January 2016

Averting Dystopia


Jack Loeffler


Arid New Mexico, where distant mountain ranges mark far horizons that encompass vast living emptiness, where major ecosystems are easily distinguished one from the other, where waterways are modest in their yield and thus recognized and valued as the life-giving source, where the sky is an upturned bowl of blue wherein clouds dance over mountains and refine human imagination, where wind passes through the grasses and rustles the boughs of mountain pines, where the greater chorus of the biotic community sings praise to existence—this is homeland so powerful as to grab the undivided attention of those with the consciousness to perceive meaning beyond personal self.

There are appropriate ways to live within, to participate in such a landscape. A primary prerequisite is to develop an abiding mindfulness of the needs of the landscape, which is itself a mosaic of habitats, of biotic communities, of ecosystems, of watersheds integrated into a pattern the complexity all of which requires a lifetime of applied intelligence and intuition to even partially understand.

We humans have proven ourselves a peripatetic lot, although most of us have long since abandoned hunting and gathering as a lifeway. Here in New Mexico there remain cultures that are still rooted to landscape. There are Indian pueblos that have long adorned the banks of the northern Río Grande. There are Hispano communities rooted to the land, umbilicated to the río and ritos by acequias. And while no community is exempt from the economic imperative imposed on everyone by the dominant human culture, there remain indigenous cultural recollections within native communities that are treasure troves of both practice and attitude that are vital to home habitat.

There is also an extraordinary scientific culture of practice in New Mexico that includes two national laboratories, a thriving university system, a spectacular radio telescope, and myriad scientific way stations scattered throughout. And there is a burgeoning back-to-the-flow-of-nature culture of practice that had its genesis in the counterculture movement, when this land of clear light beckoned thousands of youth disillusioned with the consumer-driven post-WWII American Dream.

This landscape has been as a magnet for adventurous humans for at least 12,000 years. Fairly recently, it has come to be called New Mexico, and in the 121,000 square miles of surface area presently contained within its geopolitical boundaries, there is less surface water relative to size than in any other state. Aridity is the prevailing characteristic. Governance has long been associated with water availability.

The acequia systems put in place by Hispano communities are based on equitably sharing the water during both wet and dry years. Ancestral Puebloans were driven from their homelands in and around Chaco Canyon when a major drought hit about a thousand years ago, causing many of their descendants to resettle along the Río Grande, a more permanent body of running water. Traditional Pueblo Indians perceive natural landscape as a great commons to be shared by all living creatures. The eminent human ecologist, Garrett Hardin, pointed out that the commons work as long as the human population does not grow too large—at which point the commons must be governed. Success is determined by who governs and how well. Elinor Ostrom pointed out that nowhere in his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” does Hardin include such words as trust or mutual cooperation.

Governance itself becomes an enormous problem. It may begin as an ideal, as with the United States of 240 years ago when democracy was clearly defined and put into practice. But over time, human political hierarchy in consonance with individual and, finally, corporate quest for riches has endangered the commons, has jeopardized habitat. This is especially true when the human population, with its inequitable scale of standards of living, has in all likelihood finally exceeded the carrying capacity of the planetary commons. Referring to corporate control of government, my old compañero, Ed Abbey, aptly said, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” The human population of the planet has grown by well over a billion souls since Ed died 27 years ago, and the disparity between the rich and the poor has increased exponentially as vast habitat has been pillaged inexorably. All the while, the Internet has become an enormous factor in preservation and dispersal within the commons of human consciousness.

So how do we imagine our future in New Mexico? Last year, farmer/author Wendell Berry adamantly reminded me that he wasn’t into predicting the future, citing Christ’s aphorism, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” I agree that we cannot predict the future, but with sufficient collective energy, we can nudge at least one force of nature to the direction of relative balance. It was our great friend, Rina Swentzell, who vigorously reminded me that the human species has become just such a force. Indeed, we as a species have become such a force of nature, such a dominant keystone species, that we are deeply affecting the flow of nature on this planet Earth that gave birth to us some ten thousand or so generations ago.


It was over 40 years ago, at a meeting of the Santa Fe County Commission, that then-chairman Art Trujillo advised those of us living in Santa Fe Canyon to form a neighborhood association to give grassroots voice in defense of our future. We did, and we elected Willie Apodaca as our president and Pat Feather as our secretary/treasurer. We canvassed the entire neighborhood to gather perspective. Virtually everyone agreed that we wanted to keep Cerro Gordo Park as a natural area rather than have it become a paved-over tennis court surrounded by high wire fencing complete with nightlights that would despoil the character of the canyon, as defined in the proposal forwarded by then Mayor Louie Montaño. We prepared a petition that was signed by almost everyone in the neighborhood.

The evening arrived when Louie’s proposal was put to the test by the Santa Fe City Council. Mayor Montaño, who was presiding, had prepared his own petition with many signatures that attested that the park should be turned into Louie’s nightmare of progress. When input from the audience was requested by the mayor, my old friend and neighbor Gregorita Rodríguez, a renowned curandera and woman of wisdom, asked me to help her to the podium. I held her elbow as she spoke into the microphone for all to hear. She said, “Louie, that petition you got there was signed by people who’ve been dead for over 10 years!” Louie slumped in his chair as the audience cheered, and we won the right to keep the park natural by a single vote.

Today, politics is regarded with cynicism by almost everyone except many politicians dominated by their corporate regime. We in New Mexico have two fine, honest men who serve as senators in the Congress of the United States. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are both deeply rooted in environmental ethics. I personally know this to be so.

Not long after our victory over Cerro Gordo Park, I called Tom’s father, Stewart Udall, and asked him what advice he would proffer to Santa Fe as we edge into an uncertain future. Stewart’s primary advice was that we should create a green belt surrounding the city where we could grow and graze food to thus become as self-sufficient as possible. Stewart had grown up on a farm in St. Johns, Arizona, during the Great Depression and well knew the importance of self-sufficiency. This lifestyle had shaped much of his thinking during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my own long life to have met and befriended many whose opinions I value and whose perspectives have greatly contributed to my own. For well over half a century, I’ve been involved in one way or another in the environmental movement. I continue to work every day on behalf of what I interpret as the greatest good that includes seeking to comprehend the relationship between biological and cultural diversity within the great mosaic of geophysical regions that comprise the face of our planet.

My great hope is that we live sustainably within our respective homeland—our home watershed—with as full and complete an understanding of the needs of homeland as we can muster, and that those needs supersede our own presumed needs if indeed we are to be sustained therein. This includes a large measure of grassroots governance from within the commons based on mutual cooperation and trust. At any meeting of any governing body, home habitat must sit metaphorically at the head of the table. We are equipped to intuit and recognize what is ethically correct and thus proceed accordingly.

I envision a tremendous shift of cultural attitude away from the prevailing economically dominated paradigm to an ecologically dominated paradigm. I recognize the need for partial decentralization from governance on high, that is, governance now held in sway by the corporate-industrial-military complex that we were warned away from by President Eisenhower just before he left office in 1961. I envision some form of polycentric governance, as presented by Elinor Ostrom in her insightful book, Governing the Commons, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 2009. This occurs within different levels of governance extending from the halls of Congress to the grassroots, where the real action is, where the knowledge base is and where people actually abide in their home habitats, their home ecoregions.

From this mode of envisioning, I recommend three books. The first, Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, can fire up one’s personal sense of conviction. The second, The Practice of the Wild, by Gary Snyder, provides deep insight into a state of mind to which we must aspire to become rooted in homeland. The third, Thinking Like a Watershed, is an anthology of papers and transcribed interviews with leading thinkers from within indigenous communities and more recent cultures of practice that present alternative perspectives, which I co-edited, along with Celestia Loeffler.

As my great friend, Rina Swentzell, pointed out, the human species has become a force of nature. What a travesty if we as a species fail to muster the consciousness to recognize that our planet is our homeland, not a place to be shunned or plundered but rather revered, honored and loved—and restored.

Thus, we proceed in beauty.

Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, author and radio producer whose perspective includes bioregionalism and systems thinking. He is just completing a 10-part documentary radio series entitled “Encounters with Consciousness.” www.loreoftheland.org


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