The -ism That Isn’t

It’s increasingly clear that human societies of every stripe are engaged in a program of natural habitat and environmental destruction as a direct result of their focus on population and economic growth with accompanying increases in material consumption. Mainstream politics and economics stride on in lock step toward the yawning abyss clearly visible on the near horizon.

Global warming, aka climate change, captures the minuscule imaginations of politicians and their journalistic lapdogs, while their corporate puppet masters take full advantage of the resulting fear mongering to line their own pockets. Amid this frenzy of faux activity, natural habitats continue to decline, species continue to go extinct, water supplies diminish, topsoil continues to wash away downstream and real human pollutants continue to pile up in the corners of all ecosystems around the globe.

Some social and political activists offer alternatives to the status quo, none of which, to any great extent, offer a meaningful alternative to the dominant social systems. Among these, so-called “ecosocialism” is presented as a solution to growth dependent industrial socialism and capitalism.

 

Hans Baer: “Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-oriented, productivist ethic and recognizes that humans live on an ecologically fragile planet with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed as much as possible for future generations.”

Source: A vision of democratic ecosocialism

The above Hans Baer quote from Climate and Capitalism expresses the response of a minority of socialists to environmental degradation at the hands of a growing human population and its expansionist political and economic systems.

Ecosocialism is, of course, an anthropocentric political and economic philosophy, attempting to project environmental concern in an otherwise human centered endeavor. It fails in this attempt because it is, first and foremost, conceived by socialists who are not ecologists, environmentalists or even scientists. It merely tacks on the label “Eco-” onto “Socialist,” without challenging prevailing economic, political and social relationships among humans and the non-human world.

For example, the statement “humans live on an ecologically fragile planet” is inaccurate and self-serving. Ecologists know that natural ecological systems are robust, vibrant and adaptive. It is human destruction of natural habitat and exploitation of “natural resources” that depletes natural biodiversity and interferes with natural ecological interrelationships that leads to the erroneous conclusion  of “fragile” ecosystems. Labeling the planet as “fragile” takes the responsibility for its degradation away from human action and responsibility.

The phrase “with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed” assumes that “resources,” that is air, water, sunlight, soil, minerals, plants and animals, are solely for human use, and ignores the irreducible necessity of these resources to the non-human world. It also assumes that humans can “sustain and renew” these resources, rather than concluding that humans must instead reduce our consumption and exploitation of natural raw materials required by all living things.

Finally, the phrase “for future generations” appears frequently in ecosocialist discussion, underlining the basic assumption that preserving vibrant ecosystems is necessary for human betterment rather for the intrinsic necessity of all life.

Human impact on the natural world is the product of per capita economic throughput (consumption) multiplied by population. Ecosocialism attempts to address only the consumption part of this equation, assuming that socialist economic and social systems will result in overall population stabilization, ignoring the fact that human population has already overshot the carrying capacity of this planet, as is evidenced by increasing environmental degradation and ecosystems failure.

Humans are an animal species, subject to the same instinctive drivers of population growth as are all other animal species. The difference between humans and other animal species is that humans have largely eliminated predators that keep human population growth in check. While rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses may change that relationship at some future date, at present human population growth continues, even in countries with social conditions conducive to smaller families.

Depending on increased standard of living and improved social relationships as the sole regulators of human population growth is unrealistic and ultimately defeating. Raising the standard of living of the entire human population to a threshold level that might result in decreased population growth is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Whether caused by excessive consumption or excessive population growth, the ship is still going down.

What is required, if humans are to continue to live on this planet, is for human societies to function within natural ecological cycles and interrelationships, not above but side-by-side with all other species, as part of the natural world, not outside of it.

Rather than tacking “eco-” onto “socialism,” those concerned with human impacts on the world on which we live would do better to envision a human world that first and foremost exists as a contributing and cooperative part of the natural world.

The name is not important. Yet another -ism isn’t the answer.

Biodiversity is the preservation of wildness…

“In a square meter of soil one could find 1010 bacteria, 109 protozoa, 5 million nematodes, 100K mites, 50K springtails, 10K rotifiers and tardigrades, 5K insects, myriapods, spiders and diplurans, 100 slugs and snails and one, just one vertebrate—possibly the farmer or the dog.” – James B. Nardi, Life in the Soil

life
Photo by Michael A. Lewis

The incredible diversity of life that exists in even a small patch of living soil is the secret of evolutionary success of all species on Earth. No individual, nor any species lives in isolation. All are a part of the intricate web of life, the living network of biological, chemical and physical interactions.

 

Only one species deliberately ignores this simple fact, the inaccurately named Homo sapiens, supposedly the thinking ape.

“This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It has eaten the storms-folded them into its genes-and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.” ― Edward O. Wilson

As humans thoughtlessly consume the planet, we break the bonds of the web of life. We isolate habitats through clear-cutting, road building, surface mining, building construction, and agriculture. We destroy species through overhunting and overfishing, tearing great gaps in the web. We unquestioningly convert the Earth and its living skin into commodities for human consumption and profit.

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold

As if that were not enough, we humans attack and destroy each other, depleting the rich diversity of cultures that have developed ways of living in place, in cooperative, bioregional social organization, in subsistence patterns in tune with the diversity of life in which they live.

“Just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.” ― Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

If humans are to retain a place in the web of life, we will have to develop bioregional approaches to our relationships with ourselves and with all other species, in diverse, complex, and far more interesting societies than the one culture that dominates the world today.

“…in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

What am I doing here?

“I’ve decided to try my hand at blogging, that being the Thing To Do these days. Who knows; Something Good may even come of it.”

That’s how I started blogging, on February 6, 2005, close enough to a decade of blogging to celebrate here with an anniversary+ post.

I started out on Blogger, because it was easy and that’s about all there was at the time. I had been writing on chat groups and listserves since 1985, before “blogging” became part of the Internet lexicon. I’d authored my own web sites, joined in conversation on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, The Well, which is still active, though it is no longer free. I  was  involved in a decade long conversation about Ed Abbey on the Abbeyweb, an early web site/discussion list about the author of The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire.

After ten years of blogging, and 671 posts as Hayduke Blogs, under the influence of the aforementioned Ed Abbey, I felt it was time for a change. On November 21, 2015, I shifted my blog to WordPress, and renamed it Words Arranged to encompass my other writing efforts.

Things are changing these days in the world of environmental activism. The word “environmentalist” seems to have tarnished a bit among the millennials, discredited by Big Green compromises to gain political power and influence, not to mention money. The concepts of bioregionalism and reinhabitory strategies have disappeared down the memory hole, “Global Warming” (sic) has taken over and subsumed all else as the be-all and end-all of “environmental” focus.

Over the past few months I’ve been reviewing the literature of the 60s and 70s, written by Peter Berg, Raymond Dassman, Aldo Leopold, Jerry Mander, Kirkpatrick Sale, Ernest Callenbach, David Brower, Ed Abbey, Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, Murray Bookchin, and many others. I’ve found that everything necessary to understand conservation, ecology, bioregionalism and environmentalism was written by 1990, and after that, very little additional work on these subjects was published.

The confluence of Big Greens and “Global Warming” hysteria undoubtedly have much to do with the demise of environmentalism, in all its forms, in popular consciousness. Now with Johnny-Come-Latelies such as Michael Shellenberger and the “Breakthrough (sic) Institute” pimping for nukes and coal in the name of environmentalism, the concepts are further obfuscated.

What am I doing here? Why Words Arranged into sentences, paragraphs, blogs, comments and web sites?

In the past few years I’ve become increasingly disturbed with the human propensity to lay waste to the neighborhood, including the neighbors, human and non-. My orientation as an anthropologist, albeit an archaeologist, has heretofore proffered up excuses for human foibles, but lately historical analogies have paled in comparison to the very real and immediate idiocies foisted on the natural world by human growth and development.

As time grinds on, I’m feeling a greater urge to sing the song of the ultimate necessity for defense of the natural world, its habitats and resident species. There’s not many of us left to carry the tune. David Brower is dead. Aldo Leopold is dead.  John Muir and Ed Abbey are dead. And lately I haven’t been feeling so well myself. (Apologies to Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

I realize I have fewer and fewer decisions left in my life and the pressure to make them count for something increases with each Natal Day. With book publishing thoroughly mired in the corporate feeding frenzy, the chances of publishing  a physical book read by anyone other than my own family are slim to none. Blogging seems to be the only outlet capable of preserving the ideas and concepts I hold dear and presenting them to tender readers in a wider audience.

The Internet is a many-edged sword, fraught with meaningless distractions, rampant trivia, misinformation and outright lies. Nevertheless, it can be a singular avenue between my rapidly fossilizing brain and the much more impressionable cranial organs on the other side of this computer screen.

Environmentalism may not be what it used to be, but it will have to do until something better comes along.

What Happened to Bioregionalism?

I’m enjoying a double-digit birth anniversary this year: 66. The 60s are supposed to be a significant age, the time when we pass from Middle Age to become “Elderly,” or as we’re referred to nowadays, a “Senior.”

I prefer to think of myself as an elder, in the ancient meaning of “one having authority by virtue of age and experience.” As I review my life so far, I wonder what happened to some of the thoughts and movements of my younger years, those passionate pursuits I shared with many others through the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Bioregionalism, for instance.

Despite the fact that globalism and “The Global Economy”are the chief instigators of excessive exploitation and consumption of natural raw materials that now plagues the Earth, thus laying waste to the neighborhood, and the neighbors hereabout, the antonym of globalism, bioregionalism, is all but forgotten.

First, a definition: Bioregionalism:

a political, cultural, and ecological system or set of views based on naturally defined areas called bioregions. Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioregionalism#cite_note-1)

bioregionThis is the bioregion where I live, the Central Coast of California, betwixt the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean near Monterey Bay. It’s dominated by the San Lorenzo River watershed in the center and the Pajaro River watershed in the east and south. Interestingly, this bioregion is home to the University of California Santa Cruz, where Raymond Dasmann developed the principles and practice of Bioregionalism in the 70s and 80s, along with Peter Berg from the Bay Area bioregion some 70 miles north.

To a student of anthropology, bioregionalism seems familiar, logical and characteristic of human development from earliest human cultures up until agriculture began to reshape human relationships to the natural world. Almost all early cultures were organized bioregionally, usually around watersheds, since rivers were the easiest way to get around most parts of the world in the absence of roads. Alaska Native groups were organized along Alaskan river systems up until World War II, when the money economy took over most of traditional social organization.

People living bioregionally know the cycles and patterns of resource availability of the bioregion in which they live. They know when food grows and ripens, when the rains will come, from what direction and how much rain to expect. They know the habits and patterns of the animals and plants of the place and their interrelationships that help them all thrive. They know how to live in place without destroying the place in which they live.

The native people of my bioregion lived here for 8,000 years or so, in an ecosystem thriving with biodiversity and fecundity. Somehow, in the midst of such abundance, they did not over populate this place, they did not kill each other off in wars, they did not guard their food from others but practiced cooperation and sharing among their own kinship based groups and with others adjoining. They practiced a form of social storage, such that, when one group fell on hard times, other groups would give of their food and supplies, recognizing widespread fictive kinship ties in times of shortages.

When hunting and gathering, these bioregional people practiced an ancient culture in which the plants and animals were looked on as kin who were aware of the thoughts and actions of their human brethren, and were always treated, talked about and thought about with respect. The hunters’ clothing and equipment was made and decorated to please the spirits of the animals, who were always watching. Hunters took care not to speak of their intended prey before a hunt and always approached the hunt with humility and self-deprecation. When they had killed an animal, they thanked it for giving its life, gave it fresh water and cleaned and prepared the body in respectful, traditional patterns.

Similar practices were followed in gathering plant foods, speaking softly and respectfully, thanking the spirits of the plants for giving themselves for human food and never taking too much from any one place, so as to leave seeds and tubers for future plants and for food for animals who also depended on them.

In such a world, every action was suffused in meaning, a part of the eternal cycle of life and death, the turn of the seasons, the long slow march of climates. The stories told around the fire or oil lamps were the summing up of generations of experience living in place, as part of the place, part of the life and death of the place.

During my time in Alaska, I had opportunities to live with people still practicing, at least in part, the old subsistence lifestyle. They taught me a little bit of how they live in the world as part of the intricate web of life.

When I asked an old hunter foolish questions about why he did the things he did, why he butchered a seal just so, why he turned the moose’s severed head to the north, why he buried some of the bones underneath the spruce tree, he just smiled shyly and said, “Oh, that’s the way the old people did it early days ago.” He wouldn’t admit to any knowledge that would make him smarter than the moose lest the moose hear him and not present himself to be killed.

When I think back on my time with these gentle, bioregional people, and compare their lives with the frantic busyness, acquisitiveness, and overweening self-importance of modern civilized people, I can’t help but wonder where we went wrong.

How did we lose the awe and wonder of a world suffused with meaning? How did we come to worship dead material stuff and ignore the world full of aliveness? When did we lose track of the web of life?

web of life

What ever happened to bioregionalism?

A Community Related by Water

bioregion

bioregion (bīˈō-rēˌjən)

  • n.  A natural ecological community with characteristic flora, fauna, and environmental conditions and bounded by natural rather than artificial borders.

bioregionalism (bīˌō-rēˈjə-nə-lĭzˌəm)

  • n. An approach to social organization and environmental policies based on the bioregion rather than by political or economic boundaries.

The concepts inherent in bioregionalism were developed by Peter Berg and Ray Dasmann in the 1970s, with one of the central organizing features of the bioregion being the watershed, an area of land where surface water converges to a single point at a lower elevation, such as a river, lake, or ocean.

The picture above is of the San Lorenzo River watershed, the central feature of our local bioregion in Santa Cruz County. Just by happenstance, our county lines stick pretty close to the boundaries of this watershed.

Recent concerns about water availability in Santa Cruz and the unincorporated County during this most recent drought have thrown considerations of the health of our watershed into sharp relief.

Water for most of the residents of Santa Cruz comes from the San Lorenzo River watershed, a couple of smaller streams up the coast, and the Pajaro River watershed to the east. None of our water is derived from snow pack; we depend on seasonal rains, which in “normal” years come in late fall to early spring. We get almost no rain from May through September.

In times of drought, such as the past two to three years, San Lorenzo River runoff has diminished severely, to the point that human withdrawal of water has threatened the viability of endangered fish species that spawn in its watershed. Concern for the future of the water supply spawned an eighteen month long process of study and deliberation to devise a plan to optimize our water supply system to provide dependable water for human residents without depriving necessary river flow from the non-human species that also depend on it.

From an initial push by the Santa Cruz City Water Department to build an ocean water desalination plant to provide more water for County residents and to free up water for fish species, the City’s Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC) developed a plan that uses a combination of conservation, aquifer recharge, and repair and maintenance of the existing water transportation system to more efficiently manage water from the San Lorenzo River during periods of maximum availability, so as to have a more reliable water supply available during the yearly dry months, especially in times of drought.

As a result of education efforts in support of water rationing and strict conservation measures, Santa Cruz residents have become intimately aware of their source of water. As a result, Santa Cruz water customers exceeded water rationing and conservation goals during the past two years of water rationing. The extent of local response to this drought bodes well for the future success of the WSAC plans for future watershed management efforts.

Santa Cruz is not the only place that is learning a bioregional approach to water management. of the Irish Times writes about the Irish Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to watershed (catchment) management that views watersheds as communities that include the people who live within them:

“Integrated catchment management connects land, water and people from the mountains to the sea,” Donal Daly told a workshop in Dundalk last month. Source: Why rivers are crucial to our relationship with the environment

The Irish EPA’s report, Public Engagement in Integrated Catchment Management, engages the public in a process of learning from their bioregion about how to live cooperatively with all life in the watershed, while maintaining the quality of life for its human residents as well.

Engaging the people in learning about the amazing biological diversity in their bioregion and the crucial role played by the watershed in the lives of all its inhabitants, made them enthusiastic participants in maintaining their own health as part of the overall health of their watershed.

“We found we could hardly get the children away from the river,” said Bernie O’Flaherty, who works with communities on water-quality issues for Monaghan County Council.

The Irish EPA’s report begins with a quote that applies to all of us in our watersheds and bioregions around the world:

‘A family is a community related by blood; a business is a community
related by ink; and a catchment is a community related by water.’