WHY I AM CHOOSING TO SERVE AMERICA’S LAST WILD BUFFALO
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing.” ~ John Fire Lame Deer
After a career as an eco-defense lawyer, I walked away from my profession and the larger climate movement in 2012. I was intent on diagnosing the pervasive pathology of our culture that seemed, from my insider’s perspective, to be reflected in climate activism as well. We were confronted with an existential threat of global proportions, and yet the most our movement seemed to be able to do in response was “more of the same” — the kind of marching, protesting, and petitioning that does nothing to actually move the CO2 needle. I wanted to know how we could actually change the behaviors of American consumers, rather than endlessly trying to change the minds of industry-funded politicians. In other words, after a career of addressing the symptoms of our collective pathology, I became obsessed with getting at the root of the disease.
To avoid any potential confusion over my prior writing as a strident legal advocate and my more academic research and writing as an ecopsychologist, I adopted part of my dharma name (Thubten Zhiwa) when I went back to grad school, and have since achieved some notoriety in academic and climate psychology circles, as reflected by feature stories in The Financial Times of London and The New York Times. I have quite literally made a name for my ‘psychologist-self’ writing on topics like quantum ecopsychology, planetary hospice, climate grief and, more recently, climate trauma.
With the publication of my book Climate Trauma, Reconciliation & Recovery, as well as sharing its conclusions in an address to the Sustainability Institute at Penn State, I’m satisfied that I have accomplished what I set out to do ten years ago. I’ve carefully diagnosed the psycho-spiritual, relational root of the climate crisis: the Western scientific-materialist worldview that separates us from Nature, even though as a matter of science we are integral parts of a larger, living organism. The result of this cognitive dissonance between who we really are, as a matter of science, and how we see ourselves as a people is felt by all of us, as well as by all living ‘things’ (which we also other), in the systemic form of biospheric trauma. The symptoms of this organismic trauma include climate anxiety, climate grief (whether expressed or suppressed), solastalgia, eco-despair, and all the varied cultural expressions of fight (polarization), fright (doomerism), and flight (escapism) that are so vividly on display at this critical turning point in our species history. Collectively, we avoid even naming this trauma by clinging to the evasive, separatist terminology of “climate change” — as if we were merely discussing changes in the weather.
But it would’ve been professionally and morally irresponsible to simply diagnose such a pervasive malady without also suggesting a course of treatment, if not identifying an outright cure. I hasten to add, of course, that the mere act of acknowledging trauma has salutary effects, as powerfully demonstrated by the Austrian mystic and social healer Thomas Hübl. His annual symposium on the various forms of collective trauma, begun in 2019 in part as a response to the publication of my paper on climate trauma, now draws over a hundred thousand participants, over nine days, all engaged in the exploration of healing modalities. My related focus, as a researcher and writer, concerned how to empower individuals to participate in the global social changes that are called for in responding to the existential threat of climate trauma.
With the help and guidance of my Indigenous friends and colleagues, all either scientists or psychologists from America or India, I found the answers to this relational problem between humans and Nature by positing the emergence of a new kind of holistic indigeneity grounded in Gaia theory. Because climate trauma is itself a new kind of trauma, and because it is a superordinate form of trauma that is triggering all of our unresolved generational and cultural traumas, we are effectively given no option but to fundamentally re-arrange all our relations. While this may seem like an insurmountable task, in truth it is just a matter of conforming our modern worldview to the core values which define the Indigenous worldview. No surprise there, as the United Nations tells us that over 80% of the biodiversity in the world today, a measure of right relationship with Nature, is found on the 5% sliver of lands still managed by Indigenous peoples.
Now that my ecopsychological quest is at an end, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to walk my talk. Climate trauma, like all traumas, arises in unnatural relationship. If we had remained true to our human nature, as Native Americans and other Indigenous cultures have, then we wouldn’t be inflicting trauma on the biosphere, and we wouldn’t be facing this existential threat. The only way to ultimately resolve climate trauma, as with all other unresolved traumas, is therefore in relationship. In this case, our relationship to Gaia, the larger organism of which we are but cells. This re-orientation, in turn, implicates our relationships to our larger bioregions, to our local ecosystems within those bioregions, together with all the creatures and plants we co-inhabit these landscapes with. That, in a nutshell, is the idea of holistic indigeneity, and when we take it to heart we will find wholesome expressions of this emerging worldview in everything from the food we eat to right livelihood, from regenerative agriculture and gardening to the mindful use of plant medicines. It’s not that much to ask, really.
And yet the truth of the matter is, as everyone is becoming painfully aware of now, that we’ve already been caught in this fight, fright, and flight cycle for far too long, and the climate storms are now upon us. Things are bound to get much worse in our lifetimes before they can really begin to improve — which is to say, after we break our addiction to fossil fuels (we’ve yet to ‘hit bottom,’ in terms of addiction recovery).
From my perspective, however, despair is not an option. There is still so much that each of us can do to help turn the tide. What I’ve decided to do myself might come as a surprise to those who have come to know me as “Zhiwa” and not by my former eco-activist, legal name, Tom. Then again, if you’ve been paying close attention to my journey, it might not come as a surprise at all.
While I was in Bozeman, Montana recently, as part of an alternative Earth Day effort that centered and elevated Native American voices and leadership in contrast to the normal Earth Day ‘celebrations,’ I agreed to become the new Communications Director for the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), co-founded by Rosalie Little Thunder and Mike Mease, and currently lead by James Holt, a scientist from the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho. For 25 years now, BFC has been in the field documenting the mismanagement and annual slaughter of America’s last wild buffalo by the Montana Department of Livestock and Yellowstone National Park managers.
This is Climate Trauma
The treatment of Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild buffalo is, symbolically, the very heart of America’s climate, generational, and biospheric trauma. With full knowledge that Native Americans view the buffalo as their family members and equals, not just as another wildlife species, our Park managers work at the behest of livestock interests to keep them confined to the “reservation” that is Yellowstone National Park. They annually round them up for slaughter, just as we once slaughtered Nez Perce and other tribes so we could mine gold out of the Black Hills, in an effort to keep their population below 5000.
The American Buffalo, as everyone knows, once numbered 30–60 million, with thundering herds that roamed across America’s vast grasslands throughout the “Buffalo Commons” and the territories up and down the front range of the Rockies. And as most people know, American Indians enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the American buffalo. But what most Americans are not aware of are the ecological services that this species, Bison bison, provided to the lands that have now, in their absence, become fallow and largely unproductive.
Coming into Proper Relationship with Gaia
Because of their immense ecological value to the landscape of the American West, the buffalo have both the wisdom and the instinctual knowledge to lead us out of the gathering climate storms we have brought upon ourselves. In other words, our national mammal is also our “climate keystone species.”
What does that mean, exactly?
Allow me to put it in both scientific and practical terms. Human civilization will not survive unless we begin to draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere. As anyone who has closely followed climate science, as I have since 1985, will tell you, it is already too late just to stop burning fossil fuels. We will need to find ways to bring CO2 levels down closer to 350 ppm, which is what made agricultural civilization possible for the last 11,000 years. Otherwise, and as we are already beginning to see, we will experience mass crop failures, desertification, and the resulting crash in human population worldwide. As the IPCC reports make clear, today’s children are facing an unlivable future due to our collective malfeasance.
And this is where we begin to move away from the scientific-materialist view of science, or Earth as test tube, and towards the more Indigenous ecological-view of science urged upon us by the UN’s IPCC itself — Earth as Mother, the living being we are part of, not apart from. Because now newer science tells us that the best way, by far, to draw carbon down from the atmosphere in amounts that really matter long-term is to enlist Gaia as our ally, instead of our foe.
How do we do this? By restoring habitats, through what ecologists and biologists call trophic upgrading — more popularly known as rewilding. It turns out that Gaia does for us at scale and free of cost what our prohibitively expensive and unproven carbon capture technology is still quite incapable of doing; that is, drawing down sufficient carbon from the atmosphere to effectively offset our cumulative carbon emissions.
And here’s the kicker: How do we restore habitats? By supporting — not slaughtering and containing — keystone species. And just how effective can such ecological restoration be from a climate perspective? Well, here in the American West, there are still approximately 500 million acres of grasslands formerly inhabited by buffalo which, if restored ecologically, could draw down twice as much carbon annually as currently emitted by the U.S., the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer.
Can we even wrap our minds around that statistic?
This November, world governments will come together to adopt a new framework for the International Biodiversity Conventions that will formally encourage this ecological approach to habitat restoration on 30% of both terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030. In further support of this massive effort, the G20 has already given a green light to the “Earth Guardians” initiative, which will provide leadership and support younger people in changing the way we think of and relate to our local ecosystems all around the world, over time. Initially, the program will focus on ecologically outstanding landscapes — like Yellowstone.
In my formal incarnation, among the first things I did in starting a Montana office for Western Watersheds Project was to bring litigation that succeeded, with the indispensable support of BFC’s media and public relations, in establishing year-round calving habitat for wild buffalo in Montana — for the first time since buffalo’s eradication — and, to initiate the formal petition process before the Fish & Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of Interior to list Bison bison as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. After rejection by the Trump administration and a successful court challenge of that unscientific agency determination, that petition is being given a second look by FWS scientists with the Biden administration.
The fate of America’s last wild buffalo now lies with Native Americans. The Department of Interior is overseen for the first time in its history by a Native American woman, Deb Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican. And Yellowstone itself is now overseen by Charles “Chuck” F Sams III, recently confirmed head of the National Park Service, who is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. If ever there was a time to elevate the status of our national mammal, the Yellowstone Bison, to a formally protected wildlife species and the designated keystone species for our climate recovery, now would seem to be that time.
And so my journey of inquiry and research into the science and pathology of our shared climate crisis has come full circle. I firmly believe that the buffalo, and all the Indigenous Ecological Knowledge about how to relate to the land and all our relations, beginning with the buffalo, is the key to fighting for a livable future here on Turtle Island. I am therefore honored to have been asked by James Holt and Mike Mease to devote whatever breath I have left in this body to advocating for America’s last wild, genetically intact buffalo.
Fortunately, I do not undertake this task alone! In addition to the persistent efforts of BFC and its volunteers, there are already many individuals, scientists, tribes and organizations out there who are preparing the way for the return of thundering herds of buffalo on our native grasslands in the West. We can all look forward to a day when there are millions of Bison bison turning fallow earth fertile in the American West, in stark contrast to millions of cows degrading public lands at the expense of fish, wildlife and birds.
Together, we can make this happen. As the inventor of the term “biodiversity,” the recently departed American naturalist and biologist E.O. Wilson, observed in his final years, what sets us humans (along with ants) apart from other species is our natural desire to cooperate. It is the only way we will get through the climate storm. Just like the buffalo, we must now bravely turn into that storm and plow our way through it — grassland-by-grassland, forest-by-forest, and ecosystem-by-ecosystem.
I sincerely hope you will join us on this restorative journey.
Tom “Wood” Woodbury, Communications Director, Buffalo Field Campaign firstname.lastname@example.org