Thursday, September 13, 2012

politics in the time of peak everything

itasca state park- preachers grove

“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”


-Winston Churchill

My 40th birthday was last week and I still have a brain.

I've been a voter for the donkeys for most of my adult life and will probably be again in a couple of months, though with a great deal less enthusiasm than I've had before. 

But, really, what is a conservative, or a liberal at this point in time?  Are the donkeys really liberals and are the elephants conservative?  What does it mean to be either right now- when resource constraints and global climate change are probably the most pressing, and most ignored issues to be dealt with- or not- as the case seems to be.

Very little in the current political discourse is geared toward dealing with actual problems being faced right now.  Whether we rape the earth for the good of the aristocrats, or rape the earth for the good of the working class, we're still raping the earth.  Whether or not we have the legal right to marry someone with the same plumbing as our own, we still have to make a living with whomever it may be, in an economy that is being gamed, and with a resource base that is quickly declining propping the whole thing up.

pines at itasca
Gita and I and the kids took a trip to Itasca State Park- Minnesota's oldest and largest state park- at the end of August.  Lake Itasca is the source of the Mississippi River and as such was preserved by early conservationists who saw the value of maintaining a unique place and its surroundings in as close to pristine condition as they were able.

The park land was set aside in the 1890's- an early boom era for the US, and in the midwest, a time of resource exploitation that parallels our own.  Lots of money was being made by lumber barons in the northern portions of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the lumber was building the fast-growing cities of what is now the Rust Belt.

Though the park was state land after 1891, lumber companies found ways to log off much of the land anyway.  Deals were made with the state government for some, and some was harvested illegally.  They were only stopped when the brave daughter of the deceased park warden opened the sluice gates at the source of the Mississippi River which was creating a pond for holding the logs from the recently felled trees.  The lumber foreman threatened to shoot off the hand of anyone who dared to touch the gate, but she did it anyway.

These early pro-business job creators created a few jobs for a few years and in the process stole a resource that won't be renewed in my lifetime or that of my grandchildren.

Walking through the 200 and 300 year-old pines in the groves that were able to be saved, I could feel what had been lost.  The pines are gorgeous, and the spaces truly cathedral-like.  This was a landscape that had taken longer than a few hundred years to form, from the pioneer species that broke the ground, to the in-between tree species that finally made way for the tall pines.  The other parts of park were nice enough, but the contrast between the logged areas and the preserved areas was stark- even 100 years later, the logged areas seemed bland and unremarkable.  Outside of the park, the contrast was even more stark, with scrubby, brushy growth interspersed with marginal farm fields and swamp.  It didn't seem like much had been gained by logging off these woods- at least not in the long run. 

Whether or not you've been to Itasca, you probably know of and have visited one or more special places that have been saved with a lot of effort and sacrifice by an earlier generation, and are now a place of refuge and awe for young and old.  Sequoia or Glacier or Zion National Parks, the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the Appalachian Trail.  These didn't happen by accident.  They were preserved, and sometime restored by conservationists-- conservatives who truly deserve the name.  People who saw the need to conserve something precious that would be lost without intervention.

I don't see the same spirit in those who call for deregulation of markets and de-listing of endangered species to allow the rape of the earth to proceed a bit more quickly.  They may use the same label, but it sounds empty to me.  What exactly are you conserving?

And what exactly are liberals liberating?  I may fall in their camp more often than not- but what is being liberated by the donkeys that is worth fighting for?  Is charting a slower path to destruction really an alternative to the elephant agenda? 

It seems that there is, among the peak-oil community, as well as among gardeners and bloggers in general a sort of libertarian or anarchist tendency which I sometimes gravitate toward as well.  We're headed there eventually, so I suppose a person ought to get used to it.

It's not pretty though.  I had a taste of anarchy when we were in Nepal in 2009.  The civil war was still going on in areas, and may still be in some corners of the country for all I know.   We took a day trip into the foothills of the Himalayas.  We were stopped by a young man in camouflage pants as we drove up the small winding road to a mountain overlook.  he asked for money, and my brother-in-law who was driving, looked nervously around.  As a foreigner, I cost four times as much to pass through as everyone else.  I thought I should object- but then thought better.  We paid what he asked.  He may have just been a kid by himself, or part of a larger group that would have shot us if we hadn't paid.  There was no way to know.

We had to pay money to one more kid on the way to where we were going.  And not a penny of went to pay for streets or infrastructure based on the condition of the streets we drove on throughout the trip.  The main highway between the two largest cities was a gravel path with deep potholes in some areas, forcing traffic to slow to 5 or 10 miles per hour.  

Without a stable government, the country's infrastructure, or what there had been of it, fell apart within a few years.  People steal the electrical and telephone wires for the copper content, and nobody replaces it.  Anyone with a gun, or the threat of one, can stop traffic and demand bribes.   Some Nepalis wish to have the (deposed, and completely corrupt) king back, rather than endure the ongoing lack of any central authority.  They just want someone to run things- whether it's a king or president or dictator doesn't matter much- most people just want to have someone in charge- to blame, to ask for help, or to go to for protection.  Anarchy is freedom, but it's also dangerous and sometimes expensive in practice.


So am I a conservative now that I'm 40?

Sure I am.  I'm in favor of conserving the natural resources that we as a country haven't yet squandered.  I'm in favor of conserving and restoring walkable and interdependent communities like those we find in our city neighborhood (traditional communities!)  I'm working on building self-reliance in food and energy (a rugged individualist!)

Don't try to sell me on any of the crap the elephants are trying to push off as conservation though.  Cutting rich people's taxes some more?  No thanks.  Preaching about individual liberty, then looking in people's bedroom windows?  Gross.  Poisoning the land and water in the name of freedom and liberty and progress and the gross national product?  Jail's too good for you.

And you should find a new name for your ideology.  Cause you're not conserving squat.


  1. Incredible spaces, beautiful photos. I'm hearing you on the lack of differentiation in politics. Australian politics are just the same, though not as loud or expensive. There is no appreciable difference between the parties, no one who will legislate for the long term future. I think maybe the way of the future is much smaller government, with local taxes and legislation. I just don't see how giant centralized government can remain sustainable into the future. Maybe (hopefully?) a very local government would legislate to use local natural resources sustainably? Because there would be no alternative? Or am I just naive?

  2. Thanks Jo! I don't think you're naiive at all, I tend to agree actually. I too think the federal governments of countries like the US and maybe Australia will prove to be too large to sustain in the future, with power devolving to smaller units of government out of necessity. Federal governments won't go away, they'll just have less and less influence as time goes on, until most people barely know they exist. But that will probably happen over the space of decades, not years.
    The lack of any long-term thinking in politics and in business is amazing to me as well. I don't see any easy solutions.

  3. A little fire breathing from the eighth acre farm! At 40! Happy milestone, friend and ally.

  4. Thank you Roz and Hunter. I had more to say- but time is the limiting factor. So there may be more.

  5. Good morning Jeff - I had wanted to make a comment earlier on this, and just didn't have the proper words at the time - now I do thanks to Dmitry Orlov. Here is a link to an article he just wrote ... ... He is talking about Peter Kropotkin, aka The Black Prince, a Russian anarchist, scientist, and a forgotten historical freedom fighter. Anarchism is not being pulled over and having money extorted from you, I would call that terror(ism). Anarchy is mutual aid, personal/communal growth, and an overall respect for our families and communities. A great book to check out is The World that Never Was by Alex Butterworth ... ... It does a great job of reviewing the history of anarchism through the last 150 years.

  6. Hi Andy,
    I read the Orlov article too- and enjoyed it. I do understand the idea of anarchy as a method of social organization, and not just in the perjorative way it's usually used- as a lack of any sort of organization.

    This may be a conversation better had over a beer- but in short, I like it in theory, but am skeptical that it can be maintained, for a whole slew of reasons. I think in a future where various levels of anarchic mutual aid are the norm, many will look back with nostalgia at the time we live in now, forgetting the negatives that came with it.

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