The climate colonizer mentality

Musk, Bezos, and Gates believe the natural world can be bent to accommodate humanity’s existing behavior—and they are obsessed with doing the bending.

When some people picture Christopher Columbus, they see a hero—a visionary explorer who expanded opportunities. When others picture Columbus, they see a conquerer and colonizer—a ruthless opportunist who caused generations of death and suffering.

The same can be said of America’s three richest men: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates. To some, they represent modern-day explorers. To others, they represent old-world exploiters. Each has an insatiable knack for discovery, and each is accused of abusing people to achieve it. Most importantly, they’re all trying to lead the discovery of a new world: a net-zero-carbon-emitting, climate-safe world.

When it comes to climate change, Musk, Bezos, and Gates are each trying to create a new world that can handle current human behavior. Musk is popularizing electric cars so we can keep driving everywhere. Gates is pushing carbon capture so we can keep using fossil fuels. Bezos is trying to move millions of humans to space while extracting energy from other planets so we can keep emitting carbon, but on other planets. The three men also support each other’s approaches, as they attempt to conquer the misbehaving atmosphere through sheer technological force of hand.

America’s modern-day Columbuses (Columbi?) are widely celebrated for their endeavors. But indigenous climate activists know colonizer mentality when they see it. Musk, Bezos, and Gates believe the natural world can be bent to accommodate humanity’s existing behavior—and they are obsessed with doing the bending. Conversely, they are fairly disinterested in changing behavior to accommodate the natural world. Boring!

The climate colonizer mentality doesn’t consider what the climate needs from humans. It considers only what humans want from the climate. Columbus had this mentality about North America, and it’s why some 90 percent of indigenous Americans died in the century after his arrival. The existing living world was not a priority. Only the desires of the colonizers mattered.

This Indigenous People’s Week, climate activists from all over the country are gathering in Washington, D.C. to demand climate solutions that are reciprocal in nature. “We need to learn to be relationship-based in our in our way of thinking,” said Joye Braun, a frontline organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We need to quit thinking in a straight line, and start thinking more in a circle.”

For example: If the climate says it can’t handle all this fossil fuel burning, listen to it. Stop burning fossil fuels, and create a new renewable energy economy that benefits both parties. If the climate says it can’t handle a jillion cars on the road, listen to it. Take some of them off the road, and create an amazing public transportation system that benefits both parties.

In the past, reciprocal climate solutions such as these have been difficult for many Americans to visualize. In her best-selling 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer recalls asking her third-year ecology students if they can think of beneficial relationships between humans and the environment, or positive interactions between people and land. They almost all said no.

This ignorance, Kimmerer writes, represents a fundamental obstacle standing in the way of truly sustainable climate action: “How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like?" She criticizes a white-led environmental movement that has become “synonymous with dire predictions and powerless feelings.” The Earth, she writes, will always work for us if we work for it in return. There is no need to overpower it.

Indigenous stories show that, and to prove it she tells of the White Man's Footstep. The low-growing plant, native to Europe, started growing in North America when the colonizers arrived. Where the colonizers went, the Footstep followed, and the Natives feared it would be just as destructive. They soon saw, however, that there were differences—while the white man thrived by conquering and subjugating Native people, the White Man’s Footstep thrived by giving back to them. While the white man’s conquest brought disease and famine, the White Man’s Footstep provided medicine and food.

“This wise and generous plant, faithfully following the people, became an honored member of the plant community,” Kimmerer writes. “It’s a foreigner, an immigrant, but after five hundred years of living as a good neighbor, people forget that kind of thing.” The White Man’s Footstep was able to thrive by meeting the needs for the living world around it—by becoming naturalized to its place.

The climate movement does not have to be the white man climate colonizer. It can be the White Man’s Footstep. Humans can be good for the earth, but only if they treat it as something not just for their own benefit. Indigenous people have been teaching us this for decades—and will continue to this week in Washington, D.C. It’s past time we started to listen.

Tweets from the People Versus Fossil Fuels Mobilization

Fish has been positively delighted and overwhelmed by the number of responses to his request for friends to hang out with at Catch of the Day! He’s decided he wants to hand over the spotlight to a few more of his new pals this week.

Fish’s first new friend this week is Maybe, a one-year-old rescue pup who lives in Colorado.

“Maybe enjoys digging in mom's Climate Victory garden and chasing light reflecting on the wall,” says HEATED reader/said gardener mom Danielle. Maybe also “thinks this talk of 'fiscal responsibility' around the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package is ridiculous given the fossil fuel subsidies that continue to bankrupt the green transition,” Danielle adds.

Next up is Hallie, an energetic 8-month-old shepherd terrier mix who lives in Minnesota with reader Natalie.

Hallie “has a natural talent for sleuthing small critters in the yard,” Natalie says, “and would love to someday use this skill to hunt and pounce on the fossil fuel industry.”

Lastly, this is George. George likes to pick up trash. Thanks to reader Aaron for this important information.

Want to submit your furry (or non-furry) friend to Catch of the Day? E-mail