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Resource or relationship?

I’m in the process of reading In search of the canary tree: The story of a scientist, a cypress, and a changing world by Lauren Oakes (2018) and I got to a section that related to something I have struggled with a lot in my own career. The issue of resources.

The issue of resources isn’t what you might think. I’m not referring to our excessive use of natural resources, particularly non-renewable ones. I’m also not referring to the ability of an individual or an organization or a cause to secure enough resources to maintain themselves and achieve their goals. Both of these are very real concerns, but not the issue I’m talking about. My issue with resources is the very word itself. By labelling something, anything, as a resource I have defined it as something that is valuable only for what I can use it for. So all those definitions of sustainability as something that ensures that we protect our natural resources and only use what we need has basically said that the only things worthy of our protection are those that are of some use to us.

Within her book, Oakes talks first about the science part of her research. The sampling and recording of trees and other plant life to see what happens in a forest as the yellow-cedar trees die in Alaska. The yellow-cedar trees are significantly impacted by climate change. But then she takes a social science turn to look at how the people might be affected by the changing forests and the dying yellow-cedar. It was in one of these interviews that I found an alternative word to resources.

Oakes uses the word “resources” while interviewing Teri Rofkar and gets the reaction I’ve been looking for:

“One of my goals,” she said even closer, “is to eliminate the term ‘natural resource.’ I think that it’s just–it’s an atrocity–you know, it’s the resourcing of everything. There’s no relationship. If you just replace the words ‘natural resource’ with ‘relationship,’ you’re good to go. When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something.” (p. 154)

Resource is a word that is so embedded in our language that most people use it without ever considering what it means. It makes me think of when we throw something away… Where is “away”? It seems like so much of our language seeks to define things as discrete elements and Teri continues, saying “what do we know about relationships?! They are messy!” She exclaimed. “And difficult!” (p. 156) Relationships do not lend themselves well to being a discrete item.

Resource is neat and clean, something we can extract without affecting anything else just like I can take a block of cheese from the fridge without affecting anything else in the fridge. But a relationship is complex and integrated. Suddenly I’m trying to extract the flour from inside a cake. I’m trying to pull something out that is intricately linked with the system. It makes me think of The Merchant of Venice and the pound of flesh. In the end, Portia, in the guise of Balthasar, is able to stop Shylock from claiming his pound of flesh from Antonio by pointing out that his agreement only gives Shylock the right to a pound of flesh and any drop of blood spilt will result in Shylock losing his lands and goods. In other words, Shylock is allowed to extract the pound of flesh, but he is not allowed to affect anything else in the system, and anyone who has ever cut themselves knows that you can’t extract any amount of flesh without affecting other parts of the body.

This may seem that I have gone on a tangent but it seems like when we attempt to extract a “resource”, our “pound of flesh,” we are forgetting about the relationship that flesh has with all the other parts of a system, including ourselves. We cut down trees on the river bank so that we might enjoy the view, forgetting that the trees were key to holding the riverbank in place, a riverbank that we may have built homes on so that we could charge homeowners to enjoy the view.

In the context of Oakes’ book, we burn our fossil fuels, in part so that we can make it out to the resource of wilderness (see the interview with Ernestine between pages 148-161) that may feature some towering yellow-cedar trees, in Alaska at least; but the subsequent climate change is killing off the yellow-cedar trees which are used to strengthen the weavings of the Tlingit (which both Ernestine and Teri make), the cedar deaths increase the struggle for smaller scale logging operations to make a living, we lose our relationships with nature because it is always us and them. It is “humans” and “nature” or “containing humans” versus “wilderness.” There is no relationship, just resources. But “a relationship is so much more than a service provided or a resource to use. It is a mutual commitment to care” (p. 156).

The challenge, as Oake’s points out a little later in the book, is that people (read English language speakers from a European background) understand the word resource, but they would look at you strangely if you started referring to renewable relationships. However, from my little awareness of certain other cultures, many First Nations cultures in particular, there are languages that recognizes the relationship first. For more, check out Watt’s (2013) article Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!)

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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