Don't Know Much About Geography

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Particle agglomeration refers to the aggregation of elements floating in a colloidal solution. Roderick Frazier Nash, in an epilogue titled Island Civilization to the fifth edition of his Wilderness and the American Mind, 2014, proposes that the planet might usefully undergo such a process wherein the dispersed, but increasingly predominant, detritus of civilization, together with its human creators, be neatly encapsulated into circles of, say, one hundred miles in diameter, and thus isolated from their generative medium - a self-willed or wild Planet.

Such a segregation of humanity and all of its works within its erstwhile edenic environment is necessary, in Nash's judgement, for the survival of a diverse and flourishing world, for we are the cancer cells threatening its consumption. He proposes one-thousand years as a reasonable time scale for this separation of the wild and the not-wild (reminiscent of the social theorist Claude Levi-Strauss' notions of binary structure such as the raw and the cooked) and identifies a number of historical phenomena which have, over time, already demonstrated this process of particle agglomeration. Of local relevance is the Mission system put in place by Franciscan friars as isolated feudal encampments linked by inter-mission Caminos Reales - a system which I have previously characterized as plague blisters of an intensely venal and theocratically totalitarian European civilization suppurating on lands populated by indigenous cultures highly mindful of their envelopment by a self-willed nature.

Hold on: might there be, in these circles of contained civilization some approximate correlation with bio-regions? Nash's concept is, shall we say, highly conceptual: might there not be some relaxation of the platonic purity inherent in the polka-dotting of a wild planet with these fever spots of civilization? Could these 'Islands' conform, not to Euclidean geometry, but to bio-regions where natural resources, industry, agriculture, dense populations and transportation corridors already exist? Have we already, in short, jump-started Nash's millennial Reich?

His idea, of course, is intensely reactionary. It suggests a reversion to insularity, to a doing away with global inter-connectedness and a complete upturning of the contemporary balance between civilization and nature. Wildlife corridors that attempt to patch together the remaining areas of wilderness would be replaced with vestigial civilizational corridors that connect the mosaic of self sufficient, isolated Islands of civilization between which, in Nash's plan, there is no mechanically assisted transportation.

Parag Khanna writes in Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, 2016, "America is reorganizing itself around regional clusters that ignore state and even national boundaries". He goes on to suggest that Western Europe and Asia are already "orienting themselves around robust urban clusters of advanced industry". He invokes Nash's island concept by branding these as 'urban archipelagos' - left unsaid is that these loose aggregations of dense metropolitan mass might float in a sea of wilderness where rural towns and smaller regional centers not explicitly linked to an urban archipelago would atrophy and eventually revert to wildland as, indeed, is beginning to happen now in depopulating areas of Europe.

As I suggested in Don't know much about History, the fiction that is the United States merely awaits a more coherent narrative. Nash and Khanna, amongst others, are opening up the space of future ideas into which a new paradigm for our relationship with the natural world might be realized. Implicit in their shared notion is that there will be a profound political shift in which nation states devolve into cogent, independently organized bio-industrial regions like city states of old. Nash argues for the almost complete isolation of these 'Islands' one to the other. Khanna imagines their being highly connected at a global scale (in other words, an extension of the status quo). I believe a middle ground is plausible (not territory in which I am usually comfortable) where limited civilizational corridors might connect these intensely developed, densely populated and hyper-productive agri-industrial regions utilizing globally regulated air traffic.

Energy production (coal, oil and natural gas) and its transportation has largely shaped the modern age, but we can now foresee that rising sea levels will eliminate the coastal infrastructures that support the global transshipment of these fossil fuels. In their place, bio-fuels, wind, sun and hydro can all be harvested locally within urban archipelagos derived from existing conurbations, bio-regions and transit corridors. There might be then, a future where wildlands can predominate on continental land masses and where the oceans become entirely self-willed - free from maritime traffic (each archipelago being largely self sufficient in material goods, energy and sustenance), un-fished (except by micro-populations of indigenous peoples), subject only to their lunar cycle while absorbing freshets of ice-melt and re-establishing their great littoral domains of salt marsh, wetlands and estuarial ecotones in the abandoned zones of old coastal development. We can thus use the imminent arrival of climate disruption as a spur toward the final achievement of an already clearly emerging clean energy future.

Similarly, we can, as individuals, begin (or continue) to rigorously privilege the produce of our local food sheds, purchase locally fabricated consumer products, spurn meaningless touristic air travel, and practice other small acts of global disconnection. As Daniel Drezner notes in his review of Connectography (NYT, 05-01-2016), "global flows (trade) as a percentage of output have fallen from 53% in 2007 to 39% in 2014 because of the cost of managing complex, lengthy supply chains". In other words, more stuff is staying where it is produced - either close to or within the bio-region of its origin. The future, if it is going to be a green one, is about global disconnection. As Khanna acknowledges, "devolution-aggregation is how the world comes together by falling apart".

Calls for preserving our remaining wildlands are meaningless unless they are accompanied by an encompassing vision of how this might be achieved. Calls for a transition to clean energy are relevant not because such a move will prevent climate disruption (that horse has already left the stable) but because the transshipment of fossil fuels (which have been at the heart of global connectedness at least since the era of coaling stations fueled the British navy in its mission to protect the fragile links of Empire) remains the heart-blood of global flows - and because clean fuels are locally available across the planet and thus facilitate disconnectedness.

Calls for increased engagement with the natural world in the hope of inculcating a concern for its preservation are similarly distorted: they encourage its further exploitation as a recreational resource, increase the building of access routes into wilderness areas and inflame a fascination for it which may result in residential development at the Wildland Urban Interface (guilty as charged!).

Alert readers may note that the call for wildland engagement and the embrace of clean fuel as a supposed antidote to climate disruption represent the twin planks of the venerable Sierra Club's current platform. I attended their Trail Blazers annual dinner in San Francisco as the guest of a board member (and former chair) on Thursday. As they seek continued relevance in the increasingly crowded space of non-profit environmental organizations (Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth et al) they might well embrace instead, a call for urban densification and wilderness sanctification - the twin practice prongs of a theory of particle agglomeration that could facilitate the realization of Nash's 'Island Civilization' and the very necessary devolution of the ultimately ungovernable (because of inherent bio-regional conflicts) United States of America.

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