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Are companies listening to Standing Rock?

Thoughts on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests from a Native person working in the corporate sustainability world.

Right now, at the northernmost point of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, around 700 people are preparing for winter and the continued protest of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) planned to connect North Dakota oil production sites to eastern Illinois. What’s taking place there is more than your run-of-the-mill protest.

The transport pipeline project, managed by Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Crude Oil Co., skirts Standing Rock reservation land by a mile but cuts through the Great Sioux Nation treaty land. Protest leaders say that the construction of the pipeline will disrupt sacred sites and threaten drinking water, the nearby Missouri River and aquifers that serve the region.

As a Native person working within the sustainability world, this protest strikes a personal chord. I have family on the Navajo reservation and am quite literally the product of Native rights and environmental activism: My parents met during Navajo and Hopi forced relocation and land-use protests in the late 1980s.

Naturally, I had to dig deeper into what was going on up in Sioux territory to learn what the protested issues were all about.   

As a Native person working within the sustainability world, this protest not surprisingly strikes a personal chord.

In early August, when the protest started picking up some measurable media coverage, I was genuinely surprised at the amount of attention Standing Rock was enjoying. Article after article, I could not put my finger on why, exactly, people from across the world were getting behind the Standing Rock Sioux online, supporting them financially or actually traveling to the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps to join the protest.

In other words, why was Standing Rock getting so much attention when this sort of conflict happens all the time in Native communities?

At first, I thought that the attention might be because the standoff represents a classic modern-day example of the people challenging and making things very difficult for the faceless corporation. It’s a concept that’s easy to get behind — especially this year, when large institutions are being heavily scrutinized — and as Standing Rock Sioux vs. DAPL is pretty much the movie "Avatar," but in real life, I thought this might be why it has enjoyed so much support.

I was wrong. 

After processing much of the dialogue surrounding the many issues brought to the table — indigenous people’s rights, First Amendment rights, land-use issues, water preservation, environmental impact — a different conclusion emerged. Indeed, I am excited at the prospect of what Standing Rock and its vigorous support really represent and means moving forward.

The #NoDAPL movement and all that’s going on in North Dakota right now is the product of a larger, overarching societal shift in mentality and perception of what’s considered normal.

When you step back, the #NoDAPL movement and all that’s going on in North Dakota right now is the product of a larger, overarching societal shift in mentality and perception of what’s considered normal. The movement represents a shift in popular commentary surrounding energy use, resource extraction, development and people’s standard of well-being. All the fresh dialogue taking place on social media about DAPL and its related issues — its global media coverage, active celebrity and political support and the extraordinary Native and non-Native mobilization — are indicators of the approaching tidal wave of people demanding an update to the way industry and business interact with society and the environment.

This update calls for adding people and planet to bottom-line calculations, placing social and environmental well-being on equal footing with economic stability. It calls for replacing shortsightedness and a focus on quarterly returns with the cultivation of longer-term strategic planning and investment. It calls for corporations to help generate demand and use of renewable energy to power their fleets and operations. And this updated view demands that the energy sector evolves toward clean energy, contributing to the research, development and deployment needed to solve current and future energy needs and environmental impact challenges.

Industry and business, are you ready?

Industry and business, are you ready?

The once-radical idea of a "triple bottom line" — that people and planet are two vital missing elements to any financially focused calculation — is not so radical anymore. The idea that people and planet deserve as much consideration as profits is picking up momentum.

Winter is coming to North Dakota, and this idea fuels the ongoing and unprecedented support for and devotion to the Sioux Nation and all the movement stands for. It is not likely that the cold weather ahead will diminish these pressing issues or extinguish the burning desires to achieve balanced sustainability.

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