I recently finished taking an Ethnoecology summer course at the University of Victoria. At the beginning of the course, we were divided into groups of three, and each group was assigned to a hunter-gatherer tribe or community that was being exploited by governments or corporations, or both. Each person in the groups was designated a different viewpoint from which to argue – Indigenous, Environmental, or Corporate. As the class was an environmental studies class, no one wanted to be corporate, including myself, but the lottery wasn’t kind. I was the corporate rep for governmental-oil conglomerates in Western Siberia, where the Khanty people traditionally make their home.
As a corporate representative for the class debate project, it was my job to provide a rationale for corporate resource extraction, justify the annihilation of the Khanty’s cultural diversity, explain of the ideologies that govern modern global economic convention, and give solid reasons for the unrestrained liquidation of social and ecological capital for short-term economic capital.
The Khanty people are hunter-gatherers – taciturn, concentrated, quiet, thoughtful and industrious. The bulk of the Khanty population occupies the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug, or Khantia-Mansia, which is a federal subject of Russia. The traditional mainstay of the Khanty economy was hunting, which was not merely a means of sustenance, but an inextricably vital link to the development and maintenance of their way of life and culture. Indeed, images of hunting and fishing are extremely important to the culture and all hunting equipment, which was personally manufactured, was considered as the same substance as the person using the artifact. Aside from hunting animals for sustenance such as bear, moose, and wild reindeer, animals such as badger, fox and sable were hunted for fur. The Khanty also fished and gathered berries and mushrooms for sustenance. They lived in small groups separated by hundreds of miles in order to reduce the amount of environmental degradation. Like many other hunter-gatherer cultures, the Khanty worshipped and lived in balance with nature, as their livelihood was interconnected with the wilderness around them.
According the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug website, the majority of the oil produced in Russia comes from Khantia-Mansia, making the region of critical economic importance, both globally and nationally. According to numerous sources Khantia-Mansia is an ecological disaster area caused especially by intensive oil and gas extraction which began Western Siberia with Soviet drilling and has continued today. Khanty diet has deteriorated, diseases are spreading, the rate of homicide, suicide, and alcoholism is growing, the natural resources are declining, and the Khanty language, traditional culture and way of life are disappearing all in the name of short term corporate profit. In order to look at the issues surrounding resource extraction in Khantia-Mansia using from the corporate representative viewpoint, I had to familiarize myself with conventional corporate ideology. This wasn’t too hard, as it has been widely addressed.
As demonstrated by The Corporation, a Canadian documentary film, corporations, as legal persons, fully meet the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath. They feel no guilt, are self-interested, amoral, callous, deceitful, and anti-social. They breach social, legal, and environmental standards by ignoring, or externalizing, environmental and social damages in order to maximally profit from resource extraction, manufacturing, production and consumption, all the while masquerading as altruistic, empathetic and responsible.
The reason for this is can be demonstrated by what the American working-class press from the 1850’s called “…the new spirit of the age, gain wealth, forgetting all but sel." That is, corporations and people are supposed to be rational wealth accumulators, each acting as an individual to maximize their own wealth in the market. Caring for the environment or people (like the Khanty, who depend on pristine natural conditions) is out of the question because corporations are legally mandated to maximize profit. If corporations pay for the external damage they cause – not only environmental, but also social – then profit will not be maximized, and they will be held legally accountable. Furthermore, as Jim Harding demonstrates in his book Canada’s Deadly Secret, corporations are often not held legally accountable for breaking laws, or causing illegal damage, and so have limited motivation to uphold societal and environmental values when they will be punished for doing so.
The people most harmed externalizing environmental and social costs are often future generations and people who rely on intact ecosystems for subsistence, both of whom usually have very little say in corporate decision-making. Any corporate CEO that worries about anyone or anything but maximizing profit is being irrational because what the CEO is supposed to do is maximize the shareholder’s short-term interests, usually measured by wealth. Nothing else matters. So destroying the environment and disregarding the indigenous peoples and their unique and vibrant culture and ignoring the needs of future generations are rational policies based on global economic convention, but within a framework of institutional lunacy.
This is all despite the fact that corporate decisions result in a negative external affect on CEO’s or the shareholders. For example, weapons of mass destruction are described in the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto as endangering all of humanity. Jim Harding outlines how uranium mining in Saskatchewan results in high-grade uranium ore, which, after used in nuclear reactors, is either contained in inadequate storage facilities, or it is sold in the nuclear weapons market. Despite the massive environmental implications and potential of a global nuclear holocaust, some powerful corporations and governments continue to support uranium mining to this very day, leading to increased proliferation and the possibility of ultimate doom as stated in Noam Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival. It was this dishonest framework, which regards the suffering others and even the suffering of the self with a sort of determined apathy, that I turned to the situation in Khantia-Mansia.
As a corporate representative, I can say that Survival International, a well-known human rights organization formed in 1969 that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal peoples, states on their website that the oil companies are a necessary factor in the survival of the Khanty. This statement portrays the corporation as a natural feature in the Khanty life way.
Of course, I neglect to mention that it was the corporations who degraded the Khanty life way and thus forced them to become dependent on the material wealth provided by advanced industrial societies, thus creating the conditions whereby the Khanty were basically economically enslaved. Such creative omissions are actually not lying, but just an example of dishonesty that can be used to make the corporations appear to be humanitarian in order to sustain whatever action they are undertaking. To the unfamiliar reader it may seem as though the oil companies would be doing the Khanty people a grave disservice by leaving them to their own devices, thus falsely legitimizing their presence.
Some oil companies appear to actually be truly helping the Khanty. According to its company website, LUKoil is making a substantial effort to support the indigenous people in Khanty-Mansia. It admits that exploration for oil and gas production and aggressive exploration of the subsoil may have a negative impact on reindeer breeding, hunting and fishing. It claims to promote relations during meetings of the management with representatives of the North Indigenous minority Population Assembly, heads of municipal entities and directly with indigenous peoples. It also signed agreements with public organizations such as “Save Yugra” and “Yamal for Future Generations.”
Also, according to Andrew Wiget of the New Mexico Heritage Center, in exchange for exploration and drilling rights, the Khanty were promised new winter and summer houses, snowmobiles and two tons of gas per year, 100,000 rubles per person per economic quarter, new clothes, paid university education, radio-telephone and electricity, and access to the very affordable company grocery store. Furthermore, decisions about taking mineral exploration are made by the okrug administration, in conjunction with the regional administration, after getting written consent for this taking from the landowner and positive results from the referendum of the Khanty and state environmental approval. This illustrates the participatory approach of exploring for oil reserves.
Once again, the dutiful corporate representative would omit that the items promised were rarely delivered on time, or not delivered at all. Sometimes these land deals were precluded by the gift of a bottle of vodka to the Khanty landowner, which had a definite affect on their judgment. Also ignored were claims that there are, “…recorded instances of licenses for exploration, territories being defined for tender, and territories being offered for tender, without the informed consent or even prior knowledge of the resident Khanty."
If none of this is mentioned, however, and the audience is unfamiliar with the situation, a premise of legitimacy is falsely established. From that I can argue that if indeed the indigenous way of life was so rich and sustaining, then why would the Khanty forsake their traditional hunter-gatherer ways other than for the realization of luxury and convenience provided by the material wealth introduced by the oil companies? In conversation with Phil Donahue, Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, said that, “In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from… grinding poverty are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that, so that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear; there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed in a free enterprise system.”
This is exactly what is happening in Khantia-Mansia – the people are finally receiving the full benefits that civilization has to offer, replacing their cold, hard life of ceaseless labour and foraging in the wilderness with one of participation in the wider economy that results in comfort provided by safe, warm housing and readily available food, health provided by hospitals and modern medicine, and education and fulfillment provided by local schools.
It is worth noting that their participation in the wider economy was forced upon the Khanty through relocation, the murder of their shamans, and forced education as they attempted to deal with soil, water and air pollution which led to the wholesale destruction of their life way – the usual colonial combinations. Alcoholism and increased suicide rates are two tangible results of the lying, stealing and selfishness of the government during the Communist years, which was immediately taken up by Russian government and international corporations today. Khanty ties to the land were severed, rendering their traditions, culture and religion were disregarded in the face of economic profit. The land was no longer valued as nutritionally, culturally, ecologically spiritually, and socially (which is to say, holistically) important – it was only of economic importance.
This provides an illustration of one of the greatest shortcomings of modern economics, and many modern sciences – the dangerous tendency towards reductionism. To focus and place value on only one constituent part is to lose sight and disregard the value of not only the other constituent parts, but also their interactions, leads to a situation where the system as a whole is never taken into account, much less valued. It is this narrow-minded approach that has resulted in the scenario chillingly described by David Orr:
“If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre per second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.”
Orr explains that everything everyone depends on for future health is in jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience, productivity and presence of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity. Everything is being sacrificed for the endless growth of development fueled by the endless pursuit short term corporate profit. In the words of my favourite misanthropic environmentalist Edward Abbey, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
The Khanty, and many other hunter-gatherer peoples, were actually able to live sustainably on their lands for many generations – their concerns about growth were likely focused on the growth of plants, animals, and children. They did not seek to remove themselves from the consequences of their actions by passing on external costs to future generations as do modern economics. They sought, and in many ways achieved, integration into the larger ecological systems as they realized that they simply could not survive without respecting the land.
It does not take an intellectual leap of faith to recognize that everyone on the earth ultimately depends on viable, functioning ecosystems for their wellbeing. These ecosystems provide innumerable and invaluable services to all of humanity. I believe that we are on the cusp on one of the greatest calamities the beings on this planet have ever faced. David Orr’s description of a typical day on earth provides an illustration of the huge forces at work – destructive forces that are unleashed by corporate and governmental entities backed by the violently ignorant ideologies of modern economic convention.
This class project taught me a lot about the corporate point of view, and gave me some great insight in how to invalidate the main arguments underpinning most contemporary economic activity. It also demonstrated how instrumental the survival of the First Peoples of the world may be to the survival of the planet as a whole. With regards to environmental problems, I have yet to see anywhere in the mainstream media focus on anything other than partisan politics, technological fixes, and retroactive solutions. The sources of these problems –the endless pursuit of economic growth, and the disregard of people and ecosystems – are not being addressed. There must be an ideological shift from a short-sighted, cancerous lust for profit to a long-term, more gentle respect of all living things.
The unconventional, involved, and highly respectful traditional practices and ways-of-doing that characterizes the lives of hunter-gatherers such as the Khanty can provide real, sustainable ways of living that have withstood the test of time. As the land upon which they depend is degraded the people are assimilated, or disappear, or their land changes so much that they can no longer practice their traditions, and their Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom (TEKW) disappears as well. It is, of course, up to the First Peoples to determine whether or not they wish to share their knowledge, and with whom, to ensure that their TEKW is used in the manner it was given – with careful understanding and respect. TEKW held by people like the Khanty could prove to be one of the determining factors that will help bring about a global cognitive shift – a shift that is necessary if humanity has any desire for decent survival in the future.