March 31, 2004

edward abbey and the politics of wilderness

I've been re-reading Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey's poetic and provocative book from 1968. It is a chronicle of the time Abbey spent as a ranger for the US National Park Service in late 1950's Utah, in what was then known as Arches National Monument. If you're familiar with Abbey's work, then you know that he could be a keen, sensitive observer of the Earth's natural beauty, as well as a passionate, opinionated crank. So it is throughout Desert Solitaire, a book which takes place primarily in the desert, but is not primarily about the desert. For example, in one extended passage, Abbey makes an impassioned plea in defense of preserving wilderness, and in so doing he veers into political territory that seems perhaps as recognizable and relevant to the world of 2004 as that of 40 years ago:

I would like to introduce here an entirely new argument in what has now become a stylized debate: the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?

This may seem, at the moment, like a fantastic thesis. Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classic counterparts. Surely it is no accident that the most thorough of tyrannies appeared in Europe's most thoroughly scientific and industrialized nation. If we allow our own country to become as densely populated, overdeveloped and technically unified as modern Germany we may face a similar fate.


How does this theory apply to the present and future of the famous United States of North America? Suppose we were planning to impose a dictatorial regime upon the American people -- the following preparations would be essential:

1. Concentrate the populace in megalopolitan masses so they can be kept under close surveillance and where, in the case of trouble, they can be bombed, burned, gassed or machine-gunned with a minimum of expense and waste.
2. Mechanize agriculture to the highest degree of refinement, thus forcing most of the scattered farm and ranching population into the cities. Such a policy is desirable because farmers, woodsmen, cowboys, Indians, fishermen and other relatively self-sufficient types are difficult to manage unless displaced from their natural environment.
3. Restrict the possession of firearms to the police and the regular military organizations.
4. Encourage or at least fail to discourage population growth. Large masses of people are more easily manipulated and dominated than scattered individuals.
5. Continue military conscription. Nothing excels military training for creating in young men an attitude of prompt, cheeful obedience to officially constituted authority.
6. Divert attention from deep conflicts within the society by engaging in foreign wars; make support of these wars a test of loyalty, thereby exposing and isolating potential opposition to the new order.
7. Overlay the nation with a finely reticulated network of communications, airlines and interstate autobahns.
8. Raze the wilderness. Dam the rivers, flood the canyons, drain the swamps, log the forests, strip-mine the hills, bulldoze the mountains, irrigate the deserts and improve the national parks into national parking lots.

Over the top? Sure. Paranoid? Perhaps. Shall we forgive him for playing the Nazi card, mindful that those horrors were only 25 years past at the time of his writing, and Godwin's Law was still 22 years in the future? Regardless, many of the trends Abbey feared in 1968 have continued to this day. Not necessarily as direct actions by government (well, except for that war thing), but certainly as consequences of industrial and political policy. I don't believe that the sum of these trends presage an apocalyptic collapse of American governance, but I am fully convinced that we are well down the path to an overly industrialized, overly mediated, overly controlled society where personal freedoms are constrained and a harmonious coexistence with the natural world is impossible.

Since this is turning into another depressing rant, let me close with another quote from the book, more typical of Abbey the ardent lover of wilderness:

Dark clouds sailing overhead across the fields of the stars. Stars which are usually bold and close, with an icy glitter in their light -- glints of blue, emerald, gold. Out there, spread before me to the south, east, and north, the arches and cliffs and pinnacles and balanced rocks of sandstone...have lost the rosy glow of sunset and become soft, intangible, in unnamed unnameable shades of violet, colors that seem to radiate from -- not overlay -- their surfaces.

A yellow planet floats on the west, brightest object in the sky. Venus. I listen closely for the call of an owl, a dove, a nighthawk, but can hear only the crackle of my fire, a breath of wind.

The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante's paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.

Indeed, long may it burn.

Posted by Gene at March 31, 2004 11:54 PM | TrackBack
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