DAPL Leaves Climate Change & Polluted Water for Future Generations

Carolyn Raffensperger

The battle cries across the length of Dakota Access’ crude oil pipeline are “Water is Life” and “For Future Generations.” These cries have been clearest at Standing Rock where a vast Indigenous community is defending the drinking water of the Tribe and all the downstream people for present and future generations.

After joining my allies who were opposing DAPL in Iowa, I went to Standing Rock in early August to serve as a lawyer on the ground. I went to be an advocate for the River itself and for the future generations that will depend on it. I went to join my long-time friends from the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth, among others.

We have been working against Dakota Access for over two years now because its pipeline is one of the biggest environmental threats of our generation. It snakes through four states including Iowa where I live, and crosses many rivers–the Missouri as well as the Des Moines, the Big Sioux and the Mississippi.

Much of my work over the past years has been based on the precautionary principle, which tells us to take action in the face of scientific uncertainty to prevent harm. My colleagues at the Indigenous Environmental Network kept telling me that the precautionary principle was the Seventh Generation Rule, which is all about protecting future generations.

Ten years ago we met with Indigenous peoples in Alaska and the lower 48 states to draft the Bemidji Statement on Seventh Generation Guardianship. In it we called for a new way of making decisions that protected future generations from harm like that posed by Dakota Access.

Water truly is Life. Without water, future generations cannot survive. The Water Warriors at Standing Rock, in South Dakota, Illinois and Iowa are fulfilling this generation’s sacred responsibility to protect future generations’ right to water.

As a lawyer, my task has been to be the guardian for future generations. In fact, my organization, the Science and Environmental Health Network, intervened before the Iowa Utilities Board DAPL hearing on behalf of future generations. Our regional coalition of activists, including IEN had asked all four of the states’ public utilities commissions to designate a legal guardian for future generations so future beings would have a voice in the permitting process. None of the agencies appointed one, so we had to become the voice of the future.

They did not take into account future generations. They didn’t take into account that present generations got the small benefits of a few jobs but future generations bear all the costs of climate change and polluted water.

This is why I have joined my allies in Standing Rock and in Iowa in everything from press conferences, legal proceedings and direct action.

On September 9, a federal judge ruled that Dakota Access could continue construction. Within 20 minutes of that decision, the Obama Administration blocked DAPL from construction on the Missouri River. The Administration did not stop construction on the rivers in Iowa and so we held a direct action on the Des Moines River Saturday to block the drill that was primed to force the pipeline under our River.

If we are to survive on this beautiful Earth we must stop Dakota Access as well as the drilling, fracking and mining that support it. We cannot continue business as usual. Standing Rock will be a landmark in the history of law for its protection of water for Future Generations.

The Bemidji Statement ends with these words:

“Who guards this web of life that nurtures and sustains us all?

Who watches out for the land, the sky, the fire, and the water?

Who watches out for our relatives that swim, fly, walk, or crawl?

Who watches out for the plants that are rooted in our Mother Earth?

Who watches out for the life-giving spirits that reside in the underworld?

Who tends the languages of the people and the land?

Who tends the children and the families?

Who tends the peacekeepers in our communities?


We tend the relationships.

We work to prevent harm.

We create the conditions for health and wholeness.

We teach the culture and we tell the stories.

We have the sacred right and obligation to protect the common wealth of our lands and the common health of our people and all our relations for this generation and seven generations to come. We are the Guardians for the Seventh Generation.”

Carolyn Raffensperger, MA, JD, is the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. She is an environmental lawyer who serves future generations. Carolyn has been working to protect water and stop Dakota Access for over two years, in Iowa, and North Dakota.

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