Good old Knoxville, Tennessee — this scruffy little town that I love — will host the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a dismal bureaucracy, on May 26, 2016. BLM is heading to the iconic Tennessee Theatre in the heart of downtown to take comments pertaining to how “public” lands are utilized for coal mining. Specifically, strip mining will be under the microscope. Moreover, taxpayer-funded, corporate welfare-ridden, landscape-plundering strip mining will be examined.
Though King Coal is in decline it is still a major industry. An estimated 40% of coal extracted in the United States comes from land managed by the BLM. We taxpayers fund the BLM and thus the mining on these landscapes. We then have to watch as the black rock is sold at bargain prices to industry giants. It’s American capitalism. Risk and cost are socialized while profit is privatized. It’s nation against country. State against our lands.
So, if you’re in the area and wish to discuss industrial disasters (such as the TVA ash spill), growing risk and concerns regarding coal and air pollution (one in eight global deaths according to the World Health Organization), the impact of coal on climate in the age of change, the sixth mass extinction and how we cannot afford to lose anymore habitat, or even the rise of Tennessee’s green energy economy then please save the date. At the very least you can enjoy the theatre.
There is another great opportunity here though. It’s a chance to speak to bureaucrats. See what makes them tick. It is an historic opportunity, really. Tell government officials they are not doing a very good job. Join the ranks of organizers, citizens groups and concerned community members and tell the administrators “no more.”
It’s a chance to be part of the “wild” revolution.
In hearings like these individuals can directly challenge the legitimacy of state power. This challenge is a trend that is growing in circles concerned with wilderness and for good reason. 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. Wilderness displays true liberty, absolute freedom! From the tiniest of microbes to the towering forest canopy, or the lone plant in competition with its surroundings for water and sun, life is intricately connected in the wild. Life is ruled by no authority but flourishes in an eerie, jubilant, dangerous, heart-breaking and beautiful complexity.
Systems of power and domination have no choice but to fear the wild.
Institutions such as BLM possess a centralized landscape vision that is coercively imposed upon the wilderness and the public who wishes to travel her wild splendor. This centralized vision is delusional. Institutions cannot master nature. Wilderness is not something that can be dictated to and controlled by the state. When these landscapes are mined, fracked, dammed and otherwise trespassed upon there are long-term ecological consequences.
So, let’s tell the deskbound number crunchers, the administrators who think “wilderness” is political terminology, that it is time for numerous visions and resource management plans. Demand public lands be democratized and placed under common control of citizen groups and user associations. It’s time for adaptive commons governance. We no longer welcome dictation from Washington DC.
We can stand with one another, shoulder to shoulder, and grow a movement to reclaim our commons. Here, in the Volunteer State, we can lend support to our friends in the north, south and west. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.
The first nationally recognized Earth Day was celebrated in the United States on April 22, 1970. Now, 46 years old, the annual event is a world-wide phenomenon celebrated in more than 192 countries. It is a day numerous cultures come together to voice their support for environmental protection.
I like a lot about Earth Day. As a natural scientist I enjoy walking around campus and visiting with students as they partake in environmentally-themed festivities. There are special opportunities for community service on and around Earth Day. These opportunities usually include neighborhood clean-ups, river rescues, a “Bio-Blitz” or two, work in a community garden, etc. Folks are inclined to think about the global environment and learn how they can act locally to protect it. This decentralized, neighborhood approach allows us all to engage, support, respect and empower our communities — benefiting the individual and thus the common good.
But I am bothered by an overarching theme that continually looms over April 22: Praise of authoritarian institutions. Earth Day was born of the 1960’s environmental movement. This 60’s-era environmentalism differed from the preservation-oriented ethics that preceded it.
Preservationist ethics sought the protection of the natural environment. The idea held that natural landscapes and seascapes, along with all the fragile flora and fauna that call these systems home represent a grandeur that is in and of itself worthy of protection. Preservationists and (to a lesser extent) conservationists believed human-civilization needed to protect wilderness because the pure freedom of the wild, nature for nature’s sake, deserved radical liberty.
Sixties environmentalism shifted the focus of public thought from natural systems to state institutions. The original Earth Day spawned a series of high-profile legislative measures in the United States under the Nixon Administration, including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and much more.
I may differ from some of my libertarian comrades on what to do with these laws and institutions. That is to say, for the time being, I find them necessary for public and environmental health. The world is not as it could, or rather, should be. Still, these institutions are faulty. Mainly, they are ineffective.
For instance, the nation’s “most powerful environmental law,” the Endangered Species Act, is full of shortcomings. The number of listed species has well outpaced delisted species (plus, some species are delisted as they go extinct, noting failure as opposed to success). Even with global regulations, air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for seven-million deaths annually — that’s one in eight global deaths. Global water quality is also of increasing concern, as freshwater reserves are tapped for industrialized agriculture and acid dilution. The list goes on.
Yet, on Earth Day such laws are hailed as victories. This is disheartening because the key message of Earth Day is good ole neighborhood environmentalism. The empowered populace is the revolutionary power needed to protect our communities, surrounding biota and maintain and restore healthy ecosystems.
The message of Earth Day is every bit as much about human liberty as it is environmental protection. The old ethos, that nature is good and that the living biosphere deserves liberty should be re-established.
Thankfully, it is. The environmental paradigm is once again changing. Rewilding the planet is openly discussed in academic and movement debates as a means to mitigate the current extinction crisis. The field of Restoration Ecology is a leading employer of conservation scientists today. Perhaps most excitingly, the urban corridor is changing. Community gardens, urban food corridors, public spaces and even wilderness areas are being designed into cities.
The concept of sustainability is evolving. I believe it will continue to do so. As each bit of progress is made, the cultural revolution will chip away at systems of power and domination. The democratic, permissive society is indeed the only sustainable society. After all, what is more revolutionary, more natural, than human liberty? And what is human liberty without healthy neighborhoods and wild spaces?
The Sixth Mass Extinction
Of all the complex, wicked problems addressed by the current environmental movement, perhaps the most urgent is the rarely discussed mass extinction. We are currently experiencing Earth’s sixth great mass extinction crisis — on par with the rate that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, thus terminating the Mesozoic. Stuart Pimm of Duke University, a recognized expert in the field of conservation biology, has published a landmark study in the peer-reviewed journal Science pertaining specifically to the causes of species decline. The number one culprit, by far, is habitat destruction.
This is rather dangerous in regards to our surrounding ecology. Pimm’s publication describes the current plight of flora and fauna around the planet. Pimm notes that species are disappearing at least 1,000 times faster than the natural background rate — ten times faster than ecologists previously believed. “We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” Pimm said in a statement about his research. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.” As land is the ultimate commodity in today’s global market, we are sure to see more habitat destroyed and an increasing number of entire species lost.
As flora and fauna continue their precipitous decline, geologists and ecologists are again looking at the geologic timescale — a system of chronological measurements that relate rock strata with time. The timescale is divided by major moments in Earth’s history — the most common divisions are in recognition of mass extinctions and subsequent radiations of life. As we experience this modern biodiversity crisis a new epoch is being contemplated, and it is already (unofficially) in wide use: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Our pale blue dot has an incredible evolutionary story. For much of the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth, this third rock from the sun would seem like an alien world to us all. Landscapes would appear strange. Historically, continents were located in different positions, perhaps even completely united. Much of the color we perceive and enjoy today would be absent, as flowering plants are relatively young regarding the eons in which we measure geologic time. For all the subdivisions of Earth’s humble history, however, I am partial to our place in time: The Cenozoic.
The age of the mammals began with a bang some 65 million years ago with the bolide impact that finished the reign of non-avian dinosaurs. This extraterrestrial impact loaded the skies with a thick dust, temperatures in the deep-sea and across a rifting Pangaea rose as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere. But, with the giant predators gone, mammals explored the world. Our ancestors left their safe havens in the limbs of trees, as others left burrowed ground, and experienced a grand radiation. The human place in history was soon to come.
Climate change is the norm of our era, punctuated by regressive and transgressive seas. The Cenozoic is perhaps most famous for the ice ages and periglacial intermissions. Each progression and recession of glaciers molded the landscapes we experience today. Furthermore, it can be argued, these geologic processes allowed for our chance existence, crafting the conditions necessary for human civilization.
56 million years ago the Eocene Epoch began. Plate tectonic movements isolated Antarctica over the south pole and continued the rift of the once majestic Pangea as continents continued their migration toward the geography of today. With Antarctica fixed at the pole a long cooling trend advanced. The conditions were ripe for animal life to continue a rather unique radiation. Cloven-hooved herbivores, for example, the early ancestors of our agricultural species of today, adapted to the new landscapes.
A common principle in ecology is that diversity breeds more diversity. This grand radiation of fauna is preceded by an even greater ecological shift in flora. Plants boomed. Angiosperms, the flowering plants, came to dominate the global system. Color erupted across the cool Earth. Radiant yellows, reds, purples, greens, and so much more, appealed to animal species. Nectar filled the air. I am envious of our mammal ancestors witnessing for the first time in our planet’s history a true explosion of color. How wonderful it must have been to breathe deep of the sweet, lucid air.
The evolutionary trend toward mutualism advanced. Symbiotic relationships between flora and fauna developed, advancing the speciation of fungus, plants and animals. The modern Earth was under construction. This construction is punctuated by two very important terrestrial ecosystems: The modern tropical and temperate rainforests.
Along the equator, South America witnessed the development of a rich landscape. The Eocene gave rise to the great Amazon rainforest. Along the equator, the sun’s rays bathed plants in the energy needed for glucose production. As the angiosperms radiated, the sheer amount of energy in this region allowed for a great development of new flora. The broad-leafed tropics were born, and along with the tremendous radiation of plants, so too came the animals.
Sitting in temperate North America, the steep slopes of the valley and ridge system, typical to the Appalachians, protected the valleys, mesic cove forests and meadows of the now humbled terrain from advancing ice sheets. With an array of micro-climates, habitats and niche space, the old growth forest, thick with deciduous trees, rich nutrient cycling and a moist understory produced the “Great Cradle of Biodiversity” for the North American continent — the very birth place of flowering plants.
Together, these majestic forests are today the two greatest hotspots of biodiversity on the terrestrial planet. The great Amazon is so important to the global ecological system that it is deemed the lungs of the Earth — sequestering carbon and producing much of the very oxygen we breath. The lush Appalachians, in the splendor of Autumn’s hue, decorate the landscape in a mosaic of detritus, creating a nutrient dense topsoil that offers invaluable services to all of its inhabitants, aquatic and terrestrial alike. An array of organisms adapted, as beauty ever exploded.
The Eocene would eventually come to a close, of course. What followed was even more biological diversification. The human story begins some 1.8 million years ago as our ancestors left the safety of the trees, stood upright and walked across the savannah. For the first time, a species looked to the sky with wonder. Thus began the grand human experiment, an experiment defined by cooperation, competition and the challenging mechanisms of civilization.
The Biotic Pump
The broad-leafed, tropical rainforest of the mighty Amazon is a biodiversity hot spot. No other landscape on Earth is home to so much wildlife. Home to all the great kingdoms, the forest pumps out a large amount of terrestrial oxygen. Despite the grand importance of the forest, it is disappearing at an astonishing rate. In the modern era of resource exploitation, approximately 20% of the forest has disappeared and even more is threatened as 20,000 square miles of the Amazon is lost each year. The forest loss occurs because of a host of factors — slash and burn agriculture, industrial agriculture and extensive deforestation for timber among the top perpetrators.
Interestingly enough, programs designed to mitigate forest loss in many cases exacerbate the problem. Take the United Nations program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) as an example. REDD is designed as a big picture fix to deforestation. Using the “hot spot” conservation approach, the program identifies areas of forest that have a particularly large number of at-risk or threatened species. Under the program, these areas are off-limits to exploitation. One challenge, of many, with this conservation strategy, however, is that often this encourages extreme extraction in areas that are not hot-spots. Furthermore, this is not a holistic view of ecology. Ecosystems are healthiest when connected, diverse and intact. Though hot-spots protect charismatic species, ecosystem health is still degraded overall — biodiversity loss, even in protected areas, still occurs.
More perplexing is how forest degradation impacts overall forest mechanics. The rich forest of the Amazon, converting sunlight to glucose to form the lungs of the world, also regulates how matter and energy flow through its unique system. The Amazon is also a beating heart.
Antonio Nobre is a respected Earth scientist from São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a senior researcher at the National Institute of Space Research and the National Institute of Amazonian Research who has studied the Amazon for three decades. He describes the Amazon as a biotic pump, largely due to his research regarding deforestation and its effect on the rainforest and climate. What Nobre ultimately describes is the principle of transpiration.
Trees absorb water from soil into their root system via the process of osmosis. Osmosis describes the phenomena of how water moves into the plant. Root systems are rich in glucose and salts — at a much higher concentration than their surrounding environment. Because of this, the chemistry of water is naturally attracted to root systems. The moisture gravitates towards the roots where it is absorbed into the tissue of the plant. Once inside, water travels through this tissue towards the leaves as the plant breathes.
During photosynthesis, all plants inhale carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This gas then combines with water traveling through the plant to form the rich sugar glucose. The glucose is stored for the plant, but water vapor and oxygen gas are waste products of this reaction and are thus released into the atmosphere. This release of water vapor is transpiration. You can think of it like evaporation, but it is water that has moved through the plant — it’s plant sweat.
This process has operated undisturbed in the Amazon for 50 million years. The release of all this water vapor is why the tropics are a lush rainforest. The plants regulate their own climate. As the water collects in the atmosphere, it continually soaks the forest as the cycle repeats. The forest creates its own precipitation as it manipulates the pressure of its atmosphere. Nobre tells us, in an interview on public radio, that 20 billion tons of water transpires everyday in the Amazon basin — more water than the mighty Amazon river delivers to the Atlantic ocean in the same period.
This is a grand ecological process. Sadly, deforestation, the leading cause of habitat loss in the forest, is destabilizing this mechanism. The Amazon climate is completely regulated by this process; all the trees work as a single unit to move moisture through the air. When this mechanism is disturbed, then, there are large implications for the entire ecosystem. The Amazon region is currently in the midst of a large drought. This drought is causing the forest to transpire even more. Nobre explains in an interview for NPR:
You know, it’s like love. Love is the only quantity that increases the more you give. And so the trees do this, lower the pressure during a drought, pull the moisture from the oceans and counter the droughts… When you come with the chainsaw and the bulldozer and fire, then forest doesn’t know how to handle this. That’s what I call the Achilles’ heel of the rain forest… I’ve been witness of the most serious episode of destruction in one go, you know? In Brazil alone — and Brazil has only 65 percent of the Amazon — we have destroyed more than 40 billion trees — billion — six trees per human being on the face of the earth.
Even in a year that was very wet, still she saw incredible number of fires breaking into the rain forest. This is a very, very alarming sign that the system is failing — failing. It means multiple organ failure, like in an intensive care unit.
The health of the forest, and the livelihood of folks who call the region home, is dependent upon the rich biodiversity unique to the tropics. Habitat loss throughout the region needs to stop, or the underlying ecological mechanism that has allowed the forest to blossom into such grandeur will ultimately shut down. But, the forest has an incredible capacity to heal. The Amazon is the product of deep time. With grand preservationists initiatives and the restoration of disturbed systems, it is possible to assist these complicated forest mechanics. The forest can restore the splendor of its creation.
A Humbled Terrain
I am lucky to call the Southern Appalachians home. The once majestic peaks of the mountains are now humbled by over 300 million years of natural process. With such depths of time, an incredible array of biodiversity has adapted to the temperate hardwood forest. Steep slopes and deep valleys are continuously carved by water. The forest’s canopy is the true peak of succession, with underlying shrubs, mosses, fungus and rich soils that assist the flow of matter and energy throughout the system. Clouds hug these smoky mountains in ways only to be described as breathtaking. The forest is a deep green in the summer, a colorful mosaic in Autumn’s hue, deeply mysterious in the depth of winter and colorfully vibrant with bursting wildflowers in the spring. I love to breathe deep of the fresh, lucid mountain air. I love to feel the cold of mountain waters. The blue ridge with purple horizons, deep vibrant forests and soaked, fog laden valleys: Home!
Though breathtaking, the region is subject to much trespass.
In the Spring of 2010 my wife (then girlfriend) invited me to accompany herself and four fellow sociology graduate students from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville on a three-day trip to Boone County, West Virginia. I eagerly accepted the invitation. A good portion of my childhood was spent in the hills of Wheeling, West Virginia along the banks of the Ohio River. My mom is a Wheeling native and I hold fond memories of visiting my great-grandmother as a child in the rusting industrial town. I was excited to once again visit the Mountaineer State.
At the time of the trip I was an incoming graduate student at the University, enrolled in the Earth and Planetary Sciences program. The purpose of the trip was to visit a coal mining town in the Central Appalachians. We earned this opportunity by the sociology department to gain insight to the environmental and socio-economic impact of resource extraction in the area from a local resident.
On the trip, we were particularly concerned with trying to understand the effects of strip mining throughout the region. Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia as it is deeply rooted in mountain culture. Coal will no doubt remain an important part of the Appalachian economy for some time. Early mining in the region primarily used methods of underground resource extraction. Miners often used picks and shovels on exposed coal seems.
The old images of miners deep in the Earth gathering coal in pit mines, the nostalgic “canary in the coal mine” days, are reminiscent of a mining method whose time has, for the most part, passed. The “new school” method of coal extraction is coal surface (strip) mining. Through much of Appalachia, the preferred surface mining method is mountaintop removal/valley fill — a process that literally blasts away the tops of mountains and pushes the leftover material, deemed overburden, into the valleys and streams below. Since the 1970’s, over 520 mountains have been leveled by the mining technique (an area three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and waste from this process has added toxic pollutants to over 2000 miles worth of Appalachian waters. This is extensive habitat loss.
We met our host, West Virginia native Maria Gunnoe, on an early May afternoon — Maria is one of the most influential people I have ever met. She holds rank among the most outspoken environmental activists of our time. She is a community organizer and a board member for the non-profit group South Wings (who, to this date, are solely responsible for aerial views of mountaintop removal sites). She advocates ending the practice of mountaintop mining and transitioning Appalachia beyond coal. Her activism is not always popular in the depths of coal country, however. Her life has been threatened numerous times over the years, but she refuses to silence her message. In 2009 Maria earned the Goldman Prize, known as the “Green Nobel,” for her work in environmental justice and Appalachian transition.
Maria’s family settled in Boone County generations before coal extraction reached the area. She lives in a holler, surrounded by lush Appalachian forest. Above her family heritage today, however, lies a massive mountaintop removal site that looms over the valley. Maria and her family continue to survive the boom and bust markets that accompany the coal industry, the human caused disasters, increased mortality and sickness experienced by so many in the Appalachian region. She takes pride in the resilience of her family and close friends, the surrounding ecology and their sustainable use of forest resources and mountain streams. She is fighting the good fight, hardened by resource extraction that robs Mountaineers the ability to practice their unique culture of survival. In a 2014 interview withEarth Justice, Gunnoe describes her experience in Boone County:
Frasure Creek Mining Company, which is owned by a foreign corporation, is blowing up my homeland. One day in 2007, a blast that I watched them prepare for five days went off close to my home. And of all this dust of course ended up right on top of my home. I’m not the only one. People across Appalachia are forced to deal with these conditions all day every day. Their water is poisoned, they’re covered up with dust, and no one is listening to what they’re saying.
The Clean Water Act was supposed to protect us. In my lifetime I do not know of this law ever being fully enforced. But over recent years, crooked politics and coal money influence have completely gutted the intent of this law in Appalachia.
Our communities are becoming ghost towns, so that coal mining companies can expand their surface mining and fill the valleys and streams with their mining waste. The people around here have either been run out by blasting dust, water pollution and health and safety concerns, or they were bought out, signing contracts intended to take away their rights to contact state or federal regulatory agencies about these problems. Even our historic cemeteries are left inaccessible to the public; we must go through the coal company and its guards to visit our deceased loved ones in these now-active destruction sites…
The coal industry and its friends in Congress claim stopping mountaintop removal mining would end jobs. The people in West Virginia definitely need jobs. But the people who think that their jobs are more important than our water haven’t had to live without water. You think it’s hard to live without a paycheck? Try living with jars over your water faucets. Try living with nothing to give your children to drink. We shouldn’t be made to choose between a temporary paycheck and clean water for our children.
This is absolutely against everything that America stands for. And I know that we have better options than this. We do not have to blow up our mountains and poison our water to create energy. I will be here to fight for our rights. My family is here, we’ve been here for the past 10 generations, and we’re not leaving. We will continue to demand better for our children’s future in all that we do.
Mountaintop removal mining is going to be ended. We will not back down on this.
For a brief few days Maria invited us into her life. We traveled around Boone County and she showed us large strip mines and informed us of the degrading water quality in the region. She told us how she and her family must keep their eyes closed when they bathe because the well water burns. She told us that her groundwater is so corrosive that the plumbing has to be redone in her house every few years. She showed us the bottled water her family must use because the tap water is unsafe. Adding insult to injury, she pointed out the “Friends of Coal” sticker on the bottles. She told us of family cemeteries in the area and how they are blasted away for resource extraction. She gave us insight to families that have to be accompanied by industry personnel to visit the buried because the grave is near company property.
One afternoon we traveled with her to Lindytown, West Virginia. Once a small mountain community, the area is now abandoned. A large surface mine, owned and operated by Alpha Natural Resources, pushed residents out of their homes. As we walked around the town, the soot and ash from mining operations in the area was thick black on the exterior walls of homes and the community church. Many houses were bulldozed, with others marked for destruction. We explored the abandoned church. Inside, spray painted behind the pulpit, read the ominous message: “MTR did this.”
Later that day we helped Maria maintain a family cemetery. Some of the small burial plots in rural West Virginia are undocumented. A portion of her work as a community organizer is registering these old cemeteries. This is an important charge as it prevents coal companies from blasting them apart for the underlying resource. On this particular site, as we took a break, an explosion rocked across an adjacent ridge and thick dust swelled into the air. Disturbed by the lack of warning before the blast I looked to Maria to ask a question about safety protocol and efforts to alert locals blasting is about to commence, but I stopped. Maria was weeping.
There currently exists a very real human tragedy in the Appalachian region. Rural communities are subject to the resource demands of high population centers in urban areas. Furthermore, locals are fighting an uphill battle against capital and state power, entrenched economic interests and a stigma that mountain “hillbillies” are backwards and do not know what is best for them. There exists tension among families, armed by those who long for transition and others who are dependent on industry to put food on the table. The Appalachian story is one of resource extraction and domination from powerful institutions. In spite of this, women like Maria Gunnoe remind us that the Appalachian story is also one of resistance, class struggle and an innate resiliency that can only be imagined by an ancient, beautiful and infinitely complex terrain and people.
I traveled through Pinedale, Wyoming in the summer of 2007. I will never forget the trip, it was my first experience in the great, wide-open North American west. I was traveling with a group of geologists and environmental scientists for a capstone experience to end my undergraduate studies. I was huddled in with the geology crew, as we mapped some amazing landscapes.
Pinedale was not our first stop, but it was our first location in the high desert. We had a caravan of about nine vehicles, ours (affectionately named “The Feldscar” as a geology pun) brought up the rear. I was buried in a book (The Dharma Bums) as we moved across the landscape, and did not study my surroundings until we stopped for gas on a beautifully isolated road. I fell in love with the desert the first time I saw her. When I crawled out of the van, I was stunned. A storm was gathering over the horizon, miles away from us. The dark clouds flashed periodically, and in the distance you could make out rain as it pelted the Earth. The contrast between storm clouds against the typically blue sky of the desert was amazing. The wind whipped around us, the smell of sage was thick in the air, as was the gasoline for our caravan that was soon back on the road.
That evening we set up camp in the pine along Fremont Lake. I tied sage brush to the top of my tent, rolled out my sleeping bag, tucked Kerouac’s book away and made my way to the community bonfire. We were still breaking the ice (cracking beers) and getting to know one another, still in the beginning of our 30 day wilderness experience. Pinedale was our first long base camp, it was here that we became a tight-knit group. The landscape demanded it.
Carved thousands of years ago by heavy glacial activity, the landscape is built of molded valleys and moraines. Home to an array of pines, sage, juniper and herbaceous cover, the high desert is a naturalist’s dream. It is also home to a number of wild animal species. One such species is in the news as of late: The Sage Grouse.
This grouse is as odd as a chicken, but distinctly Western. The bird has made its home in the relics of this glacial landscape. The sage brush and rolling desert hills are perfect habitat for the bird. It is this landscape that caught my attention, and this habitat that has allowed the grouse to thrive.
Thrive until recently, that is. While in Pinedale, we geologists also paid a visit to the Pinedale anticline. Anticlines are a distinct geological feature. Shaped like a rounded “A,” they award the perfect environment for the entrapment of hydrocarbons. And there is carbon to burn all across Pinedale’s most profitable rock formation. As we mapped the anticline, we also toured a number of the oil rigs and surveyed a number of gas pads. It was a rather fun day, out in the sun with the workers — we even got free camouflage hats that said “Pinedale Anticline” on them (along with a number of corporate insignia’s, of course). I didn’t realize it then, but these structures paint a broader story of a much changing American West. Wide open spaces are continually entrenched upon as oil, gas and coal exploration, coupled with industrial agriculture, cut into the ancient landscape.
As the natural landscape is lost, the grouse is finding it increasingly difficult to nest, breed and rear young. There are around 400,000 greater grouse left across the Western states. This may sound like a large number, but it pales in comparison to their population numbers just a century ago when the west was still wild. Their flocks used to black out the skies! Population crash is a particularly acute problem, eyed closely by the ecological sciences. Fast population crashes risk a genetic bottle neck, where the number of traits in a population can be drastically reduced, impacting the over all selective genetic diversity of a population and ushering the group into extinction. So, the population decline over a century is startling enough, but a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that greater sage grouse numbers decreased by 56% from 2007 to 2013. For ecologists, this is alarming.
There are a number of natural causes for the population decline, such as wildfires and predation, but the number one cause of the grouse decline (and all species decline for that matter) is habitat loss stemming from human development. As ecologists and conservation biologists have raised concern over the birds population numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was tasked with a report to determine if the grouse was to receive protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Western States exploded.
Industry is booming, but federal regulations under the ESA would drastically reduce their output. Furthermore, other property owners saw only new burdens placed on land use. The grouse, however, battles extinction.
Extinction is caused by change in a species’ environment, such as habitat destruction, fragmentation or invasive species. To preserve biodiversity, numerous tactics have been deployed over the years, such as enaction of the ESA, but market approaches have arguably had the most success. Conservationists have found that the cheapest and most efficient way to save any species is to preserve its natural environment. This is accomplished with the ecosystem service approach to habitat conservation — an economic incentive. This may sound undesirable, especially to my fellow preservationists, but in today’s system it is by far the most important and effective approach to conservation. “Nature for Nature’s Sake” is a beautiful ethic, and it is one I hold, but ecosystem services and market dynamics offer a method of conservation that is attractive to power systems.
Of course, particular problems do arise. Preserving the natural environment in the current capital apparatus means strong trade offs need to occur. Establishing protected areas such as wilderness preserves is great; however, protected areas are relatively small in size and number, are usually not connected, and many threatened or at risk species do not live within their boundaries. It follows then, that conservation methods also require approaches that protect species in areas utilized by humans. This becomes a question of governance — what legal, economic and social structures exist that are just and hold the potential to reduce the human impact on threatened species?
In 1973, in dawn of a renewed global environmental movement, the United States populace turned to the federal government for the answer. In this year, numerous environmental laws were passed nationally and internationally. One such law was signed into existence by United States President Richard Nixon: The Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA is a commonly invoked statute charged with the protection of species. The act directs state agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to maintain a list of species and populations (subspecies, varieties, or distinctive populations) that are endangered or threatened. If a species or population is defined as endangered, then they are in immediate danger of extinction. Threatened species or populations are on the verge of endangerment. Furthermore, the ESA directs state agencies to develop a recovery plan for every listed species in the United States and to protect the “critical habitat” it needs for survival.
The ESA is incredibly controversial, congressional chambers are often full of chatter about the bills reauthorization, or if it should happen at all. As always within the halls of power, some want to weaken or eliminate the act, while others want to strengthen it. In the meantime, biodiversity still plummets. As the ESA is commonly invoked, landowners, extractive industries and other organizations often hire legal teams to punch holes through the language of the act. An occurring theme in their protest is that the ESA violates their right to own private property. With each lawsuit the act is weakened.
From a conservationist perspective it is important to point out the law is rather ineffective. Though charismatic species fair well under the act, the number of listed species has well outpaced delisted species (plus, some species are delisted as they go extinct, noting failure as opposed to success). Furthermore, this list of species and populations focuses on the political boundaries of the United States, which is a sharply small sample of global at risk diversity. In addition, thousands of candidates for the list await their protection, but with inadequate funding to pay for litigation their time is running out. This is not high praise of the nation’s “most powerful environmental law.”
And, such is the fate of the grouse. After heated debate and litigation, in the early autumn of 2015, the bird failed to reach protective status. In twisted logic, the Department of Interior touted the failed listing as success. Secretary Jewell noted the conservation strategies of states is holding population decline in check, therefore, the act is not needed. Ecologists would disagree that the population is stable, but the decision shines light on the fact that legislative decree cannot be trusted to preserve the wild.
So what are we to do? A potential solution that is rising in popularity among conservationist circles is to protect entire ecosystems as opposed to critical species. Habitat conservation plans, operating under the rules of adaptive commons governance, experience a great deal success in this area.
As it Could Be
Famed Evolutionary Biologist E.O. Wilson kicked off a long conversation among natural and social science circles with the announcement of a big idea. His anticipated book, Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, builds the case for an incredible preservationist strategy. Wilson argues it critical that human civilization set aside half of the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity. This method of preservation would be achieved by the establishment of biodiversity parks. These parks would serve as safe havens for species, places of restoration and a means of connection between wild lands. This vision transcends political boundaries and instead envisions natural systems — bio-regions would mark boundaries. The principle is continental in scale, as opposed to governmental.
This rewilding, no doubt, holds large implications for modern human civilization. The idea implicitly dissolves the idea of national borders and requires the rise of new environmental markets. Commons governance regimes would need to develop, argues Wilson, so local communities could labor in the sciences, environmental education, as natural resource managers or even park rangers. There is evidence that such a shift is possible, most notably perhaps is the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) in the savannah and cloud forests of Costa Rica. This initiative successfully protects 147,000 hectares of terrestrial and aquatic habitats along with the flora and fauna that calls the region home.
Big ideas are important, especially with the rates of biodiversity loss experienced today. The Half Earth Solution is bold, but in radicalism we find our best way forward.
The half Earth is an idea worth thinking about. In this age of the Anthropocene, the United Nations and other powerful institutions are searching for ways to combat climate change, depreciating ecosystem services and the aforementioned biodiversity loss. The half Earth idea is not ridiculous, it is rather feasible. More importantly, it empowers local institutions as commons regimes, as opposed to systems of power and organized domination. So how would people live together with this rewilding, how would governance have to adapt? The natural world would soon be a large part of our lives. Instead of encroaching on wilderness, the hinterlands would not only be preserved, but they would grow.
It is important to note, that this is not exactly Wilson’s idea. The deep ecology movement, with names like Gary Snyder and his agrarian friend Wendell Berry, started the development of this idea in the early 1990s. Various civic sector institutions, such as theWildalands Network, Rewilding Institute, Wild Foundation and in a small part the Nature Conservancy all adhere to the preservationist value. Civic sector environmental groups deploy conservation biology, natural resource management, environmental education and public policy outreach to preserve wild lands. The idea behind these institutions is to make safe havens for native, endemic species by preserving as much natural landscape possible. A notable example is the effort to connect Yellowstone National Park and Wilderness Area to the Yukon wilderness in the Rocky Mountains.
So, just how feasible is this proposal? Developing such a preservationists strategy will surely call into question governance of land and resources as we know it. Habitat conservation plans would certainly play a role in such preservation. New England is already developing wildlife corridors, and there is abundant private capital lying around looking to build legacy parks. Restoration ecology is also taking off. Restoration is an emerging field in the ecological sciences, developed in the 1980s. Today it is a leading employer for the sciences. Existing national parks, wilderness preserves and restored landscapes could be linked together to save species diversity. An enormous project, for just one example, is the Western Wildway vision, that is looking to unite lands along the entirety of the Rockies, from Mexico to Alaska. This project in gaining traction, sponsored by the Wildlands Network of Seattle, funding keeps pouring in for the project.
It is of course still to early to tell if there is real traction for half the Earth, but Wilson and his ilk are looking to accomplish this feat by 2050.
How would preserving half the Earth change our cities? The field of urban ecology might provide some clues. When most folks think of ecosystems they probably envision natural wilderness landscapes. This need not always be the case, however, as urban landscapes are in and of themselves ecosystems. Urban landscapes may even be home to large forest tracts and aquatic systems that provide habitat for many different species. Urban ecology is a biological science in its own right as it not only deals with human beings living in neighborhoods, towns and cities (coupled with the environmental problems of such living standards such as air, water and soil pollution, the extraction of potable water, etc) but also with other organisms, how they relate to the urban landscape and what habitats are available to them. Urban ecologists are concerned with the distribution and species richness of plants and animals in cities and even seek to organize urban systems based on the individual organisms, populations and communities present.
Ecosystems are evolving landscapes that direct the development of species. With this in mind, any system or landscape can be examined at the compositional level of the populations that form them — this includes species richness, diversity, productivity, stability, resilience, and energetics. The ecology of an urban area is just as complex as a natural area, complete with various communities composed of different individual organisms that interact with one another. Even a single city park can be divided into various different types of communities such as lawns, meadows, woodlands, and aquatic habitats that all interact with one another.
Urban ecosystems are of course rather different from natural areas, however, and offer their own acute problems to biodiversity. Urban landscapes, as a product of human activity, greatly impact the migration, dispersal and extinction of species. Urban systems eliminate natural bio-geographical barriers so it is very common to find species co-existing together that have no common evolutionary history. This has allowed for incredible competition among species, both native and those introduced by humans. Many exotics are able to disperse through urban areas and establish themselves, sometimes to the detriment of native populations. Environmental changes in urban spaces are rather dramatic which makes it hard for natives to survive. Exotics, however, have no natural predators and are able to establish themselves and fill the niche left behind by natives. For this reason it is important to encourage landscapes suitable for natives.
There are of course other activities in urban landscapes that impact biodiversity. Construction and urban development destroys habitat and can eliminate local populations. Use of groundwater, eutrophication from nutrient loading of local aquatic systems, waste dispersal and a host of other activities normal to cities can also have negative impacts on local biota.
Particularly interesting about urban ecosystems are changes in species composition over time. Succession is fairly well understood in natural systems but it becomes rather complicated in the city. This is because the urban experience alters the biological interactions among species. Biological norms such as competition, predation, mutualism (symbiosis) and how these interactions react to one another are all altered by urban systems and increased human influence. Anthropogenic activity can exacerbate challenges facing species richness and diversity, ecosystem complexity, stability and equilibrium. Depending on the challenges facing a biological community, even the productivity of urban ecosystems can vary from low to incredibly high depending on environmental parameters. Urban ecosystems are very complex!
Over 50% of the human population now lives in cities and as populations expand so too does urbanization. By the end of this century, it is projected that 90% of humanity will live in a metropolitan area. This creates an incredible challenge to species conservation as the total size of urban spaces in the United States now exceeds the total size of areas protected for conservation (another up-hill battle of the half Earth proposal). It is important then for markets to develop that encourage biodiversity conservation. The best way to do this, according to most urban ecologists and foresters, is through the “greening” of communities — people naturally like green spaces.
Urban landscapes are very large and thus are very important for local, regional and even global biodiversity. To protect species richness many urban planners are looking to establish large blocks of protected habitats coupled with ecologically responsible development in surrounding areas. The idea of establishing large blocks of protected habitat is emerging in urban environments today, largely in the form of greenways and natural parks. Some cities are taking this idea a step further and developing urban wilderness (my favorite example is my scruffy little city of Knoxville, Tennessee). This is no easy feat as most often cities do not have large enough habitat blocks to sustain natural populations of plants and animals.
So what exactly would an ecological city look like? The sustainable city is far beyond the ill ideas of primitivism as it holds to three central paradigms of ecology: Preservation, restoration and reconciliation. The number one cause of habitat loss initiated by urban systems is sprawl. Cities expand unsustainably. By adhering to the conservation paradigm this would stop. Conservation notes that is a place is not disturbed it should remain that way. Cities would develop their center and no longer stretch into the hinterlands. Restoration would then look at habitats disturbed by the human dominated system. Restoration looks at areas that are disturbed and works to rebuild the natural system. If streams are channelized, for instance, restoring the original meander, planting natives and regulating water quality to bring the ecosystem back would be common practice. Reclaiming old mine sites by planting grasses, shrubs and trees, even installing wetlands for water quality regulation, all fall under the guise of restoration. Finally, the third paradigm, reconciliation takes over. How do we re-imagine our cities, and reconnect with the wild from inside our human boundaries?
The new urbania would be a landscape that participates in evolution. Instead of holding to old technologies, like centralized grids, and powerful industries, like coal, oil or natural gas (to name a few), the eco-city would be a democratic city. In this landscape energy would be democratic — available resources would be used to fuel society at the micro scale, while the macro scale would allow for trade and sharing of resources in an open market. The new city would mimic how matter and energy flow through natural ecosystems.
One way to accomplish this would be to soften “hard-scapes.” Greening the city, by adding grass, cultivating community gardens, planting trees, adding rain gardens, cultivating wetlands, encouraging recreation, and so forth would create a more comfortable atmosphere in cities. Another way to re-imagine development would be by practicing brownfield and compact development. This would help limit encroachment to the hinterlands. Brownfield development means developing areas that have been abandoned, such as an old parking lot or and abandoned building. While compact development requires build up, as opposed to sprawling across the landscape. Doing so leaves more room for plants and reduces the need for road construction. Fewer roads means fewer cars. The livable city is a walkable city. Less sprawl coupled with development of the urban center requires less transportation. Cars would no longer be a necessity — now that’s freedom!
As a species, we evolved in mature forests, savannahs and wild landscapes. Our current landscapes, urban spaces, can invite the hinterlands back into their boundaries by establishing forest tracts, wetlands and greenways. When accomplished, we can anchor our identity in ourselves — what we have crafted together. Place is an integrating concept, as such, landscapes are a part of life. We should plan, manage and celebrate our own neighborhoods. In this way, we can craft a society worthy of wilderness.
A Wild Liberty
Unbound freedom, natural liberty, is possible only in the wild. There await frightening, joyful, sorrowful, eerie, exciting, reflective, hopeful, lovely experiences in the great out there. The human animal, in all its wildness, is naked and exposed in nature. Whether it is moments of silent, still reflection, physical exhaustion across deep terrain, the excitement of the loud roar of a river, the sting of pelted rain, or deep rest, bone weary, under the chill of a night sky, love natural spaces. Love this wildness for it provides us with a liberty that cannot be experienced anywhere else. The untouched landscapes, the uninterrupted wild, is liberty in the basic sense of the word.
We cannot truly know freedom, nor understand absolute liberty, without wilderness. We cannot understand humanity without biodiversity. We cannot know our precious space in time without preserving the products of deep times creation.
We have only a brief 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.
Imagine the forest. Suddenly, with a 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, splats the trillium, showers the fern, soaks the detritus and beads the moss before saturating the damp, 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!
Imagine yourself in this forest. A human animal. An individual. Sitting, legs crossed on a moss laden log. The water showers your spirit. Soul happy! You stare into the canopy. There’s an unbreakable smile on your face. You laugh, roar and howl!
Peace on Earth and goodwill to all — in a world of conflict, tis the season of peace.
I write about the peaceful angels of our nature every holiday season. I hope to replace “conflict” with “love” soon. Another year over, and it was full of war. But we cannot expect the end of war without first realizing what war is.
Those of us in western nation states, especially those of us my age (born in 1984), have grown up with a steady climate of peace. Violence exists in our society, sure, but recognition of the destructive nature of war is largely missing. Even the attacks of September the 11th, or the Paris attacks of this year, as horrific and terrifying as they were, pale in comparison to the leveling of entire cities — a common element of war.
In Losing the War, Chicago author Lee Sandlin paints a vivid picture of the destructive chaos that is war. Sandlin writes poignantly about the nature of World War II and describes how devastating war can be. Soldiers and civilians alike, slaughtered. Children unable to even begin realizing their potential. War fever and a flood of patriotism, the pounding of the drums of war escalating the violence — on all sides. Endless amounts of culture lost, history buried in ruin, jingoism, fear, and an endless destruction of property. War is much more than political struggle, it is the death of humanity.
War is made possible by systems of power and domination. This is true of the violent war-making regimes of yesterday, and it is still true today. It is important to remember that the most violent among us are caged by an inhumane ideology. Those with a thirst for war are themselves dominated by and stuck within systems of power — be they the politicians, their supportive subjects or violent terror cells. Warmongers wish to dominate, as opposed to participate in, humanity. They are captives in need of liberation.
These systems of power thrive on the obedience of their subjects. Once these institutions are challenged, once the environment that grants them power is changed, their authority is called into question. They become feckless when challenged by humanity.
I am a big believer in humanity. It is important to remember that all races and all creeds labor together, peacefully, globally, everyday. The creative, inclined labor of human beings builds markets, mutual aid, relief, commons regimes, charity and generally decent societies. Human labor crafts peace.
Peace is liberty. When peace is realized every human being will be free to pursue their own interests and develop their capacities into individual and social account. We all deserve such liberty, especially the most vulnerable among us — children.
The current global conflict is responsible for the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The war-torn Middle East is experiencing human destruction on a heart-breaking scale. One image of this war in particular has struck the hearts of many — the lifeless body of a Syrian child. The child and his family were fleeing Syria, a country torn apart by western interventionism, a brutal dictator and a vicious terror regime vying for power. The family was in the final trek of their journey, crossing the sea, seeking refuge in Europe, when their 15 foot boat capsized. The boy washed ashore on a Turkish beach. His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was just three years old. Aylan’s five-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, also drowned. His father, Abdullah, is the only surviving family member.
I am broken by the photograph of Aylan’s lifeless body. I am a father with a toddler of my own. So much about being a dad fills my heart with joy. One of the simplest activities that makes me so happy is putting on my son’s shoes. I sit on the floor and ask the boy if he would like to put on his shoes. He (usually) nods and with a confident “yeah” he picks up his shoes and sits on my lap. Once there, he raises his little foot in the air and looks at me — time to go do something fun. My heart bursts. The first thing I notice in the photograph of Aylan is his shoes. They will carry him no more. There are no more experiences left for the child to explore — he’s been robbed of his pursuit of happiness.
This is the reality of war.
Cherish life, the most precious gift. Never doubt that we can and will build a real and lasting peace. Human liberty will make life on Earth worth living. There will be a peace for every child of humanity.
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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.
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.
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.