Every four years, the United States National Intelligence Council releases a report called Global Trends that attempts to forecast the threats and uncertainties that will shape the world for the next two decades. Authored by an association of professional spies with a name befitting an indie rock band—the Strategic Futures Group—the report is written to encourage the White House and its advisors to stretch their thinking toward a longer time horizon.
The 2021 edition of Global Trends, titled “A More Contested World,” focuses on the intersecting challenges facing humanity amid conditions of “expanding uncertainty.” One of the report’s main graphics features a box labelled “Eroding Human Security” surrounded by an array of menacing inputs or “drivers”: extreme weather, water misuse, sea-level rise, geoengineering, societal and government change, unequal burdens, instability, conflict, and more. Inside that besieged box, the report argues, is the future we will all inhabit unless a miracle occurs.
The report concludes by proffering five imagined scenarios, each envisioning a trajectory our uncertain future might take. The final speculative narrative envisions a global youth led environmental revolution that eventually leads to the establishment of a new international organization: the Human Security Council. Reading the final scenario, I found myself nodding in agreement with American intelligence officials for the first time in my life—a disconcerting experience in its own right. If we want to escape the little box labelled “Eroding Human Security,” a massive and visionary social movement will indeed have to shift our social systems away from the fossil-fuel-guzzling status quo.
At the same time, I wondered if a Human Security Council is really enough to set us on a stable course. If the challenges facing humanity are so enmeshed with a devastated planet, as the National Intelligence report makes clear they are, then shouldn’t we also be asking what security means for the ecosystems, plants, and animals on which our own food, health, and environmental security depend?
When the National Intelligence Council described a future of expanding uncertainty and insecurity, the report authors knew these terms would be unsettling to most readers. But uncertainty and insecurity are not always bad. If we want to prevent the worst consequences of the economic and ecological collapse their report warns of—and avoid living in some of the more foreboding future scenarios it portends—there are many entrenched systems and ingrained habits of thinking that need to be made less certain and secure. Our world is becoming more unsettled in many troubling ways. In others, it is not nearly unsettled enough.
As the late Secwepemc leader and political strategist Arthur Manuel argues in his co-authored 2015 book Unsettling Canada, one thing that needs to be shaken up is the colonial claim to land itself. The recognition of Indigenous sovereignty would have profound implications for social justice and sustainability, for the economic insecurity of Indigenous peoples, and for ecological stability more broadly.
It has taken generations of organizing and resistance by Indigenous people to get Canada to begin to accept the existence of what is officially called “Aboriginal title,” Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to their traditional territories. In Manuel’s account, ensuring that Indigenous rights were included in the Constitution Act of 1982 was a critical victory in the ongoing fight to unsettle the government’s justification for Crown ownership of the vast majority of Canadian land. These justifications remain entangled with the incongruous sixteenth-century legal idea of terra nullius, which says that land people inhabited for tens of thousands of years was in fact empty and could be “discovered” by hungry and confused foreigners and magically made into a British possession.
In a series of watershed legal decisions, the Canadian courts have slowly begun to chip away at this colonial absurdity, with Delgamuukw v. British Columbia marking a major turning point. In 1984, the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations launched an unprecedented legal challenge to try to realize the Aboriginal rights recently enshrined by the new Constitution. They sued for recognition of their Aboriginal title to more than 133 individual hereditary territories totalling 58,000 square kilometres of land that had never been ceded in a treaty, a claim that forced the Canadian government to reckon with the legal reality of the Indigenous commons and concepts of sovereignty, ownership, and property.
As oral cultures, the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations did not document land ownership through written contracts and deeds, and the plaintiffs set a precedent by using oral traditions, rather than written documentation, as legal proof. They affirmed their possession of the land through the Gitxsan adaawk and Wet’suwet’en kungax, verbal collections of legends, laws, rituals, and traditions Elders presented as evidence, much to the judge’s consternation. On the first day of testimony, the hereditary chiefs made statements explaining how their respective nations approached the issue of property law. Gitxsan Chief Delgamuukw Earl Muldoe, the case’s named plaintiff, set the tone. “My power is carried in my House’s histories, songs, dances, and crests,” Delgamuukw said. “For us, the ownership of territory is a marriage of the Chief and the land. Each Chief has an ancestor who encountered and acknowledged the life and the land. From such encounters come power. The land, the plants, the animals, and the people all have spirit—they all must be shown respect. That is the basis of our law.” One of the Elders invited to testify was Mary Johnson, who was asked to sing a song documenting territorial proprietorship—a dirge about two young girls saved from starvation by a bird after their brother has died. The judge objected. “To have witnesses singing songs in court is not the proper way to approach this problem,” he said. Besides, he had a “tin ear,” one incapable of hearing what a mournful song had to do with a specific place or history. How could property be secured by words that were sung?
Following 318 days of evidence and fifty-six days of closing arguments, the judge delivered his verdict. Citing John Locke’s intellectual precursor, the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the decision described life for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en peoples before colonization as “nasty, brutish, and short” and ruled against the plaintiffs. But when the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case on appeal a decade later, the justices were more inclined to listen. In 1997, the Supreme Court recognized the principle of Aboriginal title as a form of collective ownership, even as it declined to rule on the specific land and title in question, advising the federal government to negotiate directly with First Nations and find a way to reconcile Aboriginal and Crown claims, which the government has so far refused to do. In the words of Toronto Metropolitan University professor Shiri Pasternak, “The Supreme Court agreed that Indigenous peoples held a unique property right to their land. It was a collective interest held by a nation” and by both present and future generations. By affirming the validity of oral testimony, the decision was also an important step toward bridging Indigenous and Canadian legal traditions and making what is called common law more common, which is to say more pluralistic and shared.
The verdict caused the private sector to panic. Government documents Pasternak obtained through a Freedom of Information request show lobbyists grasping for “certainty,” by which they meant uncontested access to Indigenous property. The day after the ruling, Marlie Beets, then the vice-president of the BC Council of Forest Industries, complained that Delgamuukw “has only created more uncertainty and we are very concerned by how governments will react to the court’s findings. . . . The decision makes the need for certainty through surrender all the more clear.” In emails and faxes, corporate lobbyists urged government officials to push First Nations to surrender their newly expanded rights to ensure the “certainty” of commercial interests. The director of the BC Cattlemen’s Association vowed to put “great pressure on the provincial government to commit to a cede, release and surrender approach.” A “certainty working group” meeting was arranged by the BC Treaty Negotiations advisory committee lawyer, who counselled that a treaty process should seek “an end of Aboriginal rights and title”—an approach the United Nations has strongly opposed.
Despite the Canadian Supreme Court’s recognition of Aboriginal title and the support of international human rights law, the fight for Indigenous sovereignty remains profoundly lopsided, with impoverished communities going up against multinational behemoths, their powerful provincial lobbyists, and the government agencies that abet them. Over the years, various Supreme Court decisions have further bolstered Indigenous claims, but the Crown continues to grant private companies permission to drill, mine, log, and dam on unceded land. This includes approval of the controversial 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink Pipeline that would traffic fracked gas along what Pasternak has described as a “coveted energy corridor” that runs through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory. Powered by the fantasy of the colonial commons, Chevron, TransCanada, and Enbridge are all determined to build fossil fuel economy infrastructure on Wet’suwet’en land despite community opposition and an outpouring of global solidarity. When the hereditary leadership who brought forward the Delgamuukw case asserted their jurisdiction by defending unceded territory with peaceful blockades, the government sent the police to remove protesters from their own land at gunpoint. The RCMP’s violent response revealed how threatening Aboriginal title is to the petroleum industry and the risk it poses to the security of their profits.
In Unsettling Canada, Manuel reminds us that the Delgamuukw decision not only confirmed and expanded Aboriginal rights but also affirmed the corresponding duties that come with them. The right to take from the earth is inseparable from the responsibility to also take care of and replenish it. The Supreme Court ruled that the only situation in which Aboriginal title must be extinguished involves communities engaging in activities that destroy their land or are inconsistent with their connection to the land, thereby depriving future generations of its benefit (Manuel gives the example of building a parking lot on a sacred site). This condition, as Manuel explains, further obligates Indigenous peoples to protect their territories from irresponsible and unsustainable development—the kind of development the private sector wants a certain and secure right to pursue. Here we have an example of just the kind of unsettling that our insecure age requires: the unsettling of a system of ownership that tramples on people’s constitutional rights while injuring the planet.
In 1974, ecologist Garrett Hardin published an article in Psychology Today in which he scoffed at the idea of returning land or making reparations to Indigenous communities, building on the arguments he put forth in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Titled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor,” it once again invited the reader to picture a scene, this time an ocean instead of an open field. Small vessels full of wealthy passengers float perilously in a sea of drowning people who threaten to capsize the ships. The only way for the privileged few to protect themselves, Hardin argues, is to keep others out—out of the lifeboats, out of the rich countries, out of the commons—by hoarding resources, halting immigration, and ending international food aid in order to reduce the global population of the poor, who he acknowledges are overwhelmingly non-white. “For the foreseeable future,” he writes, “our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be.” Hardin’s ideas align with the current of thinking now called “eco-fascist,” one on the rise in our uncertain times. It is based on the narrowest and meanest concept of security, of guarding one’s privilege at the expense of others’ lives. This is a vision, as one toxic and terrifying white supremacist slogan states, of “green futures for white babies.”
Of course, there are the denialists too. Rejecting the reality of climate change, they consider social change to be the true security threat—a threat to industry profits, consumer lifestyles, and established racial and gender hierarchies. Sociologist Cara Daggett has coined the term “petro-masculinity” to describe the way climate denial, gas-guzzling trucks, and slabs of red meat have become potent symbols of patriarchal virtue (hence the slur “soy boy,” lobbed at men who are seen as soft or, worse, vegetarian). In this paradigm, contempt for the more-than-human world, and for anyone who tries to care for it, reinforces contempt for certain categories of people—anyone who is not white, male, and able bodied. Research by Queen’s University political theorist Will Kymlicka found that faith in species hierarchy is “consistently associated with greater dehumanization of disadvantaged or marginalized human groups.” Or as the celebrated abolitionist Angela Davis recently told me, “The prioritizing of humans also leads to restrictive definitions of who counts as human, and the brutalization of animals is related to the brutalization of human animals.”
The scramble to subjugate other people and creatures has yielded a pyrrhic victory of mega fires, heat domes, polar vortexes, super storms, and droughts. Five hundred years after the philosopher Thomas More wrote about the plague of sheep set loose on the English commons, livestock have devoured the earth. Domesticated and commodified animals, mainly cows and pigs, now make up more than 62 percent of all mammalian biomass, deforesting wide swaths of land and emitting huge amounts of carbon, while all wild animals have been reduced to a paltry 4 percent. The wilderness that remains is largely protected by Indigenous peoples, who make up around 5 percent of the world’s population and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Proposals like those seeking to establish more Marine Protected Areas in partnership with First Nations on Canada’s west coast are a promising sign of a growing recognition that environmental caretaking and repair need investment and support. But ultimately, planetary stewardship is something everyone should be responsible for.
My interest in rights for nature stems, in part, from my conviction that biodiversity has political as well as biological value. Each species we extinguish diminishes what we might call ecological democracy, underscoring the need to devise a political system that can effectively represent and protect the interests of other life forms. The benefit to animals and insects, as well as the 40 percent of plant species now imperilled by climate change, should be more than enough to jolt us into fighting extinction. But we should also cultivate solidarity with the more-than-human world out of crass self-interest. Biodiversity is essential to our existence: to the security of the ecosystems we are embedded in, the food systems we rely on, and our ability to avoid future pandemics. When an ecosystem is healthy, biodiversity buffers the transmission of deadly pathogens; genetic variation dilutes and disrupts pathways of contagion. This means that the same shrinking and fragmenting of wild habitat that decreases biodiversity also increases opportunities for what scientists call “spillover,” or human–animal contact and cross-species infection, the dynamic that likely led to recent Ebola outbreaks in Guinea.
As a 2020 United Nations report on pandemic prevention explains, infectious diseases typically emerge as the result of human activity. They are yet another insecurity-producing symptom of human hubris, an outgrowth of long-standing attempts to conquer nature. Land-use changes, above all the clearing of land for intensive animal agriculture, are responsible for one-third of all emerging diseases. Like the hurricanes and droughts that result from a warming climate, novel and dangerous pathogens are connected to human activity, though not in the straightforwardly conspiratorial way some people like to imagine. The 1918 influenza, for example, likely began as a bird or swine flu on an industrial farm. Conditions are even more congenial to harmful microbes on modern feed lots, which crowd huge numbers of genetically similar animals together in cruel and unsanitary conditions. In the US and Canada, livestock are dosed with 80 percent of all the medically important antibiotics the countries consume—a recipe for breeding drug-resistant superbugs. As one medical journal recently put it, intensive animal agriculture gives viruses countless “spins at pandemic roulette.” The American Public Health Association, the largest organization of public health professionals in the US, has repeatedly called for a moratorium on factory farming for this reason.
Given these and countless other challenges, we can’t limit our ambitions to the Human Security Council that the National Intelligence Council report envisioned, though that would be an excellent start. Only More-Than-Human Security will suffice. We must work with the natural world rather than against it, co-operating with the sun and wind to harness renewable energy, with the oceans and forests to sequester carbon without choking and acidifying them, with biodiverse plants to cool our cities and feed the world, with animal allies like the water-protecting and firefighting beavers who provide refuge for other species. Yet despite the consensus from the United Nations and leading scientists and physicians that our future security requires paying attention to the interconnections between human, animal, and ecosystem well-being, a human-centric and profit-hungry attitude still dominates. Instead of recognizing biodiversity as an essential component of biosecurity, Canada and the US have recently passed laws that paint environmentalists and animal rights activists as urgent security threats.
In addition to working with nature, we also, of course, need to work with each other. This requires turning our climate anxiety and insecurity into solidarity—solidarity that is strong enough to respond to rising authoritarianism and to overcome the special interests championing the inadequate business-as-usual solutions that make up the standard menu of government climate policies today.
As the scientists behind the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the spies of the National Intelligence Council have made abundantly clear, everything must change: our energy systems, our food systems, our transportation systems, and our welfare systems. Activist and author Naomi Klein has argued that ensuring a baseline of material security for people, especially a green jobs guarantee that could facilitate a just transition away from fossil fuels, is a critical part of coping with climate disruption. As she puts it, “the more secure people feel, knowing that their families will not want for food, medicine, and shelter, the less vulnerable they will be to the forces of racist demagoguery that will prey on the fears that invariably accompany times of great change.” Material security, she argues, can help us “address the crisis of empathy in a warming world.”
The income supports provided by the US and Canadian governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were highly effective, improving material security in ways that hadn’t been seen since the welfare state’s creation in the wake of World War II. But as Klein and others rightly insist, we cannot simply revive the social policies of the New Deal or COVID eras. Instead of looking back nostalgically to the twentieth-century welfare state, which was predicated on assumptions of limitless economic growth and ecological extraction and marred by racialized and gendered exclusions, we should aspire to a forward-looking vision of a state that provides security for all in a way that is sustainable, a state that is both decarbonized and democratic—what I like to call a solidarity state. Rooted in the collaborative ethos of the commons, a solidarity state aspires to both political and economic equality and a recognition of our fundamental interdependence, including our interdependence with the more-than-human world.
As Anishinaabe linguist and lawyer Lindsay Borrows has said, nature needs rights, but humans need a “bill of obligations.” Above all, we need the obligation not to take anything from nature unless we also take care to replenish it, so that we honour ecological limits. We now know where ignoring obligations and limits gets us: climate calamity and spiralling insecurity. But this is hardly a revelation. In the dialogue Critias, Plato laments land destroyed by mismanagement, describing the barren soil, absence of trees, and abandoned shrines where fresh springs used to be as “the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away.” The Sumerians, Romans, Mayans, and other ancient societies pushed past ecological limits, spawning instability and hastening civilizational collapse. To read accounts of the colonial era is to encounter settlers marvelling at their own destructive impact on the environment and sometimes planning the devastation outright. The difference today is that this destruction is now happening on a global scale.
Anthropocentric attempts to conquer the earth are always self-defeating. There is no way to conquer the world if we want to securely exist within it. We’ll never be the confident all-powerful alpha wolves of the animal kingdom that petro-masculinists want us to be—which is fitting, because the idea of alpha wolves is a misconception that came from studying animals in captivity. In the wild, there are no wolf hierarchies that the animals fight to climb.
The image of the natural world as an inclusive circle instead of an exclusive hierarchy is not rose-coloured romanticism; it is a more accurate reflection of the science that describes our reality, where we are embedded in an elaborate sustaining circle of life, non-life, and even semi-life. My father is a medicinal chemist whose research focuses on viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19. Viruses are microscopic sequences of DNA or RNA reliant on hijacking the energy of host cells to replicate; they inhabit a category-defying limbo, a strange grey zone between living and non-living, animate and not. What I see in my father’s work is less a drive for mastery than a sense of mystery. Viruses are hardly lovable, but my father has shown me they deserve our respect, even awe. The fact that our lives depend on biological and physical processes we can barely categorize, and complex dynamics we certainly do not command, should occasion wonder—and a large dose of humility. This humility is the ethos I associate with the good and generative capacities of insecurity, the kind that can help us be curious, connect, evolve, and maybe survive in a radically changing world.
I don’t have a blueprint for a society in which all of our problems are forever solved—no one does. I don’t believe in utopia, but I can imagine a more hopeful future where our problems get more interesting and complex—a complexity befitting the tangled and unpredictable world we live in. Instead of the dull and demoralizing questions we are faced with today—Should a handful of fossil fuel executives have licence to incinerate the planet?—we could aim to build a secure and sustainable society that will force us to grapple with far more compelling philosophical and practical riddles. If nature has rights, should invasive species have equal protections? Where does a watershed end if all ecosystems are interconnected? How can we make decisions and exercise sovereignty when our actions have global repercussions? How can we ensure freedom and dignity for everyone while respecting ecological limits? These are the sorts of questions worth pondering, and the answers are not readily apparent. But for all that is uncertain and unsettled, there is one thing I know for sure: the illusion of human security at nature’s expense cannot hold.
Adapted from The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart by Astra Taylor. Copyright © 2023 Astra Taylor. Published by House of Anansi Press.