How quotes give rise to reflective understanding

Ideas for writers: A writing prompt from a quote

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
― Edward Abbey

Encountering this quote reminded me of people I have known (and still know in some instances) and their different approaches to making change in our societies.

I think the quote has bearing on out present time because it is about social and systematic change. The UK’s Brexit vote was just a few weeks ago, there’s an election coming up in the politically/culturally/socially/economically divided USA, and Australia has just had a federal election. In all of these examples a strong subtext of dissatisfaction with and dissociation from our mainstream neoliberal economics and the economic/political/cultural/academic elites of our societies has been evident.

We saw that with the Brexit vote to quit the European Union and among the supporters of Bernie Sanders in the US. We saw it in the election of independents in Australia, a vote that said Australians are fed up with the political duopoly’s stranglehold of Liberal/Labor.

There is a strong libertarian element in Edward Abbey’s quote and it is not the type of neoconservative libertarianism common in the US today. It is a ‘left libertarianism’ that values things other than property and wealth. Abbey’s quote is timely because it draws a long, tenuous link with opposition to the status quo in US society in the not-long-gone past. I’ll get to that in a minute.

John Seed, Edward Abbey and the politics of change

If you were not around the environment movement in the US and Australia in the late 1980s and the following decade, chances are you have never heard of Edward Abbey.

I first encountered him when I — somehow — came in possession of a paperback called The Monkeywrench Gang. In those times I was the editor of a periodical reporting the then-emerging environmental services and management industries and I had occasional contact with John Seed, then the kingpin of the Rainforest Information Centre in Lismore, in northern NSW’s humid subtropics. Perhaps it was on visiting the Centre that I first heard of Edward Abbey in the pages of a US newspaper called Earth First! that were lying around at the Centre.

However I found Abbey, I stumbled upon The Monkeywrench Gang and the work of this champion of the wilderness and his philosophical and experiential writing on it (and let me say that stumbling upon things has probably been the prime method of my discovering new things in life and being somehow changed by them).

The book is a novel (and, I believe, a novel with a foot or two in fact here and there) of a band of eco-saboteurs roving the Utah and adjacent badlands to protect them from rapacious mining corporations and the like. It is populated by an unlikely but equally possible set of lead characters, the main one of which is Vietnam war veteran, George Hayduke, who roams that high desert country by jeep and foot, as well as by wilderness guide and outcast Seldom Seen Smith and libertarian billboard torcher, Doc Sarvis, MD.

Abbey wrote at the time when the US and the Australian environment movements were starting to make political gains. He went on to write a follow-up the The Monkeywrench Gang as well as other books. Abbey worked seasonally for the national parks service managing backcountry camping areas and doing other work and from this came one of his philosophical, nonfiction books, Desert Solitaire. It is a collection of reflections and literary vignettes of the desert and the wilderness. I no longer have the book but I remember it fondly.

John, and the necessity of direct action

I have already mentioned John Seed. In the days I first met him he was fresh from the direct action campaigns to save from logging the northern NSW rainforests around Terania Creek. It is thanks to his and his compatriots campaign that visitors today can wander the trails through those forests and enjoy their dark, moist interiors.

John in those days was a solidly built character of medium height with brown, shoulder length hair. He was intellectually and politically astute and although he and his group were confronting powerful economic and political forces in those forests, he was of a quiet and gentle disposition. I don’t know how much Edward Abbey was an influence in his life and work, however I do know that the Deep Ecology philosophy of Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, was.

I last encountered John at a photographic exhibition at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney. That was a few years ago and I learned he was continuing his campaigning work, this time to save from the miners the forests of Tasmania’s Tarkine region. It seems his old spirit, and that of Edward Abbey, were still alive in him.

John’s tactic was to directly confront what he saw as the forces of destruction.

Sue, building a new system to replace the old

If John Seed’s approach to economic and social change was to directly confront the beast, Sue’s was to change it surreptitiously from within. It was quite a different approach to John’s.

Sue associated with the permaculture movement of Sydney in the 1990s. She was then a young woman, maybe in her early thirties, not tall by any measure, who wore her dark hair short and plain. She was one of those people who are quiet and intellectually deep and who, when they say something, fill it with insight and knowledge.

Permaculture, the Tasmanian invention of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is a system of design for obtaining life necessities like good food, clean water, renewable energy, convivial company and resilient communities, though it is more than that too. The feature photograph appearing at the top of this story expresses how others see the act of making those things, in this case growing some of their own food, as changing the system from within by creating an alternative supply chain for basic life needs, and in doing so of creating they things they actually want to see rather than campaigning against those they don’t want.

The economics of everyday is another of those things.  Sue taught the community economics strand in the permaculture design course organised by PacificEdge Permaculture that was taught by the Sydney permaculture teaching team of the time.

Her focus on community economics was in developing the non-monetary peer-to-peer trading system known as LETS — the Local Exchange and Trading Systems — that were then starting to flourish around Australia. The idea was that economically marginalised as well as people with good income could trade their services and, sometimes, their goods within the mutual credit scheme. Cash or credit card not needed. It was, in effect, a parallel economic system to the mainstream and it exemplified the approach to creating a better society by actually building it.

A small number of New Zealand and Australian LETS issued their own local currency as an alternative to federal banknotes to build local economic systems. Sue taught LETS in permaculture design courses in Sydney.
A small number of New Zealand and Australian LETS issued their own local currency as an alternative to federal banknotes to build local economic systems. Sue taught LETS in permaculture design courses in Sydney.

By trade a website useability expert, Sue also grew some of her own food in raised planters in the small, paved backyard of her Stanmore apartment. Her garden was memorable for the use of mirrors to reflect daylight into shaded areas so that her herbs and vegetables could grow there.

Contested approaches

John and Sue’s approaches to social change were substantially different, and that difference has been a talking point within the permaculture milieu ever since Bill Mollison criticised campaigning as an approach in the 1990s.

Bill was reacting to the campaigns of the big environmental organisations — the Australian Conservation Foundation and he Wilderness Society. Although his Rainforest Information Centre was much smaller and localised, John Seed epitomised their campaign-based approach of combining political lobbying and direct acton.

Bill said that the problem with the campaigning approach was putting all of that oppositional energy into trying to stop something people didn’t want rather than expending it on building something they did want to happen. That latter, he said, was permaculture’s mission. In saying that, Bill reiterated the earlier comment by polymath, inventor and geodesic dome populariser, Buckminster Fuller:

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

The reality, as it is for most things in life, is messier. Rather than seeing campaigning and building a preferred future as mutually exclusive approaches to social change, I think it true to say that most people engaged in these things see them as polar options on a continuum of social action. People now move along that continuum, engaging in the form of action most relevant to the need and to their own attitudes and skills. That gets around unnecessary disagreement, conflict and personal confusion.

Complementary approaches

We can see in Edward Abbey’s quote a sense of rebelliousness, of opposition to authorities, of personal freedom of the type favoured by libertarians. I mentioned that I think his libertarianism was more a social variety that I called left-libertarianism, a school of thought articulated by science fiction author and scientist, David Brin.

We see in the vignettes of John Seed and Sue how two people have articulated and acted out this desire for constructive social change in Australian society at around the same time and, in so doing, hinted strongly at two different but complimentary approaches.

I think both approaches recognise another Edward Abbey quote that appears below, and that they are both valid approaches to social change, each selected upon the circumstances, the needs and the skills available to those acting them out in the world.

Let’s give the final work on motivation for social change to Edward Abbey:

“Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.”
― Edward Abbey

More on Edward Abbey:

David Brin on libertarianism:

More on left-libertarianism:

More on permaculture design:


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