Johnny Townsend: Let’s stop digging our own graves

(Phuong Le | AP) Indigenous leaders speak at a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Friday, March 9, 2018, prior to a planned protest over a pipeline expansion project that would pump oil from Canada's tar sands to the Pacific Coast. Thousands are expected to march Saturday in the Metro Vancouver area.

A Canadian friend of mine complained that indigenous First Nations people kept refusing the jobs and industry offered them, insisting on government “handouts” instead. They should just “get over” their past abuse, he said, assimilate, and get on with life.

My follow-up question was, “What kind of jobs and industry are we talking about?” Most of the industry I see on indigenous lands supports fracking and tar sands operations. Accepting such a job, no matter the salary, is like getting paid to dig your own grave.

We all know about the billions of gallons of water permanently contaminated by fracking. In a climate increasingly plagued by drought, that’s no small matter. Most of the toxic chemicals are supposedly injected deep below ground to avoid polluting our drinking water, but the act of injecting water itself is directly responsible for the marked increase in earthquakes as large as 5.8 in every region where fracking takes place. And much of this “safe” drinking water is easily ignitable as it issues from residential taps.

Toxic water and damaging earthquakes aside, carbon-based fuels are the driving force behind the climate crisis. Driving faster is like thinking the solution to creating safer roadways is to speed when you see the stoplight turn yellow. Fracking also significantly increases emissions of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

During World War II, Japanese soldiers often forced Filipino and American prisoners to dig their own graves. In Jim Crow times, white mobs sometimes committed this same atrocity against their black neighbors. Nazis not only forced many Jewish victims to dig their own graves, but they also forced black Allied POWs — and gays and Roma — to do so as well. Today, ISIS forces some of its victims to dig their own graves, too. It’s a popular war crime.

Why would anyone agree to dig their own grave? They know what’s going to happen when they finish. Why would they agree both to the hard work and the extreme humiliation? Why would they help their oppressors murder them?

People do it to buy time. Not time to be rescued. They know that won’t happen. And not quality time. They get only a few awful, miserable minutes. But they are minutes of life.

So people of almost every culture, of every socioeconomic level, in conflict after conflict, agree to dig their own graves.

But some indigenous First Nations people refuse to take part in drilling. Native Americans and other environmentalists are blocking pipeline construction in the Dakotas. Members of the Puyallup tribe are fighting a liquified natural gas facility in Washington state. Navajo and other concerned Utahns are fighting to prevent mining and drilling on public lands. Other Utahns are fighting Salt Lake’s inland port for aiding the transportation of fossil fuels.

These folks often suffer poverty as a result. They are routinely imprisoned for protesting.

But they don’t dig their own graves.

In her Emmy acceptance speech, actress Alex Borstein spoke of her grandmother being led to a pit where she would be shot and dumped along with other Jews during the Holocaust. The woman turned to her guard and asked, “What happens if I step out of line?”

The guard assured her that although he wouldn’t have the heart to shoot her, someone else would.

Borstein’s grandmother stepped out of line. She survived while everyone else in the group was murdered.

“So step out of line, ladies,” the actress told the crowd. “Step out of line.”

We don’t have to accept fracking and oil wells and pipelines. We don’t have to dig our own graves, even if we’re being paid well to do the job. And we certainly don’t have to accept being shamed for choosing life over death.

Corporations driving the climate crisis have forced us all into a global catastrophe. We’re scared. We’re hungry. Our kids need shelter.

But they don’t need the shelter provided by a tombstone or a vault. If it’s an atrocity to make us dig our own graves, it’s unconscionable to force us to dig those of our children.

We must refuse all new fossil fuel extraction, storage, and transport. We must step out of line if we want a fighting chance at life.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of books that include “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners,” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”