May 2017

OP-ED / The Counterculture: A Great Underground


Jack Loeffler


Jack Kerouac referred to it as the subterraneans in his novel of that name. Gary Snyder traces it back in time as the great underground. Asha Greer refers to it as the marginaux. Theodore Roszak dubbed it the counterculture in 1969. I think of it as a great stream of interwoven cultures of practice of resistance and creative alternatives to a mainstream culture whose hierarchy are defined by economic status, white supremacy, and politics governed by corporate mandate. The Civil Rights Movement, Black Panther Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay Liberation Movement, Psychedelic Movement, Chicano Movement, American Indian Movement, Back-to-the Land Movement and the Radical Environmental Movement have all contributed to a mighty stream of intertwined perspectives that have re-shaped the cultural consciousness of America and beyond. It was the environmental movement that finally elevated habitat itself to be perceived as having inviolable rights.


In this time of political travesty, we would do well to refer to our countercultural antecedents to not only regain perspective, but to invent new modes of conduct and procedure to forestall the presidential promise of environmental and cultural disaster. In the early 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote his celebrated essay Resistance to Civil Government that later became known as Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was resisting slavery of Negroes that was finally abolished by President Abraham Lincoln. The practice of civil disobedience has tremendous relevance in today’s world.


Second-rate citizenry continues to prevail to this day, although slavery per se ostensibly no longer exists in America. However, Lincoln’s lofty phrase from the Gettysburg Address, now more clearly portends “…government of the people by the corporate powers who control the government.” This is not defensible in a democracy. Our nation’s principles have been subsumed by the economically privileged. Our cultural attitude has been severely damaged by years of ethical inertia. None of us are faultless.


We have fallen into a cultural ethical lassitude that is difficult to define, let alone reverse. In my opinion, this is due in part to our gradual separation of attention away from the natural world, our homeland. Instead, we have refocused our attention on the wonders that we have created with our phenomenal evolving technical knowhow, thus diverting our attention away from the biotic community that naturally sustains us—and which now requires a heightening level of human reciprocity if it is to flourish in its present form.


This is a tough call after so many generations have become ever more embedded in the anthropocentric world that shapes and reshapes our cultural mores, our attitudes, our perspectives, to the exclusion of a bigger picture of our species’ place in this world. We who live in the North American Southwest have a lot of space in which to roam, more headspace to free our thinking, vast diversity to free us from the rut of linear thinking. Indeed the cultural diversity that prevails here even now reveals perspectives we would do well to assimilate into mainstream cultural consciousness.


Daniel Kemmis is an author and political scientist whose book Community and the Politics of Place is a fine handbook that helps define the relationship between human communities and their respective habitats. I once recorded him saying:


“What I have come to believe more and more strongly is that we’re now passing through a period in political history that is much more profound than we’re generally aware of. What it really amounts to is that for 200 years we have lived under the sway of the nation-state as the defining political entity. That period of history is ready to pass as all periods of history do pass, and we’re moving now in the direction of the recognition of organic forms at all different levels. The most important of those levels is the most local, and that localism comes down, I think, finally to very small units, to neighborhoods, at least. What you recognize about neighborhoods immediately is that they are organic. You can’t tell something by drawing straight lines on a map, ‘This is going to be a neighborhood.’ You can only ask it ‘What is the neighborhood here?’, and then it defines itself. And you move up from there to the city and then the organic relationship between a city and its surrounding countryside. There again, you can’t tell an area what that organic relationship is going to be, but if you ask, if you pay attention to how do city and countryside relate to each other, you see an organic form emerge. I think politically we’re going to see that happen all the way up through the continental level and finally to the global level. I think we have to be willing to exercise citizenship and politics at all of those levels, but I also believe that the way in which nationhood has defined our political thinking and acting is ready now to soften, if not dissolve.”


Unfortunately, our nationhood has hardened and is now more likely to shatter than dissolve. Those who hold political power have tightened their reins and are prepared to defend their political, fiscal and territorial control until our planetary habitat is so savaged that our species is bid an un-fond adieu. Legislation has bent the rules of conduct, and those rare pieces of healthy legislation designed to protect the environment and its denizens are being overturned by newly appointed corporate moguls who control the government. The United States government can no longer be trusted to govern judiciously.


But then can any institution? Institutions and their attendant bureaucracies exist largely to defend procedures of their own invention. They are founded by humans and are fundamentally anthropocentric in nature, and thus exist for their own sake. Some may be founded on altruistic principles, but they inevitably become too rigid to accommodate change. Change is a fundamental principle of Nature. To the greatest extent that I can, I trust to the inspiration of the moment. I take almost all of my inspiration from the flow of Nature. Thus, for the last 50 years or so, I remain a ‘Naturist.’ Therein lies my purpose and my sense of the divine.


I think that our species made an immense mistake when we began to institutionalize our paltry perceptions of reality. It is perfectly natural to seek out our ‘reason-to-be,’ but to institutionalize answers before we have the consciousness to perceive the bigger picture is folly—the shadowy work of wizards, priests, politicians and others who recognize means of controlling perception, and thence culture. This is not to say that all institutions are bad, as long as they don’t crystallize. Some are genuinely devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and I laud them. 


But beware political parties. Their purpose is to dominate cultural consciousness—and then control culture. As Brother Ed Abbey so aptly articulated, “Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top.”


Our society has now ‘scummed up’ our government big-time. And that scum can afford enforcers to enforce their will. But they cannot enforce either consciousness or conscience. And consciousness and conscience are what invigorate the great underground—the counterculture in whatever guise it appears. We have the freedom of individual and collective imagination to begin to arrange our cultural attitudes to encompass profound truths hidden behind our prejudices. To wit:

·        Can we morally justify ever-increasing human population in a world of diminishing resources like water?

·        Can we continue to be driven by economics at the expense of dwindling natural habitat?

·        Can we accept that we are once again falling under the sway of a tiny handful of those who have accrued enormous wealth and have thus re-established an age-old hierarchy of alpha-governance?

·        Can we perceive that we as a species have overrun our planet to the extent that a shift in the nature of the greater biotic community is now inevitable?

·        Can we understand that Nature will eventually subsume human endeavor?


How do we react ethically to the daunting array of societal problems that have emerged as a result of our cultural and individual complacency?


First, we forward the imperative that we must limit and decrease the size of the human population on the planet by natural attrition. Concurrently, we react from where we are. We are citizens of a place that is characterized by its nature. We live in a watershed, a biotic community, a biome, a bioregion. We inhabit a continent that is a patchwork of biomes. There are biota that belong here, biotic communities that have evolved here, biotic communities that include humans whose cultures evolved here in the post-Pleistocene North American Southwest.


Thereafter, we collaboratively determine the needs of our natural biotic community relative to the needs of our inhabiting human cultures of practice and find balance between the two. However, the biotic community itself must determine the nature of governance and acceptable characteristics inherent in the human cultures of practice.  This takes intelligence and intuition, and acceptance of what the biotic community has to tell us.


The patchwork of biotic communities has evolved with a healthy measure of mutual cooperation even prior to the arrival of humans. Our species has been here for a modest two hundred thousand years, more or less. At 20 years per human generation, that amounts to roughly ten thousand generations of human beings to have come and gone on this tiny planet. Bearing in mind that all life is descended from a single common ancestor, all life, including human, is kindred. We can only guess at the cognitive capabilities of other species, but we can readily determine that we humans provide part of the consciousness of the planet, Earth.


My old friend Camillus Lopez was born into Tohono O’odham culture of the Sonoran Desert. His culture has provided him with the intelligence and intuition to perceive himself as part of the biotic community to which he belongs. His tradition has taught him to disturb the surrounding biotic community as little as possible, and also to perceive himself from the perspective of the biotic community itself. In Camillus’ own words:


“Community is everything. It’s the stars. It’s the ground way under. It’s the little ant that comes across. It’s Coyote. It’s the buzzard. Your actions reflect who you are. And if you can see yourself in it, then you’re there. But if you can’t look at Nature and see yourself in it, then you’re too far away. That’s why I think one of the things people need to do is go out and look at the mirror of Nature and try to see themselves in it. Because if they can see themselves in it, then they can help themselves by helping the environment.”


I know of no more sound advice from anyone anywhere. If one can see one’s self reflected in Nature’s mirror, answers as to how to comport one’s self in today’s strange milieu become ever more apparent. So jump into the flow of Nature, wash out the detritus, and help Nature take its course with life and consciousness. They’re Nature’s greatest gift and can be used wisely and well.


And thus counterculture evolves into a culture of alternative consciousness.


Jack Loeffler recently produced a radio series entitled Voices of Counterculture. It is available to be heard over Public Radio stations.




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