American Greed: A Corrupt Corporation Is Destroying Sacred Site

American Greed: A Corrupt Corporation Is Destroying Sacred Site

By Max Wilbert/Protect Thacker Pass

A criminal slips a police officer a handful of bills and walks free. A businessman buys a politician with a briefcase full of cash. We often think of bribery and corruption in these blatant terms, and as something that happens in poor countries, elsewhere.

But corruption often looks different.

In the United States, where I live, corruption is common. It’s also mostly legal.

In fact, dirty money has become part of the political fabric of our nation. It has become normalized, institutionalized, and even regulated. And yet, the effects of this corruption are just as insidious and destructive as blatant payoffs. Corruption is a rot in our political system, and it is spreading.

This article is about American corruption, but the story will be told by looking at one particular Canadian mining company called Lithium Americas, which is working in the United States through a wholly-owned U.S.-based subsidiary, Lithium Nevada Corporation.

For two and a half years, I’ve been fighting Lithium Nevada to stop them from destroying Thacker Pass — a biodiversity hotspot and Native American sacred site known Peehee Mu’huh in the Paiute language that is in northern Nevada, just shy of the Oregon border. Lithium Nevada, as you have probably guessed, wants to turn this place into an open-pit lithium mine.

This is a special place. Thacker Pass is home to dwindling sage-grouse, Pronghorn, mule deer, and golden eagles. It’s a migratory corridor and climate change refuge. It’s the watershed for local communities, and the site of two massacres of Paiute people, including one on September 12, 1865 in which US Army soldiers killed between 30 and 50 men, women, children, and elders in a surprise attack at dawn. It’s been recognized by the Federal Government as a “Traditional Cultural District,” a landscape of outstanding importance to Native American history and cultural identity.

And right now, as you read this, it is being destroyed by a corrupt corporation and a corrupt government. Bulldozers are rolling and centuries-old sagebrush, millennia-old artifacts, and the lives of precious desert creatures are being crushed under metal treads.

How is this possible? How, in a democracy where people have the right to protest, to speak out, to comment, to petition, to file lawsuits, how is it possible to have such a miscarriage of justice? And more broadly, how is it possible that our governmental system is failing to address the ecological catastrophe we are facing: the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth?

Part of the answer is corruption, which we can break down into five categories: lobbying, writing laws, the revolving door, campaign contributions, and community bribery. Let’s look at each in turn, using Lithium Americas and Thacker Pass as an example.

Lobbying: How Corporations Gain Disproportionate Access

Lobbying is based on a simple principle: that government officials should listen to their constituents.

Transparency International defines lobbying as “Any activity carried out to influence a government or institution’s policies and decisions in favor of a specific cause or outcome.”

“Even when allowed by law,” they say, “these acts can become distortive [harmful to democracy and justice] if disproportionate levels of influence exist — by companies, associations, organizations and individuals.”

Today’s lobbying is not the simple practice of people talking to their elected officials. Instead, it’s a tightly regulated $3.73 billion industry dominated by political insiders and major corporations, rife with corrupt “revolving doors,” and matched by at least $3-4 billion in “shadow lobbying” that isn’t regulated or disclosed to the public in any way.

The regulation of lobbying is essential to its proper functioning as a method of corruption. As Ben Price, National Organizing Director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, puts it, “regulation is not so much a way to curb corruption, but more to the point, regulations legalize the corruption by defining the limits to it that will be disallowed.”

“In doing so,” he continues, “the principle effect of regulations is to shield bribery from legal liability by legalizing enough of it to serve the purpose of the corporate legislative influencers.”

Like advertising, corporations use lobbying because it works.

Studies have found that spending more money on lobbying and campaign contributions results in direct reductions in federal taxes, state taxes, and more federal contracts. One analysis looking at only the nation’s 200 most “politically active” corporations found they spent $58 billion on lobbying the federal government and “campaign contributions”[i] between 2007 and 2012, but received $4.4 trillion in federal subsidies, contracts, and other support during the same time period. That’s a 7,580% return on investment.

Another study found even bigger returns: “on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government” — a 76,000% payout.

Corporations are Writing Our Laws

Corporations use lobbyists because their wealth allows them disproportionate access to the government, meaning that they can build relationships with politicians and staffers, influence policy, share ideas, and even draft legislation. They can also bribe judges, as the recent Clarence Thomas corruption scandal shows. But it goes further. As one report in NPR notes, “It’s taken for granted that lobbyists influence legislation. But perhaps less obvious is that they often write the actual bills — even word for word.”

Our laws are being written by corporations.

And this isn’t just a federal problem. A 2019 USA Today investigation found more than 10,000 bills introduced to legislatures in all 50 states over an 8-year period were “almost entirely copied from bills written by special interests.” The report also notes that their investigation detected these bills using automated techniques, and “the real number is probably far higher.”

Our politicians rarely write laws. Instead, corporations and lobbyists write laws; congress sells the laws to the public; then lobbyists pay their congresspeople in campaign contributions, Super PAC funding, and revolving-door job opportunities – topics we will look at next.

The Revolving Door

Another way that corruption has become endemic inside the government of the United States is through what’s known as the “revolving door.”

The revolving door refers to the common practice of corporate employees quitting their jobs and going to work in the government, and vice versa. It’s quite common for government employees and elected officials to quit or end their terms and immediately get jobs in the industries they were supposedly regulating.

Why, you might ask? Money. As one headline reads, “when a congressman becomes a lobbyist, he gets a 1,452% raise (on average).

This is a sort of “retroactive bribery” where government officials do what corporations want, then get paid off afterwards. And it’s completely legal.

Occasionally there will be stories of lobbyists who stray into outright bribery — Jack Abramoff, notably — but these stories are rare, not because corruption is uncommon, but because you don’t really need to break the law as a corporation: you wrote the laws. And you did it deliberately to make your bribery and influence campaigns legal.

As of 2016, about half of retiring senators and a third of retiring House Representatives register as lobbyists to collect their checks. This is equally common among Democrats and Republicans.

Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Lobbying Activities (the ones we know about)

Lithium Nevada has spent at least $310,000 on Federal lobbying since 2016, via a lobbying company called Harbinger Strategies.

Harbinger is “a leading federal government and political affairs firm” that was founded by and employs former high-level Republican congressional aides and political operatives. They have been listed as among the top lobbyists in Washington D.C. and made a total of $10.9 million in 2021 from a client list which includes the airline industry, major banks and investment firms, mining companies, biotech, the military-industrial complex, Facebook, electric utilities, General Electric, and the oil and gas industry.

“We leverage our experience as former senior staff to the Congressional Leadership and the Executive Branch to position clients for a seat at the decision-making table,” they write on their website. They continue: “[Harbinger is] founded on the belief that every client deserves partner-level legislative expertise” — a “boutique model” — that they use “for one simple reason: it gets results.”

In the state of Nevada, Lithium Nevada Corporation has hired at least 4 lobbyists since 2017 from two businesses: Argentum Partners, “a full-service strategic communications firm… with a hungry, energetic, and experienced team of lobbyists,” and Ferrato Corporation, “a full service bi-partisan public affairs firm.”

Notably, Lithium Nevada’s Argentum lobbyists included Mike Draper, who “helmed the media relations and public affairs for the planning, permitting, construction and opening of the Ruby Pipeline, the largest natural gas pipeline in North America.” The Ruby Pipeline was fought vehemently by environmentalists and Tribes in 2009 and 2010.

Campaign Contributions

Another technique of legalized corruption is “campaign contributions,” also known as donations to politicians.

Many countries in the world place strict limits on the amount of money that people can donate to political candidates, or even have political campaigns funded by the government, removing the influence of money almost entirely. The United States is not one of those countries.

Elected officials in the United States are desperate for money. The average U.S. senator has to rase $14,000 a day just to stay in office — and that’s once they’re already elected. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans, which is why corporations, both directly and through their lobbyists and employees, tend to play both sides by donating to both political parties.

For example, Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas Corporation, donated at least $10,250 to political candidates between 2021 and 2022 including Catherine Cortez Mastow (Democratic Senator from Nevada) and Mark Amodei (Nevada’s Republican Governor). George Ireland, Board President of Lithium Americas, has donated at least $19,800 to candidates since 2011, including $500 to the Trump campaign and $6,600 to John Hickenlooper. Data from shows that 7 other Lithium Americas employees, Board members, and associated parties gave at least another $10,819 to political candidates between 2018 and 2022.

These amounts don’t include the MUCH larger political contributions given by employees and family members of Harbinger Strategies, who gave $392,842 to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle alone.

Many of these people donated up to the legal limit, implying that if the limit were higher, they would give more money — and perhaps that they would seek ways to circumvent contribution limits via so-called “Super PACs” and other dark money techniques.

Keep in mind that less than 1.5% of Americans donate more than $200 to political candidates or parties in any given year. This is the domain of the wealthy.

The Payoff

Lithium Americas money is well-spent.

In what appears to be a quid pro quo for their lobbying and campaign contributions, Lithium Americas Corporation has been granted a total of $8,637,357 in tax abatements from the State of Nevada, including a partial sales tax abatement worth $5 million, a $3.3 million property tax abatement and about $225,000 in payroll tax abatements. That money is unavailable for schools, healthcare, social services, small business assistance, environmental programs, etc.

From the Federal Government, Lithium Americas has received a loan from the Department of Energy’s “Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program” (ATVM) which is likely to cover “up to 75% of the Thacker Pass’ total capital costs for construction.”

This loan program offers highly favorable terms that amount to a significant subsidy of as much as $3 billion USD.

Based on a very conservative estimate for Lithium Americas Corporation lobbying and employee campaign contribution of, say, $400,000, they’re looking at a return on investment of 2,100% — and that’s before including the massive financial value of the ATVM loan.

Community-Level Bribery

Corruption in politics is often matched with corruption at a local level.

Lithium Americas’ plans to destroy Thacker Pass have created serious community opposition among farmers and ranchers from the rural areas closest to Thacker Pass, among local citizens in the nearby town of Winnemucca, among environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife, plants, air, and water, and among Native American tribes concerned about their sacred and culturally important sites, animals, and medicines.

The response has been predictable. Anti-mining activist Joan Kuyek’s book Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community From The Mining Industry describes the myths repeated incessantly by Lithium Americas and almost every mining company:

  • “The mine will create hundreds of jobs and enrich governments.”
  • The mine can make community members rich and solve all of their social and economic problems.”
  • “Modern engineering will ensure that the mine doesn’t damage the water, air, or the wildlife.”

When these myths are exposed as false, they resort to legalized bribery. At Thacker Pass, that takes the form of Lithium Americas Corporation paying for a new school for the community of Orovada, and signing an agreement with one local Tribal Councilwoman for construction of a cultural center. One tribal member, my friend Shelley Harjo, wrote in response: “A few promised buildings and a cultural center do not supersede the responsibility we have to our ancestors before us nor our obligation to our unborn after.” Another Tribal leader in the region says of the mining companies, “They take advantage of our poverty.”

That poverty gives the mining companies serious leverage. Among community members at Fort McDermitt, rumors of bribery are common.

Lithium Americas’ Involvement in Human Rights Abuses Overseas

Lithium Americas has deep business links and personnel overlaps with Chinese state-owned mining corporation Ganfeng Lithium (the largest lithium company in the world). In fact, Ganfeng and Lithium Americas are co-owners of an Argentinian lithium mining company known as Minera Exar.

The Minera Exar mining project is located in the Andean highlands in the so-called “lithium triangle,” an arid region near the borders of Chile and Bolivia. Over the years that Minera Exar has been active in the region, they — like other lithium mining companies in the area — have come under criticism for serious environmental and human rights abuses.

The Washington Post, exploring these abuses, wrote that:

“Mining companies have for years been extracting billions of dollars of lithium from the Atacama region… But the impoverished Atacamas have seen little of the riches… one lithium company, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar, struck deals with six aboriginal communities for a new mine here. The operation is expected to generate about $250 million a year in sales while each community will receive an annual payment — ranging from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for extensive surface and water rights.

The exposé continues:

“Yolanda Cruz, one of the leaders of the village in Argentina, said she signed the [community benefits agreement with Minera Exar] but now regrets it. At the time she valued the opportunity to create jobs for her village. But she now worries, ‘we are going to be left with nothing.’ she said. ‘The thing is the companies are lying to us —that’s the reality. And we sometimes just keep our mouths shut,’ she said. ‘We don’t say anything and then we are the affected ones when the time goes by.’”

Meanwhile, Ganfeng Lithium recently announced plans to mine for battery metals in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese Government has detained and imprisoned Uyghyrs and other Muslim groups in forced labor and indoctrination camps.

Waste of Government Funds

We are being told the main goal of lithium mining at Thacker Pass is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is another lie, a new type of corporate greenwashing which is becoming increasingly common. In fact, many analyses actually find that the emissions reductions from switching to electric vehicles are relatively minor.

Producing a single electric car releases greenhouse gas emissions—about 9 tons on average. This average is rising as the size of electric cars is going up substantially. The more electric cars are produced, the more greenhouse gases are released. And so while EVs reduce emissions compared to gasoline vehicles, bigger EVs don’t reduce them much. Analysis from the Center For Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice says that electrification of cars in the United States will reduce national emissions by only 6 percent.

Further, producing lithium at Thacker Pass would require 700,000 tons per year of oil refining byproducts — sulfur, perhaps largely sourced from the Alberta Tar sands. While Thacker Pass receives billions in subsidies from the government, carbon emissions are continuing to rise.

Environmental activist Paul Hawken, as another example, doesn’t put electric cars in his top 10 climate solutions. In fact, it’s number 24 on his list, with almost ten times less impact than reducing food waste, nearly six times less impact than eliminating the use of refrigerants which are powerful greenhouse gases, and behind solutions like tropical rainforest restoration (about 5 times as effective at reducing emissions as is switching to EVs) and peatland protection (more than twice as effective).

Corruption and waste go hand-in-hand. The data makes it clear that if reducing greenhouse gases is your goal, subsidizing the Thacker Pass lithium mine is not a good use of government funds.  It’s wasteful.

If you actually want to allocate government funds to effectively halt global warming, giving money to extractive industries is the exact wrong thing to do.

Instead, start with women’s rights, educating girls, and making contraception and family planning widely available. Start with economic relocalization initiatives. Start with insulating homes properly, which may have the biggest immediate carbon impact per dollar spent. Start with demand-reduction initiatives.

Stop wasting taxpayer money on subsidies to Earth-destroying corporations, and start taking actions that really matter.

The Banality of Evil

Lithium Americas’ corruption reminds me of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil.” Writing of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, Arendt explains that Eichmann felt no guilt; indeed, he never even considered that what he was doing might be wrong: “He did his ‘duty’…; he not only obeyed ‘orders’, he also obeyed the ‘law’.”

As one article states, “[Eichmann] performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.”

Lithium Americas is not killing people en masse, nor are they even among the “worst” mining companies. They may even be acting completely within the boundaries of the law.  And yet they are complicit in cultural genocide, in ecological destruction for personal gain, and in what may be an even bigger crime against the future: greenwashing their destruction as positive and thus creating more financial and political incentives for more of this madness.

They believe that what they are doing is right and they are “following the rules.”

What Now?

The corruption at Thacker Pass is not unique. Lobbying, campaign contributions, greenwashing, and community bribery is common in the United States and across much of the world. I believe there is likely much more corruption that we are not aware of. Perhaps there really are briefcases full of cash being exchanged. We can only speculate. And, this article has not even begun to discuss the government complicity in lawbreaking, corruption, and ethical violations at Thacker Pass — a story that is, in some ways, even more sordid.

All of which is part of why academic analyses of the United States tend to show “economic-elite domination” rather than true electoral democracy or pluralism. The wealthy are running our country (and indeed, the world) Our government is corrupt, corporations are running rampant, and our world is being destroyed.

For many, the situation we find ourselves in is paralyzing. What can do in the face of this?

When I first came out to begin protecting Thacker Pass and setup a protest camp on the planned mine site in the depths of winter 2021, I had no illusions. I knew that the courts weren’t likely to save us. Remember, the laws were written by corporations. I knew that public commenting wasn’t going to work; the regulations are written to favor corporate interests. I knew that the government wasn’t going to help, since the politicians are mostly bought and paid for. I even knew that standard methods of protest would likely be ineffective, given the repression tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies that have been honed over centuries by corporations and colonizers.

As a society, we find ourselves in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event, a global climate catastrophe, and seemingly terminal overshoot. And as an environmental movement, despite our brave and inspired action, it has not been enough.

That’s why, for many years, I have been calling for an ecological revolution — a fundamental transformation of society — and organizing to make it happen.

Whether you agree that this is needed or not, we can all agree that what we are doing isn’t working. I don’t have all the answers. But what I do know is that it’s time to go further.

This article was originally published on Earth Day 2023. Since then, there have been developments in Thacker Pass. Direct action has been able to halt mine construction for the moment. Read more about it here.

Featured image: Resistance in Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert

The Enclosure Movement

The Enclosure Movement

Editor’s note: This piece details the history of the enclosure movement, focusing on western civilization. Enclosure is an ongoing process by which land that was previously seen as collective, belonging to everyone or purely to nature, is privatized. Enclosure has long been a tenet of capitalism, and more broadly of civilization. Exploitation and destruction of land follows.

by Ian Angus

In 1542, Henry VIII gave his friend and privy councilor Sir William Herbert a gift: the buildings and lands of a dissolved monastery, Wilton Abbey near Salisbury. Herbert didn’t need farmland, so he had the buildings torn down, expelled the monastery’s tenants, and physically destroyed an entire village. In their place he built a large mansion, and fenced off the surrounding lands as a private park for hunting.

In May 1549, officials reported that people who had long used that land as common pasture were tearing down Herbert’s fences.

“There is a great number of the commons up about Salisbury in Wiltshire, and they have plucked down Sir William Herbert’s park that is about his new house, and diverse other parks and commons that be enclosed in that county, but harm they do to [nobody]. They say they will obey the King’s master and my lord Protector with all the counsel, but they say they will not have their commons and their grounds to be enclosed and so taken from them.”

Herbert responded by organizing an armed gang of 200 men, “who by his order attacked the commons and slaughtered them like wolves among sheep.”[1]

The attack on Wilton Abbey was one of many enclosure riots in the late 1540s that culminated in the mass uprising known as Kett’s Rebellion, discussed in Part Two. There had been peasant rebellions in England in the Middle Ages, most notably in 1381, but they were rare. As Engels wrote of the German peasantry, their conditions of life militated against rebellion. “They were scattered over large areas, and this made every agreement between them extremely difficult; the old habit of submission inherited by generation from generation, lack of practice In the use of arms in many regions, and the varying degree of exploitation depending on the personality of the lord, all combined to keep the peasant quiet.”[2]

Enclosure, a direct assault on the peasants’ centuries-old way of life, upset the old habit of submission. Protests against enclosure were reported as early as 1480, and became frequent after 1530. “Hundreds of riots protesting enclosures of commons and wastes, drainage of fens and disafforestation … reverberated across the century or so between 1530 and 1640.”[3]

Elizabethan authorities used the word “riot” for any public protest, and the label is often misleading. Most were actually disciplined community actions to prevent or reverse enclosure, often by pulling down fences or uprooting the hawthorn hedges that landlords planted to separate enclosed land.

“The point in breaking hedges was to allow cattle to graze on the land, but by filling in the ditches and digging up roots those involved in enclosure protest made it difficult and costly for enclosers to re-enclose quickly. That hedges were not only dug up but also burnt and buried draws attention to both the considerable time and effort which was invested in hedge-breaking and to the symbolic or ritualistic aspects of enclosure opposition. … Other forms of direct action against enclosure included impounding or rescuing livestock, the continued gathering of previously common resources such as firewood, trespassing in parks and warrens, and even ploughing up land which had been converted to pasture or warrens.”[4]

The forms of anti-enclosure action varied, from midnight raids to public confrontations “with the participants, often including a high proportion of women, marching to drums, singing, parading or burning effigies of their enemies, and celebrating with cakes and ale.”[5] (I’m reminded of Lenin’s description of revolutions as festivals of the oppressed and exploited.) Villagers were very aware of their rights — it was joked that some farmers read Thomas de Lyttleton’s Treatise on Tenures while ploughing — so physical assaults on fences and hedges were often accompanied by petitions and legal action.

Many accounts of what’s called the enclosure movement focus on the consolidation of dispersed strips of leased land into compact farms, but most enclosure riots actually targeted the privatization of the unallocated land that provided pasture, wood, peat, game and more. For cottagers who had no more than a small house and an acre or two of poor quality land, access to those resources was a matter of life and death. “Commons and common rights, so far from being merely a luxury or a convenience, were really an integral and indispensable part of the system of agriculture, a lynch pin, the removal of which brought the whole structure of village society tumbling down.”[6]

Coal wars

In the last decades of the 1500s, farmers in northern England faced a new threat to their livelihoods, the rapid expansion of coal mining, which many landlords found was more profitable than renting farmland. Thousands who were made landless by enclosure ultimately found work in the new mines, but the very creation of those mines required the dispossession of farmers and farmworkers. The search for coal seams left pits and waste that endangered livestock; actual mines destroyed pasture and arable land and polluted streams, making farming impossible.

The prospect of mining profits produced a new kind of enclosure — expropriation of mineral rights under common land. “Wherever coal-mining became important, it stimulated the movement towards curtailing the rights of customary tenants and even of small freeholders, and towards the enclosure of portions of the wastes.” In the landlords’ view, it wasn’t enough just to fence off the mining area, “not only must the tenants be prevented from digging themselves, they must be stripped of their power to refuse access to minerals under their holdings, or to demand excessive compensation.”[7]

As a result, historian John Nef writes, tenant farmers “lived in constant fear of the discovery of coal under their land,” and attempts to establish new mines were often met by sabotage and violence. “Many were the obscure battles fought with pitchfork against pick and shovel to prevent what all tenants united in branding as a mighty abuse.” Fences were torn down, pits filled in, buildings burned, and coal was carried off. In Lancashire, the enclosures surrounding one large mine were torn down sixteen times by freeholders who claimed “freedom of pasture.” In Derbyshire in 1606, a landlord complained that twenty-three men “armed with pitchforks, bows and arrows, guns and other weapons,” had threatened to kill everyone involved if mining continued on the manor.[8]

In these and many other battles, commoners heroically fought to preserve their land and rights, but they were unable to stop the growth of a highly-profitable industry that was supported physically by the state and legally by the courts. As elsewhere, capital defeated the commons.

Turning point

In the early 1500s, capitalist agriculture was new, and the landowning classes were generally critical of the minority who enclosed common land and evicted tenants. The commonwealth men whose sermons defended traditional village society and condemned enclosure were expressing, in somewhat exaggerated form, views that were widely held in the aristocracy and gentry. While anti-enclosure laws were drafted and introduced by the royal government, they were invariably approved by the House of Commons, which “almost by definition, represented the prospering section of the gentry.”[9]

As the century progressed, however, growing numbers of landowners sought to break free from customary and state restrictions in order to “improve” their holdings. In 1601, when Sir Walter Raleigh argued that the government should “let every man use his ground to that which it is most fit for, and therein use his own discretion,”[10] a large minority in the House of Commons agreed.

As Christopher Hill writes, “we can trace the triumph of capitalism in agriculture by following the Commons’ attitude towards enclosure.”

“The famine year 1597 saw the last acts against depopulation; 1608 the first (limited) pro-enclosure act. … In 1621, in the depths of the depression, came the first general enclosure bill — opposed by some M.P.s who feared agrarian disturbances. In 1624 the statutes against enclosure were repealed. … the Long Parliament was a turning point. No government after 1640 seriously tried either to prevent enclosures, or even to make money by fining enclosers.”[11]

The early Stuart kings — James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) — played a contradictory role, reflecting their position as feudal monarchs in an increasingly capitalist country. They revived feudal taxes and prosecuted enclosing landlords in the name of preventing depopulation, but at the same time they raised their tenants’ rents and initiated large enclosure projects that dispossessed thousands of commoners.

Enclosure accelerated in the first half of the 1600s — to cite just three examples, 40% of Leicestershire manors, 18% of Durham’s land area, and 90% of the Welsh lowlands were enclosed in those decades.[12] Even without formal enclosure, many small farmers lost their farms because they couldn’t pay fast rising rents. “Rent rolls on estate after estate doubled, trebled, and quadrupled in a matter of decades,” contributing to “a massive redistribution of income in favour of the landed class.”

It was a golden age for landowners, but for small farmers and cottagers, “the third, fourth, and fifth decades of the seventeenth century witnessed extreme hardship in England, and were probably among the most terrible years through which the country has ever passed.[13]

Fighting back

Increased enclosure was met by increased resistance. Seventeenth century enclosure riots were generally larger, more frequent, and more organized than in previous years. Most were local and lasted only a few days, but several were large enough to be considered regional uprisings — “the result of social and economic grievances of such intensity that they took expression in violent outbreaks of what can only be called class hatred for the wealthy.”[14]

The Midland Revolt broke out in April 1607 and continued into June. The rebels described themselves as “diggers” and “levelers,” labels later used by radicals during the civil war, and they claimed to be led by “Captain Pouch,” a probably mythical figure whose magical powers would protect them.[15] Martin Empson describes the revolt in his history of rural class struggle, Kill all the Gentlemen:

“Events in 1607 involved thousands of peasants beginning in Northamptonshire at the very start of May and spreading to Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Mass protests took place, involving 3,000 at Hilmorton in Warwickshire and 5,000 at Cotesback in Leicestershire. In a declaration produced during the revolt, The Diggers of Warwickshire to all other Diggers, the authors write that they would prefer to ‘manfully die, then hereafter to be pined to death for want of that which those devouring, encroachers do serve their fat hogs and sheep withal.’”[16]

These were well-planned actions, not spontaneous riots. Cottagers from multiple villages met in advance to discuss where and when to assemble, arranged transportation, and provided tools, meals and places to sleep for the rebels who would spend days tearing down fences, uprooting hedges and filling in ditches. Local militias could not stop them — indeed, “many members of the militia themselves became involved in the rising, either actively or by voting with their feet and failing to attend the muster.”[17]

The movement was only stopped when mounted vigilantes, hired by local landlords, attacked protestors near the town of Newton, massacring more than 50 and injuring many more. The supposed leaders of the rising were publicly hanged and quartered, and their bodies were displayed in towns throughout the region.

The Western Rising was less organized, but it lasted much longer, from 1626 to 1632. Here the focus was “disafforestation” — Charles I’s privatization of the extensive royal forests in which thousands of farmers and cottagers had long exercised common rights. The government appointed commissions to survey the land, propose how to divide it up, and negotiate compensation for tenants. The largest portions were leased to investors, mainly the king’s friends and supporters, who in turn rented enclosed parcels to large farmers.”[18]

Generally speaking, the forest enclosures seem to have been fair to freeholders and copyholders who could prove that they had common rights, but not to those who had never had formal leases, or couldn’t prove that they had. The formally landless were excluded from the negotiations and from the land they had worked on all their lives.

For at least six years, landless workers and cottagers fought to prevent or reverse enclosures in Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and other areas where the crown was selling off public forests.

“The response of the inhabitants of each forest was to riot almost as soon as the post-disafforestation enclosure had begun. These riots were broadly similar in aim and character, directed toward the restoration of the open forest and involving destruction of the enclosing hedges, ditches, and fences and, in a few cases, pulling down houses inhabited by the agents of the enclosers, and assaults on their workmen.”[19]

Declaring “here were we born and here we will die,” as many as 3,000 men and women took part in each action against forest enclosures. Buchanan Sharp’s study of court records shows that the majority of those arrested for anti-enclosure rioting identified themselves not as husbandmen (farmers) but as artisans, particularly weavers and other clothworkers, who depended on the commons to supplement their wages. “It could be argued that there were two types of forest inhabitants, those with land who went to law to protect their rights, and those with little or no land who rioted to protect their interests.”[20]

The longest continuing fight against enclosure took place in eastern England, in the fens. From the 1620s to the end to the century, thousands of farmers and cottagers resisted large-scale projects to drain and enclose the vast wetlands that covered over 1400 square miles in Lincolnshire and adjacent counties. Aiming to create “new land” that could be sold to investors and rented to large tenant farmers, the drainage projects would dispossess thousands of peasants whose lives depended on the region’s rich natural resources.

The result was almost constant conflict. Historian James Boyce describes what happened in 1632, when constables tried to arrest opponents of draining a 10,000 acre common marsh, in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham:

“The constables charged with arresting the four Soham resistance leaders so delayed entering the village that they were later charged for not putting the warrant into effect. When they finally sought to do so, an estimated 200 people poured onto the streets armed with forks, staves and stones. The next day a justice ordered 60 men to support the constables in executing the warrant but over 100 townspeople still stood defiant, warning ‘that if any laid hands of any of them, they would kill or be killed’. When one of the four was finally arrested, the constables were attacked and several people were injured. A justice arrived in Soham on 11 June with about 120 men and made a further arrest before the justice’s men were again ‘beaten off, the rest never offering to aid them’. Another of the four leaders, Anne Dobbs, was eventually caught and imprisoned in Cambridge Castle but on 14 June 1633, the fight was resumed when about 70 people filled in six division ditches meant to form part of an enclosure. Twenty offenders were identified, of whom fourteen were women.”[21]

Militant and often violent protests challenged every drainage project. As elsewhere in England, fenland rioters uprooted hedges, filled ditches and destroyed fences, but here they also destroyed pumping equipment, broke open dykes, and attacked drainage workers, many of whom had been brought from the Netherlands. “By the time of the civil war the whole fenland was in a state of open rebellion.”[22]

Revolution in the revolution

For eleven years, from 1629 to 1640, Charles I tried to rule as an absolute monarch, refusing to call Parliament and unilaterally imposing taxes that were widely viewed as oppressive and illegal. When his need for more money finally forced him to call Parliament, the House of Commons refused to approve new taxes unless he agreed to restrictions on his powers. The king refused and civil war broke out in 1642, leading to Charles’s defeat and execution in 1649. From then until 1660, England was a republic.

Many histories of the civil was treat it as purely a conflict within the ruling elite: it often seems, Brian Manning writes, “as if the other 97 per cent of the population did not exist or did not matter.”[23] In fact, as Manning shows in The English People and the English Revolution, poor peasants, wage laborers and small producers were not just followers and foot soldiers — they were conscious participants whose actions influenced and often determined the course of events. The fight for the commons was an important part of the English Revolution.

“Between the assembling of the Long Parliament in·1640 and the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 there was a rising tide of protest and riot in the countryside. This was directed chiefly against the enclosures of commons, wastes and fens, and the invasions of common rights by the king, members of the royal family, courtiers, bishops and great aristocrats.”[24]

Between 1640 and 1644 there were anti-enclosure riots in more than half of England’s counties, especially in the midlands and north: “in some cases not only the fences but the houses of the gentry were attacked.”[25]

The wealthiest landowners were outraged. In July 1641, the House of Lords complained that “violent breaking into Possessions and Inclosures, in riotous and tumultuous Manner, in several Parts of this Kingdom,” was happening “more frequently … since this Parliament began than formerly.” They ordered local authorities to ensure “that no Inclosure or Possession shall be violently, and in a tumultuous Manner, disturbed or taken away from any Man,”[26] but their orders had little effect. “Constables not only repeatedly failed to perform their duties against neighbours engaged in the forcible recovery of their commons, but were also sometimes to be found in the ranks of the rioters themselves.”[27]

The rioters hated the landowners’ government and weren’t reluctant to say so. When an order against anti-enclosure riots was read in a church in Wiltshire in April 1643, for example, one parishioner stood and “most contemptuously and in dishonor of the Parliament and their authority said that he cared not for their orders and the Parliament might have kept them and wiped their arses with them.”[28]

In 1645, anti-enclosure protestors in Epworth, Lincolnshire, replied to a similar order that ‘”They did not care a Fart for the Order which was made by the Lords in Parliament and published in the Churches, and, that notwithstanding that Order, they would pull down all the rest of the Houses in the Level that were built upon those Improvements which were drained, and destroy all the Enclosures.”[29]

The most intense conflicts took place in the fens. To cite just one case, in February 1643, in Axholme, Lincolnshire, commoners armed with muskets opened floodgates at high tide, drowning over six thousand acres of recently drained and enclosed land, and then closed the gates to prevent the water from flowing out at low tide. Armed guards then held the position for ten weeks, threatening to shoot anyone who attempted to let the water out.[30]

Many more examples could be cited. The years 1640 to 1660 weren’t just a time of revolutionary civil war, they were decades of anti-enclosure rebellion.


Two centuries later, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that “all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities.” That was certainly true of the English Revolution — Parliament could not have overthrown the monarchy without the support of small producers, peasants and wage-workers, but the plebeians got little from the victory. As Digger leader Gerard Winstanley wrote to the “powers of England” in 1649: “though thou hast promised to make this people a free people, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, that thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us.”[31]

Since the king was one of the largest and most hated enclosers, many anti-enclosure protesters expected Parliament to support their cause, but their hopes were disappointed — no surprise, since almost all MPs were substantial landowners. Both houses of Parliament repeatedly condemned anti-enclosure riots, and no anti-enclosure measures were adopted during the civil war or by the republican regime in the 1650s. The last attempt to regulate (not prevent) enclosure occurred in 1656, when a Bill to do that was rejected on first reading: the Speaker said “he never liked any Bill that touched upon property,” and another MP called it “the most mischievous Bill that ever was offered to this House.”[32]

Like the royal government it replaced, the republican government in the 1650s raised revenue by selling off royal forests and supported the drainage and enclosure of the fens. It passed laws that eliminated all remaining feudal restrictions and charges on landowners, but made no changes to the tenures of farmers and cottagers. “Thus landlords secured their own estates in absolute ownership, and ensured that copyholders remained evictable.”[33]

In Christopher Hill’s words, in the seventeenth century struggle for land, “the common people were defeated no less decisively than the crown.”[34]

The last wave

There were sporadic anti-enclosure protests in the last years of the seventeenth century, especially in the fens, but for all practical purposes, the uprisings of 1640 to 1660 were the last of their kind. In the early 1700s, peasant resistance mostly involved illegally hunting deer or gathering wood on enclosed land, not tearing down fences. Long memories of brutal defeats, reinforced by fear of ruling class forces that were now even stronger, discouraged any return to mass action.

Until the mid-1700s, the large landlords who owned most of English farmland seem to have been more interested in reaping the rewards of previous victories than in enclosing the remaining open fields and commons. About a quarter of the country’s farmland was still worked in open fields in 1700, but so long as rents covered costs, with a substantial surplus, few landlords chose to make changes.

When a new wave of enclosures began about 1755, spurred first by falling grain prices and then by rising prices during Napoleonic wars, the social and economic context was very different. English capitalist society, we might say, had become more “civilized.” In place of the rough methods of earlier years, enclosure became a structured bureaucratic process, subject to political oversight and regulation. Enclosure required detailed surveys and plans prepared by lawyers and professional enclosure commissioners, all accepted by the owners and tenants of three-quarters of the land involved (which was often a small minority of the people affected), then written into a Bill which had to be approved by a Parliamentary committee and both houses of Parliament.

Marx referred to the resulting Enclosure Acts as “decrees by which the landowners grant themselves the peoples’ land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people.”[35]

Most Parliamentary enclosures seem to have carefully followed the law, including fairly allocating land or compensation to leaseholders large and small, but the law did not recognize customary common rights. Just as with the cruder methods of previous centuries, Parliamentary enclosure didn’t just consolidate land: it eliminated common rights and dispossessed the landless commoners who depended on them. When a 20th century historian called this “perfectly proper,” because the law was obeyed and property rights protected, Edward Thompson replied:

“Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers. …

“What was ‘perfectly proper’ in terms of capitalist property-relations involved, none the less, a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right: and the social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions.”[36]

There were some local riots after enclosure was approved, often in the form of stealing or burning fence posts and rails, but as J.M. Neeson has shown, most resistance took the form of “stubborn non-compliance, foot-dragging and mischief,” before an enclosure Bill went to London. Villagers refused to speak to surveyors or gave them inaccurate information, sent threatening letters, stole record books and field plans, and in general tried to force delays or drive up the landlords’ costs. In some cases, villagers petitioned Parliament to reject the proposed bill, but that was expensive and rarely successful.[37]

Ultimately, however, the game was rigged. Sabotage might slow things down or win better terms, but landlords and large tenants who wanted to impose enclosure could always do so, and there was no right of appeal. Between 1750 and 1820 nearly 4,000 Enclosure Acts were passed, affecting roughly 6.8 million acres. Only a handful of open-field villages remained. Despite centuries of resistance, the power of capital prevailed: “the commons in England were gradually driven out of existence, the small farms engrossed, the land enclosed, and the commoners forcibly removed.”[38]

Continuing enclosure

As Marx wrote, “the expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production.” People who can produce all or most of their own subsistence are independent in ways that are alien to capitalism — they are under no economic compulsion to work for wages. As an advocate of enclosure wrote in 1800, “when a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings … the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work.”[39]

This series of articles has focused on England, where the expropriation involved a centuries-long war against the commons. It was the classic case of primitive accumulation, the “two transformations” by which “the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers,”[40] but of course this is not the whole story. In other places, capitalism’s growth by dispossession occurred at different speeds and in different ways.

In Scotland, for example, enclosure didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, but then the drive to catch up with England ensured that it was much faster and particularly brutal. As Neil Davidson writes, the horrendous 19th century Highland Clearances that Marx so eloquently condemned in Capital involved not primitive accumulation by new capitalists, but the consolidation of “an existing, and thoroughly rapacious, capitalist landowning class … whose disregard for human life (and, indeed, ‘development’) marked it as having long passed the stage of contributing to social progress.”[41]

And, of course, the growth of the British Empire, from Ireland to the Americas to India and Africa, was predicated on enclosure of colonized land and dispossession of indigenous peoples. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, extending the “blight of capitalist civilization” required

“the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development .… Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives, who are also forcibly robbed of their means of production and labour power.”[42]

That remains true today, when one percent of the world’s population has 45% of all personal wealth and nearly three billion people own nothing at all. Every year, the rich enclose ever more of the world’s riches, and their corporations destroy more of the life support systems that should be our common heritage. Enclosures continue, strengthening an ever-richer ruling class and an ever-larger global working class.

In the seventeenth century, an unknown poet summarized the hypocrisy and brutality of enclosure in four brief lines:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

We should also recall the fourth verse of that poem, which urges us to move from indignation to action.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Editor’s note: The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism.

Articles in this series:

Commons and classes before capitalism
‘Systematic theft of communal property’
Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class
Against Enclosure: The Commoners Fight Back


[1] Quotations in Andy Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 49.

[2] Frederick Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany” (1850) in Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 10 (International Publishers, 1978), 410.

[3] Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Clarendon Press, 1988), 3.

[4] Briony Mcdonagh and Stephen Daniels, “Enclosure Stories: Narratives from Northamptonshire,” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 1 (January 2012), 113.

[5] Norah Carlin, The Causes of the English Civil War (Blackwell, 1999), 129.

[6] R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 76.

[7] John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Frank Cass, 1966), 342-3, 310.

[8] John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Frank Cass, 1966), 312, 316-7, 291-2. See also Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), 320-24.

[9] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.

[10] Proceedings in the Commons, 1601: November 2–5.

[11] Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, 51.

[12] Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 162.

[13] Peter Bowden, “Agricultural Prices, Farm Profits, and Rents,” in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, ed. Joan Thirsk, vol. IV (Cambridge University Press, 1967), 695, 690, 621.

[14] Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (University of California, 1980), 264.

[15] Such figures appeared frequently in rural uprisings in England: later examples included Lady Skimmington, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing.

[16] Martin Empson, ‘Kill All the Gentlemen’: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018), 165.

[17] John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Macmillan, 1986), 173.

[18] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 84-5.

[19] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 86.

[20] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 144.

[21] James Boyce, Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens (Icon Books, 2021), Kindle edition, loc. 840.

[22] Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1991), 194.

[23] Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 1.

[24] Manning, English People, 195.

[25] John S. Morrill, The Revolt of the Provinces: Conservatives And Radicals In The English Civil War, 1630 1650 (Longman, 1987) 34.

[26] “General Order for Possessions, to secure them from Riots and Tumults,” House of Lords Journal vol. 4, July 13, 1641.

[27] Lindley, Fenland Riots, 68.

[28] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 228.

[29] Quoted in Lindley, Fenland Riots, 149.

[30] Lindley, Fenland Riots, 147.

[31] Gerard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, and Other Writings, ed. Christopher Hill (Penguin Books, 1973), 82.

[32] Christopher Hill and Edmund Dell, eds., The Good Old Cause, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2012), 424.

[33] Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (Schocken Books, 1964), 191.

[34] Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Harper, 1972), 260.

[35] Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 885.

[36] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1991), 237-8.

[37] The best account of resistance to enclosure in the 18th century is chapter 9 of J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[38] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Commons,” Social Research (Spring 2021), 5.

[39] Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800, quoted in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1991), 243.

[40] Karl Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 874.

[41] Neil Davidson, “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 1,” Journal of Agrarian Change (July 2004), 229.

[42] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, (Routledge, 2003), 352, 350.

Electric Vehicles: Back to the Future? [Part 2/2]

Electric Vehicles: Back to the Future? [Part 2/2]

By Frédéric Moreau

Read Part 1 of this article here.

While the share of solar and wind power is tending to increase, overall energy consumption is rising from all sources — development, demography (a taboo subject that has been neglected for too long), and new uses, such as digital technology in all its forms (12% of the electricity consumed in France, and 3% worldwide, a figure that is constantly rising, with digital technology now emitting more CO2 than air transport⁴⁴). Digital technology also competes with vehicles, especially electric ones, in terms of the consumption of metals and rare earths. This is perfectly logical since the renewable energy industry, and to a lesser extent the hydroelectric industry (dams), requires oil, coal and gas upstream to manufacture the equipment. Solar panels look indeed very clean once installed on a roof or in a field and which will later produce so-called “green” electricity.

We almost systematically forget, for example, the 600 to 1,500 tons of concrete for the wind turbine base, often not reused (change of model or technology during its lifespan, lack of financing to dismantle it, etc.), which holds these towers in place. Concrete that is also difficult to recycle without new and consequent energy expenditures, or even 5,000 tons for offshore wind turbines⁴⁵. Even hydrogen⁴⁶, which inveterate techno-futurists are now touting as clean and an almost free unlimited energy of tomorrow, is derived from natural gas and therefore from a fossil fuel that emits CO2.  Because on Earth, unlike in the Sun, hydrogen is not a primary energy, i.e. an energy that exists in its natural state like wood or coal and can be exploited almost immediately. Not to mention that converting one energy into another always causes a loss (due to entropy and the laws of thermodynamics; physics once again preventing us from dreaming of the mythical 100% clean, 100% recyclable and perpetual motion).

Consequently oil consumption, far from falling as hoped, has instead risen by nearly 15% in five years from 35 billion barrels in 2014 to 40 billion in 2019⁴⁷. Moreover, industry and services cannot resign themselves to the randomness of the intermittency inherent in renewable energies. We cannot tell a driver to wait for the sun to shine or for the wind to blow again, just as the miller in bygone days waited for the wind to grind the wheat, to charge the batteries of his ZOE. Since we can hardly store it in large quantities, controllable electricity production solutions are still essential to take over.

Jean-Marc Jancovici⁴⁸, an engineer at the École des Mines, has calculated that in order to charge every evening for two hours the 32 million electric cars, that will replace the 32 million thermal cars in the country⁴⁹, the current capacity of this electricity available on demand would have to be increased sevenfold from 100GW to 700GW. Thus instead of reducing the number of the most polluting installations or those considered rightly or wrongly (rather rightly according to the inhabitants of Chernobyl, Three Miles Island and Fukushima) potentially dangerous by replacing them with renewable energy production installations, we would paradoxically have to increase them. These “green” facilities are also much more material-intensive (up to ten times more) per kWh produced than conventional thermal power plants⁵⁰, especially for offshore wind turbines which require, in addition to concrete, kilometers of additional large cables. Moreover the nuclear power plants (among these controllable facilities) cooling, though climate change, are beginning to be made problematic for those located near rivers whose flow is increasingly fluctuating. And those whose water, even if it remains abundant, may be too hot in periods of heat wave to fulfill its intended purpose, sometimes leading to their temporary shutdown⁵¹. This problem will also be found with many other power plants, such as those located in the United States and with a number of hydroelectric dams⁵². The disappearance of glaciers threaten their water supply, as is already the case in certain regions of the world.

After this overview, only one rational conclusion can be drawn, namely that we did not ask ourselves the right questions in the first place. As the historian Bernard Fressoz⁵³ says, “the choice of the individual car was probably the worst that our societies have ever made”. However, it was not really a conscious and deliberate “choice” but a constraint imposed on the population by the conversion of the inventors/artisans of a still incipient automobile sector, whose limited production was sold to an equally limited wealthy clientele. The first cars being above all big toys for rich people who liked the thrills of real industrialists. Hand in hand with oil companies and tire manufacturers, they rationalized production by scrupulously applying Taylorist recipes and developed assembly lines such as Ford’s Model T in 1913. They then made cars available to the middle classes and over the decades created the conditions of compulsory use we know today.

Streetcars awaiting destruction. Photo: Los Angeles Times photographic archive.

It is this same trio (General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone mainly, as well as Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum) that was accused and condemned in 1951 by the Supreme Court of the United States of having conscientiously destroyed the streetcar networks and therefore electric public transport. They did so by taking advantage after the 1929 crash, of the “godsend” of the Great Depression, which weakened the dozens of private companies that ran them. Discredited and sabotaged in every conceivable way — including unfair competition, corruption of elected officials and high ranking civil servants, and recourse to mafia practices — streetcars were replaced first by buses, then by cars⁵⁴. This was done against a backdrop of ideological warfare, that began decades before the “official” Cold War, which an equally official History tells us about: socialist collectivism — socialist and anarchist ideas, imported at the end of the nineteenth century by immigrants from Europe and Russia, deemed subversive because they hindered the pursuit of private interests legitimized by Protestantism — countered, with the blessing of the State, by liberal individualism. This unbridled liberalism of a country crazing for the “no limits” way was also to promote the individual house of an “American dream” made possible by the private car, which explains so well the American geography of today, viable only thanks to fossil fuels⁵⁵.

Today not many people are aware of this, and very few people in the United States remember, that city dwellers did not want cars there. They were accused of monopolizing public space, blamed for their noise and bad odors. Frightened by their speed and above all they were dangerous for children who used to play in the streets. Monuments to those who lost their lives under their wheels were erected during demonstrations gathering thousands of people as a painful reminder⁵⁶. In Switzerland the canton of Graubünden banned motorized traffic throughout its territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was only after quarter of a century later, after ten popular votes confirming the ban, that it was finally lifted⁵⁷.

Left: Car opposition poster for the January 18th, 1925, vote in the canton of Graubünden, Switzerland. Right: Saint-Moritz, circa 1920. Photo: Sammlung Marco Jehli, Celerina.

The dystopia feared by the English writer George Orwell in his book 1984 was in fact already largely underway at the time of its writing as far as the automobile is concerned. In fact by deliberately concealing or distorting historical truths, although they have been established for a long time and are very well documented, it is confirmed that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” A future presented as inescapable and self-evident, which is often praised in a retroactive way, because when put in the context of the time, the reticence was nevertheless enormous⁵⁸. A future born in the myth of a technical progress, also far from being unanimously approved,  in the Age of Enlightenment. The corollary of this progress would be the permanent acquisition of new, almost unlimited, material possessions made accessible by energy consumption-based mass production and access to leisure activities that also require infrastructures to satisfy them. International tourism, for example, is by no means immaterial, which we should be aware of when we get on a metallic plane burning fossil fuel and stay in a concrete hotel.

With the electric car, it is not so much a question of “saving the planet” as of saving one’s personal material comfort, which is so important today, and above all of saving the existing economic model that is so successful and rewarding for a small minority. This minority has never ceased, out of self-interest, to confuse the end with the means by equating freedom of movement with the motorization of this very movement.

The French Minister of the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire declared before the car manufacturers that “car is freedom⁵⁹”. Yet this model is built at best on the syllogism, at worst on the shameless and deliberate lie of one of the founders of our modern economy, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste.  He said: “Natural resources are inexhaustible, for without them we would not obtain them for free. Since they can neither be multiplied nor exhausted, they are not the object of economic science⁶⁰“. This discipline, which claims to be a science while blithely freeing itself from the constraints of the physical environment of a finite world, that should for its part submit to its theories nevertheless by exhausting its supposedly inexhaustible resources and destroying its environment. The destruction of biodiversity and its ten-thousand-years-old climatic stability, allowed the automobile industries to prosper for over a century. They have built up veritable financial empires, allowing them to invest massively in the mainstream media which constantly promote the car, whether electric or not, placing them in the permanent top three of advertisers.

To threaten unemployment under the pretext that countless jobs depend on this automobile industry, even if it is true for the moment, is also to ignore, perhaps voluntarily, the past reluctance of the populations to the intrusion of automobiles. The people who did not perceive them at all as the symbol of freedom, prestige and social marker, even as the phallic symbol of omnipotence that they have become today for many⁶¹. It is above all to forget that until the 1920s the majority of people, at least in France, were not yet wage earners. Since wage employment was born in the United Kingdom with the industrial revolution or more precisely the capitalist revolution, beginning with the textile industry: enclosure and workhouses transformed peasants and independent artisans into manpower. Into a workforce drawn under constraint to serve the private capital by depriving them of the means of their autonomy (the appropriation of communal property). Just as imported slaves were on the other side of the Atlantic until they were replaced by the steam engine, which was much more economical and which was certainly the true abolitionist⁶². It is clear that there can be no question of challenging this dependence, which is now presented as inescapable by those who benefit most from it and those for whom it is a guarantee of social stability, and thus a formidable means of control over the populace.

Today, we are repeatedly told that “the American [and by extension Western] way of life is non-negotiable⁶³. “Sustainable development,” like “green growth,” “clean energy” and the “zero-carbon” cars (as we have seen above) are nothing but oxymorons whose sole purpose is to ensure the survival of the industries, on which this way of life relies to continue enriching their owners and shareholders. This includes the new information and communication industries that also want to sell their own products related to the car (like artificial intelligence for the autonomous car, and its potential devastating rebound effect). To also maintain the banking and financial systems that oversee them (debt and shareholders, eternally dissatisfied, demanding continuous growth, which is synonymous with constant consumption).

Cheerful passengers above flood victims queing for help, their car is shown as a source of happiness. Louisville, USA, 1937. Photo: Margaret Bourke-White, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

All this with the guarantee of politicians, often in blatant conflicts of interest. And all too often with the more or less unconscious, ignorant or irresponsible acceptance of populations lulled into a veritable culture of selfishness, more than reluctant from now on to consent to the slightest reduction in material comfort. Which they have been so effectively persuaded can only grow indefinitely but made only possible by the burning of long-plethoric and cheap energy. This explains their denial of the active role they play in this unbridled consumerism, the true engine of climate change. Many claim, in order to relieve themselves of guilt, to be only poor insignificant creatures that can in no way be responsible for the evils of which they are accused. And are quick to invoke natural cycles, even though they are often not even aware of them (such as the Milankovitch cycles⁶⁴ that lead us not towards a warming, but towards a cooling!), to find an easy explanation that clears them and does not question a comfortable and reassuring way of life; and a so disempowering one.

Indeed people, new Prometheus intoxicated by undeniable technical prowess, are hypersensitive to promises of innovations that look like miracle solutions. “Magical thinking”, and its avatars such as Santa Claus or Harry Potter, tends nowadays to last well beyond childhood in a highly technological society. Especially since it is exalted by the promoters of positive thinking and personal development. Whose books stuff the shelves in every bookstore, reinforcing the feeling of omnipotence, the certainty of a so-called “manifest destiny”, and the inclination to self-deification. But this era is coming to an end. Homo Deus is starting to have a serious hangover. And we are all already paying the price in social terms. The “gilets jaunes” or yellow vests in France, for example, were unable to accept a new tax on gas for funding renewables and a speed reduction on the roads from 90km/h down to 80km/h. Paying in terms of climate change, which has only just begun, from which no one will escape, rich and powerful included.

Now everyone can judge whether the electric car is as clean as we are constantly told it is, even to the point of making it, like in Orwell’s novel, an indisputable established truth, despite the flagrant contradiction in terms (“war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”). Does the inalienable freedom of individual motorized mobility, on which our modern societies are based, have a radiant future outside the imagination and fantasies of the endless technophiles who promise it to us ; just as they promised in the 1960s cities in orbit, flying cars, space stations on the Moon and Mars, underwater farms… And just as they also promised, 70 years ago, and in defiance of the most elementary principle of precaution, overwhelmed by an exalted optimism, to “very soon” find a definitive “solution” to nuclear waste; a solution that we are still waiting for, sweeping the (radioactive) dust under the carpet since then…

Isn’t it curious that we have focused mainly on the problem of the nature of the energy that ultimately allows an engine to function for moving a vehicle and its passengers, ignoring everything else? It’s as if we were trying to make the car as “dematerialized” as digital technology and the new economy it allows. Having succeeded in making the charging stations, the equipment, the satellites and the rockets to put them in orbit, the relay antennas, the thousands of kilometers of cables, and all that this implies of extractivism and industries upstream, disappear as if by magic (and we’re back to Harry Potter again). Yet all very material as is the energy necessary for their manufacture and their functioning, the generated pollution, the artificialization of the lands, etc.⁶⁵

Everlasting promises of flying cars, which would turn humans into new Icarius, arenearly one and a half century old. Future is definitely not anymore what it used to be…

Everyone remains free to continue to take the word of economists who cling like a leech to their sacrosanct infinite growth. To believe politicians whose perception of the future is determined above all by the length of their mandate. Who, in addition to being subject to their hyperactive lobbying, have shares in a world automobile market approaching 1,800 billion Euros per year⁶⁶ (+65% in 10 years, neither politicians nor economists would balk at such growth, which must trigger off climax at the Ministry of the Economy!). That is to say, the 2019 GDP of Italy. Moreover, in 2018 the various taxes on motor vehicles brought in 440 billion Euros for European countries⁶⁷. So it is implicitly out of the question to question, let alone threaten the sustainability of, this industrial sector that guarantees the very stability of the most developed nations.

It is also very difficult to believe journalists who most often, except a few who are specialized, have a very poor command of the subjects they cover. Especially in France, even when they don’t just copy and paste each other. Moreover, they are mostly employed by media financed in large part, via advertising revenues among other things, by car manufacturers who would hardly tolerate criticism or contradiction. No mention of CO2-emitting cement broadcasted on the TF1 channel, owned by the concrete builder Bouygues, which is currently manufacturing the bases for the wind turbines in Fécamp, Normandy. No more than believing startups whose primary vocation is to “make money”, even at the cost of false promises that they know very few people will debunk. Like some solar panels sold to provide more energy than the sun works only for those who ignore another physical fact, the solar constant. Which is simply like making people believe in the biblical multiplication of loaves and fishes.

So, sorry to disappoint you and to hurt your intimate convictions, perhaps even your faith, but the electric car, like Trump’s coal, will never be “clean”. Because as soon as you transform matter from one state to another by means of energy, you dissipate part of this energy in the form of heat. And you inevitably obtain by-products that are not necessarily desired and waste. This is why physicists, scientists and Greta Thunberg kept telling us for years that we should listen to them. The electric car will be at best just “a little less dirty” (in the order of 0 to 25% according to the various studies carried out concerning manufacturing and energy supply of vehicles, and even less if we integrate all the externalities). This is a meager advantage that is probably more socially acceptable but it is quickly swallowed up if not solely in their renewal frequency. The future will tell, at least in the announced increase of the total number of cars, with a 3% per year mean growth in terms of units produced, and of all the infrastructures on which they depend (same growth rate for the construction of new roads). 3% means a doubling of the total number of vehicles and kilometers of roads every 23 years, and this is absolutely not questioned.

Brittany, France, August 2021.

42 With 8 billion tons consumed every year, coal stands in the very first place in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. International Energy Outlook, 2019.


44 &



47 & &


49 Atually there are 38.2 million cars in France, more than one for two inhabitants:

50 Philippe Bihouix and Benoît de Guillebon, op. cit., p. 32.

51 &


53 Co-author with Christophe Bonneuil of L’évènement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous, Points, 2016 (The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, Verso, 2017).

54 & Matthieu Auzanneau, Or noir. La grande histoire du pétrole, La Découverte, 2015, p.436, and the report written for the American Senate by Bradford C. Snell, Public Prosecutor specialized in anti-trust laws.

55 James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, Free Press, 1994.

56 Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic. The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, The MIT Press, 2008.

57 & Stefan Hollinger, Graubünden und das Auto. Kontroversen um den Automobilverkehr 1900-1925, Kommissionsverlag Desertina, 2008

58 Emmanuel Fureix and François Jarrige, La modernité désenchantée, La Découverte, 2015 & François Jarrige, Technocritiques. Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences, La Découverte, 2014.

59 Journée de la filière automobile, Bercy, December 02, 2019.

60 Cours complet d’économie politique pratique, 1828.

61 Richard Bergeron, le Livre noir de l’automobile, Exploration du rapport malsain de l’homme contemporain à l’automobile, Éditions Hypothèse, 1999 & Jean Robin, Le livre noir de l’automobile : Millions de morts et d’handicapés à vie, pollution, déshumanisation, destruction des paysages, etc., Tatamis Editions, 2014.

62 Domenico Losurdo, Contre-histoire du libéralisme, La Découverte, 2013 (Liberalism : A Counter-History, Verso, 2014) & Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, Longman, 1980 (Une Histoire populaire des Etats-Unis de 1492 a nos jours, Agone, 2003) & Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery, The University of North Carolina Press, 1943.

63 George H.W. Bush, Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992.


65 Guillaume Pitron, L’enfer numérique. Voyage au bout d’un like, Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2021.


67 Source: ACEA Tax Guide 2020, fiscal income from motor vehicles in major European markets.

The disturbing history of how conservatorships were used to exploit, swindle Native Americans

The disturbing history of how conservatorships were used to exploit, swindle Native Americans

This story first appeared in The Conversation.

By Andrea Seielstad.

Pop singer Britney Spears’ quest to end the conservatorship that handed control over her finances and health care to her father demonstrates the double-edged sword of putting people under the legal care and control of another person.

A judge may at times deem it necessary to appoint a guardian or conservator to protect a vulnerable person from abuse and trickery by others, or to protect them from poor decision-making regarding their own health and safety. But when put into the hands of self-serving or otherwise unscrupulous conservators, however, it can lead to exploitation and abuse.

Celebrities like Spears may be particularly susceptible to exploitation due to their capacity for generating wealth, but they are far from the only people at risk. As a lawyer with decades of experience representing poor and marginalized people and a scholar of tribal and federal Indian law, I can attest to the way systemic inequalities within local legal practices may exacerbate these potentially exploitative situations, especially with respect to women and people of color.

Perhaps nowhere has the impact been so grave than with respect to Native Americans, who were put into a status of guardianship due to a system of federal and local policies developed in the early 1900s purportedly aimed at protecting Native Americans receiving allotted land from the government. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma – Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations – were particularly impacted by these practices due to the discovery of oil and gas under their lands.

Swindled by ‘friendly white lawyers’

conservatorship, or a related designation called a guardianship, takes away decision-making autonomy from a person, called a “ward.” Although the conservator is supposed to act in the interest of the ward, the system can be open to exploitation especially when vast sums of money are involved.

This was the case between 1908 and 1934, when guardianships became a vehicle for the swindling of Native communities out of their lands and royalties.

By that time, federal policy had forced the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from eastern and southern locations in the United States to what is presently Oklahoma. Subsequent federal policy converted large tracts of tribally held land into individual allotments that could be transferred or sold without federal oversight – a move that fractured communal land. Land deemed to be “surplus to Indian needs” was sold off to white settlers or businesses, and Native allotment holders could likewise sell their plots after a 25-year trust period ended or otherwise have them taken through tax assessments and other administrative actions. Through this process Indian land holdings diminished from “138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres by 1934 when allotment ended,” according to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

During the 1920s, members of the Osage Nation and of the Five Civilized Tribes were deemed to be among the richest people per capita in the world due to the discovery of oil and gas underneath their lands.

However, this discovery turned them into the victims of predatory schemes that left many penniless or even dead.

Reflecting on this period in the 1973 book “One Hundred Million Acres,” Kirke Kickingbird, a lawyer and member of the Kiowa Tribe, and former Bureau of Indian Affairs special assistant Karen Ducheneaux wrote that members of the Osage Nation “began to disappear mysteriously.” On death, their estates were left “not to their families, but to their friendly white lawyers, who gathered to usher them into the Happy Hunting Ground,” Kickingbird and Ducheneaux added.

Lawyers and conservators stole lands and funds before death as well, by getting themselves appointed as guardians and conservators with full authority to spend their wards’ money or lease and sell their land.

Congress created the initial conditions for this widespread graft and abuse through the Act of May 27, 1908. That Act transferred jurisdiction over land, persons and property of Indian “minors and incompetents” from the Interior Department, to local county probate courts in Oklahoma. Related legislation also enabled the the Interior Department to put land in or out of trust protection based on its assessment of the competency of Native American allottees and their heirs.

Unfettered by federal supervisory authority, local probate courts and attorneys seized the opportunity to use guardianships to steal Native Americans estates and lands. As described in 1924 by Zitkála-Šá, a prominent Native American activist commissioned by the Secretary of Interior to study the issue, “When oil is ‘struck’ on an Indian’s property, it is usually considered prima facie evidence that he is incompetent, and in the appointment of a guardian for him, his wishes in the matter are rarely considered.”

Activist and writer Zitkála-Šá. Wikimedia Commons

The county courts generally declared Native Americans incompetent to handle more than a very limited sum of money without any finding of mental incapacity. Zitkála-Šá’s report and Congressional testimony documented numerous examples of abuse. Breaches of trust were documented in which attorneys or others appointed conservators took money or lands from Nation members for their own businesses, personal expenses or investments. Others schemed with friends and business associates to deprive “wards.”

‘Plums to be distributed’

One such woman in Zitkála-Šá’s report was Munnie Bear, a “young, shrewd full-blood Creek woman … [who] ran a farm which she inherited from her aunt, her own allotment being leased.” Munnie saved enough money to buy a Ford truck and livestock for her farm, with savings remaining in a bank account. Once oil was discovered, however, the court appointed a guardian, who appointed a co-guardian and retained a lawyer, each of whom deducted monthly fees that depleted Bear’s funds. During the period of her guardianship, she was unable to spend any money or make any decisions about her farm or livestock, nor did she control her bank investment.

Zitkála-Šá’s report displays the extent of this practice:

“Many of the county courts are influenced by political considerations, and … Indian guardianships are the plums to be distributed to the faithful friends of the judges as a reward for their support at the polls. The principal business of these county courts is handling Indian estates. The judges are elected for a two-year term. That ‘extraordinary services’ in connection with the Indian estates are well paid for; one attorney, by order of the court, received $35,000 from a ward’s estate, and never appeared in court.”

Wards were often kept below subsistence levels by their conservators while their funds and lands were depleted by the charging of excessive guardian and attorneys’ fees and administrative costs, along with actual abuse through graft, negligence and deception.

Reports like that of Zitkála-Šá’s resulted in Congress enacting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This put the Indian land that had not fallen into non-Indian hands during the federal policy of allotting plots back into tribal ownership and secured it in the trust of the United States. It also ended the potential for theft through guardianship.

But the lands and funds lost as a result of guardianships were not restored nor did descendants of those swindled ever enjoy the benefit of their relatives’ lands and monies either.

The Problem

The Problem

This is an excerpt from the book Bright Green Lies, P. 1-7


“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd: Life itself will not survive, except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.”1

There is so little time and even less hope here, in the midst of ruin, at the end of the world. Every biome is in shreds. The green flesh of forests has been stripped to grim sand. The word water has been drained of meaning; the Athabascan River is essentially a planned toxic spill now, oozing from the open wound of the Alberta tar sands. When birds fly over it, they drop dead from the poison. No one believes us when we say that, but it’s true. The Appalachian Mountains are being blown to bits, their dense life of deciduous forests, including their human communities, reduced to a disposal problem called “overburden,” a word that should be considered hate speech: Living creatures—mountain laurels, wood thrush fledglings, somebody’s grandchildren—are not objects to be tossed into gullies. If there is no poetry after Auschwitz, there is no grammar after mountaintop removal. As above, so below. Coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. And the world’s grasslands have been sliced to ribbons, literally, with steel blades fed by fossil fuel. The hunger of those blades would be endless but for the fact that the planet is a bounded sphere: There are no continents left to eat. Every year the average American farm uses the energy equivalent of three to four tons of TNT per acre. And oil burns so easily, once every possibility for self-sustaining cultures has been destroyed. Even the memory of nature is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale. All that’s left is carbon, accruing into a nightmare from which dawn will not save us. Climate change slipped into climate chaos, which has become a whispered climate holocaust. At least the humans whisper. And the animals? During the 2011 Texas drought, deer abandoned their fawns for lack of milk. That is not a grief that whispers. For living beings like Labrador ducks, Javan rhinos, and Xerces blue butterflies, there is the long silence of extinction.

We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets. Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.

Twelve thousand years ago, the war against the earth began. In nine places,2 people started to destroy the world by taking up agriculture. Understand what agriculture is: In blunt terms, you take a piece of land, clear every living thing off it—ultimately, down to the bacteria—and then plant it for human use. Make no mistake: Agriculture is biotic cleansing. That’s not agriculture on a bad day, or agriculture done poorly. That’s what agriculture actually is: the extirpation of living communities for a monocrop for and of humans. There were perhaps five million humans living on earth on the day this started—from this day to the ending of the world, indeed—and there are now well over seven billion. The end is written into the beginning. As earth and space sciences scholar David R. Montgomery points out, agricultural societies “last 800 to 2,000 years … until the soil gives out.”3 Fossil fuel has been a vast accelerant to both the extirpation and the monocrop—the human population has quadrupled under the swell of surplus created by the Green Revolution—but it can only be temporary. Finite quantities have a nasty habit of running out. The name for this diminishment is drawdown, and agriculture is in essence a slow bleed-out of soil, species, biomes, and ultimately the process of life itself. Vertebrate evolution has come to a halt for lack of habitat, with habitat taken by force and kept by force: Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year. Agriculture is the original scorched-earth policy, which is why both author and permaculturist Toby Hemenway and environmental writer Richard Manning have written the same sentence: “Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.” To quote Manning at length: “No biologist, or anyone else for that matter, could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a mono- culture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies, because there is no other way to sustain it.”4

Agriculture is what creates the human pattern called civilization. Civilization is not the same as culture—all humans create culture, which can be defined as the customs, beliefs, arts, cuisine, social organization, and ways of knowing and relating to each other, the land, and the divine within a specific group of people. Civilization is a specific way of life: people living in cities, with cities defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in a few sentences. Over and over and over, the pattern is the same. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants, until eventually it collapses. The conjoined horrors of militarism and slavery begin with agriculture.

Agricultural societies end up militarized—and they always do—for three reasons. First, agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen, so, the surplus needs to be protected. The people who do that are called soldiers. Second, the drawdown inherent in this activity means that agriculturalists will always need more land, more soil, and more resources. They need an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible as well as inevitable. Third, agriculture is backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three-quarters of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom.5 Force is the only way to get and keep that many people enslaved. We’ve largely forgotten this is because we’ve been using machines—which in turn use fossil fuel—to do that work for us instead of slaves. The symbiosis of technology and culture is what historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) called a technic. A social milieu creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture. Mumford writes, “[A] new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control … gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization… The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics … created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”6

Technology is anything but neutral or passive in its effects: Ploughshares require armies of slaves to operate them and soldiers to protect them. The technic that is civilization has required weapons of conquest from the beginning. “Farming spread by genocide,” Richard Manning writes.7 The destruction of Cro-Magnon Europe—the culture that bequeathed us Lascaux, a collection of cave paintings in southwestern France—took farmer-soldiers from the Near East perhaps 300 years to accomplish. The only thing exchanged between the two cultures was violence. “All these artifacts are weapons,” writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price, with his colleagues, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner.”8

Weapons are tools that civilizations will make because civilization itself is a war. Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology: no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral. Or, as ecopsychology pioneer Chellis Glendinning writes with spare eloquence, “All technologies are political.”9


  1. Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964).
  2. There exists some debate as to how many places developed agriculture and civilizations. The best current guess seems to be nine: the Fertile Crescent; the Indian sub- continent; the Yangtze and Yellow River basins; the New Guinea Highlands; Central Mexico; Northern South America; sub-Saharan Africa; and eastern North America.
  3. David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 236.
  4. Richard Manning, Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 185.
  5. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Mariner Books, 2006), 2.
  6. Mumford op cit (Winter, 1964), 3.
  7. Richard Manning, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (New York: North Point Press, 2004), 45.
  8. T. Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, and Lawrence H. Keeley, “The Spread of Farming into Europe North of the Alps,” in Douglas T. Price and Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Last Hunters, First Farmers (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1995).
  9. Chellis Glendinning, “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” Utne Reader, March- April 1990, 50.