Why We Shouldn’t Vote…as Explained by Barack Obama

voting

Anarchism is one thing and democracy is another. The two are not synonyms; indeed, they are not even compatible. If one exists, then the other does not. Consequently, anarchists should be not be expected to promote, strengthen, or applaud democratic institutions. Democracy is one tactic or organizing principle that a state may use to secure its power and neutralize resistance.

Anarcho-primitivists are often at great pains to point out that “civilization” has a substantive meaning and is not simply an honorific; it does not denote considerate behavior, good manners, or artistic accomplishment. Likewise, the term “democracy” has a substantive meaning and should not be mindlessly applied to all political arrangements that strike one as generally fair or seemingly just. For one thing, democracy generally involves voting which is the turning over of power to someone else who may or may not adequately represent your interests (assuming such representation is even possible). Voting is one means that the state can use to transform dissidents into defenders of state power.

In wake of the recent election and the somewhat surprising result, there is incredible acrimony over who voted and who didn’t, why and how come. If you’re keeping score, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore voted for Clinton; Hulk Hogan and Tom Brady voted for Trump; Colin Kaepernick and Kanye West didn’t vote (although Kanye has suggested he would have voted for Trump had he voted). Partisans on all sides are rushing to either take credit or assign blame for the results.

And amongst anarchists, there is of course endless discussion about the appropriateness of voting at all.

At this point, I will turn to an unlikely source for an anarchist to rely on: President of the United States Barack Obama. Grant me this liberty as sometimes the words of those in power can be revealing in ways that they do not necessarily intend.

Yesterday in Berlin, at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Barack Obama inadvertently provided solid grounds for anarchists and others who abstain from voting. The italicized lines from this point onward are all from Barack Obama:

do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”

Despite historically unprecedented unfavorable ratings, the two major party candidates still managed to win upwards of 90 percent of votes cast. This means that a very large number of people voted for a candidate that did not appeal to them. And at least from my own observation it seems that even votes for third party candidates were often not enthusiastically cast but rather were default options taken by those who for whatever reason felt compelled to vote for someone.

To actively vote for someone who you actually disapprove of must require a severe cynicism, an awfully bleak outlook, or at least a lack of imagination. The bars on one’s cage must seem unshakable; our systems of government and way of life completely unalterable. It is these voters who “take for granted our systems of government and our way of life.” It is their continued oppression that they are taking for granted. “Given that I have no real power, I will vote for _______.”

In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened.”

Obviously not intended as such, the above statement from Barack Obama provides strong grounds for not voting if one is an anarchist. Low voter turnout is appropriately interpreted as a lack of faith in the institution. Low voter turnout weakens the claims of elected officials to be governing with the consent of the governed. Low voter turnout can pierce the “We the People..” propaganda that is so important to this empire. The People, in large measure, did not vote or did so only grudgingly.

In a society in which institutions exist to perpetuate and further our domestication and servitude, anything that weakens those institutions—including democratic institutions—is a good thing. Weakening people’s faith in the legitimacy and the perceived invulnerability of such institutions is of vital importance.

If people…are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process…then democracy will break down.”

This is simply another way of saying that state power is likely to break down. Obama naturally considers such a possibility to be a disaster; it is why he is now all but campaigning for the president-elect despite having described him as “uniquely unfit” for the presidency only a little more than a week ago. Those in political power require, if not the consent, the tacit cooperation of those being governed.

If democracy exists, then anarchism does not. Anarchists are right to do what they can to attack and weaken democratic institutions such as elections.

Offshore Wind: The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done?

grand-coulee-postcard

Factories that work for Old Uncle Sam /
Run on the power of the Grand Coulee Dam”
-Woody Guthrie, “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”

Seventy-five years ago, folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a contract to write songs for the federal government. The recently created Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) needed to generate enthusiasm and support for massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River most notably for the Grand Coulee Dam. The Roosevelt administration envisioned the dams providing cheap electricity and irrigating farm land—creating “green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground” as Guthrie would put it.

To complete this assignment, Guthrie traveled through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and wrote 26 songs in a month’s time. Some of the songs were destined to be amongst his most well known such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Roll On, Columbia”; these are songs that would enter the folk music canon and the American psyche.

With the benefit of hindsight, Guthrie’s zealous support for the Grand Coulee Dam project has been the subject of some debate and much scrutiny: defended by some and condemned by others. In his recently released book 26 Songs in 30 Days, Greg Vandy writes:

“By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by Guthrie at the time.” (74)

But the explanation for Guthrie’s support is quite simple. The project aligned incredibly well with his leftist politics. As Vandy explains, from Guthrie’s perspective “the dams were the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people” (76). In short, “the dam project was [Guthrie’s] idea of democratic socialism realized” (89). It was capital-p Progress.

We never arrived at Guthrie’s intended destination. Indeed, in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia River, Blaine Harden writes:

“The river was killed…and was reborn as plumbing. The place where this fateful murder and curious resurrection took place was up the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam.” (75)

Flash forward to the present.

Last August, a private company, Deepwater Wind (not to be confused with Deepwater Horizon), completed construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm—the Block Island Wind Farm—off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s scheduled to begin operating before the end of the year. The news was received with great enthusiasm amongst many environmentalists, liberals, and leftists.

Like the Grand Coulee Dam, it’s a massive project. The surface area of each individual blade is roughly equivalent to the surface area of a football field and the turbines themselves penetrate 200 feet into the sea floor. The turbines are nearly four miles offshore and stand 260 feet tall. There are only five turbines but this is widely considered a test run for much bigger operations.

Writing about wind power generally 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said: “We need a new aesthetic for the 21st century—one that looks at a turbine blade spinning as a sign that we’re finally getting our act together. I can’t think of anything lovelier than the breeze made visible.”

Regarding Block Island Wind Farm specifically, the Sierra Club enthusiastically explained: “Block Island isn’t just an offshore wind farm, it’s also a starting gun…the success at Block Island proves that investment in offshore wind is viable.”

A column in Grist states: “The potential for offshore wind power is enormous. The Department of Energy thinks offshore wind could one day deliver twice as much electricity as Americans used to keep the grid stable last year.”

The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds

Unlimited power! To listen to the hype, it seems offshore wind could be the biggest thing man has ever done.

While not as lyrical as Guthrie, the Department of Energy explains that “offshore wind technologies…can capture wind resources”. The technology is introduced and sold as a way to combat global climate change and quickly becomes about “unlimited power” and capturing resources. It’s the very same process that transformed the Columbia River from a wild, living river into mere plumbing. Instead of commanding humanity’s respect it now takes humanity’s commands. It became something to be harnessed just as there is now talk of harnessing the wind.

Guthrie’s song “Grand Coulee Dam” makes the point explicit:

Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea /
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

block-island

Review: A Beautiful Resistance

beautifulfirefrontcoverA Beautiful Resistance #2: The Fire is Here
ed. Lorna Smithers
Gods & Radicals, 2016, 120pp., $15.00

From the outset the title—A Beautiful Resistance—intrigued and excited me. The mere combination of beautiful with resistance raised my expectations to perhaps an unrealistic height. The short phrase defied a commonly imposed binary between so-called serious political work and supposedly indulgent savoring of what there is to savor in a world that despite such deep wounds remains beautiful. In my mind, A Beautiful Resistance promised to be neither self-abnegating nor passive and quietistic. The former attitude is often a trademark of the self-consciously heroic political Left; the Left that speaks of people as masses longing to be put to work. The latter is a commonplace of a lot of organized religion and New Age spittle.

The foreword written by Emma Restall Orr quickly lowered my, admittedly high, expectations. I am somewhat familiar with Orr having read her excellent book The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Orr’s book was significant in opening my mind to the possibility of an intellectually defensible spirituality and I feel somewhat indebted to it and to her. Indeed, I have come to the position that a spiritual understanding is perhaps requisite to any meaningful resistance and any viable anarcho-primitivism. So the fact that Orr is the first voice one encounters was initially encouraging but the content of her foreword was fairly underwhelming.

Orr writes that “civilization, colonialism, consumerism, conservatism – are all led by capitalism.” (1) This strikes me as being precisely backwards. Civilization preceded capitalism and may very well exist long after capitalism vanishes or fizzles out all while being no less onerous, oppressive, and life-denying. Capitalism is but the current skin; it wasn’t always there and it could be easily shed.

Orr says that it was the prominence of the term “anti-capitalism” that resonated with her and motivated her to quickly agree to write the foreword (1). I have found that an exaggerated focus on capitalism specifically can often serve as a red flag.

But with additional reflection I realized that I might be being less than charitable in this initial, surface level interpretation. After all, to criticize a book because it doesn’t address a problem in one’s preferred set of terms is, at best, short-sighted and unproductive. And I am regularly frustrated by what often seems like a deliberate refusal in the anarchist milieu to read texts charitably.

One must be particularly vigilant in this respect when one is outside the presumed target audience. This book is a project of Gods & Radicals and is aimed largely at pagans and polytheists and so I am outside looking in.

On further consideration, I suspect that in many instances in this book the term “capitalism” could easily be replaced with “civilization” without altering the intended meaning; among this collection of passionate anti-capitalists is likely to be found many (although certainly not all) who would readily identify as being anti-civilization. That is to say that the term “capitalism” may have been chosen simply because it is the the current, dominant form of civilization. The person who complains about the boot on their throat isn’t necessarily unaware or unconcerned about the foot within that is applying the pressure.

Far worse than this semantic concern, Orr seems to have a muted idea of resistance betraying the very title of the book she is kicking off. She writes that “it is easy to dummy-spit with outrage” and explains “that listening-learning-talking-sharing is the greatest weapon against capitalism” as if the ongoing horrors were all a a big misunderstanding that might best be settled over tea (2). It seems absurd but it’s a common mistake. For example, Black Lives Matter organizers in Wichita, Kansas recently held a cookout with the local cops. BLM activist A.J. Bohannon said the purpose was to “get on the same page”.

Fortunately, I don’t believe this watered-down notion of resistance is representative of A Beautiful Resistance as a whole.

Despite these criticisms, the book contains many great pieces. In “We Are the Rude,” Rhyd Wildermuth starts with the commonplace experience of being uncomfortably crowded on a public bus or commercial flight and derives conclusions about the process of transforming peasant farmers into factory workers, the consequences of an artificially imposed morality, and widespread alienation from our bodies. He writes: “we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world.” (59) Wildermuth’s ability to identify and articulate the political dimension in commonplace experiences is an incredibly valuable skill for reaching an audience that might not already share his point of view.

Likewise, Alley Valkyrie starts with a widely circulated misconception regarding hay-fever allergies and pollen counts in the Willamette Valley. According to the myth, this has always been a problem to such an extent that the Kalapuya people referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness”. Valkyrie exposes how this seemingly benign misinformation has served to cover over the genocide of the Kalapuya people and how smallpox (not pollen levels) decimated the population. Valkyrie writes that “in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it was a reminder that the land is always listening.” (18)

Sean Donahue’s contribution “Plant Magic” is explicitly aimed at “magical practitioners” but like many of the contributions in A Beautiful Resistance it is relevant to a far wider audience than it purports. Donahue criticizes the tendency to view plants as “inert objects” and condemns our culture for its “denial of the living intelligences of the other than human world.” (66)

There are too many valuable contributions to A Beautiful Resistance to single them all out but it would be an unforgivable omission not to mention at least one poem in a volume that contains several. Nimue Brown’s “Song of Swollen Cells” grapples with the impossible dilemma of how we viscerally engage a world that is already poisoned; considers how to love when the world is both life-giving and increasingly toxic. “How can I be Pagan and not / Raise the tainted cup to my lips” (24). Indeed, how can one be human?

If one is not a Pagan or a polytheist it might seem easy to dismiss this project as irrelevant. That would be a mistake.

 

The Sacred Sunrise

Note: this was first published in Black and Green Review #3

stained glass

“It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan

Not much is really sacred. There is not much that causes us to pause or that we are willing to slow down for. There is not much that we stop to acknowledge, that we are willing to structure our lives around, or make sacrifices for. On top of that, there is little that won’t be tolerated; we live in an age without any visible limits and foolishly mistake it for freedom.

I. The Sunrise

Walking to the bus stop in the predawn hours, the sunrise is only minutes from bursting with hints of pink and orange already appearing on the horizon but the pace of my walking is uninterrupted for I have to catch a bus and get to work. The sunrise is not sacred as evident by the fact that I appreciate it only when it’s convenient and sometimes not even then. I don’t often make an effort to be present for it. In fact, to claim that part of the day for oneself would be widely perceived as unreasonable.

Instead of portioning our time and attention in accordance with what is important to us and the values we have arrived at through our own reflection and contemplation we are compelled or even coerced to portion our time according to economic demands and the capricious preferences of others; others who, as a rule, do not have our best interests in mind. Indeed, it is difficult enough to find time to even consider the question of what is important to us; it is a subversive and reckless thought.

But I wonder what it might be like to assert and make real the sacredness of the sunrise by structuring my day around it and avoiding commitments that would interfere, to stake a claim to that part of the day. Would life change after, say, a month’s time or a year’s time? Like anything, it would no doubt change in ways both better and worse. Not knowing where the preponderance of consequences fall is, at least partially, what paralyzes. Domesticated and docile creatures don’t readily tread into unpredictable places; we like to have things already mapped out for us. And so I get on the bus; I know where it goes and what to expect.

There is reason to believe that punishment for such an eccentric experiment would be severe whereas the anticipated rewards are vague and can be difficult to imagine. Tolstoy warned: “Try the experiment of ceasing to compromise conscience in order to retain your position [one’s job or social status], and you will lose it at once.”[1] But perhaps the loss of one’s position is precisely the unanticipated benefit that one is liable to discover through such an experiment. For it is our position in the queue that keeps us walking in lockstep; our fear of falling behind that keeps our eyes from looking up from our feet to the horizon.

What if this experiment were done not as an isolated individual but rather as a small community of people regularly gathering together and sharing the experience of the sunrise. I am tempted to speculate that the benefits would be multiplied and the harms greatly mitigated. Indeed, is this not why people have long gathered together in the presence of the sacred?

And yet, the sunrise is sacred signaling, as John Muir wrote that “the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation.” [2] It is not only an iterated event that marks the beginning of each new day but from a different perspective it is an uninterrupted event that long preceded our individual existence and will continue long after our individual death. David Abram describes the sunrise as a wave endlessly circling the earth. Abram points out that “the leading edge of the dark [into which the sunrise advances] is indeed an audible as well as a visible line”[3] this is because the sunrise contains a chorus of birdsong. It is amongst the elements that make life on Earth possible. It makes our life possible even as we ignore it.

The sunrise is sacred. It is just that our actions and inattention profane it. What’s more is that our actions and our inattention insult our own convictions and make a farce of our claims to integrity.

II. Monasticism

There could be no more question of living just like everybody else in the world. There could be no more compromises with the life that tried, at every turn, to feed me poison.” -Thomas Merton [4]

I am not a Christian but despite the radically different worldview espoused by Christian monastics I find much to be gleaned from their lived example. Monastics have often very carefully considered how they will engage the world and many have seemingly found a way to do so, more or less, on their own terms and to their own satisfaction. Paradoxically they have done this by submitting to a rule. The Rule of St. Benedict (RB) has been the most widely used guide structuring western monastic life since it was written in the sixth century.

Few people I have met have seriously considered this question of how to engage the world so as to preserve and prioritize what is of value to themselves and virtually no one I know has even experimented with any potential solution or strategy. We consistently refuse to consider the question so as to foreclose the possibility of finding an answer and thereby avoid having to take any dramatic action.

The monastery may seem irrelevant or even escapist to those who are decidedly not only in the world be vehemently of the world as well. Addressing this point, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, writes:

Monasteries hardly seem like places from which to analyze the world. To go to the monastery, popular mythology has it, is to leave the world, not to get even more deeply involved with it. But it may be only from a distance that we see best.” [5]

There is no such thing as seeing the sunrise up close; it is the distance that makes the view possible. Only a fool runs toward the horizon in hopes of improving her vantage point or holding it in her hands. The most important thing to do is to stop and let the light come to you. But we are never given the opportunity to stop and reflect; civilization is simultaneously sedentary and frenetic.

The life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton lends support to Chittiser’s claim. Merton became both politically engaged and appreciative of the natural world only after entering the monastery. In a journal entry dated May 31, 1961, Merton writes:

The great work of sunrise again today. The awful solemnity of it. The sacredness…unbearable if you really put everything else aside and see what is happening! Many, no doubt, are vaguely aware that it is dawn: but they are protected from the solemnity of it by the neutralizing worship of their own society, their own world, in which the sun no longer rises and sets.” [6]

The world of modernity is a world where the sun no longer rises and sets. Electric lighting floods streets, homes, and workplaces during all hours. The blue glow of screen distorts and disrupts our sleep patterns. The time of day is now irrelevant and the demands on an individual no longer set with the sun. The phone can ring, or perhaps vibrate, at any hour. The internet is always there, always on. There is no chance to pause and consider “the awful solemnity” of “what is happening!”. Anyone who slows their pace will miss their bus and be left behind.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in many ways radically different than that of Thomas Merton. Bonhoeffer did not live in a monastery; as a Protestant he belonged to a tradition that has largely been suspect of monasticism. He was not distant from the world in any way but rather was so immersed in its political machinations as to be a part of the Resistance in Nazi Germany and a co-conspirator in multiple plots to kill Adolf Hitler. His thinking about the Sermon on the Mount and the commandment “thou shall not kill” was not formed and evaluated in the abstract but in the most worldly and urgent context of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, he founded a seminary in Finkenwalde that incorporated many monastic-like elements and has been quoted as saying that the “restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism.” [7]

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer outlined a form of communal living that was experimented with at Finkenwalde. It included a regimented schedule allotting time for both community and solitude and prescribing practices such as singing, service to others, manual labor, and confession. “Bonhoeffer’s vision of life together for Christians was monastic in its inspiration and in its structure. Though Bonhoeffer’s life was cut shorty by the Nazis, it is likely he desired to set up a proper monastic community” [8]

It should be not perplexing that Bonhoeffer and like-minded colleagues posed a lethal threat to Hitler. It is often only after serious contemplation of one’s values and mindfully structuring one’s life accordingly that one is able to pose a serious threat to the evil in the world. It is one reason we are told to keep moving, keep clicking, keep scrolling, keep working; it is so we ourselves may never pose such a threat.

And despite being thoroughly immersed in worldly affairs and living in a time of genocide, Bonhoeffer remained open to the beauty available to him. Writing to his parents from a Nazi prison Bonhoeffer: “Here in the prison yard a song thrush sings wonderfully in the morning…one becomes grateful for small things.” [9]. In a time of ecocide and collapse, we might do well to heed the example.

III. Contemplating Wildness

To understand contemplation correctly, we need to go back to its original meaning. Step out into the dark night, raise your eyes to the starry sky, and you will experience what contemplation was before it had a name.” -David Steindl-Rast [10]

Turning away from Christianity to perhaps what might be more familiar terrain. In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner writes: “I am concerned with preserving the authority of wild nature, or, more precisely, the authority of its presence in our experience and, hence, the structure of our lives.” [11]

Turner is a Buddhist and not an anarchist, and so may not squirm at the use of the word “authority”. Indeed, the term may be off putting not just to anarchists but to anyone with a passing familiarity of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century. Despite the semantic similarity, “the authority of wild nature” is not the authority that anarchists are committed to resist, dismantle, and destroy. It is no more oppressive than gravity.

To yield to the authority of wild nature could easily be construed as a central tenet of anarcho-primitivism. Unlike almost every other political ideology, anarcho-primitivism aims to give up power rather than seize it; to lessen the power of human beings over nature, to make human beings more rather than less vulnerable to nature; to both lose and find ourselves in the wider world.

Merton explained that in the monastery it was the flawed who stood out while the excellent disappeared into anonymity.

Excellence, here, was in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual…the complete opposite to the logic of the world.” [12]

In this passage, Merton could just as easily be describing how it is the sickly or injured animal that often nourishes the predator thereby enhancing the overall fitness of the herd. There is an advantage to being the “least observed”.

In the wild, we would likely also disappear into anonymity known only to our friends, family, and small community. There could be no aspiration to celebrity, fame, or even historical significance; there would be respect and influence but not the systematic domination that characterizes contemporary society.

Where the modern world seeks to solve every problem it has created by extending its control, anarcho-primitivists seek to loosen the grip; to move from a human-dominated world to a world where humans are but one thread in a greater whole. The only power human beings could rightfully aspire to would be as participants in wild nature rather than over wild nature. But it should not be overlooked that to loosen one’s grip is an act of faith and an exercise in vulnerability.

There are what could be construed as assurances from anthropologists, ecologists, and other experts whose testimony could serve to give us confidence that in letting go we will be safe. But there is no certainty to be had.

In more concrete language, it is for this reason that anarcho-primitivists are, for example, generally not overly excited about the prospect of solar power or other technological solutions to ecological catastrophe or what we might view as the desecration of the earth. I for one do not want to harness the sun or hoard its daily offering. I do not have to believe in a Creator-god or a deity of any sort to approve of the idea that the sun shines and the rain falls “on the just and the unjust” alike (Matthew 5:45) rather than being paid for and parceled out. Every time we apply the harness to extend our domination and power, something or somebody dies and the world is diminished. The world must be understood as our larger body and consequently we are diminished.

We don’t need to own the sun to enjoy it. Co-author of Bendict’s Way Lonni Collins Pratt writes:

Owning sets us up for a fall because it imparts a false sense of security. After all, ownership is not the same as ultimate control. Our white-knuckled grip on possessions won’t keep away wind, fire, and economic disaster. Uninvited birds will land in the tree we own as if the thing belongs to them.” [13]

Deeper into The Abstract Wild, Turner laments “our tendency to tolerate everything”. Making his point he writes:

We accept living with nuclear weapons, toxic wastes, oil spills, rape, murder, starvation, smog, racism, teenage suicide, torture, mountains of garbage, genocide, dams, dead lakes, and the daily loss of species. Most of the time we don’t even think about it.” [14]

If we don’t think about the sacred it is no wonder that we don’t think about what desecrates it. We don’t think about what is important to us and we portion our time and energy according to the whims of others. Merton wrote that most are only “vaguely aware that it is dawn” and Bonhoeffer asked: “What do we, who no longer have any fear or awe of the darkness or night, know about the great joy that our forebears…felt every morning at the return of the light?” [15]

Tolstoy wrote that “We can live for a hundred years without noticing that we have long been dead and have rotted away.” [16] We are dead to the world when we fail to notice the brilliance of something as readily and regularly available to us as the sunrise. We are dead to ourselves when we fail to allocate any time or effort on considering our own desires and interests and then zealously pursuing them. It is not necessary to swallow the whole of Christian doctrine or to enter a monastery in order to gain from their example. But we must recognize that we are alive before we start to rot.

Endnotes

[1] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 23.

[2] John Muir, Travels in Alaska (1915) Chapter 5 <http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/travels_in_alaska/chapter_5.aspx>

[3] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p. 183.

[4] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 300

[5] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p.7.

[6] Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4: 1960-1963) (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), p. 123.

[7] Quoted in Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), p. 232.

[8] Id., p. 233

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 57.

[10] David Steindl-Rast. Afterword. Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict By Patrick Henry (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), p. 126.

[11] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. xiii.

[12] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 330

[13] Lonni Collins Pratt & Daniel Homan, Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2001), p.101

[14] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. 19-20.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 49.

[16] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 177.

Birds and Pedestrians

David Allen Sibley begins the third chapter of his book Sibley’s Birding Basics by quoting the inimitable Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching” (21). The focus of this portion of Sibley’s book is evident in the chapter title, “The Challenges to Bird Identification.” Sibley addresses the significance of field marks, relative versus proportional differences between species, the overall gestalt of a bird, and more. He repeatedly stresses the fact that there is no substitute for experience in the field.

By the end of the chapter, he writes “the expert may seem to have a mystical ability to discern detail and make an identification when you can see only a blur…[but] we all perform equivalent feats every day” (37) [italics added]. By equivalent feats, Sibley is referring to how, for example, we can recognize a friend in an instant and can do so even if our view is largely obscured. Sometimes a unique mannerism or a distinctive gait is sufficient to reveal a close acquaintance’s identity even from a significant distance. This commonplace skill is well within most people’s grasp but can seem, as he says, almost mystical when it is consciously honed and directed toward an unfamiliar subject such as birds.

Most people do not spend a significant amount of time outdoors—time “in the field” as Sibley writes—and so as ubiquitous as birds are they remain unfamiliar. Indeed, it was recently reported that “[t]hree-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.” This was partly attributed to “lack of green spaces and the lure of digital technology.” I recently gained some insight into this fact when leading a group of children on a nature walk through a local park. One of the kids told me how very much he was looking forward to seeing the Angry Birds movie later that afternoon. It’s unclear how many birds he noticed while walking through the park.

For the civilized, the natural world itself is largely unfamiliar and can often appear simply as an undifferentiated green mass of vegetation. The ability to identify birds is often limited to identifying a flying animal as a bird and no more. It can therefore be understood as an act of resistance to look closer and attempt to discern what is going on; to see both the forest and the trees, the species and the individual. Even modest progress in this regard is incredibly rewarding as it has the potential to make our shrinking world big again and to reveal the diversity still present in an increasingly homogenized world.

Like other domesticated animals, our senses have severely atrophied and abilities that were once widespread can now seem almost unimaginable.

Sibley writes:

The beginner [birder] might see just a flock of ducks. By identifying the species of ducks you will come to appreciate the fact that each one is not “just another duck.” By looking still more closely, you will appreciate that individuals of each species, such as the Mallard, are not “just Mallards”…a world of information is opened up.” (21)

Compare this with philosopher Iris Murdoch’s assertion that:

love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to love an undifferentiated mass of green. And when all birds are simply birds, there will be little recognition of how many are struggling to survive or even on the verge of extinction.

As it happens, our failure and/or inability to look, notice, and discern is not just a threat to other animals; it is increasingly a threat to ourselves.

The corollary to Yogi Berra’s insight is that one can miss a lot by not watching and not looking. It is one thing to miss the subtle field marks of a particular bird but in a growing number of cases people who have succumbed to the “lure of digital technology” are failing to note not-so-subtle oncoming cars, buses, and even trains. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recently commissioned a study on “distracted walking” and has sponsored television and radio PSAs titled “Digital Deadwalkers”. A study from Ohio State reported that in 2010 over 1,500 pedestrians required emergency room treatment for injuries attributable to distracted walking. The total number of injuries is thought to be many, many times higher than that figure. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that in 2010 distracted pedestrians may have contributed to 4,200 pedestrian deaths and 70,000 traffic injuries.

The situation has gotten so bad, the number of inattentive people being killed by stepping in front of oncoming traffic has become so great, that a train station in Germany is experimenting with a potential design solution.

Recognizing that “the gaze of pedestrians has steadily moved downward as they stare at their phones”, the streetcar stations in Augsburg, Germany are installing flashing red lights on floor of the stations. Posted signs are no longer in many people’s shrinking field of view and so it is hoped that lights of the floor might alert smartphone users before they are about to be hit by a streetcar.

In 1958, Laurens van der Post said that the San/Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert had a connection to nature that “could almost be described as mystical” (quoted in John Zerzan’s Future Primitive Revisited, p. 14) In a civilized context, merely distinguishing one bird from another strikes most people as mystical. Soon it seems, the ability to peer beyond the screen of one’s phone to avoid an oncoming train might seem mystical.

Truly there is no substitute—digital or otherwise—for time “in the field”.

Elephant Attacks and the Dead End of Domestication

elephant

Not all animals are equally vulnerable to the process of domestication by humans. Indeed, very few species have fallen victim to such a thorough and decisive degree of domination. To be domesticated is to have reached the point of no return. There is but little hope for any meaningful resistance emerging from the barnyard or the slaughterhouse. There are accidents and there are injuries but not necessarily much in the way of resistance.

Even if such resistance was possible and even if it proved to be successful there is often no place for domesticated animals to go after their liberation; in many cases, their best case scenario will often be a sanctuary where individual animals could hopefully live in relative comfort until their death. Indeed, until their extinction.

Long before assuming his current role as wealthy CEO for the animal welfare behemoth HSUS, Wayne Pacelle described the goal as “one generation and out” explaining that he had “no problem with the extinction of domestic animals.” [1] It is perhaps uninspiring rhetoric but it speaks clearly to the irreversible dead-end nature of domestication. Gary Francione, no fan of Pacelle, has made similar comments: “Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability”.

It should not be surprising that in Jason Hribal’s book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, references to domesticated species such cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats are scarce. In contrast two of the book’s four chapters are dedicated to resistance efforts carried out by elephants. One chapter focuses on circuses and the other on zoos; in both settings escapes are made and the animals’ tormentors are attacked.

Jared Diamond has pointed out that “Elephants have been tamed, but never domesticated.” [2]

It is a critical distinction because tame animals are often only tame until they’re not; the potential for violent resistance is ever present and quite often realized. These are animals who have been torn from the wild, having family ties severed, often beaten into submission, and then expected to slave away for the profit of their human captors. Sometimes they snap. They aren’t domesticated.

But even wild animals are not beyond the reach of civilization. They are well within striking distance and this makes both sides of the conflict vulnerable. Often portrayed as the embodiment of freedom, living in pristine landscape, wild animals routinely have their water supplies poisoned, their food adulterated, their habitat stolen or destroyed, and increasingly they suffer the effects of a changing climate. Industrial pollutants are found in the very bodies of even the most remote animals. And so it should not be surprising that wild animals—particularly wild elephants—are actively resisting a continually encroaching, continually threatening civilization.

Recent high profile incidents in West Bengal, India have shined a light on the frequency of deadly human-elephant conflicts. This past March, five people died in the course of two separate incidents. In one incident five wild elephants attacked two farmers killing one of them by effortlessly tossing him into the air and then trampling him to death. In the other incident three elephants attacked four people and quickly killed all four. These incidents gained a lot of attention in part because they happened within the span of two days and in part because one incident was captured on video. But such attacks are surprisingly frequent and routinely deadly.

In 2013, Harper’s Magazine reported that 400 people are killed every year by wild elephants in India (100 elephants also die or are killed). Deforestation and urbanization are routinely cited as the principal causes for these violent confrontations between humans and elephants meaning that humans are clearly the original aggressors in the dispute. That being the case, there is little reason to expect the death toll to slow down or the number of such incidents to wane. The economy of India is expanding at a rapid pace—in 2015 the economy expanded more rapidly than China’s—meaning the the forces provoking elephants are apt to get even more severe.

To conclude on an anthropocentric note, it may be worth asking: what might all this mean for us? To assess the prospects of civilized human beings, it may be worth considering whether we more closely resemble those beings who have already been domesticated and are thus without much hope for anything greater than a gentle escape from a world in which we don’t fit or, instead, those who are merely temporarily tamed, abused but still capable of hitting back. Like elephants, the forces impinging on us continue to get more intense. If there is any wildness left in us it will be made evident when we escape this cage.

[1] Animal People News May 1993

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1999), p 159

Letter to the Editor: The Day Dr. Frankenstein Came to Campus

Date submitted: 10 April 2016
News outlet: The Eugene Weekly

Jack Horner

When Montana State paleontologist Jack Horner recently spoke at the University of Oregon it was as though Dr. Frankenstein himself had arrived on campus.

Horner spoke of his efforts to “reverse engineer” a dinosaur. That is, to genetically manipulate a chicken—an evolutionary descendant of dinosaurs—so that the resulting animal will, in some way, physically resemble a dinosaur. This may involve attempting to add a long tail, altering the shape of the skull, changing the skeletal structure of the limbs, and on and on. The guiding idea is that if evolution could trace a path from velociraptor to modern chicken then humanity should be able chart a course in the reverse direction from chicken back to raptor.

Of course, the great sin of Dr. Frankenstein was hubris and an unexamined assumption that for him nothing is off limits or could ever be prohibited. But Horner’s macabre endeavors transgress on the sacred; they are an insult to the living world. If nothing else, respect for animals must bar treating them as a mere assemblage of component parts and desirable features to be rearranged and manipulated for one’s amusement or curiosity.

Jack Horner: Building a Dinosaur from a Chicken | TED Talk (2011)