The Black Sierra Club
Archetypes of Influence
I am enjoying reading Michael Shellenberger’s new book. It’s not the manifesto of scientism I gather some want it to be. You can’t walk away from it juiced up on phrases like ‘The science is in.’ What’s special about it is the kind of Euell Gibbons honesty of somebody who is as vegetarian, communist, agrarian for the little guy as it’s possible to get. I like his rationality and his straightforward self-representation. It fuels just enough of the archetypes for me to take note and speak at that level of abstraction.
There is no black Sierra Club. I was a member of the Sierra Club because I grew up in Southern California as a hiker and camper in the Angeles National Forest. I am as familiar with a dozen current and former spots in those mountains as it is possible to be from Josephine Peak to Charlton Flats, from Mount Pacifico to Wikiup, from Valley Forge to Kratka Ridge. Remind me to take ‘Red Box’ out of my current passwords. I wore the green E on my jean jacket and all of my notebooks were from Friends of the Earth. I looked up to John Muir and Ansel Adams. I’ve been to the top of Mt. Whitney and have been a member of REI since way back when they rented sleeping bags and most of their customers didn’t have credit cards. In college I was Head Counselor for the Camping Conference of the National Society of Black Engineers where we ‘kidnapped’ kids from ghettos and took them to the mountains to give them a fresh perspective on life. I may have been exceptional in my black community but we did our share to pack up the neighborhood kids and show them the wilds on several occasions. Sometimes we even brought back snow from the peaks to the ‘hood. Yeah. We had snowball fights just off Crenshaw Blvd. But you don’t know of, and you never look for any black environmentalists, do you?
The wilderness has always reminded me that there are places where bad city habits have no meaning and can so can be left behind. Although we would always find multicolored shotgun shells off the trails, I never met a scary redneck in them thar hills. “Howdy!” is a regular part of my greeting vocab. If you want to catch me distinguishing by something like race, you will rarely hear me using that term with ‘people of color’. If you look like a hiker, farmer or someone who eats trail mix, you’ll probably get a ‘Howdy’ from me. Joe Biden does not get a howdy. This is my note in passing that as Taibbi has pointed out, that Democrats are no longer the party of the people who wear Carhartt. But we’ll get around to the new American Peasantry sometime later this year. Nevertheless, as a skinny black kid sitting around in army surplus clothes, sleeping on an army surplus cot, drinking from a canteen or eating pickled herring for lunch under the pines, it was clear to me that civilization was what I brought to camp. This wilderness was tamed by my presence, by my use of the buddy system in hiking, of splitting wood and campfire cuisine, of me picking up the trash and picking up the rear of our trailblazing column of hikers. Different environments require different protocols. I learned all of the necessary skills for these mountains.
How much significant influence can you get from your greetings and protocols in America? The high five deracialized the dap of a slap of five and the smooth drag of ‘on the black hand side’. Nobody does the black hand side any longer, except maybe Antonio Fargas. Confusion in which handshake is going to be used is going away, and the grip of the man hug always starts with the up-angled handshake. I still do the gentleman’s shake of a lady’s hand although I never bowed to kiss it. And the eyeball to eyeball firm grip of the straight on handshake is always de rigueur in my hard shoes. People are ready to deracialize when they cannot appreciate X for what it is, because it takes too much intellectual work to give origins their due. We Americans need to call it normal. This is our modernism, and it has to work for the mainstream. That’s because we have too much twisted wood on our backlot. Our history needs to be forgotten because to deal with it honorably requires some dismissal of our consumerist present. Yet we also try to take in as much historical truth as we can without upsetting our need for innocence and blamelessness. It’s a balance we don’t quite manage. If we could only grow up.
Americans go to buy culture and authenticity from the rainforest. We call it a rainforest because we have too many bad associations with the term ‘jungle’. But the Amazon is a jungle, a true dark wilderness. To be an environmental activist, you want to do the second thing. Take in as much historical truth as we can without limit. This is the Howard Zinn route of farming the People’s facts. Find all the disturbing facts so that you can incriminate the polity and encourage them to become the right kind of agents for change. That’s how you get organizations like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace. All they need are the dirty facts to bring back to scandalize the parlors of the grand ladies of the club. In addition to the dirty facts, are tales of the foreign wise wrinkled elders whose sad or fierce eyes tell the troubling truth of our innocent, polluting American ways. Ah, but if these eyes could only belong to Americans, if we could only accept our own wrinkles with respect and an understanding that getting through ennobles, even amidst failure. No. American failure must be erased by American change, and so it is that we create and sustain myths necessitating Leviathan political activism. Environmentalism illustrates this to me.
I’m thinking about what picture to place at the top of this essay. The first that comes to mind is that of Iron Eyes Cody, the famous crying Injun of the 1970s. The face that launched a million litter baskets. Then I think to match the title of ‘The Black Sierra Club’ wouldn’t it be more appropriate to put a crying black man in place? Yet I know in our simple minded interpretations, the black face will be crying for what has happened to him, not to nature. A white face could be crying for any damned thing. Ah but somebody from the third world… So maybe what face would be best would be one from the late great Tony Gleaton who taught me a thing or two about photography. He was a friend, and so it is settled.
The plastic can in the fisherman’s wooden boat. The clothing bought off the rack. The ballcap. The modern intrudes on the ancient life we expect of the term ‘indigenous’. Shellenberger knows that these are good things. We might assume the infant has had her shots, and yet it’s not what we want to see in our visions of the other life depicted. The lives we want to save are theirs, right? Their more righteous, more honest, less complicated lives depending on the purity of an unadulterated environment. Not like the one we have become with all of our disposable income and free weekends. But everybody wants disposable income and free weekends, even the so-called indigenous. Why not invite them to come live in the land of the free and home of the brave? What have they got to lose but their blistered hands and feet?
That is what’s happening. All over the world, rural peasants are rushing to cities to become urban peasants. Everyone ends up with electricity and a television set and the kind of literacy that comes from what is broadcast. The planet is fine. We have the harder time dealing with each other, with ourselves. Yet what is out there in the possibly dystopian future environment? I read about global warming before the term was invented. It was the concept that the harnessing of nuclear fusion energy, that ultimate genie of our desire, would be realized. Then everybody on the planet could have unlimited energy to power everything. After 1000 years the entire planet would have a heat dissipation problem from building and running millions of little suns. There wouldn’t be enough water in the ocean to cool it all down. Every time somebody tells me that America could do so much to fight climate change I ask them if they actually want to go to war with the urban peasant ambitions of China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. They all want cars, cell phones and Nike shoes. Who wouldn’t? Who shouldn’t have it all? Isn’t that what we keep telling our white women, who now get to be superheroes and go to war? Yes, we all want our Krell Machine, and the problem persists. Monsters from the Id.
My ideal has always centered around something I’ve called Dyson’s Utopia after the great Freeman Dyson. His concept was that at some point we will have decentralized the processes for engineering the chemical and energy requirements of our technological dependencies. Imagine being able to bioengineer fuels and medicines efficiently at small scale, as we have done with compute power. In such a future, we could all live at human village scale again. Hasn’t the lesson of the 20th Century been that no nation or empire can take over the world? Yes. Aggregation and centralization of great power is a mistake. Even George Washington knew that. He was an asymmetric guerrilla fighter. We have plenty of land for 10 billion of us to live in small villages. I’m betting that maybe we’ll learn that France’s problems with Islam, our problem with Trump, and history’s problem with Mao all stem from the same Hobbesian problem. We seek Leviathan solutions because we can imagine world wars. Maybe now is a time for many gods to re-emerge, but I fantasize.
I don’t think environmentalism scales for the same reasons I don’t think that communism scales. Anyone who feels compelled to fix the world suffers delusions and must consequently propagandize fictions in order to remain coherent. We need to heed, all of us, Gall’s Law.
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
Our environment is our human environment. The simple systems are our bodies, our psychologies, our selves. As a small custodian of the Wikiup campground in the Angeles National Forest, I had my own discipline to pack out what I packed in. That required the work of being responsible for my own creation and sustaining of civilization in that not too distant wilderness. I never aggregated my own Sierra Club out of that. I never needed to convince the world. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expect to head up a revolution. I was too fatigued with the revolution we survived in the 60s. It was time to share some dap with new neighbors outside of the complex and crooked timber of our history.
There have always been people afraid, like Extinction Rebellion, of the threat of social collapse. Tell that to the kids we kidnapped from Compton. The kids who grew up in a violent collapsed society who hum the tunes of NWA care little for the environmental activist messages made to scandalize ladies of the club. One wonders if anyone can get Gall’s Law working and teach what needs to be taught so that human provincialism can work itself out without multibillion-dollar, multi-year activist campaigns to aggregate power to environmental czars. The planet is fine. Stop looking out the window and look into my fierce wrinkled eyes. They are your eyes too.