Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reflections on the Dedication of the Confluence Field Station: National Great Rivers Research and Education Center

Reflections offered by Mark Gorman at the October 26 dedication of the Confluence Field Station: National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, named for U.S. Representative Jerry Costello (D-IL-12th):

Three months ago, you may recall, twenty percent of Pakistan lay beneath the waters of the Indus River; a River that beforehand had been largely held in check by hundreds of miles of levees and an extensive dam system; in check, that is, until what U.N. officials call the worst natural disaster ever to hit that region drove the River beyond its levees and over or through its dams, forcing millions to flee and adding desperation to millions more already needing relief.  And as this was all happening, 40-year-old Pakistani taxi driver Bakht Zada wondered aloud, "If this is not God’s wrath, what is?" as he watched his livelihood, and his history and his culture all rush downstream into the Indian Ocean.

What we now know all too well is that the flooding and desperation and desolation were not the wrath of a vengeful God but the direct result of frequently well-intentioned but typically misguided attempts to tame a River, exploit its resources and develop its floodplains - all hampering the valley’s natural resiliency and thwarting an innate human capacity to adapt and survive.   And all compounded by a climate running amuck at our own hands.

Here’s what I believe is happening that directly and increasingly contributes to catastrophes like that in Pakistan; making it increasingly difficult – if not impossible - to find a path forward toward economic and environmental sustainability.  Happening not just in the Indus River valley, but in other Great River regions around the world, very importantly right here in the Mississippi River valley, and in Washington DC. We are divided into two camps.  Put most simply, they are “yours” and “mine.”  Now, you may have heard them referred to in other terms: urban and rural, farm and city, business and environmental, young or elderly, immigrant or resident, liberal and conservative, blue and red, Democrat or Republican.  The specific labels don’t matter.  Because in the end it always comes down to yours and mine.

The Bakiga people inhabit the mountains and valleys around Lake Victoria in what is today Uganda - at the very headwaters of another great river - the Nile.  Over hundreds of generations, their ties to the land and water and each other have informed an ancient wisdom strikingly opposed to the “yours and mine” mentality sweeping much of the world: "united jaws crush the bone.” 

Centers of study and innovation such as this reflect that ancient wisdom; a wisdom that teaches that it’s never been yours and mine.  It’s not you and me.  It’s ours and us.  All are connected.  Everything is connected.  Everywhere there are connections. 

What the people of the Nile valley learned so many generations ago and what this place and its people embody is that neither you nor I are right or wrong; good or bad; evil or moral; friend or enemy.  We’re just different.  In each place we speak different jargons, hold different customs, connect differently, interact with government differently, relate to nature differently – it’s just who we are and what we do as blessedly assorted human beings.  And the solutions that may work very well in one river town or on one farm might not work so well in another.  And the only way to really determine what will work and what might not is to listen to people where they live and work and play.  Right here - along the banks of the Mississippi River – in this place.

What we will discover here is that we have everything to learn and nothing to fear from each other.  We will find here that division of opinion, when embraced honestly, is what animates thinking and rouses creativity.  We will discover here that the irrational fears keeping us apart – keeping us from solving tough but very solvable problems - are, in the end, simply fear of losing control - control of things we really have no control over to begin with.  Just ask the people of Pakistan who tried to control the Indus River.  Or the residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, who hoped and prayed that the levees would hold.  Or the people of this River valley, who watch each spring as the Mississippi flows into their homes and streets and farms.

This special place will provide the room and help carve out the time we desperately need to listen to each other.  To listen to downtown store owners who can’t maintain their businesses; listen to municipal officials whose tax bases are eroding and to farmers whose soils and livelihoods are washing away; listen to the scientists who tell us this valley is a unique, global treasure; listen to the region’s workers and their families who can’t make ends meet; meet with artists, talk to politicians, speak to industry leaders, join with teachers, pay attention to the children and the poor and our elders, because everyone is a member of the economic and ecological quilt that forms the Mississippi River valley, and all have a part to play in its conservation.

The good people working here and all of us gathered here and the “all of us” beyond these walls had better make sure that this listening and understanding and cooperation and innovation come to pass; before 40-year-old taxi drivers and 22-year-old mothers and 5-year-old children and 60-year-old shopkeepers, and you and I, just like Bakht Zada watch as our livelihoods, and histories and cultures wash figuratively, if not literally, downstream into the Gulf of Mexico.

“United jaws crush the bone,” ancient wisdom teaches.  May we return time and again to this wonderful and special place, named for a gentleman whose life epitomizes united endeavors, and together make it so.  

- Mark Gorman
Policy Analyst
Northeast Midwest Institute

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