appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

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.

A Pox on the King

Image Credit:

Image Credit: – Coal Fire Power Plant

Of all the complex wicked problems addressed by the current environmental movement, perhaps the most urgent is climate change.  The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that ecosystems are rather vulnerable to changing climates, with a large number of species (upwards of 40%) at risk of extinction if current warming trends continue. It is well noted in the peer-reviewed literature that concentrations of  important greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere have increased markedly since the advent of industrial society – a product of anthropogenic utility of fossil fuels (though factors such as deforestation have also played a role). Beyond the human race, the success or failure of the environmental movement holds great implications for all flora and fauna and all of Earths most vast and wondrous landscapes and seascapes

Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy for industrial (and industrializing) societies. Particular to the United States, fossil fuels provide 85% of the nation’s energy. Of the three pillars of the fossil industry – oil, natural gas and coal – coal is king. Coal is the primary source of energy for the United States, providing over half of the electricity consumed by Americans. Coal is king because it fuels the grid of industrialized society. Coal also just so happens to be the most carbon intensive fossil resource. A kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal produces 2.4 lbs of carbon dioxide which is more than double the amount for oil and natural gas. Though responsible for just half the electricity generated in the United States, King Coal is responsible for 80% of the carbon dioxide released by utilities.

Imagine the sense of urgency the environmental movement must have felt, then, in the spring of 2007 when Energy Department analyst Erik Shuster circulated a document proposing 151 new coal-fired power plants be slated for construction. What to do about such a crisis?

Climate Hope, creit to

Climate Hope, credit to

I have just finished Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal by Ted Nace. This summer I hope to make progress on a study for The Center for a Stateless Society – Flowers of the Dark: A Libertarian Analysis of the Appalachian Coalfields. Nace’s Climate Hope was the first book on my reading list because it describes the extraordinary organizing methods and political engagement of environmental activists that empowered them to halt the construction of 109 of the proposed plants.

Climate Hope is a relatively easy, incredibly engaging read. Climate Hope is a testament to the power of democratic social movements, protest and the mobilization of citizen coalitions. The book tells the story of how organized people, from sit ins at coal surface mines, to blockades of large financial institutions, were able to deliver an incredible blow to what is arguably America’s most powerful industry.

Nace takes a comprehensive look at what the climate and anti-coal movements have experienced first hand – social movements that advance and uphold public welfare, seek justice and progress society. Climate Hope is a first person narrative of the authors own involvement in the environmental movement. The early chapters of the book describe his transformation from a concerned citizen to an activist, while the latter chapters describe in detail the growing anti-coal movement.

Nace opens his narrative with a discussion of climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. In May of 2007, Dr. Hansen, a prominent figure in the climate movement himself, argued that by simply moving beyond coal, 80% of the anthropogenic climate problem could be solved. Hansen, at the time, was a leading climate scientist at NASA and his declaration of “the 80% solution” is what inspired Nace to begin his activist work.

Nace then describes the environmental movement. He starts by looking at the campaigns of rather well-known (NRDC, Sierra Club, RAN, etc) civic sector institutions and how they proposed the United States move beyond coal. To his dismay, there was little being done on the “80% solution,” so Nace started what is now which serves as a global reference center about coal. The site contains information about coal plants (existing and proposed), strip mines, pit mines, industry officials, coal companies, coal politics and local to global environmental groups and actions.

Nace also informs readers about the heart and soul of the anti-coal campaign – democratic social movements. Though large campaigns are very important, those on the frontlines of the fight against coal are self-organizing. Of particular interest to the libertarian is the description of the modern environmental movement. Nace writes:

It was the famed leaderless coordinating style of the youth climate movement. Although direct action is most often associated with protesting against something, the youth climate movement can also be seen as a large, far-flung experiment in new ways to run groups and make decisions without top-down hierarchies and arbitrary authority. This puts the movement in the wide tradition of anarchist, anti-authoritarian social innovation.

And he is dead on with this description. If those of us in the environmental movement are to resist power and domination in our communities, how can we tolerate such forces in our movement? In my own experience organizing against mountaintop removal coal mining I have seen first hand, and been amazed at, how successful this stigmergic organization actually is.  Nace does a great job describing the actions of those from across the nation, from the Great Pacific Northwest to the gentle Appalachian Valley and Ridge. Here are some of the activists, scientists, and political leaders profiled in the book, along with the coal executives they opposed (from

  • Attorney Carol Overland, whose startling revelations of runaway costs eviscerated proposed coal plants in Minnesota and Delaware.
  • Coal baron “Buck” Harless, who rallied his industry to win West Virginia for George Bush in the 2000 election, ensuring that destructive mining practices would continue unabated for eight years.
  • Navajo activist Elouise Brown, whose impromptu blockade in subzero weather turned the tide against Blackstone billionaire Steve Schwarzmann’s Desert Rock power plant.
  • Climatologists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, whose calculations identified a phase-out of coal as the key measure capable of staunching climate chaos.
  • Appalachian coalfield activists and Goldman Prize winners Maria Gunnoe, Judy Bonds and Keepers of the Mountains Activist Larry Gibson.
  • Coal flak Bob Henrie, who masterminded the industry’s “clean coal” campaign.
  • Organizer Ted Glick, whose Washington, D.C., hunger strike and Vietnam-era organizing skills inspired and instructed a new generation of activists.
  • Youth activists Hannah Morgan, Kate Rooth, and scores of other direct action protesters who conducted lock-down blockades at mines and coal plants, despite repeated police use of pepper spray, taser guns, and pain compliance holds.
  • Attorney Bruce Nilles, who forged the Sierra Club’s pioneering campaign against coal while most other national environmental groups sat on their hands.
  • Benedictine monk Terrance Kardong, whose 30-year fight to halt the spread of strip mining in North Dakota culminated in a “win for the mouse.”
  • Rainforest Action Network leader Mike Brune, whose organization’s protests against banks exposed the coal industry’s financial underbelly.
  • Organizers Dana Kuhnline and Sierra Murdoch, whose Power Past Coal campaign sparked over three hundred grassroots protests.

Of particular importance to me is his chapter “War Against the Mountains,” which touches on the subject of mountaintop removal coal mining. Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia. The deep pit mines and the “canary in the coal mine” are reminiscent of a mining method whose time has, for the most part, past. The “new school” method of coal extraction is coal surface mining. Through much of Appalachia, the preferred surface mining method is mountaintop removal/valley fill – a process that literally blasts away the tops of mountains and pushes the left over material, deemed overburden, into the valleys and streams below. Since the 1970′s, over 520 mountains have been leveled by the mining technique (an area three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and waste from this process has added toxic pollutants to over 2000 miles worth of Appalachian waters. This mining method is rather contentious in the region and in recent years arguments both for and against have grown increasingly heated. On one side of the issue are folks concerned about their cultural and natural heritage, on the other side are those worried about losing the only economic boon in the coalfields. Nace describes this tug of war in Climate Hope, recalling a protest he was part of in a West Virginia holler:

As I watched these scenes of chaos, it was obvious what motivated both sides of the controversy. On the one side were West Virginians whose families had long treasured these beautiful mountains, in some cases for over two hundred years. Most Americans, faced with the destruction of their homes, would fight just as hard. On the other side were workers who feared for their livelihoods and their families. Though they had been manipulated into serving thugs for an unscrupulous corporate boss, their personal concerns were no less valid.

This is a particularly important quote. For some in the environmental movement it is easy to disregard the arguments and emotions of coal miners. It is rather important, however, to carefully consider where they are coming from. Remember, coal is king in Appalachia, and for many, mining coal is what keeps food on the table. Coal mining itself has deep, romantic cultural roots throughout the region. I was happy to see Nace alert readers to the fact that we should be standing with coal miners. Mine workers are being lied to by industry suits, the mechanization of coal is costing thousands of miners their livelihood. Coal surface mining replaces working people with machines, explosives and specialized, outsourced, labor. The promise of a new Appalachia, beyond coal, is a promise to liberate all individuals from economic centralization.

For all the great things Climate Hope is, the book is not an endorsement of  liberty, statelessness or pure democracy. Though direct action is thoroughly discussed, my one objection to the book is its endorsement of wind, solar, geothermal and other “green industry” pathways to transition the United States, and world, off of coal. His economic arguments about the true cost of coal are spot on, and his analysis of falling prices in the green energy sector are largely accurate as well, but I find it disturbing that we are to endorse other large industries as the answer to our energy woes. Don’t get me wrong, these resources are incredible and should absolutely be utilized, but we must transition away from large, hierarchical  industries and allow communities to democratically manage their energy needs in the open market place – no more energy “kings,” no matter how green the alternatives.

In the final analysis, I highly recommend this book. It is an incredible narrative that pays homage to the self organized movement against coal. The book praises numerous citizens groups and individuals that have networked together to take on the challenge of climate change – standing up to one of the most powerful industries on the planet. The movement is incredibly diverse, composed of  coalfield residents, coal miners, climate scientists, religious leaders, students, academics, city slickers (such as myself) and many more from across the planet – all working together on the 80% solution.

This movement has seen crushing defeats along its journey, but has also garnished great triumphs. When feeling low, Nace’s narrative is a great resource to turn to. The environmental movement has the momentum. Climate Hope tells the story of when we fought King Coal and we won.

Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal by Ted Nace, published by Coal Swarm. $4.00



A Libertarian Earth Day

Photo Credit - From Footprints filled with muddy water in a rice field, phto by Robb Kendrick/Aurora/Getty Images

Photo Credit – From Footprints filled with muddy water in a rice field, photo by Robb Kendrick/Aurora/Getty Images

The United States has a varied history with environmentalism. Americans have always taken pride in their natural heritage. The conservation movement of the 1890′s, championed by the likes of John Muir, gave rise to civic, public and private sector institutions dedicated to conservation. The industrial revolution, however, coupled with the rise of modern capitalism, the era of the New Deal and the economic boom following WWII assimilated Americans into growth economics.  This varied history, two opposing Americas, came to a head in the decade of change, the 1960′s. The modern environmental movement finds its roots in the discourse of this era.

This modern environmentalism, fueled by the energy of a growing anti-war movement, bore the first nationally recognized Earth Day — April 22, 1970. On this day, 20 million Americans occupied streets, parks, college campuses and public squares to build a social movement for sustainability.

As a result, the floor of the cage expanded. The sustainability movement yielded the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency along with the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Though progress was made and the floor expanded, the cage still remained.

Progress can be good or bad, regardless, it is unavoidable in nature and human society. Since the rise of industrial capitalism and then Reagan era neo-liberalism, “progress” has been gauged by growth — the cage: More roads, more cars, bigger government, bigger corporations, bolder nation-states and a too big to fail financial sector. The very institutions that the modern environmental movement helped craft are part of this cage. Don’t get me wrong, there are very concerned, dedicated and intelligent people fighting the good fight within the current power structure, but alas, their efforts are bounded by the cage. Regardless of the moves made on behalf of public and environmental health, the nation-state remains the largest wrecker of climate, air, soil, rock, water, flora and fauna of all time.

Our species, however, is driven to ask questions. On this Earth Day, and ever afterward, I ask that our intrinsic, inquisitive nature be turned to manufactured political boundaries. Why is the greatest threat to the environment great militarized nation states? If we are to take pride in democratic values, are these values not the anti-thesis of concentrated authority? Does the concept of continual growth in the name of “progress” allow for sustainability? Or should we perhaps rid ourselves of this cage and redefine progress?

As a species humans are incredibly adaptive. If given the chance we can and will plant the seeds of a future society that will make life on Earth worth living for our posterity. We can liberate our labor from the current economic system, decentralize our institutions, respect natural boundaries such as bio-regions and cultivate a society in which every individual will have a genuine say in the decisions that impact their lives. This is the fight of the 21st century — to rid ourselves of the cage and claim democratic control of society.

Individual agency over our institutions, society, labor, property and person is the ultimate libertarian praxis.  In such a society we would be freed to protect our cultural and natural heritage, place connections, watersheds, landscapes and biodiversity. Our inclined labor and disposition to liberty will free society from centralized economies and hegemonic governments.

On this Earth Day may we realize that all the complex problems facing humanity — climate change, hunger, war, corporate colonialism, extinction, depreciating ecosystem services, etc. — are tied to the current state system. May we also realize that we have an answer to these problems — that answer, as always, is liberty.


Managing the Anthropocene

Photo Credit: The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? - NY Times

Photo Credit: The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? Opinion Piece via New York Times

In this age of the Anthropocene natural resource management is incredibly important. There currently exists a true human dominance over the biosphere. This dominance effects a range of topics from human health to the politics we address. Our dominance raises an important question: How, and perhaps more importantly, by whom, did this dominance arise and how, and by whom, should these ever important issues be addressed?

This ecological challenge requires constant revision of natural resource management/policy. If we are honest about the limitations of our natural ecosystems, however, and implement policies that best fit the needs, health and demands of an informed society and its natural heritage, then we also need to take conversations about the nature of governance very seriously. What is governance, where should its power lie, how can its influence best support a healthy, sustainable, ordered biosphere?

Arun Agrawal, in his book Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects, offers key insight to the nature of governance, landscapes and place while offering a promising direction natural resource management can take. In his book, Agrawal introduces us to Komoan villagers who reside in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Their natural heritage is enriched by tremendous valleys and expansive rivers – the product of tectonic forces that continue to mold the region. Of incredible importance to the villagers is the bio-regions forests tracts. The ecosystem services the Kumoan forests offer the villagers are immeasurable. These forest tracts were, at one time, very beneficial to the colonial British state as well. Often at odds, the Kumoan people and the British state had very different ideas as to how the forests should be managed. Agrawal opens his books with a discussion of intense conflict in the region. As his book progresses, it becomes a story of decentralization, community empowerment and best management practices. Agrawal provides readers with a historical overview of natural resource management in the Kumoan region and explains the emergence of collaborative management, environmental identity, sense of place and changes in the relationship between the state and the local.

Villagers in the Kumoan region of northern India set ablaze hundreds of acres of forest in the early 1920′s. The fires were set in protest of colonial British rule – particularly the rules and regulations placed on the Kumoan people by the British state that served to “protect” and manage the local environment. The villagers used forests at the time to construct their communities, for fodder and other forms of subsistence. The British state saw extensive military resources – specifically a vast forest that could be utilized for expanding the navy. What followed the forests fires and initial protests was a period of decentralization. This decentralization allowed the Kumoan villagers to conserve their forests very carefully – a total transformation from the age of protest.

Agrawal’s investigation offers support for an ongoing trend in natural resource management: Adaptive Collaboration. Adding to the themes of Elinor Ostrom, Agrawal builds his premise that community based forestry is not only possible, but more sustainable than centralized governance. His book is a story of transition, from centralized policy making to adaptive collaboration – from state to village.  This story holds rather large implications for traditional leadership. The success of decentralised policies can be used as an argument to promote the redistribution of power, to rethink the common perception of authority, and perhaps most importantly, to rethink property – the success of decentralised policy making (not only in the Kumoan) builds the case for public, as opposed to state, ownership of the commons. This idea of collaborative governance ultimately empowers the populace, it takes power from authority and promotes the concept of self governance.

Agrawal personally visited forty villages in the Kumoan region. At each village he assessed the health of surrounding forests, conducted interviews with locals and investigated their historical records. His book is an interpretation of the data he gathered. What he illustrates in this book is how decentralized, adaptive, and collaborative strategies in natural resource management change the relationships between states and the local stakeholders within a community as well as the individuals connection to place. Feeding off of Foucault’s “Governmentality,” Agrawal investigates how decentralization efforts have better protected forests. In this book, Environmentality is the theme – as villagers become more empowered and knowledgable they are able to produce policies that best conserved their natural resources. It is a remarkable success story of decentralized natural resource management.

So what exactly is Environmentality? This concept, put forth by Agrawal, is a new way to understand environmental politics. Agrawal’s concept suggests the differences and changes in knowledge, politics, institutional arrangements and human subjectivity concerning the environment “are of a piece and are best understood when considered together.” Concomitant study of these changes then helps extend contributions from three types of interdisciplinary environmentalists scholarship – the three pieces of environmentality: common property, political ecology and feminist environmentalism. Environmentality, he writes, is a unique way to think about environmental politics:

(1) The formation of new expert knowledges;
(2) the nature of power, which is the root of efforts to regulate social practice;
(3) the type of institutions and regulatory practices that exist in a mutually productive relationship with social and ecological practices and can be seen as the historical expressions of contigent political relationships; and
(4) the behaviors that regulations seek to change, which go hand in hand with the process of self-formation and struggles between expert or authority-based regulation and situated practices.

In short, the idea of environmentality allows Agrawal to examine how environmental governance has changed over time in the Kumoan while providing a framework for analysing the problems with centralized governance and the success of decentralized decision making. Instead of “Governmentality” (molding human beings to the wishes of the state), “Environmentality” (human beings collectively deciding to better manage natural resources based on environmental pressures) produced a conservation ethic among the people of the Kumoan. It is communal natural resource management, as opposed to centralized authority, that is achieving sustainable forestry practices.

Agrawal builds his case by first investigating the relationship between power, knowledge and nature. He then investigates the technologies of government and the results of decentralization. In his book, Agrawal builds the case for decentralization noting how destructive centralized control was to the environment (after all, colonial Britiain wanted strict management of forests so they would have resources to exploit for weapons of war). In the opening passages it is clear the British state used the DAD approach to resource management – Decide, Announce, Defend (or perhaps more appropriate: Enforce). The state initially viewed the forests and land for exploitation. It is this view of forest, and the corresponding regulation of Kumoan villagers that led to massive protests and revolt across the region – cumulating in the large, expansive forest fires.

The state’s vision of the forests evolved over the decades in response to village uprisings. Moving from resources for exploitation, there emerged an idea among officials that foresters should view extensive woodlands as commodities and manage them as such. At this time forestry officials continued to insist that the state was needed for proper control and conservation of forests. The DAD approach, though adjusted, was still in full swing after initial uprisings. Government officials continued to work to expand their authority. Conflict and dissent, coupled with internal struggles, soon become more political fodder, however, for the Kumoan villagers. The continued resistance forced Administrators to increase representation, collaboration and policies of decentralization.

Agrawal’s book is a great example of how the cost of bureaucratic control always falls on locals. This burden forces democratic change. The regulatory mechanisms separated the Kumoan villagers from their natural heritage. The burdens of regulation and revolt lead to a decline in ecological health which manifested itself throughout the population. As a result, the Kumoan villagers began to organize – the principles of democracy and the ideas of self governance lead to the development of forest councils. It is during this stage of transition, from revolt to organization, that the state was forced into ceding its power. The entire relationship between the state and community was transformed – there were more channels for the flow of power. This empowerment caused stakeholder participation to increase and best management practices shifted from the centralized state to communities.

The process of decentralization changed how Kumoan’s viewed the forest. The woodlands were now in their control. This responsibility, the reclaiming of natural heritage, generated a needed concern for conservation. Best sustainability practices flourished simply because the Komoans were empowered – those in an environment, as opposed to a displaced authority, better understand human impacts to said environment and how subsistence is bettered/tied to natural resources. This makes sense – humans are part of nature, but nature continues to exist outside of human civilization. It is reckless and ill-informed human actions that pose a great risk to natural areas. The conclusion of many, that in order to protect our ecology there must be a strong government to over see our natural areas, is refuted in this book. The state saw the forest as a commodity, first and foremost, but the empowered Kumoan’s viewed it as their natural heritage. It was decentralization, not authority, that produced sustainable forest management.  The anarchist, who is usually fighting on the front lines for the environment, knows the idea of state management has disastrous consequences. Anarchists will find an ally (somewhat) in Agrawal. Self-governance and the co-operative nature of human beings is celebrated in this text, though Agrawal, much like his mentor Ostrom, never discusses absolute liberty.

None the less, Agrawal’s book echos a theme prevalent everywhere today. As natural resource management has evolved over the years, traditional views of the environment and human relationships between nature and sense of place have too evolved. Today, resource management is characterized by certain “wicked” problems making it difficult to place responsibility of certain issues within one dimension of government decision-making . The complexity of resource problems today often fall outside the realm of traditional policy making. This has paved the way for more adaptive management styles which utilize alternative stakeholder approaches to environmental issues. These new approaches are formally bringing government institutions and the public together to develop best sustainability practices. This new style of adaptive governance is formally educating stakeholders about the challenges and demands of resource management today. As societies ethical considerations of the environment continually evolve, so to are considerations of government. Today, as more people relate to the great outdoors and come to respect nature, the collaborative management between stakeholders and institutions are naturally moving towards decentralization.

The trend is indeed welcome to libertarians and environmentalists. States tend to view natural resources as a means for maximizing utility – especially when considering military strength (as is the case in Agrawal’s book) and neo-liberal economics. As nation states rise to power they continually wage campaigns to acquire more land and resources. The concept of Environmentality offers an alternative to the states view of natural resources. Furthermore, Environmentality offers the method of achieving sustainability – reclaim the commons, understand the nature of power and the making of subjects and dismantle illegitimate authority. It is this unique intersection of common property, political ecology and feminist environmentalism that makes Agrawals book stand out – it is an incredibly concise argument for decentralized governance.

Perhaps most interesting about the concept of Environmentality is its play on Michel Foucault‘s “Governmentality.” Governmentality describes a system by which governments work to produce a populace best suited to carry out the operation of said government. Agrawal departs from the government narrative and instead investigates how the environment itself will influence human action. His book describes the metamorphosis of revolt to sustainable management, based simply on the transfer of power from a centralized authority to local villages.

Environmentality is a success story. It informs the populace that we the people must continually challenge our institutions to ensure their practices are just and sustainable. No longer can we as a species afford to allow ourselves, nor our institutions, to utilize resources to serve self interests. To ensure this practice, we need to step up and take more responsibility in our everyday lives. The growing importance and successes of collaboration, decentralization and partnerships indicates the need for an informed, engaged and empowered citizenry to develop sustainable resource policies that protect both the land and biosphere.

The current environmental movement is a vast, worldwide movement that holds great implications for the future of human civilization.  Beyond our human species, resource management will decide the fate of all flora and fauna, and all of Earth’s vast and wonderous land and seascapes. What are the human dimensions of resource management then? Should human management of resources be the product of states? The product of a system that utilizes natural resources to secure political boundaries – or is a different order more desirable? Political institutions work for their own self interests. This suggest we make careful consideration of our subjected relationship with the environment and our governance – we should not simply accept preexisting interests. Indeed this shift is happening as we progress decentralist themes throughout our society.

Agruwal’s book is an incredible account of how, by simply increasing liberty, common property management results in best sustainability practices. For the libertarian, it is another body of evidence that rejects the idea that sustainability can only be achieved if there is a strong centralized authority. To the contrary, the structure of governance must fundamentally change if sustainability is to be realized. When we tear down the structures of large, centralized governments we liberate ourselves from manufactured political boundaries of the state and rediscover our natural heritage – under the principles of Environmentality the biosphere will take care of the rest.

Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects (New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century) by Arun Agruwal, published by Duke University Press. $18.40

Inclined Labor

On Spike -WCC Crew, Kuprina removal. Lake Chelan, Washington, 2008

On Spike -WCC Crew, Kuprina removal. Lake Chelan, Washington, 2008

It was a cool, blustery, October morning in 2007 when I realized the difference between work and labor. I was standing on the side of a country road in Tumwater, Washington waiting for my work crew to come pick me up. I had moved from Tennessee to the area just days before – a recent graduate with a service year ahead of me. I had accepted a contract position with the Washington Conservation Corps, a program dedicated to salmon habitat conservation and restoration ecology. I was soon picked up by my fellow corps members and taken to our lock-up. Here, we loaded our rig with numerous tools for trail construction – Pulaski’s, Macleod’s, chain saws and more. By that evening we had bagged Eagle’s Peak in Mount Rainier National Park, completing the fall drainage on the trail. It was my first day of “spike,” eight days in the back country digging re-routes and building trail – my first vivid memory of inclined labor.

I had of course labored before this day, but this experience sticks out because I was fortunate enough during my time on the mountain to wake up every day and enjoy my labor. I enjoyed the manual exercise, crafting trail, working lightly on the land and exploring the forest. These activities were required of the job, but they did not feel like work. I viewed these tasks favorably, I was disposed towards these activities – to labor with the rock and soil of Earth. The job felt different from anything I had done before, it fit with my belief system and attitude towards life. I was practicing conservation and further developing a sense of wildness.

During this service year I befriended a fellow corps member by the name of Nicholas Wooten. We would talk science and philosophy, argue politics, talk about how things could/should be and would sometimes just get wild and drunk. Most of the time, however, Nick and I talked philosophy (and still do). During one of our conversations, Nick shared with me a quote that is rather important to him – it is now rather important to me. It is from the work of Marcus Aurelius in his piece The Meditations:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?

How easy it is to repel and to wipe away every impression which is troublesome or unsuitable, and immediately to be in all tranquility

There is much to say about this quote. Personally, it has helped me mold together an idea that I call inclined labor. I write about inclined labor often but I have never defined the concept. It is my wish to do so in this blog post.

To be inclined is to feel a willing to accomplish, or a drawing toward, a particular action belief or attitude. Labor is physical or mental exertion – but it is very different from work. Work is a series of tasks that must be completed to achieve a certain goal – be it to gain a wage or to see that something functions properly. Labor is categorically different. Individual labor happens on its own terms, willed by the desire to complete a task. Work must be done, it is an intended activity. Inclined labor, however, is the physical and mental exertion that human beings are drawn to.

Inclined labor, then, is directly tied to the opening of Marcus Aurelius’s passage:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?

Inclined labor is the true work of a human being – and it can only be actualized in liberty.

Today we work plenty but struggle to find time and energy to award ourselves the opportunity to truly labor. Work for economical means is a relatively new activity of human beings. Every civilization has had to work – chores need to be carried out for society to function. For the vast majority of our 200,000 year history as a modern species, however, our societies were much more egalitarian. In our early history there was much more labor – individuals knew their interests and carried out their functions and roles within their communities. It was not until the rise of power structures in the age of the ancients that human labor was viewed as something to command and control. Such authority has only exacerbated under the rise and fall of nation-states. Work as we know it today has only been dominant across the whole of society since the advent of industrial capitalism. Work is no longer something that is shared cooperatively for the functioning of society – work now defines a controlled economic system.

But we are a vigilant species. Over the millenia, and ever persistent today, human beings have continued to labor. How could we not when labor is inclined?

Imagine an economic system crafted by liberated human beings. What are the possibilities of humanity? How would the products of self directed labor progress and build society? What can we craft together during our time in the sun? What will liberated labor gift to future generations as we progress for millenia to come? How wondrous our civilizations and progress will be!

Inclined labor, whether a physical or mental exercise, is the creative expression of our interests and ingenuity – it is what we are driven to do. Our labor deserves to be liberated for it is ours and solely ours. Inclined labor is the true calling of human beings.

Common Property, Common Power

Image Credit: Planet Creative Commons -

Image Credit: Planet Creative Commons -

Reuters is reporting that this year the United States Supreme Court is hearing its highest proportion of intellectual property (IP) cases in history. The justices are set to decide eight cases on IP – six on patent laws and two on copyright. A sign of the times, really. In a world of open source content and the creative commons it is becoming rather tedious for the state to apply old laws to new technology.

IP law includes patentscopyright and trademarks. In recent decades U. S. businesses, especially those in the technology industry, have become increasingly dependent upon them to protect “their profits” – business gets the capital, individual labor is rarely rewarded. Reuters also reports that this rise in litigation is the product of differences between rulings by the justices and the findings of a specialized Washington-based appeals court, which handles the nation’s patent cases, because they have failed to reach consensus on some key issues. Keep in mind, rulings on IP can have wide-ranging consequences for society – should the human genome or vaccines be patented or remain common pool resources? I think the latter. The pharmaceutical industry, however, spends a lot of money and political energy on IP, favoring strong patents to protect its multi-million dollar “right” to collect rent on a manufactured monopoly.

Another reason for the sudden rise in IP litigation is because IP restricts human labor and innovation.

Litigation is up in the courts because liberty is the new ethic – the creative commons are here to stay. The open source, technological revolution emerging before our very eyes around the globe, with its theme of decentralization, is forcing a change of the status quo – and special interests don’t like it. Lucky for us, the world is anarchic. The stigmergic revolution works around traditional hierarchies and coercive power – the old order (try as it might) cannot keep up.What we are seeing is social power at work. The courts, legislature and special interests are powerless in the new public arena. The liberated market is not interested in the ownership of ideas, but rather progress, innovation and co-operative labor. The days of corporate colonialism are numbered.

For a society to be liberated its ideas cannot be owned. Once in the market others should be free to add their knowledge to a concept and advance its practice. This does nothing but maximize the innovative capacity of human labor.  Best practices should be free to develop. IP restricts the creative, innovative potential of the populace as these laws allow the “ownership” of information. IP laws serve to protect capital at the expense of inclined labor. Ideas are powerful and fundamental to a free society – they should not be caged by legal activism.

Today, due to new tech, information and ideas are free to spread without restriction. Human labor is under new management – the individual now has agency. The use of courts to privatize ideas and prohibit the free flow of information is an aging creed – hence the rise of creative commons. The market always seeks liberation as human labor always works for the mutual advancement of society.

Inclined, liberated human labor is the engine behind free societies. The anarchic order is emerging. By leaving IP behind we are reclaiming our power in the commons.


Voluntary Association Not Allowed in the Volunteer State

The recent shut down of the United Auto Workers (UAW) attempt to unionize the Chattanooga Volkswagen (VW) plant has become political fodder for Tennessee republicans. In a recent interview, Tennessee senator Bob Corker noted the UAW was looking at VW workers as “a dollar bill” to further its union agenda. When questioned about his role in halting worker organization at the plant, a delighted Corker told CNBC he was not surprised by union backlash because “a hit dog hollers.”

Corker noted in the interview he had been “assured” that a rejection of unionization would have rewarded labor by sending new work to the plant. Crafty jargon from another Big Government Conservative. Not only was this statement denied by VW, but now, because there is no union, the private company very well may not be expanding in the south.

The Chattanooga confrontation boils down to nothing but politics. Tennessee is already a “Right to Work” state, so if workers decided to join the UAW no employee would have had to sign a union contract. This would allow workers at the plant to avoid union dues (but receive the benefits negotiated on their behalf by organized labor). There was no threat to conservative “Right to Work” laws, but Tennessee republicans still meddled with the affairs of a private institution – they loathe organized labor.

This has big implications for labor organizing in Tennessee. I am a Tennessean and a card-carrying member of United Campus Workers – Communication Workers of America (UCW-CWA), Tennessee’s higher education union. Tennessee republicans do not believe I have the right to free association or to negotiate the conditions of my labor – and they will use their political clout to see to it . Let’s examine just what this means.

I am not endorsing the UAW or even the UCW-CWA. Big union, just as big business and big government, has its issues. However, I am endorsing voluntary association.

If labor decides to come together and negotiate their contracts with their employer that is nothing but the libertarian principle of freedom of association. If the bargaining process yields a voluntary contract between management and labor then what we have is yet another example of free association. This is simply co-operation in the work place. It is big government laws that tip the scale in favor of one group over another that become a problem. In Tennessee, “Right to Work” laws benefit capital at the expense of labor.

Republicans, by flexing their big government muscle, sought the restriction of voluntary transactions within a private company. They worked to crush the very principle of free association. Regardless of how workers wanted to organize it was none of their business.

In liberty, freedom of association and voluntary contracts are the rule. The libertarian is not concerned with the rights of government - conservative or liberal, federal or state. The libertarian is concerned with individual rights – including the right to organize. Government laws restrict competition in the open market and they restrict democracy on the shop floor. Without big government, labor would be liberated – free to smash government imposed privilege. Without big government, and moving beyond bossism, unions would once again dedicate their efforts to advancing the working class. It is government’s failure to respect voluntary contract, to let the market alone, that is the real story of Chattanooga.

The solution is to smash the structures of big government that privilege one class over another in the first place. It’s not about politics or your next election, folks, it’s about free association. Go away.


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