appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society



Riley, Susan Bull_ higher resolution ginseng photo3

The environmental movement may be larger than ever. On Sunday, September 21, the “People’s Climate March” flooded the streets of New York City. Estimates project an upwards of 400,000 people participated in the climate rally, with ten’s of thousands more showing solidarity in smaller demonstrations (significant in their own right – London was host to 40,000 people) across the globe.

The action had been months in the making, orchestrated by an almost endless list of environmental, religious and labor groups. The public protest was expected to be incredibly large, but activists were shocked at such a massive turnout. Hundreds of thousands crafted a party like atmosphere, with tons of energy, in what the Christian Science Monitor describes as a raucous parade. In fact, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York is quoted as saying:

After over forty years in the trenches of the environmental movement, I’ve never been more inspired and awe-struck… Today proves global support for climate action is undeniable. A swell of humanity has spoken as one: The time to act on climate is now.

This “swell” is particularly speaking to those in attendance at the United Nations Climate Summit. The gathering of roughly 100 heads of state kicked off on September 23. At the summit, officials sought discussion of global carbon emissions and a move towards a consensus for international reduction standards at next years gathering in Paris.

One may argue the environmental movement is stronger now than any other time in human history, with a real chance to force meaningful change. I, with reservation, would agree.

Teacher’s union president Carol Sutton of Connecticut told the New York Times: “I’m here because I really feel that every major social movement in this country has come when people get together. It begins in the streets.” — and I would agree with her. I have attended multiple environmental protests, some as small as 11 people, others as large as 40,000, and they have all been inspirational and exciting. I wish I could have been in the streets of New York, standing shoulder to shoulder, with so many. Social change does begin in the streets, but that is the easy part.

Having such a number of people turn out for the climate march is sure to move the political gathering held at the United Nations. It is good to engage existing institutions and work for change, but this is a short-term solution. The long-term solution will require radicalism. It is here that I have my reservations about the strength of the movement. Engaging institutions will not accomplish what it is we must ultimately seek: Anarchism. Liberty would allow us to explore the idea of mutualism — with each other, and our ecology, by advancing the concept of ecosystem services in the liberated market. It is systems of power and domination, upheld by the state, that have allowed such a divorce of our societies from the natural world.

Most importantly, the burden of proof, the idea that a more sustainable order is worthy of human labor, falls on those of us in the environmental movement — not state institutions. Though engagement of current institutions is needed, we should ultimately seek their destruction and lead by example.

Here in lies the problem with many (certainly not all) movement environmentalists today — we speak in terms of state policy and authoritarian institutions. The same institutions that have failed all species time and time again. The systems of power and domination we so often turn to, from war to development, have long turned their backs on the natural order. They work only to obtain resources, not to preserve. Any state decree exalting the environment should be met with pure skepticism. War alone, the very health of the state, demands enough unsustainable resource extraction and fossil fuel use to propel human civilization into the full effects of anthropogenic climate change. Our plan of action should instead seek to tear down this authority with brute force. Independent scholar Kevin Carson explains:

Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state.

We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.

The question then becomes, what will follow? The answer is something both beautiful and complex, while liberating and dynamic. Perhaps it is time to revisit our classical naturalists — of which there are plenty. However, one thing that John Muir (or your favorite historical eco-advocate) and his ilk had was a connection to the natural world and a desire for conservation. They did not much care to talk about what governments ought to do, but rather what they ought not do. Environmental achievement was obtained by pronouncing the splendid beauty of natural ecosystems, the challenges facing nature, and the innate need to protect wild spaces — even for our own well-being. Muir and other environmental advocates also practiced their ideals as they labored for the great outdoors.

In order to meet the demands of a changing Earth we will have to adapt. We will be required to constantly change, just like our mountains and rivers. Anarchist and Deep-Ecologist Gary Snyder, in his essay, The Etiquette of Freedom, describes, in great detail, the need to reclaim the words nature, wilderness and wildness — and it is in wildness that we will discover anarchism.

Nature, of course, is the collective physical world — all landscapes and seascapes, all flora and fauna, free of development. Wilderness is uncultivated land, in a natural state, liberated of human behavior. Wildness, however, is the ultimate practice — a praxis of liberty. Wildness, according to Snyder, is the quality of being wild or untamed. Snyder notes that human beings are indeed wild, but this does not mean disorderly. In fact, he argues that wildness will lead to a highly ordered society where our relationship with nature will be interactive, thus allowing the construction of durable social systems. This is also an idea explored by naturalist anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his book, Mutual Aid – A Factor of Evolution [PDF]:

In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species[...] in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits[...] and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development[...] are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.

There is indeed mutualism everywhere in nature, just as in human society, but the concept is absent from systems of power and domination. If we are to take the environment, and the consequences of climate change seriously, it is our duty to abandon such systems as they represent the unsociable species — they restrict human innovation, exacerbate environmental change and are composed of a ruling caste who seek first and foremost their own preservation. Simply, they are doomed to decay — and thus our message along with them.

Environmentalism, in its purest form, seeks the elevation of human society along with the natural world. Conservation and sustainable resource use would re-organize our neighborhoods. We would be free to labor in our own communities, craft our own institutions and own the means of our production. We would have a mutual relationship with our surrounding ecology, where we could receive beneficial ecosystem services such as air and water purification, flood control, carbon sequestration, psychological benefits and much more simply by conserving natural areas.

The natural world would benefit from being liberated of sprawl. Complex ecosystems (even in urban areas) would be left intact. In such an order species decline would be mitigated by the protection and restoration of natural habitat. Furthermore, the more decentralized our societies, the more we are liberated from institutions that seek maximum utility of resources. Then, we could naturally reduce our carbon emissions without coercive force. Our communities will flourish when liberated of state.

This order is possible, it is up to us to obtain it. May our inclined labor craft a beautiful, sustainable existence? If we achieve such a feat, anarchism will be our method and we will know wildness, as it is the process of simply living free – the grandeur of such freedom is only attainable in liberty.

Two Competing Forces

The vast Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest lies in the political territories of California and Arizona and reaches south into Mexico. Its arid landscape is home to human industry and a complex ecosystem full of unique flora and fauna, mesas, canyons, arched rocks and other processes of deep time. It is thus governed by two competing forces: Political governance and natural boundaries.

In the Sonora, just outside of Coachella, California new development plans call for building tens of thousands of new homes on the landscape, converting wilderness to neighborhoods and town squares.

Media reports coming out of the southwest the past few months, however, note the great drought and water crisis gripping the region. Residents wonder where the water for even more sprawl will come from. NASA satellite mapping the region reveals incredible reductions in groundwater across the landscape. The trend is resource depletion, and we are warned it will only get worse.

But, the water shortage is not the crisis gripping the Southwest.

There is water everywhere in desert. Water flows in braided streams and deep channels such as the great Colorado. Water carves out canyons and gorges against quartz rich sandstone, occupies porous rock and nurtures incredible desert plants such as the flowering cacti. As desert enthusiast Edward Abbey writes in his book Desert Solitaire: “Water, water, water … There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount … There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

What is imperiling the desert is human domination of the landscape.

Planning, zoning and development ultimately seek economic growth. There are of course guidelines and restrictions, town hall meetings and financial statements, but at the end of the day centralized economic regimes will develop a landscape if there’s a profit to be made.

Landscapes have been divided, not based on the sciences of resource management, geology or ecology, but rather to serve political and economic ambitions. States draw fictional lines in the sand for the sole purpose of claiming landscapes as property to enclose, develop and regulate. The political boundary is a marker of centralized economic planning — an institution that sprouts cities, municipalities, lush green golf courses and dam construction in arid lands.

It is a pity that advocates of central planning, in the name of the environment no less continually deny that high-liberalism is a failed dogma. The market mechanism, however, coupled with common governance offers a fresh take on resource management. This adaptive approach allows us to analyze landscapes in terms of watersheds, ecosystems, capacity for food production, resources available for trade, cultural heritage and resource conservation.

Such an order would ensure that vast landscapes will rarely, if ever, be occupied by our bodies.

The market mechanism, free of sweeping land use policy, would naturally cap resource extraction at its maximum sustainable yield. There would be strong economic incentive for water conservation in arid lands, as opposed to the maximum utility we see today. This respect for natural boundaries would in turn limit the amount of sprawl into the landscape. In the commons, land is not a commodity, but a connection — a place of labor and heritage.

I have long admired the desert. In these lands geologic formations readily display the story of an ancient Earth, streams intricately carve new landscapes while deep canyons and alluvial fans speak to the power of time. The desert should not be subjected to the Anthropocene, but liberated from it.

Ghosts of Competition Present


There is a long held idea that ecological competition in the past is responsible for the species diversity and ecosystem structures we see today. This idea has been deemed the ghost of competition past. The ghost of competition present is an extension of the latter idea. The ghost of competition present hypothesis simply states that the effects of unsuccessful species on a final stable community have implications for that communities structure (Miller et al 2009). Simply put, unsuccessful invading species influence what species are successful in communities. There are four main ideas to the ghost of competition present idea:

  1. Successful species have weak interaction with other successful species.
  2. Successful species interact strongly with potential invading species.
  3. Successful species are influenced less by competition than their potential invaders (ghosts).
  4. When ghost species stop competing with an ecological community, species previously suppressed flourish, thus changing community composition (Miller et al 2009).

To help explain this idea, lets look at the long term effects of dinosaur extinction, and competition occurring today. The extinction of large dinosaurs allowed for the great diversification of both avian and mammalian faunas (Prothero 2004). Paleocene bird radiation, in fact, greatly resembles the mammalian diversification as the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs allowed for the evolution of large terrestrial vertebrates. The avian faunas at the time too experienced a grand radiation with the extinction of their closest relatives (Prothero 2004). The ghost of large terrestrial dinosaurs allowed for an onslaught of great diversification to the present day.

Moving from the Paleocene to the Holocene, mammalian radiation allowed for the establishment of human beings and the avian diversification allowed for the evolution of the Cerulean Warbler. Both species co-exist today and one can argue that they are currently competing for land and resources. In this scenario, humans are the ultimate invader. In some instances, such as strip mining, humans are restructuring ecosystems and habitat for the Cerulean Warbler in negative ways.

In terms of wilderness preservation though, humans are also contributing to the survival of the species. The Cerulean warbler is a charismatic song bird endemic to the Appalachian mountains. The Cerulean nests and raises its young in the Appalachian highlands among the canopies of deciduous trees. When not in the highlands, the songbird finds its home in mesic cove forests among large tracts of undisturbed habitat (USFWS 2006). Cerulean warblers nest and raise their young in large tracts of deciduous hardwood forests. For this reason they greatly enjoy the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee because they remain mostly forested. They also prefer a large forest patch size and choose to nest in hickory, oak and maple trees (USFWS 2006). Cerulean’s are considered area-sensitive because they prefer breeding in large forest tracts. They will breed in smaller forested stands in areas where the larger landscape is well-forested (USFWS 2006).

The Warbler is an important species because it is experiencing a rapid population decline due to habitat depletion and fragmentation. 70% of the population has vanished in the past three decades because of anthropogenic land use (USFWS 2006). In terms of surface mining, MTR sites and permits awaiting authorization, are located within the key breeding zones of the Cerulean (Boves 2010). There have been multiple studies conducted and research initiatives implored to examine the plight of the Cerulean. What has been exposed about mining and the Cerulean is alarming.

Appalachia in general, along with the Cumberland mountains, have a large history of resource extraction, and this only continues to grow. In terms of surface mining in the region, the report states that Tennessee has 78.2 million tons of bituminous coal (Beachy 2008). Mining occurs in both northern and southern Tennessee, the mines affecting Warbler habitat in Northern Tennessee are MTR/cross ridge contour mining sites (Beachy 2008). MTR sites occur on steep ridges at high elevations in the Cumberland Mountains, coinciding with optimal habitat for the Cerulean (Beachy 2008). Currently, there are large gaps of forest and heavy fragmentation due to surface mines. There is also a very hard edge currently placed on Cerulean habitat (Beachy 2008). In regards to MTR, Cerulean’s still nest around reclaimed sites but the breeding success rate has steeply declined a and they have not responded well to the hard edge placed on their habitat (brood parasitism, hotter temperatures, etc). There is believed to be a dramatic loss of available Cerulean habitat in the coming years resulting in a continual decline in population throughout the Cumberland’s, a core breeding zone for the entire species (Bullock 2007).

There are anthropogenic influences, such as wilderness areas, national parks and national forests where Cerulean’s are still experiencing breeding success (Boves 2010). In these areas, the role of the invader is different. As opposed to habitat destruction for resource extraction, in these areas the invader looks to maintain ecosystem function. Here natural disturbances are mimicked, or in the case of fire are often mitigated to ensure ecosystem stability. In this setting, human beings are ghosts as they are not establishing dominance over a protected area.

In summary, competition in the Paleozoic, between large dinosaurs, suppressed mammal and avian evolution. Mammals were often prey and avian diversity was slowed because they later filled the niche space of a large predator. With the extinction of the dinosaurs, the great mammalian and avian radiation began. Mammal evolution allowed for human beings, and avian evolution allowed for the establishment of the Cerulean Warbler. Today, as ultimate invaders, human resource extraction, especially in regards to mountaintop removal coal mining, is causing a precipitous population decline to the Cerulean species because we are greatly altering their natural habitat. However, in ecosystems such as publicly protected lands, human beings are working to enhance ecosystem health while suppressing ecosystem disturbance. In this instance, human beings are acting as a ghost species, not establishing dominance over a system. For this reason, Cerulean’s are successful at breeding in non disturbed areas and, furthermore, biological diversity is much greater in these areas.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri chant "hands up, don't shoot!"

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri chant “hands up, don’t shoot!”

A Teenager Slain

On Saturday, August 9, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was walking with a friend on the 2900 block of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. He was on his way home on the hot, humid afternoon, walking down the middle of the street when the two were approached by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. Reports of what happened next continue to change, but in the final analysis, Brown tried to flee, the officer raised his firearm, and a series of gun shots shattered the peace. Six bullets pierced the young mans flesh. The teenager fell face down on the hot asphalt as the officer towered over his slain body, radioing it in, preparing for paperwork.

Brown was unarmed. Witnesses say he had his hands raised in the air at the time he was shot.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!

The day following the shooting, police stated the officer had been pushed inside his car during a scuffle, noting Brown was shot multiple times after the incident and died on scene. A candlelight vigil was held for Brown later in the evening. After the vigil community members began protesting against police violence. In military garb, the police were ready to fight. As community members and police clashed, a riot ensued. When guns were aimed at the crowd, many protesters dropped to their knees and raised their hands toward the night sky, chanting, “hands up, don’t shoot!”

On August 11, protests against police spread throughout the town of Ferguson. In what are now dramatic images all over the Internet, a militarized police force launched tear gas at unarmed protesters. As violence erupted, it became clear that police were no longer “keepers of the peace” but rather “enforcers of the law.” As opposed to protecting property owners, police sought crowd control by aggressive tactics, aiming loaded automatic weapons at protesters. Violence escalated throughout the night.

By August 12, the eyes of the world were on Ferguson. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is now burned into all of our memories. Police in full combat gear, referred to as “warrior cops,” with automatic rifles, tear gas, and military vehicles turn their weapons toward an unarmed populace — “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” The image is too powerful for words.

Nationwide social media explodes. Solidarity movements pop up around the country. At Howard University, students gather together and tweet a now iconic photo with #handsupdontshoot – it quickly goes viral. Many in the United States begin to question why the police are so heavily armed — “Why does a working class neighborhood look like a war zone? Why are so many guns pointed at United States citizens? My God, that could happen here. He could have been our son.” The warrior cop is now on the minds of millions.

On August 13, there is even more outrage as journalists are arrested at a local McDonald’s. The press is not free to report and information is being withheld from the public. That night, police violence again escalates. Somewhere in the crowd a protester fills a glass bottle partway with gasoline, inserts a soaked rag or t-shirt and lights a molotov cocktail, hurling it at police. Police respond with more tear gas and smoke bombs.

On August 14, there is a sea change. A block party of sorts starts as a less combative highway patrol, led by Ferguson native Captain Ron Johnson, patrol the streets as opposed to police force. The peace was short-lived, however, as a video of the murder is released to the public. The police came back, aggressive tactics were again used on the crowd and, as of August 19, the National Guard has now made its way into Ferguson.

Police order is crumbling, however, as there is growing strength in protest and crowds. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” is the theme of the revolution. The tables have turned, the state is looking for a fight — the protesters are looking to challenge the existing order . As explained by Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker who is present in the Missouri town:

The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics … disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby … Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.

We are all watching.

Hotter Than a Match Head

Dressed in camouflage pants and black body armor, wearing gas masks and military visors, it is clear the local police in Ferguson, Missouri are not out patrolling a beat to keep the peace, they are prepared for war.

This is no hyperbole, the very uniforms worn by police (and now the National Guard) can escalate the risk of violence in this already tense situation. As reported by Vox, former Seattle police chief Norman Stamper warns that when police dress in military uniforms, they contribute to an atmosphere of hostility. Stamper warns of the Warrior Cop mentality, noting the military garb can lead police to “view the community as the enemy. In the process they [police officers] become an occupational force where they are in charge — in the name of control, in the name of public safety, taking actions that actually undermine legitimate control.”

Accompanying the outfits is the military issue M-4 Carbine. The rifle is a favorite of United States military personnel. Weighing in, loaded, at roughly 7.5 pounds, the M-4 enables the police in Ferguson to engage the public in both close quarters and at extended range. It is an exquisite weapon, slowly replacing the M-16 as the military firearm of choice because it is shorter and lighter than the standard issue rifle. It is an automatic, and can also pump out three round bursts. The rifle is accurate and lethal. In the hands of police, it is being pointed at everyday people like you and I at will. Whether packed with live rounds, rubber or wooden bullets it is sure to instill fear.

Also making headlines is police use of tear gas. This past Sunday, August 17, an eight year old boy was left hysterical, sobbing and gasping for breath when a gas canister burst where he was standing. Tear gas is a chemical mist or gas that is utilized to irritate the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. When used, the gas is fired from shells that serve as dangerous projectiles in their own right. Once ignited, the chemical agent not only produces tears, but can cause coughing or choking if inhaled. The symptoms are usually temporary, but they are frightening and in severe cases tear gas can cause asthma attacks, eye/nerve damage and chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, Vox further informs:

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which the US is a party, prohibits the use of tear gas in combat. However, that treaty contains an exception for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,” which allows tear gas to be used by police officers in situations like the Ferguson protests.

That means that using the gas in Ferguson doesn’t necessarily break the law, but the U.S. army would be violating a treaty if it used the same tactics in Afghanistan.

In addition, police are driving around in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs). These are military vehicles built to withstand land mines or homemade bombs. These rigs were designed specifically for the Iraq invasion, making their debut in the desert nation in 2007. They now line the streets of a working class American neighborhood, transporting warrior cops from street to street, intimidating American citizens.

And the protesters? It is August in the south. It is hot, but more than just the heat, it is thick and humid. The combat gear, the M-4s, the tear gas and the MRAPs are being deployed against folks in flip-flops, shorts and tank-tops.

It is this image, the warrior cop against the working class civilian, that has sparked outrage across the nation. The cops are not the good guys this time. The politicians, such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, are having their motives questioned. All eyes are on Ferguson, not because of civil unrest that threatens the fabric of a nation — but because of the nation. For the first time there is a clear line in the sand: It’s the state against you.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald recently wrote that the events unfolding in Ferguson are “the destructive by-product of several decades of deliberate militarization of American policing.” He is accurate in his statement. When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the federal government started arming police with military grade weapons. A provision in the NDAA allowed the military to transfer gear from the Department of Defense to local police, largely to fight the drug war. After 9/11 and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, police militarization was used for counter terrorism measures.

Nearly half a billion dollars worth of military gear was distributed to thousands of police departments in 2013 alone. As we can see, these weapons are not used for drug regulation or counter terrorism — they are used on an engaged populace. The people of Ferguson are rightly protesting the murder of one of their own by the hands of a cop. They now have an army of cops escalating violence in their grief-stricken community.

But the eyes of the world are with them. Solidarity campaigns are popping up everywhere. The United States government has been fending off a major rebellion for some time now. The events in Ferguson show systemic racism and classism. The events have opened old wounds while bringing new ones into discussions at the dinner table. Around the country, people are becoming less docile and we are questioning each other: “How does something like this happen, and more importantly, what are we to do?”

A Power Greater Than the State

It seems all the combat gear has done nothing to deter direct protest. To date, more than 50 people have been arrested in protests following the death of Michael Brown. Protesters have even chose to directly engage the police station. “They brought this on themselves,” says Adam Burcher of Ferguson. He has been standing outside the Ferguson Police Department with a sign that reads “Stop Killing.” In fact, even outside of Missouri, solidarity protests have popped up around the country and there are those who sympathize with protesters around the globe. The state has ensured its own fate in this situation, it responded in typical top-down fashion — use violence to create quiescence within the community.

Instead of quiescence state action has sparked rebellion. Some protestors are meeting police force with violence, others with peace, all with resolve. Protesters have not been swayed by aggression, but in a twist that happens all too often, they have actually been empowered by it. When out gunned, the power of the crowd pulled them through. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” has painted the perfect picture for the eyes of the world.

What we are witnessing in Ferguson is the pure power of democracy. A movement has been born in the crowd. Contrary to what is being reported in the media, there is not true chaos in the streets. The elements of violence have been exacerbated by the police. What we do see, however, are cooperative individuals trying to achieve a mutual goal — the end of systemic racism, classism and liberation from police violence. The protesters have not lost their minds, they are united. There is solidarity in revolution and it proves social power is greater than state power.

In the days since the shooting the local QuikTrip gas station/convenience store, looted and burned on the second night of protest, is, now, a gathering place for organizers and activists within the community. As again explained by :

The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such as Thursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton.

Folks are reclaiming their town. As much as systemic racism is part of the story in Ferguson, so is systemic poverty and abuse of power. As mass demonstrations rise (and they will continue to rise) we will witness a game change in our towns. We will seek the decentralization of power, rid ourselves of corrupt politicians, liberate markets, boycott exploitative business practices and seek equality. In order to do this, there will have to be a reclaiming of the commons — and that is exactly what is happening in Ferguson.

Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher famous for his observation that there are no neutral places in the city. Power moves throughout public spaces, rendering them not public at all, but rather places of state. Capital again secures one status in the city, causing a rather large problem in low-income communities. Lefebvre argued being a community member should not be dependent on property ownership or access to capital, but by democratic participation. In reclaiming the convenience store, by taking to the streets at night and standing up to police and state enforced curfew, the protesters are sending a clear message: This is our town.

A fundamental issue being addressed right now is power and property dynamics. Will the folks in Ferguson be able to maintain control of their town from the state? Can they prevail against state power and state capitalism? As tax money is thrown at more affluent areas, can an Ostromite interpretation of common ownership build a more perfect community, liberated from top-down decree? Will it hold? Can the powers that be allow it? This is of course radically complex, but we have seen sparks of hope before — 300 citizens took back Taksim Square in Turkey, after all, while the burn of tear gas still occupied the air.

The ramifications of what is occurring in Ferguson go far deeper than the politics normally addressed, if sustained, it will start a wave of revolution — it may join the ranks of the Occupy and Liberty movements in the United States. Another age of change may have a chance to rise.

For the Long Haul

There is a growing sentiment today within political circles that folks are tired of tried and failed conservative institutions, existing solely to uphold the existing social order. There is also a distrust of high liberalism, seeking to empower these institutions even further. The ranks of people who no longer endorse the existing halls of power grow with each passing day. We do not want to play witness to a simple change in institutional order, we want to take our place in history and change how we organize our lives.

There is no electoral way to move forward on this goal — only direct action. Only in rendering institutions useless, only by starting our own alternatives will we be successful. There is no single answer to the problems that have given rise to the situation in Ferguson, there is no way top-down decree will ever successfully manage the lives of individuals who simply long to be free of institutionalized repression. Addressing problems from the top down, via the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and so on and so on only exacerbates the problems of everyday people.

No more can we look to vertical power structures. We need a polycentric approach. How liberating it will be to embrace the idea that we can manage ourselves! Is this not the very essence of the “hands up, don’t shoot!” movement? Is it not the idea that social power is the answer to police violence, racism within the justice system and class warfare? I think it is, we are looking at systems of power, noting how they are all related and seeking our individual and collective liberation. As we walk into this period of revolution, once we really start talking to one another, we will scale these problems up to all institutions — damn right a change is going to come!

I think it is healthy that we are doubting the dogmatism. Conservatives don’t think so, we are leaving their institutions behind. Liberals fear the populace, for we seek to strip them of their beloved institutions as well. It is libertarianism that empowers us the challenge and question the existing order, and it is anarchism that will allow us to dismantle systems of illegitimate authority and oppression. In Ferguson we are not taking the bait, we don’t believe the police are just trying to maintain the peace — a look at one photograph makes that notion ridiculous. Power should lie with the protesters.

Social power is continuing its rise against state power. The revolutionary spirit is incredibly human. It is my hope that we continue to reclaim the commons. If solidarity movements can spread like wildfire in the face of combat police, I have no doubt that we will win in our march toward liberty. In doing so, property and community will no longer be utilized to keep us apart, by reclaiming them we will come together. There is no greater way to invade the state than to demand agency. For this reason, and so many others, I am in solidarity with folks on the streets of Ferguson, in the hollers of Appalachia, the canyons of Utah, in the streets of Gaza, the halls of Israel and where all seek the destruction of illegitimate authority.

At this time, may we pursue absolute liberty? May we achieve the goal of dismantling coercive power structures as opposed to altering them? The current potential for societal change is astounding.

I don’t know what has given rise to past revolutionary movements. I don’t know what sparked radical politics at Berkeley in the 60′s, protests against the Vietnam War, peace movements, opposition to racism in the deep south, slave rebellions, establishment of the underground rail road, women’s liberation, confronting combat troops in the streets of Ferguson and so on — but in the face of all these entrenched systems of power people did rise. Today the people rise again.

It is time to earn whatever lies beyond the next great social movement. We will be better because of it — Hands up, don’t shoot!

Intellectual Property is a Hurdle to Self Direction

Perhaps the most rewarding experience of education is self direction. Here, the individual fully enjoys their own labor. Whatever ones interests are, self direction is achieved on ones own terms. Education promotes initiative, creativity, co-operative/mutual labor and healthy academic competition in ones field to cultivate a learning network.

This is certainly true in my own case. As a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, I was able to develop my education in the best way I saw fit. I took the classes I was interested in (for the most part) but, more importantly, my research topic, methods and field work were left in my control. My adviser was great, helped me along, but my experience was very much self-directed. I saw a problem, and gathered data on a topic I was fully engaged in.

This is the very basis of the scientific method. We are encouraged to doubt and question the existing order, to follow self-direction and formulate our own hypotheses to work towards possible conclusions. In fact, an old academic motto notes that learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but instead respond in different ways to the stream of knowledge and its current. Science, by its very definition, is open source.

Under self-direction, peer-to-peer learning is incredibly important. Focusing specifically on Higher Education, particularly graduate academics, there is a need and reliance on empirical data. The goal of graduate research is to add to a body of knowledge that seeks understanding of a system or concept. In order to conduct such research, one must not only understand their field, but also be granted access to data, information and the methods used to obtain such data. In today’s academic institutions this is championed, but there do exist barriers to achieving this goal – one of the greatest is perhaps Intellectual Property (IP).

I have published everything as open source content, and my publication (coming soon to a journal near you) for my MS research will follow. I worked on the use of freshwater clams as sentinel species to monitor the health of streams receiving acid drainage from coal surface mine operations. I want the results of my data available to the public. I want my experiment improved upon, its methods updated and for the idea to further progress – just as I added to the work of others before me. Open source is key for progress, it allows the free flow of scientific information. IP keeps this from happening.

Take the case of Diego Gomez, a 26-year-old Columbian Master’s student whose research interest is biodiversity conservation.Throughout his academic career, access to academic journals on global research databases was extremely limited due to lack of institutional resources. Because of this, Gomez became dependent on the Internet. The web allowed him to research, share documents and talk with colleagues. To further collaboration, when he and others came across relevant papers they shared them together over the net.

One such paper landed him in legal trouble when the author filed a lawsuit over the “violation of [his] economic and related rights.” Under the allegations of this lawsuit, reports EFF, Gomez could be sent to prison for up to eight years and face crippling monetary fines. His crime is violation of IP law – patentscopyright and trademarks that restrict human labor and innovation.

This is the curse of IP – excessive restrictions upheld by laws used to protect the “economic rights” of authors. Instead of promoting scientific progress we are instead beholden to copyright. Instead of allowing human innovation to flourish, we are told ideas should be owned.  IP reserves itself the monopoly of coercion, it does not exist to ease, facilitate and grant social innovation – it prevents such progress. IP is a hurdle to self direction and thus the inclined labor of human beings. The solution is to question and dismantle this authority, furthering our progress towards a free society.

Luckily, we are well on our way in the age of network mutualism. Falling communication costs are allowing us to build anew within the shell of the old. The open access movement occurring on the Internet is creating global markets for free association among social networks that educate and inspire – totally void of traditional power structures. The creative, innovative potential for human labor in the Internet age is astounding.

In a free society ideas will not be owned. Ideas are powerful and fundamental to human flourishing — they should not be caged by legal activism. Instead, imagine a different order – one crafted by creative expression, innate interests and the ingenuity of a free society. To achieve greatness we must continue to advance todays emerging, beautiful anarchic order. Open source content is fundamental to our success.


Network Mutualism

photo credit

photo credit

This post is authored by me, but originally appeared at C4SS. Enjoi!

Human communication systems offer incredible insight to the creative nature of human beings, spontaneous social order and emerging markets within our societies. For the first time in human history we are sharing ideas from the local to the global in scale. With the advent of the Internet, social media and growing social networks, communication costs are at an all time low. These falling communication costs, as at every time in our collective history, are allowing us to work around traditional power structures that have historically controlled the amount and type of information we receive. As the Internet is a mechanism for global communication, we are now cultivating ideas based on individual and collective interaction with people who hold similar interests.

The described collaborative nature of inclined labor in the freed market has far-reaching political and socioeconomic implications for our societies. Historical evidence suggests that social and cultural development are dependent upon active participation from people in their local communities (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993). Emerging communication technologies and the spread (and ease of access to) information can lead to a transfer of authority from centralized institutions to neighborhood or community organizations (McCook 2000). Human communication systems play a fundamental role in the empowerment of all people and provide a wide range of benefits to communities (Wilcox 1996). Altruism is alive and well in the Internet age. The collaborative nature of the Internet, the ease of access to information, and the development of local to global markets over the net are of particular interest to market anarchists. After all, what better place to work on a project with peers, or organize a rebellion? The Molinari Institute website defines market anarchism this way:

Market anarchism is the doctrine that the legislative, adjudicative, and protective functions unjustly and inefficiently monopolised by the coercive State should be entirely turned over to the voluntary, consensual forces of market society.

The market anarchist seeks differing and competing modes of social organization. Market anarchism maintains replacing the state with a decentralized society is desirable because of the feasibility of, and the liberating principles innate to, left-wing free market economics. What better example of voluntary social organization exists than the vast networks emerging on the Internet? Important here is the concept of information ecology. Information ecology is a system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular environment (Nardi & O’Day 1999) or community. This idea of information ecology helps us better understand human communication systems and how information moves within them – how is information used, who needs certain types of information, who is impacted by access (or lack there of) of information and what does this mean for our communities?

As communication continues its decentralized evolution in the age of the Internet more stakeholders will take active roles in community development, empowering people like never before (Mehra 2009). The online encyclopedia “Wikipedia,” for example, explicitly restricts corporations or governments from uploading information to its online content, instead allowing only individuals to add, remove or change content on the website (Kaplan 2010). Driving this collaborative effort is the idea that the labor of many individuals leads to better availability of information than any single person or actor could individually achieve (Fama 1970). The idea is that collaborative projects lead to more efficient markets. Collaborative projects enable the creation of information by interested users and are incredibly democratic.

A political example of this democratization is occurring right now in China. Yang (2003) notes that civil society and the Internet are dependent upon each other. The Internet facilitates the activities of a civil society by creating new markets for citizen participation. Civil society facilitates further development of the Internet by creating the social capital (citizens and citizen groups) for communication and interaction (Yang 2003). This co-evolution of the Internet and society has big implications for China’s model of government (even as the Chinese government attempts to control access to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook), as Yang explains:

The co-evolution of the Internet and civil society means that political control of the Internet in China will have to take the form of control of civil society as well, and vice versa. Both options are open to the state, but the simultaneous control of the Internet and civil society will add to the difficulty and complexity of control. The co-evolutionary process also means that civil society development will facilitate the democratic uses of the Internet as much as the diffusion of the Internet will shape civil society. This scenario may have long-term consequences for the development of the Internet and civil society in China.

Many more examples of networked decentralization exist across the net. Human beings are fond of organizing in groups and with new technology we are in the beginning phases of building a global market defined by collaborative social action.

The Internet, information technology and falling communication costs provide easy-access to local/regional/global/stigmergic networks. Communication networks are easily coordinated and create ‘‘virtual public spheres’’ (Langman 2005). Virtual public spheres are places in cyberspace where people and information intersect in virtual communities or subcultures (Langman 2005). Communities that are organized and cultivated on the Internet are just as real as the face-to-face interactions humans use on a daily basis. The Internet provides a space where people can acquire and share information as well as interact, debate and negotiate about issues pertaining to society (Langman 2005) – elevating the speech of all individuals, not just those in a position of power, like never before in human history. The Internet is incredibly empowering – the feedback loop between the Internet and civil society is an engine driving cultural evolution.

The rise of global communication, among all tiers of society, will have huge implications for the future of human civilization. It is important then, for all libertarian theorists, anarchists, and liberty minded individuals to recognize and challenge threats to the Internet. As empowering as network mutualism can be, technology also tends to centralize power – especially as it is the privileged intelligentsia that mainly moves innovation in this field forward. This gives the elite few the power of dominance over the many. Technology is often born in a system of bureaucratic control that champions a social structure based in top-down hierarchies. This is why the democratic nature of the Internet and our virtual public spheres are so unique – they deserve our protection. Wherever there is human flourishing, rest assured either a state or corporate bureaucrat (often both) discover a system they argue needs taxation, moderation, regulation and/or prohibition. Take Zach Epstein‘s warning  that a new privacy-killing CISPA clone is now a step closer to becoming law. He writes:

We all remember the outrage that swept the Internet and ultimately played a role in defeating CISPA, a proposed law that would have allowed government agencies and tech companies to exchange private information about United States citizens without their knowledge and without a warrant. Well, it’s time to get ready for another round of outrage because CISPA’s controversial successor is now a step closer to becoming law.

He is referring to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2014 – approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee in mid-July. The new law (CISA) would allow companies to share private user data with local and federal law enforcement if the claim is made that it relates to any kind of alleged criminal activity. Another piece of legislation allowing the state-corporate apparatus to set-up wiretaps without warrant.

Now take the much more discussed Net-Neutrality debate. The Federal Communications Commission received more than 1 million public comments on the issue of net neutrality during a five-month commenting period for a proposal that would allow cable companies to charge content providers extra fees to deliver faster service. NPR reports it is the biggest public response the FCC has ever gotten on a policy matter in such a short period, and the second most commented-upon FCC issue, period. The overwhelming response from the public was that the internet should remain open in nature to ensure its benefits can be shared by all. In the same article, however, NPR asks George Washington University law professor Richard Pierce if the record breaking comments will even matter in the long run. Pierce notes that this has been extensively studied by academics and their research shows that rule-making or policymaking tends to be systemically biased to favor the industries that are affected by the regulation. NPR reprots:

In a recent example, Pierce points to the work of Kimberly Krawiec. Krawiec read all of the comments that were submitted in the rule-making that led to the Volcker rule — part of the Dodd-Frank Act’s banking reforms. She also reviewed the logs that described the meetings that agency decision makers had with parties who were interested in the outcome of that proceeding. Krawiec found that, while proponents of strict regulation of financial institutions dominated the comment process numerically, their comments were useless to decision makers, because the vast majority of them were identical form letters without data or analysis. The folks who do comment with the detail, data and analysis that can change minds? Deep-pocketed industries.

The academic conclusion: Research (and history) shows public comments do not affect outcomes – money talks. But, our speech is empowered like never before over the net. The best thing we can do for the Internet is to keep up the trend of decentralization. So far, the national debate has presented us with only two options:

  1. We need the state to protect us from losing the internet to corporate control via regulation and legislative decree, or
  2. We need the state to protect moneyed interests so corporations can practice their rights in the (state) capitalist market.

We must remember there is a third option – maintain common, mutual control over the net. By the very nature of information ecology, we can keep the Internet innovative and free. All battles against the state and capital are uphill but we are all empowered by the Internet. As the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) notes, as long as we continue to build and provide access to new market opportunities and create safe havens for free speech, the Internet will continue to empower and equalize horizontal social organization as opposed to vertical, top down hierarchies around the globe. We are winning, simply because we talk and are inclined to labor with one another. Information technologies are allowing for revolutions in markets, thus effecting business, government and global culture. For the first time in human history there is truly global communication. Though it is still a large privilege to have access to the Internet, more and more people, of many different socio-economic statuses, are crossing the digital divideand beginning to talk. As Tim Malone writes in The Future of Work about the coming revolution:

The new revolution promises to lead to a further transformation in our thinking about control. Where does power come from? Who should wield it? Who is responsible? Once again the result will be in a world where people have more freedom. A world in which power and control are spread more widely than our industrial aged ancestors would have ever thought possible… Dispersed physically but connected by technology, workers are now able, on a scale never before imaginable, to make their own decisions using information gathered from many other people and places.

As Malone points out, emerging orders in society will continue the trend of decentralization. If left in common control the net will continually become democratic, highly organized, structured and efficient – it will be anarchic progress. There has been a constant push throughout human history to decentralize when the time is optimal. The emergence of democracy, for example, shows off this trait. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced social evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and governance. We are connected and with each blog, tweet, event, post or review prove we are not neutral, but instead are revolutionaries for network mutualism.

Works Cited:

Fama, E. F. (1970) Efficient Capital Markets: A Review of Theory and Empirical Work. Journal of Finance, vol. 25 no. 2, 383—417. Kaplan, Andres and Michael Hanlein. (2010) Users of the World Unite! The Challenges and Opportunities of  Social Media. Business Horizons. Kretzmann, J. P. & L. McKnight. (1993) Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Communities Assests. Institute for Policy Research. Langman, Lauren. (2005)From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements. American Sociological Association. Malone, Thomas W. (2004) The Future of Work. Harvard Business School Press McCook, K. (2007) A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building. ALA Editions. Mehta, Bharat & Ann Peterson Bishop. (2004) The Internet for Empowerment of Minority and Margenalized Users. New Media and Society Vol6 (6):781–802 Mehra, Bharat and Ramesh Srinivasan. (2007) The Library-Community Convergence Framework for Community Action: Libraries as Catalysts of Social Change. Libri, vol. 57,  123–139. Nardi, B & V. O’Day. (1996) Information Ecologies: Using Information with Heart. MIT Press. Wilcox D. (1996) Inventing the Future – Communities in the Information Society. NCVO. Yang, Guobin. (2003) The Co-Evolution of the Internet and Civil Society in China. University of California Press, vol. XLIII, no. 3.

A Mountain Justice Summer

Mountain Justice Summer 2014

Mountain Justice Summer 2014

The temperate, deciduous, mountain rain-forests of Central and Southern Appalachia are recognized as a biodiversity hotspot of global significance. In Eastern Kentucky stands Pine Mountain, among the most beautiful and biologically diverse mountains in the region — equipped with gentle views, waterfalls, endemic flora and fauna and undisturbed forests. In June the mountain was also home to a community dedicated to a sustainable Appalachia — the folks of Mountain Justice.

Mountain justice is both a call to action, and a call for help, from communities in the Appalachian Mountains. Specifically, Mountain Justice is a gathering of numerous concerned citizens and coalitions who are part of a growing network to abolish mountaintop removal valley fill operations and transition mountain communities beyond coal.

To date, more than 520 mountains throughout Appalachia have been leveled by mountaintop mining. More than 1.1 million hectares (an area three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) of temperate forest have been converted to moonscape  and more than 2000 km of streams have been buried. Though there are reclamation requirements, to date, there is no evidence to suggest the environmental impairment of this practice can be offset.

There is a large toll to human populations as a result of these operations as well. Numerous health risks exist in Appalachian communities as a result of air and water pollution and industrial disaster is rampant in the coalfields. As environmental health is depressed, so are markets. Billions of dollars in wealth have been extracted from mountain communities only to enrich extractive resource industries, energy monopolies, state governments and the federal government – leaving coalfield residents in immense poverty. Appalachian history is wrought with class struggle, environmental degradation and corporatism. The mountains are on the front lines of the war with the politically connected – and Mountain Justice is striking back.

For ten years now Mountain Justice has worked on a diversity of tactics to end the destruction of Appalachian coalfield communities — from “paper wrenching” to non-violent direct action. Mountain Justice summer camp has become a staple of the Appalachian movement, it is a community; many know each other and alliances are quickly made. Mountain Justice Summer lasted ten days and featured workshops, training sessions, and good old fashioned story telling about Appalachian history and culture. Of course what is a summer camp without traditional foot stompin’ mountain music, films, bonfires, home cooked meals and camping?  All were present at Mountain Justice, accompanied with a healthy dose of revolution.

Particularly interesting about Mountain Justice (and almost all of Appalachian organizing for that matter) is the leaderless coordinating style of the movement. Groups are organized, decisions are made and actions are carried out without top-down hierarchies, but rather cooperative decision-making. The movement operates in the tradition of anarchist, anti-authoritarian social innovation. I cannot claim the entire movement hopes for a stateless society, but it is important to note the decentralized themes prevalent throughout Appalachian transition. The movement strives for economic and environmental sustainability — all to be achieved by local and worker ownership of the means of production, community owned democratic energy systems and solidarity economics.

Most importantly, the movement is achieving its goals. These small scale, decentralized markets are rising in the Appalachian coalfields. In West Virginia, coal miners who lost their jobs to the mechanization of the industry have started developing environmental markets. Worker coalitions are helping communities save money via efficiency programsCoal River Mountain Watch is achieving democratic energyDirect action after direct action raises awareness and halts new coal generation, closes strip mines and alleviates poverty. Because of groups like Mountain Justice regeneration is coming to Appalachia.

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Building Sustainable Markets

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

At this blog, I try to keep things near and dear to issues impacting the Appalachian bio-region – though I do stray from time to time. In the past I have published blogs about national affairs and US foreign policy, and I sometimes slip and post things to this site in that vein, but I am trying to keep things at this blog as regional as possible, hence the name Appalachian Son (though you can find all of my political writing at

But, for this third “Neighborhood Environmentalism” piece I am going to stray a bit again and call attention to something that is happening in China. I am doing this because there is an incredible amount of ecological destruction happening in the country right now, and it is because of something all too familiar to Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Valley Fill operations. Chinese scientists are also looking to the same tired environmental players within the United States to help mitigate the situation (but not stop it). It is an important story, and if we can adopt solidarity economics in Appalachia, then perhaps we can offer a new way forward for China as well.

Just as Appalachia, the mountains and alpine forests of Central China are home to an incredible array of flora and fauna. The botanical richness of the high desert bioregion alone make the Chinese mountains a biodiversity hotspot. Specifically, the area provides crucial habitat to avian species, mammals and endemic vascular plants.

In a time of precipitous biodiversity loss, on course to yield the sixth great extinction, there should be high priority placed on protecting biodiversity. Instead of curbing habitat loss, the leading cause of extinction, however, the Chinese government actively pursues it. In the rich bioregion of central China, home to numerous species of endemic plants and animals, the state is leveling 700 mountains for economic development.

An article published earlier this June, by Chinese Scientists Peiyue LiHui Qian and Jianhua Wu, in the international journal, Nature, argues “the consequences of these unprecedented programmes have not been thought through — environmentally, technically or economically.” The authors go on to argue that such projects ultimately result in air and water pollution, soil erosion and large-scale geological hazards such as land subsidence. The authors conclude this project will lead to vast destruction of forests and agricultural fields – endangering rare flora and fauna.

State controlled media offers an alternative story, however, noting the loss of mountain habitat in the region will “lead to the creation of an environmentally sustainable economy based on energy-saving industries.” In their Nature article, though, the Chinese scholars note: “Many land-creation projects in China ignore environmental regulations, because local governments tend to prioritize making money over protecting nature.” The authors close by arguing the Chinese government needs to further research the project, recruiting help from other government organizations such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Geological Survey and an international association of hydrologist’s from the United States and Canada. Though I agree more environmental protection would relieve some ecological stress, these recommendations do not strike the root of the problem – state economic power.

There is a strong tendency among environmentalists to empower the state, which is odd as there is a continual process of compromise between conservationists, big business and government courts that results in ever more encroachment on wilderness. If we instead apply laissez-faire politics to land management we may begin to view land as it is (natural, beautiful and important) as opposed to how it should be.

American libertarian and political philosopher Karl Hess Jr., in his book Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range, attributes the decline in health of natural lands to inherent problems in government policy, ecological destabilization due to government intrusion and the destructiveness of sweeping land use policies. Hess believes that instead of looking for more laws and regulations to manage natural resources (inevitably enhancing state economic power) we should instead seek an economic system based on voluntary market interactions without the involvement of the state.

This adaptive approach to ecological protection yields incredible results. Take for instance the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Her work reveals environmental sustainability is not the product of government intervention, but instead a result of self organized institutions where key management decisions are made as organically as possible. It is also wise to remember the old community based, sustainable management of village lands – suppressed by the great landlords, the communist state and the neoliberal state in succession.

Homogenization is dangerous for both world ecosystems and economics. Nature and human civilization are incredibly complex and dynamic – neither will be sustained by sweeping ideas of natural resource management.

Ecological systems and free markets share an affinity for diversity and both long for sustainability. The dissolution of power and control will advance best management practices. For this reason, we should not look vertically to state institutions, but horizontally to one another in the market. The goal should not be expanding the floor of the cage, the goal should be abolition. Neighborhood environmentalism will build sustainable markets — and markets are beautiful.

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Toward Democratic Energy

Phto Credit: TheNews.Coop - Democratic Energy Transition

Phto Credit: TheNews.Coop – Democratic Energy Transition

As a boy in the southeast African nation of Malawi, William Kamkwamba harnessed the wind.  In 2002, drought and famine — common problems in one of the world’s least-developed countries — forced the boy and his family to forage for food and water as thousands starved.

Kamkwamba, however, knew if he could build a windmill he would bring water and electricity to his family. So he pulled together scrap metal, tractor parts and bicycles, constructing a peculiar, but functioning, windmill. The contraption was viewed as a miracle — it powered four lights and turned a water pump that ameliorated the crisis. News of his “electric wind” spread quickly and was emulated.

Kamkwamba’s story is one of democratic energy and neighborhood environmentalism. Access to information left the boy free to replicate the science of windmills. After construction, his work spread throughout the region. This is a prime example of social power. The boy who harnessed the wind is testament to the power of two ideas: Open source content and co-operative labor.

It is this kind of market approach, not sweeping policy from a centralized authority, that will meet the demands of the 21st century .

Take the newly proposed United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that aims to reduce carbon emissions. Hailed as a historic action, its mechanisms leave much to be desired.

Target emission reductions will be set for individual states. To meet these targets, states could renovate existing coal-fired power plants with “clean burning” technology — but clean coal is a dirty lie. States could switch to natural gas which produces less carbon — but natural gas emits methane at 21 times the greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide. State incentives to residents to be more energy-efficient are low hanging fruit that can do much, but alone cannot likely get the job done. Or states can work under a cap-and-trade program through which offsets undercut reductions, allowing big polluters to continue business as usual.

Furthermore, there still remain state enforced laws such as compulsory pooling and eminent domain which allow big polluters to disregard property rights and wreck natural habitats that naturally offer the ecosystem service of carbon sequestration. There still remain intellectual property laws that permit patent monopoly, producing a barrier to competition in the market that could drive polluters under the regulation standard.

Conflict currently exists between the regulatory state and the energy elite, but it is latent. Utility monopolies such as Duke-Progress Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority (among others), coupled with industry giants King Coal, Big Oil and Fracked Gas have a lock on the energy market. Because of the state-capitalist system other market players (and people like you and I) remain economically dependent on these elite. The state knows this and is loyal to them. Its economic strength is fueled by the energy industry.

The very institution of the state encourages environmental degradation and closed markets. It’s time to dismantle such an illegitimate authority.

Taking democratic control of these institutions may be difficult, but for what it’s worth, I remain an optimist. We continue to strive for the beautiful ethic of liberty. Until actualized, may we begin to disassociate as much as possible and take a lesson from the boy who harnessed the wind. In the open source technological age, with the resources and infrastructure available to us, we can labor for neighborhood solutions and begin the magnificent struggle for democratic energy. In fact we already have.

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Protecting Biodiversity

South Loop Trail - Knoxville Urban Wilderness

South Loop Trail – Knoxville Urban Wilderness

The environment, specifically climate change, is recieving some much deserved attention as of late. Discussion of climate change is healthy and necessary, but it seems the politico-media complex exclusively discusses climate, leaving other urgent crises to fall under the radar.

One such crisis is Earth’s impending sixth mass extinction. We live in a time of precipitous biodiversity loss — on par with the extinction rate that ended the age of the dinosaurs. A complete tally of recent extinctions and imperiled species (along with causes) can be found at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) website –

Stuart Pimm of Duke University, a recognized expert in the field of conservation biology, has published a landmark study in the peer-reviewed journal Science. Pimm’s publication describes the current plight of flora and fauna around the planet. Pimm notes that species are disappearing at least 1,000 times faster than the natural background rate – ten times faster than ecologists previously believed. “We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” Pimm said in a statement about his research. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”

There are a number of factors causing species decline. The major culprit, however, is not climate change — it’s habitat loss.

Over 50% of the human population now lives in cities, as populations expand, so too does urbanization. This creates an incredible challenge to species conservation as the total size of urban spaces in the United States now exceeds the total size of areas protected for conservation. It is important, then, for markets to develop that encourage biodiversity conservation.

Pimm is right: Whether or not we avoid a biodiversity crisis depends on our actions. It is time to embrace neighborhood environmentalism and reclaim the commons.

“Growth at any cost” economics, the dogma of neo-liberalism and government institutions, utilizes precious landscapes and resources needed for ecological subsistence. Even programs that seek mechanisms for conservation, such as the United Nation’s REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), inadvertently promote the total exploitation of natural areas, simply because regulation diverts resource extraction to unprotected land/seascapes.

Enclosure movements (acquisition of territories for the state or private capital) more often than not exploit natural landscapes. To the contrary, democratic management of natural areas has resulted in best sustainability practices.

The work of Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom demonstrates environmental protection increases with Common Pool Resource InstitutionsArun Agrawal, in his work Environmentality, notes sustainable forest policy emerged in the Kumoan region of the Himalayas as a result of decentralized, democratically controlled resource management. In our cities, the establishment of urban wilderness areas popping up around the globe, from the labor of civic sector institutions and private citizens, are protecting large expanses of forest and crucial habitat from economic exploitation – my favorite example hails from the Scruffy City of Knoxville, Tennessee, where over 1,000 acres of forested habitat has been preserved.

There are many more examples of freed markets protecting wilderness and ecosystem services. This protection simultaneously provides ancillary benefits to all flora and fauna — including humans. Government institutions and concentrations of private capital are all too often hurdles to the implementation of policies that can ease the current biodiversity crisis.Neighborhood Power is the way of the future — conservation depends on it.


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