Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ed Abbey and industrial man


"The world is older and bigger than we are. This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow."

—Ed Abbey

Some writers never seem to lose freshness, significance, clarity and humor in the face of the stale, sordid, muddled and sour events and people that are the subjects and sometime adversaries of their work. Ever since I read "Desert Solitaire" and "The Monkey Wrench Gang" and, a few years later, learning that one of my all-time favorite films, "Lonely Are the Brave," was based on one of his early novels, Ed Abbey and his work have reliably served me as reference, guide and compass for navigating life in the American West. Though he has been dead for more than 20 years, Abbey often comes to mind when contemplating and dealing with events, people and attitudes of today.

For example:

A comment on a recent column in which I noted the unsustainable human population growth on earth reads, "The earth was created for humans we were not created for the earth. And they are an asset not a liability on the planet."

Inconsistent use of pronouns and ignorance of grammar, punctuation and sentence structure are telling but certainly not unforgivable or uncommon. But the commenter failed to include his or her name, indicating an even more telling, marshmallow consistency of conviction about both the statement and the spirit required to stand behind it. I mean, real ideological men don't hide behind anonymity.

The comment brings to mind the famous Abbey quote "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." To continue in the spirit of Abbey, I agree with the anonymous commenter that there is abundant evidence to support the observation that "we" were not created for the earth. But the contention that "they" are an asset, not a liability, on the planet is nothing more, or less, than ideology.

The thinking behind the anonymous assertion is as thin as its attitude of entitlement and disdain is thick. It is the thinking of what Abbey termed "industrial man'" in "Desert Solitaire": "If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations, he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss."

Industrial man views the earth as a resource created just for him to turn into assets for himself at the expense of the earth and his own descendants. But the earth has other and larger accounts on its ledger—bigger, to stretch an oft-stretched metaphor, fish to fry than the assets of man. Industrial man has enormous power and is trashing the environment of earth and pretending that he doesn't know that it both matters and has consequences, all the while hiding behind anonymity, flabby ideologies and Ponzi scheme assets.

Earth does not communicate in English or any other human language, but its natural voice, which anyone with healthy eyes, ears, nose, skin and brain can hear, and, more important, feel, is not proclaiming humans as one of its assets. Some humans and the corporations around which some of us ("them") organize ourselves consider things like dammed rivers, open-pit mines, oil refineries, confined animal feeding operations, clear-cut forests, fish farms, air pollution, the Great Pacific garbage patch, the over-grazed public range lands of Western America, desertification, ozone depletion, species extinction, the retreat of glaciers and innumerable other environmental disasters as line items in industrial man's ledger.

If the earth was created for humans, then industrial man is the natural and logical result of evolution, the rivers of earth be dammed, so to speak. But the earth was not created for humans and those who think it was do not believe in evolution, a satire Abbey appreciated, explored and creatively evolved in his work.

The recent "Meatless Monday" movement instigated by the Johns Center for a Livable Future brings Abbey to mind. The Meatless Monday movement proclaims, "Going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel."

Abbey, who detested the environmental devastation caused by industrial welfare ranching on the public lands of western America, said in a talk on free speech to a group of Montana students and ranchers, "Is a cowboy's work socially useful? No. As I've already pointed out, subsidized Western range beef is a trivial item in the national beef economy. If all of our 31,000 Western public-land ranchers quit tomorrow, we'd never even notice. Any public school teacher does harder work, more difficult work, more dangerous work and far more valuable work than the cowboy or the rancher. The same applies to the registered nurses and nurses' aides, garbage workers and traffic cops. Harder work, tougher work, more necessary work. We need those people in our complicated society. We do not need cowboys or ranchers. We've carried them on our backs long enough."

Any effort to get any of the chronic preventable diseases off our backs, reduce our carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel is, I think, worth making by industrial man, monkey wrenchers, Ponzi schemers, journalists, congressmen and anyone else still capable of feeling. I think Abbey would have agreed in his cantankerous, humorous way. Don't you?

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