Last week, author, photographer and Lamb of God vocalist Randy Blythe visited the Standing Rock camp in Cannonball, North Dakota. Below is his account of what he witnessed, who he met and what he learned.
The late afternoon sun was sinking towards the rolling hills of Morton County as I drove south on North Dakota Highway 6. My friend David and I had fallen uncharacteristically silent, our normally constant stream of inappropriate jokes and mutual ball-breaking at a standstill. As we stared at the beautiful countryside spread out before us, both lost in our private contemplation of what we were about to do, I turned down the Killing Joke In Dub album pulsing through the rental car stereo and looked to David.
"Bro. Right now, I have the same exact feeling I get when I am paddling out through rough breakers to ride bigger waves," I said. It's hard to convey precisely what that is to someone who doesn't surf, but basically it's an overwhelming, full-body visceral experience that combines eager anticipation, nervous energy, hyper-awareness of one's surroundings, and a driving feeling of singular purpose. Oh, yeah – and fear. Always a twinge of fear. Feeling a little fear is good from time to time; it doesn't stop you reaching the outside, but it reminds you to respect the seriousness of your situation. We were definitely heading towards a serious situation.
"We're going to be OK," he said. "I feel calm after praying yesterday. We are doing the right thing."
David is friend of mine and tribal member of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. He was accompanying me to Cannonball, North Dakota, a small community located in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. We were going to Oceti Sakowin, the largest of four camps erected alongside the Cannonball River in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed on land that the Sioux consider sacred. The Sioux say that construction of the pipeline will desecrate tribal burial sites, as well being concerned that the pipeline (which would carry half a million gallons of crude oil per day beneath the Missouri River) could burst and contaminate their primary water supply.
I had first gotten wind of the resistance to DAPL via social media, as there was (and still is) a shockingly small amount of coverage available via mainstream media outlets. The scattered news that does get reported seems shallow to me in light of such a large and historic gathering of people, and the voices of the indigenous people there are more often than not marginalized. I had been trying to find out what I could about Standing Rock over the last two months while touring with two different bands, and had become increasingly concerned the more I read up on the situation. There were stories of attack dogs and tear gas and rubber bullets, reporters being arrested, rumors of a media blackout and of supplies needed for the oncoming brutal North Dakota winter. Towards the end of tour, sitting in a Mexico City hotel room on the surreal evening of our brutal presidential election, I thought, "Jesus, I need to go catch some waves." After Clinton called Trump to concede victory, I took a break from election coverage to see if there was any news from Standing Rock, and in the process found out that our brand-new President-elect had personally invested money in the pipeline. "I need to go and see for myself what is happening there," I thought.
When I got home from tour on November 13th, I burned some frequent flyer miles and bought a ticket to Minneapolis, reserved a rental car, then spent the next week gathering supplies. I carried an old Army duffel stuffed with brand-new zero-degree sleeping bags and heavy wool army blankets from the local surplus store. My suitcase was crammed with more blankets, winter clothes, and 10 pounds of freshly roasted beans donated by Lamplighter, a local coffee shop I frequent. I began contacting Native friends of mine to see what on-the-ground information they had about Standing Rock; when I hit up David he decided to come along to represent his people. I flew to Minnesota on November 21st, we loaded our supplies and some firewood into the rental car, then left that night to try and beat a winter storm blowing in that evening. We made it as far as Fargo before stopping due to ice forming on the roads.
The next day we continued on deeper into North Dakota. As we drove, we discussed the importance of keeping our hearts free of anger, no matter what happened or what we saw. The camps at Standing Rock were first organized as Spirit Camps, places of prayer. We wanted to respect the original intent of the people who had set up the camps, even though the number of people there had swelled in size more than they could have ever foreseen. As well, the severity of the tactics used by law enforcement had increased. On Tuesday, November 20th, the night before we left on our trip, I began getting messages from concerned friends – videos of live social-media feeds were circulating showing water cannons being used on 400 people on a bridge in below-freezing temperatures. Clouds of tear gas filled the air, and people were being shot with bean-bag rounds and rubber bullets. A woman had been hit with a concussion grenade, mangling her arm and nearly blowing it off.
"This is where you're going," my buddy Kevin had texted me, along with a photo of the ongoing conflict on the bridge. "Tear gas and water cannons are being used." It angered me to see these things, but everything I had been able to find out about Standing Rock led me to believe that carrying that anger with me into the camps would be disrespectful, so before we left we made sure our motives were pure and our heads were clear and focused on the task ahead. We would go and bring supplies to the people, pay our respects to the elders there, and be a helpful presence in camp in whatever form that would take for the few days we would be there. Now was not the time for punk-rock shenanigans.
As we joined the short line of cars entering Oceti Sakowin through the north gate of the camp, we were met by a young Native security guard with a cast on his arm. "You here to camp?" he asked. Yep. "Do you have any guns, weapons, drugs or alcohol in the car?" Nope. "OK, brothers, come on in. Welcome home," he said. We drove down Flag Row, the main road cutting through camp lined with the flags of different Indian nations and headed towards the eastern end of camp, near a horse corral. We pitched our tent with the assistance of young man from Philadelphia named Jason. By the time we had figured out how to get our borrowed tent up, it was almost dark, and we were getting cold and hungry. We had brought food to cook and donate, but decided to see if there were any kitchens open so that we could eat and get some sleep. We walked back up to the security checkpoint and introduced ourselves to Baloo, the young man who had let us in earlier. We explained our situation and he said, "No problem, brothers. I'm in the Blackfoot camp, our kitchen is serving soon. We'll feed you." As he led us down a hill to his camp, David asked Baloo if he had hurt his arm on the bridge. "Yeah, man. I was getting blasted in the face by the water cannon for five hours up there," he said (I would later hear this confirmed by other members of camp security, who described Baloo as a solid guy). We ate a dinner of grilled burgers and hot soup at the Blackfoot camp, thanked them, then walked back to our tent to bundle up in our sleeping bags and crash.
Before sunrise the next morning, I was awakened by a deep voice blasting through a loudspeaker. "Wake up, Standing Rock! Wake up! Get up and pray, you are here for a reason! Wake up, my warriors and Sun Dancers! Wake up and pray! We are here to protect the water!" That was a refrain I would hear again and again during my time in camp: " We are here to pray and protect the water." The people at Standing Rock refer to themselves as water protectors, not protestors, and that is what the vast majority of them truly believe they are there to do – pray and protect the water. We rolled out of our sleeping bags, and I borrowed a shovel from the camp next door and dug a fire pit. While David cooked us a backstrap of venison for breakfast, we made our plan for the day.
All new campers were requested to attend one of two daily orientation meetings, so we decided to go to the 9 a.m. meeting after we ate. We finished our breakfast and walked to the center of camp where the orientation meeting would take place. Along the way, I heard someone call out my name. A young man named Cory introduced himself and asked if he could take a picture with me. Cory had come to Standing Rock with two of his classmates from Stanford. This young man, a student at one the world's most prestigious universities, was the first fan I met at Standing Rock. He was also Diné (Navajo). Both fans of heavy-metal bands like my own and Native Americans have often been stereotyped as violent, drunken, savages. And while there are indeed violent, drunken, savage people of all races and musical tastes, I did not meet any of them at Standing Rock. Furthermore, the fans I met there, both Native and non-Native, were without fail polite and well-spoken. They all expressed their gratitude to me for my presence, treated me with respect, and did not attempt to hog my time. This was my experience.
At orientation, we were split up into two groups of around 150 people each and listened to facilitators talk about the purpose of the camps and protocols to abide by while there. The two facilitators were both women, a Filipino New Yorker and a white Californian who got a bit too weepy and self-flagellating for my tastes. Aside from a few things specific to Native American culture that David already knew as an Ojibwe and that I had learned from hanging around Native friends (as sign of respect, bring a gift of tobacco if you wish to approach an elder; don't eat around, throw trash into, or take photos of sacred fires, etc.), the whole talk could have been boiled down to this: "This is an indigenous-centered prayer camp; we are guests here on Lakota land, so don't be an asshole. This isn't your home, so don't expect to be catered to or for people to clean up your mess. Act in a manner respectful of elders and to Native traditions and culture, which may be very different than your own. We are here for a purpose, not a holiday. Remain peaceful."
These things seemed to be almost childishly self-evident to me, but they obviously needed to be said, as I found out later when I saw some young people not getting up to offer elders their seats. I saw lots of heads bobbing in agreement, pained and sympathetic grimaces twisting up mouths when the historical and ongoing mistreatment of Natives was mentioned, and a general look of excitement in shiny eyes until one of the facilitators asked, "How many of you came prepared to participate in direct action?" About 15 of us raised our hands. "OK, you are required to attend direct-action training at 2 p.m.," she said. Then a Native man from California got up and gave an impassioned speech about the need to remain prayerful and non-violent. "Are you acting in a manner that would make your ancestors proud?" he asked. "Because they are watching us. We cannot see them, but they are always watching us." He was followed by a local Lakota man who said much the same thing, then a female Canadian First Nations elder began talking about how she was ashamed of how so much oil was coming from her country. She was speaking in such a low voice that I could barely make out what she was saying. David and I decided to leave, as the orientation had veered away from practical matters into emotion, and we wanted to find a way to be of use.
We went back to camp to decide where to distribute our supplies, and since the Blackfoot camp had fed us, we brought them one of our five-pound bags of coffee. The headman there thanked us heartily, and invited us back to eat with them anytime we wished. We tightened up our camp some more until it was time for direct-action training. The training was held in the northwest section of the camp, and was attended by around 200 people. The people leading the training began by stressing the fact that the protocols for direct action at Standing Rock were developed in conjunction with the local elders, and that people who had participated in acts of civil disobedience elsewhere should remember that there was a certain way things were to be done that might look different from what they were used to. Then two representatives from the camp's legal team spoke about what to expect if you were arrested (be prepared for anything, as there seemed to be no consistency with the way people had been treated by law enforcement), what to do (don't resist arrest and don't say anything other than name rank, rank and serial number) and who to call (the camp's legal department number, which should be written on your arm in Sharpie before attending any direct action). Then a medic demonstrated how to treat injuries from chemical weapons. After the medic spoke, a facilitator called for volunteers to act as water bearers and banner carriers. We all linked arms and formed a group around them, then began to move. The objective was move the group as a unit in a circle around the camp. As we moved, several camp staff members (including U.S. armed-forces veterans trained in crowd-policing actions) acted as cops, spraying us with teargas (water) from squirt battles, and attempting to drag people away from the group to "arrest" them. It wasn't easy maneuvering in such a large group without breaking ranks, and I could tell by the uncomfortable looks on some people's faces that they weren't used to being packed so tightly next to other humans. After spending the majority of my adult life in a touring band and attending more basement punk-rock shows than I can remember, it felt pretty normal to me.
After we had successfully reached our objective point, there was a debriefing session followed by an open discussion of what we thought had gone right with the mock action and what we could have done better. After some valid tactical points were made, the inevitable discussion of "feelings" that always seems to arise these days when there are too many opinionated young people gathered in one spot started up, and I was glad when the group facilitators ended the training – rubber bullets don't care about your feelings.
Afterwards, a young Native fan from Gallup, New Mexico, named Sabrina asked if she could take a picture with me and a Mni Wiconi banner, and I agreed. Some people around us began saying "No photos" until I said "No, it's OK." Taking photos of people in camp without permission was forbidden, so all the portraits I took while I was there were taken after I had been asked for a photo myself. Sabrina invited David and I back to her camp for dinner later, but regrettably we never found it – I was really looking forward to tasting the fry bread she said would be waiting for us.
After a dinner of jambalaya at the Blackfoot camp, David and I walked up to Facebook Hill, so named as it was one of the only places in camp where cell reception existed. Even there, it was spotty at best. I checked a few emails, then posted one photo to my Instagram account just to let people know I had arrived at Standing Rock safely. As soon as the post went up, my screen immediately went a blank gray color, and the phone stayed frozen. I did a hard reset, and the screen showed that my battery was completely drained before the phone completely died. I had had at least a 50-percent charge seconds before. At the training earlier, David and I had scoffed to ourselves when the legal team had mentioned that people's phones were acting bizarrely and that it wasn't an accident, brushing them off as conspiracy theorists. Now I wasn't so sure – I have been to many music festivals much larger than Standing Rock where getting service was impossible due to the amount of people using phones, but I had never had a phone do anything like mine was now. We went back to our tent, and before going to bed I plugged my phone into a rechargeable battery I had brought. The phone started right back up, the battery indicator showing half a charge. A bit of the old Big Brother paranoia rose up within me, and didn't leave until I had been back home a few days.
We were awakened on Thanksgiving morning by what had become our normal alarm clock – the man yelling into the PA from the center of camp, and the internal struggle over the need to pee versus the warmth of our sleeping bags. David broke first, getting up to head to the porta-potties, announcing "Well, at least it's snowing," as he unzipped our tent. I got dressed and made us some breakfast. As we sat in the gently falling snow enjoying our last few bites of scrambled eggs, a woman came ripping by our tents in a muddy SUV, yelling into a bullhorn.
"Attention! Possible invasion! Women and children to the center of camp immediately! All men to the north gate! Move! Now!"
"Well, I guess this is what we came here for," I said to David. We removed our camping knives from our belts, grabbed a few bottles of water, and began walking towards the gate. The peaceful mood of the morning was replaced by a palpable tension as people moved quickly up flag row. By the medic tent, David grabbed a few pairs of rubber gloves to protect our hands in case tear gas was deployed. I tied my bandana around my neck and gave David a neck warmer I had on to cover his face. As we passed by the sacred fire in the center of camp, we heard rumors that this was a false alarm, but people were still yelling over the PA about a possible invasion – no one seemed to know exactly what was happening. With so much confusion in the air, I decided to go scope the situation at the north gate out, and David said he would join me after checking on the elders. I walked out of the north gate and onto Highway 1806, starting for a large group of people gathered at the edge of Backwater Bridge, the site of Sunday night's conflict. There were Native security guards on the bridge, telling the people not to move forward any further. I stood there, looking across at the rows of concertina wire and all the police on the other side of the two-lane bridge. No one on either side seemed to be moving, so I climbed up the hill beside the bridge to see what I could. Soon I heard someone yelling, "They're building a bridge at Turtle Island! They need people there!" I looked to the far northeastern shore of the Cannonball River at the area known as Turtle Island, and saw a large group of people massing, perhaps half a mile away as the crow flies. I walked back down onto the edge of the bridge, and met a Native woman from Flagstaff named Vontrivia, who asked me for a picture. We talked briefly and took a few photos, then David appeared to check on me. We decided to head back into camp, and I walked over to Turtle Island.
As I headed toward the throng of people at Turtle Island, I heard singing, drumming, and chanting getting louder and and louder. I walked into the crowd of several hundred people gathered on the muddy river bank and saw two young men getting out of a canoe at the bottom of a steep hill on the opposite shore, perhaps 30 feet away. More people were loading into canoes, and over the next 15 minutes the group across from us grew from two to 50 people. The ridge line at the top of the hill became crowded with heavily armed police officers and men in tactical gear staring down at us. I saw rifles, grenade launchers, safety-orange shotguns, large pepper-spray canisters resembling fire extinguishers and a few water hoses that were rolled out. Hooded men with binoculars and video cameras walked the hilltop, filming and scanning our faces constantly. A burly young Native man walked up next to me and politely introduced himself in an even voice. Joseph, a Northern Arapaho/Pawnee mix, was a fan of my band working with the camp's security detail, and had been positioned to watch for agitators in the group across the river. As we talked, I saw his eyes moving across the crowd a stone's throw away. In the energy of the crowd, Joseph was a calming presence, and I was happy to have him beside me.
Suddenly a great cheer went up from the people to our left, and I saw a makeshift bridge constructed of wood, rope and Styrofoam being pushed across the river, several people riding on top. People began crossing over the flimsy looking bridge, which to my surprise stayed afloat. A policeman with a megaphone at the top of the ridge kept repeating, "The last thing we want today is a confrontation. Return across the river. Do not approach us, or we will have no choice but to view it as an act of aggression and will be forced to respond. We will start by using water." Except for one person I saw begin to charge up the hill (they were immediately and firmly stopped by two Native men), I did not witness anyone moving towards the police line at all, nor acting in any manner that I would construe as aggressive. A Native with a microphone repeatedly called over to us, "Brothers and sisters, know the risks of crossing over. Do not bring children. Remain in prayer. Remain peaceful. Do not antagonize the police. Peace is the only way this will work." I and all the people around me burst out laughing when the cop with the megaphone started yelling, "We see you putting on rubber gloves and mixing liquids into squirt bottles. This is an act of aggression." Rubber gloves and household squirt bottles constitute an act of aggression? What were we going to do, throw the gloves at them and challenge them to a long-distance water-gun duel?
The surgical gloves people were putting on were to protect their hands in case of tear gas. The liquids they were mixing were milk of magnesia and water, to flush eyes and mucous membranes, also in case of tear gas. We all could clearly see what people were doing from across the water, even without the benefit of the high-powered binoculars the cops had trained on us. While this ludicrous statement was initially funny to me, I began to see how it could quickly turn serious if the cops actually used these actions as justification to use force. It was eerie looking up at so many armed men, knowing that they could open fire on us at any time. As chants of "We have prayers, you have guns" broke out, I heard Joseph's radio crackle to life: "Watch the guy in the leather trench coat and motorcycle helmet." Sure enough I saw a man matching that description jumping wildly around across the shore in a way that just didn't look right to me. It's hard to explain, but his energy was all wrong; he didn't seem like he belonged. Joseph spotted him and said, "He's probably a DAPL agitator."
After about 45 minutes the group across the shore had grown to about three hundred people, all singing, dancing, and praying at the base of the hill. "I think I'm going to have to go across," I said to Joseph. "Yeah, I've been thinking the same thing," he said, "We have enough guys watching on this side of the river now." I looked at the river and thought It would be cold, but I could definitely swim that no problem if they opened fire. I thought about how my digital cameras would be ruined, and decided that although it would suck, I would get over it. I thought about tear gas and jail, both of which I have experienced and certainly haven't enjoyed, yet in that moment neither particularly scared me. Ironically, the only thing making me hesitate to cross was something requiring petroleum – the rental car. I was paying for the rental, but it was reserved in David's mother-in-law's name and on her credit card due to a reservation mix-up. If I went to jail, I would remain there through the weekend, and I had promised that we would have the car back on time and in good shape on Saturday. She had driven to the airport, met me for the first time, put her card down and rescued our trip on very short notice – I didn't want to break my promise to this kind woman. Joseph and I were almost right beside the bridge by this point, and I was thinking about how fast I would have to swim across the river to avoid arrest and hopefully avoid hospitalization for hypothermia in order to return the car on time when people began crossing back over to our side of the river. The elders had decided that the action was to be terminated before the police got too agitated.
"They see too many of us and they get scared, bro," Joseph said, "They get scared."
I had been standing in the cold mud for over an hour by this point, and my feet were frozen, even through my heavy boots. Joseph and I walked back to my camp, along the way meeting David, who was coming to check on me. We sat by our campfire for a bit, warming our feet and drinking coffee until Joseph invited us to dinner at his camp, where many of the security guards were staying. We went there and sat by their fire trading stories and jokes with members of the camp while the women finished preparing the evening's meal. One of Joseph's fellow security guards, a huge Cherokee from the mountains of Virginia, showed us some bean bags, rubber bullets and pepper spray rounds he had collected from Backwater Bridge after Sunday night's events. When a policeman had seen him picking them up and told him he was not allowed to take them as they were considered evidence at a crime scene, he performed a bit of sleight-of-hand, palmed them and walked away. I picked up the rounds and felt them. I didn't cut one open, but the bean bags felt as if they were stuffed with buckshot. Whatever they were filled with, they were definitely more than heavy enough to take out an eye or smash teeth, and I was grateful I hadn't been shot with one that day. I also saw video footage of a man standing in front of the water cannons, his arms spread out to the side like Christ, taking the freezing blasts face on. Joseph told me about seeing a small Asian woman getting dropped right in front of him by rubber bullets, then a cop running up and pepper-spraying her while she lay on the ground.
"It was pretty traumatizing to witness, bro. Someone got her out of there, but I don't know what happened to her after that," he said.
When the food was ready, we heard drumming begin inside their large green army tent and a Sioux man began singing a Lakota song. We all went inside, then some guests from another tribe took up the drum and sang in their language. Then the drum was passed to a group of Pawnee visitors, who sang three or four songs in their tongue. A plate was made and handed to a male elder, who said a beautiful and lengthy prayer over it, asking for blessings for all the people of the earth – this was the spirit plate, offered up to the ancestors. Then a plate was made for the matriarch of the tent, a beautiful grandmother in her late seventies. After Grandmother received her food, plates were made for the other elders. Then women and children got their food, followed by the men. As visitors, David and I waited until one of the women told us to hurry up or we would miss out on the ribs and fry bread they had made. The whole process of blessing the food with song and prayer took at least half an hour. In a tent in North Dakota, on a holiday that many Native Americans associate with colonization and the destruction of their way of life, I watched people receive their food with a level of gratitude and respect for those that prepared it that I have never witnessed at any Thanksgiving dinner, and they did this as a matter of course. There was no mention of any holiday or hurried recitations of a few things they were grateful for; they just gave thanks, and they did it with sincerity. It was awesome to be a part of it.
"I watched people receive their food with a level of gratitude and respect for those that prepared it that I have never witnessed at any Thanksgiving dinner."
After dinner there was more singing and dancing around the fire. A Paiute man from Pyramid Lake, Nevada (whom we determined was a cousin of some friends of mine there) sang beautifully until his voice was hoarse, and almost stopped until Grandmother came outside to dance. Others sang as well, both in Native languages and in English. Some of the songs included references to steamy texting and misleading social-media profile pictures. Native Americans are not magical creatures from some forgotten era; they are human beings living in the modern world just like anyone else. It seems ridiculous that I would feel compelled to make this point, but as a Native woman from Washington State relayed to me in speaking about conversations she had during the year she lived in Tyson's Corner in my home state of Virginia, some people weren't even aware that they still existed. "You're an Indian? I thought y'all were all extinct," she said in a pretty spot-on imitation of an Old Dominion drawl.
As we sat by the fire listening to the singing, the tension of the day's events had disappeared, and everyone was relaxed and in a good mood. A feeling of closeness and belonging hung in the air. "What do you think, bro?" Joseph asked me, "This is the beautiful side of the culture. It's something that most people never get to see." I agreed – it was beautiful, a great ending to a highly stressful day. After a while both David and I left for our camp, thanking everyone for the food and company.
Our final morning was the coldest one; ice covered the tent and the air outside was a balmy 17 degrees. We made breakfast, then began breaking down camp. Joseph and his girlfriend stopped by on the way to the nearby casino for breakfast, and we put in an order for cold sodas. When they returned, we loaded up their car with most of the items we had brought to donate. Joseph's camp had treated us extremely well, they were digging in for the winter, and we wanted our supplies to go to directly to people we knew would be there to use them. They drove the supplies over to their camp, then David and I carried two of the wool blankets and some sacks of tobacco directly to one of the elders he had met the first day we were there. It was the proper way to show respect, to thank a local for letting us visit his land. As we gave him our gifts, I told him the blankets were flame retardant, and he grinned a little and said, "Ah, good – now I won't catch on fire!" He was a funny old man.
We went back to our camp, finished breaking down, then went down to the river with David's abalone smudging shell, some sage, cedar, tobacco and sweet grass, and he prayed in the manner of his people. He passed the shell to me, I washed myself with the smoke, and I prayed in my own way too. I prayed for the people there at Standing Rock to be protected – all of the people, Native and non-Native, water protectors and DAPL employees, and, yes, even the police who had shot at the friends I had made. This was a grim situation, a lot of bad things had happened in that beautiful place, and a lot more could occur, but I never once heard anyone say, "These people are our enemies. Pray for us, not them." Maybe if everyone felt protected, then the violence could stop.
David and I left Standing Rock and went home to our friends and families. It had been a brief, but very intense trip. Both of us learned a lot during our time there, but I left with far more questions than answers. I didn't go there for answers anyway, nor was I embarking on some asinine spiritual journey to "find myself" while playing Indian. I went to bring supplies and show support for people that I believed were being treated with unnecessary force while peacefully protesting something they believed endangered their welfare. What is happening at Standing Rock is a reaction to the continued and systematic oppression of the indigenous people of our land. I am amazed at the level of restraint and commitment to nonviolence the overwhelming majority of these people have continued to display in such large numbers, and can only pray that everything remains as peaceful as possible. If the events occurring there were to happen in a major American city instead of way out on the edge of an isolated Indian reservation, there would be massive riots, and there is no question about that in my mind. There are other questions, though; hard questions that we need to start asking ourselves, all of us.
The most important one is this: Are we ready to stop screwing around and decide whether or not we are going to leave a world where human beings can survive in the future?
I am a touring musician who makes his living traveling around the world in vehicles powered by fossil fuels. I flew in a plane and drove a car to get to Standing Rock – this required fossil fuels. As I look at the area I write this, on a mere two-foot-by-three desktop, I see my computer monitor, wireless keyboard, a writing pen, a synthesizer, a lamp, a cell-phone charger – all of these things contain plastic, a substance most often constructed from petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel). These things were made then shipped to distribution centers in vehicles requiring fossil fuels. The clothes I am wearing and the glasses I see through contain fossil fuels. Even the surfboards I ride when I am in the ocean, communing with my favorite part of the natural world, are made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are pervasive in my life. They are in yours, too.
Fossil fuels are named such because they are derived from decaying plant and animal matter that once lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Fossil fuels are a finite, non-renewable resource. Humanity has the potential to reproduce and increase in size infinitely, at least until the sun burns itself out and our planet dies of natural cosmic causes. Finite supply meets infinite demand – what is the logical end result of this equation?
The supply is going to run out. So what will happen then? Will we take off in our spaceships and hope we can find some other planet suitable for raping? And how will we fuel those ships once we've drilled the earth dry?
Fossil fuels also pollute the ever-loving crap out of our planet. This is not a matter of debate. This year, smog in Los Angeles was at its highest level since 2009, with hospitals and clinics reporting increases in patients seeking treatment for respiratory illness associated with bad air quality. It's worse elsewhere – in Beijing, my eyes burned after one hour of arriving in the city, just from walking around the area near my hotel. Oil spills poison our waters, wiping out marine life.
The events at Standing Rock are a timely reminder that we are killing our planet, and it is the only one we have. We have to begin damage control now, and as one race start embracing clean energy alternatives. This will obviously not occur overnight, and the millions of hard-working people who feed their families by working in the fossil-fuel industry will need to be provided with a way to earn a living. It's going to take a lot of research by people a lot smarter than me, it's going to be very difficult, and it's going require some complex, forward-thinking actions during an uncomfortable transition period.
But we don't have a choice, do we?