Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Art of Not Being Governed

I just finished reading James Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an examination of cultures of resistance to state and civilization, mostly focused on hill and mountain peoples of southeast Asia. I wound up skimming through some parts of the books, where the subject matter didn't interest me enough to plow through the somewhat academic and dry prose, but much of the content gave me some good insights into how we might craft our own lifestyle as a tribe to minimize state encroachment on our freedoms.

Before I go into some of the strategies which might help us, I'll mention an interesting but not directly relevant argument from the book. Civilized lowland valley farmers in southeast Asia have long considered their upland neighbors as primitive ancestral relics who stayed in the hills to continue their nomadic or semi-nomadic, horticultural (as distinct from agricultural) lifestyles while their descendents moved down into the valleys and progressed into civilized life. From my layman perspective on popular anthropological accounts of various hunter-gatherer and horticultural tribes, it seems the authors and the general public make the same assumptions or tell the same origin stories about non-settled tribes in other parts of the world--their cultures have endured for thousands of years in roughly the same form, lasting this long because they worked sustainably with their landbase. Scott makes a compelling argument in his book that, at least in the case of upland southeast Asia, the groups living there have formed and chosen cultures over hundreds or one thousand plus years of intertwined coexistence with civilization. The "friction of terrain" of steep mountains, dense jungles, malarial swamps, etc limited the reach of states, creating "shatter zones" of refuge. Millions of people chose Daniel Quinn's option of "walking away" from civilization, whether refugees of war or famine, escaped slaves, or peasants who decided the benefits of civilization didn't justify the taxes, corvee (forced) labor, dangers of plague, mass famine, war and conscription, and so on.

In good times for the states, and in good and bad times as a result of slavery, many hill people moved into the valleys to replenish the unsustainable population base of civilization. (Apparently, in southeast asian civilizations, and in western civilizations until about 200-300 years ago, civilized people died out faster than they could reproduce--civilizations could only keep themselves going by continuous population raids of mostly slaves from the hinterlands.) Waves of refugees would either integrate into existing hill populations, or push those populations further up into the mountains, creating complex frequently changing populations of no firm ethnic identity or tribal unity; just people adapting to pressures and circumstance. These people did not necessarily lack the knowledge of farming, hierarchical social structure, domestication of animals, literacy and so on. Rather, they chose to incorporate or leave out different elements to support the relationship to civilization that made the most sense to them in their situation. It makes me wonder how many of the "primitive" tribes of other areas of the world in fact have the same complex history of interactions with and partial origins in other collapsed civilizations. (The author specifically mentions the Siriono of Bolivia, whom Allan Holmberg in Nomads of the Longbow described as primitive, timeless hunter gatherers "apparently lacking the ability to make fire or cloth, innumerate, having no domestic animals or developed cosmology...Paleolithic survivors living in a veritable state of nature". New information since his book has definitively shown them to have formerly lived as crop-growing villagers until influenza & smallpox and enemy attacks with the risk of slavery led them to abandon their crops and become fully nomadic around 1920.)

Now on to lessons we can use for shaping our own choices of how to subsist and relate to civilization. Note that I don't much fear a scenario of zombie hordes from the cities pillaging the countryside for potatoes. Instead, I expect the greatest dangers to our freedom to come, as it presently does, from the monopoly of force of civilization. I think about the adaptations below primarily in terms of resisting gunpoint taxes, tribute, forced labor, etc, not in terms of evading individual people or loosely organized bands (though the principles will help with those sorts of relations, too.)

"Escape Crops"

Horticultural (such as permaculturally designed) cultivation of crops can support mobility and freedom from civilization. "Escape crops" meet one or more of these criteria:

  • Well adapted to terrain difficult to access - high rugged mountains, swamps, deltas, etc
  • Staggered maturity to avoid easy harvesting of large quantities all at once
  • Easily hidden
  • Fast growing
  • Requiring little care
  • Little value per unit weight and volume (not worth transporting great distances)
  • Grow below ground (root crops)

State repelling features

  • Physically mobile group, widely dispersed, likely to fission into new and smaller units when under external pressure. This probably requires skill in hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, or dispersed horticultural cultivation of escape crops.
  • Living far from centers of control, or in areas like roadless rugged mountains where "friction of terrain" increases the effective distance.
  • Highly egalitarian social structure which doesn't allow the state to get a foot in the door by making deals with a single person of power and influence. Elements which support such an egalitarian social structure:

    • Radical instability of tribal structure and identity
    • Autonomy of local groups
    • Capacity to shift to new territory and alternate subsistence strategies quickly
    • Ability to divide into small independent units whenever advantageous
    • Common property resources such as pasture, hunting grounds, and potential swiddens allows groups to strike out on their own and impede development of large, permanent distinctions in wealth and status characteristic of inheritable private property
    • Mixed portfolio of subsistence strategies -- foraging, shifting cultivation, hunting, trade, livestock raising, and sedentary agriculture
    • Different social relations, settlement patterns, and cooperation structures arise based on those different methods

After reading this book, I feel even more confident about the value of our plan to cgreate a permaculture homestead adjacent to national forest for hunting and gathering. That gives us secure "owned" property to allow us to experiment with crops and have a stable home base, while providing us the "commons" to allow relatively easy dispersal and fissioning once we have the necessary skills and if and when it becomes necessary or desirable.


Feral Kimchi said...

I used to think of the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural as progressive, as if it is linear, but this post reminds me that humans adapt to their environment; that it is not necessarily "progress" that leads them to agriculture. I had no idea that some societies flux back and forth between a hunter-gatherer existence to agricultural, and the shades in between.

As far as escape crops go, are there any plants that you have in mind that would grow easily at high elevation as well as rugged terrain? I guess I've never really thought about what elevations certain plants will grow. I'm also not sure if certain plants grow at certain elevations because of temperature, soil type, wind, etc.

Michelle said...

Mr. Thomlinson, thank you for the seeds! Your blog is a fascinating read. However, I am dismayed to hear of your plans to purchase lands "adjacent to national forest for hunting and gathering". Please, please reconsider. It sounds as if you intend to poach and treat our national heritage as your free super market. I sincerely hope that I have misread your intent.

Additionally, many of the plants that you have been trouble getting in your state are difficult to get for a reason: they are invasive in your area, and pose a real danger to the ecological balance of wild lands.

Please reconsider. As an alternative, there are decaying city areas, such as Detroit, that could dearly use someone with your enthusiasm and unusual approach to farming and community. There, the ecological damage has already been done, so the danger from invasive plants would be minimal, and the positive impact you could offer to the larger community would be immense.

Happy germinating,

FarmerScrub said...

Hi Michelle,

...and thank you for the ground cherry seeds; they're sprouting well!

You may enjoy looking into the concept of rewilding, which takes a totally different approach to human interaction with landbase than the civilized paradigm. Thinking of forests as a "supermarket" puts the emphasis on how much power you can wield to get the things you want. Power comes from the money you've accumulated from turning living things into dead things (our economy of production).

With rewilding, we think of our relationship with the forest as a whole and with its individuals. We aim to hunt and gather in ways that rejuvenate the forest, making it better than when we started. Our relationship needs to sustain not just us humans, but the landbase as well. We'll purchase hunting licenses, but the determining factor for whether we kill a given animal will not be whether we've bought the right to do so from civilization, but whether killing the animal will sustain or deplete the overall health of the landbase.

Regarding my challenge buying groundnuts and other plants from Tripple Brook Farm--it has nothing to do with invasive species and wild lands (two concepts which are very civilization-based and don't hold up very well under scrutiny). Rather, Tripple Brook Farm hasn't jumped through the inspection hoops to be able to send live plants to western states, which is regulated for fear of spread of agricultural pests and diseases.

Thanks for your suggestion of relocating to Detroit. That makes sense for someone interested in a civilized setting of a population density dependent on imports (unsustainable and requiring violence to enforce continued flow of necessary items). I don't want to live in that model--I want to live where the landbase can reasonably sustain the human population if and when they choose to live in relationship with it. I do applaud those in Detroit (and other cities) fighting for community and sanity, especially those working to stave off the conversion of Detroit lands to serf farms.

I hope that addresses some of your concerns! Rest assured that we'll be doing the best we can to heal, rather than further injure, our landbase. I believe we can only achieve that by living where our food, water, and shelter originate, in the kind of direct relationship impossible in cities.


FarmerScrub said...

Hey Feral Kimchi,

Unfortunately, we'll have a harder time cultivating escape crops in the area we're looking at than folks in subtropical southeast asia have, with their long growing seasons and generally moister conditions. Our best bets (besides working with the acorns and berries growing naturally) would probably be roots native to the western states, most of which grow from early spring to mid summer, then die down once the soil moisture has all been used up. So we'd experiment with Erythronium, Brodiaea, Triteleia, Camassia, Fritillaria, Balsamorhiza, Cymopterus, Lomatium...probably several other genus'es I can't think of off the top of my head. Ooh, there's that Dodecatheon hendersonii we found growing at high-ish elevation near Nathan's house! (You weren't there yet for that trip.) Plants for a Future says it has edible bulbs, and we enjoyed the little nibble we took of the leaves. Definitely we have a lot more to learn about the herbaceous plants growing already in the area--could be a lot of calorie root crops to discover.

Mostly though, I think we'll just be working with woody plants--maybe planting fruit and nut trees in clearings, experimenting with adding understory plants, and just learning to forage what we need from different areas as the natural cycles do their things...


Michelle said...

Hey Norris, thanks for answering my message. I do want to point out something that you haven't considered. The American Chestnut - are you familliar with it's history? It was possibly the most important plant in eastern North America until an imported fungus brought it to the edge of extinction. Those same laws preventing the import of ground nut to your area exist for the purpose of wiping out other species in a similar manner.