Extremism in the Defense of Survival

…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  …moderation in the pursuit of  justice is no virtue

—  Barry Goldwater, 1964

I remember hearing this shortly after it was spoken.  I was immediately impressed with its rhetorical force and then by its stronger second taste, anxiety.  My life was a, if not carefully, then somewhat successfully constructed, house of cards: work, savings and bit of larceny, deferments, class schedules, grad school applications and a serious relationship all run through and through with the pretty ribbon of ‘the plan.’  Extremism in the pursuit of anything sounded to me like danger.

My roots were nourished in the bloody soil of WWII; extremism was not unknown to me as a concept or actuality.  In fact, my generation was never far from the tiger ride.  McCarthy, Russians, Cuba, the Bomb.  Growing up in the south and the violent swings of hate, love and confusion that were its daily bread only spiced up the mix.

And I was a young man and wanted a future.

I reflect of these things since I am reprising Goldwater’s lines, though with quite different goals – they would have sounded the same to me back then with any intention; it was the embracing of extremism that frightened me most, not the insanity of Goldwater’s worldview.  I had seen people with crazy ideas, lots of them.  It was the ones who were willing to go to the mat for those ideas that concerned me then; ‘upsetting my plans and all!’  I actually didn’t know that much about the ideas themselves, but could easily see who was trying to make big changes that might, sort of randomly, tumble down onto my little house of cards.

Goldwater’s Manichaean libertarian conservatism, informed out of a stew of Calvinism, individualism and incipient xenophobia, appealed to a world of saintly Americans in mortal (and universal) combat with the evil Ruskies.  It was like a boil on humanity’s butt; and it got us wrong as a species: not Calvinist, not individual.  We are Manichaean and xenophobic, and other things that make getting out of our present mess problematic; but rather than appealing to them to energize our politics, we need to realize and mitigate them in the present world.

I didn’t understand these things back then; I only believed that extremism was dangerous.  And yet today I see that only a particular extremism is all that can save the biophysical world we live in.  But I expect that extremism will be rejected just as I rejected it.  This is made especially difficult and confusing since the political descendents of Goldwater have learned the same lesson: they are just as extreme in their narrow crazy way, but they now begin every sentence with, “I am just following the will of the people,” as though they have no personal position and are moderate neutrals responding to the masses.

Because of the extremes to which we humans have gone in our attempts to “conquer” nature over the last few thousand years, we must embrace new extremes – even greater extremes – if we are to return to living in biophysical reality.   It is a simple fact available for all who will see, either with their own eyes or with the literature of science, that our changing of the earth’s surface and processes has a limited future.  It is also clear that the economic systems that presently run our human existence are unfit for the problems that confront us.  And, finally, there are only a tiny number of years in which to make the shifts in attitude, understanding and action required.

Taken together these facts dictate extreme solutions.  More and more people are saying this — Derrick Jensen, Bill Mckibben and others; what Rachel Carson told the world 50 long years ago, what Malthus understood in general form 200 hundred years ago.   And so here we are, once again needing to do our chores at the last minute.

What are the things we need to change?  I have prepared my partial list.  There are others that I may have missed, but for the most part these would be a good start.  I have written the list in the form of what we need to understand and believe – there are many many objections to these ideas, but they are not the point – these are the ideas that would reform our relationships with each other and with the world around us in ways that would allow other species and ecosystem relationships to continue on in some harmony with us.

1) Humans are animals that must integrate their behaviors into ecological processes (even if they can get away with not paying attention to ecological reality for some extended period of time).  As animals we have behaviors characteristic of our species that, so long as we were sufficiently connected to the natural environment in which they evolved, took care for themselves, but which today take special attention to understand, support and mitigate as we confront the “unnatural” world we have created.  ((Each individual of each species is formed from an informational template created by the evolutionary process in completely interpenetrating integration with environment – the “two” are really a common process. As a result, every species has an ecological and behavioral description as defining as the structure and physiology of its body. In other words there is a way that each species lives; the term that I am using for the total behavioral/emotional formation of a species is specieshood.))

2) Nothing can be owned by anything.  All claims of property and ownership are relationships in which one party is arbitrarily devalued based on short-term power imbalances – always the result of the failures of full system integration (usually because we are driven by desire for ‘gain’ dependent on limited understanding).  This doesn’t mean that human political and economic systems don’t have to address the use of space and material, but our ways of thinking about them must change.

3) Wealth accumulation is an aberrant behavior – a form of psychopathology. Emotionally healthy people strive for sufficient material wealth to be safe in reality and realize the damaging effect that excess has on both environment and specieshood.  The concepts of property and wealth accumulation are among the most dangerous ideas and behaviors of humans.

4) The measure of normal in the world must be from places and processes that are uninfluenced by human action (except where humans are fully integrated into the relevant ecologies).  Finding such places today is difficult, but can be reasonable well modeled still.

5) There are no normal or natural human behaviors, group or individual, of any scale remaining in the human repertoire.  I wish that you would read that statement a couple of times.  Normal, that is the behaviors and feelings of specieshood, has to be rediscovered with focused intention.  All references to “normal and natural” that depend on present behaviors are seriously suspect.  Since most of the information we receive from the world is created by some human with an agenda to influence us in some way, we must become careful of what we subject ourselves to, when and how.  Just as we are learning to eat with a mind to additives and nutrients, actively avoiding some and selecting other foods, so we must also be careful of our perceptual diet.

6) Humans are a community-based organism.  We are individual only with the support of a community.  It is ironic that as we have come to depend on more and more others, some of us have taken to trying to see themselves as more and more individual and independent – to the point of proclaiming absolute ‘individualism.’  The absurdity of this is obvious if you simply imagine them without the millions of people that they depend on (yet deny and reject – see #2) as supporting cast.

7) Our understandings of, and relationships to, health, illness and death have become terribly distorted.  A biological body is not evolved to continue functioning for much more than the average live expectancy of the species.  The devotion of individual people to their own ‘individualism’ gives the impression that there is something there to ‘live long and prosper.’  But that is only appropriate in a community design where living long and prospering supports the community.  Healing individuals and defeating death (for a time) to the detriment of the species is madness.

8) Our spiritual understandings and habits are the distorted products of the pre-scientific forest life made to serve the interests of kings and other authoritarians.  We need to recognize the incredible creation that is the Consciousness System of Order, its immense power to support our relationship with reality and its devastatingly dangerous power to distort it.  Our connections to the universe are vital and can grow into forms and in ways of being that we cannot guess if given the opportunity to do so in Reality.

These all combine to suggest a life beginning by being raised in a loving and supporting community, being trained and educated in the Realities of the situation in which one lives: an education formed around a combination of the best of factual material from the sciences, the best of epistemological understanding of reasoning, studies of human historical and cultural experience, and all wrapped in the ideas of personal joy in living life well through the experience of it.

The goal would be to gain the greatest joy and pleasure in life from the using up of the least amount of the world’s material.  The greatest human consequence would be to have lived a life of fulfillment while only leaving footprints.  The idea of leaving factories, vast highway systems and other mountains of waste should create the greatest sense of horror and shame.  As the body failed or as disease began its assault, a fulfilled person would not cling on in the hope of some mythical happiness, of meeting some unmet need.  They would go, the community would grieve and go on.

Such a way of living would in no way be utopian; it would be filled with all of the difficulties that confront people today less one: human life would be integrated into biophysical reality and delimited by that reality the way it is for every other species.  Human rates of change would be slowed to allow the evolution of other species and ecosystems to keep up.

These are extreme views and would require extreme changes in how we live.  It is clear to me that most will reject them even if realizing their necessity.  But these ideas and others like them need to be planted in as many minds as possible, planted and nurtured.  And as they wither in the sterile rain of our craziness, then replanted for as long as we are able.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. E.R. Bills said on December 21st, 2010 at 9:28am #

    excellent definition of the problem and indisputable steps necessary for solution. Count me in…


  2. bozh said on December 21st, 2010 at 9:41am #

    james says:
    “Our spiritual understandings and habits are the distorted products of the pre-scientific forest life made to serve the interests of kings and other authoritarians.”

    sorry, james but this observation appears incorrect. for one thing, a clan or lager group of people must have lived without ‘nobles’; i.e., criminals such as shamans, visionaries, priests, kings, et al.
    we may have believed in ghosts, spirits before rise of ‘nobility’; however, most likely all people did believe in spirits and the like. but for what purpose? to subjugate people or not?
    i say no! not to use people or instill fear of them so that they cld be controlled.
    it constituted first religion. however, religion in itself is not harmful to us– priests are. they are the last people to love, respect gods.
    i affirm quite strongly that we were ok 50k yrs ago; we r ok even now. just get rid of priests and abusers of us is all we need to do!

    as for science, i affirm that having survived w.o. it for one mn yrs, we wld have survived w.o. it, anyhow.
    the science per se is not evil– what is evil is abusers taking much of the fruits of science for themselves.

    i agree that private ownership of anything is wrong. indigenes of americas had no such concept and neither had we, say, until 15k yrs ago or later.
    ownership of people is even worse than owning anything else.

    where i come from there had been dozens of major violent uprisings against ‘nobility’. however, they were sporadic and local and thus easily put dwn by king’s soldiers.
    i need to reread ur piece to comment on other points u made. tnx

  3. bozh said on December 21st, 2010 at 9:59am #

    4) The measure of normal in the world must be from places and processes that are uninfluenced by human action (except where humans are fully integrated into the relevant ecologies). Finding such places today is difficult, but can be reasonable well modeled still.

    i cannot understand the above observation. i am not saying that u are not correct.
    i cld venture a guess as to what u mean to say by the above statement.

    i think u’r saying that a correct style of living must exists and only thereafter we’d apply it to us? and since, obviously [at this date] norma?l not existing anywhere, we cannot know what is normal?
    ok, i am not going any further with this until i get an adequate explanation! tnx

  4. bozh said on December 21st, 2010 at 10:06am #

    ok, i did overlook the meaning of “can be reasonable well modeled still”. u mean to say, we can obtain an ideally structured society, nevertheless? i agree with that! tnx

  5. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 11:02am #

    Again we are out of time to start so a great start would be to tax carbon the slowdown of the economy will happen there’s no way around that now. So far the decision has been made to not try the old all of the above thinking. Well with that thinking many will be talking to all of the above alright. It look’s like in a few years it will be rocket’s with SO 4 doesn’t solve the problem just covers it over with a few minor side effects yes I know highly unusual for the powers that be to use that kind of thinking. From the look’s of the weather not climate the last few years in our face big timer very soon. This time the movie is a documentary.

  6. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 12:46pm #

    Not cap and trade tax carbon cap and trade is one big giant loophole tax carbon and since the little problem itself we be very clear very soon at least we will be somewhat ahead of this. So far this doesn’t look good still the easy way out kind of like going to hell in a basket. Either way unless of course you are on the list for the C-130 it’s going to get ruff.

  7. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 2:36pm #

    The Salt Lake Tribune

    Published Dec 21, 2010 02:10PM
    Updated 3 minutes ago Updated Dec 21, 2010 02:24PM
    St. George • The town Rockville was told to evacuate Tuesday afternoon because of fears the Trees Ranch Dam could fail, sending a deluge downstream toward it.

    “The imminent failure of the Trees Ranch Dam on the East fork of the Virgin River in Washington County was reported by Washington County Sheriff’s Department,” the weather service said.

    If these so called leaders don’t take us or the problems we face seriously why should we take them seriously and only the beginning. For profit more on the lines of nonprofit if we wish to survive.

  8. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 3:27pm #

    Police intervened Saturday to prevent a passenger riot at Germany’s biggest airport. Blizzards have crippled air and train transport around Europe, leaving thousands of holiday travelers stranded.

    Police were called Saturday morning to calm passengers at Frankfurt airport as blizzards left thousands of holiday passengers stranded across Europe. Germany

    Let’s see here in the States we got health care sort of and now it’s repeal and replace. The tax bill to try and get the system going again the same system that will send us all down the drain but the wealthy got there tax cut’s. Starting to add up and the big plan so far is go shopping. Something is very very wrong here.

    The snow in Germany, Europe climate change and or climate disruption well yes it sure is and we will hear from the wealthy who got there tax cut’s it’s cold what climate change go shopping buy one share of stock and have fun doing it listen to us we know best. Oh and help us get out the vote. Wait the truth is now banned well I’ll post this anyway. Repeat the obvious repeat the obvious!

  9. Don Hawkins said on December 21st, 2010 at 4:21pm #

    Man things are screwed up. Just watched Beck for a few minutes and now he’s on we the people. Well Glenn we the people are headed down the drain and if you said one thing that made sense and you haven’t I still wouldn’t buy your book. The rest are not to far behind more on the lines of stay silent as the truth is now banned. Florida and Georgia drought big time for months to come and let’s see California by tomorrow night. The stock market is up and from what I understand high end retailers are doing well this Christmas probably lot’s of self gifting. Amazing to see once you know.

  10. Don Hawkins said on December 22nd, 2010 at 6:14am #


    New from James Hansen and James this is a good one.

  11. Don Hawkins said on December 22nd, 2010 at 8:46am #

    I sent this to CNBC this morning and I have been sending them e-mails for about 11 years let’s just say they all know more about climate change than they would like. Well they sent me this e-mail back you know I got from the postmaster failed, failure so I guess thinking has now been banned, oh well.


    17 feet of snow in a few places California. Now let’s use that little bit bigger brain a 7 store building got that. So wikileaks is going to release a little on BofA I know maybe we could pass a few new law’s bring up being unamerican. The good the bad and the ugly heck let’s just see a few pit one side against another nice cup of coffee game of checkers. Heck let’s use that bigger brain again, it was the year 2014 and…………………………………………?

    Moisture and cold air where does the moisture come from and the cold air why is a good word. Has this thinking been banned, really and who is giving the orders.


  12. Don Hawkins said on December 22nd, 2010 at 1:05pm #


    GOES 11 at least we will all get a great view of the destruction. Type in GOES 11 NASA search engine.

  13. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2010 at 5:48am #

    The Obama administration is planning to accelerate new greenhouse-gas regulations for power plants and oil refineries amid stiff opposition from industry and congressional Republicans.

    The administration is also escalating a clash with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has refused to sign on to its climate agenda.

    The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce Thursday that it will propose standards for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. power plants by July 2011 and for refineries by December 2011.

    The proposed new power-plant regulations are likely to limit the amount of carbon dioxide a facility can emit for each megawatt hour of electricity produced, a person familiar with the agency’s plans said.

    That could compel utilities to switch from relatively cheap coal to cleaner sources of energy, including natural gas, wind or nuclear power. Utilities that rely heavily on coal have expressed concerns such a shift could cause electricity prices to rise. WSJ

    Cause electricity prices to rise there is a much simpler plan but I guess complex is better. Can hardly wait to see Texas Gov. Rick Perry on TV do you think he will cry seems to be all the rage lately. Maybe we will hear the show must go on. If we wish to survive just maybe the show the one we see now doesn’t need to go on. Can a State still succeed from the union as if they can would they have to turn in there weapons you know the bigger ones as I’ve seen some of these old boy’s on TV and they seem to live in an alternate reality and or whatever they are taking doesn’t seem to be doing them much good.