November 2018

On the cover of the November 2018 issue of National Geographic is a rancher on his horse illuminated by a setting sun against the backdrop of dark clouds. Speaking of the Bears Ears landscape, he says, “It’s a diverse, iconic, some say a spiritual landscape.” The two cover articles come under the rubrick, “Battle for the American West.” The first one’s subtitle reads, “The new push to cut back protected land is fueling a dispute rooted in our history and culture.”

The two articles’ author, Hannah Nordhaus, characterizes in these terms the reactions to the Trump’s executive order – reactions which are all predictable, as they fall along a well-worn path of conflict in our nation:


“Drillers and miners, loggers and ranchers, face off against hikers and bikers, climbers and conservationists. It’s the Old West versus the New; the people whose livelihoods depend on extracting resources from the land versus those who visit and the businesses that serve them – and at Bears Ears, the Native Americans who were there first.”


We will get to this, but I first want to examine a particularly fascinating and instructive case study written by David Gessner for the Sept./Oct. issue of the Sierra Club magazine. The title is simple, “Land Grab,” and the first part is about what led to President Obama declaring in his last month in office the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.


The Story of Bears Ears National Monument

Land conservation and the national park movement in this country began with President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 bill creating Yellowstone National Park. It also got a great boost with the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 famously declaimed on the edge of the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.” He then added the following, “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Today as then, a group of people vehemently disagrees with land conservation. They are the developers, the ranchers, the entrepreneurs, and minors. They see dollar signs, but it’s all about short-term gain – for themselves. But that battle since Roosevelt’s days has only intensified of late. Gessner, standing in America’s newest national park at the end of January 2018, could feel the intense pressure to dramatically reduce its scope. He writes,


“We have entered another one of those periods where nothing feels safe, where everything is up for grabs. And it isn’t just land that is under threat; it’s the very law that was used to save much of that land in the first place.”


That law was the 1906 “Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities,” or the "Antiquities Act" for short. Sponsored by Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, who was a bird lover and an admirer of pre-Columbian artifacts, the Act aimed to save “historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest.” But it also granted the American president broad discretion to name new monuments without consulting Congress, which Roosevelt set out to do with glee as soon as it passed.

True, it was enacted mostly to keep Native American heritage sites from being looted, but Roosevelt resented the way Congress “had impeded his larger vision of protecting grand swaths of land from development.” His first successful act was to designate 800,000 acres as the Grand Canyon National Monument (later turned into the first “National Park” by Congress).

Bears Ears is exactly the kind of site John F. Lacey wanted to preserve – an area sparsely populated but full of cultural and religious significance for Native Americans. In fact, a few years back a Navaho group calling itself Utah Diné Bikéyah (“people’s sacred land”) started to survey and map the Bears Ears region (named after its twin buttes seen from miles around). They documented over 100,000 Native American sites and successfully secured the collaboration of four other Nations. Together they joined to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (Navaho, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute).

It may sound like a romantic Kumbaya moment, but in fact several of these tribes had been in the process of suing one another over land and water issues. Yet, however intense and angry some of those first meetings were, a consensus soon emerged as they began to see a dramatic victory for Native rights on the horizon. Gressner managed to interview the woman who almost single-handedly made it happen. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Ute nation, ably led the charge, commanding the respect of the tribes and of the various environmental groups now throwing in their weight. She then was delegated to represent them all in Washington, speaking to Congress and meeting personally with President Obama.

Naturally, after President Obama's proclamation of the Monument, Lopez-Whiteskunk was elated, “I was being taken seriously and being part of the conversation and lending my Indigenous knowledge and expertise. I really felt a part of the country. A part of the democratic process.” But tribes far beyond the Bears Ears coalition rejoiced as well. As Gessner puts it, “For the first time, traditional knowledge and a Native view of the land would be integrated into a national monument from its inception.”


The Empire Strikes Back

No, this isn’t Star Wars, but if you mean by “empire” the constellation of business interests within the energy industry, then parallels pop up immediately. Before David Gessner left the Grand Canyon to head out to Bears Ears, he decided to see Canyon Mine for himself, just ten miles southeast of the Tusayan entrance. A Canadian company called Energy Fuels owns and runs the enterprise. As he was driving there, Gessner spotted a number of “the failed uranium mines on the mesa walls” in Monument Valley. Teddy Roosevelt would have pointed this out as a good example of man “marring” a pristine landscape.

Gessner was eager to visit Canyon Mine for two reasons. It’s the company that owns the only uranium mill so far in the country, Utah’s White Mesa Mill. It’s also “the same company whose executives tagged along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he toured Bears Ears in late Spring 2017, and the same company that provided Zinke with area maps detailing the 300 uranium-mining claims inside the Obama-designated monument – the very same 300 claims conveniently left outside the newly drawn boundaries.” Note too that the new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, had worked for a time as a lobbyist for Energy Fuels. You can see where all this is going …

Clearly, the uranium industry invested considerable sums to lobby Ryan Zinke’s office in order to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Additionally, Gessner poured over publicly released emails from the Interior Department, which showed that the Bears Ears reduction was about tapping into potential gas and oil reserves and the Grand Staircase-Escalante reduction sought to exploit coal reserves. The energy industry had obviously been on high alert as soon as the results of the 2016 elections were announced.

Now back to the uranium industry. In 2010 a US Geological Survey report found that uranium mining around the Grand Canyon “had contaminated 15 springs and five wells in the region, and ... the Havasupai Tribe, which lives inside the canyon, worried that Havasupai Creek, its one source of drinking water, could be jeopardized if additional mining were to begin.” On that basis the Obama administration placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area. But that is changing under the current administration.


Public lands and the Native peoples

This blog post, as it highlights the seemingly perpetual clash between the notion of common good (as in “public lands” and “nature”) and the rich barons of the energy industry, circles back to the theme announced in the first part, namely, the commodification of the commons. We saw how the movement to privatize public education was eroding the American ideals of equality – economic opportunity for all and racial reconciliation. Of course there is a place for private schools, either for religious purposes (a good thing) or for the rich to prepare their kids for the elite colleges (a concession to capitalism). But when scarce funding for public schools is diverted to the private sector, we have a “commodification of the commons” that becomes culpable and egregious.

I am arguing here that the 85% reduction of Bears Ears and 46% reduction of the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante to satisfy the greed or uranium, oil, gas, and coal magnates are equally unconscionable.

Another reason to strongly oppose the Bears Ears National Monument’s gutting, however, is that it violates the sacred land of the Native tribes. Just think, most of those 100,000 Native artifacts will again be easily looted or defaced by unscrupulous tourists and the historical compact of those five Indian Nations has been compromised. I sincerely hope that the lawsuits now threading their way through the justice system will restore these lands to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. In Gessner’s words, here’s what’s at stake:


“Listening to Lopez-Whiteskunk describe her coalition’s use of the Antiquities Act, I began to see that what had evolved in the creation of Bears Ears was not just inspiring; it was original. Here was a confluence of the Indigenous ideals of respect, worship, and knowledge of the land and the revolutionary European American notion of public lands. That latter ideal, despite its flaws, really was one of the best things this country has ever done. Now, conjoined with the work of Native peoples, it had been given new life. Imagine: a national monument where traditional knowledge directs land management, a place where ancient artifacts are considered not objects of mere archeology but living history.”


In closing I urge you to view the slideshow of those ancient petroglyphs and pictographs (images carved and painted onto rock) from some of the caves and rock faces of Bears Ears in the National Geographic article by Hannah Nordhaus. They give witness to “a succession of prehistoric cultures [which] occupied the mesas and canyons of southern Utah for more than 12,000 years.

Finally, the rich heritage of American Indigenous cultures, including their religious worldviews and practices, reminds us of the sordid history of how we dispossessed them, “ethnically cleansed” them, and continue to oppress them in more subtle ways (see my 2017 2-part blog post, “Theological Reflections on the Fourth World”). Restoring the Bears Ears National Monument would represent a small but important gesture of honoring their contribution to who we are or could be as a nation. Though we can see some positive signs of that recognition in American society today, much work remains.

Need I say this again? The Creator established us human beings as his trustees or stewards of this good earth he provided for us. To Him we will give an account. Managing natural resources wisely and equitably, setting aside large swaths of breathtakingly beautiful lands for all to enjoy, and especially in this case paying respect and honor to those who lived in harmony with this land for millennia – all this is surely a way to discharge our sacred Trust. In this sense, the “commons” are sacred and should never be casually commodified.

I begin here a two-part blog post that revisits a theme I raised in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: the strong propensity since at least the 1970s of those with power, be they multinational corporations, rich individuals, or some governments, to privatize goods that should belong to the wider public, or the “common good.”

I want to end up next time in the American West, where President Trump has shrunk two recent collections of public lands in Utah – the Bears Ears National Monument (1.35 million acres, created by President Obama in his last month in office) by 85% and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (almost 1.9 million acres, created by President Clinton in 1996) by 46%. Five lawsuits challenged this move and are still pending.

But that story we will follow in the second installment of this piece, and especially the key role a coalition of five Native American nations played for the first time in lobbying an American president to designate their ancestral lands as a national monument. In this first part I want to paint a much wider landscape in space and time. I mean to expose a six-century-old rapacious colonial movement that not only plundered the lands of native populations in South, Central and North America while decimating millions of their people, but also laying the foundations of corporate structures that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor in our country and around the world.


The two walls of social injustice and environmental degradation

In the first four chapters of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text I set the stage for the kind of Muslim-Christian dialog and cooperation that is needed in the twenty-first century. I did so by arguing for a particular conception of our time as “postmodern,” which comprises both “postmodernity” and “postmodernism.” I followed historian Arthur Mitzman’s thesis in this last book, Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), to describe postmodernity as a set of power configurations in the contemporary world, which portend an ominous future for humankind.

In modern times, the myth of Prometheus was interpreted as the victory of the industrialized world over nature. Mitzman begs to disagree. That hubris of modern man has sent us careening like a speeding car out of control which is now about to crash into the two walls of postmodernity: the one just mentioned, the wall of rising economic inequality and injustice, and then the wall of climate change and pollution of our planet. We’d better go back to another more venerable interpretation of that myth, he says, one which many European Romantics in the nineteenth century saw as a symbiosis of man with nature.

As for the first wall, we now know that the Nixon administration colluded with the Saudis and Iranians to drive up the price of oil in 1973. A resulting glut of dollars on the international financial exchange threatened to bring down the international financial system put in place by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 which used gold as the final guarantee of the system’s solvency, whether in individual nations or in the international financial institutions as a whole. This allowed the US to impose its solution, which was to use dollars as the currency of international exchange, which certainly helped to boost its power in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

William Greider in his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening paths to a Moral Economy (Simon & Schuster), shows how that new system rendered capital “abstracted and etherealized, mystified by dense mathematical calculation and accounting definitions, invested with unknowable intangible qualities like corporate ‘goodwill’” (p. 95). This could read as prophetic: the “Great Depression” sent the world economy reeling just four years after these lines were written precisely because all these increasingly complex financial instruments were hiding enormous quantities of bad loans.

It’s not clear in 2018 that all the safeguards have actually been put into place in order to avoid the onslaught of another financial meltdown, which once again will further enrich thousands of wealthy one-percenters and devastate the middle and lower classes. In fact, the rate of inequality between these classes has only widened over the years and shows no signs of abating (see this Aug. 2018 graphic piece in

Enough said about the wall of neoliberal capitalism, which fifteen years after Mitzman’s book, may be even more formidable in light of the recent rise of authoritarian regimes in different parts of the world (think Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, etc.). In turn, this only reinforces the already expanding influence of China and Russia and their totalitarian regimes. Now, ironically, should the world economy still largely based on the dollar crumble, the potential of a global conflagration is just waiting at the door.

No need here to go in any detail about the second wall Mitzman foresaw – environmental disaster. Besides the poisoning of the air and water in many parts of the world, it’s the mega cities of the developing world that suffer the most. This article based on a study of the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that nine out of the ten most polluted cities are in India. In eighth place is Bamenda, Cameroon. But much worse for humanity in the long term is the dramatic warming of the planet due to the excessive production of greenhouse gases. And that is something I’ve written a great deal about in this website (see my 2018 post, “Rising Tides”).

I’ll simply quote myself in closing this section. You can read the wider context of this argument, which represents the lion’s share of my first chapter. I just posted in Resources.


“What is needed is a holistic vision that jettisons the fetishism of growth inherited from modernity and encompasses the aspirations of Third World peasants, native peoples and the urban poor, as well as the majority of working and middle class people in other countries. This vision will have to focus on a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.”


Privatizing state institutions

I am not a socialist. My nine years in Algeria taught me how wrong it is for a state (especially one controlled by only one political party!) to monopolize all the major industries. For one thing, they are very inefficient and poorly managed; for another, they spawn rampant corruption, all in favor of the ruling elites who already control the country politically. A very bad idea.

My experience in Algeria from the late 1970s through the 1980s was constant shortages of basic foodstuffs, a nightmarish bureaucracy to contend with at every corner, and an economy that would never have survived hadn’t Algeria been rich in oil and natural gas.

I get it. Free enterprise allows lots of people to create wealth for themselves and others. Capitalism can be a blessing, as long as the state can set some ground rules that level the playing field and curb the human inclination toward greed and the exploitation of others. After all, the American Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But how do you ensure that a modicum of “equality” is maintained?

Indeed, this vision leaves a lot of leeway as to how it might be translated into public policy. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) lists a number of rights, including work, education, and social security, as well as the basic freedoms of conscience and religion. And after the enumeration of these rights, Article 28 says, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This formula set the framework for much subsequent work in crafting various international covenants, the sum total of which represents the body of “international law.”

Now, moving back to the national level, each state is free to institute its own legal structures. Part of Article 29 reads, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

This simply means that the state must enact laws that maintain a balance between freedom, equality, justice, and morality. I am free, yes, but my freedom must not infringe upon my neighbor’s freedom. Equality also means that certain goods are deemed public goods, worthy of being protected for the good of all citizens, rich or poor, from whatever religious, racial, or ethnic background they may come from. Clean air and water, parks all can enjoy, but also schools which prepare children and youth to become active citizens who will then be able to contribute to the good of society while earning a decent living through their work.

So I end with an example of what I find goes against these principles of justice and equality among citizens – something I see as a “commodification of the commons.” In the next installment, I’ll mention how under the president’s directives Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, has made it his mission to shrink public lands and make the rest available to private business interests, mostly energy companies. Here I highlight Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who is doing everything in her power to privatize public education. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post introduces an excellent background article on this by Joanne Barkan, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Story of Privatizing Public Education in the USA,” in these words:


“We now have an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is admittedly doing everything she can to promote alternatives to traditional publicly funded education. Many state legislatures are helping her with programs using taxpayer money to fund private and religious education. Supporters of America’s public education system are concerned about what they say is an assault on the most important civic institution in the country.”


The history of public education in America is fascinating. I will summarize it in three movements:

1. Starting in the nineteenth century, and particularly in view of a growing immigrant population, a consensus quickly grew in the US that government should fund and manage an educational process that would “impart general knowledge and practical skills, prepare young people psychologically and socially for self-sufficient adult lives, educate for democratic citizenship, unify a diverse population, and create opportunity for upward mobility.” Education is a democratic right, and in turn it is a necessary building block of democracy.

2. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “unequal” and therefore “unconstitutional.” Despite much opposition, the role of the federal government expanded “to include protecting the civil rights of all students and offering financial assistance to public schools with high percentages of low-income students.”

3. The 1980s witnessed the dramatic ascendancy of the neoliberal ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: allow market forces to foster competition and everything will be run more efficiently, from schools to healthcare, to the economy as a whole. In practice then, neoliberalism meant cutting taxes and government spending, and transferring as much as possible to the private sector. The neoliberal economist, Milton Friedman, had the ear of President Reagan, and unwittingly became the founder of the ed-reform movement that gained advocates on both sides of the aisle, though often for different reasons.

Two instruments epitomize this neoliberal, market-driven approach: vouchers and charter schools. Reagan made several unsuccessful attempts to pass laws favoring educational vouchers. To this day, however, the term has taken on negative connotations, so politicians had to find other formulations to transfer government funding into the private sector. Here is how it works:


“When students receive a government-funded voucher for a set amount of money, they give the voucher to a private or religious school as payment or partial payment for tuition. All of the taxpayer funds that end up in private and religious schools are funds no longer available for public education.”


By contrast, the private administrators of charter schools receive government funding for each student enrolled in their school. But again, this comes with the same catch: “The allotments are transferred directly from district schools to the charter schools, shrinking the district public school budgets. The public schools are left with the same fixed expenses but fewer students and therefore less money coming in.” Those public schools, therefore, deteriorate.

Barkan lists 67 sources after her article. This is serious research. One of the striking findings is that charter schools generally underperform, even after sending special needs and difficult students back to the public school system. The same can be said of the voucher system that is operative is 30 states and the District of Columbia. Here are two examples:


“In late 2015, researchers reported that Indiana’s “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in math and no improvement in reading. In June 2016, a study of a large Ohio voucher program, published by the pro-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found: “The students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…. Such impacts also appear to persist over time….”


Barkan also documents the frequent occurrence of corruption in these schools, mostly because there is little or no accountability to the district or the state. These are for-profit organizations eager to tap into the nearly $600 billion earmarked by the federal government for K-12 education! But perhaps the greatest drawback of these schools is this: “they increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.” African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to attend a charter school, which on average is 90 percent black. Unsurprisingly, the largest and best-known African American ed-reform organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, shut down in 2017. Already the year before, the NAACP issued “a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.”


Revitalizing the Commons

Clearly, unleashing the power of the free market with all the deregulation that entails is no panacea for building a more prosperous and just society. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, invested his half-a-billion-dollar inheritance in founding the Blackwater corporation which was responsible for the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, forcing him to resign two years later. So you see, Betsy wants to privatize education, while Erik seeks to privatize the army. But as this fascinating article reveals, “Erik Prince is all over the map – literally.” Prince has his share of detractors, however: He has been questioned in the ongoing Mueller investigation regarding his ties to Russia; he and his mercenaries have conferred with the Saudis to assassinate top Iranian leaders; long before that too, Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2011 where he was hired to train their army.

I will stop here with this reminder: to revitalize the commons also means holding on to a holistic vision which calls for “a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.

Published in Resources

This is most of the first chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. What is missing here is in the first part of the document also posted in "Resources" entitled “Excerpts on the Fourth World from Earth, Empire, and Sacred Text.”