Survival through moderation, or extinction through overindulgence?
We, the human species, have been around for a couple hundred thousand years. For most of our timespan, we’ve lived as hunter-gatherers in relative balance with our biotic communities. But around 10,000 years ago, when the planet warmed up at the end of the last Ice Age, we began to practice agriculture and thereafter collectively morphed into hierarchical societies that spread around the planet. Social hierarchy and economics became inextricably interlinked, and thus recent human cultures can be viewed through time as “haves and have-nots,” masters and slaves, privileged classes served by serfs, and divinely anointed monarchs lording it over entire populations and their habitats.
At this point in the 21st century, the “Divine Right of Kings” has transmogrified into the corporate right of first refusal. Economics based on endless, continuous growth empowers our cultural paradigm. Most of us are still serfs, although we have gained the right to vote, at least in nations that are ostensibly democracies. But in the main, it seems to me, most of those who run for public office dance to the endless drumbeat of a system of economics that so deafens them that they—and we—evade the profound reality that endless growth in a world of finite resources cannot be eternally sustained. Thus, ecological collapse is inevitable. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”
Over three decades ago, I recorded Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, who had previously worked for many years with environmental organizations to save wilderness areas. He summed up his thinking as follows:
I basically came to the conclusion that we were being co-opted by the establishment, that having influence and all made us moderate. We compromised more, thought about pragmatic politics instead of biocentric ethics. And so with several other people who had worked for the Friends of the Earth or the Wilderness Society, or who were active Sierra Club members, we decided that the time had come for an environmental group that wouldn’t compromise, that would base itself on ethics rather than pragmatics, and that would take strong action to try to stop the destruction of wilderness…
If you look at the human race, not as the consciousness of the Earth, but as the cancer of the Earth—that we’re a disease ecologically—maybe Nature has evolved some of us as antibodies. That’s the only way I can explain why some of us love wilderness and other people have no conception of it at all. And so, our role in the future, I think, is to try to preserve as many areas of natural diversity as possible… And hopefully also develop the ethics and the potential for a human society that can live in harmony with the rest of the planet after this industrial madness burns itself out. Those are the two things I’m trying to do in the long-term. One is to lay the groundwork for a human society in the future that is ecologically based, and the other is to preserve as much natural diversity now as we can.
Members of Earth First! were greatly inspired by Edward Abbey, whose literary works Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang invigorated a subculture to react against turning habitat into money, a prevailing tenet of the corporate will.
On New Year’s Day 1983, Ed and I returned from a camping trip in the Superstition Mountains to his writing cabin in the Sonoran Desert, where I recorded him thinking out loud:
I think by virtue of reason, common sense, the evidence of our good five bodily senses and daily experience, we can imagine a better way to live, with fairly simple solutions. Not easy—but simple. Beginning here in America—we should set the example. We have set the example by pillaging the planet, and we should set the example for preserving life, including human life. First, most important, reduce human numbers, gradually, by normal attrition, letting the senile old farts like you and me die off. Reduce the human population to a reasonable number—for the United States something like 100 million, or even 50 million, should be plenty. And then, second, simplify our needs and demands, so that we’re not preying to excess on other forms of life—plant life and animal life—by developing new attitudes, a natural reverence for all forms of life.”
These perspectives were voiced over 30 years ago by men who had become actively engaged in protecting homeland.
Early 20th-century America luxuriated in the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. But the stock market crash of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression that lasted until 1942, when the USA fully engaged in World War II. Sixteen years of cultural “tightened belt” set Americans up to sanction an economically dominated paradigm. World leaders met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944, just before the end of the war, to create an economic system that was to result in the World Bank and the Global Economy.
In 2013, I recorded Jerry Mander, author of The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System. He told me:
Consumerism is what was going to save the economy. That was a conscious statement made during the 1950s post-Bretton Woods. Consumerism was going to be the answer. More and more products, more and more resources. There was not even the beginning of a thought about any limits to that potential. The environmental movement hadn’t really even begun yet in any meaningful way. There were individuals like Edward Abbey and people like that who were talking in environmental terms, but there was no movement, there was no conscious sense of limits to any of that. And it was all about economic growth and individual consumption and getting ahead and competition and investment and advancement in the corporate world.
About that time, the counterculture happened. First hundreds, then thousands of young Americans reacted against the consumer-based economy. Many moved into urban neighborhoods and followed Timothy Leary’s maxim “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.” Myriad experiments, both social and drug-induced, reshaped countercultural consciousness. Many were inspired to leave the cities and either live in newly founded communes or pursue life as individuals whose active imaginations far exceeded the parameters of the economic paradigm that dominated mainstream culture.
Gary Snyder emerged early on as a talented poet whose work was far more “naturistic” than urban-oriented, as were the works of his citified contemporaries Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others of the Beat Generation. Snyder was and remains a great voice in behalf of an ecologically motivated system of attitudes. In 1969, he wrote a piece of prose inspired by his understanding of Nature’s flow, and the imminent jeopardy to earthly habitat. Four Changes was first published in 1970 and addresses four major issues: Population, Pollution, Consumption and Transformation. It appears in Snyder’s various books, including Turtle Island, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975.
Between Snyder’s Four Changes and Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, two new pillars of perspective changed the face of social activism by introducing protection of the natural environment into the stream of countercultural consciousness in America. Thence environmental activism became a reality. Radical environmentalism became a factor as small groups or even cells of hardcore activists went to work.
Radical environmentalism is indeed hard work. It challenges the status quo to the limits. Scientists have provided the world public with a hard truth—namely that we’ve overloaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide to the extent that our planet’s climate must inevitably change, resulting in growing risk to our species and many others, too many of which have already gone extinct as a result of human folly. Environmentalists are now pitted against the corporate/political/military/industrial complex, itself dominated by leaders with apparently zero understanding of the imminence of eco-disaster that is even now befalling our biotic community.
What’s to be done?
The grass roots is the place to start with habitat-based expanding cadres deeply rooted and well educated to the nature of respective watersheds and bioregions. Decentralization of political and corporate power is essential. We are governed by those whose unbridled economic interests pose deadly expense to habitat. They must be thwarted through imagination, not force. This means invoking an enormous shift of attitude in mainstream culture.
The so-called millennial generation is the inheritor of what has gone before. This generation is savvy to digital media in a way heretofore unknown. Digital social media is a path to revolution using imagination and perseverance. A recent election was won by trumping the truth with deceit on many fronts. Social media can be used as a powerful force to reveal the truth and counter those forces that would bring us to ecological ruin. However, we must retain recognition of our rootedness in the flow of Nature, while expanding intellectual and intuitive scope. We must invigorate a Nature-based gestalt of such magnitude that it overwhelms the current economic cultural paradigm. We must induce a new cultural attitude based on compassion for our planet, this tiny watershed floating in space that spawned us and sustains us. We must run counter to the cultural continuum that threatens life as we know it.
That’s a lot of expostulations in a row. But we are now engaged in a battle between conflicting ideologies, one of which is based in economic growth for its own sake, and the other founded in a system of ethics that honors life and consciousness within the biotic community that sustains us. This is not necessarily a contest between good and evil, but rather a collective choice between survival through moderation, or extinction through overindulgence. To turn the juggernaut requires understanding exactly what is at stake and why, and thereafter becoming individually and collectively active. Intelligent civil disobedience will undoubtedly become a necessity. Reacting against legislation that violates natural order becomes imperative, first by clearly articulating the issues, and if that is insufficient, then through civil disobedience. Reciprocity with the biotic community is paramount and therefore trumps legislation passed by politicians subject to corporate will. We are poignantly reminded of this as we regard our Indian brothers and sisters at Standing Rock, who valiantly stood down minions of wrongly legislated law as they defended homeland against interlopers.
We are poised on many edges of jeopardy. This is not the time to despair but rather react with courage and conviction based on fully understanding the consequences of what we choose to do or not to do. Consciousness is Nature’s gift to our species. Let us not squander this great gift on paltry endeavors, but rather use it in behalf of the greatest good for the biotic community.. And stay relentless.
Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, author and radio producer whose perspective includes bioregionalism and systems thinking. He has recently completed a 10-part documentary radio series entitled “Encounters with Consciousness.” www.loreoftheland.org