Wildness as Praxis: Evolving the Urban Corridor
by Grant A. Mincy
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.