The Natural Alien explores some of the underlying issues with the environmental movement and attempts to show a path to further success. Evernden's primary thesis is that the dominant cultural paradigm does not allow for the subjectivity of the non-human world, and that this cultural attitude is the true root of the destruction visited upon non-humans and the landscape. Evernden notes that without addressing this fundamental schism with nature (that has, in fact, allowed the creation of a term like “nature”) environmentalists will largely continue with a moderate reformist agenda that tidies up the edges of the cultural death machine.

            In fact, Evernden argues that the use of a term like “environmentalism” serves to pigeonhole those who are concerned with the path of the culture. He argues that we should spurn the term and all of its derivatives, and instead ask ourselves what is fundamentally important to us.

            “In talking about the mountain the environmentalist seems to be defending the physical entity. But implicitly and emotionally he or she protests the categorization of 'mountain' – protests the isolation of portions of the world as things to defend or consume.” (p. 142)

            Like Aldo Leopold with his Land Ethic, Evernden speculates that we must foster in ourselves a similar sense of place to that which is seen in territorial animals: an extension of the self to include the land and all of it's inhabitants. Thus begins the author's critique of the scientific worldview dominating the cultural space. We are taught from birth, he argues, to distrust our lived experience in favor of the opinions of experts. While accepting and lauding the values of an 'objective' look at things (for one cannot discount the achievements of science), Evernden argues that our experience is infinitely more real and is fundamental to gaining relationship with the land once again.

            “...the objective body exists only conceptually. This seems illogical, since we regard what is objective as being real. But of course it is the phenomenal that we experience, that we live through, and  the wonder is that we could ever regard it as unimportant.” (p. 47)

            This viewpoint is advanced through the work of phenomenologists and members of the Romantic movement. The phenomenologists are a group of philosophers including Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, who argue for a “return to the things themselves.” They argue that there is no sense in beginning with objective truth – for truth cannot exist without experience. This worldview may be thought of as a kind of deliberate naivete, through which the world is simply experienced. The goal of the phenomengologist is to sweep aside cultural and personal assumptions and simply see things as they are. Because of this, the language of Phenomenology seems poetic in comparison with the language of other philosophers. But their essential claim – a return to subjectivity – has profound resonance with contemporary deep ecology and parts of the Romantic Movement.

            The Romantic movement (often called the anti-Enlightenment) was an artistic and cultural reaction to the scientific rationalization of nature  that was sweeping across Europe in the latter 1700's. The Romantic thinkers, like the Phenomenologists, argued for the primacy of lived experience and saw danger in the new scientific focus on objectivity. What Heidegger calls 'radical astonishment' can be found more explicitly in certain romantic poets than anywhere else:

            “Hast thou ever raised thy mind to the consideration of EXISTENCE, in and by itself, as the mere act of existing? Hast thou ever said to thyself thoughtfully, IT IS! Heedless in that moment wheter it were a man before thee, or a flower, or a grain of sand?” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on p. 71)

            If we accept subjectivity as a fundamental position from which to approach the world, what do we see? Of course, each of us has had unique experiences with this mode of being, experiences that are not often articulated but are more acceptable in the “environmentalist” context than in most any other. Indeed, returning subjectivity is central to phenomenology and to environmentalism. Evernden writes:

            “To say that one is animal-like is to say that he is thing-like, a mere object, or that he behaves like a machine, with no awareness of initiative. Of course, it is equally as insulting to the animal. One of the simplest ways of defending the notion of absolute distinctions between human and non-human life is to encourage total ignorance of animals [and plants, fungi, and all other creatures for that matter] – a practice religiously followed by many humanists.” (p. 77)

            What is it in our cultural or biological makeup that has allowed humans to enter the destructive space that we now occupy? This is the question that drives the rest of the book, and which Evernden does not claim to answer. However, he gives some analogies that allow for a more thorough, if not complete, understanding of the problem.

            Evernden presents an exploration of the visual. He documents a scientific and cultural emphasis on the seen: Galileo once expressed his wish for a monocular, black and white viewing device as the most objective scientific instrument. Indeed, there is a cross-cultural and cross-species taboo on direct stares – Evernden argues that this is because the stare is inherently objectifying. He has us consider Barry Lopez's work, Of Wolves and Men. Lopez observed wolves hunting, and noted that wolves often disregarded vulnerable animals, or called off a hunt after exchanging a long stare with a Caribou.

            The author argues that this “conversation of death” is a struggle – the wolf striving to objectivity it's prey in order to facilitate the hunt, and the prey struggling to assert it's subject-hood. This struggle is inherent in the animal world around us, but humans seem to have a unique ability, both individually but especially culturally, to remain in that objective space that the wolf, and other animals, can or choose to only inhabit for a time.

               Evernden has no answers for this – only more analogies or lenses through which to illustrate the problem. However, his final message is clear – humans are a sort of Natural Alien, a niche-less creature,  at home nowhere and everywhere. This is perhaps the point of my strongest disagreement with Evernden. More than 99.5% of our heritage as Homo was spent living close to the land, perhaps using objectivity for the hunt as the wolves do. Indeed, it is our culture that is the aberration, and Evernden's writing will, hopefully, help us to find our way out of this maze.
The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment By Neil Evernden. University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Reviewed by Max Wilbert
Max Wilbert is on the Board of Directors of Fertile Ground and is a graduate of Huxley College of the Environment. He has worked against police brutality, militarism, and environmental destruction for nearly a decade. In June 2010 he traveled to the Russian Arctic with a team of scientists studying climate change.

If the environmental movement (and the broader movement for justice) is going to be successful, we are going to need to learn what we can from the struggles of our ancestors. In the first part of this series, I claimed that the environmental justice movement, to this point, has failed. A large part of that is due to the fact that we are largely ignorant of the history of social struggles. This is not an accident. It has been said that a long memory is the biggest threat to the powerful.

Let us begin by journeying back, as far back as we can remember and further still. If one looks at the sweep of history and prehistory, we see - through oral traditions, written histories, and the sciences – a vast variety of human cultures. Some destroyed their landbases, and some did not.

So we can ask: what is the defining characteristic of societies that destroyed their landbase?

There is one overwhelming distinction. When people transitioned to agriculture(monocropping fields), it required land clearance. The arrival of agricultural societies, which arose independently in several areas between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, corresponds overwhelmingly with skyrocketing rates of erosion, deforestation, and habitat loss.

As these societies became more and more reliant on a few species, they became more vulnerable to crop failure and famine. The reaction was to store grain, and this surplus food led to huge population growth. As these societies expanded around the world, they left behind lowered water tables, saline fields, the ruins of grasslands, and vast clearcuts – most of the old forests of South Asia and Europe were cleared before the industrial age, and there is some convincing scientific evidence that climate change began with the spread of agriculture (not with the advent of industrialism, as is widely believed).

Agricultural societies that are organized around cities are called civilizations. As the industrial age has been the era of burning fossil fuels, the age of civilization has been the era of burning through fossil soil. Peak soil passed in the 1980’s – until then, the area of land under cultivation had been growing for 10,000 years. Now it has begun to decline.

Civilization is nearly always accompanied by hierarchical power structures, large militaries, complex social and religious institutions, and widespread slavery maintained by violence or threat of violence. All of these serve to maintain the status quo.

In the modern world, there are more slaves than existed at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The gap between the richest and the poorest is astronomical. The United States spends more than 50% of its discretionary budget on the military and maintains over 1000 military bases worldwide. The average American sees about 3000 advertisements per day. We are the most propagandized society in human history.

Needless to say, there are very few examples of people willingly transitioning from hunter-gather, horticultural, or pastoral ways of life to civilization. There are thousands of examples of people leaving civilization for the greater quality of life found in more egalitarian, land-based cultures.

The facts are clear: civilization is killing the planet, and the Industrial Revolution only served to speed up the process. Industrial civilization has spread across the entire planet – now instead of a local collapse, we are facing a global collapse of the community of life. Biodiversity is plummeting. Original forests are nearly all gone. 99% of wolves are gone. Lion populations are down 95%.

In order to return to a way of life based on sustainability and justice, we must dismantle industrial civilization and return to more inherently egalitarian land-based ways of life. This is why Fertile Ground is part of the anti-civilization movement. We have no illusions that this will be an easy or fast transition. That is why we are working to build a multi-generational grassroots movement that will engage civilization on many levels.

Part of this movement is people working to relocalize food systems, water supplies, housing, clothing, and government. Part of it is people working through the legal system, through protest and civil disobedience, and through community organizing, to reclaim the law. And part of it is those people who are engaging in more militant direct action, or other underground action to actively disable and dismantle the infrastructure of fossil fuels and other destructive activities.

We have a rich historical record of thousands of different movements that have arisen to confront injustices ranging from colonization to sex discrimination, occupation, unjust laws, tyrannies, slavery, and everything in between. This is a treasure trove of lessons regarding political strategy, tactical planning, and revolutionary character. Unfortunately, those lessons are not being taught in schools. We have to find them ourselves.

From the resistance to Apartheid, we can learn about the effectiveness of international solidarity actions, and of boycotts and industrial sabotage. From the suffrage movement, we can learn about the importance of intergenerational struggle. From resistance to Nazi occupation in Europe, we can learn about when nonviolent resistance fails. From the Xhosa people, we can learn of the danger in solely relying on religious or spiritual salvation. From the struggle for Indian independence, we can learn the importance of a diversity of tactics. From the American Indian Movement and The Black Panthers, we can learn a healthy hatred and fear of government repression.

I urge anyone who cares about justice to study these struggles, analyze the current political situation, and come to their own conclusions about the path they must take with the gifts they have been given.

This is Part 2 in a series. The third and final article will explain the vision of Fertile Ground.

More Information

1.      For a more comprehensive discussion of Civilization, including suggested reading, see What is Civilization? Aric McBay.

Max Wilbert is on the Board of Directors of Fertile Ground and is a graduate of Huxley College of the Environment. He has worked against police brutality, militarism, and environmental destruction for nearly a decade. In June 2010 he traveled to the Russian Arctic with a team of scientists studying climate change.

Despite over 50 years of work by a growing pool of talented, dedicated, and intelligent people, nearly every indicator of ecological health is in decline. Why is that?

That is the question that local non-profit Fertile Ground is working to answer. And we know at least part of it – the environmental movement has not matched the scale or the power of the forces liquidating the natural world. Quite simply, we have been outcompeted. That is why we at Fertile Ground are working to build an oppositional culture; a core community that recognizes the linked oppressions of humans and the natural world and works to dismantle them. Before that work can be done, we need to understand what it is that we are fighting, and why we are losing.

It’s honestly not surprising that we are losing at this point. After all, transnational corporations have assets greater than all activists combined. The largest 5 oil companies alone earned more than $1 trillion from 2000-2010.1 We can’t compete with that kind of wealth at the political level. That money buys infrastructure, it buys favors, politicians, lobbyists; it buys power. Liberals and conservatives alike have consistently worked to grow the economy and facilitate resource extraction, at the price of our health, our communities, and the planet.

This is not an accident, nor is it a modern problem. After all, the United States was founded as a business enterprise – a vast colonial project to exploit a new continent. Contrary to common belief, the project isn’t over. In Utah, a new oil project mimics the Alberta Tar Sands. In Appalachia, mountains are reduced to rubble for coal, which is burned to produce electricity.

These projects (and many thousands more) feed into the globalized, industrialized economy that has been growing exponentially for the last 160 years. That growth has eaten through nearly every ecosystem on the planet. The Black Sea is dead. The great cod swarms of the Grand Banks are gone. The Great Plains are now the great cornfields. The sixth great extinction event has begun; over 22,000 species disappear every year, a rate between 100 and 1000 times greater than the preindustrial level2. The Bison are gone. The passenger pigeons are gone. The old-growth forests are gone.

Obviously the severity of industrial impact is massive and widespread, but there is one issue that drives them all: fossil fuels. They are the engine of global economic growth and of global warming. Without fossil fuels, industrial logging cannot continue. Industrial fishing stops dead. Industrial agriculture collapses. Without fossil fuels, the healing of the earth can begin; many activists consider this the central struggle of environmentalism in the 21st century.

Our region plays an important role in the global fossil fuels market. Besides the 3 nearby oil refineries (2 in Anacortes, 1 at Cherry Point), Bellingham hosts a natural gas power plant which sends power to Seattle, and trains which carry coal from the interior to Canada for international distribution. Two pipelines pass beneath Bellingham, one carrying crude oil from the Tar Sands to the refineries, another carrying natural gas (which, according to a recent study, may release more greenhouse gasses than coal3).

The latest plan calls for a new shipping port at Cherry Point that would ship large quantities of coal and other goods to China. The names have changed – SSA Marine is the latest local incarnation of the global resource-extraction machinery. But the story is the same. In Appalachia, it’s Massey Energy driving human exploitation and ecological collapse. In Canada, it’s Suncorp and Tesora, BP and Transmountain. In Nigeria it’s Shell Oil. In Papua New Guinea, it’s Freeport McMoran. In Afghanistan, it’s JP Morgan and Unocal.

It’s not surprising that most of the solutions that are presented to us are not sufficient to do this. After all, cheap and abundant energy is the foundation of our entire culture. The West enjoys excesses that have never been seen in the history of our species. The structure of our societies necessitates this glut.

Alternative technologies cannot replace easily transportable fossil fuels by nature; they require mining, smelting, refining. Most the of the rare earth minerals required for wind, solar, and battery technologies are mined in Mongolia and western China by near-slaves. Lakes of toxic waste mark the production sites4. And beyond that, these technologies do nothing to address global power imbalances. The US military is spending a great deal of time and money researching alternative energy technologies for the armed forces; tactically, it’s a smart move. But as always, the technology ends up benefitting the powerful while further degrading the natural world and abusing the poor.

Before we can move forward as a movement for ecological and social justice, we have to recognize that global power structures are not going to change willingly. They are not driven by truth or ethics, but by profit. The exploitation is not an accident; it’s a deliberate system to maintain and expand power. No amount of education will stop sociopathological behavior; only some sort of force will do so. This is a fact that many social movements have come to understand. The words of the famous Frederick Douglass immortalize the lesson: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

Unfortunately, the environmental movement still seems focused on “petitioning the king.” This is not an effective political strategy – they hold all the cards in this scenario. It is time to get back to our roots. We need to examine historical struggles for justice to find out what worked for them, and what did not.

This is Part 1 in a series. Part 2 will examine previous social movements – “the roots”. Part 3 will explain the vision of Fertile Ground.

More Information

1.      Markey Report: Big Five Oil Companies Approach $1 Trillion in Profits.House Committee on Natural Resources. Feb. 3 2011.

2.      Extinction. Center for Biological Diversity.

3.      Natural Gas from Shale Contributes to Global Warming. ScienceDaily, 4/13/2011.

4.      In China, the true cost of Britain's clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale. By Simon Parry and Ed Douglas. The Daily Mail, 1/29/2011.