Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wake Up the Earth!

On17 April it was more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit in Ann Arbor. The daffodills were in full bloom. As usual on Wednesdays at the court house we were protesting the police shooting of Aura Roser last November and the prosecutor who refused to indict the policeman for that crime. Suddenly, such a racket of bird song poured out from the tree above us as a robin red breast sang his heart out and circled hysterically around a female! Spring had arrived at last. It has come so suddenly after an aching long winter.

Looking at the birds and the flowers it might seem that the earth could wake itself up without our help. ‘Fraid not.

The first Earth Day was 20 April 1970, the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, Senator from Wisconsin. It was followed by a series of important environmental laws. It was preceded by the re-publication of perhaps the most important environmental book of the 19th century, apart from Darwin’s Origin of  Species and Marx’s Das Kapital. I refer to Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action written by George Perkins Marsh and published in July 1864. It helped to quicken the Earth Day crusade launched forty-five years ago.

He wrote of the disaster to come. “Another era of equal human crime and human improvidence … would reduce [the earth] to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten deprivation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.” He showed that forest clearance depletes the soil, impairs drainage, deranges nature, and leads to over-grazing. Despite the contemporary appearance of his prophecy, this was fully of its time, a 19th century book. Here’s an example of the writing which dates it, beautiful as the sentence is,

“For fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage we are even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling.”

We no longer build our own houses, we heat by oil or gas not wood, and we certainly don’t panel our walls with the superior oak known as “wainscot.” As to ‘seething pottage’ near as I can make out this means to simmer lentil soup.

No, what makes this a deep 19th century book, and one from which we must learn, is revealed in its date of publication 1864, a year which fell between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 concluding the bloody war of emancipation. War provides deep thinkers, the philosophers and poets of any epoch, with the necessity of taking the long view.

Consider this passage. It has both the long view and the requisite seriousness for waking up the earth. It takes us to Roman history and the explanation for the aridity of Mediterranean countries.

“… the primitive source, the causa causarum, of the acts and neglects which have blasted with sterility and physical decrepitude the noblest half of the empire of the Caesars, is, first, the brutal and exhausting despotism which Rome herself exercised over her conquered kingdoms, and even over her Italian territory; then, the host of temporal and spiritual tyrannies which she left as her dying curse to all her wide dominion, and which, in some form of violence or of fraud, still brood over almost every soil subdued by the Roman legions.”

As it was with Rome so it is with us: exhausting despotism, brooding violence, temporal and spiritual tyranny, and lest you think that he omits the exploitation of man by man, he quotes Jean de la Bruyère, the 17th century French courtier and moralist. Listen as the One Per Cent gazes upon the Ninety-Nine Per Cent. “One sees certain dark, livid, naked, sunburnt, wild animals, male and female, scattered over the country and attached to the soil, which they root and turn over with indomitable perseverance. They have, as it were, an articulate voice, and when they rise to their feet, they show a human face. They are, in fact, men; they creep at night into dens, where they live on black bread, water, and roots. They spare other men the labor of ploughing, sowing, and harvesting, and therefore deserve some small share of the bread they have grown.”

When “dark, livid, naked, sunburnt, wild animals, male and female” don’t get a share of the bread, they rise in revolt, and lo, voilà! – French Revolution. It was followed by the next great revolution in human history, the freedom of slaves, at first in Haiti (1792-1803) and then in the U.S.A. (1860-1865).

It is an old story but not an eternal one.

Against the human crime and the human improvidence that George Perkins Marsh shows denudes the earth, it is clear that to wake up the earth is to reclaim the commons. I speak now in a parking lot, next to the downtown library. The library lot was to be our commons. The best we could think of was a permanent checker board for chess matches. Perhaps instructional oratory on important but infrequent days like May Day or Memorial Day, Juneteenth or the Fourth. Maybe an ice skating rink. Some flower beds. Perhaps a vegetable garden. That kind of thing. We had just started thinking about it, when suddenly, Bang! Bang! Bang! Aura Rosser, the mother and artist, was shot to death by David Reid, in Ann Arbor cop last November.   Now it’s all I can think about. What is the relationship between the two, the stopthiefcommons and the police murders, I wonder?

The police must step down. They are there for the No Trespassing. They preserve private property unless it is to be sold and then the police preserve the traffic of the property as it passes from one private owner to another. To enclose the commons you must have police. That’s the way it goes. And that’s why we have to remind everyone with the slogan,

Whose streets?

Our streets!

We must abolish police and we must abolish inequality and we must abolish the system which uses the earth to be the means by which one class exploits another. The hog abbatoirs, the genetic corn, the waste dumps, the massive chicken factories. Seeding, ploughing, weeding, harvesting, gleaning –the Neolithic cycle – is over and agri-business triumphs. The termination of the life cycle has a new frightening chemistry. It is no longer ashes to ashes or dust to dust; species now disappear from eating plastic. When the soldiers, settlers, and land speculators seized America by waging war upon the indigenous people, the First Nations, the Indians left the slain white man on the field of battle with earth in his mouth. That is what land hunger led to.

How do you wake up that earth? It is not just a biological phenomenon, the result of the daffs blooming or the robins nesting. ‘Waking up’ requires getting out of bed, wiping the sleepers out of your eyes, and then doing what my father used to call “sitting up exercises.”

Vision and action.

William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 suggested that conservationists who “have an intimate relationship with the inanimate object about to be injured are its legitimate spokesmen.” In light of that proposition we can argue as follows. The first step is to consider the milling of the cane, the draining of the swamps, the felling of the trees, the picking of the cotton, the digging of the harbors, the mining of coal. We ask who did this labor. Our answer leads us to the coffle, the whip, and the chain-gang. No one had a more intimate relationship with these inanimate objects – coal, cane, cotton, swamps, trees, water – than the massive numbers of African American slaves who were soon to be followed by huge waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia, the industrial working class.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the earth a little before George Perkins Marsh. In Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1845) he observed, not the slave, but the white worker saying “The laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine.” “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is the case now. He addressed him directly, “you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

The earth is no longer home. Consider, on the one hand, the homeless, hounded from place to place, stigmatized by the hypocritical contempt of city councilors, and then on the other hand the massive allocation of resources and propaganda to go up in the sky, to the moon, to Mars. This deep homelessness, this profound separated from earth, is the theme of poets: Seamus Heaney (Ireland), Denis Brutus (South Africa), Marge Piercy (Detroit), John Clare (England), Mary Douglas (Ohio).

It happens all over the world. Ulster in Ireland: thatcher, cart, plough, hare, otter, spade and bucket, going or gone. Herculaneum in Greece there is a festival this week-end for the commons. In Lincoln Castle of the wetlands of England where the Magna Carta is preserved, protected, and guarded the people were separated from the soggy earth by terror of hanging. In China and Japan war for territory, war for coal, war for cars, this is ruling class development. In Chiapas last year and the place where I picked coffee beans in the forest glen thanks to the generosity of commoners of the ejido but still I heard the chainsaw not far away. And Gaza, Gaza, Gaza, where Zionist aircraft first pulverize the people’s homes and then Zionist policy prohibits the cement needed for re-building. This in former olive groves. O lamentation upon lamentation!

Ida B. Wells studied lynching. It is such lawless terror that runs amok in America now. A youngster walking down the middle of the street: a guy late with his child-care payments: a twelve-year old playing with a toy gun: a big man, an entrepreneur, dealing loosies: a woman with wide eyes and a fish knife. Shot and killed. Shot in the back, the neck choked and throttled, shot in the face, shot in the heart in her own home. The poet, Fred Moten, and the historian, Robin D.G. Kelley, agree that these murders indicate a “state of war.” They are not talking about the Middle East but the mid-west, America.

It is class war. Environmental devastation is class war by other means, says Greg Palast. The economists of Chicago, the neo-liberals, speak of these crimes as “externalities.” It is we, not the earth, that needs to wake up. The One Per Cent, the owners or possessioners, must step aside, and those with the most intimate relationship with the inanimate things, to quote Justice Douglas, must step up to perform restorative justice.

The intimate relationship with the inanimate object (i.e., the earth) must now be renewed, not as exploitation of patrician to plebeian, slaver to slave, or bully to drudge, but as the only force capable of waking up the earth. We must entrust the earth to the dispossessed and despairing, the mighty Antaeus. Poseidon was god of the sea and protector of all waters. He had a son, Antaeus, who became stronger whenever he touched the earth, his mother Gaia. He defeated everyone who wrestled with him, except Hercules when lifting him into the sky.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com

 

 

More articles by:

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@gmail.com

May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
stclair
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
Patrick Cockburn
Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There
Frank Stricker
Can We Finally Stop Worrying About Unemployment?
Binoy Kampmark
Royal Wedding Madness
Roy Morrison
Middle East War Clouds Gather
Edward Curtin
Gina Haspel and Pinocchio From Rome
Juana Carrasco Martin
The United States is a Country Addicted to Violence
Dean Baker
Wealth Inequality: It’s Not Clear What It Means
Robert Dodge
At the Brink of Nuclear War, Who Will Lead?
Vern Loomis
If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Valerie Reynoso
How LBJ initiated the Military Coup in the Dominican Republic
Weekend Edition
May 18, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Donald, Vlad, and Bibi
Robert Fisk
How Long Will We Pretend Palestinians Aren’t People?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail