Deer Eyes, Circle Mind: Reflections on Pandemic & Philanthropy

Artesanías Aramara

Sonja SwiftThere is the old adage of the elegant deer—perhaps white-tailed, perhaps antlered—who the scientist kills for study, to hold the crimson heart, to peel back eyelids and see the earth reflected in orbs of night. Once dead, gone. No more spirited flight, deft movement, dainty leaps through tall grass, lightness alert.

This metaphor is not about the hunter who asks permission, offers corn pollen or tobacco, uses sinew for sewing, and feeds the elders first. This is the story about killing to understand and losing just that which one sought to comprehend in the murderous, linear, process.

If only linear thought were seen as merely one way, not the only way.

If only.

Coronavirus comes from bats, from deep subterranean caves, from a relentless inquiry and seeking to contain that which wisdom would warn not to meddle with. Akin, you could say, to digging up uranium.

This collective moment we are in is making everything that has been relegated to the margins—whether through ignorance, malice, or denial—center. Is making visceral systemic wrongs, yet also outcast solutions. And one thing for certain, it is making it vividly clear that nothing is isolated or easily, comfortably, reduced to a quantifiably linear explanation. Other than to say that industrial wreckage brings sickness, but this in itself can only be comprehended through a circular, design-oriented mind.

While the particular COVID-19 virus comes from bats, worse viruses (to humans) come from other animals, and while the probing of scientists into the wombs of the earth may be heedless, more dangerous is chopping down the world’s forests, justifying sacrifice zones for monetary profit, and decimating the habitat of animals whose diseases need not reach us if only we lived more respectfully alongside. Many are not surprised. Native communities have prophecies that have forewarned this time, telling of diseases to come, a result of humanity’s disregard for the sophisticated tapestry of life.

Science writer David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, puts it frankly: “Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open” and “a tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.” He warns to leave bats, in particular, alone.

Rather, bats aren’t just studied for their viruses; they are killed, some to extinction. Or otherwise correlated to the mass insect extinction ongoing. Years ago, I stood on the side of a road in rural eastern Australia, watching a seemingly infinite stream of black ink fluttering across the sky. Bats in migration. I can’t remember how long I stood there, head craned skyward, completely mesmerized.

Of coronavirus, the typical environmentalist saviors are quick to blame “wet markets”—flatly, a generic term for the open markets many, often rural, people rely on where they do not have access to refrigerated fluorescent-lit supermarkets. Reminiscent of blaming smallholder farmers for cutting down tropical forests rather than the megalithic corporations, whether Big Timber or Big Ag, that these very enviro-philanthropists are likely invested in. Opaque stock lists remaining shrewdly unexamined while impoverished people take the fault. Large-scale commercialization is what leads to overhunting, obscene cruelty to terrified stressed animals, transported and kept in conditions which are breeding grounds for viruses. Yes, we need to stop the illegal wildlife trade—as well as cyanide gold mining, for that matter. And of those fluorescent supermarkets, industrial feedlot and factory farm operations selling cheap plastic packaged meat are equally responsible for the rise of superbugs.

In the midst of this pandemic, the malicious strategies of late-stage capitalism are being bluntly revealed. 3M owning the lone patent on N95 masks. Corrupt politicos with their corporate counterparts continuing to force deregulation—EPA safeguards, ramrodding pipelines (Keystone XL, TransCanada) through peoples beloved home territories, while communities remain sheltered in place. Disturbing statistics that mean lives continue to reveal old-as-colonialism injustices—the vulnerabilities of living next to toxic refineries, lack of drinking water, nutritional deficiencies or obesity, all of which relegate one to higher risk to a novel virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that, like the climate crisis, is a manifestation of injustices compounded into every entwined system of globalization’s illogical “market logic”—growing the same crop for export that one imports from elsewhere, acidifying the ocean with pesticide runoff, forcing people into slave labor to make commodity scale harvests, food as commodity, as poison, as weapon. Pharmaceutical companies raking in exorbitant profits. The themes: monoculture, monopolies, homogenization, sterility, stark economic disparity.

Large US-based foundations have for years been force-funding a so-called “green revolution” in Africa (and the world over) through promoting genetically modified seeds and pesticides, which ultimately benefit multinational corporations, companies these same foundations are invested in. Funding of factories for potential vaccine makers is a business move, poised to cash in on the coronavirus vaccine when invented. What does it mean if the vaccine to this pandemic is coveted by the world’s richest and held up as a cure-all? What happens when the next pandemic is worse because economic profiteering returned to “normal” and continued to dig up and fumigate and decimate the Earth’s integrity, viruses rising into the sky like dust?

The hierarchically linear mind is good at starting problems that (the same) corporate interests make money fixing. Enough already.

The circular mind sees things differently. Complexity is valued, celebrated. Common sense matters. The Great Unknown is honored, respectfully. Food is understood as spiritual in nature, part of an elegant cycle, as sustenance—our connection to this Earth. Autonomy of food systems means security, seed saving matters—open pollinated seeds are right now selling out like mad in a furious return to gardening. And personal health is understood in direct relationship to land health. All life is dependent on water. Indigenous voices remain some of the most grounded and articulate on these themes, and in embodying these values.

That the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic because of COVID-19 highlights both the forces of destruction (industrial agribusiness, extractive industry, mining, land grabbing) as well as the solutions, which inevitably center around the autonomy and self-reliance of localized food, for which acknowledgement of the intergenerational wisdom of Indigenous people is due.

Much of what the foundation I work for funds revolves around food, in the sense of land, clean water, culture in relationship to territory. Food sovereignty, food solutions, food as relative: salmon, bison, saskatoon berry, maize, wild rice, potato. Many of the organizations we fund are Indigenous-led or allied with Indigenous communities who have a deep and complex understanding of food and health and responsibility to future generations.

These are organizations that also fight for women’s rights, land rights, and self-determination. These are people standing in the way of those pipelines doomed to pollute their rivers, their salmon, their children, their ancestors. These are leaders who understand that issues are not barricaded by tidy boxes that label “climate change” an issue of carbon emissions, and “health” as something otherwise. Like our partners, we respect that the issues we face are inherently interconnected and that segregating them is often a convenient strategy for market or technocratic fantasies to get their way—i.e., carbon markets, geoengineering. This is why we prioritize support to people and organizations most grounded in their own local and cultural contexts, the truest experts.

Practically, as a foundation, this means trust-based funding with long-term general support grants (right now, stepping up with emergency grants) and making a commitment to double our annual payout, which tax law mandates to be a mere five percent of a foundation’s investment profit (foundations are, after all, stock portfolios). Alongside grants, we invest our endowment toward alignment with our values. This has meant strict no-buy guidelines, seriously divesting, moving cash into community development financial institutions (CDFIs), and making low or zero percent interest rate loans to partners. Crucial to all of this has been diversifying our board and staff so we are guided by a breadth of lived experience relevant to the work of our partners on the ground.

Like any foundation, we continue to benefit in one way or another from the mechanisms of colonization, industrialization, and corporatization of the world. We may have begun to set another example, but we still have a lot work to do.

This crisis moment is making it viscerally clear that the work of our partners provides shining examples of sanity, honesty, and innovation. The outcast solutions. They have food to eat. Or they are, through their networks, ensuring people have food to eat, elders are cared for, masks and gardens sewn/sown. They are continuing to speak up in the face of the pervasive crisis capitalism that gloats over these harrowing moments to force their relentless agendas. They are responding deftly and thoughtfully, and they are also telling us things straight. In the words of Jim Enote of the Colorado Plateau Foundation (CPF):

While many are hoping for the world to return to normal, I want to move forward with the idea that “normal” has not been good for Native communities and other marginalized peoples. As a result of deliberate anti-Indian federal policies and other evil plans, many Native peoples depend on buying most of their food from stores. And in truth, most Native peoples are not resilient and are on a precipice. I think now is the time to communicate and highlight what CPF has been saying and prioritizing all along. That food security through sustainable agricultural practices, protecting water, maintaining languages as vessels of traditional knowledge, and protecting sacred places are vital for creating resiliency, not only as a reaction to a crisis but always and as a human right.

This pause. Stop. The Earth taking deep breaths. Frenetic ceaseless movement of humans in jets, in cars, suddenly quieted. From Punjab, the Himalayas again visible after being veiled for decades in smog.

This lockdown, draconian rules passed under the risk to health, no one knowing for how long we have to remain isolated.

This reckoning with life, with death, with what really matters.

From Charles Eisenstein’s poignant essay, Coronation:

Like all fear, the fear around the coronavirus hints at what might lie beyond it. Anyone who has experienced the passing of someone close knows that death is a portal to love. COVID-19 has elevated death to prominence in the consciousness of a society that denies it. On the other side of fear, we can see the love that death liberates. Let it pour fourth.

The word philanthropy comes from Greek φιλανθρωπία, meaning etymologically, “the love of humanity.” Not love of life, land, or animal. Structurally, the emphasis is on benefactor and beneficiary—a polarity. The concept itself formed out of a notion that money is the greatest gift of all. Neither of which hold water.

Philanthropy, like many existing structures, demands a deep and thorough re-visioning, which begins with facing those evil plans executed years, generations, before this pandemic locked us all up and the skies cleared.

Originally published by Nonprofit Quarterly.

Authors
Sonja Swift

Sonja Swift

Sonja Swift es directora ejecutiva interina de Swift Foundation. Su guía es el lobo o ma’iingan en Ojibwe. Ella siempre busca hacerse preguntas difíciles sobre la filantropía con una visión compremetedora en la coherencia, integridad y rendición de cuentas.

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