The Dawn of Subversive Being


Welcome to a new project.

It starts with a question:  what insights of vital interest to anti-authoritarians could possibly be offered by the study of ecology, particularly by human ecologist Paul Shepard and his ilk?  Most radicals, anarchists and communists would be at a loss to answer.  The relevance of an academic pursuit like ecology to the liberatory projects of social antagonists– their insurrections as well as their capitulations, their attempts at communization and their individual revolts– seems at best immaterial, obscure, or anachronistic, conjuring nostalgia for a quaint and failed countercultural attempt at social transformation whose wave broke decades ago and that left us ultimately high and dry.  At worst, ecology has become the whip that lashes the backs of the masses and a narcotic sop to our powerlessness in the face of environmental devastation, social evisceration, and individual malaise.  Admonition follows admonition.  But recycling, riding bikes, and taking nature walks have, of course, all failed in a pursuit for which they were never intended:  the sweeping away of a lifeway based on capital accumulation and state power, with their basis in patriarchal civilization, and their concomitant constraints on our experience, managed as it is by bio-power.

Paul Shepard described the infertile ground that ecologists found for their ideas in society at large, and in so doing, he inadvertently alluded to the basis of ecology’s recuperative tendency when considered by radicals, a complaint about ecology common to this society and its would-be enemies, and not without reason.  He wrote:

Natural dependence and contingency suggest togetherness and emotional surrender to mass behavior and other lowest common denominators.  The environmentalists matching culture and geography provoke outrage for their oversimple theories of cause and effect, against the sciences that sponsor them and even against a natural world in which the theories may or may not be true.  Our historical disappointment in the nature of nature has created a cold climate for ecologists, who assert once again that we are limited and obligated. (1)

But this is not the whole story.  This isn’t the story at all.

As you may have guessed, Shepard didn’t stop there.  He offered an alternate view of these “limits” long before Earth Day and all the other trappings of mainstream environmentalism would become the familiar hallmarks of green capitalism, hedging us in.  In the introduction to Traces of an Omnivore, Jack Turner writes, “To understand how radical Shepard is, consider this:  the major environmental organizations could achieve all their goals and still not heal the pathology Shepard believes is destroying the Earth.” (2)  He goes on to basically attribute the lion’s share of ecology’s subversive potential in the world to the influence of Paul Shepard, an assessment with which we agree and which we hope to further with this project.

But Shepard’s alternative is no mere intensification of the imperative for limits and obligations.  His radicalism is different in kind, not merely degree, than that of his contemporaries.  In an early essay, a starting point in a journey of a thousand steps, Shepard wrote:

Ecological thinking… requires a kind of vision across boundaries.  The epidermis of the skin is ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration.  It reveals the self ennobled and extended rather than threatened as part of the landscape and the ecosystem, because the beauty and complexity of nature are continuous with ourselves. (3)

And later concludes:

If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own– or rather, our own as a part of it.  To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things.  Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body. (4)

Our primary contention is that insights like these did more than just form the spearhead for “deep” ecology, the more radical branch of the discipline that ultimately, largely succumbs to the same recuperative tendencies of its shallow sister.  Despite this failing Shepard’s human ecology, in a way inadvertently, helped spawn and nourish a maverick agent, the dark horse of all modern inquiry, the bastard love child of ecology and anarchy not fully accepted in either house.  Shepard’s work itself may ultimately fail us in ways that even he would have lamented, but it contains the seeds of this, the only substantial or meaningful kind of anti-authoritarianism left to us now.  And it illuminates the pre-historic and ahistorical bases for it:  a nameless gestalt of which we are a part, and which we euphemistically call wildness.

Some of the main purposes of this blog are to hunt out and excavate the ignored parts of ecological theory which are most vital to the anti-authoritarian discourse, to overflow the boundaries of its academic origins in order to spell out the only truly subversive implications of ecological thinking, and its only potential to be made a force for liberation in the world.   This is a preface to the emerging anti-authoritianism of our moment, and a whisper of the shapes of anarchy to come.

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