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Giving voice to the river

By Carolyn Raffensperger I wrote this essay for the peace making group everyday gandhis. It was published in their Winter 2009 with the title "The Outcome of Council is the End of War."  I am revisiting the theme of what it means to give River a voice.

I wonder what Homer means by these words in the Iliad? “The outcome of war is in our hands; the outcome of words is in the council.” The Iliad is an ancient, long and eloquent poem about war, war and more war. But there is one stunning sequence about peace that begins with the death of Patroclus, the beloved childhood friend of the Greek soldier Achilles. Achilles’ utter grief at the loss of his friend replaces the burning wrath that drives his war-making. Rather than avenge Patroclus' death, Achilles calls a council. He does not bargain or require a quid pro quo. He simply ends the warring feud with King Agamemnon. The king, in a stunning turn of events says it was he who was blinded by the gods and he makes amends with Achilles. The outcome of council? The end of war.

This story has all the more resonance today within the context of everyday ghandis. How do we make peace? How do we sustain peace? How do we mend the broken world? An answer everyday ghandis is exploring is Council, gathering together all people, listening to dreams, gathering wisdom, making decisions.

Deena Metzger, senior adviser to everyday ghandis once told me that Council is the new form of political decision-making. At the time I heard this I was deeply involved in the state of Iowa’s political process for selecting the president of the United States. Iowa is the first in the nation to choose among presidential contenders. We winnow the candidates and decide who the best might be. We do it through a quasi-council process called caucusing. We gather together and talk and vote and talk some more. Then we vote, publicly and with our bodies – we go to stand together in small groups under the banner of the candidate we like.

But I wondered whether we might make wiser decisions if we moved beyond selecting our hierarchical leaders in a council-like way and actually governed through egalitarian council. There’s something downright peculiar about western democracy that presupposes our biggest concerns are individual self-interests and that most of those self-interests are economic. Me me me. Money money money. This means that my government officials are mostly protecting the Gross National Product, corporations, and banks. Forget clean air, clean water, the forests, or honey bees. As the United States has demonstrated we’ll go to war to protect our “interests”. This theory of government is oblivious to the fact that we actually love some things more than money and that we come to the political table with values about family, community, health and the environment. This “me” theory of government exemplifies the sociologist Max Weber’s definition of the state as holding a monopoly on violence because we grant government the right to protect those interests. This means that we, the body politic, grant the right to the state to go to war in our name to defend our self-interests, all that me-ness, all that money and right now, all that oil.

A different theory of government, the public trust doctrine, takes into account the values larger and more vibrant than self and economics. The public trust doctrine is an extension of Roman law and the Magna Carta that gave governments the responsibility to care for shores, rivers and other things we hold in common. It essentially says that the government is the trustee of the commonwealth and the common health for present and future generations.

Now it's one thing to have a hierarchical leadership making unilateral decisions even on behalf of the rivers, it is another thing to have many voices at the table bringing unique perspectives to bear on decisions. If the only decisions are about money and me, we can send our leaders to the capital and they can fiddle with the economy. But if the decisions are about communities of beings and communities of place, the decisions are not about isolated things but about relationships. In these relationships we treat the other as a Thou rather than an It, to paraphrase Martin Buber.

Take rivers for example. The French philosopher, Bruno Latour, has suggested that rivers are important political actors--his definition of actor is “make a difference”. The implication is that we are in relationship to rivers. As the wise elder Joanna Macy says, “The beings that co-exist with us in the web of life are profoundly affected by our actions, yet they have no hearing in our human deliberations and policies, no voice to call us to account.” So Latour urges us to represent these beings politically. This means, as a political matter, not just a spiritual matter, that we treat the river as a Thou rather than as an It. They need a voice since a politics reduced to transactions on behalf of the individual human and money leaves out everything of beauty and meaning.

One way to, say, give rivers a voice is to appoint a Guardian for the Rivers, someone who speaks for the rivers in the body politic. That person speaks out of her I-Thou relationship with the river. Other Guardians need to represent all the other beings connected to the river. The most effective way to make political decisions then, is to do it in council. To sit together in council and protect the relationships of elk to river and river to fish and fish to eagle and eagle to elk by being the voice of elk and river and fish and eagle. Joanna Macy and her colleague John Seed created a practice to do just that in their Council of All Beings. According to Joanna, “The Council of All Beings is a communal ritual in which participants step aside from their human identity and speak on behalf of another life-form.”

I wonder too, if Achilles brought the River into the council when he unilaterally declared peace? There is a rich story in the Iliad about the River Skamandros. At one point Achilles is so angry he drives half the Trojans into the Skamandros and kills them. The River is infuriated by being clogged up with all the dead bodies and rises up to defeat Achilles. In a remarkable intervention by Fire sent by the goddess Hera, the River is beaten back by the flames and Achilles is protected from the wrath of the River. Perhaps by bringing the Guardian of the River along with the Guardian of Fire into council peace can be wrought and sustained.

In November 2008, in Des Moines Iowa, I participated in a council of river rascals (their words), which we called a River Congress. One of the things we did was brainstorm a list of river rights, which I’ve adapted here. It’s what a river might say about its own rights and therefore about the rights of all beings. As a river… I have the right to be full of life. I have the right to use my flood plain. I have the right to natural change. I have the right to run free. I have the right to be respected. I have the right to be healthy. I have the right to run free of trash. I have the right to be recognized. I have the right to be represented. I have the right to take my time. I am sacred.