The Capitalist War on the Last American Commons

Photograph Source: Steven Kevil – CC BY-SA 3.0

The land in question in This Land is Christopher Ketcham’s  brilliant first book is the last wild “American commons”: the federal public lands of the western United States. Comprising many millions of acres of grassland, forest, mountains, valleys, canyons, and steppe, this vast “public trust” is under the deeply compromised supervision of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Parks Service.

The geography is not accidental. “In the countryside of the East,” Ketcham writes:

“the public lands are few. Whole mountains are privatized. Rivers and their banks, seashores, meadows, forests get hung with NO TRESPASSING signs and KEEP OUT … Always there are fences…Whereas in the West, in the lands that were never privatized,…where’s there’s not enough water for the madding crowd but just enough for the wild things…it is still possible…to find wild, clean, open spaces where the rhythms of the natural world go on as they should….” (p.4)

As Ketcham shows across nearly four hundred pages peppered with beautiful descriptions of Western terrain and plant and animal life, the American public has no reason to trust that the nation’s last wilderness is being properly managed on behalf of the common good. Writing in the great anti-authoritarian, naturalist, and Western environmentalist tradition of Bernard DeVoto and Edward Abbey, Ketcham shows how this land is under attack as never before.

The Western commons has evaded full capitalist enclosure into the 21st Century for reasons of geology and climate. Its mountains are uninhabitable and its valleys lack the “timber, water, and cultivable soil [required] to support the breakneck expansion of crops and population. But now, Ketcham warns, “industrial man” is poised to ruin the great national and natural treasure once and for all.

The enemy is neither private capitalism nor big government alone but rather both together with politicians and government working as the agents and beneficiaries of capitalist forces determined to ravage the public lands in the relentless pursuit of profit. The top driving villains are the growth-and commodity-mad livestock and energy interests.

Part One of This Land tells the depressing story of how powerful ranchers have joined hands with violently anti-conservation Mormons, the right-wing Republican Party, and the crassly eco-cidal Trump administration to undermine the BLM’s ability and willingness to regulate livestock grazing. Western grasslands are stripped of their “biological soil crust” and thus of their ability to sustain balanced, healthy, and diverse ecosystems and to stem floods by the grinding hooves and voracious muzzles of thousands upon thousands of monumentally shit-spewing, water-and land-polluting bovines. This disastrous overgrazing is enabled by BLM bureaucrats who are terrorized, bought-off, worn down and otherwise captured and controlled by big ranchers and rancher-run politicians and policy groups.

The livestock interests claim to be standing up for the “little guy” (the mythic noble cowboy of the fabled frontier past) against totalitarian (socialist) “big government.” It’s a deeply deceptive narrative. There’s nothing “little” about the 21st century cattle industry. As Ketcham explains:

“The small family rancher on the public domain…is fast fading, as global meat production and the monopoly exercised by corporate meatpackers drives down market prices to the point that ranchers without capital to spare barely break even. The new cattle barons – the corporations, the superrich – buy out the small spreads and consolidate the land and mark it another investment in the portfolio, another property to be added to the list of third and fourth homes in Aspen, Paris, New York” (p. 72, emphasis added)

The big cattle interests aren’t really anti-government. These “welfare ranchers” want state-capitalist socialism for their investments, public (and livable ecology) be damned. “Bernard DeVoto observed in the 1940s,” Ketcham writes, “that no rancher in his right mind wanted ownership per se of the public land. That would entail responsibility, stewardship, and worse, the payment of property taxes. What the rancher who is farsighted has always wanted, and what extractive industry wants in general is private exploitation with costs paid by the public” (p. 127, emphasis added)

Socialism for the rich is exactly what the incorporated cattle moguls of the West are getting from the federal government under Donald Trump. The president has rewarded them with an executive order resulting in the “the largest recission of federal land protection in American history” – the repeal of BLM shielding for most of southern Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

For good measure, Malignant Orange has issued pardons to Dwight and Steven Hammonds, child-abusing welfare-cattlemen who have threatened to kill BLM officers (for trying to enforce federal land protections) and who were convicted in 2015 for public lands arson. (The Hammonds’ legal plight inspired the maniacal Mormon rancher Ammon Bundy to lead an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in January of 2016.)

It’s not just about Republicans. The second part of Ketcham’s epic volume shows how the slithering fake-progressive, pseudo-environmentalist, and arch-neoliberal Goldman-Sachs-captive Barack Obama administration “perpetrated the worst offenses” by stripping Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from western wolves and grizzly bears and by denying ESA protections to the sage grouse (“a beady-eyed dancing bird no bigger than a chicken”). As Ketcham argues with an abundance of bio-environmental research to cite, the near-elimination of top predators (like wolves and grizzlies) is an ecological calamity that fuels biodiversity collapse.

Environmentalists’ effort to win protection for the declining Western sage grouse population was, Ketcham shows, an attempt to stop block Big Livestock and Big Energy from destroying healthy habitats for “hundreds of other animals,” including the Pygmy Rabbit, the Pronghorn (“the fastest land animal in North America”) and an “incredible diversity of birds.”

“Obama,” Ketcham writes, “didn’t have the guts to give the sage grouse what it needed…What was really being protected was business as usual for oil and gas and livestock” (p. 248, emphasis added). And “so it went in the Obama administration, on down the line of species that needed protection. A lot of big words about conservation thrown around but no real help for the wildlife” (p. 249).

Ketcham evinces appropriate disdain for Obama, who put an abject corporate stooge (Ken Salazar) in charge of the Interior Department and proudly oversaw a major resurgence of oil and gas production on public as well as private lands. .By 2016, Ketcham notes, “oil production on public lands was 60 percent higher than in the last year of the Bush administration” (p. 319).

While he is quite properly disgusted by “the Trump horror show,” Ketcham asked a sample of Western public lands activists for an assessment of Obama’s two terms. The responses he got were almost entirely negative, including one from a leading land protector who reported that “the Obama years were clouded with a severe lack of interest or concern about environmental issues” (p.319, emphasis added)

Writing this review with shocking images of epic wildfires ravaging California on my television, I should note that Ketcham writes with deeply informed eloquence against the longstanding timber industry practice – aided and abetted by state governments and the U.S, Departments of the Interior and Agriculture – of logging woodlands in the wake and anticipation of forest fires. It’s a stupid, self-defeating procedure, “for, as the forests decline, so does the capacity of the high country to hold water. Healthy forests, soaking up snow and rain,” Ketcham writes, “are the watersheds of the West, and from them issue the source of all biodiversity of the ecosystems of the aridlands – not to mention all the hope for the long-term survival of its human inhabitants” (pp. 302-303).

So what is to be done? This Land has heroes and heroines as well as nefarious, profit-mad, and hopelessly co-opted eco-exterminst evildoers. Ketcham does his best to rescue a courageous band of public land officials and rugged environmentalists on the militant margins of the green movement from what the great British Marxist working-class historian E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Ketcham’s kind of change agents are full-bodied fighters willing to pay a price for facing down and calling out soulless ranchers, rifle-toting Mormons, disingenuous politicians, and faceless bureaucrats.

The author has no patience for liberal-elitist-Lesser-Evilist Democratic Party collaborators in the making of the capitalogenic climate catastrophe and its twin calamity the Sixth Great Extinction (the “anthropogenic” crime that may claim homo sapiens itself in the not-so-distant future). He eviscerates “the so-called green groups” who make up what he calls “the compliant opposition” (an excellent phrase!) – the corporatized Big Green environmental organizations like the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

This Land is penned by an unabashed Abbey-ite who deeply understands the monkey-wrench response to corporate state-capitalism’s war on livable ecology – the biggest and most lethal transgression of our or any time, by the way. Ketcham recommends the formation of a grassroots public lands movement that is “fierce, impassioned, occasionally dangerous, without hypocrisy” to “stand against the tyranny of money” and “modern” industry’s extractivist growth ideology, which Abbey aptly called the “ideology of the cancer cell.” Ketcham’s final chapter is prefaced with young Mario Savio’s famous call for citizens to “put their bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon all the levers” of the corporate “machine” to “make it stop.” As a veteran of the failed direct-action campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline, I cannot but concur.

Consistent with all this, Ketcham proposes fairly radical solutions certain to turn off snooty and squeamish liberals in the dismal, dollar-drenched Democratic Party and the Big Green enviro-industrial complex. Among other things, he calls for the abolition of grazing rights on public lands, the de-commissioning of roads in national parks, and strict enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, which, if seriously administered, “would smash the entire exploitative economy on the public lands.” I’m guessing Ketcham’s publisher would not like for him to advocate the abolition of capitalism but one gets the impression that the author might almost like to recommend that as well.

Here it is perhaps worth nothing that Ketcham followed up the completion of This Land by heading to France to craft brilliant and sympathetic coverage of the prolonged working-class Gilets Jaunes rebellion. “Their war against the rich, in the age of climate change,” Ketcham wrote about the “Yellow Vests” in Harper’s last August, “is one driven by an understanding unique among protest movements in France: that the privilege to lord and the privilege to pollute are one and the same, and that confronting the climate crisis means a confrontation with unregulated capitalism. It is a call to arms that should resound across the world.”

Many of us crazy eco-Marxists hasten to add here that the real problem is capitalism, not merely “unregulated capitalism.”

Beyond Ketcham’s “failure” (if that’s the right word) to go full-on radical anti-capitalist (I am not sure one can write for Penguin Random House and Harper’s without adding caveats like “unregulated,” “free market,” and/or “Friedmanesque” to one’s critique of the exterminist profits system), I have only additional misgivings about This Land. The first is that it is too long and involved to become a back-pocket bible for a new generation of green-red militants. The second is that Ketcham says far too little about (a) how much of the great Western public domain has been violently and criminally stolen from North America’s First Nations people and (b) what Indigenous culture and lifeways have to tell us about how to live beyond the eco-exterminist commands of capital.

That said, This Land is a stirring, wonderfully crafted, and properly angry tour de force. It belongs up on the same shelf with past militant green classics like DeVoto’s The Western Paradox, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle. West Coast readers are advised to order a copy soon, before the next great wildfire devours your mailbox.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).