All the Pretty Horses Must Die

    (Originally published at the Daily Beast)

    On the day I visited the wild horses of Onaqui, in northern Utah near the Nevada border, the night had been very cold, but when the sun hit noon and bathed the desert, they were relaxed enough to play. A bachelor male masturbated by slapping his penis against his belly, and two other males saw this and joined in. A black stallion rose up on hind legs and mounted a cream mare, one of the ladies in his band, who turned to snap at him when he was done. Elsewhere, the males not pleasuring themselves grunted and squealed and whinnied and jerked, vying for status. A paint stud fought with a rival roan, kicking the roan in the face with a thudding blow, drawing a trickle of blood.

    The band stallions, with ears back and heads low, chased off the itinerant males who dared approach their harems. The stallions, covetous, herded the mares away, moving them in brief coursing waves of horseflesh across the steppe, and when the scheming males were scattered and the stallions had calmed down, the mares rolled in the grass and the dust. Everywhere there was sparring and fighting, neighing and whinnying and sex and rolling, followed by brief naps, and the day was windless, balmy for November, without a cloud.

    This was a herd with room to move and enough grass to eat and water to drink. That it was being treated with a degree of respect was due in no small part to the work of Gus Warr, a wild horse specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior, which oversees horses that range on the public lands. Warr had implemented an experimental fertility control program in the Onaqui herd, because otherwise the animals, without predators to control their numbers, would overpopulate and wreck the ecosystems of the Utah desert.

    The program involved darting the animals with a contraceptive called PZP. At Onaqui, I watched Warr’s employees dart mares using air-powered blow guns. The mares jumped as if stung by a bee, the dart fell out, the shooter went to retrieve it. That was the extent of the program. It cost about $24 a dose, and the typical mare, otherwise going about her business—PZP is non-hormonal, an immunocontraceptive, and does not affect behavior—wouldn’t be able to conceive for a year. Since the program began in 2015, the Onaqui population had stabilized.

    In Nevada, Warr’s colleagues at BLM had dismissed fertility control as a political and practical impossibility and taken a brutish approach to wild horses. The animals, once they had expanded to an unacceptable number in their selected “herd management areas,” were periodically rounded-up, forced into tractor trailers, and trucked across the desert to holding facilities from which they would likely never leave.

    I watched a series of videos of round-ups in Nevada taken by a horse advocate named Laura Leigh, who runs a nonprofit in Reno called Wild Horse Education. The animals were chased by helicopters, forced into corrals, sorted. One horse was smashed in the ass with the skids of the helicopter. Another, panicked by the relentless pursuit, crashed into a barbed wire fence. A foal was chased until its hooves fell off (it later died). The wranglers hired by the BLM kicked the corralled horses with their boots and shocked them with electric prods.

    Leigh was so moved by the sight of that foal that had lost its hooves that she did something which, for her at the time, was out of character. In 2010, she filed a lawsuit in federal court to protest the violence and demand its end. When she saw her name on the final draft of the complaint, she vomited. Her father had been a cop, her grandfather had been a soldier in two wars. Her family, conservative, law-and-order types, weren’t the kind of people who litigate against the U.S. government. She spent five years on that case, and in 2015 she won. The BLM was now required for the first time—on paper at least—to adopt humane handling policies in its round-ups.

    It was Leigh who had invited me to Onaqui. “Healthy behavior, just beautiful,” she said as we stood amid the herd. “Happy and free. Fucking and fighting.” Leigh is 49, but looks younger. She has long flaming-red hair and a habit of talking fast, lapsing into a New Jersey accent, a jarring accent in the American West.

    Her quick mind probably had something to do with her success in court. Since founding Wild Horse Education in 2011, she had filed more than a dozen successful lawsuits against the Department of the Interior and the state of Nevada over wild horse policies, including a landmark First Amendment case that forced the federal government to open wild horse round-ups to press access. A federal judge in 2013 declared her “the most knowledgeable journalist on wild horses in the world.” In a single year, she logged 112,000 miles on her truck crisscrossing western states to document round-ups. The Nevada Historical Society was so impressed they asked to paint her portrait, which was hung in 2016 in the society’s museum in Reno.

    Leigh admitted it was a kind of therapy to be with a herd that wasn’t persecuted. She had been through a lot in her life. She had spent her teens in a New Jersey ghetto, among gangs and bloodshed, the Irish and Italians at each other’s throats. When she was 26, her husband shot her in the stomach. There was a second marriage from which she escaped homeless and broke. There were two children she raised alone. For a while she was a professional body-builder. She cage-danced at discos. She appeared in Penthouse and Muscle, modeled shoes for Donna Karan, posed for a Marvel Comics artist as the musculature of Red Sonja. There was a car accident at 34 that left her, for several seconds, clinically dead. And then breast cancer a few years later, after she moved to Nevada. She thought it ironic to be stricken in Nevada, the place that with its horses had drawn her out of the mess of life back East.

    When I first contacted her in 2015, she had undergone the last of eight surgeries. For a while her breast had been like a bowling ball, and she had been taking her chemo treatments while camping in the back of a pick-up truck. When I met her at Onaqui in 2016, she was cancer-free for the first time in a long time. “It’s been the best year of my life,” she said. “I’m alive and I’m with the horses.”

    The next day we drove to Nevada, which has the largest number of wild horses of any state—about 70 percent of the U.S. total—and which is now at the forefront of plans for a mass horse slaughter under Donald Trump.

    Read the rest at the Daily Beast…

    Confessions of a liberal gun nut

    by Christopher Ketcham (this piece originally appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine)

    Gun nuts aren’t always creatures of the political right. Consider your heavily-armed author’s position: I say gun ownership is a necessary line of defense against investment bankers, Wall Street lawyers, big business, the corporatized wing of the Democratic Party, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, ALEC, Nazis, gangbangers, meth fiends, cops and politicos who cut welfare and education programs while refusing to downsize the military or raise taxes on the rich. When I was living in New York City, I voted for Bill de Blasio. I was briefly a believer in Obama’s hope-change lines. I want single-payer healthcare and free public higher education and a carbon tax and the end of the warfare-surveillance-killer drone state – and I want the Second Amendment protected.

    I like my guns. I like the Colt Trooper .357 Magnum, and the FN .40, and the Lee-Enfield .303, and the Remington 12 gauge, and the Ruger Mini-14 with 30-shot clip and the Smith & Wesson Model 39 – this last a gift from my father, a New Yorker and, like me, a liberal who is several planets to the left of President Obama. My dad is a member of the NRA, god help him. He shrugs and by way of excuse says he enjoys the group’s monthly magazine, American Rifleman.

    The tribe of liberal gun nuts I’ve gotten to know over the years includes writers, activists, musicians, schoolteachers, professors, rock-climbers, wilderness guides, environmentalist lawyers and at least one shaman. If I’d venture to pin down the unifying ideological bent of these folks, I’d say it’s anti-statist socialism – communitarian, decentralist, anarchist. Kiley Miller, a pal who lives in Moab, Utah, and who runs an eco-friendly house cleaning service, keeps guns because “the thought of only the government, police, sheriffs, and military having guns gives me the chills.” This is a woman who describes herself as “a radical environmentalist about as far left as one can be” and who busts my balls whenever I miss the daily dose of Democracy Now. Another armed liberal living in Moab, Matt Gross, a friend of mine and of Kiley’s, was the man behind Howard Dean’s web campaign – as director of online communications he web-fundraised what was then the unprecedented sum of $25 million – and went on to work as chief online strategist for Democrats in two major senatorial campaigns and as John Edwards’ senior web adviser during his 2008 run for the White House. “The right doesn’t own the flag, guns or the Constitution,” Gross writes me in an email. “You can be a progressive champion and still know how to handle a Glock. I support the HRC” – that’s the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for LGBT equal rights – “but it doesn’t mean I’m unarmed.”

    My bud Brian Ertz, an environmental activist who is studying for a law degree in Boise, Idaho, tells me that primarily he uses his guns to hunt – for meat – and also carries them for protection. “I know the belligerence of the powerful State and have just reason not to lend the government my trust when it comes to protecting my family from others and from the State itself,” Ertz says. “I understand that exercise of the Second Amendment is effective. You don’t need to overthrow the government to send a signal that strikes fear into the pants of those seated in power. The political elite of this country didn’t take Martin Luther King Jr. seriously until Malcolm X showed up with a gun and the idea that members of an oppressed class needn’t ask the establishment for permission.”

    Colorado-based cartoonist and writer Travis Kelly, explains his position about liberal gun nuttery on his website. “I’m sure the whole sordid, shocking saga of the Bush administration spurred many more liberals to reevaluate the Second Amendment and the enduring wisdom of the Founding Fathers,” he writes. “That’s when I started buying guns. Tyranny can be left or right handed, and a case could be made that it’s ambidextrous now.” The clincher for Travis, however, was a tale of personal self-defense related by a female friend, who years ago was kidnapped and nearly raped along a lonely stretch of Texas highway. Luckily she had a pistol in her pocket, a .38 revolver, and with it shot her attacker in the stomach as he was unbuckling his pants. “And the lesson is: the police cannot be everywhere all the time, they are not omnipotent, and we don’t want them to be,” writes Travis. “There are times when the individual must be responsible for his or her own self-defense . . . Guns are the great equalizers, against larger predators, or the political tyranny so feared by the fundamentalist gun crowd.” (Note that some on the far left and far right meet in their contempt and loathing for centralized power – a sign of hope.)

    Ah, but I hear the objections of the gun control lobby. Criminologists Don Kates and Gary Mauser, writing in a much discussed article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy in 2007, dissected the claims of anti-gun advocates: that, for example, a “gun in the closet to protect against burglars will most likely be used to shoot a spouse in a moment of rage”; that “most gun-related homicides [are] the result of impulsive actions taken by individuals who have little or no criminal backgroundor who are known to the victims”; that the majority of gun homicides are not the result of criminal activity “but because of arguments between people who know each other”; that each year thousands of gun murders are committed “by law-abiding citizens who might have stayed law-abiding if they had not possessed firearms.” These assertions, according to Kates and Mauser, “appear to rest on no evidence and actually contradict facts that have so uniformly been established by homicide studies dating back to the 1890s that they have become ‘criminological axioms.'”

    More guns, it seems, does not mean more murder. During the 25-year period from 1973 to 1997, Kates and Mauser found the following:

    The number of handguns owned by Americans increased 160% while the number of all firearms rose 103%. Yet over that period, the murder rate declined 27.7%. It continued to decline in the years 1998, 1999, and 2000, despite the addition in each year of two to three million handguns and approximately five million firearms of all kinds. By the end of 2000, the total American gunstock stood at well over 260 million — 951.1 guns for every 1,000 Americans — but the murder rate had returned to the comparatively low level prior to the increases of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s period. In sum, the data for the decades since the end of World War II . . . fails to bear out the more guns equal more death mantra . . . The evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that gun possession levels have little impact on violence rates.

    But perhaps we shouldn’t trust the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, a right-wing outfit that has over the years celebrated the scholarship of vicious bastards like Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist and John Yoo. Consider instead the conclusions of epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall, writing in The American Journal of Epidemiology. Centerwall compared criminal homicide rates in adjoining states in the U.S. and Canada during the 1970s, looking at handgun ownership as a factor. Canadians had a handgun ownership rate roughly one-tenth that of the United States, yet there was no difference in homicide rates.

    Or consider also the work of criminologist and psychologist Hans Toch, a professor emeritus at the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany, who found that in England there in fact may exist a negative correlation between guns and violent crime. Toch, as it happens, was one of the earliest proponents of gun control when he advised the 1969 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, popularly known as the Eisenhower Commission, which advocated mass confiscation of handguns. Writing in 1991, Toch, claimed that, “rates of male firearms ownership tend to be inversely correlated with violent crime rates, a curious fact if firearms stimulate aggression. It is hard to explain that where firearms are most dense, violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest.” Toch suggests that, “when used for protection firearms can seriously inhibit aggression and can provide a psychological buffer against the fear of crime. Furthermore, the fact that national patterns show little violent crime where guns are most dense implies that guns do not elicit aggression in any meaningful way.”

    As Kates and Mauser pointed out, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in a 2004 study found “no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws” – which had then been passed in 34 states – “either decrease or increase violent crime.” The NAS study did find that current research showed “associations between gun availability and suicide with guns,” but the research, which has its share of gun-control skeptics, had failed to show “whether such associations reveal genuine patterns of cause and effect.” The report’s main message: “data on firearms and violent crime are too weak to support strong conclusions about the effects of various measures to prevent and control gun violence.”

    I’ve had guns in my household for a dozen years and no one I love has been killed, nor has anyone I don’t love. My wife and I have enjoyed many awful fights and we haven’t shot each other. I get into the obvious arguments with leftist friends in New York City who are aghast that I own guns and think I’m a weirdo. When I hike into wilderness I carry the .40 pistol or the .357 Magnum, a smart answer to grizzly bears. When I travel around the American West on assignment, I keep a handgun in my car. On happy nights of writing I like to take a break, walk out in the backyard and squeeze off a dozen or so rounds with the Mini-14 — and don’t you dare try and stop me.

    How Obamacare fails my family

    My latest re the nightmare of Obamacare:

    A Biocentrist History of the American West

    (Originally published at Harper’s, as a companion to my investigation of the USDA’s Wildlife Services)

    When in the late nineteenth century millions of cattle and sheep invaded the ecosystems of the American West, it produced, as historian Donald Worster writes, “the explosive, shattering effect of all-out war.” Native plants were trampled beneath hooves and replaced with forage preferred by stockmen, grasslands were denuded and desertified, soil eroded and blown on the wind, rivers and streams were diverted, dewatered, and polluted by a cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, and cattle feces. The communities of fish, reptiles, insects, and birds that depended on healthy riparian environments spiraled into chaos with the coming of the alien ungulates. Wolves, bears, and other so-called predators were trapped, gunned down, and poisoned to protect livestock. For the past century, says Worster, mainstream historians have ignored this war on wildlife. “[M]uch effort has gone into calculating the collapse of the native human populations under the European invasion,” he writes in his collection of essays, Under Western Skies, “but almost none into the precipitous decline of the many nations of wild animals.” A biocentrist tragic history of the West has yet to be written.

    We are blessed, however, with the existence of a U.S. government agency that happens to have documented at least some of the destruction—because it was responsible for it. In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, I investigate Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture that is notorious among activists but largely unknown to the public that has financed its operations for more than a century. In the West, where much of its lethal work has been conducted, the agency mostly serves the interests of cattle and sheep ranchers. Former Wildlife Services trapper Carter Niemeyer, in his 2012 memoir Wolfer, goes so far as to assert that many of its employees have acted as “the hired guns of the livestock industry.”

    Since 1915, when Congress first funded federal trappers specifically for the purpose of eliminating wildlife that posed a threat to livestock, Wildlife Services has been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of animals. It has killed coyotes, wolves, foxes, black bears, grizzly bears, cougars, bobcats, and wolverines. It has killed animals deemed “pests” by stockmen: beavers, prairie dogs, minks, martens, muskrats, badgers, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, opossums, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, and weasels. It has killed eagles, crows, ravens and magpies. Between 2000 and 2014 alone, two million native mammals fell before Wildlife Services, including twelve taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

    The agency has always taken its direction from Western stockmen. When bison, elk, and deer were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century, the wolves and the cougars and the bears looked to cattle and sheep for food, as their natural supply dwindled. The cattlemen and sheepmen in turn placed bounties on the predators, but the bounties failed to solve the problem. By 1900, the stockmen’s associations were lobbying federal authorities to complete the job they could not. With the founding of the Forest Service in 1905 under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, federal authorities bowed to the demands of what Pinchot described as “the best-organized interest in the West,” and established a program for the extermination of wolves and coyotes in the national forests.

    The Forest Service sought help from an obscure research arm of the Department of Agriculture called the Bureau of Biological Survey, whose biologists it tasked with identifying and tracking predators so that forest rangers could swoop in for the kill. In 1915, the Bureau of Biological Survey took over lethal predator control as a full-time operation. Thereafter it thrived under the steady hand of Congress. In 1931, with the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act, Congress expanded the agency’s purview and funding, directing it to “conduct campaigns for the destruction” of any “animals injurious to agriculture.” By 1947, the agency had singlehandedly persecuted wolves to remarkable success: wolf populations were drastically reduced in the continental United States.

    In 1971, a reporter named Jack Olsen investigated Wildlife Services, then known as Animal Damage Control, in a series of articles for Sports Illustrated, which he published later that same year in his book, Slaughter the Animals, Poison the Earth. Olsen remarked on the close relationship between livestock producers and government trappers, the shared cultural attitude toward wild things. “[T]he hatred of sheepmen for coyotes, bears and mountain lions,” wrote Olsen, “seems to go so far beyond the dimensions of reality as to be almost pathological in origin.” Former trapper Dick Randall, who left the agency in the 1970s to become an activist with the Humane Society, described how a rancher working with Animal Damage Control dispatched coyotes. “[H]e takes a burlap bag, cuts out a hole for the head and two holes for the front legs, pulls the bags on the animals, pours kerosene on, sets them on fire and turns them loose. And he laughs when he tells that, as if it were the greatest thing!” Activist Lynn Jacobs, author of Waste of the West, compiled dozens of such accounts. Jacobs writes of ranchers who “torment trapped animals by beating, stoning, burning, shooting, or slashing them. Or they may saw off their lower jaws, wire their jaws shut, blind them, cut off their legs or tails, or otherwise mutilate them and then release the unfortunate animals.” Olsen told the story of a sheepman on the Frio River in Texas “who liked to saw off the lower jaws of trapped coyotes and turn the mutilated animals loose for his dogs to tear to pieces.” He wrote about “a rancher and his wife and children who spent a delightful winter weekend cruising their property on snowmobiles, throwing out strychnine ‘drop baits’ to kill coyotes….The Western stockman who does not engage in such popular practices is branded an eccentric.”

    Olsen described how federal predator control agents, moving beyond the simplistic trapping and shooting that had characterized the methods of the stockmen’s bounty system, innovated in the 1940s the dissemination of deadly poisons on public land. Among the preferred weapons was thallium sulfate laid in baits and in carcasses, which persisted in the food chain, producing secondary and tertiary poisonings, and caused untold numbers of deaths of wildlife feeding on carrion. The newly developed toxic compounds, as Olsen wrote, “turn[ed] the tortured rangelands into a reeking abattoir of dead and dying wildlife and contaminated watersheds.”

    In 1946 Animal Damage Control debuted the use of sodium fluoroacetate, otherwise known as Compound 1080. Tasteless, odorless, and colorless, described as a “super poison” by the FBI, it has no known antidote. A single ounce can kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes, or 70,000 house cats. For decades, the agency distributed Compound 1080 like candy across the West, mostly targeting coyotes. The effect of 1080 on canids is horrific. It produces “a frenzy of howls and shrieks of pain, vomiting, and retching,” attacking the central nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems before ending life in cardiac or respiratory arrest. (Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an Iraqi military official claimed that Saddam Hussein used 1080 extensively to eradicate political opponents.) Between 1960 and 1970, Animal Damage Control agents laid on public and private lands 156,378 meat baits of 1080 and about 1.5 million pounds in the form of grains. Enough poison of various kinds was spread on the Western range in a single year during the 1960s to kill every man, woman, and child west of the Mississippi, according to Olsen.

    By the 1970s, rangeland ecologists were raising an outcry, calling for reforms. The 1972 report of the Advisory Committee on Predator Control, commissioned by the Department of the Interior, found that the agency, now christened the Division of Wildlife Services, “contain[ed] a high degree of built-in resistance to change.” The investigators, led by University of Michigan ecologist Stanley A. Cain, remarked that “several hundred control agents today are the same persons for whom…the job requirements and measurements of an agent’s success have been the killing of large numbers of predators and of personal, uncritical response to the complaints of stockmen….Agents are frequently long-time acquaintances, friends, and neighbors of the individuals demanding service.” The Cain Report, as it was known, advised “substantial, even drastic changes in control personnel and control methods.”

    Such was the concern about Wildlife Services’ policies that the most notoriously corrupt president in modern history, Richard Nixon, who privately derided conservationists as “hopeless softheads,” issued in 1972 an executive order that included a ban of the use of thallium sulfate and Compound 1080. His administration authored a bill, the Animal Damage Control Act of 1972, which, if passed—it didn’t—would have repealed Wildlife Services’ enabling legislation of 1931. Nixon had read the Cain Report, and publicly praised it. He lamented that “persistent poisons” had been spread across the American landscape “without adequate knowledge of the effects on the ecology.” He talked about “an environmental awakening” and “a new sensitivity of the American spirit and a new maturity of American public life.” He told the country that “the old notion that the ‘only good predator is a dead one’ is no longer acceptable.”

    Nixon got it wrong. At Wildlife Services there has been no environmental awakening, no new sensitivity, no new maturity. The only good predator is still a dead one. The public continues to pay the price. In reporting my article for the magazine (“The Rogue Agency,” March 2016) I discovered dozens of examples of senseless destruction resulting from Wildlife Services’ actions and policies. It will suffice here to recount one of these tales that didn’t make it into print.

    In May 2008, Brooke and Cliff Everest, a couple from Bozeman, Mont., embarked on a rafting trip on the White River of Utah. One day during the trip, on a hike they had taken after beaching their boat on public land, their dog, an American Brittany named Bea, inspected a carcass of an animal in a canyon. Later that day Bea descended into the throes of poisoning. Cliff and Brooke Everest wrote an account for the nonprofit activist group Predator Defense:

    “We were totally mystified as Bea went from a dog calmly lying around camp through a progression of ever more bewildering symptoms. After seeing her heaving and trying to vomit, she suddenly jumped into Brooke’s lap with a scream of pure terror. She then charged around camp, jumping in and out of the raft, crying and yelping in a frenzy of fright and pain. Our efforts to calm her had no effect. She ran a high speed circuit around camp, accidentally slamming into our friend sitting in a chair, then launched off the raft into the river and started swimming for the opposite shore…. Our frantic calls were ignored as the current carried her downstream. She finally turned back towards our side of the river, but when she reached shore, she raced away from us. We found her collapsed under a bush in violent convulsions with a frightening stare, pounding heart, gagging and gulping for air. After 15 more minutes of this agony, Bea died and her body immediately became very rigid. We carried her stiff, lifeless body back to camp and buried it under a cottonwood tree.”

    Every indication suggested she had been killed by Compound 1080, which continues to be used by stockmen and Wildlife Services agents in ways that violate federal law—and render our public lands into places of torture and death.

    Latest in Harper’s: An Investigation of the USDA’s Wildlife Services and its war on the wild

    My latest piece in Harper’s is about the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services. Read all about it here and weep.

    Extinction, the New Environmentalism and the Cancer in the Wilderness

    [Originally published at CounterPunch]

    The word is in from the wildlife biologists. Say goodbye in North America to the gray wolf, the cougar, the grizzly bear. They are destined for extinction sometime in the next 40 years. Say goodbye to the Red wolf and the Mexican wolf and the Florida panther. Gone the jaguar, the ocelot, the wood bison, the buffalo, the California condor, the North Atlantic right whale, the Stellar sea lion, the hammerhead shark, the leatherback sea turtle. That’s just North America. Worldwide, the largest and most charismatic animals, the last of the megafauna, our most ecologically important predators and big ungulates, the wildest wild things, will be the first to go in the anthropogenic extinction event of the Holocene Era. The tiger and leopard and the elephant and lion in Africa and Asia. The primates, the great apes, our wild cousins. The polar bears in the Arctic Sea. The shark and killer whale in every ocean. “Extinction is now proceeding thousands of times faster than the production of new species,” biologist E.O. Wilson writes. Between 30 and 50 percent of all known species are expected to go extinct by 2050, if current trends hold. There are five other mass extinction events in the geologic record, stretching back 500 million years. But none were the result of a single species’ overreach.

    I’ve found conversation with my biologist sources to be terribly dispiriting. The conversation goes like this: Homo sapiens are out of control, a bacteria boiling in the petri dish; the more of us, demanding more resources, means less space for every other life form; the solution is less of us, consuming fewer resources, but that isn’t happening. It can’t happen. Our economic system, industrial consumer capitalism, requires constant growth, more people buying more things. “I will go so far as to say [that] capitalism itself may be dependent on a growing population,” writes billionaire capitalist blogger Bill Gross, Forbes magazine’s Bond King. “Our modern era of capitalism over the past several centuries has never known a period of time in which population declined or grew less than 1% a year.” Growth for growth’s sake, what Edward Abbey called the ideology of the cancer cell.

    The biologists, who in my experience tend to loathe the Bill Grosses of the world, begin to sound like revolutionaries. The most radically inclined among them – their goal to save some part of the planet from human domination and keep it wild and free (free of bond managers for sure) – agree that human population will have to halt entirely, and probably decline, in order to protect non-human biota. Then the biologists begin to sound like misanthropes, and they shut their mouths.

    “What’s wrong with misanthropy?” I ask Leon Kolankiewicz, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has written extensively about the human population footprint and its disastrous effect on biodiversity. “The human race,” I tell him, “has proven to be a bunch of assholes.”

    Kolankiewicz laughs. My attitude, he observes, is not a very good tool for marketing conservation, given that the market, after all, is made up of people. We’re supposed to make biodiversity appeal to the buyer, the public, as something useful. We talk about ecosystem services – ecosystems that service us. “It’s a completely wrongheaded approach to conservation, of course,” says Kolankiewicz. “It’s raw anthropocentrism. There’s a lot of nature that isn’t particularly useful to people.”

    Industrial-strength Homo sapiens could function without much trouble on a vastly simplified, even depauperate, planet, one wiped nearly clean of its fantastic variety of life. I read in Science magazine not long ago, for example, that Earth could lose 90 percent of the species that produce oxygen – not 90 percent of total biomass, mind you, just the diversity of the oxygen producers – and this would hardly make a dent in our modern lives. One of the conservation statistics that Kolankiewicz had encountered in recent years, one that he said “just blows me away,” shows that the combined biomass of the living 7.2 billion human beings, along with the few species of animal we have domesticated – dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens – now constitutes at least 95% of the entire biomass of all extant terrestrial vertebrates on Earth. That is, all of the living specimens of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, more than 20,000 species in total, constitute a mere 5% of the aggregate living cellular tissue of all vertebrates. “Almost total usurpation of the biosphere for the benefit of one species alone,” says Kolankiewicz. “It’s ecological imperialism. Given this tragic reality, how can any sentient, caring person not be a bit of a misanthrope?”

    We talk about the remaining places on Earth where the imperial species has not usurped the biosphere, where the bears and the wolves and the tigers roam, where the little babbling bipeds with their iPhones might get eaten, and we agree that these places can be called wilderness. We agree that the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act best defined those places: “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” where the land retains “its primeval character and influence.” Observe the original meaning of that word, trammeled. It means to shackle, to hinder, to chain, to make un-free. An untrammeled ecosystem is one where man may be present but does not dominate, where the willed self-propelling processes of nature have not been subjugated entirely to human ends. (Kolankiewicz observes that it is from willed that etymologically we get the word wild.) Wilderness, among its other purposes, is to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, their evolution to remain unmolested and unhampered. There is a practical argument here – the preservation of a genetic pool evolving without help or hindrance from us (as we busily meddle with and wipe out genetic diversity elsewhere) – and a transcendent one, related to the not-so-transcendent fact that when we do away with wilderness we are also doing away with the crucible of natural forces which birthed our ancestors out of the muck and which shaped our character as a species. Without wilderness, we lose two million years of evolutionary heritage. We lose our deep-seated and long-standing relations with the non-human; we lose the awareness, the consciousness, of a natural environment not arranged entirely for human convenience. We lose our capacity, in the words of Howard Zahniser, the primary author of the Wilderness Act and its principal mover, “to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life…to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.” Kolankiewicz tells me to read Wallace Stegner’s famous Wilderness Letter of 1960, issued as a public rebuke to the Kennedy administration. I tell him I know it well. “Without any remaining wilderness,” wrote Stegner, “we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection or rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.”

    Kolankiewicz admits to a strain of Luddism in his blood, a dislike of technocrats, and certainly he is not the kind of environmentalist one finds salaried in the cubicles of the Big Greens in DC – by which I mean the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the half-dozen other multi-billion-dollar enviro-nonprofits. Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, is more typical of the breed. He’s an optimist, he’s people-friendly, full of bright ideas that promise hopeful partnerships with corporate business, expressive in his love of technological progress as the ultimate fix to conservation troubles, unabashed in the belief that good management applying the scientific method can handle any challenge no matter how frightful, and thoroughly dismissive of what he calls “the wilderness ideal.” In the new geologic era scientists are calling the Anthropocene – an era in which “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry” – Kareiva believes that conservation has reached a threshold from which there is no turning back. Climate change, a world-encircling shroud of domination, is the most pressing fact of the Anthropocene. There is no place untrammeled by man, no ecosystem self-willed, and wilderness is therefore dead. Embrace the painful truth, says Kareiva: We are de facto planetary managers, and though hitherto we have been lousy at the job of management – selfish and self-aggrandizing, thoughtlessly destructive – we will not cease to dominate. And this is a good thing, as the very consciousness of our power as totalitarian managers of nature may be a blessing: It compels us not to question this power – for Kareiva it is unquestionable – but to become wise managers, like Plato’s philosopher kings, full of noblesse oblige, tyrannical but enlightened. So much for profound humility.

    Let’s hear at length what Kareiva has to say about this “new vision for conservation”:

    Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development – development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind….Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures. Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden….

    The notion of a gardened planet managed for “thriving economies foremost in mind” is a radical departure from the environmentalism of the 20th century, such that the Big Greens have marketed a nomenclature to describe the new thinking. They call themselves, variously, “ecomodernists,” “post-modern greens,” “neo-greens” or, simply, the “new environmentalists,” and their goal is the implementation of “eco-pragmatism.” Their most important departure from the old environmentalism is the jettisoning of any concern about the limits to economic and population growth. If human population doubled between 1804 and 1927, and doubled again between 1927 and 1974, and almost doubled again to 7.2 billion today, with the latest forecasts projecting more than 10 billion people by 2100, the New Enviros bid us look to nanotechnology, genetically modified crops and animals, laboratory meat, industrial fish farms, hydroponics, optimized fertilizers and bio-friendly pesticides, geoengineering (mass climate modification), more efficient transportation networks, electric cars, denser cities (with more people efficiently packed in them), unconventional oil deposits, safe nuclear energy, wind and solar arrays, smart grids, advanced recycling, and much else in the techno-arsenal to keep the human species from crashing against the wall of planetary carrying capacity. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, in an op-ed in the New York Times. “We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish…. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.”

    The ideological shift in the New Environmentalism represents a historic alliance of conservation with the doctrines of industrial growth capitalism – which is to say, this can no longer be called conservation in the traditional sense. It has not arisen in a vacuum, but is the logical culmination of 30 years of corporatization of the Big Greens, as enviros starting in the 1980s degenerated into a professionalized, business-funded interest group and began to operate like the businessmen they once saw as the adversary. Consider that the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy today, Mark Tercek, is a former managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs.

    The advent of the New Environmentalism frames a central conflict to unfold in coming years in the conservation community. What happens to wilderness in a world where it is managed for the economic benefit of the “widest number of people” and not for the health of the inhabitants of the wild? And what if, as Leon Kolankiewicz notes, large parts of wild nature are found irrelevant to “thriving economies”? Whither wilderness if industrial capitalism’s expansion is our only measure of its value? And overarching all this: What happens to human beings – psychologically, spiritually, morally – when we no longer have an escape from the confines of our technological termite hill?


    My latest in Harper’s was the cover of the February issue, a story about the plundering of the public lands of the American West by the livestock industry. Find it here. For Earth Island Journal’s Spring 2015 cover story, I spent five days backpacking in Grand Canyon National Park for an investigation into the idiocies of industrial tourism. And in Vice last May I published a piece about my First Amendment lawsuit, represented by the ACLU, against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison. Apparently all the news is bad news!

    Drought, Wolves, Plagiarists, Our Eastern Forests Ruined, and the Deserts of Utah too

    I’ve been neglecting this website for more important things — like, you know, life — but readers have been complaining. Forthwith an update on my latest work. In Harper’s last April: a story of drought and the Southwest. In Vice Magazine last February: a story of infiltrating a bloodthirsty wolf-and-coyote derby in Idaho, where contestants race to kill the greatest number of wild canids in the shortest time.

    In the American Prospect in February: an investigation of the ongoing rightwing/GOP effort to deregulate and privatize the public lands of Utah.

    In Nautilus Magazine in April: a piece about what happens when there are no wolves in the woods to keep deer in check. Hint: the deer, like humans (who also have no wolves to keep them in check), ruin the ecosystem.

    Finally, in the New Republic this month, an investigation of lefty hero and author Chris Hedges, who turns out to be a serial plagiarist.

    Latest in Harper’s and the American Prospect

    My latest for Harper’s, published in the January issue, is about the normalized criminality of the banking and mortgage industry, as the plundering of the American homeowner continues apace. The American Prospect last December published a piece of mine about Occupy called “The New Populists: The Rise and Fall of Zuccotti Park.” Also in the Prospect is a piece this spring about the slaughter of wolves in Idaho.

    Reculer pour Mieux Sauter: Facebook and the Degradation of Personhood

    Behold homo sapiens lashed on the wheel of the digital social network: held frozen over a computer which is tied by a cord to a wall wherein the fiberglass cable carries the message; staring into the lit screen, the face pale in the unnatural light; or, with head bent in the street, the appearance sullen, running fingers across the blinking object of desire. The creature is secretly harried: Constant updates are necessary, the user must tend the machine whenever and wherever possible – which is all the time and everywhere – and god forbid there is too long a lapse in the slipstream. On Facebook, new friends and old are counted – may they always increase in number! Some are in fact “friends,” in the now rotting sense of the word: the person who is to be confided in, who listens, cares what to listen for, knows secrets, keeps them, knows who you are to the extent that a friend can – the friend as he or she who might look into your eyes and, with affection and even love, claim to see the windows of the soul.

    As we know, however, many Facebook “friends” bear no relation to how we want to understand the term. Perhaps known to the user at work or at school in the flesh, yet they cannot be counted as real friends. Some are strangers, known only via the interface of the machine, attracted to the user by an algorithm calculating the databit “likes” and “dislikes.”

    Let’s forget for a moment that Facebook is probably the most ingenious info-aggregator yet invented for governments to spy on citizens. Forget that the citizens are willingly doing the work for the intelligence agencies in building the database. I worry about the matter of efficiency in friendship. Facebook makes friendship efficient, in the manner of the assembly line, which is exactly what friendship should not be – if it is to remain human, if the friend as person is not to be degraded. Friendship is dirty. It’s difficult. It smells – it sometimes has bad breath. It’s unpredictable, and sometimes hazardous. The issue is about persons and about friendship defined, for if we are to take Facebook seriously, then we must recognize that the form of friendship it is promulgating will by technologic necessity reduce the nature and meaning of the friend. Personhood on the Facebook page can only go so far. It is a managed self. It is degraded personhood.

    I watched my daughter in Christmas of 2010 using Facebook. I had never seen the social network machine in action. Lea is 15, lives in a suburb of Paris with her mother, bored to tears like all suburban kids, and of course has perfected a Facebook personality. Many pictures of herself, and friends, at parties and events attended, and much else: commentary on this or that pop culture item of interest – musical acts for the most part, but also the usual amalgam of commodities sought after. I watched for a moment and then, abruptly, she shut it down, want me to see no more of the Facebook self. I wondered how many “friends” she had, but she wasn’t talking.

    A few months later, in the springtime, she was in Utah, in the town of Moab, where I used to live and where I return every few months or so to hide out and write in a cabin I rent from a friend. Moab was once a lost little place in the desert. Today it is invaded by people like me, who want to be in a lost little place and who thereby nullify each other’s desire for solitude. Lea had a Blackberry, courtesy of complaining to her mother or grandmother – I never got a straight story as to who gave her the gift – but of course it had no signal at our cabin. Disconnection today is a wondrous event; it’s almost like being punched in the face. To be shut off from the global chatter, to not have to field the unending course and scrum of digital information, to be human in the primary sense of being merely person to person – this is what cabins in Utah are now apparently made for. Lea and I sat in this informational darkness and ate big American breakfasts in the morning and lazed about in the afternoon sun and read books – she with “Lord of the Flies” – and went on hikes in the long spring light, carrying extra water but no cell phones.

    Still, the connection was sought, and we were both sad little addicts. Wherever there was wifi – at the neighbor’s house nearby the cabin, at the library in town, at the restaurants – I wanted my e-mail. And Lea looked to connect and find the latest news on Facebook. Being a hypocrite – having gathered up my own email and touched on my “friends” via the simpler (Lea would say archaic) interface – I chided her about Facebook. She didn’t laugh. This is a 15-year-old. Social connection is tragically important.

    Yet she admitted there was something not quite right in what Facebook asked of her. “Facebook is good,” she said, “but it’s weird too. You have to be constantly social,” she said. “But with people – with friends – you should also have” – she’s bilingual in French and English but here searched for the right word – “some kind of recule.” Recule meaning a stepping back, a moving away.

    “Okay, recule,” I said.

    “You’re not always there, you’re not always connected. You have your own experience. That’s what vacation is for. You’re apart. And then you come together and you talk, you know, face to face, and you tell everybody what happened on the vacation.” Weird indeed, Lea. You sound like a Luddite.

    Would that there were more like her among the adults. Not a week goes by that people who I’d otherwise consider mindful and intelligent do not fail to invite me on to Facebook. Which prompts the immediate question: Why would any mindful and intelligent person be on Facebook? I have a friend in Brooklyn, admittedly a vulgarian and not much in tune with the melodies of political correctness, who considers Facebook the province of “people standing in mirrors tarting themselves up and bullshitting and mincing around. Facebook is the biggest waste of time since television.” The man has a point. Facebook is the ideal venue of expression for a society in which narcissism, as Christopher Lasch long ago pointed out, has become the rampant personality disorder. Facebook as sociopathology, as a symptom of social disorder and disease? Perhaps.

    Back in New York City, after three months of marginal grace in the cabin, I am confronted again with the mass of my fellow humanity carrying Blackberrys, SmartPhones, i-Phones, i-Pads, i-Pods – these electroplastic appendages without which modern survival is apparently impossible. The urge is grab the things, with banzai scream, and smash them under my boot. An intolerant, and intolerable, attitude, and certainly anti-social. Still, there is something at once pitiful and repulsive – nauseating – in so many fellow human beings doing the same thing with the same electroplastic appendage hooked up to the same global network: the hand outstretched with device cupped, the eyes locked on the singular object, hooked into the Singularity. The appendage, always making some sort of rude noise demanding attention, appears to be doing the living, the leading, the looking, and the human holding it is afterthought, necessary only to point it like a divining rod to determine the next step forward. A savage dropped from the sky into the city would say it looks as if the user is servicing the machine.

    I read an essay by one Damon Darlin, a “technology editor” at the New York Times, who makes the classic argument of the technocrat, the scientific manager, that the benefits of efficiency trump whatever cost to humanness imposed by new technologies. Probably a perfectly decent person, Darlin has at the same time clearly replaced his mind with a microchip. He writes how he “learned to stop worrying by loving the Smartphone.” “For most people,” he writes, “a smartphone will change their lives and most likely for the better.” And what are these “improvements”? Poor Damon is “never lost” anymore in New York, or, presumably, anywhere that he can get a signal – the machine tells him where he is. He is “never bored” – the machine entertains him. He is “never without an answer” – the machine provides the answers. He “never forgets anything” – the machine remembers. “Google,” he writes, “begins to substitute for my memory.” He writes that the Smartphone “can help us recall events in our own lives.” The machine, says Darlin, becomes “an auxiliary memory of everything I do.”

    To never be lost or bored or forgetful or without answers is to be something less than human. That Darlin’s article was not satire, indeed was grimly serious, is an indicator of how far along we’ve come in the degradation of personhood to make the machine look useful. Yet his thinking is the gospel of the age. It is a demented vision of human life, a form of technology-induced insanity – accepted almost totally as the norm.

    A Web Archive for the work and writings of Christopher Ketcham (copyright © Christopher Ketcham, all rights reserved)