On Saturday, Jan. 17, the Yellowstone River, perhaps the most celebrated aquatic system in North America, was heavily contaminated by nearly 1200 barrels of oil. Al Jazeera America reports the leak’s environmental damage stretches from the river to surrounding farmland in Glendive, Montana.
Particularly, the report tells the story of Dena Hoff, now experiencing tragedy at the hands of the oil industry once again. Al Jazeera notes: “When an oil pipeline burst in July 2011 and poured 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River 200 miles upstream from Dena Hoff’s farm … she felt disgusted. When it happened again … she felt terror.”
She felt terror for good reason. Benzene, a carcinogen, made its way into the municipal water system. With the stench of diesel heavy in the air, disaster and uncertainty once again lingered over this small prairie town. It was not until Friday, Jan. 23, that the town’s folk could once again cook with, bathe in and drink water from their own faucets.
Industrial disasters are particularly damaging. The uncertainty and terror experienced in Glendive mimics emotions felt by the Elk River, W.Va. community who experienced a (chemical spill and a) slurry spill last year, or the countless rural communities above shale deposits that have lost their water to thermogenic bacteria linked to natural gas extraction. These atrocities continue despite growing and substantial scholarly research that notes severe environmental and public health concerns regarding the lack of oversight to such resource extraction.
This uncertainty leads to the production of quiescence.
But quiescence be damned. We need not accept the rule of the corporate sector, nor the desires of a few hundred bureaucratic suits in a congressional chamber.
The work of famed economist and political theorist Elinor Ostrom demonstrates that democratic governance is not only possible, but ultimately desirable. A growing consensus that we should not be subject to hegemonic institutions is growing like wildfire. In fact, ideas of adaptive governance and stakeholder approaches to natural resource management are now the norm among professionals practicing policy and conflict resolution. Ostrom, and the people she inspired, demonstrate that with agency we can re-imagine and manage the commons.
This is good for our communities. The commons redistributed power to where it should naturally lie: With place. Place connections are incredibly important. From the currents of Yellowstone to our still canyons, the great plains, mountain hollers and everything in between, land is legacy. Resources of course must be exploited, but with polycentric decision-making human beings will not be subject to the wishes of the state, but instead to community needs. Here, resources will be distributed by environmental pressures and a grand, renewed conservation ethic will emerge. We can reclaim the power that is rightly ours and build a society worthy of our future generations.
As good as adaptive governance is for us, just imagine the implications for the natural world. Vast landscapes no longer viewed for extraction, will instead be felt as a connection — an equal in governance.
I offer this ode to Yellowstone: You will continue to carve the land. Under the big sky and ever southward, from the mountainous north and across the plains, your currents will sing, your ice will whisper and your mists will eddy your banks. You will evolve wild and free, bound only by the depths of time. May your power be great, your adventures long and your liberty untamed.
(Mincy is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society — C4SS.org — and he also blogs at appalachianson.wordpress.com. He holds a chair on the Energy & Environment Advisory Council for the Our America Initiative. He earned his master’s degree in Earth and Planetary Science from the University of Tennessee in the summer of 2012. He lives in Knoxville, Tenn. where he teaches both biology and geology at area colleges.)