“It’s hard to make people understand something if their entitlement is dependent on them not understanding it.” —Derrick Jensen (paraphrasing Upton Sinclair)
I finished historian James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain yesterday, and it’s spun me off into a lot of thoughts about where we are as a species and where we came from. I think I’ll save longer thoughts for a more essay-ish post, but toward the end a lot of the ideas I’ve been trying to grasp at about ownership, commons, and freedom fell into place. I was reminded of a line in one of my older essays (republished in this really incredible anthology benefiting the Montana Land Reliance): “For those of the pioneer spirit, there is nowhere left to run.”
Two things about that. One is that I don’t think I believe in a “pioneer spirit” anymore. People like my ancestors were hardworking, and within the framework of their time, they were brave (it’ll probably be a lifelong project for me to weigh who they were in the best senses against the system of genocide and theft they willingly participated in) to try to make a living on land they didn’t know, but I don’t think there was a spirit involved, pioneer or otherwise. They had a lot of hope and gumption and a willingness to disregard Native people’s right to continue living with the land that was being stolen from them, but the core point about a supposed pioneer spirit is that they, like most pioneers and homesteaders, were fleeing something.
What pioneers didn’t understand (I suspect) is that they brought what they were fleeing with them.
My post recently about Very Big Trucks was slightly misleading. I own a truck. It could even be classified as Very Big because it’s a 1979 Chevy and those things were built boxy. My spouse and I had been talking about buying a truck for years because we like to camp and paddleboard and kayak and bike (well, he likes to bike; I do not love biking because sitting in any form for lengths of time is painful for me) and we need a way to haul gear around. Strapping everything to the Subaru is what we’ve done for years, but with kids and a dog it’s . . . tight.
Anyway, so we wanted a truck. And I’d been holding out for an electric truck because when we traded our Volkswagen in for the Subaru in 2010 I was firm that I wanted it to be our last combustion engine. Surely, I thought, fully electric vehicles were just around the corner.
Well, surely not. We waited and waited and last year our friends decided to part with their ’79 truck for a nominal sum and it just seemed dumb to either keep waiting for reliable electric trucks, and/or spend a ginormous amount of money on a newer vehicle when all we needed was something to haul stuff around in.
So we bought it and we haul stuff around in it, though mostly it sits around earning its name, Rusty. I kind of weirdly love driving it because it has a Suburban engine and I spent my teenage years driving a ’76 Suburban after wrecking my parents’ used Dodge sedan.
I once mentioned to my mother the frequency of my car crashes (there have been a number) and she said (jokingly), “There’s a reason it’s called kar-ma, Nia.”
The other thing about that pioneer spirit line is the running. There really is nowhere left to run. Yes, I do believe humans will eventually go to Mars and might even someday colonize it, and I use that word “colonize” purposefully because I don’t think we’re going to be thoughtful about it. But anyone who thinks Musk or Bezos is going to let them hop a ride and run off to a libertarian utopia under a red dawn is kidding themselves. It’s going to take an enormously long time, like decades if not 100 years, involve very few people at the outset and even then only people who can contribute certain types of expertise (like knowing how to build and maintain the machines that can mine water from sand), and life there is going to be very, very difficult. There will be no “I’m free now” homesteading, no “government can’t tell me what to do” survival prepping. It will be interdependence at its most intense because people will be trying to exist on a planet that we did not evolve on. Humans can’t even breathe on Mars, something that Mars enthusiasts seem startlingly eager to forget.
But the truth is—I was thinking this after finishing Against the Grain—there never was anywhere to run. Homo sapiens have been trying to escape state and/or elite control since states and elites first came into existence, but the need for surplus and others’ labor to invent luxury for a few was always going to crawl across the planet. Every move to a frontier was only a temporary reprieve. Which means, in the end, that we’re stuck forever in the same situation humans were in 3000 BCE Uruk or some similar “civilization”: we have to learn to live together on a finite planet with finite resources. Which means we have to learn how to work with and steward the ecosystems we live among—at scales both global and hyper-local—with an eye to actual sustainability for the very long term.
Which means giving a whole heck of a lot of things up. Like car-dependent infrastructure, and single-use plastics, and privatized water, and acceptance of chemical and oil spills, and vacation homes. And the perception that persuades us we can make a free life without interdependence, and without understanding that our running to freedom is always going to be someone else’s invasion and displacement.
Overall, just give up commodification along with the fantasy of absolute individualism. And probably my truck.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
I listened to a couple of Earthfire Institute podcast episodes while driving down to meet up with one of my favorite people (with whom I subsequently discussed the frustration of having no option other than driving): One on radical change with Derrick Jensen and the other on interrelatedness with Stan Rushworth. I go back to Rushworth frequently because every interviewer asks him what advice he has for all of us living through “these difficult times,” and he always starts with “which times?” and reminds them that he was born during World War II, and then details the genocide—a 90% population loss—that his people lived through (Rushworth is a Cherokee elder) not much more than 100 years ago. It’s a reminder I frequently need.
Said friend recently told me about a new podcast from Martin Shaw called Smoke Hole Sessions. They’re kind of fun, meandering conversations with people Shaw has worked with and it all revolves around the importance of story. They’re all interesting in their own ways and I look forward to more.
Also via said friend, an amazing issue of Canada’s Briar Patch magazine on the topic of the “land back” movement. One line from this interview with Jo-Ann Saddleback particularly struck me: “It didn’t mean ‘this is my territory, don’t come here.’ It meant ‘I have the inalienable right to protect this land.’” YES.
After I shared the interactive water droplet map last time around, someone sent me this global wind map, which I wish I could just turn into a screen saver. So soothing. (I note today that there is not, um, a whole lot of movement above the Pacific Northwest.)
Pairing with Against the Grain, a pointed and comprehensive essay in Aeon by philosopher Kim Sterelny about how humans spent 97% of our existence living fairly equitably, and how we can start to reclaim that right: “Widespread sharing and consensus decision-making aren’t contrary to ‘human nature’ (whatever that is). Indeed, for most of human history we lived in such societies. But such societies are not inherently stable. These social practices depend on active defence.”
Another reader sent an episode of the Building Local Power podcast, which is a new one to me but which I fell in love with immediately. It’s a great complement to the Frontiers of Commoning podcast and seems to work in a lot of the areas that the Create Real Democracy group does about uprooting corporate control over life and democratic institutions. (Is corporate control the knapweed?) This episode on racial justice and the anti-monopoly fight was excellent and reminded me of where and why I started digging into the history of corporate control in the first place.
Banning left turns could drastically reduce car crashes. Popular Mechanics reported on a study out of Penn State detailing the relationship between crashes and left turns. “People are already wising up to the idea that left turns can be brutal and should be avoided.” I’m going to post that up in my house since everyone makes fun of me for the lengths I go to to avoid turning left.
Almost forgot! I am trying a new thing on Medium through their Partner program. Assuming I can manage to keep up with myself (hahahahaha, many of you know how long it takes me to reply to emails and know that this will never happen), I’ll be writing essays about walking on the platform about twice a month. The first one went up week before last, and I’m planning on this week’s to be about bipedalism and paleoanthropology. (I just finished Jeremy DeSilva’s book First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human and really enjoyed it.)