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Problems & Solutions

Dangerous Knowledge Part 1: Tired of Searching

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

An older artist friend recently told me, “You’re a searcher. You’ll always be searching.” That made me want to cry. I’m really, really tired of searching. I want to find what I’m looking for and be content.

I was planning to start this blog by telling the story of my intellectual journey, as a way of explaining my radical philosophy and scandalous opinions. But after a few episodes I realized the story just couldn’t be told in anything shorter than a book. And in fact, the story was not over.

More to the point, my philosophy doesn’t seem to be doing me much good. My life is still conflicted and contradictory. Maybe that mess is the real story I should be telling, in case other people are facing similar dilemmas.

Like many of my colleagues, I was a beneficiary of the dotcom boom and a victim of the dotcom bust. In 2002 I found myself out of work, broke, and in debt. Yes, everyone said the boom would come back, but I wasn’t holding my breath, and in any event, I had never intended this to be my life’s work.

Overwhelmed by life’s challenges, seeking guidance and social support, some of my friends had latched onto gurus or joined cults. But I thought I had already learned a lot of life lessons that might be useful. I decided to apply my skills and experience as an artist, scientist, philosopher and information architect to the questions that kept bugging me: What was the meaning of all these powerful, mystical dreams and visions I’d had? How could I sum up everything that I had learned in culture, society, and the natural world, and how did it all fit together? Had I accumulated any wisdom that might be useful to others? What should I do with the rest of my life, for my community and habitat as well as for my own benefit?

My youthful studies in philosophy, and many subsequent arguments with very smart people, had shown that verbal communication is fraught with difficulties; words are slippery and emotionally charged. But in early childhood, even before I learned to read and write, I’d begun to explore and make sense of my world by making pictures of it. Maturing in the bohemian milieu of San Francisco, I used art to investigate the human wreckage festering all around me. And as I fell in love with the deserts of the Southwest and studied Native American pictographs and petroglyphs, my art morphed into mysterious symbolic narratives evoking mystical dreams and visions. Finally, during the dotcom boom, I used storyboard drawings and diagrams to communicate effectively with entrepreneurs, corporate executives, writers, designers, and engineers. My inquiry would combine all of this into a new kind of art project: research through art, art as a way of investigating, perhaps even comprehending, human experience in a way that science and academia could scarcely attempt, because of their deep investment in conventional paradigms.

So – I spent much of the next five years on a project which became known as Pictures of Knowledge: a visual philosophy based primarily on direct observation and shareable experience. I summarized and organized everything I’d ever observed and learned firsthand. I delved deeper into science for points of reference. I developed a symbol lexicon and a series of fundamental pictures or models, in the timeless tradition of Tibetan mandalas or Navajo sand paintings. I talked to everyone I knew and shared my work with people in different places.

To sustain this project I had to evoke my roots in the old “counterculture” – I had to question everything, taking nothing for granted, accepting none of the assumptions which are at the root of our dominant social and cultural paradigms. If you’re not prepared to go this far, you’re probably not going to like my observations. I had to ask questions that undermine most people’s identities and ways of life, their sense of self-worth, their value systems and worldviews.

The next post will summarize what I learned!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 2: Wealth and Power vs. The Good Life

Thursday, December 8th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

Some of the dangerous insights of Pictures of Knowledge:

1. Humans are animals, and we’re not qualitatively different from other animals. Ants build huge agricultural societies with effective division of labor; birds make and use tools. We have no idea what other animals are thinking, but we’re equally ignorant of most of what goes on in our own brains. It’s okay, get over it!

2. Like certain other animals, humans habitually strive to dominate whatever ecosystem they inhabit. We develop technologies which extend our powers, ultimately leading to habitat destruction and population collapse. Since, like other animals, we’re mostly unaware of what we’re doing, these outcomes always take most of us by surprise. Jared Diamond collected tons of data on these phenomena, but as a scientist, he’s too deeply invested in a linear perception of time to recognize the cyclical pattern, and as a successful pundit, he’s too deeply invested in our large-scale institutions to admit their bankruptcy.

3. Humans are no more able to manage or shape their own evolution than other animals. Sorry, new agers – we’re not on the brink of a quantum leap in consciousness. It’s more like the other way around. The only way for us to avoid our habitual destructive tendencies is to adopt strict social controls on our behavior, so our neighbors can help keep us in line. And even then, there are no guarantees that we’ll succeed.

4. Humans are social animals, unable to thrive without community support and cooperation. Hence the health of the community is more important than the welfare of the individual. Sorry, libertarians – you should have paid more attention in biology class. A healthy community will produce healthy individuals – not vice versa.

5. As animals, we get all of our basic physical needs from ecosystems. The complete workings of these systems are beyond our comprehension, but we can observe that the health of our habitat – its ability to provide for our needs – is dependent on the work of the uncountable other entities – from insects and birds to clouds and geological processes – which all work together with us in the cycles of productivity. The best we can do is strive to understand our part and do it well, and allow them to do their parts without trying to control or manage the ecosystem. Thus we need to tend our own small piece of land and leave the bulk of the habitat unmanaged or “wild.”

6. As with other animal communities, the highest priorities for a human community should be to provide a steady supply of healthy food and raise healthy children. The majority of active adults in a healthy community will be food providers. Such a community is led by the people who have direct experience and wisdom in these fundamental roles, not by a specialized “leader” class or by people in parasitic “meta-roles” like lawyers, warriors, merchants or technologists. In a healthy community, these roles wouldn’t even exist!

7. Only small-scale communities can be accountable, hence effective in these basic activities of life, and only rural communities, embedded in productive habitat and surrounded by wild, unmanaged habitat, can sustainably provide for their needs. Yes, I know, big cities are stimulating, with all the bright lights and colorful immigrants forced into exile by economic imperialism! But cities exist primarily to concentrate labor and facilitate the transformation of rural resources into wealth, all for the benefit of elites. And nations do that on an even bigger scale. Just say no to large-scale societies!

8. It seems that the most successful way for a community to ensure the good behavior of its members is not through a secular legal apparatus, but through what we typically call a religion: the adoption of a set of rules which acknowledges an overarching, unknowable mystery, encourages compassion, and restrains hubris, greed, and aggression. Sorry, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – you shouldn’t have skipped that sociology class. It’s not about reason vs. superstition, it’s about humility and caring for each other.

9. Human experience is cyclical, not progressive. What we think of as progress is simply the mis-apprehended up slope of a long cycle ending in collapse.

  1. The short cycles, like day/night and the seasons, drive the normal productivity of the habitat, and the best thing we can do is achieve stability in those cycles, sustaining, doing as good from year to year, not trying to improve (“progress”) through technological innovation or the accumulation of wealth and power.
  2. The generational cycles literally renew the community. I can only wish that my parents lived as good a life as I live, and that my children will live as good a life as I live. If generations continually strive to improve on each other, it’s a sign that the community is in deep trouble.
  3. The long cycles, defined by events like large-scale drought, fire, epidemic, invasion & conquest, both destroy and renew habitats or communities, and the healthy response is to learn and adapt or migrate, rather than trying to fight or control the environment. The lessons and adaptations of long cycles represent an accumulating trove of wisdom to be passed from generation to generation.

10. Our destructive proclivities inevitably lead the majority of humans into large-scale, hierarchical societies. Small, healthy communities are typically in the minority, but they represent the best hope of our species. As individuals and families, the best we can do is strive to be part of these minority communities, or more realistically, leave them alone. On their part, the best they can do is strive to adapt to the majority societies and find a state of grace within or without them, retaining as much of their autonomy as possible. The Old Order Amish are a good example of this. They vote and pay taxes, but they won’t fight in our wars, and if we start interfering too much in their affairs, they’ll move somewhere else.

11. Money and a consumer market economy are fundamentally destructive because they create a parasitic class of consumers, alienated from producers, and facilitate an elite class which controls resources without accountability. No community should ever allow its members to accumulate wealth that gives them power over others or enables them to avoid the work of basic sustenance. Even the poorest among us can be charitable; philanthropy is no justification of wealth.

Had enough? But wait, there’s more!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 3: Nurturing Roots

Friday, December 9th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

The insights of Pictures of Knowledge accumulated with the force of a powerful revelation. But what could I do with them? I was living in a vast metropolitan area where food-producing habitat had long been replaced by buildings and streets and parking lots, and society had been segregated into slums, working-class ghettos, middle-class suburbs, yuppie neighborhoods, and affluent enclaves. It was clear that I couldn’t just go out and create the kind of community I’ve just described, and I didn’t know anyone else who was either interested or prepared to try. Was it possible to find a subsistence community of people who took good care of each other, and somehow join it?

Joining a traditional culture like the Amish or the Hopi was clearly not an option for a mature, overeducated white man. I spent some time looking into “intentional communities,” but the few that seemed attractive were still young and unstable, dependent on the consumer economy, lacking institutions that would continue nourishing them through the cycle of the generations.

I searched for years, and eventually found this compromise: a rural county with abundant natural resources and a long prehistoric heritage of both farming and sophisticated art, a place with small family farms and ranches and idealistic young people going into farming while they try to raise kids outside the mainstream culture. A remote Western town that surprises urbanites with its openness, tolerance, and community activism. A place with a small, historic downtown where country folks mix with townies and gather frequently for festivals and celebrations. A working town that’s not pretty, not restored or gentrified, but affordable and egalitarian, with dark skies, no traffic jams, and a vast mountain wilderness at our doorstep.

Working with new friends, I started a harvest festival to celebrate local agriculture. I dreamed of starting my own farm and raising livestock, but instead, I ended up in town. Now, for the first time since childhood, I live in a place where literally all of life’s basic resources – from food to health care to building materials – are available within walking distance, from people I know personally and see regularly.

Poor Max, never satisfied! As good as it is, it’s still not my dream village. It’s still an American town, too big for everyone to know everyone else and make decisions by consensus. Although it’s socially unstratified and far less segregated than any community I knew in California, it’s still divided into Anglo and Latino, liberal and conservative. I’m also 1500 miles from my family and my childhood roots, and my heart is torn.

Moving here enabled me to rediscover myself as an artist, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because although I reserve my highest respect for traditional cultures, my own work connects more with what’s going on in the cities, and I feel culturally isolated. There’s a lesson there, but it’s a hard one.

I started out as a child in a rural environment, with a loving family, eating local food, surrounded by remnants and fragments of a healthy, sustainable way of life, but since I was a talented child of talented, educated parents, the damage was already done. The seductive glamour of the arts, sciences and technology, loved by my parents and promoted by the media and the educational system, drove me relentlessly toward the big city and the great university and the cutting edge of art and science and a habitual craving for intellectual challenges and urban sophistication. An exciting but fundamentally destructive culture has uprooted me and shaped me into a misfit, a mass of contradictions.

As reluctant products of a dysfunctional society, what can we do to live a more meaningful life?

At the most fundamental level, we can stop thinking of ourselves as part of a global population, a nation, or any society that’s so big that the members can’t know each other personally and be accountable to each other. Caring, cooperation, and consensus only work face to face, and that’s where we should be focusing, close to home.

We can certainly avoid the national media – that’s a no-brainer – and, instead of taking inspiration from celebrities and media pundits, work to build the kind of local community that will nurture and sustain inspiring people. Getting out of the imperial city – whether it’s rooftop-garden Brooklyn or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans – will dramatically reduce the pressure to consume. Avoid affluence and social stratification and get close to food, family farms, places where young people are getting into farming instead of technology.

Our kids are a tougher question. But it might help to stop thinking of them as individuals with unlimited potential for advancement, and more as an integral part of our immediate community, a new generation to carry on the roles of the aging generation, caring for our habitat and caring for their neighbors. Give them an inspiring community to belong to, instead of sending them off to college and saddling them with huge loans in hopes of a “promising career” where they actually have to start over in a distant place, losing the context and support systems of their family and neighborhood, losing their roots. That’s one way the destructive market economy thrives: luring us away from our roots, our families, our social support, isolating us so we’re forced to pay for everything we need.

The mobility of our society is really a killer, from the consumption of non-renewable resources to pollution and climate change, from the rapid spread of disease and invasive species to the more gradual breakdown of families and communities. So many of my urban friends are currently just “parking” in a job-related location until such time as they can retire to the small community of their dreams. Then, like me, their children won’t even have a childhood home and neighborhood to go back to, and this will become accepted as normal. Roots are worth nurturing, for a lot of vital reasons.


Vision Quest 2016: Challenging the Patriarchy

Friday, May 27th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Regions, Road Trips, Science, Society.

Senna holding one of the video cams that Ally and Haneen used to study pollinators in the creosote understory

The Chicken and the Egg

Driving the highway east across the desert in late afternoon, I looked south across the basin, watching the old cinder cones far in the distance. When I had a view between them into the Pass, I pulled over to try the field glasses. Sure enough, I saw a glint of sunlight on glass and chrome, ten miles away, at the campsite behind one of the low hills. I hadn’t been able to reach John after getting his email a couple of weeks ago, so I’d been taking a risk that their plans might’ve changed and I’d be spending the night alone, after shopping and driving hours to make this rendezvous.

With all the rain damage to the roads, it was an hour later when I pulled into camp behind the volcanic hill above the Pass. The first people I met were hunters who’d volunteered to help find and count bighorn sheep with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or “Fish & Game”. I drove further into the clearing at the center of the circle of pickup trucks, and asked who was in charge. An attractive young woman approached, saying “You must be John’s friend! He hasn’t showed up yet, but we’re expecting him any minute now.”

I parked my truck in an open spot across the circle, got out and took a look around camp. At first, all I could see was attractive young women with long, tanned legs, wearing skin-tight short shorts that looked like underwear. I’d attended many other sheep surveys with Fish & Game, and they’d all involved a bunch of rugged outdoorsmen overdressed in khaki, so this was quite a surprise. John later explained that the girls were biologists working with Fish & Game under a program he’d set up, and that they’d been doing all his sheep work for a while. Paige, the one I’d met at first, was the leader of this trip. The few women I’d met before in this role had been stereotypically plain. Later on my trip, another male scientist would complain that attractive young women are getting all the good jobs in biology now.

I laid out my tarp and unrolled my pad and bedroll. John drove up shortly and parked in the remaining spot next to me. The sun was setting, and Paige called everyone together to plan the next day’s work. As we stood in a circle, about a dozen of us, she passed out photocopied maps with the planned routes into the northernmost canyon system of the range. I could see immediately that they were beyond what I would be able to do, at least at the speed I expected John, and these younger people, to maintain. I didn’t want to slow them down, and I didn’t want to push myself trying to keep up, and end up straining the muscles and joints I’d spent months trying to rebuild since surgery. I said that, and Paige quickly grabbed my map back and handed it to someone else.

As I expected, John spoke up first, choosing the most difficult route for himself.

After the planning session, the group broke up. No hanging out around a campfire or lantern, getting to know each other, as we’d done on past Fish & Game outings. John returned to his truck and laid out his own bedroll, then brought a folding chair over to sit with me. I asked him if he’d memorized his route. He laughed. “I helped plan those routes! I’ll go wherever I damn well please!”

I questioned him about the respiratory epidemic, and how it might be spread. One topic of current research is the movement of sheep between ranges, and that led us into a discussion of climate. John scoffed at concerns over human-caused climate change. “There’s no question that humans are causing climate change in the near term, but my perspective, studying sheep populations, is much longer! In my perspective, global warming is just a blip. We’re still in an interglacial – in a few thousand years, this desert will be forested again. Where will the sheep go then?”

John took this as an opportunity to emphasize the primacy of evolution as the explanatory theory of life in the universe, reiterating the population biologist’s dominant view that genes are at the root of everything, determining everything important. So I had to point out that genes and evolution only apply to the individual organism, and no organism can live in a vacuum, without the context and interactions of its ecosystem, so ecology is really the foundation science. “No, no!” John protested, but I forged ahead. “Evolution is just popular in our technology-crazed society because it’s reductive and instrumental – we can easily crunch genetic data and manipulate the genome – whereas ecosystems are far too complex and chaotic for us. Ecosystems are the context for evolution, not vice versa, but they resist our understanding and hence our exploitation, so we say that evolution is more important than ecology!”

“So it’s a chicken and egg problem, which came first?” said John, starting to get my point. “I still say you can’t have an ecosystem without organisms, and you can’t have organisms without evolution.”

“It makes sense that genes are fundamental to you, as a population biologist,” I said. “But what biology traditionally sidesteps is the importance of non-living things in the ecosystem. Non-living things like rocks and clouds – geologists speak of the living rock – can be said to evolve, but not by means of DNA and genes.”

“Well, it’s not completely true that biology ignores the abiotic – climate and substrate are figured into ecological cycles…”

Fear of the Noble Savage

Night had fallen, the air was cooling, and the mass of the old cinder cone loomed beside us. The stars were out over camp, but we could still see the trucks and the silhouettes of people moving about, and hear the occasional rustle of pots, pans and other domestic affairs.

Thinking back to climate change, I wanted to restore humans to the ecological picture, as participants rather than detached, godlike manipulators. John’s interests are eclectic like mine, and it had been a long time since we’d had a good talk. I wanted to share some of my recent findings with him. I suggested that we Westerners needed more holistic paradigms, and that we might have lessons to learn from other, more traditional societies.

“There you go, romanticizing the noble savage again,” John cut in.

My biologist friends really don’t like to hear anything positive said about traditional or indigenous cultures. At the first hint, they tend to cut me off before I can explain, reacting to a stereotype in their own minds instead of what I’m trying to say, and accusing me of the romantic fallacy of the “noble savage”, a cliche of European literature and philosophy during the 17th-19th centuries.

Recent archaeological studies in widely separated parts of the world have shown that many prehistoric societies were like us, engineering their habitats for their own benefit and causing significant damage to local ecosystems. Reading these reports in the popular literature, scientists who don’t study other cultures conflate all traditional societies with the destructive ones, painting everything they don’t know with same broad brush. Worst of all, biologists blame ancestral Native Americans for “overkill” leading to the Quaternary Extinction Event in North American, a mass die-off of megafauna, even though this hypothesis is disputed by specialists who study it. Finally, coming from academia, they’re predisposed to dismiss traditional people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious.

My heroes in biology have been independent thinkers like Lyn Margulis and Gary Paul Nabhan, but my friends tend to work at the grass-roots level without power or influence, laboring away at their super-specialized studies and taking the dominant paradigms of their fields for granted because they’re not in a position to challenge them. They’re often frustrated in their careers, defensive in the face of anti-science political conservatives and religious fundamentalists, and helpless to stop the destruction of natural habitats & species that they see firsthand in their work.

But unlike my other biologist friends, John has worked with archaeologists and knows something of the history & philosophy of science.

“Our cultural bias leads us to focus on large-scale, technologically advanced societies of the past who were more like us,” I pointed out. “These were the aggressive societies that rolled over their weaker neighbors, like us against Native Americans. And societies that dominated people also tended to try to dominate nature.

“Jared Diamond popularized this idea that only the winners are relevant, that cultures who were conquered are failures that we can dismiss. After all, history is written by the winners.

“But let’s look at this rationally. Even the U.S., the most powerful country on earth, could be wiped out by an asteroid. Might doesn’t make right, and weakness and defeat don’t prove inferiority. In the 1950s, a multidisciplinary group of scientists spent 18 months on a remote atoll in the Pacific, studying every aspect of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and using native people as their assistants. And the leaders of the expedition came to admire the native culture so much that they would’ve given up their careers and stayed for the rest of their lives if they hadn’t had families back home.

“These peaceful people had achieved a stable equilibrium in their very limited habitat, cultivating food plants in patches of wetland without trying to engineer or manage the entire atoll, and harvesting seasonal resources from the ocean, sustainably. And they managed to keep their population from growing beyond its capacity.

“They’re part of a larger anthropological project by the University of Alabama called Peaceful Societies, and pacifism is roughly correlated with sustainable ecological practices. By focusing on the dominant winners and ignoring the submissive minorities, we may be missing some valuable lessons.”

John and I went on to have a long, productive, wide-ranging talk, our first in many years, until he realized he still needed a shower and good night’s sleep before the early morning start.

I, on the other hand, lay awake all night, watching the moon trail away over my shoulder to its own bed, watching the constellations rolling after, and the Milky Way rising in the final hours of darkness. My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted, to start the first day of the survey.

Challenging the Patriarchy

I always look forward to meeting grad students doing field studies at the desert ecological preserve, in hopes of learning about their work and deepening my understanding of the desert. This time, hauling my gear into the residence hall that I helped build 25 years ago, I met Ally and Haneen, beautiful young PhD candidates working together on a study of ecological facilitation in the understory of the creosote bush.

Traditionally patriarchal like all science, biology is undergoing a demographic revolution as female recruits increase. And at a much slower rate, the male-biased dogma of biology are being challenged as women gradually replace influential male peer reviewers.

The aggressive, coercive, domineering nature of Anglo-European society ensured that male biologists would see competition and negative interactions, rather than cooperation and positive interactions, at the foundation of both evolution and ecology, but female biologists are beginning to restore balance and a more accurate view of nature.

A generation ago, Lyn Margulis overcame male resistance to gain wide acceptance of symbiosis – interspecies cooperation – in evolutionary theory. More recently, some biologists have turned their attention to “facilitation” – cooperation and positive interactions in ecology. The distinction between positive and negative, competition and cooperation, is another historical artifact of Anglo-European tradition; the reality is clearly a continuum or spectrum of behavior and interactions that can go in or out of balance around a state of dynamic equilibrium.

The women and I got to know each other over a period of days in the common room of the preserve facility. Ally, from Toronto, was blonde and wholesome-looking; Haneen was raven-haired, tanned, more reserved and enigmatic. We were joined from time to time by Fred, an older botanist and plant illustrator, and Tasha and the kids, who had adopted the “girls” as big sisters. In contrast to my older scientist friends, Ally and Haneen were at the beginning of their careers, receiving a lot of support and encouragement from the establishment, excited about their future rather than discouraged by the setbacks that plague us all as we age and see more of life.

I talked about desert places and phenomena they hadn’t encountered yet. Haneen was interested in my music, and Ally pointed me to some background reading on facilitation. Her current work focused on the use of the creosote understory by other plants and by pollinators. Facilitation spans an infinite variety of natural phenomena that we really only need common sense to observe, from spatial structure (one species creating a nursery, home or workspace for other species) to community diversity (structuring interspecies interactions), from protection from stress and predation, to seed transport by birds and rodents. A male Anglo-European eye is likely to see selfishness behind it all, but that’s only one perspective, a form of anthropomorphism.

Hidden Underfoot

I arrived in the desert the day after heavy rain, and hiked up to the seep on our land, where I began to notice something I’d been only marginally aware of in the past. Here, the gravel slopes were laced with outcrops of white, sometimes translucent metamorphic rock, and my eyes were drawn to vivid black clumps of “stuff” that was neither plant, nor rock, nor soil, knobby mats swelling around cracks in the bright rock, as well as in patches in the pale gravel. I guessed that it must be biological soil crust, a community of lichens, bacteria and other tiny organisms that work together to build these structures on the interface between the living and the nonliving. Why hadn’t I noticed and studied these before, in the 35 years I’d walked among them? Probably it was the rain, the water they’d absorbed that made them more prominent, and their contrast against the bright substrate here.

I’d first encountered soil crusts, or cryptobiotic soil, 25 years ago during my Paiute skills course. The instructors had started by briefing and warning us about the extremely delicate crusts in the powder sand of the Colorado Plateau, an important part of the ecosystem which is instantly crushed when walked on and takes centuries to regenerate. I always work hard to avoid trampling these when I go back there, but I’d totally ignored their counterparts in the Mojave.

Now I was smitten. I got down on my knees and examined our local crusts. Unlike the Colorado Plateau crusts, which form a distinctive, modular architectural pattern, our Mojave crusts are free-form. They may swell around cracks in the rock like a spreading amoeba, or appear as small bumps across the bajada. My favorites are the scalloped rings.

Close up, their structures reveal a chaotic pattern of irregularly-shaped, variously sized knobs separated by gaps. The crusts in the white rock appeared black at first glance, but those out on the bajada showed more of a dark rust color. Whereas the Colorado Plateau crusts are delicate, these feel tough, like old leather.

Humble soil crusts were mostly ignored throughout the male-dominated history of biology and ecology. Macho male biologists tend to focus on charismatic megafauna. But crusts are finally getting more attention, which I suspect is a result of more women in the field. Per usual, there’s controversy over whether crusts are primarily competitors or facilitators in the ecosystem. A botanist friend told me that they’re essential for regeneration of shrubs, which may be set back by centuries when crusts are trampled or burned by wildfire. I remembered this the following week, when I hiked into a remote, heavily grazed valley where invasive bromus had replaced native grasses, encouraging a wildfire which had stripped the center of the valley of its shrub cover and significantly reduced its capacity to capture water in vegetation. I followed the tracks of the cattle and eventually saw them in the distance, half-wild, running away from me up a steep hill.

At the ecological preserve, I asked Tasha and she referred me to a female crust specialist, from whom I hope to learn a lot more about these fascinating communities of organisms working together at the foundation of life on earth.

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Vision Quest 2016: Hiding Our Failures

Sunday, May 29th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Problems & Solutions, Road Trips, Society.

The huge Ivanpah Solar Power Plant, a failure, but only one of the many collusions of government and industry that are destroying wildlife habitat in the name of "green energy"

The War on Everything

On our way through the northern Mojave to help protect endangered toads from the worldwide epidemic of chytrid fungus, the conservation biologists and I finally overtook the legions of heavy machinery hungrily consuming natural habitat and extending the suburban sprawl of Las Vegas. Next, we passed Creech Air Force Base, where young suburbanites use flying robots to kill unknown villagers thousands of miles away, in the Middle East, without any risk to themselves, simply by pushing a button.

This is one way the dominant society exploits the desert to hide its violent, domineering nature, and this is how individual people try to do good while surrounded by destruction and denial. The natural landscape of the Mojave is divided up and fenced off by huge military bases from north to south and east to west, from the bombing range of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center to the Nevada Test Site, where scientists and engineers tested the apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction that Americans alone invented and used, unnecessarily as it turns out, against foreign civilians. From the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, where trained killers practice urban warfare outdoors in simulated Mideastern villages, to the shadowy indoor evil of Creech, where technological innovation enables Americans to terrorize and kill from a distance, without risk or accountability.

Much more is hidden from us overseas, far beyond the borders of our country. The United States and its allies have not given up their 19th century global empires – contrary to rhetoric, maps, and popular belief, Anglo-European empires continue to expand, imposing their military bases, legions of trained killers, and high-tech weapons of mass destruction on the populations of almost every country in the world.

Peaceful societies like the Amish thrive by promoting cooperation, discouraging aggression and avoiding conflict. They refuse to use violence to defend themselves, and their long European martyrdom strengthened their communities, whereas the military and police culture of dominant societies breeds conflict and endless cycles of violence. Their history has taught the self-sufficient Amish to carefully observe trends in the surrounding dominant society, so they can locate new homes and migrate when necessary to avoid conflict and violence, unlike the victims of civil war in failed states like Syria, who are betrayed by their dependence on central governments and the institutions of civilization, ending up helpless in crowded refugee camps. Unlike urban refugees who look for jobs in cities, the Amish can always find a new home by settling the endless supply of farmland abused and abandoned by high-tech societies, which the Amish restore to productivity with their proven low-tech methods.

Virtually every day or night my friends and I spend hiking and camping in our remote desert wilderness, we have to deal with the U.S. military, in the form of bizarre aerial refueling maneuvers. These are pilot training exercises; both the tanker and the smaller plane are propellor-driven and loud, flying between 4,000′ and 6,000′ altitude. I’ve occasionally been hazed and nearly knocked over by showoff fighter pilots appearing out of nowhere in their multimillon-dollar jets, flying just above the ground at near-supersonic speed, but these refueling flights are relentless. The two planes fly in broad lazy circles, courting each other from afar and gradually converging, the big plane extending its penile hose and the little plane accepting it, as they continue locked in intercourse, finally detaching and withdrawing, their engines growling over our heads. It’s a real-life version of science-fiction’s machine sex. Now that our land is inside a new National Monument, I’m hoping I can get the BLM to pressure the military to use their own huge reservations instead of our smaller scraps of public wilderness.

Addicted to Punishment

On my way to the desert, driving across the beautiful high plains of northeastern Arizona, I pass the Apache Prison, isolated, like most modern prisons, far from any town. But in the Nevada part of the Mojave, a concentration of prisons clusters in view of commuter traffic along the highways near Las Vegas, joining the military bases and casinos in a sort of gauntlet of shame.

Many societies throughout history have successfully practiced restorative justice, but these societies have all been conquered and dominated by violent, coercive societies employing punitive justice. Despite centuries of failure to prevent crime, Anglo-European societies like the United States perpetuate this counterproductive paradigm, achieving ever-expanding mass incarceration, out of sight and mostly out of mind. The punitive paradigm is applied selectively, to isolate and contain poverty and mental illness without preventing or treating them, and to control problematic racial and political elements in society. But punishment fails by cultivating and perpetuating a culture of destructive antisocial behavior. By hiding prisons in the desert and other places which are invisible to the population, the dominant society tries to sustain its illusion of order, peace, health and harmony.

I learned on my trip that ironically, crime in Las Vegas is rising, because prisoners from other states have learned to converge upon the desert city after their release, finding easy pickings in the vast sprawl of walled bedroom communities which are often vacant and unsupervised in the daytime.

Innovating to Death

After camping with the Park Service archaeologist on the Mojave National Preserve, I headed north on Interstate 15, through Mountain Pass, between Clark Mountain and the Mescal Range. At almost 8,000′ peak elevation, Clark Mountain hosts extensive conifer forests, with much cooler temperatures than most of the California desert. It’s a beautiful mountain with spectacular canyons of limestone, but the Mountain Pass Mine, the only source of rare earth elements in the U.S., has been eating away at it for decades.

Both smart phones and wind turbines rely on rare earths, and their production generates toxic and radioactive waste. Every new technology comes out of a hole in the ground and poisons rural habitats and communities somewhere. This is the dark side and the hidden failure of technological innovation, realities which are hidden away from “consumers”, in the desert and other distant rural locations.

Peaceful societies like the Ifaluk focus on sustainable subsistence rather than technological innovation, minimizing their consumption of natural resources, living within their means rather than continually seeking to grow and expand.


Grassroots solar energy activists promote “rooftop solar”, but an industrial society is not a grassroots society. Governments pursue large-scale, industrial solutions: interstate highway systems, transcontinental railroads, giant dams and reservoirs, power plants, transmission lines and regional power grids. Field biologists warn that our studies of natural ecosystems raise more questions than answers; we engineer what we don’t understand.

North of Clark Mountain, I crossed the broad, sloping Ivanpah Valley. Ivanpah comes from a Paiute word for “clear water”, and as in most desert basins, the valley’s creosote scrub provided a home for a large population of desert tortoises, jackrabbits, cottontails, and other rodents, many species of birds, and countless of species of wildflowers and their insect pollinators. This home and its diverse life were destroyed during the past decade by BrightSource Energy, with the approval of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, which had originally opposed BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar Plant, but accepted bribes to withdraw their opposition.

After destroying many square miles of wildlife and habitat, the huge, expensive “green energy” plant remains a failure, unable to generate more than a fraction of its planned output, but the State of Nevada, in its aggressive promotion of industrial energy development, has enabled many other facilities to destroy many more square miles of desert life and habitat, both in the Ivanpah Valley and along U.S. Highway 95 southeast of Las Vegas. I drove past them all on my trip.

A new proposal would install the world’s tallest wind turbines in a wild mountain range south of Las Vegas, on the very boundary of a national monument.

The dominant society hides its “green” energy developments in the desert, so that few can see the ecological destruction caused by these purportedly earth-friendly industries. As with conventional industrial developments, these highly political solar and wind power projects are rife with corruption and waste, and they accelerate the long-term destruction of critical wildlife habitat and hasten the extinction of endangered species.

White Trash

Approaching the Amargosa River, where we would locate and sample endangered toads, the conservation biologists and I caught a glimpse of Yucca Mountain, the Mojave Desert range that our government blasted and undermined with tunnels for its long-planned high-level nuclear waste disposal site. Under increasing scrutiny from environmental groups, scientists eventually admitted that they didn’t adequately understand the site or the proposed storage technologies, and Yucca Mountain was abandoned, perpetuating the history of ruined desert construction sites and settlements of the past.

Everywhere I go in the desert, even in remote areas designated as wilderness, I find the abandoned trash of Americans and the ruins of their ambitious engineering projects, many of them considered quite innovative for their time, preserved for posterity in the remotest corners of the desert. From the mining ruins now used as targets by antisocial gun nuts, to the acres of broken household appliances and plastic toys surrounding trailer trash homes. And the millions of neon-colored plastic balloons bought by thoughtless suburbanites at markets and fairs, abandoned by their children, and blown hundreds of miles out into desert wilderness, where they remain impaled on cactus thorns to represent us long after the dominant society collapses.

Colonize Now, Pay Later

Twenty-five years ago, when we acquired our desert land, one of the first problems we faced was the invasive middle-eastern shrub, tamarisk, which was introduced to the American West accidentally, in the 19th century, as a by-product of human colonization. Tamarisk emits salt, preventing the growth of native riparian plants, and it produces vast numbers of tiny seeds which are spread by wind and water until it forms solid thickets, where it consumes more water than native plants, drying up streams and springs and lowering the water table, killing still more native plants.

Most of what we think of as “nature” is being continually tranformed, degraded, and sometimes destroyed by alien species that we dominant societies introduce to native ecosystems as collateral damage of our exploration, trade, tourism, colonization, and expansion into new places. Although the examples featured here have historical origins, new invasives are being introduced constantly, and at a higher rate than in the past, as technological progress increases the mobility of our species. Our mobility is the enemy of nature.

Ranchers, pet owners, and hobbyists kill wildlife accidentally, through diseases spread by domestic animals

While futurists fantasize about colonizing other planets and encountering alien life in outer space, alien invaders introduced by actual Anglo-European exploration and colonization continue to threaten native ecosystems across the planet.

Hiding Our Failures

If the least-developed and most-ignored region of the most powerful nation on earth is strewn with our failures, imagine the status of other places our culture has colonized but we’re now warned away from: Africa and the Middle East, for example.

Illusions of peace and progress are maintained in dominant societies by compartmentalizing or outsourcing problems. Our institutions, from government to industry and the military, hide behind cosmetic facades that obscure their primary functions. The media distract us with distant threats and celebrity scandals. Glued to our screens, seeking stimulation or comfort, and avoiding supposedly empty and hostile places like the desert, most of us avoid the inconvenient truths of our society. The desert is where our society hides much of the evidence of its ongoing failures, the blind spots that are edited out of our worldview to validate fantasies of success, progress, and the future.

Those who study deserts know them as places of rare beauty, priceless reservoirs and frontiers of biological and cultural diversity, teeming with undiscovered species and gaps in our knowledge and wisdom. But since the vast majority of voters and “consumers” have never experienced a desert, and assume deserts to be empty of life, politicians are able to designate desert habitats as “sacrifice zones” which are allowed to be consumed and exploited for industry, waste disposal, or industrial “infrastructure”. These deserts, some of our best teachers about how to adapt and live a sustainable life, are being destroyed to keep us ignorant.

We can safeguard our families and their future, not by following the masses in their pursuit of the chimera of progress, but by disengaging from the dominant society and its destructive institutions, to study and learn from the peaceful societies and focus on building sustainable local communities. This was demonstrated in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, during the misnamed “Dark Ages”, when instead of suffering from disorder and chaos, local communites thrived in the absence of oppression and exploitation.


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