Indigenous communities notched two small but remarkable triumphs last week achieving success in strengthening local long-term priorities over short-term business interests. In both cases — one in Greenland and the other in the US state of Minnesota — communities have put a hold on destructive and potentially risky economic deals in favor of long term, healthier approaches to community wellbeing. If these successes endure and are embraced, they will be good news for everyone.
Advocates often pitch these challenges as “jobs” versus the “environment.” But this dichotomy is misleading and lacking vision. For too long, simple “good” vs “bad” narratives have characterized every debate from economic choices to party and cultural identities. They miss opportunities for developing new ground, common ground, and the potential that can grow from allied cultural strategies.
Foreign entities like Australian-Chinese dominated Greenland Minerals and Swiss giant Glencore are facing resistance from local communities who see a longer term future.
The electoral majority gained in Greenland’s 6 April election of the Inuit Ataqatigiit party provides a legislative opportunity for new leadership at a time when the foreign-led mining of rare earths looked poised to proceed. The party has advocated for a halt and re-evaluation of the license granted to the Australian — Chinese dominated Greenland Minerals company and to refocus on a development path that is consistent with the long-term viability of Greenland’s citizens and particularly aspects of its natural environment. A shift in the tiny population of only 56,000 may not halt mining, which along with fisheries, provides major proportions of income for the people, but it reflects the growing awareness of the importance of environmental issues for the island’s future.
Meanwhile, in a remote area of northern Minnesota, the Polymet Mine, controlled by the Swiss multinational Glencore has been set back by a suit brought under the US Clean Water Act by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in its status as a separate nation. This win was a result of years of legal action and coalition building by Water Legacy, a movement of local and indigenous residents. The mine offers a few jobs and huge long-term risk to the quality of both human and natural systems, potentially threatening the historic patterns of natural resource use, a vast source of unpolluted water, and tremendous natural assets.
Long undervalued, these remote areas where people have extracted and destroyed so much natural heritage represent under-appreciated economic and cultural values that are being assessed far below their potential.
Long undervalued, these remote areas where people have extracted and destroyed so much natural heritage represent under-appreciated economic and cultural values that are being assessed far below their potential. Coalitions of the willing, that can help to elaborate those values, have the potential to extend their own health and wellbeing as well as that of their children and grandchildren.
Often overlooked by those residents who advocate for the short-term gains from mining operations (or pipelines or what-have-you) is the growing potential for innovation and productivity in these areas. Tourism is often cited by those who advocate for preserving their environments, and in both these remote locations, Minnesota and Greenland, there is significant tourism, which unlike mining can lead to economic resilience and growth given their focus on services and facilities if they are done with care and intention for local communities and the environment.
It’s true that tourism has wreaked its own trail of destruction. But, given the dismal records of mining organizations, the risk seems hardly comparable. And, times are changing.
As the COVID pandemic has shown, where there is opportunity for remote work, people often opt for healthy, clean environments with lower costs and better quality of life. This non-destructive and low-intensity economic activity is just one example of how new avenues for clean development have opened. Citizenships and incentives are springing up around the world aimed at enticing higher earning mobile workers who value natural environments and smaller communities. Build the skills and tax base and create new value.
These areas, still considered by many to be empty or useless, are also intrinsically valuable.
Lower-intensity economic growth is a growth business. But whether it is societally beneficial, or not, depends greatly on the enabling social and regulatory environments. A community ethic of extraction will result in wasteland, while an ethic of cultivation has a better chance of generating flourishing communities.
These areas, still considered by many to be empty or useless, are also intrinsically valuable. Although they are not yet valued in market terms, their ability to absorb carbon, keep aquifers charged and buffer environmental events, provide space for wildlife that maintains biodiversity or charges our imaginations; they are reserves of dwindling precious natural resources. Eventually these resources will be viewed as classes of assets for investment as financial markets for carbon reduction and other societal objectives as they are recognized for their value provided to all.
Rural populations — when they are not romanticized — have often been portrayed as a drag on the dynamic development of cities.
Until that time, we still have at hand the old-fashioned approach of tax abatement or subsidies. This enlightened policy exists in many countries and states and could be greatly expanded. In the US state of Vermont, for example, the Use Value Appraisal program provides landowners (who might otherwise be taxed off their land) with greatly reduced tax assessments if they manage their land in a way that contributes sources of local timber and long-term forest renewal in the state.
Rural populations — when they are not romanticized — have often been portrayed as a drag on the dynamic development of cities. Payments to these communities for subsistence are viewed as band-aids to keep political peace. Again, these views are upside down. Many creative entrepreneurs are trying to fill this breach, for example in energy development projects aimed at building skills for a new economy and for reducing energy poverty, among others. We can choose to make opportunities that reflect societal values.
These organizations focus on re-engaging citizens in meaningful, informed self-determination.
In the US state of Minnesota (my home state) many of these operations remain underfunded and under the radar. Advocated by social-market entrepreneurs who have both community vitality and economic development goals for transformation, they include ventures like the Native Sun Community Power Development, which incorporates energy transformation and development skills which will feed into energy friendly housing on the Red Lake reservation in northern Minnesota; and Recharge Minnesota, an initiative with a sharp point around vehicle electrification but with a broader agenda around skills, jobs and rural transformation.
Departing from the perspective of strengthening citizens and governments are civic self-determination organizations like Strong Towns based in Brainerd, MN which focuses on helping shift local civic narratives from “takers” to “makers” of their own future (HT Tim McCoy). And of course, there’s more such as Civocracy, based in France, or the Center for New Democratic Processes another Minnesota-based operation. These organizations focus on re-engaging citizens in meaningful, informed self-determination.
Many of them are innovating in fascinating ways and they need support. Civocracy provides a platform of connective tissue that helps turn disparate citizen priorities into more coherent voices to guide governmental action. The Center for New Democratic Processes, is a pioneer of citizen juries, which have made impressive gains in civic processes around the world (my uncle Ned Crosby is the founder and lifelong proponent of this impressive undertaking).
These ventures are succeeding, but still outnumbered and under-valued. They should proliferate. This need not involve endless charity, but could driven by market-oriented mechanisms that allocate funds to efforts and organizations and coalitions that promise the greatest progress toward agreed objectives. New tools such as social impact bonds and alternative approaches toward allocation of citizen priorities such quadratic voting as proposed by Posner and Weyl in their seminal book, Radical Markets, are ideas that should be part of our current political discourse.
the potential for advocating long-term interests together is within reach of diverse communities, in spite of their history.
Where does all this leave us? Of course, the background and dominant legacy of much of modern development is overwhelmingly extractive and without regard to the social and environmental costs imposed. Often this development is subsidized by ruling coalitions or guided by powerful corporations that have degraded environments for short term private gain at the expense of the broader communities in which they exist. But ultimately, as the trend in ESG funds and stakeholder capitalism shows us, these forces are subject to citizen and consumer pressure. It starts with the will to envision ourselves differently and work across cultures and political divides to make inclusive visions a reality.
This picture is far from complete. But the potential for advocating long-term interests together is within reach of diverse communities, in spite of their history. Cultural blending as I’ve described above should not negate the recognition and reconciliation of the violence imposed by successive dominant cultures on fellow citizens hanging on by a thread, indigenous communities, people of color, and women, among others.
Reconciliation needs to happen, but it is also time for coalitions of the visionary and willing to join together and pursue policies in communities to generate social and environmental value and returns far into the future. This will take a societal mind-shift, led by our brightest innovators together with the wisdom of traditional practitioners. And, if we sharpen our focus, the investment that is desperately needed can be channeled to a better present and future.
We readily divide ourselves these days, but the future is in uniting.