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Going Local: place-based ecology as an opportunity for activism

I was raised in the Rocky Mountains, hiking in fields of juniper and sage, with the long shadows of lodgepole pines painting my childhood. When my dad immigrated, it was in these mountains that he found a home, and later, where he rooted his growing family. I can’t tell you much about the ecology of either of my parents’ homes, but I know a high-altitude alpine biome better than the back of my cracked and sun-spotted hand. I can tell you about the pine beetles - how this is their second time ravaging the national forests of my home, and how the first time, around 150 years ago, was due to the miners stripping the forest bare in order to construct this small mountain town. I can tell you about moose safety versus bear safety, and where you can go about finding either. I could write sonnets about the different types of snow we get throughout our 9-month winter. We have stories, folk songs, and rhymes that have taught me these things over my 20 years spent in these hills. Colorado defines itself by the more-than-human world it is composed of, and Coloradans define themselves by their role within that world.

There is a sentiment in Aboriginal Australia - this land raised me. It is a sentiment of relationship and reciprocity, of agency inherent in our landscapes to shape our characters. This concept of land, of country, incorporates more than the geography of the landscape, but also the living beings within it, and the relationships and interactions that allow it to function. Aboriginal Australians are members of the longest continuous cultural tradition on our planet, and their relationship to the land dates back over 60,000 years. Throughout that time, they developed practices of stewardship, fire and water management, and ecological knowledge embedded within stories, communities, and identities.

Unlike traditional Indigenous landowners, my relationship with the land that has raised me is much shorter, and is peppered with incidents of conquest, violence, and colonialism. I am a second-generation American, and in my father’s home country of India, native ecosystems, local traditions, and place-based ways of knowing were displaced by British imperialism, gutting the closest thing I have to a homeland for its raw resources. My white mother’s family is from Missouri, and the presence of westerners there has displaced several Indigenous groups, including the Osage people. In the 244 years that my county has called itself the United States of America, Indigenous men and women have been slaughtered, had their land stolen from under them, and have been forced into reservations that have become targeted by oil drilling, pipelines and fracking. Black people were stolen from their homelands and forced to toil and construct a nation that still does not recognize their humanity, that still does not allow them to breathe freely.

Not only did this land raise me, but I am also complicit in its conquest. That being said, it’s the only home I know, and, these days, as we retreat into our homes and pay attention more to our own communities, it’s the only thing I know I can hold on to.

Lately, a lot of us have found ourselves confined to our localities with a newfound intimacy. If you’re like me, and lucky enough to work from home, maybe you’ve noticed some new things about the ecosystem you’ve found yourself within. Maybe you finally found the time to look up that one bird you’re always seeing out your window, or you’ve noticed summer flowers populate parts of your yard where, at the start of quarantine, snow was still melting. Maybe, you’ve hiked a lot of the same trails dozens of times over the past months, and, hopefully, noticed something new every time. This deliberate dance of staying still that I’ve been doing has reminded me why I got into environmentalism in the first place -- there is so much to discover, protect, and learn from in our own ecosystems, and it’s in our own ecosystems and communities that the real work happens.

Something that I believe we’ve forgotten during the golden age of the internet is that advocacy happens first in our own communities. We get caught up in global and national conversations of what is right and just, and sometimes can get confused into thinking that that is the only place our voice matters, when in fact, the opposite is true. As states push to pass their own versions of the Green New Deal and combat climate change, as they make decisions regarding reopening during the pandemic, and as my home state of Colorado became the first state to end qualified immunity for police officers, I begin to realize how much there is to gain from paying attention to what’s going on at home, ecologically and otherwise.

While Indigenous cultures hold the belief that “this land raised me”, Western, settler-imperialist, extractivist culture has the tendency to think the opposite, to the detriment of our climate and our communities. When we displace ourselves from the places that have raised us, and feel as though we are separate from them, it becomes much easier to allow them to be exploited. But the truth of the matter is the intersecting crises against which we find ourselves faced do not exist in some distant “other” of a place -- they exist here, in our homes, and will continue to do so. Wisconsin has faced unprecedented flooding events, the sea level is rising off the coast of Florida, Manhattan is an urban heat island, and in my precious Colorado, the stunning winters that are the backbone of our economy, and the core of our identity, are growing shorter, affecting water supply for huge swaths of the southwest, foreshadowing major droughts. My town is funded by outdoor tourism, and, although this is a different sense of dependence on the natural world than known to indigenous stewards of the land, I know that my livelihood is dependent on the more-than-human world. If it doesn’t snow, members of my community struggle to put food on the table.

We must stop separating ourselves from our own ecosystems and pretending as though our actions are independent of our environments. Just as my livelihood depends on winters, so too do the winters depend on me. There are a lot of things in this world that I can’t control - but, like any other part of a biome, there are a lot of ways in which my actions can manifest real change. As much as I am a colonizer in this place, I also have the responsibility to be a steward, and to do better than my imperialist ancestors in the ways in which I walk on this country.

There is a lot being asked of humans right now. We must navigate a climate crisis, a global pandemic, reckon with centuries of institutionalized racism, and do it all mostly from our own homes. So why not start there? I believe part of the reason it’s taken us so long to take the climate crisis seriously is that we’ve failed to draw the connections between the global climate and our local ecology, and between our local ecology and ourselves.

My call to action? Take time to learn about your local environment, and how it’s changed. Think about where people in your community live - near parks and forests, or highways and polluting factories? Think about who those people are, and the privilege and power they hold. Think about the power you hold - to influence your local government, push for sustainable and equitable environmental policy, and build coalitions for community action. No one of us is going to save the world alone - but there’s a lot to save out past your own back porch.

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