appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Wildness as Praxis: Evolving the Urban Corridor

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Gay Street, from South Knoxville heading downtown.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Gay Street, from South Knoxville heading downtown.

In the November of 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, thus changing the way natural scientists viewed the world forever. In this text, Darwin describes the idea of descent with modification and brilliantly illustrates the concept of natural selection: The gradual process by which heritable traits express themselves, if at all, in a population based on reproductive success and environmental pressures. Amid the scientific jargon, there exists grand prose that capture the incredible workings of nature. One such passage comes at the end of Origin:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us……There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

What Darwin captures with his rhetoric is the incredible way everything works together to form the living Earth. Behind the simplest of actors lies an infinite and beautiful complexity — billions of years of life, ancient worlds and time our civilizations will never know. Darwin is correct, there is grandeur in this view of life.

It is interesting to consider the interactions of life out in the wild. Microbes liberating breathable oxygen, annelids and nematodes churning the soil, fungus bonding to the roots of plants and feeding them nutrients, trees providing canopy habitat for numerous fauna and so on. There is mutualism everywhere in the wild. When we think of evolution the old motto “survival of the fittest” comes to mind. This is a bit unfortunate. Darwin did talk of competition in his book, but, as the above passage signals, he also provides lengthy descriptions of mutualism and symbiosis. He regards many of the relationships among species, such as the moth and orchid, as cooperative, complex and wonderful. It is considerations such as these that also caught the deserved attention of another famed evolutionary biologist: Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin was an interesting human with a rather lengthy curriculum vitae. In addition to his biology credentials, the man was also a Russian prince. Growing up he was fascinated with the French revolution and studied anarchist theory. Above all, he was a lover of nature. Considering the lengthy bio, it is pleasant to think of this man reveling in natures beauty while reading about the splendor of liberty. One can almost picture the bearded fellow, studying Darwin’s book and anarchist literature in the great out-of-doors. After all, there is no better place than the natural world to discover liberty and one’s own wildness.

Kropotkin’s anarchism grew with his fondness of the wild. The prince saw mutualistic relationships everywhere in nature. While conducting field research in Siberia he wrote:

I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it, that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution…

In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.

At the time, Kropotkin’s ideas were rather radical. The narrative of the day described evolution as the product of strict competition among species. Kropotkin did not waver from his views, however, and argued mutualism was just as prominent, if not more so, than competition. He was, of course, correct. Today there are hundreds of papers published annually that describe the cooperative relationships among all kinds of living organisms — all three domains and all kingdoms are represented. Kropotkin found hope in the natural world. He wanted to contribute to the understanding of mutual aid to shed light on human cooperation. This was his labor to save humanity from systems of power and domination — to render such institutions useless.

Like a countless number of people, I too find beauty everywhere in nature. I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the natural order, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life.

There is a humbling and awe-inspiring liberty in the wild — freedom from the industrialized, mechanized, technicalized order of human civilization. Wilderness is an open system. The interlocking, ancient mechanisms of biology, ecology, geology, chemistry and physics operate in unison. There is no administration in the wild. Wilderness is a place to discover truth, a place of challenge and a space for tranquility. Wilderness is a means of escape, it allows us to re-imagine the human condition. I speak of the danger, the splendor, the solitude, the adventure, the comradeship and the truly liberating experiences awaiting us in the great out there. Wilderness allows us to discover our individual wildness.

I do not mean to paint a picture of myself as a rugged, wilderness individualist. Nothing is further from the truth. I am an urbanite, as are most of us these days — for better or worse. I truly enjoy our cities and the benefits they award us in a post industrial, technologically advanced society. I especially enjoy baking soda tooth paste, beer can chicken, beer, the internet, libraries, college campuses, the farmers market, food trucks, taverns (the best of human institutions), Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a good protest, the theatre and other such conveniences. My family and I live in Knoxville, Tennessee and are just a mile from the urban center — a quick stroll on the bridge across the Tennessee River and we are in the square. I enjoy walking downtown as the activity awards the perfect excuse, no matter the time of day, to stroll inside a watering hole, order a pint or a shot of Tennessee whisky (Hell, why not both?) and relax the day away.

The troubling thing about cities, however, is they are enclosed. There is limited neutral space in the city proper, though the city center should be rich in common place. Most venues are spaces of capital exclusions and barriers to entry exist everywhere — “Do you have any money, sir?” Even the geography of the city is affected by enclosure, creating spaces of privilege and spaces of disparity, blocked apart by neighborhoods, zoning laws and manipulated by the gentry. If only we would organize a strong movement for the commons. Should all members of the community not have, as first proposed by sociologist Henri Lefebvre, a “right to the city” — a space shared in common, free of capital restrictions? Urban sociologist David Harvey elaborates:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

In order to claim this right to the city our cultures will need to evolve. How do we imagine this evolution — how do we proceed and function as an adaptive unit? How do we craft mutualistic relationships among individuals and neighborhoods? How do we advance pro-social behavior? Yet another evolutionary biologist, Dr. David Sloan Wilson, has pondered these questions for a few years. The focus of his work includes genetics and, sometimes controversially, cultural evolution. He is fascinated by the idea of an altruistic city and suggests we pay attention to Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom. For Wilson, Ostrom’s ideas of commons governance offer a way to get there. In an interview, for NPR’s On Being, Wilson explains:

Her contribution was to show how groups of people attempting to manage their common resources, such as farmers or fishermen or forestry people managing forests, how they’re capable of managing their affairs pretty well, but only if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are very conciliant with what we know from an evolutionary perspective about pro-sociality and cooperation.

Human beings are social animals. As such, we are fond of organizing in groups. According to Wilson, the social environments we produce directly affect our biological fitness (fitness is the product of interactions between different groups and of individuals within a group). This idea, that groups are fundamentally important to the human condition, paves the way for the emergence of a fairly controversial subject in evolutionary biology – group selection. If evolution works on individuals, organisms and groups, argues Wilson, then groups and symbiotic communities can become higher evolved organisms in their own right.

This is particularly important for human beings because the cultural transmission of traits can quickly escalate behaviors throughout an entire group. Evolutionary biologists who study cultural evolution acknowledge just how important cultural selection is to human evolution. Cultural selection can potentially produce very large implications for our societies — socially, economically and biologically.

An example of such progress is found in the Dudley Street neighborhood of Boston. Economic woes in the 1980’s left much of the neighborhood vacant. The city government of Boston sought the classic neo-liberal fix to the urban corridor: Gentrification. The neighborhood was to be converted to a space for hotels and offices that would serve downtown Boston. Community members organized the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, however, and developed a land trust to take democratic control of the land and guide re-development. This stopped such gentrification in its tracks, as explained by Yes! magazine:

A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit organization governed by community members that stewards land for long-term public benefit. CLTs protect land from the pressures of the real estate market, as the land is never resold. It remains part of the commons…

Through its governance structure, the land trust balances the varying interests of homeowners and the broader community in the land.

What’s developed in the Dudley neighborhood is not only a reclaiming of the commons, but also a reconnection with nature. Among the affordable housing, town common and community center there too exists a community greenhouse, public gardens and several urban farms. The agrarian life in the city, complete with habitat and niche space for numerous critters — absent of capitalists, commissioners and central planners.

There are many other examples, all over the country, around the world, of social power advancing past the authorities. Each unique. That is really the beauty of it all. Who knows what may happen with reclaimed space? Commons governance is as spontaneous as the freed market. These ideas depend on you and me — it is up to us to decide how to live our lives. We just have to take that first hard step toward a higher evolved society: Democracy. Anarchism will be our method.

So, what does all of this talk of urban space and common property have to do with the wild? Governance in urban corridors has sweeping consequences. Urban governance impacts not just us residents, but also, if not more so, the natural world. Cities are population centers and population centers drive policy. Cities are also mechanized, industrialized and centralized — they are highly inefficient and removed from the wild. Their demand for resources is great. Power lies in the city – we, the urban population, need resources. Our demand for energy and commodities impacts the natural world — global biomes are exploited for the means of our consumption.

Cities place demand on their sites and their hinterlands. Urban sprawl and demands for energy call for the excavation and reshaping of natural lands. In the search of coal, oil, gas and timber the policy of growth levels mountains, fills valleys and wetlands, buries streams and plunders forest. The neo-liberal city paves roads for the sake of roads, builds malls, subdivisions, manicured lawns, factories and churches for the sake of growth. From the city center, and out into natural lands, wildlife populations are killed. Earth’s current great extinction, the literal end of entire species of flora and fauna, is a result of central planning — the backbone of urban development and growth economics.

Reclaiming the commons in our urban corridors can change this. In a libertarian social order market actors will conduct cost/benefit analyses before harvesting resources. By paying true environmental costs market mechanisms for conservation will develop and naturally cap resource extraction at its maximum sustainable yield. It is in our best interest to have resilient, healthy ecological communities because the ecosystem services they award are far too important for the cash nexus. Because of this, wilderness will be preserved once more. Gone will be the maximum utility of resources we see today. Respect for natural boundaries will also 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

One thing is certain to me: If our cooperative, libertarian spirit is to defeat the authoritarian nature of the powerful we must champion a grand, renewed preservationist ethic. The idea that human utility of resources is superior to an entire species or ecosystem, that we would favor extinction to preservation, is nothing but extreme totalitarianism. Such an ethic flies in the face of liberty. Such power holds no place in the permissive, free society. Civilization needs wilderness. We need to know and experience natural lands. We need to shed the “social” we, every now and then, for the “wild” we. Just having wilderness exist, a place totally free of the Leviathans of civilization, keeps the very idea of liberty alive. A whole other world is out there — we can run to it so long as we protect it. Wild lands are the cradle of all life, the bastions of existence and the cathedrals of creation. To plunder such grandeur defiles the very concept of civil society.

I am ever grateful to those who labored for the preservation of wild lands. They were able to keep the spirit of liberty alive. I personally owe them a great debt. I have experienced much in the wild — built memories and lasting friendships. I have grown in solitude in the forest and have learned more among the rock and tributaries than any classroom instruction. I have explored wild lands with such a close friend I can only refer to him as a brother. I proposed to my wife along the banks of the Big South Fork on an overnight trip into the country. We now have a beautiful child with whom we hike the woods with weekly, just to babble the afternoon away. My heart bursts with love in the wild. Out there, I continue to discover who I am.

I love my community, but my heart aches for the places I have been. There is no way to describe the experience of standing in the summer rain of a mesic cove forest in the Cumberland Gap. Watching the sun set over the ancient ocean rock of the Badlands, feeling the wind on ones skin out on the prairie with the Grand Tetons on the horizon, watching ocean waves crash into arched rock on the Northwest coasts, standing among the towering Redwoods, sitting among sage brush and rolling desert hills and the many other experiences that await are moments of nothing but radical freedom.

For what it is worth, I encourage you to get out there. I encourage you to breathe deep of the sweet, lucid air. Run the ridges, bag the peaks, make your way to the most amazing view. Sit a while. Smile. Enjoy the untouched wild. Get lost in thought. Peer into the forest canopy. Experience your wildness. Be an individual. Stand naked, with all worldly burdens stripped away. Get dirty. Be bone weary. I sure will.

A Night in the Big Horns

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never had a bad time in the wild, even when absolutely miserable. Some eight years ago I earned the opportunity to travel the great North American West with a young group of geologists and environmental scientists. One of the early stops on our month-long adventure was among the rock and sediment of the Big Horn Mountains in Northern Wyoming. It was June, but under western skies at elevations over 9,000 feet, there is still plenty of snow and ice pack around. We spent the day among the anticlines, synclines, thrust faults and paleosols looking for signs of ancient life. And these signs were abundant. Especially, if I recall correctly, ancient plant life. With each outcrop we moved to other geologic periods. We were there to discover and explore the remains of Paleozoic and Mesozoic flora and fauna – a few fleeting hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth. Even had a snow fight or two along the way.

As the “work” day came to a close we made our way to camp, set up our tents, rolled out our sleeping bags and began our preparation of the bon-fire. Fire is a necessity in the Big Horn’s anytime of year. Temperatures, at such elevations, continue to plummet into the lower 20’s and often even cooler. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze to get to know one another a little better. We filled our bellies with loaded mashed potatoes, a good, warm, carbohydrate laden meal for the chill awaiting us. As the hours went by, beneath an array of twisted lodgepole pine’s, we had plenty of laughs, built the foundation of long-lasting friendships, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

Later into the night, as fresh snow dusted the grounds, those of us dedicated to the flames of the dwindling campfire, and equally to the flames of whisky in our bellies (never go to bed early, you may miss something), a harsh reality set in. The wine bladders froze, we were uncomfortable and a whole new day awaited us in just a few looming hours. We were to push further west toward the Bear Tooth Mountains of Idaho. Bone weary, we extinguished the fire and made our way to our tents, none of us knowing each other well enough just yet to keep each other warm on such a cold night.

I am not privy to the exact temperature of the evening, but frozen wine bladders do not bode well for optimum sleeping temperatures. Ahead of me was the most uncomfortable night (for years to follow) of my life. To say I shivered would be an understatement, to say I cursed the chilled air would make delicate of the actual turn of events. Sleep came in short bursts, the product of pure exhaustion and nothing more. The cold readily found a way to snap me out of whatever light drifting relieved me. I moaned and prayed for the night to end. Of course it did. In the morning we crawled out of our tents, warmed up a deserved breakfast, packed up camp and moved on our way. As miserable as I was, however, I rank my stretch in the Big Horns as one of my favorite experiences out in the wild.

It’s good to test your mettle every once in a while.

Consider the Microbe

Photo Credit: Oregon State

Photo Credit: Oregon State

All too often, in our considerations of the wild, we overlook the simple, microscopic life that lives in absolute abundance around us, in us and on us. The microbe is the foundation of all ecology. These prokaryotes, the simplest of cells, allow for the sustenance of life. From the inferno of the Hadean Earth, they enabled all the great radiations of life. The microbe will craft worlds our civilizations will never know. American micro-biologist Carl Woese, famous for classifying the microbial domain Archaea, is quoted by the New York Times:

It’s clear to me that if you wiped all multicellular life-forms off the face of the earth, microbial life might shift a tiny bit . . . If [on the other hand] microbial life were to disappear, that would be it – instant death for the planet.

We should be humbled by this order. Behind such a simple existence lies an infinite complexity — a beautiful bounty, billions of years of history and a wonder that we will never truly understand. For this, and many other reasons, I am amazed by and adore the natural world.

I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the microbe, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different Kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world.

The wild inspires the imagination. How different our world could be. If only we practiced in the same bottom up tradition.

Be Free, Young Wild!

Blue Ridge Mountains of East Tennessee.

Blue Ridge Mountains of East Tennessee.

With crack of lightning and thunderous boom, from dark, weeping clouds, falls a torrent of water. Plummeting from the vivid horizon towards the lush, ominous hue of green Earth, the cascade crashes into a mixed canopy of poplar, oak, hemlock and spruce. A rich, harmonious chorus fills the brilliant forest. A howling melody of pattered rain pails the rhododendron, showers the fern, soaks the detritus and beads the moss before saturating the damp, introvert woodland floor. Beneath the soil, among mycorrhizae, annelids and abundant microbes there is a pull downslope, a burst from a spring and the rush of a high country stream. Along twists and turns, crags and ridge, falls and flow there is a longing for, and final jubilation with, the communion of rivers roar. Among carved rock and knotted limb, the journey across the watershed begins long toward the basin. What a great, dangerous adventure! Nothing but a dizzying wonder awaits beyond every fall, rapid and maelstrom eddy. As clouds recede the Earth breaths a mountain mist, illuminated by the sun, that instills natures heart breaking splendor. Oh, be free young, wild torrent! In wildness may you travel deeper still! Rush along your crooked channel walls, carve the valley, shape the open plain, welcome the delta, bask in the sea, rise to the heavens and fall once more!

The Politics of the Last Great Wilderness

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Obama administration is turning heads by proposing new protections for large portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is often referred to as the “Last Great Wilderness” because it boasts 19,286,722 pristine acres of truly wild Alaskan land.The U.S. Department of Interior says this may be one of the largest conservation measures “since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.”

The term “wilderness” brings much imagery to mind, depending on the reader what is to be visioned. Be it twisted crags, meandering streams, bountiful flora and fauna, immeasurable mountains, purple horizons, deep canyons, a liberating, if not eerie, openness or any of nature’s endless bounty. The wild truly inspires the imagination and for good reason — we are, after all, wild beasts ourselves. I don’t know how wilderness is envisioned as anything but natural splendor. However, the maniacal bureaucrats of states and corporations always find a way to perplex me.

To administrators “wilderness” is political terminology — the highest level of protection available for “public” lands. Wilderness, in this context, loses its luster.  The wild becomes envisioned as mounds of paperwork, number crunching, political calculation and resources for capital. And that term “public” is equally perplexing. Last time I looked this administration, as all before it, leased natural lands out to oil, gas and coal companies while “merrily fiddling the taxpayer,” as recently reported by Newsweek. Yes, be sure to enjoy your public lands, just don’t trespass on industry property.

Regarding the ANWR proposal, sit back and watch the depraved political theater unravel before your eyes. This move for conservation depends on congressional Republicans. There is no chance the GOP will approve the wilderness title. Bloomberg notes Alaska Republicans are going ballistic and oil industry officials are up in arms because the move would keep billions of barrels of their black gold buried. Always the political chess player, Obama knows he can pander to his base and simultaneously boast his support of U.S. natural gas production which is curbing the nation’s demand for oil. At the very least he can prevent drilling for two years. Depending on his successor, the measure can either be swept aside or carried forward — we shall see what 2016 holds.

But, even if Obama gets the “wilderness” designation, a future executive could reverse the title if national lust for oil deemed such action worthy. NPR reports Fadel Gheit, oil expert at Oppenheimer & Co., predicts the president’s action will not change the outlook for developing the ANWR reserves significantly, stating: “It will make life more difficult for the industry; it will put another hurdle — but technology will always bring the hurdle down.”

So, there you have it. ANWR is, eventually, doomed.

Or is it? Need the future of wild lands be tied to the state’s definition of wilderness?

The forests, the coasts, the rivers, lakes, across the prairies, down in the canyons and up in the mountains there exists a grandeur that’s irresistible to those who experience it. Civilization needs wilderness. Wilderness displays true liberty, freedom beyond the wildest dreams of human kind. For we cannot know our wildness, until we live it. In doing so we will long to preserve it ever more.

Wilderness need not be tied to the bureaucrat. Authoritarian nature has no choice but to despise and fear the wild. The permissive society, however, open, libertarian and good could never reduce the great poplar, spruce or caribou to data or decades of legislation. We imagine wilderness as it should be: Absent of executives, legislators, generals and commissioners. It’s time we imagined ourselves this way.

An Ode to Yellowstone

Photo Credit: Happy Tell Us

Photo Credit: Happy Tell Us

On Saturday, January 17, the Yellow Stone River, perhaps the most celebrated aquatic system in North America, was heavily contaminated by nearly 1200 barrels of oil. Al Jazeera America reports the leak’s environmental damage stretches from the river to surrounding farmland in Glendive, Montana.

Particularly, the report tells the story of Dena Hoff, now experiencing tragedy at the hands of the oil industry once again. Al Jazeera notes: “When an oil pipeline burst in July 2011 and poured 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River 200 miles upstream from Dena Hoff’s farm … she felt disgusted. When it happened again … she felt terror.”

She felt terror for good reason. Benzene, a carcinogen, made its way into the municipal water system. With the stench of diesel heavy in the air, disaster and uncertainty once again lingered over this small prairie town. It was not until Friday, January 23, that the town’s folk could once again cook with, bathe in and drink water from their own faucets.

Industrial disasters are particularly damaging. The uncertainty and terror experienced in Glendive mimics emotions felt by the Elk River, West Virginia community who experienced a slurry spill last year, or the countless rural communities above shale deposits that have lost their water to thermogenic bacteria linked to natural gas extraction. These atrocities continue despite growing and substantial scholarly researchthat notes severe environmental and public health concerns regarding the lack of oversight to such resource extraction.

This uncertainty leads to the production of quiescence.

But quiescence be damned. We need not accept the rule of the corporate sector, nor the desires of a few hundred bureaucratic suits in a congressional chamber.

The work of famed economist and political theorist Elinor Ostrom demonstrates that democratic governance is not only possible, but ultimately desirable. A growing consensus that we should not be subject to hegemonic institutions is growing like wildfire. In fact, ideas of adaptive governance and stakeholder approaches to natural resource management are now the norm among professionals practicing policy and conflict resolution. Ostrom, and the people she inspires, demonstrate that with agency we can re-imagine and manage the commons.

This is good for our communities. The commons redistributed power to where it should naturally lie: With place. Place connections are incredibly important. From the currents of Yellowstone to our still canyons, the great plains, mountain hollers and everything in between, land is legacy. Resources of course must be exploited, but with polycentric decision-making human beings will not be subject to the wishes of the state, but instead to community needs. Here, resources will be distributed by environmental pressures and a grand, renewed conservation ethic will emerge. We can reclaim the power that is rightly ours and build a society worthy of our future generations.

As good as adaptive governance is for us, just imagine the implications for the natural world. Vast landscapes no longer viewed for extraction, will instead be felt as a connection — an equal in governance.

I offer this ode to Yellowstone: You will continue to carve the land. Under the big sky and ever southward, from the mountainous north and across the plains, your currents will sing, your ice will whisper and your mists will eddy your banks. You will evolve wild and free, bound only by the depths of time. May your power be great, your adventures long and your liberty untamed.




Education Beyond Capitalism

On Friday, January 9, US president Barack Obama traveled to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here, Obama announced plans to make an associate degree as obtainable as a high school diploma. Deemed “America’s College Promise,” the new plan, according to Obama, will bring community college tuition down to zero for students.

The plan is smart. As Thomas L. Knapp of notes, community college is cheap in terms of infrastructure — no need to pay for student housing, large auditoriums or research facilities. The plan is also past due. There is no reason higher education should exist in the cash nexus of an advanced technological society.

Obama commented, “education helps us be better people.  It helps us be better citizens. You came to college to learn about the world and to engage with new ideas and to discover the things you’re passionate about — and maybe have a little fun. And to expand your horizons.” This is of course true.

Unfortunately, this is all he had to say about education.

Obama went on to talk about the economy. He noted time and again that an advanced degree means more money and a chance at the famed middle class. The American economy, we are told, needs the American worker. “We’ve got this incredible bounty, the God-given resources that we enjoy in this country. But our greatest resources are people.” Your labor is what will allow the nation to compete in a global economy.

This is not a proposal for the sake of education, but rather for the health and longevity of the state. Your education, as your labor, is a tool of production for the machine of capitalism.

To the libertarian, however, education is an expression of individualism. If we imagine education without the state, we are left with self-directed learning, initiative, creativity, co-operative/mutual labor and robust competition between academic institutions. Education is re-imagined as a lifelong pursuit of one’s unique interests. It is not something to be done once for a 9 to 5.

Of course, imagining education without the state also means imagining markets liberated of capitalism. Actually existing capitalism is a system of control; it subordinates human labor. One must (as opposed to voluntarily) rent his or her body and time to capitalists to earn a living. To ensure economic growth we must continually work so we can spend our hard earned dollars.

In Strike Magazine, anthropologist David Graeber notes that advanced technological societies could, right now, achieve a 15-hour work week. This would, according to Graeber, “free the population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas” — the very reason to pursue an education.

Why hasn’t the 15-hour work week been accomplished? Because free, liberated time renders systems of power useless. The powers state-capitalist institutions hold are not justifiable — they must keep us busy or we would provide their services, education included, ourselves and dismantle them.

Education, for life, should be easily accessible and free. We have the technology to accomplish this. Take for example the Massive Open Online Course, or “MOOC” phenomenon. MOOCs are courses offered online, for free, that are open access and boast unlimited participation. They are proof zero-cost, democratic education is attainable.

Liberated of state, and beyond capitalism, education will evolve. Our societies will evolve. We will have more time to invest in learning, community, family and friends. Obama’s proposal is progressive, but unimaginative — the burden of state capitalist power remains. We can imagine more. We can be free people, in a free society.

The creative, innovative potential of such a society is astounding. I’ll see you at school.






On the Leaves of a Rhododendron

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Some of my fondest childhood memories are with my parents hiking around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One memory is particularly vivid. I was six and on the trail to Abrams Falls after a summer rain moved through the forest. The sun was just again peaking through the canopy. As my folks and I moved along the trail I noticed water droplets on the leaves of a rhododendron. We stopped for a rest next to the woody plant along the bank of Abrams Creek. I sat down, letting my hands feel the damp Earth, laden with bryophytes. I studied the beads of water on the plant before turning my considerations to the creek. My love for nature began young.

In the wild I am always in awe of water. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the forest. Clouds are among my favorite forms water takes. There is nothing like standing on a green mountain bald on a cool spring day — the clouds steal the show. Whether weeping grey or puffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. I once had the holy experience of camping in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina on a late Spring evening at over 5,000 feet. As I hiked to camp I moved across mountain meadows covered in a thick fog, but my destination sat above the clouds. That night around a roaring bonfire, in the company of budding plants and a vast array of newly awakened wildlife, there was a piercing, radiant starry night above, and a sea of clouds cracking with lightning below. All of the heavens witnessed Earth’s wonder.

From the clouds, in the chill of January, snow seems to continually fall over temperate Appalachian forests. In the winter, snow dusts the landscape, coating evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. When running old trails in this ancient terrain in the depths of the season, ones own breath is often visible as it escapes the lungs. If, like I often do, one follows this vapor in the white landscape, it is hard not to notice the depth of the mountains this time of year. Though peppered in white, something about the winter makes the Appalachians appear dark. Perhaps it is exposed ancient metamorphic rock, thick ice that clings to steep mountain ridges and the bare grey bark of trees, but the color avoids a description. The mountains are mysterious and beautiful beyond words.

My favorite time in the woods, however, is Autumn. Fall air is always brisk, the sky is often a beaming cerulean blue, and it is of no mystery why the southern Appalachians are long described as “smoky.” A thick mist settles in the mountains in the fall and the forest changes dramatically daily. Some of my favorite moments of solitude, and thus my life, are experienced in the mountain lowlands in late autumn. Under the splendor of November hue, on the banks of a stream I am often lost in thought as I watch water carve its way through ancient rock while, at the same time, laying the sediments that will tell future travelers of our place in history. I swear one can feel the terrain, littered with a mosaic of detritus, soaked in a thick mist, and carved by the river continuum breathe this time of year.

Natural places are of incredible importance. John Muir once wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This is a statement of deep ecological truth.

Nature is wild. In the wilderness one is wild. On an early September afternoon a few years ago I escaped for a lone stroll in the woods. I worked my way up and around Curry Mountain, had lunch on a rock in the shade of a great Eastern Hemlock and was making my way back home when I came across two black bear along the switchbacks. They saw me before I saw them. There was a quick dash, a scattering of leaves and I saw the black fur of a cub run down slope – it was then I noticed the mama bear. Standing in front of me some 20 yards away was a rather large beast who was occupying the trail. We stood in silence, staring at one another for sometime until she let out a slow growl. I raised my hands to the air and loudly proclaimed, “I mean you no harm, bear!” She turned and quickly disappeared into the brush.

Knowing they were still near I kept talking loudly to them as I slowly made my way through the switchbacks. As time passed I picked up my pace. Before I knew it I was whooping, laughing madly and running through the woods. I was jumping over trickling springs, tree roots and piles of rock. I was full of joy, my heart pounding furiously. I was myself, simply a human in purest form, all labels stripped away, no worldly burdens — just an animal, wild and alive!

This unbound freedom is possible only in the wild. There await holy experiences everywhere in nature. Whether it is moments of silent, still reflection, or adventurous swimming in the roar of a river, swallowing its current, pelted by rain, breathing hard and laughing under the chill of a night sky with brothers, natural spaces provide us with a liberty that cannot be experienced in urban corridors. Untouched landscapes are the cathedrals of nature.

We cannot truly know freedom, nor understand absolute liberty, without wilderness. The wild will exist long after human civilization. We have only a precious moment on this Earth, the blink of an eye regarding the eons in which we measure geology, to understand boundless freedom. In the wilderness there exist only the fixed laws of nature. There are no economic systems, no political powers, no established authority, but rather an anarchic freedom we are blessed to experience. In open spaces we are free to live, even if just briefly, absent of control or administration from the Leviathans of civilization.

This freedom alone is enough to protect wilderness landscapes, for ourselves and fellow species — nature for nature’s sake. But, there also exist political reasons to protect the wild. In the words of Edward Abbey:

The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny… The value of wilderness, on the other hand, as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history. In Budapest and Santo Domingo, for example, popular revolts were easily and quickly crushed because an urbanized environment gives the advantage to the power with technological equipment. But in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam the revolutionaries, operating in mountain, desert, and jungle hinterlands with the active or tacit support of a thinly dispersed population, have been able to overcome or at least fight to a draw official establishment forces equipped with all of the terrible weapons of twentieth century militarism.

Wilderness is needed for human freedom. Wilderness can exist without us, but we are doomed without it. May we preserve wild lands – coasts, deserts, forests and mountains – so we may preserve what makes life worth living: Liberty.

Howl for the New Year

Another year is over. The New Year holiday is a natural time of reflection. When the ball drops and fireworks pop in the early January sky 2014 will be gone. A whole new year of human history will begin. A whole new year to continue our beautiful struggle.

If there is one fact our collective history clearly reveals it is that large, centralized nation-states are the worlds most terrifying institutions. The 20th century alone is testament to this. The rise of fascism brought a premature end to nearly 100 million lives. The rise of the Bolsheviks tells a tale of an increasingly oppressive regime addicted to power. State capitalism and the rise of neo-liberal economics in the west are equally disastrous, responsible for a century of perpetual warfare.

Public intellectual Randolph Bourne once wrote, “war is the health of the state.” In the last century the machines of war reached frightening heights of power. The production of nuclear weapons can end all life as we know it. States may cause the greatest extinction in all of Earth’s history. This — the end of our species and countless others — is a real and looming threat.

The state is a system of power and domination. Such a monopoly serves to institutionalize the creeds of racism, sexism, class division, protectionism, biocentrism and more. This is true even in the most “democratic” of nations, including the United States. Such archism deserves abolition. The state is damned.

Yet, here in the fog, there too exists our beautiful struggle.

There is a great tradition in human history: Liberation. We long to be free. Human action continues to prove that with agency we can do great things for one another. We continue to labor, create, preserve and exercise goodwill.

Our inclined labor will produce a world where the children of humanity will live unbound by chains, where no fire or whip will meet their flesh. There will be no need to pledge allegiance to a nation, but all the reason to imagine a world of real and lasting peace. Not a world of dreamers, but a world of contracts, liberated economics and the splendor of the human condition. The peace of common interest, wildness and mutualism.

We must remember this. We must always remember those who risked and sometimes lost their lives and freedom for such an order. We must remember to love those who raised liberty’s hammer. Those who broke down the walls that caged us. We must remember so light will ever conquer darkness — so liberty will no longer be a simple flame, but a piercing, radiant torch.

We will be free. We will face the world without fear. We will stand together and howl into the face of those who wish to reign over us. We will ever challenge their rule. We will continue our embrace of liberty. Global movements have ignited. Join hands, unite the riot — coordinate and cultivate the free society. As we enter the new year, breath deep, let the winter air fill your lungs. Know that you are an animal, that you are alive and demand your freedom. Damn those who wish to deny you. Stare into the dark night and howl. Howl!

Anarchy and the Wrench

Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is a landscape of beautiful complexity, from the Sonoran desert’s flowering cacti to the gorges and mountains of the Mongollon Rim. Home to rare desert lakes, fertile river valleys, meandering streams and grand plains stretching across the horizon, its air is still sweet, mixed with juniper, fir and ponderosa pine.

On December 4, politicians stole this incredible wildness, this product of the forces of deep time, from the public domain. Congress passed a measure ceding 2400 acres of Tonto to mining giant Rio Tinto Group‘s subsidiary Resolution Copper, attaching the theft as a rider to its latest “National Defense and Authorization Act.” The area is now slated for destruction for the largest operating copper mine in the United States.

This is a grand theft of heritage, especially for the Apache for whom Tonto remains a native place of worship. In an emotional piece for Indian Country Today Terry Rambler, Apache Tribal Chairman, wrote: “We are concerned for our children who may never see or practice their religion in their rightful place of worship … However, the Apache people will not remain silent. We are committed to shining light on the Land Exchange and the proposed mine until we have no breath.”

Enclosure movements devastate communities. Who we are, whether we realize it or not, is greatly influenced by our ties to the surrounding ecology. Land is emotion — a product of deep and lasting roots.

But, this is of no concern to the state. Any sacred tract inside the political borders or territories of the nation-state may be taken at will — a power as unjust as it is unnatural.

However, a number of libertarian wrenches may be thrown into the gears of such power-driven land acquisitions. Two are pertinent to this situation. A third offers liberation.

The first is the Paper Wrench. Activist groups can use any and all available legal decrees to delay mining operations. Paper wrenching refers to pursuing lawsuits that force industry professionals and teams of highly paid corporate lawyers to navigate an array of legal challenges. The method is proven. In the Appalachian coalfields, for instance, the Paper Wrench has delayed some strip mine operations for years. In some cases, legal expenditures prove so great that industry abandons mining operations altogether.

The second is the Monkey Wrench. Coined by desert enthusiast Edward Abbey in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, the term “monkey wrenching” refers to acts of sabotage to protect wilderness areas. Willing activists may permanently incapacitate machinery and equipment to outright halt industry activity. The Monkey Wrench may also be used to inflict minor damage to force repairs thus buying time for legal negotiations (or paper-wrenching). For individuals up in arms about property destruction I pose the question: What is more violent — snipping a fuel injection line so an Earth mover will not start, or destroying a struggling arid ecosystem and place of heritage for all future generations?

The third wrench would free natural sites of sweeping land use policy by reimagining  governance. It demands a reclaiming of the commons so land is not viewed as a commodity, but felt as a connection — a place of labor and heritage. In such a system place is an integrating concept. Land is associated with the community and the individual in the commons — land is legacy as space is place. Here, land is liberated from the nation-state and its enclosure movements. None are denied the holy experiences awaiting us in our cool, still canyons. The Apache could forever worship in peace.

I speak of the Anarchy Wrench.


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