appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: March, 2015

Wild Waters: I Don’t Much Care For Dams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live the commons.

Long live wild waters!


Forests as Redemption

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Photo by Dick Conrad, used under Creative Commons License

Forests offer human civilization a chance at redemption. It is amazing what natural systems can teach us. When we consider natural systems, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world. Looking to the complex order of the forest, a world free of archism is revealed.

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

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

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

From Hyperbole to Democratic Energy

Photo Credit:, Creative Commons

Photo Credit:, Creative Commons – The Ecological City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this libertarian order environmental stewardship and energy independence will not be at odds. Market actors will conduct cost/benefit analyses before harvesting resources. With the new burden of true environmental costs (such as the destruction of an ecosystem in the event of a disaster) a market mechanism for conservation will develop. It is in our best interest to have resilient, healthy ecological communities because the ecosystem services they award are far too important for the cash nexus.

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

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