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Vision Quest 2016: Hiding Our Failures

Sunday, May 29th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

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.

  1. Terris Linenbach says:

    Happy Memorial Day. All those megaton bombs sitting in desert bunkers will inevitably explode. I’m listening to my young middle eastern immigrant neighbors yell at themselves. People move. They are next door. I am not full blooded “Indian” – my great great grandmother was stolen and taken to silver lake CA. Passing as white, her offspring mostly became alcoholics. But here I am, a small time computer programmer in the Silicon Valley blending in trying to no let my love of alcohol get the best of me. It’s a race I will lose. Protected by rich old white men yet able to see he hypocrisy in their actions, I have more than enough reasons to drink. Humans have been on the “American” continents for over 15,000 years. The time between the 16th century and 22nd centuries is a slow motion holocaust the speed of which depending on the luck of one’s birth. When I look out at the Sierras and see dead stands of pine caused by global warming, I see hope. I understand humans have run out of places to invade, except perhaps for Mars. Modern humans and their petty concerns and their bullshit religions will go extinct along with millions of species. But some will go on. And so, until the sun turns into a red giant, there is hope here, which ultimately is pointless. May intelligence someday opt to not have children and actively die out. I’m not sure if I’m laughing or crying.

  2. Terris Linenbach says:

    Among the grammar mistakes that I made, my phone changed shaver lake to silver lake.

  3. Jerry Hoadley says:

    Great pictures and commentary, makes you think!

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