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Terra & Demos: A Unified Ethics for Conservation and the Human Quest

Dawn, Winter Ridge, southern Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Must you conform? is the question that haunts all men living in this time of crisis and decision. Upon the collective answer we make to this query rests the fate of our social order and the destiny of our children.

– Robert Lindner (1956)

One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.

– Chinua Achebe, Nigerian Writer

In a recent interview, Grace Blakely says to Cornel West, “It just seems obvious to me that you don’t get collective social transformation without some form of spiritual transformation – whatever religion, whatever spirituality it comes from.” Dr. West’s reply goes to the heart of my concerns about our relationship to wild lands in the Rocky Mountain West in particular, but applicable broadly, that we are losing ourselves as homo sapiens and becoming fun-seeking, recreational homo robotocus. He says, “You have to be honest about that because, you see, one of the ways in which capitalism reproduces itself is the commodification of everybody and everything – to create those hollow men that T. S. Eliot was talking about, to create these morally vacuous, spiritually empty creatures, whose sense of being in the world is to be titillated by the bombardment of commodities.”

The world’s leading efforts at environmentalism have become directed first and foremost by exactly what West addresses here. In the Rocky Mountain West, in addition to the despoliation of wild lands by extractive industries as well as misguided efforts at “forest management” – which itself has become a hotly contested and too-often perverted concept, recreation has proved to be a major threat to both the ecological and the aesthetic or spiritual values of these lands. Over and over and over, we have carved up wilderness for another and yet another “use” that degrades its integrity. The policy that has dominated this unending subdivision that eschews rigorous reflections on both ecological science and conservation aesthetics and losses of opportunities for quietude has been known as “collaboration and compromise.”

This model has been promoted by neoliberal capitalist or, one could accurately say here, predatory capitalist corporate foundations on whose grants most Big Green environmental groups have grown dependent for their survival. This is Cornel West’s “the commodification of everybody and everything.” It’s what the political philosopher Wendy Brown calls in her Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, “the economization of everything.” It’s not just that monetary reward drives decisions, but more that corporatization has been unfettered and ubiquitous in its social engineering that has us, as a collective, thinking we can go on indefinitely and with impunity in such acts as the unending subdivision of nature.

Lee Nellis, in his October 5, 2020 Mountain Journal article, “Has ‘Collaborative Conservation’ Reached Its Limits?”, posits that America’s traditionally leading narrative of domination in our relationship to the natural world has been buttressed, and disguised, in recent years by this narrative of collaboration. Nellis argues that the model is an extension of its domination cousin, although it is written in palatable language that is vigorously propagandized and stands in need of replacement by a new narrative, one not aligning itself with the endless consumerism that is cannibalizing humanity, the demos, and our planet, terra. Or what Josh Schlossberg calls in his recent “interview of himself” on Green Root Podcast, “the commons.”

In spite of its use of a fine word like collaboration, the existing model is not actually aligned with the concept its name implies. Instead, it only deploys groups composed of members who must agree to the precondition that some amount of subdivision of disputed lands will occur, that the option of keeping all contested lands in an undisturbed, primal condition will not be considered. Indeed, this is what the Gallatin Forest Partnership has done with ceding the most wildlife-crucial parts of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area to mountain biking and motorized recreation. It is what Montana Wilderness Association is currently lauding as its aim with all remaining Forest Service WSA’s in Montana. It is what the United States Forest Service is practicing across the country and specifically, in terms of my immediate concern here, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The patent irrationality of this approach, along with the damage humans have already committed and are therefrom collaboratively exacerbating, is matter-of-factly negatively hallucinated, as the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas describes about much of contemporary, hegemonic global society as it runs up against the ecological consequences of our actions.

Furthermore, this is not a partisan contention, in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans. Rather, both parties promote this practice and scorn those who too effectively critique them.

We need a new conservation ethic that is linked inextricably with an evolved ethic for human relations. Only an ethic that pairs the good of all people and the good of every component of the Earth, what deserves to be called an ethic of terra & demos, offers humanity a chance. Such an achievement most assuredly cannot come into existence on an efficaciously collective level unless we look at every determinative factor we are capable of identifying and grappling with.

Thus, we need a socioeconomic system that is consonant with and values quietude, that state of calmness, stillness, and security found only when living receptively inside our own minds and bodies. Such a state is at odds with the constant growth and expansion that our existing socioeconomic model requires, and instead, at minimum, calls for a steady state economy, with a constant amount of capital and a stable human population. We must be able to “saunter” in the wilderness, as Dennis Glick recently put it in his “When in Roam” in Outside Bozeman.

This would be a world in which no one was a wage-slave and everyone had what they needed to live a comfortable and meaningful life. We need an uncoupling of humans’ institutions from their stealth economic determinism, as there would be no need to propagandize and brainwash. We would live with a leading desire that every aspect of demos and terra were honored. People would not long for the splashy possessions and glitzy self-images that, in all their vacuity, are endlessly promoted today, luring people away from potential quietude and into supercharged states of acquisition and performance. We would not find satisfaction in torrents of recreation, but rather happiness in serene celebration of the integrity and right to meaningful existence of all life. We would not need to conquer, but would generatively embrace that which is greater than, and outside of ourselves.

So many isms would be abolished. Militarism, nationalism, exceptionalism, racism, sexism, to name a few. As Cory Morningstar wrote a few years ago, “An environmental movement not built on a foundation of anti-imperialism, anti-militarism and anti-capitalism is meaningless. Worthless.” Industrial complexes like the mental health-pharmaceutical-insurance, the arms production-war, the recreational-extractive-public land use, and the nonprofit industrial complexes – to name a few – would hold no sway in such a world. Ongoing consumption that denies its limits would go by the wayside. A communalism would take their place, the communalism of terra & demos.

In such a world, critical thought would be universally embraced, as would openness to developing ideas. Hatred of difference would have no place to flourish. Commonplace would be a disputational dialogue, in which censoring of speech was not tolerated, in which people wanted to deeply understand one another, with sacred cows and psychological security unwed from rigid thought. All forms of knowledge would be brought to the table and collectively grappled with.

We would have outgrown our societal reliance on projective identification, that pervasive denial of unsavory parts of ourselves and projecting them onto those who oppose rigidity, indeed our then causing them to feel, and sometimes self-doubtingly accept themselves as cause of, the very toxicity they have been made to feel.

Because our planet is threatened by human blindness, and because my own home lies in the endangered Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, this place anchors my reflections. Are we going to stand by as this Last Best Place loses its grizzly bear, its massive elk herds, and its elusive wolverine so that mountain bikers and motorized recreationists can barrel out of Big Sky, Montana directly into the Porcupine drainage just across the river, and its neighboring Buffalo Horn? Yeah, they are great terrains for those sports, and close to travel and party amenities, but they are also the wildlife-conservation heart of the wild Gallatin Range.

Imagine that visitors come from all over the Western United States and farther still, to sit on the deck of their favorite cafe in Big Sky and look east across the Gallatin River at the great expanse of the range, towering Lone Mountain at their backs, and find their souls quieted and awed at the wildness of the place. Knowing that its grizzly bears and elk and wolves and wolverine are all protected there, and that we have kept that place unharmed by our urgencies. Imagine that they come in order to honor and be in proximity to the unique wildness here, and that they tread within its wildness only slowly, respectfully.

Aldo Leopold admonished that the fight for and nurturance of wildness had been neglected by religion and philosophy in his day; psychoanalysis and critique of ideology cannot afford to ignore them now.

A comprehensive dissection of our world and its systems, their interdependence and mutual influence on each other, are necessary for our survival in today’s global capitalistic world and its crippling social engineering of what far too many of us uncritically accept as true, without problematizing or looking for the holes in its pretenses as reality. Just as Leopold’s land ethic in the 1940’s called on us to account for the interdependence of the biotic community, we must call upon ourselves and each other today to account for the interdependence of all terra & demos. We cannot afford to conform.

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