appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

The Wonders of Food

Shorty's table

Great grandma Shorty’s table.

Thanksgiving is truly a great holiday. I’ve always enjoyed the day — how it feels, smells, and of course, tastes. As a college instructor, I’m fond of Turkey Day because it comes at the end of a long Fall semester. Thanksgiving offers some needed down time right before the total chaos that rings in the end of another academic year. Aside from that, November is perhaps my favorite month as it is a true season of change. Late fall has a darkened, yet vibrant hue and the air is crisp as we welcome winter. My love of this Thursday holiday started long before I started my profession, however. I remember as a child my mom and dad would pack the car and I would crawl into the backseat as we traveled from Tennessee (or Michigan; we bounced back and forth) to my great grandmother’s house in Wheeling, West Virginia.

I always loved pulling up to the small but cozy house. Wheeling is a working class town — a red brick community in the cold gray shadow of  industrialization. Great Grandma Shorty lived along the train tracks near the Ohio River. My love of the sound of trains began as a youngster packed away in the house with Shorty, my parents, all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. All of us kids would howl with delight as the train roared by and blew its horn, probably hauling a load of coal off a mountain. Aside from the horn, church bells from the nearby Catholic church would chime across Wheeling, another blessed sound.

On Turkey Day, however, one could not be more comfortable. Shorty, my grandma, mom and all my aunts would labor away in the kitchen while the rest of us were no doubt watching the Detroit Lions lose a football game. The smell of butter, onions and celery, ingredients for the french bread stuffing, would fill the home. The clean smell of southern style green beans with roasted garlic, the roux for gravy that would eventually cover mashed potatoes, the rich glucose scent of sweet potatoes, the freshness of cranberry and, of course, the savory, sage-rich smell of turkey had us all excited. There was no place else any of us wanted to be.

When the labor was done, each of us would pull up a seat around Grandma Shorty’s table and enjoy the special meal. We’d talk, tell stories, listen, learn, laugh and eat. That very table sits in my wife and I’s house today. On years like this, when we get to host Thanksgiving for close friends and family, I take time to think of the memories built around the food on that table.

As a student of biology and natural systems I also think about the wonders of food. Thanksgiving is a holiday unique to the United States, but every culture around the world has big holidays that are celebrated for any number of reasons — be they historical, cultural, religious or otherwise. One thing all of these celebrations have in common, however, is food. It is a very interesting reason why.

The road toward humanity was actually pretty quick regarding the immensity of evolutionary time. When our early ancestors stood upright and left the safety of the trees for the open savannah, the human experiment began. Those apes were no longer fixated on the ground; they could gaze across the horizon at one another and look up to the sky with wonder.

As time progressed so too did sophistication — and all animals must eat. When you look at our closest genetic relatives such as the bonobos, chimpanzees or even gorillas, you’ll notice a fiber rich diet. Gorillas spend roughly 80% of their day eating plant material and chimpanzees and bonobos close to 75%. This is a lot of time to devote to nutrition. 1.8 million years ago, however, something interesting happened in genus Homo.

The aforementioned human ancestor that left the safety of the trees was Homo erectus (upright man), so named for their bipedalism. They would be the first hominids to cook food. The evolutionary implication of this simple act is astounding.

So, we’ve stumbled upon a key difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom: Cooking. There are many other social animals out there, and they do dine together. Think of a pride of lions. A pride is more than just a group, it is a family unit with a highly organized structure. So, recall your favorite nature documentary — the pride dines on their prey together. We humans though, thanks to our upright Pleistocene ancestors, cook.

Cooking changes our food and makes it much easier to digest, especially plant material. The chemistry of food is very interesting. Take protein as an example. Protein is a chain of amino acids, and each individual amino acid is something called a monomer. When these monomers (meaning part) bond together they form the polymer (having many parts) protein. All of the food groups, from carbs to lipids, are organized polymers. When we cook, we begin breaking these chemical bonds down before we even ingest them. This makes digestion all that much easier. Cooking food breaks down the tough cell walls of plants, deactivates plant toxins, and denatures, or unwinds, proteins. Digestion is so much easier, plus the absorption of nutrients is maximized. In short, cooking allowed the Pleistocene hominid to extract much more energy out of its food.

Cooking involves a host of different strategies. Obviously we can think of roasting meat and vegetables over fire, but we can also cut fruits and vegetables into strips and let them dry in the sun. We can mash-up food with tools so they are easier to digest, or we can let nature cook for us as we discover ways to ferment products (Beer! A longstanding institution!). The takeaway point from all this is that these animals labored together with food.

As digestion and absorption of nutrients became easier, human evolution kick-started. Our bodies could devote less time to breaking down plant matter so our digestive tracts grew smaller. The calories we saved from digestion built our complex, neuron-rich brains. As intelligence increased, more complex tools and methods of cooking developed. Let’s not forget all the time we save either. Humans spend roughly 5% of their day eating, allowing much more time to use our big brains on creative endeavors, social bonding and leisure. As we grew better at cooking, the hunting and gathering lifestyle (the longest chapter of human history) closed with the dawn of the Neolithic Age.

Having to cook food meant there was a central location for humans to come home to. We settled down together. We cut vegetables and roasted meat, experimented with new dishes. We looked to one another, grew social bonds, cared for our young, listened to stories and went to sleep next to each other, full, comfortable and happy. Our children had better nutrition which helped them survive into adulthood, and our elders lived longer. The Neolithic age is not a single data point, but a transition for the human species that lasted tens of thousands of years. We settled, cultivated culture, crafted social organization and eventually, we grew civilization.

Here we are today, Homo sapiens, in large part thanks to the wonders of food. It is no wonder why there are so many global, joyful ceremonies that revolve around food. We ate our way to humanity — socially, culturally and biologically. Let’s reflect on our human story this holiday season as we carve into vegetables or roast meat over smoldering hickory embers. Humanity was born around a campfire, roasting food in much the same way.

All too often, it is easy to focus on the politics that divide us. All too often we forget about some of the fundamentals of humanity. In light of recent global events, such as the slaughter of innocence in Lebanon and France, and the continuous bombs that fall on innocent lives across the war-torn regions of the globe, may we remember that cooperation formed the basis of our early culture. Let’s remember this when politics are addressed. The answer to conflict does not lie within a method of governance or a single policy, but within each individual. Sitting around food together, caring for one another and enjoying each other’s company is part of the answer we are all searching for — it is an innate characteristic of the most social of animals.

A profound story told on the airwaves since the tragic attacks in Paris is that of a conversation between a boy and his father who call the City of Lights home. The father looked to his child, and asked if he understood what happened. The boy responded: “They have guns, they can shoot us because they’re really, really mean, daddy.” The man then told the boy all the flowers and candles being left at the memorial were there to protect them, that they were stronger than any guns. After a moment of reflection, gazing at the shrine the boy repeated: “The flowers and candles are here to protect us.” There is so much humanity in those words. We live in interesting times, but there is still far too much violence in the world. Yet, for what it is worth, we can take refuge in humanity. Today, as always, there is much more compassion. Peace to all, and may love receive you with open arms.

Eat, drink, be merry. Remember to love and give thanks.

Rebel Governance: In Defense of the Common Sector

Pellissippi State Community College.

Pellissippi State Community College.


Life is pretty good here in the Volunteer State. As an East Tennessean I am particularly fond of the great Smoky Mountains, my scruffy little city of Knoxville, the University of Tennessee and surrounding colleges, a multitude of markets (including a rising craft beer scene) and an array of state parks. Just the other weekend my family and I, accompanied by some close friends, made our way out to Frozen Head State Park. Here, on a rather cool August afternoon, we built camp under Hemlock, Oak and Poplar, cooked over embers, played in the cool, trickling waters of Flat Fork and enjoyed our child’s laughter on his first overnight adventure in the Cumberland forest.

I live for these moments. Simple, quick escapes into the wild. It is a good break from the trials of the week. As an instructor of Natural and Behavioral Science at a local community college, it is nice to run into nature, sit, breathe and enjoy her complexity. It recharges me for the classroom and helps me give my best. In the halls of the academy I work to cultivate the interests of students, to teach them science, describe what we know about how the world operates, to note the mysteries that still need to be solved and to instill a sense of wonder regarding the natural environment. Science is much more than methodology, it is a way to understand our place in the cosmos and thus the human condition.

State parks and the halls of higher education are just two examples of spaces that mean a lot to me and many other Tennesseans. Whether it is the solace of the park or the curiosity of the classroom, these institutions reflect a human desire to explore, labor, leisure, wonder and create.

With this in mind, I am rather disturbed by a Request for Proposals (RFP) posted on August 11 to the Tennessee Department of General Services website. In a cost saving effort, the executive branch of Tennessee’s government is looking to outsource management of public institutions (including parks, campgrounds, research facilities, colleges, classrooms, prisons and National Guard armories) to the business sector. The RFP asked for private contractors to “provide a short narrative” regarding their expertise, qualifications, job timelines, service level agreements and geographic vendor presence.  I am equally disturbed that these conversations with private vendors have been going on for months with no public discussion of just how it would change the nature of these public goods — including how a new for-profit model might impact labor and admission to facilities.

Of course, the RFP should not be surprising. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is just following modern conservative doctrine. Of course the alternative, modern liberal doctrine, isn’t desirable either. As far as the conservative is concerned, cutting spending and selling public lands and institutions to the highest bidder is sound economics. The plan is applauded by the political right as a benefit to taxpayers with little or no reflection on the detriment done to public goods. On the other side of the aisle, Tennessee Democrats and the operating union UCW-CWA (which, full disclosure, I am a member of) are rallying on behalf of public workers. The idea is, the stronger the public sector, the better off is Tennessee labor. The Haslam plan is berated by the political left who have little or no understanding of the destructive nature of the state and its maintenance of public goods. What the state gives it can easily take away.

In viewing governance as such a black and white concept we lose the very concept of democracy. The false duality that says public goods can only be managed by either the state or private business fails to recognize that both approaches are authoritarian and overlook liberty as a praxis. We forget about the ability of “we” the public to run and manage our own affairs. We completely overlook the commons. Yet, common lands, institutions, and resources, coupled with our (freed) markets, build the public arena. It is in this arena that debate, consensus and adaptation, if empowered, can mold real governance. Conservatism and modern liberalism both deny the public their right to the commons. The commons are lost, as the state and allied business interests control the public arena. This is true everywhere, not just in Tennessee.

I write this article in defense of the overlooked common sector. The common sector is all but forgotten in our contemporary political discourse. Equally forgotten is common property. Common property is land or space in which all members of a given community hold equal rights over said territory — power is equally distributed. There is no coercive body delegating property management or use, as in state territory, nor is there exclusive ownership given to an anointed individual or privileged group, as with private property. Common property is liberated from enclosure movements — the cultural, social, economic and natural resources remain accessible to and managed by all stakeholders. This is not to say there is no governance of these resources. To the contrary, a highly ordered, decentralized, adaptive governance applies to common property. The people govern collectively.

Lucky for us, commons governance is slowly making a comeback. There are many examples of commons methodology. One poignant example is adaptive management of natural resources. Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) is an increasingly popular method of conflict resolution developed to resolve complex problems requiring collective action. ACM implores science, considers politics and fosters discussion between competing interests to build mutualistic approaches to conflict resolution.

Take the work of famed Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, an economist and political scientist, challenged the idea that centralized authority, be it through government regulation or private property ownership, was necessary to successfully manage natural resources. In her landmark book, Governing the Commons, she demonstrated, under classical libertarian conditions (power equally distributed among individuals), that common property can be successfully managed by organized community members and user associations. Her life of research sheds light on commons governance and alternative social organization. She is not alone: “Ostromites,” as they are lovingly called, are everywhere. Even in government institutions, commons practitioners are decentralizing authority every bit they can.

For an earlier example, consider Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921). Kropotkin was a Russian prince, but is famous for his anarchism and discussions of evolutionary biology. It is Kropotkin who advanced the understanding of mutualistic relationships in the natural world. From his work, and others after him, we see the world as a place of competition, but also of incredible cooperation. Kropotkin’s work and those who’ve built on it has had a profound impact on how I view natural systems and our own capabilities as a species.

The common sector revisits the idea of (small d) democracy. Imagine a world where individuals, neighborhoods, a communities, cities, localities, etc. are interested and engaged in the affairs around them. The common sector presents the idea that there is no need to look to vertical power structures (such as the state or the business class) to make decisions, but that we can look horizontally to one another to make decisions. This is our right to the commons. It is the liberty of the individual to cultivate his neighborhood, community, city, region and so on. The commons are a market, freed of the restrictions of the state and capital, in action.

Such an ethic of governance allows competition of ideas between institutions, so that we may labor to maximize our potential and interests. Individuals discover their place in the community, and are empowered to labor free of capital, market or state restrictions.

As far as access to institutions goes, at the societal level, it is my belief that education, wild lands (via parks), health care and other services will be so sought after, that the models that govern them will change. I will use academia as an example.

Education is one of the greatest undertakings of our society. Learning is a life long pursuit and an endless adventure. Education provides the instruction and tools necessary for people to reach their maximum potential during this pursuit. Education is much more than teaching to a test or preparing individuals for the workforce — it is paramount to the cultivation of society. Education works to enhance the natural capacities of individuals by developing their innate need for intellectual growth. The old motto still rings true: “Learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but instead respond in different ways to the stream of knowledge and its current.”

When benefits such as these transcend the community, the community may find the institutions that provide them so critical to the social order that they will be removed from the cash nexus. “Public” institutions would truly be public, a common regime. Private institutions, specialty institutions, under a new business model, free of the state, could compete in an open market, and this competition would drive down cost to the benefit of all individuals.

Commons governance is rebel governance. Liberty is no enemy of human labor. Individual and common interests will thrive alongside one another under liberty. Our enemy is the state, its allies and the calculated enclosure of our commons.

Wild and Free

Cherokee,_NC_entrance_sign_to_Great_Smoky_Mtn._Nat._Park_IMG_4905 (1)

John Adams believed Independence Day would become a great anniversary festival. He was right. July fourth is the central holiday of the summer. Post solstice, on this day folks celebrate with pomp parades, sports and games, the cracking of rifles, the blaze of bonfires and the pop, flash and fizzle of fireworks. It is a fun day, a great day — full of cheer and a collective expression of solidarity.

My family and I have developed our own unique tradition to ring in the declaration that officially split American colonies from the British empire: We escape.

We wake early, pack our gear (water, cold beer, fried chicken, cheese and fruits), brew some coffee and with a caffeine high we hop in the family wagon and make our way to a National Park. Theme song of the day? Well, for me, it is of course Born Country, by Alabama: “I was born country and that’s what I’ll always be, like the rivers and the woodlands wild and free.” We live in Knoxville, Tennessee so we frequent the Great Smoky Mountains. When liberty is the theme of the day, makes sense to us that we should spend said day in wilderness.

In wilderness we live in wildness, that’s what I like to say. We live in liberty, absent of control and administration from the hierarchies that organize human civilization. It’s nice to forget about the woes of society, instead we respect the territory of the black bear. It is interesting every year, the bears authority always seems legitimate — I thank them for reminding me of freedom.

I love wild lands. I am fortunate enough, in my 31 years, to have traveled the political boundaries of the United States six times. The great American road trips! Coast to coast, across mountains, deltas, deserts, rolling hills covered in sage brush, the wide open prairie, scab lands and bad lands, big horns and big sky, mighty sequoia’s, majestic redwoods, canopied poplars the mighty Pacific and the growing Atlantic — I’ve never met a wild land I didn’t admire.

I admire wild lands because of their refuge. They remind us of what makes life worth living: Liberty. Among the mixed deciduous forest, under the canopy of poplar, oak, hemlock and spruce, a rich, harmonious chorus of leaves, wind, insects, small mammals, larger beasts, trickling springs, roaring rivers and childlike laughter fills the forest. There is excitement, danger, solitude, cheer and a common connection in wild lands. My heart beats proudly for humanity in open spaces. Here we are, traveling around the sun, building our lives with each other on an ancient Earth for just an instant in deep time. I can think of nothing more inspiring or beautiful than that.

So, for me, the old saying from American anarchist and conservationist Ed Abbey rings true: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

In protecting country from government, we protect ourselves from tyranny. The greatest gift wild lands provide is the ability to reflect upon our own societies so we may craft a civilization worthy of wilderness — worthy of freedom and the advancement of human liberty.

I’ve often thought, the National Parks, though under government control, offer a model of liberation. Open spaces anywhere else, be it mountaintop removal coal mining across Appalachia, Resolution Coppers impending assault on holy Apache land in Tonto National Forest, tar sands mining in the great Boreal forests, oil spills on the coasts, development on wetlands, growth machines on all hinterlands, and so on, are under the extreme archism of the corporate state — modified forever, taken from future generations and lost to the commons. National Parks were secured by  a grand preservationist movement. These naturalists did not much care to talk about what governments ought to do, but rather what they ought not do. Environmental achievement was obtained by pronouncing the splendid beauty of natural ecosystems, the challenges facing nature, and the innate need to protect wild spaces.

We have a right to claim our governance, thus we have a right to preserve our common lands. National parks are a reflection of this — one step closer to reclaiming the commons.

Just like our mountains and rivers, our societies need change. Deep-Ecologist Gary Snyder, in his essay, The Etiquette of Freedom, describes, in great detail, the need to reclaim the words nature, wilderness and wildness — and it is in wildness that we will discover untamed liberty.

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

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

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

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

The natural world would benefit from being liberated of sprawl. Complex ecosystems (even in urban areas) would be left intact. In such an order species decline would be mitigated by the protection and restoration of natural habitat. Furthermore, the more decentralized our societies, the more we are liberated from institutions that seek maximum utility of resources. Our communities will flourish when liberated of growth.

On the fourth let’s celebrate country, but turn our backs to the state. Love of country and love of community have nothing to do with allegiance to government, but rather faith in an informed conscience in spite of government. Discover the wildness that awaits you — we’ll be right behind you, in liberty.





May Day: Festival for Labor

Just a quick blog post on May Day. Today is not about state communism, big government or a nationalist takeover of the “democratic” system. Today is a day to celebrate worker solidarity movements that have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. Today is every bit as much about labor as “Labor Day.” The big government correlation is  (ironically) the result of anti-union, anti-worker propaganda put forth by the big government corporatists of the Gilded Age. Indeed, today is not at all about government, it is about the struggles of individuals. As independent scholar Kevin Carson notes, it is also as American as apple pie:

Most Americans think of May Day, if they think of it at all, as some sort of communist holiday. Their awareness of it is based mainly on a vague memory of parades of military hardware on Red Square and Soviet leaders’ “fraternal greetings” to leaders of the state communist regimes of their Warsaw Pact satellites. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of May Day, you might be surprised to learn not only that it originated in the United States, but that it was strongly supported by American free market anarchists. May Day — the international holiday of the workers’ and socialist movements — was created by American workers, right here in the good old U.S. of A…

So this May Day, spread your best checkered tablecloth and picnic on hot dogs, potato salad and apple pie, and give a thought or two to the fight for economic justice to working people. That’s a struggle we market anarchists at Center for a Stateless Society fight every day.

Today is also a day of historic celebration, so grab a (locally crafted, worker owned & operated) cold one!

Earth Day on the River of Grass

Picture courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.

Picture courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.

The Everglades are among the last sub-tropical wilderness areas in the United States. Their Floridian air is thick with humidity, but a cool breeze is commonly felt from both the fresh and saltwater systems that spread throughout the landscape. Open prairies provide relief from the dangers of the swamp. A mosaic of forest, from pinelands nourished by ancient limestone, to tropical hardwoods, coral reef communities and mangroves, supports an incredible array of wildlife. These unique systems are habitat for numerous endemics including aquatic birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians — of which many are endangered or threatened.

Hard to think of a landscape quite like the fragile Everglades, but it is politics that brought U.S. President Barack Obama to such splendor on Earth Day. In the backyard of  Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both GOP presidential contenders (with checkered environmental legacies), Obama talked of climate change impacts on the imperiled wetland community. He went on to highlight the 100 year anniversary of the Park Service, coming up in 2016, and a new report that notes National Parks store 14 million tons of carbon each year. Point after point was made for conservation.

Hard for me to argue with his rhetoric. Easy for me to recognize his insincerity.

Obama did not mention his administration’s new push for offshore drilling, limited funding for national parks, the leasing of natural lands to oil and gas companies, or the permitting of mountaintop removal coal mines. No commander-in-chief will ever mention their extensive, carbon burning, wars.  No executive will talk poorly of the state economic system, nor their policies that encourage the growth machine. National monuments are good, I have a fond place in my heart for the national parks, but state archism trends towards violence and the mass consumption of resources. This will not change.

We see the failures of state decisions everywhere. From sprawl and drought in the Southwest, industrial disasters in the Midwest, Cancer Alley along our coasts, the destruction of Appalachian mountain ecosystems and so much more. Natural resources are terribly mismanaged. As a result of state decree, and the rise of hegemonic corporations, we are in the midst of a 6th great extinction. The age of the Anthropocene is upon us.

If we are to be serious about climate, conservation and environmental health, perhaps we should investigate best management practices. Perhaps we should explore our individualist spirit. A radically different social order is necessary if we are to permit a life worth living to our posterity. Imagine a world without archism, a place where every human being is free to bring their inclined labor to one another in mutual account. Imagine such liberty.

Decisions regarding climate, thus how to allocate resources across social/economic systems, should not belong to a few decision makers. Furthermore, the populace should not be held hostage by internal political bickering among Republicans and Democrats in the halls of power. These decisions should be made democratically, in common, where power is equally distributed among all stakeholders. Thanks to the work of famed economist Elinor Ostrom, we know that governance of this type is not only possible, but incredibly successful.

With such polycentric decision-making, human beings are not subject to the wishes of the state, but instead to community needs. Here, resources are distributed by need as opposed for the sake of growth. Let’s reclaim the power that is rightly ours and build a society worthy of our future generations.

Without collective action, we remain at the mercy of systems of power and domination — wild places, like the River of Grass, are doomed. Without wild lands, we are doomed as well.


Wild Waters: I Don’t Much Care For Dams

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

The 1960’s! The decade has many nicknames. A particularly unfortunate one is “The Golden Age of Dams.”

Plugging river systems effectively destroys the surrounding landscape and its wild inhabitants. The waters that rise behind dams serve as an excuse to sprawl industrialization ever more into the landscape — complete with suburbs, shopping malls, roads, billboards and the age-old tourist activities of drinking beer and riding pontoon boats on the open water. And who can blame the tourists? What a show! A grand lake from out of nowhere. The American government, specifically the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed these concrete barriers. Seems they could do anything — anything but avert natural processes.

With all the planning, politicians and corporate executives could not accurately predict river flow, did not take into account the consequences of a booming populations in territories suffering from resource scarcity (like the desert Southwest) , had no idea of climate change and, through subsides and land grants, totally ignored the true environmental costs of their actions. Today, in the wake exists a human and ecological crisis.

Building dams has many unintentional consequences. One such effect is drastically altering the sediment flow through the river system. Before dams came rivers they carried sediment along the entire length of the system, guaranteeing deposition in larger bodies of water. This process constructs deltas. Today, all the sediment is trapped behind the concrete of dams. This fills reservoirs but starves the downstream areas. This concentration of sediment raises the level of dissolved metals, such as arsenic, manganese and lead (among other known neurotoxins) in the reservoir system, raising public and environmental health concerns. Open river systems allow these metals to flow in a dilute manner without such concerns.

Aside from sediment, dams also prevent water flow further down stream. Where there was once free-flowing water, numerous aquatic plants that served as a sink for the resource, and groundwater reservoirs, the area is now low flow. Local aquatic wildlife populations are eradicated, especially freshwater mussels if they are separated from host fish, and water dependent terrestrial species are lost from the area.

It is important to note, that large-scale industrial projects, like dam construction, are all but impossible on a community basis. By paying true environmental cost, and having to use the resources available at hand (or sourced from the market), natural systems would be exploited in a much more sustainable manner. These heavy infrastructure investments are a direct result of state intervention in the market, complete with heavy subsidies making the price of construction artificially cheap.

So, what to do? Step one tear down the dams. OK, then what?

Input reduction is the best all around solution to all environmental woes. As giant corporations, such as Nestle, tap groundwater reservoirs for water intensive projects, as governments shower water intensive big agriculture with subsidies and as capital increases demand for lush golf courses, giant lakes and continued sprawl into landscapes, commons governance regimes offer redemption.

Efficient use of resources is successfully managed in the commons. Technical changes, such as micro-irrigation, can transport water to crops via pipes as opposed to the open ditches used by industry that encourage evaporation. Most importantly, commons governance would demand liberation from the growth mentality. Instead of encroaching on natural lands, it would serve human interest to invite desert flora back into communities. Xeriscaping is landscaping designed to save water. This includes using native or endemic plants. Pursuing wastewater reclamation, or using gray water to water crops as opposed to freshwater from current municipalities is another conservation mechanism that would develop under common regimes. Environmental cost demands the maximum sustainable use of resources. Under common regimes, common markets will work for the optimal allocation, conservation and preservation of ecosystem services.

When resources are cheap, they will be wasted. State decree offsets the true environmental cost of resource consumption to benefit special interests — profit is privatized as risk and cost is socialized to the greatest extent possible. These projects are not only unsustainable, they are maniacal.

Long live the commons.

Long live wild waters!

Forests as Redemption

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Forests offer human civilization a chance at redemption. It is amazing what natural systems can teach us. When we consider natural systems, 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. Looking to the complex order of the forest, a world free of archism is revealed.

So let’s study the forest, then look back to civilization. Let’s craft the commons and a society worthy of wilderness.

Common institutions will allow bottom up governance to develop. From the natural rules of scarcity, a grand conservationist ethic will emerge. No longer will there be islands of forest in a vast sea of industrialism, but just the opposite. The forest will be part of civilization and vast, pristine wilderness areas will rarely, if ever, be occupied by our bodies.

This is radical freedom, the nature of liberty — true, self organized, sustainable progress.

From Hyperbole to Democratic Energy

Photo Credit:, Creative Commons

Photo Credit:, Creative Commons – The Ecological City

The future of energy in the United States is a testy topic these days. Politicians, industry officials and special interests are fighting over partisan policy proposals. All actors are fully engaged in the art of hyperbolic mouth breathing — depraved political theater at its finest.

The Obama administration wants to build a legacy of environmental stewardship and energy independence. Not so easy in the current market, as these two tasks seem ever at odds. Regarding stewardship, the administration has put its political clout behind designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness. This would liberate the landscape from oil and gas production, road construction, clear cuts and other industrial follies. However, the administration also proposes opening upsections of the Atlantic coast for oil exploration for the first time in US history. This would expose previously protected territories to industrialization and the risk of disaster.

Regarding ANWR, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) says this may be one of the largest conservation measures “since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.” Opponents, such as Marita Noon (executive director of Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy), liken the move to Obama siding with the Russians in America’s new Cold War: “The anti-American accusation may be a bit of hyperbole — but, then again, maybe not. When you connect the dots, it seems clear that President Obama is doing Russia’s bidding …” Apparently, Noon missed the Atlantic coast memo.

Regarding Atlantic exploration, DOI’s latest five-year plan calls for the government to lease southern coastal waters, and new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, to industry. In a flip-flop, industry officials celebrate the move while conservationists remain stunned, dismayed and angered.

The media narrative around these proposals is business as usual, focused mainly on what these proposals mean for Obama’s environmental legacy, the jeers and cheers from congressional Republicans and Democrats on their respective sides of the issues, and the wishes and concerns of industry giants and deep pocketed green groups are thoroughly detailed. Once again, the country’s energy future lies in the hands of those with access to the halls of power.

What’s missing from this narrative? The most important of social forces: You.

The market left has little regard for the vertical nature of the narrative. We envision vibrant social co-operation in the absence of centralized authority. We believe in competition between polycentric institutions and federations under democratic control. In short, we believe in the horizontal. Let’s look to one another as we craft the decisions that will cultivate the future of our communities — energy policy included.

In this libertarian order environmental stewardship and energy independence will not be at odds. Market actors will conduct cost/benefit analyses before harvesting resources. With the new burden of true environmental costs (such as the destruction of an ecosystem in the event of a disaster) a market mechanism for conservation will develop. 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.

The free society will be built by spontaneous order — by individuals with agency over their labor. Energy will be democratic, with decisions made based on community needs and natural limitations. The energy demands and environmental concerns of today are indeed great, but if we work together we can meet the challenges of the 21st century. So let’s begin our labor, leave behind the hyperbole and build democratic energy.

Citations to this article:

Grow the Grass-Roots

Photo Credit: - Creative Commons

Photo Credit: – Creative Commons

Of all the complex environmental problems the world faces today, the elephant in the room is climate change. If current predictions are correct, our posterity faces famine and drought, land loss, natural disasters, political instability and (if the hippies at the Pentagon are correct) increased warfare as resources are strained. So, how do we address the issue?

State progressives suggest classic command and control policies. Their authoritarian spirit is so commonplace it’s no longer shocking. Society is but a marionette to the high liberal — and climate may be next.

The United States National Research Council, an arm of the very well-respectedProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published a two-volume report (Climate Intervention Is Not a Replacement for Reducing Carbon Emissions; Proposed Intervention Techniques Not Ready for Wide-Scale Deployment — Feb 10, 2015) arguing for development of a “portfolio of activities” to combat global change. The Council suggests climate engineering as an approach. As indicated by Clive Hamilton at The Ecologist: “In other words, rather than presenting climate engineering … as an extreme response to be avoided if at all possible, the report normalises climate engineering as one approach among others.”

Climate engineering is deliberate interference with the climate system in hope of curbing global change. Such a proposal is potentially disastrous. Climate is incredibly complex — to think we can manage such an integrated system is foolish. Numerous unintended consequences will surely follow any attempt to hack the climate.

To be fair, the report notes the serious risk in climate engineering, but still suggests the US move forward with major research programs to investigate various forms of climate manipulation. This state approach is riddled with incredible dangers. Luckily, social forces offer an inspiring alternative.

A holistic, global sustainability movement has roots going back to the early 1980s. Looking to the market, it places less emphasis on legal solutions and focuses on liberty. Among the root causes of environmental degradation are institutionalized social and economic woes. Realizing this, activists for a sustainable future seek the liberation of markets, reclaiming the labor of individuals from the corporate arm of the state.

The sustainability movement is built by local community action groups, as opposed to the deep pocketed “green” organizations stalking DC’s halls of power. Sustainability is a local movement. There are no defined leaders, only activists and practitioners. After all, if the coal fields, for example, are to resist power and domination from the coal industry, then why tolerate such ethos in the movement? Activists are not concerned about positions of privilege — horizontal themes define grass-roots activism. The goal is not power, but instead a healthy environment, thus healthy communities. As the sustainability movement grows, it continues to develop new strategies and approaches to further the goal of preserving the environment for our generations that follow.

State approaches to environmental degradation remain vague, hypocritical and, with the prospect of purposefully altering the climate, maniacal. If you care for the natural world, instead of empowering the state, turn your back on it. Grow social power instead. Find a local group and get active in your community. No matter your skill set, I guarantee your labor will be appreciated. It will no doubt be meaningful. Salvation does not lie in the hands of the powerful, it lies in liberty.

Citations to this article:

  • Grant A. Mincy, Grow the Grass Roots, Alliance, Nebraska Times Herald, print edition, 02/20/15

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.


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