial features of the concept of indigeneity in the statement above that indigenous people have stewarded the land since time immemorial.

Let’s start with “time immemorial.” Some ancient Greeks described themselves as “autochthonous” to their homelands. The word means that the people grew from the earth itself. Variants of this idea are common in many indigenous systems of thought. As far as the collective memory of the people is concerned, there was no time at which they were anywhere else. They are so at home where they are that they feel the earth itself has raised them.

That relationship with the native earth is reciprocal—here’s where the “stewarded” part comes in. Ecosystems are defined by change. It takes long, intergenerational experience to understand the cycles of days, seasons, years, and decades. People who have a deep and stable connection to the land have learned to flourish through these changes and understand their part in maintaining the health of the whole.

Contrast this idea of stewardship with the modern notion of property rights. Contemporary legal codes derive from Roman Law, which outlines three basic rights of property ownership: usus, the right to use the property; fructus, the right to enjoy its products; and abusus, the right to consume, destroy, or transfer ownership of it. Abusus is the ultimate determiner of ownership: the first two without the third is the right of usufruct, and falls short of full individual ownership.

The Roman right of abusus is almost the direct opposite of the indigenous notion of stewardship. What makes the land yours, on the Roman conception, is that you, and only you, have the right to damage it.

(It’s worth noting in passing here that, unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not see themselves as autochthonous. Their founding story, as related in the Aeneid, makes the founders of Rome refugees from Troy who settle on the land that will become Rome by waging war against the indigenous Latins.)

The British colonizers of Canada inherited this Roman conception of property. To this day, the British royal family claims ownership of 90% of the land in Canada (see item 7 on this list at the end of this newsletter). The “crown lands” of British Columbia have been subjected to such intensive logging that only a small fraction of old growth forest remains—the right of abusus at work.

Smoke thick as fog has become a familiar feature of the Vancouver summers as forest fires intensify. One reason, of course, is a warmer, drier climate. Another is non-indigenous forestry practices. Land that once was home to a diversity of vegetation, including fire-resistant species and resilient old growth, is now crowded with more commercially valuable but more combustible trees. Colonial authorities criminalized the indigenous practice of using controlled burns that created fire breaks and averted larger wildfires. The forests created by a couple centuries of colonization—densely planted, sparse in biodiversity, and devoid of old growth giants—would be unrecognizable to an indigenous person who time travelled here from the eighteenth century.

All this makes me sad, of course. Lynn Valley, north of Vancouver, is populated by young forest amidst the stumps of red cedar and Douglas fir trees that would have once been up to one hundred metres tall. Craning my neck up from those stumps is an exercise in wistful imagination.

What must I unwish to wish for those trees still to be there? Mass deforestation generated the wealth on which my home city of Vancouver was built. Among other things, that wealth provided for the founding of two major universities in the Vancouver area. Those universities, in turn, provided employment to my parents, who immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. If those forests hadn’t been stripped for profit, I wouldn’t have been born here.  

What does it even mean to call a place home when my presence there is a legacy of its depredation? Despite the trauma of colonization, a number of indigenous thinkers have presented their indigeneity to more recent settlers as an invitation. Robin Wall Kimmerer, one of the authors we’ll be reading in my upcoming course, talks about the importance of settlers becoming “indigenous to place” and learning to respect the land they’re on. The Haida artist Bill Reid encouraged settlers to learn indigenous traditions so that they could “become North Americans at last instead of displaced Europeans.”

The problem, you might say, isn’t so much that European settlers claimed the land as theirs but that they never properly took responsibility for calling it home. They didn’t steward the land but abused it. They didn’t learn from those who had already settled there but brutalized them.

I could just as well have written that last paragraph in the present tense. Most of us in North America—and I very much include myself here—are only beginning to learn what it means to relate to the land and its original inhabitants in a reciprocal and sustainable fashion. Doing this involves more than just learning forestry practices from those who have cared for the land from time immemorial. At a deeper level, it involves appreciating the difference between property rights and stewardship—both in terms of what that means for how we treat the land and for whose land we say it is.

In the era of climate change, the idea of stewardship takes on new significance. Carbon emissions in Canada affect the monsoon cycle in India and carbon emissions in India intensify the forest fires in Canada. Like it or not, the responsibility for stewardship extends not just to the land you live on but to the planet as a whole. Perhaps what’s called for is a concept of global indigeneity. After all, whether you’re a recent immigrant or have roots in a particular place from time immemorial, we’re all autochthonous to planet Earth. 

Fifteen Things I Learned in August
  1. Recent archaeological and anthropological research has debunked the familiar notion that, in foraging societies, the men hunt and the women gather. It turns out that in societies that rely upon hunting, both genders are very much involved in the hunt. (source)
  2. What is now Broadway in New York City was once a Native American road and Astor Place was the site of a lacrosse field where the three nations living on Manhattan would come together to compete. (source)
  3. Since about 2010, the top women’s professional basketball league, the WNBA, has consistently had a higher average free throw percentage than the top men’s professional league, the NBA. In fairness to the multi-gazillionaires of the NBA, the men’s league uses a larger ball. (source)
  4. Most pre-modern maps had east, not north, at the top, since that was where the sun rose. We still use the word “orient” to talk about finding our bearings. The north-is-up maps came to predominate when European explorers started using compasses in conjunction with navigation by the North Star. (source)
  5. The high value and prestige that attaches to the word “creativity,” and the idea that we all have a certain amount of creativity in us, is largely an invention of Cold War American capitalism. (source)
  6. There were 54 US-born women playing for other countries in this year’s women’s World Cup (of soccer/football). That includes 18 of the 23 women on the Philippines side and 12 on the Jamaican side. (source)
  7. The British royal family owns 90% of the land in Canada. (source)
  8. Canadian workers spend more days per week working from home than workers in any other major economy. (source)
  9. Global warming means that there have been fewer temperature-related deaths in the last couple decades. More people are dying of exposure to heat, but exposure to cold is nine times deadlier and fewer people are dying of exposure to cold. In case it needs saying, this doesn’t mean that global warming is good for humanity on balance, or for the planet. (source)
  10. European artists didn’t think to depict winter until the Renaissance. The earliest known image of winter dates to about 1414. (Bonus factoid from the same source: Michelangelo made snowmen. Well, sort of maybe. He sculpted unspecified snow figures on commission for Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.) (source)
  11. Among mammals, only humans and five species of whale are known to go through menopause. (source)
  12. There’s no unambiguous evidence that any animal other than humans experiences disgust. (source)
  13. Building the sets for the Barbie movie contributed to a global shortage in pink paint. (source)
  14. On the eve of the Second World War, more graduates of British universities were working for Soviet intelligence than for British intelligence. (source)
  15. A new world record was set this past month for the highest attendance ever at a women’s sporting match. It wasn’t the World Cup. It was a college volleyball match between two universities in Nebraska. Attendance: 92,003. (source)

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