Processed World #22

Issue 22: July 1988 from http://processedworld.com

AttachmentSize
processedworld22proc.pdf5.24 MB

Table of Contents

Choking Heads
collective editorial

Letters
from our readers

!Pido Castigo!
by primitivo morales

Dollars & Ecology
article by lucius cabins

Bad Ecotude Everywhere!
tale of toil by green fuchsia

Primitive Thought
by zeke teflon

Mudshark For Hire
tale of toil: tree planting, by med-o

Our Friend The VDT
bad news about video display terminals

Our Neglected Cities
analysis of suburban sprawl in australia, by jeffrey r. kennedy

Auto Destruction
transportation analysis by duncan watry

Bicyclists!
a vision for san francisco, by a frustrated sf bicyclist

To Save the Aquifer, We Had to Spoil the Water...
report from silicon valley, by dennis hayes

Plants Bursting With Energy
article by mark leger

ATM #666
a true life story by zoe noe

New Utopia
commentary by richard singer

Poetry
by jay a. blumenthal, jim daniels, laura g. beck, william talcott, rob robertson, & paris, blazey

Learning Curve
fiction by primitivo morales

Dick's Day
fiction by dorothy hamill

Choking Heads

collective editorial

The ecological crisis is no longer a threat. It is here. Even if all of the ecocidal practices of the global production system were halted tomorrow, irreparable damage has already been done. Mass extinction of species, destruction of the rainforests, loss of the protective ozone layer and the “greenhouse” global warming effect all will continue to have disruptive effects through the next century. We can only work to ameliorate the situation.

Processed World has consistently sought to puncture the myth of computer production and use as “clean” and “safe.” We have not been alone in criticizing electronic technology from an ecological viewpoint. What has set us apart, however, has been our focus on this technology as work—on the nature of this work, on the kinds of social relations and subjective experience it engenders, and on its goals and functions within the global economy.

From the start, PW has criticized most modern work as useless from the stand point of the common social good, for damaging workers physically and psychologically, and for wasting precious re sources including billions of hours of people’s time that could be used in far more worthwhile ways. Our critique differs from that of the environmental movement, which adopts the viewpoint of the citizen-consumer rather than the worker. The environmentalist’s perspective may be valid but by itself can lead to serious mistakes. Especially in the current anti-worker political climate, it tends to produce reformist, technocratic strategies. Either the movement engages in holding actions (e.g. lawsuits based on environmental impact reports) or it tries to persuade those in power to include ecological factors in their cost-benefit analysis.

Since the movement is composed largely of dropouts or converts from the technical-professional layers of the population, its critique of capitalist waste is too often limited to guilt-tripping workers for doing their admittedly sometimes ecologically destructive jobs, for owning cars and for consuming too much. In its most extreme form, this kneejerk anti-consumerism leads to protofascist “deep ecology” diversions into species self-hate, racism and homophobia; all disguised as “honoring ecological balance.” By contrast, the Greens in Europe, particularly West Germany, have made a more cogent critique of the production system. While some Greens participate in the conventional electoral arena, others advocate direct democratic planning as a solution instead of telling the system’s victims (workers) to pay through conservation and austerity. As the forests of Northern Europe wither under acid rain, alternative plans are being elaborated by tens of thousands of ordinary working people as well as techno-dropouts and marginal youth. These people realize that the forests are not just a “resource” but are precious in their own right. For the most part, however, they have not yet made the leap of recognizing that they themselves must begin taking collective responsibility for the biosystem — that the big, centralized hierarchical institutions are obsolete, dangerous and must be replaced.

If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the most recent round of eco-disasters, it is that patchwork reform of these institutions and the industrial system they control is hopeless. We cannot return to a neolithic or medieval technological level, as some of the movement’s “radicals” propose. Necessary repairs to the planet will involve our most sophisticated scientific/technological knowledge, along with knowledge we haven’t yet acquired.

Equally important, production for profit’s sake has got to go. Much of the existing industrial base needs to be dis mantled or radically converted. All technologies need to be evaluated according to the effects on their users, on the immediate surroundings, and on the long-term health of the biosphere. And this evaluation can only be made by the people most affected as workers and local residents, in consultation with “experts” under no pressure to exonerate hazardous methods and materials. Partisans of the green/ecology movement are keenly aware of the great cycles of the biosphere — the nitrogen and water cycles, the photosynthesis/respiration cycle, the food chains. They understand that the biosphere reproduces itself, not as a static entity but as an immensely complex web of living and non-living processes. Yet curiously, they fail to extend the concept of reproduction to our ‘second nature,” the social relations we inherit. The world that generations of workers (including scientists and engineers) have created by selling their time day after day to corporations and state bureaucrats is now terminally hostile. It is hostile not only to workers — who have always ex perienced its “laws” through war, unem ployment, poverty, boredom, and attendant miseries — but to life itself.

The most powerful reproductive cycle now is the cycle of human social reproduction which currently takes the form of the reproduction of global capital. But unlike the other great cycles, it is human beings who — collectively, not individually—control social reproduction. If we all stopped going to our jobs tomorrow, the reproduction of society, the chains of command and circulation would quickly snap. And already we would have begun to reproduce another life, another world. Clearly, it’s not as simple as that. We would have to consciously renovate both natural and political biospheres. Seizing power to collectively rearrange human values almost happened two decades ago in France. Ten million people went on strike, occupied their workplaces, and began to live their lives, for a few weeks, in a new and intoxicating way. Perhaps for the first time since childhood, the majority of people in France were on their own time, living in the instinctive way that we know, deep down, to be our natural state as creatures on the earth. Unfortunately, they did not complete their break with the daily cycle by transforming the institutions they had temporarily vacated. But that road is still open...

As usual, this issue presents a cornucopia of perspectives on our theme. Lucius Cabins makes a return guest appearance with DOLLARS AND ECOLOGY, his analysis of the ambiguous nature of the environmental movement: Does it contain the seeds of a radical break with expertise and work as we know them, or is it more likely to politically legitimize capital’s attempted transition to a biologically sound form of production, leaving basic social relations intact? In this, and in other articles we explore ways the work environment effects and is reflected in the larger world environment. Green Fuchsia’s BAD ECOTUDE EVERYWHERE! tells of the author’s odyssey from steel mill to ecology magazine. Fuchsia finds that in both places workers’ perception of nature is warped by their daily workplace experience. Even in an environmentalist group, hierarchi cal organization leads to ecologicaly destruction. Our second Tale of Environmental Toil, MUDSHARK FOR HIRE, by Med-o, deals with reforestation work in the denuded Northwestern U.S. This saga examines collective self-management as practiced by more than a thousand tree-planters. AUTODESTRUCTION by Duncan Watry looks at the Demo Derby that constitutes our modern cities. The car dic­tates how and where we live, and its eventual demise will present us with great changes (and opportunities). The car/city nexus is examined in the sur rounding pages. NEW UTOPIA by Richard Singer, dwells in the urban jungle as well, investigating some of the forced living patterns found in the metropolis.

In the more-or-less fiction department, we offer Primitivo Morales’ LEARNING CURVE, a starkly imaginative meeting of genetic research and politics set in an all too believable future. As for our other entry, DICK’S DAY by Dorothy Hamill, all we can say is yup-yup.

Our shorter pieces include an excerpt from an article by the now infamous Chaz Bufe, with a retort to those who would eliminate billions of people under the guise of environmentalism. In HOT UNDER THE AQUIFER Dennis Hayes tells how high-risk tap water gets riskier in Silicon Valley. PLANTS BURSTING WITH ENERGY by Mark Leger is a stroll down memory lane — both our his torical memory and our genetic memory.

We’ve been discussing possible future themes, and thinking is centered around ab/uses of leisure time—vacations, shopping, travel, drugs.., you know, what you do when you’re not working. Of course we are still interested in our usual fare (technology, work/office, perspec tives on modern life, and ways of changing how we love, live, and work) and irt intelligent rebuttals or extensions of previous material. We welcome your essays, fiction, poetry, letters and graphics. Please attach your name and address to everything submitted.

NOW LISTEN UP!!!

We think we had a pretty good issue last time, but our mailbox was virtually empty. Maybe you couldn’t find anything to say about most of it, but surely some of the pieces (e.g. the interview with Katya Komisaruk) advanced ideas not all of you agree with. This issue will (hopefully) raise some hackles. But we are not interested in being called names or end less recriminations. We are interested in sensible ideas. So write to us. We’d hate to find out that the most radical thing you do is read this magazine.

PROCESSED WORLD
41 Sutter Street #1829
San Francisco, CA 94104

¡Pido Castigo!

by primitivo morales

My Chilean companeros have a song by this title, and it means "I Demand Punishment.” It is for the military whores who rule their country. Being a Norte Americano my hatreds seem to be more personalized, if no less intense.

I had this friend, see. He was funny and friendly and liked to have a good time. After his Berkeley days he went off to the University of Chicago and got his MBA, going to work for CitiCorpse in NYC. Both distance and politics divided us, at least to some extent, but his decency and charm counter balanced these. I can hear him laughing and saying ‘Look, Primo, give the man a chance.“ A voice of tolerance. He bought a house in New Jersey and he and his parents moved in and they lived. But not happily ever after.

Because Navroze Mody, you see, was not a White Amerikan. He was of Indian ancestry (the subcontinent, not the U.S.) and colored a wonderful bronze. He was also an alien.

Nowadays, in the cities of America the poor compete with the machines for oxygen and gnaw at each other in their despair. There are vicious packs that attack anything unusual, often race defines their hate. Hoboken has such subhumans, one assembly being known cutely as ‘Dot-Busters,” thus reflecting both their penchant for hip slang and their taste for attack ing people from India. Said one doughty warrior in this unsung war: ‘The Hindu people should live the way we live. They shouldn’t have that smell that they have, dress up in curtains, and walk around in tribes." A real credit to america.

So a gang, perhaps a dozen in number, ranging in age from maybe 11 to 17, attacked Navroze one October evening as he walked with a (white) friend. The friend was (basically) unhurt, while Navroze well, the reports mention severed eyeballs, crushed skull and feet, broken spine. He died after a few days.

Ah, but he wasn’t murdered by whites, as was the case in Howard Beach. He was murdered by people described as ‘Hispanic.” Traditionally, ghetto residents chew on the newest immigrants, reflecting the prejudice they themselves encounter. Those peoples who have been so unlucky as to be traders and merchants (the overseas chinese, the jews, the indians) are particularly despised by their neighbors, and those that value education are resented even more.
Navroze was so successful here in this consumer paradise that he was brutally murdered by a gang of scum, and the police and most of the press were not particularly interested. (One police theory had it that Nav was killed because he was bald!) I guess I wouldn’t be interested either, ex cept that I knew him. And that’s a shitty thing, that I have to know the victim to really feel grief, because Nav’s death is not unusual, not uncom mon in this great land of opportunity. So I don’t expect it of any of you— that you feel this strangling sorrow and loss. But you might think about the people you know, and picture them cold in the morgue, big toe tagged... if there is one.

And the pendejos that did this.., one of them is actually on trial, as an adult, even! He—it—had better pray that the state of New Jersey is severe, because Navroze was not killed by prejudice, or ideas or poverty. He was brutally murdered by humans. Unlike complicated socio-economic con cepts, people are very convenient targets for vengeance. Even the attorneys I know think that these nazi punks should be. . “visited." Not because they are hispanic or poor, but because they are not really human. Because all that wears a human face is alien to them.

But slaughtering them will not return Navroze. And it would be the bitterest irony, for of all the people I know he was the sweetest, most decent. For his life to be punctuated by brutal death... this is not a good thing.
But it is not a good thing that rabid animals roam the street. ¡Pido Castigo!

—Primitivo Morales

Dollars & Ecology

different shades of green?

“[The crisis]. . has released forces of flexibility on the part of the 'system’ which amount to overhauling and restructuring the productive apparatus and the social organization of society. Eco-industrialism puts a price tag on what was once upon a time free of charge. Clean air, silence, and fertile soil are being commercialized, as they have to be especially produced by particular planning and technology... . the rising eco-industrial complex is adding a new level to the expenses incurred by industrial growth: we all have to be more productive and to consume more in order to at least maintain a given standard of living. . . environmental concern is a foremost source of legitimation for rising new indus tries and elites.”
— “The Future Changes Its Color” by Wolfgang Sachs in Raise the Stakes #11

Not a day goes by anymore without another environmental disaster appearing in the news. Even while I was working on this article, a Shell Oil refinery not far from San Francisco dumped several hundred thousand gallons of oil into the S.F. Bay. Ironically, the site of this dumping was an ecologically restored wetland, an abatement project for the years of destruction wrought by Shell and other oil companies in the north bay marshes.

This incident puts in stark relief the typical relationship between environmental restoration and its destruction: token efforts are wiped out in just a few hours of careless “business as usual.”

In March 1988 the news broke that atmospheric ozone loss is already much worse than was projected. Dupont Corporation, producer of over half of US chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), followed the news with the announcement that it would phase out production of the “most ozone-damaging” CFCs over a ten-year period.

This followed a U.N-sponsored agreement last September to freeze and then cut CFC production by one-third to one-half by 1998. (This treaty, called the Mon treal Protocol, has only been ratified by the US and Mexico— it needs 11 signatories of the 24 agreeing countries to take effect.) Instead of stopping CFC pro duction right now, the Montreal Protocol amounts to an international agreement to continue depleting ozone. The Protocol tacitly acknowledges that the investments in CFC production can only gradually be recycled into new areas—protecting business is, after all, a higher priority than protecting the biosphere. Behind this sordid arrangement, multinational chemical companies are scrambling to find alternatives. Dupont has already spent $30 million on CFC replacements. Not surprisingly, one of several workable alternatives is a “green” product. A derivative of citrus rinds that works well as a solvent, it replaces CFCs in one of their prime roles.

Dupont’s decision to eliminate “most” CFC production over ten years (still protecting their capital before the planet) was made primarily to avoid future liability. In spite of evidence of ozone depletion since the early seventies, Dupont has ignored the evidence until now: finally, a NASA panel had the necessary legitimacy and clarity to provide the basis for future charges of criminal negligence if Dupont failed to respond. Still, the chemical companies are going to take ten years to stop! The Dupont case, cited in a New York Times article as “responsible corporate citizenship,” is an important example of what can be expected from existing businesses when they adorn their ongoing profitable activities with ecological green. Environmentalists pressuring business and government to respond to the environmental crisis by “restoring the earth” are in trouble if they don’t see capitalism as an obstacle to their aspirations.

In contrast to “deep ecology’s” philosophical premise of”biocentrism,” which argues against human primacy in favor of a quasi-democracy for all living things in the biosphere, a new sub-movement within the ecology camp, “Restoring the Earth” (RTE) is premised on human planning to create new ecological harmonies. While the biocentrists have a religious reverence for “natural” species and habitats, RTE values natural variation, but recognizes that “natural” doesn’t really exist anymore. Restoring ecological niches requires human intervention and active management (stewardship).

At a January ‘88 “Restoring the Earth” symposium held at UC Berkeley, two of the stated objectives were to:
• Document the ways investments in environmental restoration can stimulate economic development and provide new employment opportunities.
• Contribute to a consensus on strategies for creating the educational, organizational, financial, and political structures necessary for building a major restoration movement.

Not many people would argue against restoring environmentally devastated places. But when it comes to achieving a social con sensus to halt hazardous production, the issue mutates to one of survival— the economic survival of the polluting business, and the jobs it provides. To appear realistic, restorationists argue according to the twisted logic imposed by The Economy. Instead of a public discussion on the direct human and ecological benefits of various green city schemes, restoration projects for wetlands and forests, and so forth, restorationists are forced to discuss profits, wages, jobs, costs and benefits, and most significantly "growth.” By seeking strategies that allow profits to accu mulate and growth to continue being measured in the bizarre way it is, resto rationists obscure the more daunting— but more essential—goal of eradicating the rape of the earth’s underlying causes.

A movement of social opposition is a prerequisite for transforming society, which is exactly what environmentalism represents at first glance. Clearly, there are revolutionary implications in halting hazardous production to protect and re store the environment, and in advocating popular evaluation of the risks and benefits of different technologies and production methods. These goals imply a form of social planning which does not yet exist, and could not exist under current conditions.

Purer eco-activists prefer to avoid the dirty realities implied by planning. By posing an opposition between things “natural” and “unnatural,” and seeing the latter as the creation of humans, this type of “deep” ecologism implies that the problem is humans in general, not specific purposes decided by particular types of human organization, within a logical web also of human creation. So while they might advocate the rehabitation of grizzly hears in wilderness areas where they have been wiped out, they tend to define such advocacy as “speaking for Mother Earth” or ecological balance, rather than as a social plan for a specific piece of land. Whatever its justification, such a plan remains in the realm of human intention and control.

Accepting human intervention and facing up to the responsibility of managing the environment is crucial: with a global population soaring towards 6 billion, human society cannot go on without some form of self-conscious relation to the biosphere. Even the bottom-line world of capitalism will have to adapt to the new imperative of biological sanity. This implies a new round of capitalist planning—after the last decade or so of deregu lation and restructuring, which in turn followed four decades of Keynesian quasi-planning.

The last time society faced the kind of global crisis we face now (economically, if not ecologically) was in the 1930s. A common solution to that epoch’s “anarchy of the marketplace” was massive state intervention in the economy. From Hitler to Stalin to Roosevelt to the Popular Front in France, each country found a way to stabilize the economy through guarantees backed up by the national government. The generally unspoken premise of most of these guarantees was preparation for war, in which the victors would dominate the world economy. Popular support was crucial to the state’s ability to execute these changes. In fact, the popular energy channeled by these politicians contained more radical im pulses that might have led to different outcomes were it less skillfully directed at the time.

We are in a parallel situation today, where the self-serving rhetoric of politicians and large companies pitch ecological concern, regardless of their underlying contempt for environmental sanity. A case in point is the current Chevron Oil TV campaign about what they’ve done to ensure survivable habitats for foxes and birds of prey. After showing a dramatic 20-second slice on how a device the company puts in place around its oil-fields or power-lines helps an animal to lead a normal life, Chevron rhetorically asks, “Do people go to all this trouble just for this little animal?” and answer with their logo and the big words ‘PEOPLE DO.” Meanwhile, Chevron has been repeatedly cited as the single largest polluter of the S.F. Bay.

Before too long we can expect elabo rate marketing campaigns to ‘Buy Green,’ as biotechnology companies begin to trot out various “healthy” (for the biosphere) products. (Remember how easily the “natural foods revolution” was co-opted by granola manufacturers and super markets?) More importantly, existing blocks of capital in chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and energy are all pouring research and development funds into the “greening” of their own products and markets. At moments like these the system shows its resilience; it can turn a radical popular impulse to its own advantage.

I can already hear a chorus of ecolo gists, passionately concerned with the biosphere above all else, welcoming any developments in this direction as better than more of what we have already. Of course it would be— but isn’t it more likely that biotech environmentalism will be in the same boat as the restorationists (in fact, I foresee a growing harmony of interests between the two), namely trying to avoid falling farther behind the eco-disasters waiting to happen?
Capitalism is always changing. Change represents opportunity, new needs, new products, new ways to profit.

One could even say that no force in world history has depended on change so much, or used it as effectively, as has the global zation of capitalist social relations. Through nearly two centuries of econ mic and political crises, the day-to-day logic of buying and selling has consolidated itself so thoroughly that it is con sidered hopelessly romantic and utopian to propose a world not based on market rationality. Supposedly ‘socialist” countries share with the rest of the ‘free” world similar enslaving social relations, and the twisted logic of wages, profits, and accumulation, even though capital there accumulates directly under state control.

How will global capitalism mutate its way through the myriad late 20th century crises of debt, starvation, war, eco collapse? How can it reform itself and rationalize production to serve the twin goals of social stability and continued growth in accumulation?

It’s hard to imagine how the existing social-economic system could ‘naturally” or peacefully evolve into a thoroughly “green ified” post-industrialism. The most likely and unappealing way would be through depression. If enough existing US capital were written off after a crash, and wages were lowered sufficiently to make ‘green” production competitive on the world market, investment in biotechnology would be massive. At that po.int a new biologically-sound infrastructure would not seem such a pipedream. Another possibility is for a new round of aggressive state intervention in the eco nomy, which would pump billions into new forms of biotechnological production; but this, too, is unlikely in the absence of a dire economic emergency.

More plausible is a scenario wherein restoration projects become sources of civic pride (much like the revitalized downtowns throughout the U.S.), but remain cosmetic. As such, they would be jobs programs foremost for the scien tists and technicians specializing in re storation. There are a number of talented and well-intentioned people occupying this niche already.

EXPERTISE AND SOCIAL POWER

The environmental movement has al ways depended on the information and advice of “counter-experts,’ usually scientists with a social conscience. People in this role are in an odd position. Either they look for a relatively low-paying job with an “oppositional” organization, or else they work in corporate or academic slots, and provide expert services to ecological campaigns as concerned citizens. In either case they depend on their expertise to make a living, and hence have a hard time seeing the outside of the box they’re in. Rarely do such experts find time or inclination to develop a thoroughgoing critique of the logic of social life that produces environmental abuse and then as a stop-gap, people with skills like theirs. Moreover, the enormity of the ecological abuse and the relative insig nificance of the brakes on it make it difficult to imagine life without eco-disasters.

The increase in environmental awareness represents a growth industry and has been quite dependent on the expansion and wide availability of scientific knowledge. Its dissemination depends on new technologies: sensortng, testing, and information processing. Environmental technicians, involved with hi-tech gadgetry and a culture of expertise, often present technological fixes as solutions, and frequently ignore the social side to environmental problems.

Deep ecologists and greens put grassroots democracy squarely on their agenda as a solution to the environmental crisis. But grassroots democracy implies more than just town meetings. Such a social transformation would involve a logical break with the social power of expertise, which while conceivable, is at best a complicated process.

Unequal distribution of technical knowledge represents one of the thorniest obstacles for any radical change in social systems. People will never be equally capable, but there must be a way for all us non-experts to evaluate technological and scientific choices, given their social results. Advocating the stopping of science or technology does not address the problem. Expertise is a form of social power. From craft guilds to industrial unions, workers have used their own expertise to control labor processes and thus to better their own economic conditions. It is precisely this power which many new technologies have been deployed to break. As Marx pointed out, the history of industrial innovation since the end of the eighteenth century has been a history of capital’s attempts to establish a more complete domination over the worker.

But before technologies could erode workers’ skills, workers largely lost their voice in consciously deciding “what’s worth doing.” By generally acceding to the logic of the wage contract (and, one might argue, because of the difficulty of democratic planning as an alternative mode of social organization), workers have lost all say over the purpose of their work. From military contracting to banking to toothpaste production, workers don’t decide what to do, they just go to work and get paid. To imagine a social movement concerned with the purposes of arcane scientific research seems far fetched if people aren’t even particularly concerned with the purpose of what they do themselves day in and day out.

A movement restricted to calling for democratic participation in science fails to recognize the larger, more fundamental social relation of which scientific expertise is only a small, though powerful, branch. Wage labor and the logic of the marketplace impose a dualism on all human endeavor between what is useful or pleasurable and what makes money. As long as an activity generates money, its social results are of little consequence.

The environmental movement is vacillating now between two contradictory pulls: On one side are certain radical impulses implied by really restoring the earth (and transforming science, expertise and work itself). On the other side, mere reformism is insufficient. In this in stance, it legitimates a new wave of accumulation based on a state-capitalist “greening” of the economy’s infrastructure, and a vibrant biotechnology sector which could invade large areas of the economy, from agriculture to energy to pharmaceuticals with new, cheaper ways of producing. If we reject the notion that intervention in the ecosphere is inherently wrong, the problem becomes one of good management and planning. Accepting this basic premise means that another, much larger issue is ignored, namely all the work involved in implementing any social plan. The Restoring the Earth campaign fits in nicely with the con tinuing social pressure to create more jobs, no matter what kind.

Instead of stepping back to analyze how the wage-labor relation crucially disengages people from the consequences of their own work, eco-activists seem to prefer the role of capitalist planners, setting up new companies and govern ment programs that will ostensibly pro vide meaningful, well-paid work. Rather than freeing the subjective sensibilities and knowledge of average people, urging a new form of radical direct democracy in social and economic life, large parts of the still-evolving eco-program treat peo ple as passive cogs to be fitted into the new Green Machine. The uncommitted citizen is confronted by the contending programs of incipient elites and existing elites. But as long as the logic of the market remains unchallenged, the busi ness and propaganda organizations in power now will remain there, as will their methods of production/destruction.

GREEN CITIES & BIOREGIONALISM

The ecology movement is at the forefront of imagining and sketching out al ternative urban and rural arrangements. At first sight, it is exciting to find concrete visions of alternatives. One example is Richard Register’s Ecocity Berkeley, which is a primer on the greening of cities. He is quite explicit about the principles around which life should be organized, the shape urban landscape should take (denser, more three-dimensional— up rather than out— less sprawl, new transit systems, solar energy, and so on), and goes on to offer a 150-year conversion plan for Berkeley, California. He shares other eco-activists’ abhorrence of consumerism, though he tempers his moral impulse with a certain pragmatism:

“If cities are built for maximum profit for the powerful and financially clever, or to confer maximum material wealth on all citizens equally, or to find some midpoint on the materialistic continuum between those extremes, the ecocity will wither at its inception. Nonetheless, making a living and seeking personal material security are major motivations to all of us who live in and help to build and run cities. So both kinds of reasons — those that provide a healthy, adventuresome, beautiful environment, and those that support the needs and desires of the individual, singly and collectively — must be accommodated. “[emphasis added]

Much later, under “Notes on Strategy,” he encourages ecocity activists to “appeal to people’s interests, all kinds, both selfish and generous,” to forge political constituencies for green city programs. But his earlier principles have already pro vided the crucial argument against most people’s selfish interests and for perpetual austerity:

“Given the climate and soils of an environment, the resident plants, and animals can extract only so much water, minerals, and energy in creating their bodies: the collective ‘biomass. ‘ Another limit to carrying capacity is the rate at which the total population can reprocess that biological material into usable biological resources through decomposition and soil building.”

At first, this sounds like a pretty irrefutable scientific statement. But “carrying capacity” is full of assumptions about human needs and capabilities, including prospects for more scientific and technological breakthroughs. Used this way it’s a moralistic argument, and one typical of a large part of the green movement: we’ve had it too good; we’ve been living on borrowed time; we must give up a lot of what we have.

Green moralism is actually a potent force among the grassroots of the move ment, where “green-ism” takes on the qualities of a religion. A good example, not particularly extreme in the subculture, is San Francisco’s Planet Drum Founda tion founder, Peter Berg. Berg’s article “Growing A Life-Place Politics’ in Raise the Stakes #11 lays out his views on the bioregional social movement. His vision is strikingly similar to the anarcho syndicalist system of bottom-up workers’ assemblies, but he replaces “workers” with “bioregionalists,” a new political subject organized more on the basis of where one lives rather than what one does. Berg’s argument, broadly stated, is that political power can devolve to new “watershed councils,’ and up through a “naturally-scaled” system of larger coordinating councils, to encompass all of North America and perhaps even the globe! The key to this transformation is a “paradigm shift” in people’s views toward natural processes, and a concomitant adoption of a new purpose to life: sustainability.

Although sustainability is a helpful criterion, it is not a goal. As a means of defining whether our activities are worthwhile, it could challenge The Economy. Bioregionalists are on to something important with the concept of planning cities within the natural systems of the locale, but such a public works program is hardly worthy of being the primary purpose of human existence. Such a purpose sounds suspiciously like the monk’s commitment to live life to serve God, in this case God being the local bioregion... Moreover, this very idea of “natural processes is a socially constructed concept; to reconstruct natural processes now requires work, which in turn requires a specific human design for the natural process.

Bioregionalism traps itself in a narrow subculture by defining sustainability as the goal of life. Placing its hope in a mass “paradigm shift” (this could be read uncharitably as a “religious conversion”) to transform people’s activities, the movement restricts its participants to those who not only intellectually perceive the merits of the bioregional arguments, but who also proselytize for them with a passionate fervor. A casual glance at the literature of bioregionalism and deep ecology reveals a profoundly spiritual bent centered around Gaia the Mother, and various goddess ideologies.

The merging of political movements with religious or spiritual conviction is common at this point in history. Green politics is no exception. Rather than de pend solely on Christian or Islamic myths and icons, however, green spiritualism prefers pagan, animistic forms of mysticism. Hence, Planet Drum’s symbol is Same Shaman, an incarnation from Nordic mythology, while eco-activists in myriad affinity groups practice rituals around solstices, adopt the trappings of Native American rituals, argue from “biocentric” philosophical premises that every living thing deserves to be treated with reverence, and so on. These are at best harmless pastimes, but in positions of social power might take on intolerant qualities, leading to a new social hierarchy with Ecology perched at the top instead of the Dollar (Ecocracy). (Imagine being labeled non- or anti-Green spiritualist in a green-dominant society — not being Mormon in Utah comes to mind!)

FOR FREEDOM, NOT AUSTERITY

The idea of alternate living scenarios is very appealing. Certainly, we need to imagine how else to live, how to better resolve the classic dichotomy between city and country. But why circumscribe such visions with less-is-more ideology? If life were really transformed along eco-city lines, which could only be accomplished by a movement of workers bent on transforming their work, I think we would live a much wealthier life than we do now. Eco-activists shouldn’t be in such a rush to argue for the lower living standards that they all seem sure (and a little glad) will accompany their visions. Why not debate the nature of wealth and how to organize its acquisition in a society freed from the distorting imperatives of The Economy?

One of the first steps toward a wealthy life would be the abolition of a great deal of the work done in this society. Eliminating banking, insurance, and similar “services” would free hundreds of thousands of human hours to contribute to a richer life texture, both physically and socially. Taking resources away from the military and insane industrial projects like automobiles would make them available for people’s actual needs and desires. Everyone would then be more likely to have all the things they want. The new constraints would be based on what we can coax safely from the environment, how much work is needed, and whether anyone is willing to do that work. Instead of a consumer culture, imagine an enriching culture where the obsession with material goods diminishes in direct proportion to the lack of scarcity—where people are more concerned with living than with merely surviving. The constraints imposed by concerns for “growth,” “economic health,” “business survival,” or even “job creation,” all militate against radical breaks with polluting forms of production. Those who are passionately concerned with the health of the planet must reject the underlying logic of The Economy as much as they reject its products. A sustainable, enjoyable, healthy environment requires free human beings no less than non-polluting ones.

— by Lucius Cabins

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READING

RAISE THE STAKES (a bi-annual rnagazine lull of in formation, debate, analysis on bioregionalism and green city programs.) From Planet Drum Foun dation, P.O. Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131
SYNTHESIS (a newsletter and journal for social ecology, deep ecology, and bioregionalism) P.O. Box 1858, San Pedro, CA 90733
GREEN PERSPECTIVES (the newsletter of Ver mont Greens and social ecologists like Murray Bookchin.) P.O. Box 111, Burlington. VT 05402.
THE GREEN ALTERNATIVE by Brian Tokar,
R&E Miles, POB 1916, San Pedro, CA 90733
ECOLOGICAL IMPERIALISM: The Biological Ex pansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby, Cambridge University Press (New York: 1986)
TO GOVERN EVOLUTION by Walter Truett Anderson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego: 1987)
THE GENE BUSINESS by Edward Yoxen, Harper & Row (New York: 1983)
THE GREEN MACHINES by Nigel Calder G.P. Putnams&Sons (New York: 1986)
ECOCITYBERKELEY by Richard Register North Atlantic Books (Berkeley: 1987)

Bad Ecotude Everywhere!

tale of toil by green fuchsia

From Millhand to Militant

It couldn’t be just a nightmare. The memory is too clear. I used to work at that steel mill six days a week, and I can still see the view I had of it driving to work on the Buffalo Skyway. The mill stretched before me for five miles along Lake Erie. From the fuming block-long coke ovens at one end to the clanging manufacturing shops at the other, all life had been scraped from the land and replaced by a network of furnaces, processing shops, railroads, and, of course, fences, lots of high fences. The plant seemed a mechanical nether world in which blackened behemoths chugged on within a fetid haze.

A bleak and fearsome sight, yes, but not entirely ugly. The mill, and the three million tons of steel it cranked out per year, represented an awe-inspiring industrial might. Standing in contrast to the lake’s limitless gray monotony by day or piercing the night sky with its red dish glow, the steel mill had a certain redeeming beauty lot me as an expression of human power.

With 18,000 people working there, living human power certainly was at the heart of this industrial colos sus. Human labor was required to supervise the activities of the mechanical beings down to the last detail— and supervising the humans down to the least detail were other humans in a hierarchical chain of command.

The higher-ups spelled out their underlings’ assignments in a job description book that contained the work responsibilities of some 40,000 positions throughout the steel industry. All authority was moved up the supervisory line, and production personnel had only to worry about the particular machinery they operated. In this manner, workers were incorporated into the very industrial processes that they were supposed to control. They were confined to serving as the machines’ ultimate regulatory mechanisms. Management, too, took on a rote mechanical quality. Supervisors were isolated in little circles of competence and insulated from the mill’s reality by a layer of paperwork. Each strived mainly to maintain the good appearances that protected his privileged situation.

Every day, I witnessed the full extent of the environmental catastrophe that evolved in this deadening atmosphere. It began right on the shop floor with the frustration and stress that results from living out restricted lives in filthy, dangerous surroundings. The first day I worked at the mill, one of my shopmates was on the job for sixteen hours straight. He went home and died of a heart attack, leaving two young daughters. My long-time partner as a mechanic had been an aspiring artist in his youth. Now, alcoholism made his hands shake so much that he couldn’t draw at all. Drugs and alcohol were a common way to make life easier at the mill (“If you don’t smoke, you croak!”), but they also increased the danger as we tried to maneuver multi-ton pieces of steel through grease-caked machines two stories high. The absence of responsibility for the work environment sometimes yielded vicious ironies. One department I worked in, a worn-out automated marvel, was constantly filled with a suffocating mixture of red paint spray and welding fumes. The government had forced the company to stop venting the stuff outside, where it polluted the air! An old Italian mechanic fixing the machines there had a hole in his throat where doctors had removed his cancerous larynx. He couldn’t speak, although he was pretty expressive with his hands. He insisted on working anyway, so the company took him back rather than put him on permanent disability.

If the unseen higher management was indifferent to the internal environment of its mill, the external environment counted for less than zero in its estimation. What didn’t represent usable natural resources was just space for dumping waste products. The air in the surrounding community was so dirty, for example, that laundry hung out on a line would be soiled again by the time it was dry. The mill’s sewers poured untold quantities of organic solvent and grime into a lake that was already near death from other pollutants. Who cared that that body was also the area’s water supply?

Farther afield, I once visited northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, where the mill’s ore came from. There, around the open pit mines that pock-marked the region, I found the same blasted landscape as at the mill. Here too, no plants grew, and nothing moved except enormous machines. More generally, the mill was tied to environmental devastation throughout the world by the consumerist values encouraged in its workforce. Materialism was the glue that held the whole organization together. It kept us toiling away for our paychecks, with individual promotion, not collective revolt, our supposed avenue to freedom. The resulting urban sprawl and conspicuous consumption, the cars and shopping malls and golf courses, adversely affeécted more than just the district around the steel mill. They embodied the destruction wrought by thousands of other inidustries far beyond the mill employees’ usual haunts.

That was all so many years ago. Where once 18,000 struggled to keep the mill going, only 200 labor now. The mill may have been stilled, but my mind continues to work on the memories left behind. I remain struck by how the mill’s alienating hierarchy, and the materialistic culture that supported it, undermined both human and natural ecologies. In a world composed of interdependent social and biological webs, distortions in one area contort the entire scheme.

Now I work under more civilized conditions with an environmentalist organization, whose magazine I help edit. Here, my steel mill experience is central to my attempt to heal rather than plunder. Yet when it came time to issue official biographies for fundraising purposes, I noticed that my history as a steel worker was omitted. It was considered irrelevant, or even besmirching. How could it be viewed otherwise? Look at the way we work: We are divided into individual offices, each concentrating on its own distinct issue—ozone, rainforests, etc. Group directors head up each office, and on top of them is the general director, with a chairman and board of directors above him. Plus, there is a separate administrative staff to cover joint clerical tasks. Everyone has a pigeonhole; no one gets a crack at the integrative analysis needed to discover how humanity and nature can live together in peace.

Perhaps my magazine could contribute the needed synthesis. Unfortunately it, too, is imprisoned by the dynamics of its stratified sponsor. The chief editor is a man who got his job through cronyism; he used his long-time friendship with the general director to convince the organization that it had to put out a prestigious-looking magazine. This fellow actually is unsuited to be a chief editor, never having worked as one before. He has no idea how to coordinate the people working on the project and is mainly concerned with using the magazine as a means of promoting his own reputation as an intellectual. His light, monotonous writing keeps popping up all over the publication as a result. Such pretense also extends to our overall choice of articles. We tend to concentrate on impressive-looking stories by or about major personalities that usually turn out to be mundane hand-me-downs. Other common items include specious reports presented as scoops.

The male conceit at play here is symptomatic of the sexist mentality central to office proceedings. I hadn’t been working for more than twenty minutes on the first day when one of the more compliant women grumbled to me, “This place is really male dominated. The guys at the top, they decide everything.” It is worse than she knew. Behind the female staffs backs, the male management consistently favors those women who embody its version of femininity — attractive, accom plished, and agreeable. Typically, when we were running a speech by an award-winning female filmmaker in the magazine, the chief editor couldn’t mention her name, it seemed, without exclaiming. “What a beauty’ She’s a good friend of mine, too.”

Of course, with ecofeminism a widely discussed topic these days, it has become practically a cliché to connect male domination with human domination of nature and the ensuing environmental destruction. Accepting this idea is one thing, applying it quite another. In a situation in which everybody is compartmentalized, the authorities are free to adapt feminist principles to their own uses. One male philosopher with whom I have dealt is renowned for expounding on the necessity of smashing patriarchy in order to live in harmony with nature, but I notice that he uses his wife as his secretary. His close confederate where I work is notorious for the way he manipulates his all-female staff to keep them underpaid while he gets the credit for their work.

The conception of the environment engendered by this traditional hierarchical structure is an elitist, romanticized one that sets a natural, wild ecology apart from sordid human society. Utopian, pristine nature is something to be pro tected by the enlightened few against the despoiling masses. The concept that ecological renaissance is attendant on human liberation is not on the agenda. The steel mill? Male-female relations? Forget it. These issues are outside the managerial paradigm.

In its extreme, elitist environmentalism regards humans as interlopers who should go back to stone-age lifestyles so as not to interfere with the natural world, as if it were ever possible for humans to have no influence. More frequently, an interspecies egalitarianism is advocated while an intraspecies one gives way to a desperate and coercive, if not racist, outlook on population control. When researching the AIDS epidemic in Africa, I was not at all surprised to hear jokes about “AIDS as population control” despite the fact that Africa is a diverse, but mostly sparsely populated land that is richly endowed with natural resources.

Even more humanitarian environmental positions, which actually are well represented where I work, frequently betray anti-democratic managerial attitudes. Contending that the “resources necessary for generalizing Western industrial consumption levels are simply unavailable,” one of my coworkers argues for basing Third World economies on a neo-Maoist self-sufficient mix of small-scale farming and low-tech industry. Whatever this model’s desirability, its impetus cannot come from technocrats who themselves live at Western consumption levels. The point is to extirpate materialist value systems, not establish a new ruling class.

These elitist versions of environmentalism are unlikely to inspire a man movement, but they do provide environmental officialdom with a justification for its existence since a group of heroic leaders is deemed necessary to prevent catastrophe. They also provide office staff with a cause to devote itself to so that it members work on the cheap, in substandard working conditions.

For $12,000 per year (or less for those designated as part-time or “outside con tractors”) and no benefits, we work cheek by jowl in dark, stuffy rooms for many more than 40 hours a week. Considering that we’re supposed to be nature lovers, it’s strange that there’s nary a plant to be found. Indeed, our vacations are so meager that we have little contact with nature at all unless we manage to get funding for work-related trips.

With all the crowding and noise, it is difficult to get anything done. Even finding a place to have private conversation is a chore. Recently, I made a major faux pas when I was overheard talking to myself, complaining about what someone else had done.

One wouldn’t think that occupational hazards would be a problem, but they do occur. To cite one case, our ratty desktop copier, which was located in the narrow main hallway, suddenly started leaking noxious fumes every time it was in operation. I refused to use it, and after a few weeks, another staffer learned from an occupational safety group that the fumes were xylene, a potent carcinogen. (Ah yes, xylene. I remember xylene from the steel mill, where we kept a bin of it in our combined lunch and tool room to clean machine parts — and our hands.)

Still nothing was done for months. The director, whose personal life was in an uproar, felt overwhelmed by all the decisions he had to make daily. He couldn’t choose between getting the old copier overhauled or buying a new super-duper $8000 model. Finally, he chose the deluxe route. The place still stinks, though. With the fancy copier now doing the bulk jobs that we formerly sent out, and a new laserwriter going full blast next to it, the hallway continues to get its share of fumes. God help us when the machines get old!

The new laserwriter is part of an elaborate stock of computer equipment that constitutes a major staff nuisance. Computers are the one thing we have in abundance because their flashy aura makes them easily fundable. Describing these PC's as “cutting edge” is accurate in more ways than one. After working on them for hours at a stretch, I suffer from eye strain, headaches, and back pain. If I type a lot on the keyboard, my wrists feel like they are about to break off.

Then there is the information glut I have to put up with. It comes by mail and modem from other environmentalists’ word processors. The computers’ enormous data shuffling capabilities have tended to proletarianize us, making our jobs more like those of file clerks than political activists. Their usefulness in mass mail campaigns has reduced our time for critical thinking still further by channeling our creativity into public relations. One of my Washington acquaintances rages, “We’ve become direct mail advertising agencies. I used to send out twenty million pieces of mail a year, but what did it have to do with fighting for the environment?”

Computers aside, unquestioning subservience to the money-raising imperative subverts the whole environmentalist project. To my mind, the people in the office working on the environmental effects of Third World military buildup constitute the most innovative group we have. I was once shocked, therefore, to hear them belittled by a member of the more marketable, richer dolphins and whales group as “a drag on the organization. . . We’re the important ones who keep things afloat by raising all the money...

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, the officers of the organization attained their positions in the hierarchy through their reputations as successful fundraisers. This oh-so-typical link between money and power finds its validation in the materialist ethos expressed in the above put-down. And because of that ethos I’m editing a magazine for readers who were largely attracted on a sentimental “save the whales” basis. I do not have the opportunity to garner the radical ecologist readership for whom I would prefer to publish because such an effort would restrict our overall audience.

The man who wrote several times castigating us for killing trees to put out our biased rag of a magazine may have been a crank, but he did have a point. He saw the relationship between workplace and nature in a way our organizational form does not allow, even though such recognition is the starting point for a broad ecological consciousness that connects the way we work with environmental disruption.

Of course, there are many people its the organization who sense the connection anyway. The small gang of upstarts I was part of did for a while attack the heart of the matter. Our temporary rebellion demanded workers control in the form of a staff-elected board of directors. The point was precisely that a con ventional management structure is incompatible with environmentalism, but we never could formulate this idea in a clear manner. Since the required conceptual tools were beyond our grasp, we substituted general democratic principles for a more specific critique. The lack of official personnel policies became a major issue. and staff committees to draw them up were formed.

To call our campaign a “revolt” is really an exaggeration. People who are committed to their work are not militant. They do not strike or engage in sabotage. The liberal atmosphere in which we operate does provide plenty of opportunity to talk, though. So that’s what we did— we went to meeting after meeting to air our proposals.

The response we received from the powers-that-be had nothing liberal about it. They handed out the same capitalist, Reaganite arguments that you could get at any company. First there was the efficiency argument. Workers’ democracy leads to endless committee meetings in which nothing ever gets decided, it was claimed. We need the skilled, assertive leadership that hierarchical management provides so that we can act vigorously in these times of environmental crisis. (Sure, buddy. When you gonna get the copier fixed, huh.?)

Then there were the usual financial arguments. Suddenly, the organization was running out of money and was just too poor to make any improvements now. (Actually, close examination of the figures revealed that we were in a temporary cash flow crisis, which was more a reflection of the administrators’ abilities than of any long-term poverty.) It was further alleged that democratic management specifically stood in the way of fundraisintg because donors would only give money to groups watched over by independent boards of directors. You can’t beat the system.

Finally, there were the personal attacks. After a snide exchange with a board member, one of my colleagues suddenly announced to me, “I’m going to have to pull back. I’m getting labeled as a trouble maker.” I was regarded as an immature whiner, but I knew that would happen from the steel mill. Bosses blandly give out their commands as part of the natural order of things. Objecting subordinates have to engage in aggressive, “nasty” behavior to have an impact.
Sometimes one incident becomes emblematic of a whole affair. For me, that moment came at the end of an especially acrimonious meeting, when the general director growled at one of the clerical people, “I know what’s wrong with you. You don’t really want to answer the phones, and you’re bored by doing the books. The problem is you want to be an environmental activist. The next time, we’ll get somebody who isn’t as educated and just wants to do their job and go home.” Talk about nasty! (But anyway, what’s going to happen when there’s an emergency, and the alienated employee is expected to work overtime in a frenzy for the “cause.")

None of the dissidents were fired, but they did get worn out. Several left for greener pastures and were replaced by more accommodating individuals. The ripple of dissent gradually petered out.

We did manage to win one staff representative on the board of directors, which changes nothing. We also won some improvements in working conditions and benefits. Eventually, management promises to provide health insurance and regularize the status of the underpaid “outside contractors.” These economic measures also are accomplishable without altering the current power structure.

That power structure is apparently a stable one. Its particular combination of hierarchy, self-serving ideology, and tactical resources for overcoming dissent mean that change is unlikely to come from within, at least for the foreseeable future.

Working under deleterious conditions manipulating people’s perception of nature to enhance the prestige of the leadership above me, and with only limited economic change possible, am I really that far from the steel mill? The dif ference is that formerly I worked with the actual physical resources nature provides whereas now I work with the ideas that it suggests. Doing the latter is more be nign in the immediate sense. I do contribute to enhancing the widespread environmental awareness existing in this country.

My long-term contribution is still deadly, however. If the discussion needed to constructively integrate human society with the natural world is precluded by the hierarchy I prop up, then we environmentalists are condemned to fight an endless series of defensive battles. As usual, we are losing so much because of the vanity of a few.

by Green Fuchsia

Primitive Thought

Chaz Bufe on misanthropy in Earth First! and the primitivist and radical ecology movements.

One of the hottest topics in “progressive” circles these days is the Earth First! controversy. Prominent members of Earth First!, such as Dave Foreman, the organization’s founder and the editor of its newspaper, have recently undertaken polemics in favor of famine and AIDS.

In the Australian magazine Simply Living, Foreman stated that, “the best thing would be to just let the people there [Ethiopia] starve.. .“ He has made similar statements to the local media in Tucson, where Earth First! (the organ of Earth First!) is published.

In a similar vein, “Miss Ann Thropy,” a regular contributor to Earth First!, has argued that AIDS is a “good” thing, because it will reduce population. In the May 1, 1987 issue of that paper, ‘Throp” stated: “if the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one [an epidemic].” In the Dec. 22, 1987 issue of Earth First!, she adds that ... . the AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population.”

The connecting thread between the arguments in favor of AIDS and starva tion is a crude Malthusianism. (The 19th-century British parson Thomas Malthus argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population, that unlimited population growth was the primary danger to humanity; that population increased geometrically while food supply increased arithmetically.) A latter day disciple of the good parson, Daniel Conner, a “deep ecologist,” self-aggrandizingly expressed his faith in Malthus’ principle in the Dec. 22, 1987 issue of Earth First!: ‘Population pressure, they [“thoughtful environmentalists”] claim, lies at the root of every environmental problem we face.”

Contrary to what Conner would have us believe, there is nothing “thoughtful” in the belief that population “lies at the root of every environmental problem.” That idea is on a par with the simplistic belief that “technology” is the sole cause of environmental destruction. It ignores the key element in environmental destruction: Making a profit. For example, coal-burning power plants are a primary cause of acid rain, yet utilities have in variably put up resistance to installing scrubbers, which would greatly reduce the amount of pollutants emitted by their plants. The reason? Installing scrubbers would reduce their profits. Another exam ple: Plastic beverage containers become non-recyclable trash, are a visual blight, take hundreds, if not thousands of years to break down, and a particularly toxic type of plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is often used in their manufacture. (PVC5 leach into beverages.) Why are they used? The answer is what you’d expect: It’s cheaper and involves less hassle for bev erage manufacturers and distributors to use plastic bottles rather than recyclable glass. Still another example is the toxic waste problem. One reads almost daily reports of companies dumping dangerous wastes into streams and rivers rather than going to the expense of treating and pro perly disposing of them.

This tendency of the capitalist, profit-based system toward environmental destruction exists regardless of the size of the population. In terms of the profit-motive tendency toward environmental destruction, it would make no difference if the population of the United States was 24 million rather than 244 million. At the lower population figure, the motivation for beverage manufacturers and distributors to use plastic bottles, for example, would be the same as it is now. A large population magnifies the damage rooted in the profit motive, but population size itself is not "at the root of every environmental problem we face.”

The conclusions the misanthropic “deep ecologists” draw from their faulty premises are breathtaking. They want us to return to our ‘natural role” 1 as hunter-gatherers, because according to their faulty reasoning, “Earth simply cannot support five billion large mammals of the species ‘Homo sapiens.’” This argument has been demolished elsewhere; the best work on the subject is Frances Moore Lappe’s and Joseph Collins’ Food First. For our purposes, suffice it to say that there is actually a huge surplus of food at present. According to Lappe, approximately 3600 calories of grain alone is produced on a daily per capita basis.2 That doesn’t even take into account fruits, vegetables and grass-fed meat. This is enough food that, if the grain alone were equally distributed and all—or even two-thirds—of it consumed, most of us would be as fat as pigs. It should also be emphasized that production of this amount of food does not “necessarily” involve environmental degradation: Non-environmentally harmful, organic methods of agriculture can produce at least as much food as destructive, chemically-based methods in the short run; and in the long run, increase the “value” of land and preserve high levels of production.

In some of the European countries, notably Germany, population ‘decline” through lowering of the birth rate has already begun. In his article “Fertility in Transition,” in the Spring 1986 issue of Focus (journal of the American Geographical Society), James L. Newman traces the causes of the decline in fertility in the European countries. He concludes that there were three reasons for a decline in the birth rate. One was industrialization: “Out of it came the public health discoveries that reduced mortality, followed by a new lifestyle which no longer neces sitated large families... Whereas on farms and in cottage industries children contributed their labor to the family enter prise, in the city they became consumers. Only a few offspring could be afforded if the family was to maintain or... improve its standard of living.” The second reason for the decline in fertility was birth control. It “was the answer to these new social and economic realities.” 3

The third element in lowering the birth rate is the relative emancipation of women. In the developed countries, birth rates tend to be high only among econom ically deprived groups with little hope and relatively little access to birth control devices and information, and among patriarchal religious groups whose members believe that it is a woman’s “duty” to have a large number of children. (A case in point is the Mormon Church; among active Mormons, nuclear families with ‘at least’ four children are the norm.)

If there were a more equal distribution of wealth and income, and if misogynistic, patriarchal religions declined, the birth rate in the developed countries would almost certainly be lower than it already is; and if there were relatively rapid development in the ‘underdeveloped” countries,4 accompanied by redistribution of wealth and abandonment of misogynist religions and attitudes, fertility there would certainly decrease, probably quite rapidly.

The primitivists at least have the honesty to accept some of the conclusions of their Malthusian arguments. They acknowledge that reversion to our “natural role” of hunter-gatherers will require a massive depopulation of the Earth. For Miss Ann Thropy, “Ecotopia would be a planet with about 50 million people who are hunting and gathering for subsistence.”5 Other primitivists have postulated a population of only five to ten million as the maximum, and in Atlas of World Population History, Cohn McEvedy and Richard Jones state that the prehistoric population of hunter-gatherers was pro bably in the neighborhood of four million.

Other “neo-primitivists” (it sounds classier with the prefix) have advocated an agrarian society using no technology beyond that of simple hand tools. Reaching a ‘no-tech” agricultural society would involve almost as many deaths as reach ing a hunter-gatherer society. The last period in which a large majority of the population lived a pastoral existence, using for the most part nothing beyond hand tools, was the Middle Ages, when the world population was about 300 million. Let’s assume a technological level of the year 1500 (perhaps acceptable to no- or low-tech advocates), and that due to improved agricultural techniques, enough food could be grown and distributed to support five times the population that lived then. That would leave us with a population of 2 billion people (which would require a modest 60 percent reduction in population to achieve). Whether even this population figure could be maintained at that level of technology is highly questionable.

Historically, the ability to grow food has not been the limiting factor in population growth. The limiting factors have been disease and the related problem of infant mortality. Returning to the pre industrial technological level of 500 years ago would not only eliminate the ‘means” of combatting disease but also (relatively) safe, effective means of birth control. The birth rate would soar, and many women would die at an early age, worn out from childbearing. But not to worry— population balance would be maintained the way it was in the good old days: Most of the children would die from disease before adulthood; and if “enough” of them didn’t die, population would increase to the point where famine would stabilize the population.

Still another question never addressed by neo-primitive romantics is whether a majority of the population (let alone the entire population) would ever want to renounce the many benefits of technological civilization. I for one would not, whether we speak of music, food, medicine, or books. I doubt that my feelings are atypical. Returning to a low-tech or no-tech society would necessarily involve the use of coercion against large numbers of people, probably against a large majority of the population.

These are the implications which the primitivists and “neo-primitivists” have dodged until now, usually by insisting upon “natural” checks on population growth, such as the AIDS epidemic and famine, to achieve their desired hunter-gatherer society. They haven’t dared ad vocate what would really be required to achieve their vision: Wholesale coercion and mass murder.

If any good is to come from this controversy it will be that it has provoked many people to take a closer look at the questions of technology and population growth, and their relation to the prevailing politico-economic systems. One hopes that environmentalists will go beyond the crude theories and intellectual posturing of “deep ecologists” and those who blindly hate “technology”— the questions of population and technology require a more sophisticated approach than primitivism.6

The only way in which population growth can be checked in a humane manner is through social justice— through abolition of (private and state) capitalism with its inherent tendencies toward environmental degradation, through fairer distribution of resources, through the emancipation of women and the abandonment of patriarchal religions, and through the utilization of appropriate technologies to provide cheap, easy access to birth control and to provide a comfortable level of material wealth for everyone. 7

by Chaz Bufe

  • 1. How presumptuous! How does Throp know what our ‘natural role” is? She treats the exercise of human intelligence, our power to shape our environment, which is a direct result of evolution, as if it were somehow “un”natural, as if using the attributes we’ve received from nature is somehow “un”natural.
  • 2. The Politics of Food,” TV documentary.
  • 3. Newman, of course, is not implying that “all” aspects of European industrialization were bene ficial. He’s merely noting that a rising standard of living was instrumental in lowering the birth rate.
  • 4. The question of how development strategies in the Third World can and should differ from the models provided by the already developed capitalist and ‘communist” states is complex. But in general, one can say that adoption of the following measures would help developing societies to avoid the hideous environmental problems plaguing the industrialized nations: a) Abolition of the profit motive, with its inherent tendency toward environmental destruc tion; b) Abolition of coercive authority, with its tendency toward bureaucratization and industrial monument building; c) Self-management of agri culture and industry by those working in them. Workers generally live near to their workplaces, are likely to be aware of work-related environmental problems, and are very likely to do something to remedy them when they are aware of problems—workers are smart enough not to foul their own nests.
  • 5. “Miss Ann Thropy,” Earth First! Dec. 22, 1987.
  • 6. For a closer look at the “deep ecology” ideology underlying the authoritarian, inhumane proposals advanced by Foreman, Abbey, et al, I would highly recommend Murray Bookchin’s article, “Social Ecology Versus ‘Deep Ecology’,” in the Summer 1987 issue of Green Perspectives, ($2 should cover it) from Green Perspectives, POB 111, Burlington, VT 05402.
  • 7. Of course I am not implying that “all” techno logies are desirable—far from it. “Technology” is not a monolith. It is composed of a great number of separate technologies, all with different environmental and social effects. Some are beneficial, such as medical and sewage disposal technologies; some are neutral (they lend themselves to both socially useful and socially damaging uses), an example being radio communications technology, which can be used to dispatch ambulances or for political surveillance; and some technologies, such as nuclear technology, are inherently destructive. Even these classifications are gross simplifications, though, as even the most useful technology will have some negative effects; and even the worst technology might have some beneficial aspects. Blind rejection of “technology” is idiotic.

Mudshark For Hire

tale of toil: tree planting, by med-o

I wallow on my knees in thick mud, hoedag in hand slogging up a near vertical hillside, napalmed bare... rain whistling sidways so hard it bores through my hermetic, vulcanized head-to-toe rainsuit. I look like an astronaut traversing across an eerie, silent moon crater rhythmically bending over to scrape the ground every 6-9 steps... I’m cruising over “gravy ground” — soil with no vegetation, no rocks, nothing but good clean dirt. I plunge the hoedag, much like swinging an axe to split wood, slitting the earth with its narrow, tapered blade. I reach into my 40 lb. hip bag, grab a 12-inch tall tree seedling and in one belly-over-torso-ripple-shoulder-arm-flip-of-the-wrist motion plant a baby tree. The flip of the wrist is the quintessential movement. It determines whether the roots settle straight down or form an L or J shape — sacrilege to the holy treeplanter. Like a human pack mule, I repeat this action hundreds of times, some times over a thousand times a day. It is the most arduous physically demanding work I’ve ever done.

That was 1978 when I was a migrant treeplanter; a job the Oregon State Employment Service lists as “the hardest physical work known to this office.., one person in fifty succeeds the three week training period.” Like thousands of other college grads that year, I was the product of a liberal education promising an exciting, ‘good’ job as reward for four years of costly training. So what the hell was I doing planting trees and eating mud for a living? Well I’ll tell ya, being a rowdy forest worker in a self-managed collective of modern gypsies traveling the beautiful hinterlands of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and northern California made career pursuits or ‘regular’ employment look awfully dull.

In the late ‘70s a developed network of worker-owned reforestation businesses flourished in the Pacific Northwest. There were roughly 30 independent ‘crews’ each containing 10-40 members: The Natural Wonders, the Culls, PF Flyers, the Marmots, Full Moon Rising, the Thumbs, and of course, the Mudsharks, to name a few. Like our crew names we were a very unconventional lot: refugees from New Jersey, recalcitrant hippies, radical workplace autonomists, and all manner of academic fallout. Here was a real existing alternative, self-organized and apart from “the system.” I could work outdoors and outside of a hierarchy, help regenerate the dwindling forests, and be in association with hundreds of others who shared my values. Not only were we doing something good for the natural environment; we were hip enough to organize our work and lives as free, equal individuals. At the time it felt like we could change it all: live and work together communally, avoid the witless, humiliating relations of working under bosses for owners, and stop the abusive forestry practices plied by timber multinationals and the Forest Service.

It took me two years to fully plumb the downside of what on the surface appeared so wholesome and radical. Serious contradictions emerged: from the widespread use of toxic herbicides to kill vegetation “competing” with the young trees to a corporate domination of the Forest Service that made trees more important than workers. But that all comes later...

Talk to me... Please, Talk to me...

In the midst of brutal, stoop labor we developed a very empowering culture of resistance. Unlike the rest of the industry, we made quite hospitable camps in the forest. Besides the desired contact with nature, we could live “on the cheap,” always a problem for migrant workers. We also avoided what was an idiotic, standard practice for regular treeplanters; an agonizing 1-2 hour commute each way on treacherous logging roads from the nearest town where they lodged. Our camps were a truly motley cornucopia of tents, trailers, teepees, and yurts in a clearing next to the woods. The yurt— a Mongolian invention easy to assemble, disassemble, and transport— was the mainstay of the camp.

The way we organized the work proces, however, was what really set us apart from the dominant practices of regular contractors. For starters, everyone was both owner and worker. Instead of one macho foreman, we took turns as ‘crew leaders,” sometimes daily, sometimes until a specific worksite was completed. We all freely debated the pros and cons of a particular work procedure, occasionally stopped work to make democratic crew decisions— which tended to drive Forest Service Inspectors crazy.

One of the most challenging, some times beautiful, often times unwieldy aspects of treeplanting was visualizing and carrying out a maneuver to cover a site.” In a word, figuring out the most efficient planting movement for the 10-30 person crew over a given area or time. It is actually a lot more complicated than you might expect. toremost, there is an inherent contradiction between objective contract specifications and the subjective terrain of forestlands. Most contracts called for the trees to be spaced 8 or 10 feet apart unless conditions dictate otherwise. But the forest is not like a flat, cleared farmland to be planted in a uniform grid. There are steep slopes, ridge-lines, rocks, ravines, creeks, and a whole slew of shifting indentations and perturbations. Unlike a legal contract the forest is not linear; it is very wiggily. To make planting more efficient we devised specific crew maneuvers. The three most common were line planting, floating, and humping. There was also the Swarm which meant the entire crew descended upon a certain area of ground. Mostly it was used as a fun way to ‘kick out’ the final portion of a planting unit.

Communication was the key of course. We talked a lot, sometimes probably too much, but you weren’t disciplined for excessive discourse. A treeplanter with a regular contractor would be long gone for the verbose outbursts we generated. Even though it sometimes slowed down an individual’s production, communicating a planting strategy and the contin uous adaptations required by the chang ing terrain definitely increased the crew’s overall efficiency.
This emphasis on communication in the work process (constantly conversing literally “down the line”) attracted many self-management idealists to the reforestation collectives. There were other fea tures which also made the collectives a uniquely worthwhile enterprise for many. First, treeplanting businesses require little capital; you need only a few tools and vehicles. Such small companies could start up without access to big money or having to mortgage your life away. Thus, they could be easily dropped if it became apparent they weren’t worth continuing. Secondly, reforestation is inherently labor intensive and requires large numbers of relatively unskilled workers. For workplace organizing this seemed fertile ground. Then too, restorative work is intrinsically worthwhile even after this ridiculous capitalist system is superceded. Finally, the fact that as migrant workers we were compelled to collectively organize our lives beyond the workplace provided a structural basis for avoiding both the narrowness of unions and the absurd separation of work, leisure time, culture.

The (e)Motion Before The Floor.

The internal democracy of the re forestation collectives was most developed in a group called the “Hoedads” based in Eugene, Oregon. At its height it had 300 ± members distributed among 15 autonomous crews. Each crew had their own decision-making process, usually some form of consensus with a majority rule back-up when consensus was blocked. While that functioned well for a 20-per son crew, the 200-300 person General Meetings (GM’s) were an entirely dif ferent beast. Straight majority rule using parliamentary procedure was practiced. Despite a keen interest in more libertarian processes, I really don’t know how these meetings could have been con ducted otherwise.

As it was, the quarterly GM’s were wild 2-3 day affairs. I’ll never forget when a motion was made to create an across-the-board, flat hourly wage for all co-op members. This contradicted the philosophy of autonomy in which each crew would “independently contract” a specific job, give Hoedads a standard 20% administrative rake-off, and then decide among themselves how to divide the income. The debate began something like this:

“I move that the Co-op establish a single, hourly pay scale for all members at a $10/hr. base rate.”

A few people gasp, those sitting in chairs squirm and murmur, others milling on the sides and in the back shuffle nervously, and about 50 people raise their hands to be placed on the speakers’ list (I think, “Shit! Here goes another one of those endless discussion!”) Debbie from the High Rollers crew is the first speaker:

“I’m a member of High Rollers and we already pay by the share (equalized wages). . .1 like the idea of a standard pay scale; it makes it fairer when your crew gets allocated a lousy contract. But High Rollers have been together longer than most crews. We have worked long and hard to get our production up and we want to reap the benefits. The same wage for everyone wouldn’t be fair. So I’m against the motion.”

Someone yells out from the back: “Of course the High Rollers are against the motion. The bidding committee always allocates them the sweetheart jobs!!!”

There is a general uproar. The rotat ing chair speaks through a microphone and speaker to overpower the shouting:
‘Quiet please! Quiet! Everyone will have a chance to speak. Now Dave, you know you can’t just blurt out. Get on the speakers’ list and you’ll get your turn. OK Let’s See, Jason, you’re next on the list.”

Jason is a tall, quiet, bearded man basically a hippie pacifist. He talks eloquently about the difference between a co-op as a business and as a new way to live. He concludes his three minute account with: “I’m in favor of the motion because in the long run all the contracts even out. We all get our share of winners and losers. More important though, in ,the long run our health as a co-op isn t based on individuals being able to make more money but on our real com munity with each other.”

Jane, a hard-core “Amazon planter” speaks next: “All right, let’s cut through the shit!!! It’s simple. If high production crews and workers don’t make more money they will leave the co-op (perhaps the greatest success of the Hoedads was the spin-off of about 30 smaller co-ops, many with start-up money from the Hoedads). If this happens the whole co-op will suffer. .

On and on it went for hours. Eventually the motion was defeated, although several years later, as the industry slumped and the co-op contracted, a similar version was passed.

Woodswoman Spare That Tree

It was exciting to challenge the established canons of forest practices. Women treeplanters were perhaps the most daunt ing feature we introduced to a very backwoods, exclusively male province for the last few centuries. One of my fondest memories is how three women totally overwhelmed an all-too-typical Forest Service inspector pregnant with petty rules. Some inspectors were cool, found our alternative bent refreshing, and helped us make tons of money during a contract. Most were a pain in the ass. An inspector could make or break your contract depending on how strictly they enforced contract specifications. A tough inspector was like a hard-ass cop, if s/he had “an attitude,” no matter how per fectly you did the work, they could make sure you got the shaft.

Regular contractors usually had one foreman who dealt with the inspector. We had the advantage of ganging up on the poor sod with two or three rotating ‘forepersons.’ It didn’t always work but it sure did this day. How? Well, Han nah, Ginger, and Cathy did what they normally do during a hot day “on the slope;” they planted with their shirts off. When they saw the inspector was giving us a hard time they marched up to con front him on it. Now here was a guy who liked ironing his underwear. A real prick who desperately needed to be in command:

It was hilarious. Imagine three, strap ping, bare-breasted women, all sweaty, dappled with earth, and dripping eros striding up to this inspector/imposter... he turns all red and shy and hot and confused. They didn’t have to say a word: six healthy breasts stare down a repressed stiff. He lasted about 30 seconds, turned, and bolted for his life. Totally forgot he was supposed to be an asshole, even for got his underwear and iron in getting the hell out of Dodge before it was too late.

The attempt to develop gender balanced crews, while successful in some groups, never shook up the industry to the degree we hoped it would. It did, however, make night life infinitely more interesting if not ribald. I mean were talking young (almost exclusively 20-30 year old), high-powered, very fit bodies isolated in some remote forest with not a whole helluva lot to do after dark. Well.., you get the idea. It sure was a lot of fun but the ever-changing love liaisons and resulting power dynamics also had a nasty habit of screwing up our egalitarian group decision-making processes.

While we never created the broad systemic changes dreamed about, we did realize many small, localized changes. One of the funest and funniest was the invasion of small town, “cowboy” taverns. It is difficult to fathom how dramatic our impact could be in these sleepy towns. Try to imagine 20-30 scruffy, wild-eyed men and women barging into a backwoods bar like gangbusters. Often there would be an audible silence. Who or exactly what are these creatures? Frequently, some or all of us were kicked out before the night was over. Although most of us were heterosexual (perhaps 20% lesbian and 5% gay men) often we would freak out the locals with same-sex dancing. Despite the rough and tumble, “macho” character of the work and subculture, there was a lot of chummy, very direct physical affectation. The tiny towns we visited saw us like a circus. Few towns­folk had ever seen such a weird group or heard the strange, radical, and esoteric conversations we might spill.

2, 4-D Is SuchABeautiful Thing...

We often talked to locals and other treeplanters about a very curious problem. Perhaps for many it seemed anti-America. “Did ya know they’re droppin’ tons of poison up in them there hills. We’re talking known cancer causing chemicals. Yes, it’s likely they’re polluting your drinking water. . . Yes, these chemicals cause cancer, miscarriages, death. Yes, your friendly Forest Service or timber company is spraying this shit like a firehose on a burning house.”
Most herbicides were applied through aerial spraying from helicopters —just like in Vietnam. As I became more savvy to what was coming down, I learned the widespread use of these poisons sprang from the huge inventories leftover from the Vietnam war. Public-minded manu facturers like Dow Chemical were leaders in the efforts to pass reforestation legis lation with teeth. The most common applications were 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, both active carcinogens in Agent Orange. Be sides poisoning the worksite, aerial spraying also made ‘drift’ possible as mountain breezes carried the noxious material to surrounding environs including water sheds.

Thiram-coated tree seedlings were another hazard. This pesticide was supposed to repel animals such as deer that love eating tender new trees. Too bad it made lowly treeplanters sick. At least precious trees were protected. By the time I became a planter Thiram was no longer being used, mostly because of concerted agitation by collectives in the previous five years.

Another sordid reality of the back-to-nature reforestation biz was the transformation of forests into mono-species plantations. When gushing treeplanters told nie they loved working in a forestry collective because “you didn’t have to work for the man” I always retorted, “Yeah, but you’re still workin’ on the plantation.” What had often been a diverse mix of coniferous and deciduous trees was usually replanted in a grid of Douglas Fir or Pine clones. They were the most profitable since they grew quickly and were more lucrative as forest products.

The overall paradign that held all this together was what I called the “myth of sustained yield.’ Corporate interests successfully instilled an ideology inside the Forest Service that through their management forest lands could be harvested and reproduced in perpetuity—a sustainable, ongoing practice through the administration of scientific management. It was a nice theory. The problem was that the logging industry knew only one way: cut, cut, and cut. It the regeneration process couldn’t keep up then that was a technical problem. Genetic engineering, or some damn technique, could be developed to make those stupid trees catch up with the logging program.

Self-Management: A Double-Edged Dagger

Despite the integrity of our internal democracy we were still pitted against a monstrous economic combine that just wouldn’t quit. The reforestation business is the humane arm of a sprawling forest products industry which has nearly deva stated our nation’s woodlands. We were the good looking, visible front designed to make the slaughter okay; the mop-up crew who spruced up an otherwise stark scalping of a fragile, essential natural habitat. Most of our planting sites were 20-100 acres that had been clear-cut; in other words, every single tree had been mowed down.

Once all logs were removed from the clearcut, piles of slash were burned, and the ground was chemically dosed and torched. Since the application of hazardous toxics occured months before the planters arrived most contractors carefully kept it a secret from their workers. Collective crew were more fortunate; since they knew the risks they could choose not to work on such sites. Yet many crews did anyway, especially when the market was tight.

Despite our Herculean efforts, we were still victims of a global forestry machine over which we had no control. This is the decisive problem of self.management; as with all enterprises under capitalism, worker/owners tend to manage their own exploitation. ‘I’he overall nature of the work (or even if it should be done at all) was completely swamped by the day-to day bullshit of being a business. This takes on even more insidious mutations when you self-manage “good works” like restoring the earth, providing health care, or conserving energy. Here capitalist logic has bred an ideology that readily sacrifices the lowly worker before the altar of public good.

Before examining the treeplanting microcosm, it is useful to look at a inure widespread example such as the energy conservation programs of the ‘70s and early ‘80’s. There is no question that these retrofitting and weatherizing pro grains were a prudent public policy. Indeed, the U.S. has undergone a significant drop in energy onsuniption be cause of them and this is a healthy change. Little attention, however, was given to how or who carried out this work. Mostly, inner-city youth (primarily 18-25 year old Blacks and Hispanics) were paid mininturn wage to expose themselves to serious health hazards. Installing fiberglas insulation in ceilings 40 hours a week is something no one (except a robot) should ever do. Removing and being exposed to old asbestos particles is even worse. Such workplace hazards were subsumed in a national program to become energy independent, to save precious natural resources, and provide GOOD JOBS for the chronically unemployed. What a perfect marriage: saving the planet (or the nation, for the less liberal) and creating full enmployrnent all at the same time. No one ever mentioned the qualitative character of the jobs or that full employment might be an obsolete undesirable notion to base any social policy on. You can be sure, however, this twisted ideology will be increasingly proselytized as the west’s economy and/or ecology self-destruct.

Within reforestation, rarely was the treeplanting drone valued equally (much less above) the cherished tree seedling.

Most Forest Service inspectors rigidly adhered to a program intent on maximizing tree, as opposed to the planter's, life. For instance, the ideal weather conditions for planting trees was determined to be 38 degrees and raining—hardly ideal for humans. But to successfully compete in the market, we had to work 8-10 hours a day in the most wretched, wintry conditions.

Science was the alchemy inspectors looked to when confronted with the absurdity, if not downright cruelty, of many forestry practices. Scientific studies had proven herbicides increased tree growth. This business about miscarriages and worker disabilities, well, more research was needed. There was not yet any conclusive long-term studies.

Forest Service paranoia about tree survival reached preposterous heights. At higher elevations where the snowpack might not melt until April or May. The idea was to get the trees into the ground as soon as possible after the snow melted to insure the ground was still moist. True, occasionally a heat spell could bake the soil to a crisp but this slight possibility by no means justified the incredible workload oppression we endured. Contracts specified a limited number of days for completion and F.S. inspectors would crack the whip to meet this totally arbitrary schedule. . . or else you didn’t get paid.

One of the more bizarre instances of this senseless productivism occurred when the Mt. St. Helens volcano blew up. We were working about 40 miles northeast as the crow flies—or in this case as the ash falls. What a terrifying experience. We had no idea what exactly happened. Since I was the crew coordinator that day I noticed an incredibly dark cloud to the west and told everyone: “Better get your raingear, there is one helluva rain storm moving in and fast!” Stiff gusts started peppering the exposed hillside and — how strange! Instead of raindrops, large, black snow flakes floated down. Even stranger was how dark, truly pitch black it suddenly became. It was noon and darker than the darkest night; you couldn’t see 2 feet in front of you. As the ash piled up 2-3 inches deep, it became impossible to move without kicking up the bone dry, nearly weightless, irritating dust. These re-airborne particulates obscurbed the already microscopic visibility so much that headlights from our vehicles failed to illuminate the road.

Yet, despite this very tense, uncertain, and potentially catastrophic situation Forest Service honchos still wanted us to keep working. After all, the trees were ready, waiting a few days to evaluate the circumstances might endanger their health. We refused (workers with a regular contractor wouldn’t have had that choice) and later I learned some of the ash contained silica particles that cause silicosis, a fatal lung disease. It took us a year of legal proceedings to get paid since we stopped work without an F.S. sanctioned “stop work order.”

The whole St. Helens Fiasco, as we called it, also unraveled how easy collective democracy can elude groups. Previously, I’d never had problems with our directly democratic, self-managed process. But this disaster created a very dif ferent situation. Never have I seen so many good-intentioned, principled people act so stupidly. People were yelling and crying, running madly in all direc tions, jumping into trucks and crashing them (since they couldn’t see), withdrawing to their tents to await the inevitable. A half hour of pure chaos followed by a total breakdown of collective thinking and action. You have to realize it was pretty damn scary. We had no idea how long the ash would keep falling, if it would ever get light again, if that noxious dust would keep swirling up and choke off our oxygen supply. A sick, heavy sensation that this was the preview of the nuclear holocaust hung like a moldy blanket over everyone. With it came conflicting, very emotional opinions about what exactly was happening, what should he done, and how to do it.
Outside of such extreme circumstances, our collectivity was an important source of strength. In addition to empowering our personal and political life, the positive sitle of self-management is that we were much inure informed and able to fight stupid, unhealthy working conditions like planting in St. Helens ash. Perhaps the broadest expression of this was our opposition to the chemical spraying of tree seedlings and fbrestlands. It took several years of concerted research and activism to stop this insane practice. It never would have happened without “those damned treeplanting collectives” as one corporate chemical lobbyist put it. Eventually we helped develop two impor tant organizations through this battle: the National Coalition Against Pesticides and the Northwest Forest Workers Association.

A Bit Of Nostalgia...

Self-managed collectives certainly have their problems especially under the economnic and psychological pressures of global capitalism. I suspect some dynamics like sexual jealousies or uneven power relations based on differences in personal animation, intellectual, and social capacities would remain under even the most libertarian culture. But the over arching problem we faced was the crazy financial competition that pitted us against other enterprises and ourselves to always INCREASE PRODUCTION or perish. This was exacerbated in the ‘80s with the decline of the forest industry in general and reforestation in particu lar. The Reagan administration’s deregulation mania also had a wicked impact on reforestation. Since it was a money loser — even though rniniscule in comparison to the revenues acquired from logging — it was one of the first to get the axe in the Forest Service’s budget slashing. The industry’s decline was the kiss of death for the treeplanting collectives, as it was for all forestry businesses and workers in the Pacific Northwest.

I can’t say I miss slogging like a mud-shark up a steep slope on a frigid January day. but there are two things I really miss. Most important was our support for one another and the community of resistance to the dominant culture. The sharing of life and love including our alienated labor was so different from my present life in San Francisco. There are certainly more diverse, interesting people and activities here. But with modern urbanism comes a specialization I abhor. Most of my income-producing work is as an electrician by myself or with one or two others. The money is great, the work is easy to organize so I’m freed to do a lot of other more interesting activities. The problem is that my job takes me away from any group engagement in how to organize and change work. Instead of any widespread feeling that groups of people could collectively change their plight, the pervasive attitude even among many of my libertarian friends locally, is that the “work problem” requires an individual solution. If you are in a bad job then get your act together and place yourself in a better situation, the mainstay of careerist ideology.

Similarly, what to do with my wages is totally my decision. This is certainly easier and guarantees I use it the way I want. The problem is that it isolates you from what surely must happen if we are to ever change the capitalist Leviathan. Even in a utopia where money was eli minated, like Peter Berg’s Bioregional Councils (see “Dollars & Ecology”), worker or community groups, or even eco-councils, still have to decide how resources will be developed, distributed, and used. In the more probable future in which money remains, I certainly hope we can develop new forms of frnan cial collectivity beyond the nuclear family or state administration.

The other thing I yearn for is working outdoors on a daily basis. I’m very anti workerist — believe 90% of modern work could be eliminated and we would be better off for it—but I really loved the intense physical nature of treeplanting. This physicality was not just located in the body but in the immediate surroundings as well. The work and the fitness generated by it enhanced my sensitivities for the simple pleasures of breathing fresh mountain air or appreciating the delicate, intoxicating forest smells. I could never base my life just on that. Collective tree-planting was attractive precisely because such a simple nature-based life was integrated with inure complex intellectual, political, and artistic concerns.

One of the cruelest aspects of this modern processed world is our separation from that kind of experience. Except for the rich, we face an untenable and schizophrenic choice. We can either accept ecological impoverishment in the urban fray, where all the cultural and political action is, or escape to the countryside and become isolated in wholesome living. The need to change that social double-bind is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from treeplanting. Developing a new culture that coalesces ‘naturality” and human creation is essen tial. It begins with an ecology of mind, body politic, and earth.

—Med-O