Sustainability advocate promotes building local economies, helping indigenous peoples

On Wednesday Oct. 2 Geneseo welcomed Winona LaDuke, American environmentalist, economist and writer, to speak at the Presidential Sustainability Lecture in the Doty Recital Hall. LaDuke is a well-known activist working on sustainable development, renewable energy and food systems, and spoke about economics in the world of climate change. 

LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, has run for vice president of the United States on the Green Party ticket twice and is the executive director of Honor the Earth, where she works on climate change, renewable energy and environmental justice within indigenous communities. 

She advocates for rebuilding local economies as a recipe for sustainability, as well as a way to solve many of the problems facing indigenous peoples. 

Growing up on a reservation, LaDuke describes herself as a survivor of genocide and hardship. She has seen indigenous people struggle with diabetes, violence, high rates of incarceration and the opioid epidemic. 

“I wanted to change the system that put my people in jail; the issues are systemic. Rather than figuring out why my people are poor—it’s pretty obvious: we don’t control our land—we started working to get back our land.” 

LaDuke examined White Earth reservation spending and found that $8 million a year was being spent on food, $7 million of which was spent off-reservation by Food Services of America and large companies like it. One million dollars was spent on the reservation at convenience stores, which leads to high rates of diabetes on reservations.

“This hemp farmer from Kentucky was talking about it and he said at a certain point, America had a choice between a carbohydrate economy and a hydrocarbon economy. And what happened—America chose a hydrocarbon economy, and we are seeing a lot of consequences from that now.”

LaDuke began looking for food without harmful pesticides and herbicides, and food that did not need petroleum. She started with local food and indigenous crops and found that old squash is high in B-vitamins like magnesium and has twice the protein and half the calories of other varieties. 

“It turns out that when you start commercializing and industrializing the food system, the crops get hauled across the country, fossil fuels are added to it and by the time they get to the destination they have lost the nutritional value of these vegetables.” 

LaDuke learned that in order to reduce fossil fuel footprint, look at your food and relocalize it. She began to build local food programs and grow old varieties of corn. She found that old varieties adapt to microclimates, while GMO varieties lack biodiversity and are not frost resistant or drought-resistant. 

“You’ve got to deconstruct the material economy that is associated with fossil fuels and you have to deconstruct the agricultural economy that is associated with fossil fuels.” 

In addition to building strong local economies with local food sources, LaDuke emphasizes approaching change from other organizations that will lead to America becoming a more sustainable country.  

“What did they just announce at Amazon? Ten thousand electric cars is what they just announced. Google said they’d do the same thing. Eighty percent renewable by 2024. That’s what economic transition looks like. Now I’m not a big fan of corporate corporations, but I’ll tell you what, those guys are going to transform this economy into action. Institutions like this have to do the same thing.”  

LaDuke works to redesign an economy based on capitalism into a sustainable economy with potential to solve the problem of climate change.

“My advice to you is the same advice I took: no one’s going to do this for you. Take that green path and light that fire for justice and reconciliation.”