Abbey’s Freedom and Wilderness

Posted by on Apr 11, 2011 in Bike, Outdoor | 16 Comments

I’ll be taking a break from the blog the rest of the week. I need to wrap up the book, and spend some time with the family unit. I’ll be back on Monday. In the meantime, chew on this…

cayonlands national park

I’m not exactly subtle in my admiration (and squalid imitation) of Edward Abbey. His influence on the way I interact with the outdoors is palpable. But it’s not just his outdoor eloquence that I’m attracted to. Long before I ever heard of Abbey, I thought—if inarticulately so—like Abbey. Sort of.

When I was in high school (mid ’90s) I was largely unaware of current social and political events. Unless one counted the endless drama of high school sports, dates, and grades as social and political. Nevertheless, I had at that time a healthy, if unguided, mistrust for government. I still do. Well. It’s much more guided nowadays, and perhaps (one might argue) not exactly “healthy”. I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and necessity of anarchy (a future essay) in the true definition of the word: spontaneous order, absent of coercion. One of the great myths of our culture is that government—at any level—is our advocate. The opposite is true. Government is a nemesis, a thief, a liar. A snake. It stands opposite every natural right of man. Indeed, government and anarchy are arch enemies. Where anarchy promotes freedom, government can only force and steal and plunder.

Is that a radical, extreme belief? The collectivists will say so. And maybe it is. But it shouldn’t be.

Abbey has nourished the anarchistic seeds that I started to recognize in high school. Others—Bastiat, Thoreau, Mises, Hayek—have helped me along. Today I read daily at (Another Koch conspiracy!), where activist libertarianism is alive and well. For better or worse. Sometimes activists (of any stripe) become so entirely ideologically bent that the very cause they champion is undermined by the inability to grasp reality, and compromise, and baby-steps. But nevertheless, the reading is usually interesting, sometimes enlightening, and always thought-provoking.

Where was I?

Abbey. Right.

Abbey’s definitive essay, Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom (read it here) is one of his finest pieces of writing. And it nearly perfectly reflects my own feelings and affections for wilderness, and why I think that wild places are so meaningful and important to our culture and tradition, and why those places need to remain separated from the political machinations of federally funded agencies, departments, bureaus and commissions. We (all of us) need wilderness*. Even in fleeting, brief gasps and grasps. Why? Abbey answered:

We need wilderness because we are wild  animals. Every man needs a place where he can go to go crazy in peace. Every Boy  Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Even the maddest murderer of the sweetest wife should get a chance for a run to the sanctuary of the hills. If only for the sport of it. For the terror, freedom, and delirium. Because we need brutality and raw adventure, because men and women first learned to love in, under, and all a round trees, because we need for every pair of feet and legs about ten leagues of naked nature, crags to leap from, mountains to measure by, deserts to finally die in when the heart fails.

*That’s a small w.

Inexplicably we’ve come to trust government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, The United States Forest Service, The National Park Service, and the Department of the Interior to properly and responsibly manage our open, wild lands. But somehow the mission of those agencies—stewardship—crept and crawled into something entirely different—ownership. Instead of wild for the sake of wild, wilderness has become a privately held commodity (sold to highest bidder!) made to serve only the interests of the very same thieves and liars and snakes (using your money, naturally) I mentioned above. That is, the government.

We ought to celebrate our Wilderness Areas (unless you are a mountain biker) and our National Parks, Forests, and Monuments. But even they are federally and arbitrarily designated, heavily regulated, and as much as can be practically managed, overtly controlled. Our (Ours? really?) parks and forests are (with perhaps Denali the exception) hardly wild. Or rather, wild, risky, exploration of them is strongly discouraged—unless that exploration is done with oil wells, strip mines, and grazing permits in mind. How long until backcountry exploration is administered out of our National Parks in the name of safety and in pursuit of the fictional greater good?

Abbey lamented and feared (with an almost Glenn Beck-like paranoia) the over regulation, control, and development of wilderness:

…If the entire nation is urbanized, industrialized, mechanized, and administered, then our liberties continue only at the sufferance of the technological megamachine that functions both as servant and master, and our freedoms depend on the pleasure of the privileged few who sit at the control consoles of that machine.

The entire nation is not urbanized. Not yet. The cities of the American west are still separated by vast deserts and tall mountains. Utah, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and even interior parts of California have towns and cities that are mostly** absent of the sprawl of urban cancer and concrete suburbanism. However, we are nonetheless largely subject to the arbitrary whims of the privileged few who pull the levers of policy and law—politicians, lobbyists, unions, corporatists, and so forth.

**I said mostly. Residents of the Wasatch Front, or the Phoenix-Tucson area can sit back down.

Permission to ride my bike on the Kokopelli Trail is not liberty. Permission at all is not liberty. Indeed, liberty in the mountains (and elsewhere) is precariously uncertain. The freedom we employ on a backcountry ski tour could disappear immediately if some paternalistic bureaucrat (but I repeat myself) in Salt Lake City, or Denver, or Washington D.C. decided that out-of-bounds skiing is somehow detrimental to public health and safety, or has become burdensome on the local transportation authority. Bike trails are under constant threat of closure and re-designation. The Wilderness Society, who lobbies incessantly for the wholesale banishment of mountain bikes in the mountains, seems oblivious to the peril their own preferred activity is subject too. After all, if hiking in the winter (with skis) becomes unlawfully dangerous, then why not hiking in the summer (with boots) as well?

My point is Abbey’s point, made not in Freedom, but elsewhere:

Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.

Do we live in a free society today? Does liberty still exist? The short answer, the easy answer is “of course”. But one only need to roll a boulder into the void at Canyonlands National Park, or attempt to race a bike across the Kokopelli, or to stop paying property taxes to be swiftly reminded that we are being watched, and monitored, and that the notion of private property has become a fiction in our collectivist, police-addled State. That our government is too big, and possesses far too much authority, is obvious when even the forests and deserts and mountains are enthusiastically shackled with the red tape of administration.

What then is liberty?

Is liberty simply the personal autonomy to work, live, and play, uninhibited by external forces? The freedom of association? Mutual voluntary consent? Yes, certainly. But it’s also far more than any of these bromidic ideals. Liberty is trust. Trust in the individual. Trust in spontaneous order. In anarchy. Liberty is permission, granted not by the authoritarian, but by the individual. Our society today clamors for some sort of “liberty” or “freedom”, but without the needed trust involved. “People won’t do the right thing,” we are told, “so the government must intervene!” But who defines what is right? And who is to say wether or not the government is doing “what’s right?” The Left and the Right seek to eliminate spontaneity, risk, and private property. In their own unique—if tyrannical—way each uses the coercive power of government to control behavior (social and actual), opinion, and markets. “Free speech is a great idea” chided Lindsay Graham recently, “but we’re in a war.” When is the United States not at war? The War on Drugs. On Poverty. On Obesity. On Wall Street. Even peacenik Barack Obama now has his very own war.

Wilderness is frightening. It is dangerous. Sudden storms, wild animals, avalanches, criminals, rockslides, flash floods, lightening, snow, wind, rain, and the lonely remoteness of solitude can all, everyone of them, be fatal. Thankfully! We need that uncertainty. The planned, managed, predictable existence of central government is death and dependency. It is state-sponsored mediocrity. But the risk and the freedom of wilderness, that is, the unpredictable, sudden, dangerous nature of liberty, breeds innovation and inspiration. Man’s greatest achievements have come from necessity and freedom. From wilderness. Figurative and literal. Indeed, wilderness, said Abbey is:

…like Bach’s music, Tolstoy’s novels, scientific medicine, novocaine, space travel, free love, the double martini, the secret ballot, the private home and private property, the public park and public property, freedom of travel, the Bill of Rights, peppermint toothpaste, beaches for nude bathing, the right to own and bear arms, the right not to own and bear arms, and a thousand other good things one could name, some of  them trivial, most of them essential, all of them vital to that great, bubbling, disorderly, anarchic, unmanageable diversity of opinion, expression, and ways of living which free men and women love, which is their breath of life, and which the authoritarians of church and state and war and sometimes even art despise and always have despised. And  feared.

“We can have wilderness without freedom”, he continued, “but we cannot have freedom without wilderness.”

Utopian? Idealistic? Obviously. But, as Frank Chodorov asked in his autobiography, Out of Step, “what in life is more worthwhile than the pursuit of an ideal?” Or, as Abbey put it, “There comes a point at every crisis in human affairs when the ideal must become the  real—or nothing.”

Each of us has our own ideal. Our own definition of happiness. Our own American Dream. Which is exactly the point. Each of us is entitled to the dogged pursuit of that ideal, individually and independently. Society is not the collective, nor the centrally designated and defined greater good. Society is the individual. Or rather, the individual is society. That is, government will never know, nor can they know, the internal incentives that motivate each of us to pursue the different and myriad utopia’s that prod us out of bed and into the hills (or the dreadful cubicle!), deserts, forests, and the unknown. Placing hope, or security in the State will lead not to liberty (nor to the ideal), but to captivity, and the death of our social and cultural wilderness.

“A world without wilderness is a cage.” Abbey quotes.

A cage, indeed.


  1. mark
    April 11, 2011

    Wilderness without government ceases to be wilderness. If not governed, nothing stops the wildcat from putting in an oil well or the timber man from harvesting the trees or the ski area from putting in a roller coaster (wait, what?). Without government, there ceases to be public land because private interests would take control of it.

    Sure, in your ideal world, this would not be the case, because people would be “good” and do what is “right” and wouldn’t need to be governed. But if you don’t have the federal government setting policies–however arbitrary and nonsensical–for the use of public land, someone like Robert Mugabe will be happy to take control of it and set his own policies.

    Your arguments do a great job of arousing passions and a lousy job of withstanding scrutiny.

    • Grizzly Adam
      April 14, 2011

      A government that creates wilderness is a government that also eliminates wilderness. For details, click here

      • mark
        May 3, 2011

        Cute couplet. But cute does not equal true or complete. How do you have and maintain wilderness without government?

  2. GWH
    April 11, 2011

    I think you are misreading Abbey. He was a true anarchist meaning that he was an anticapitalist (socialist, but non-state socialist) in the vein of Bakinin and Kropotkin. Cactus Ed would be sickened to know he was being compared in any way to Bastiat and FA Hayek. Ever see that picture of Ed sitting at his desk with a bookshelf behind him? Jay Dusard took the photo. Taped to the side of the bookshelf is a poster with a black cat on it. This is the Industrial Workers of the World logo. The IWW was an anarchist/socialist/communist labor union founded in the early 20th century. The same picture shows a wooden sabot on the shelf behind him. The sabot was used by radical unions to signify sabotage in the workplace; I don’t need to tell you that Ed looked favorably on sabotage in defense of nature.

    Anarchism is fundamentally at odds with capitalism (find Kropotkin’s essay from the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica). Getting rid of one tyrannical system (the state) in favor of another (private capital) is nonsense. Ed believed along with Bakunin that “Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” How would so called “free-market capitalism” as advocated by the capital “L” Libertarians at Reason do anything but harm to the natural world? Is private capital not going to urbanize, industrialize, and mechanize the land? What is their track record on this so far? More oil derricks on the way out to Dead Horse Point anyone?

    • Grizzly Adam
      April 14, 2011

      A couple of points:

      I’m not comparing Abbey to anyone. I listed Bastiat and the others as some of my influences.

      I think you are equating capitalism and corporatism. Actual free market capitalism is anarchy. It is a system of consensual exchange where there is no force or coercion (which are the essence of government). Corporatism (sometimes called crony-capitalism) on the other hand, is what we have in the US today. It is the forced confiscation of wealth through government (taxation), who then redistributes that wealth to insider firms, corporations, ( and the wives of wealthy executives) through bailouts, subsidies, grants and so forth. Private capital has no power of force or tyranny, unless the State is backing that up.

      A great, thoughtful comment. Thanks for contributing.

      • GWH
        April 14, 2011

        I don’t see how capitalism as you define it does not inevitably lead to corporatism as you define it. As soon as a capitalist gets the slightest advantage over another, that advantage is used to accrue more and more economic power. This economic power is in itself a form of coercion over others. What happens to those who do not have their own capital? They are forced to either sell their labor to a capitalist or starve. This is the antithesis of liberty. This is also the main reason anarchism is fundamentally at odds with capitalism. Proudhon (who coined the term anarchy) was a socialist/mutualist, Bakunin (“the father of anarchy”) was a socialist, and his quote above illustrates perfectly why capitalism and anarchism (or democracy for that matter) are fundamentally at odds with each other. Liberty is not the freedom to buy and sell as the capitalists insist, but it is closer to the freedom to live without illegitimate authority, and the freedom to live our lives and fulfill our potential without having to literally sell half our lives to some economically powerful person just to support our families and survive.
        I oppose capitalism in its present form and in the form you are advocating in large part because under capitalism a large part of our lands would be destroyed unless someone rich enough to buy them all up also happened to want to preserve them instead of exploit them. This type of concentration of power limits everyone’s liberty.
        Anyway, thought provoking post. But as a longtime anarchist, it bothers me to see anarchism equated with capitalism because this just isn’t the case. Look into P.J. “Property is Theft” Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Rudolph Rocker, Chomsky, Guerin, or even the Wikipedia page for Anarchism. Read Homage to Catalonia by Orwell or any book on the Spanish Civil war to get a sense of the ideas of anarchism.
        Isn’t disagreeing more interesting than agreeing?
        Keep riding and keep writing.

        • Grizzly Adam
          April 14, 2011

          “This economic power is in itself a form of coercion over others.”

          This is true, only when the State is involved. Economic coercion is impossible without the power of the State. In a capitalist system, if a worker is being exploited, or taken advantage of, he can change jobs. He can start his own business. He can look for a better situation. He can demand better pay or benefits. Our history is rampant with people who started with nothing, and grew into prosperity. Who among us has not left one job for another (or negotiated for) with more pay, benefits, advantages? Selling ones labor is hardly objectionable. It may not always be ideal, or desirable, but unless one can produce some other good or service, labor – our talents and abilities – is all any of us can offer. In communist nations workers “sell” their labor and starve.

          “under capitalism a large part of our lands would be destroyed unless someone rich enough to buy them all up also happened to want to preserve them instead of exploit them.”

          Maybe. Maybe not. Who can say? Our government-managed lands are being readily exploited, while there are private lands which are not. Ultimately the wilderness issue is a balancing act. How much do we desire for recreation, solitude, and beauty, compared to how much do we need for timber, fuel, living, and so forth? Can the federal leviathan adequately answer that question? Or would a market be able to do so? If one thinks of wilderness as a commodity like food, clothing, or entertainment, then I think private wilderness could thrive. If there is a demand or a need, individuals will find a way to meet it.

          I’ve read some of the names mentioned above, but will revisit them. Thanks for references. Don’t be too disparaged that I (and many others – partial list here) equate capitalism and anarchism. Take a look at the “anarcho-capitalism” wiki.

          And clearly anarchism has several different strands. As it’s wiki page points out: “There are many types and traditions of anarchism, not all of which are mutually exclusive. Anarchist schools of thought can differ fundamentally, supporting anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.”

          Ultimately I think most of us desire the same ends. The means of obtaining those ends is where the variation occurs.

          • Grizzly Adam
            April 14, 2011

            I stumbled across this: Bastiat/Proudhon debate. I’ve not gone through it, but thought you’d be interested in it.

          • GWH
            April 17, 2011

            Of course there are capitalists who call themselves anarchists; people can call themselves whatever they want. Gary Fisher can call himself the inventor of the mountain bike but it doesn’t mean it’s true.
            If an anarchist society means a society free from coercion/illegitimate authority, I (along with 99.9% of all anarchists) don’t see how this could possibly exist along with capitalism. With capital in private hands, the vast majority of the populace only has the option of renting themselves to the holders of private capital. This system of wage labor is exploitative, alienating, and dehumanizing (Marx was right about at least one thing). Saying this is done voluntarily only works for “free market” economists whose theories only work if they think of people not as actual human beings, but one dimensional, rationally self-interested utility maximizing consumers. However, real life is different. When workers in the early 20th century in the US organized labor unions, the factory owners hired (private) Pinkerton guards to beat, harass, and intimidate and even kill striking workers. Would these workers with families to feed have been exercising their liberty by renting themselves to the Rockefeller’s instead of the Carnegies? How is this an actual choice? For an unskilled worker (still the vast majority on the planet) your options are to:
            1) Sell your labor to capitalist A, B, or C and your family will survive.
            2) Find a nice capitalist to give you a massive loan even though you have no education, no disposable income, no collateral, and you just quit your job. Then go buy your own factory with this money and hope your old boss doesn’t hire goons to put you out of business (he’s just protecting his business after all). Your family may or may not survive.
            3) Become a beggar/trash picker/thief. Again, your family may or may not survive.
            There is an old anarchist slogan that goes “‘Work or starve’ isn’t a choice; it’s a threat.” This is true for most of the people of the world.

          • GWH
            April 17, 2011

            Also thanks for the Proudhon/Bastiat debate, looks interesting (and long)!

  3. Dave C
    April 11, 2011

    Excellent post. I think I disagree with a few particulars, but agree with your overall thrust, with your big picture.

    It’s always seemed to me that American republicanism (as in our republic, not as in a specific party) is fonded upon distrust. Distruct in power, distrust in interests, distrust even in the people to a certain extent, insofar as the public can be dangerously capricious. Which is exactly why we have federal lands; the slow remoteness of that sort of management insulates from the whims of state politics.

    As you point out, within that suspicioun (or perhaps it is vice versa) there must be trust: in people, in their institutions, and in the larger histrical arc of their foibles.

    As Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.”
    As Abbey said “Paradox and bedrock.”


  4. Bob
    April 11, 2011

    Soon after the Vulcan’s were happening by earth and recognized a faint warp drive signature in 2063, Earth discovered Utopia, people were happy to go about there lives under one united, happy for all federation.

    Hell there was wilderness too.

  5. Jill Homer
    April 12, 2011

    I agree with GWH. On both sides of the extremes in political and social ideology, be it anarchy or absolute communism, there will always be people with more resources, charisma and collaborations who are ready and willing to strip away the liberties of the greater populace. Power is an inherently human ideal, and there will always be people looking to gain it through whatever means necessary.

    Our government “advocates” may be often ineffectual and sometimes outright wrong-headed, but their policies at least prevent absolute capitalization of a country of 300 million people (in a world market of 6 billion.) There’s enough of us now (humans) that we have no more physical barriers prevent us from tapping every energy and capital resource on this planet if we so desire. And sadly, if you put it to an absolute vote, that’s probably our desire — screw the future. Give us oil now. (Think about what would happen to Alaska if that state actually gained independence from the United States, as some extremists in that state desire. The thought of it makes me cringe. Resource extraction is everything to the majority of the populace in Alaska; you could basically bid large mammals and several species of ocean-going fish goodbye.)

    I also cringe at the thought of absolutely capitalized National Parks and even no-man’s-land BLM areas. I imagine a veritable Disneyland would be built over Yellowstone and Yosemite. If something is beautiful and desirable, someone is going to seize control somehow. That’s just the way we are. I prefer our ineffectual, at least aiming for moderation government to tyranny and absolute capitalism.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking and compelling essay.

    • Grizzly Adam
      April 14, 2011

      That wild lands could be overly developed is a valid concern. I share that view. But I’m not sure that privatization = pavement. Again, it comes down to trust. If society values wilderness, then it will preserve it, with or without government.

      However, I’m not calling for the wholesale privatization of public lands. However, I do think state governments are better equipped to manage their own lands.

      • Grizzly Adam
        April 14, 2011

        A useful read on the public/private wilderness question: Click.

  6. Buzz
    April 13, 2011

    Liberty….. Ha!

    I have a few Abbey quotes and muses that inspire me, but like you they are many other thinkers of different persuasions that do as much. In this human world of myriad perceptions and ideas what do you think would be the meaning..the worth..the value… of intelligence???

    The government, the corporations, the power people…one and the same. Intelligence applied to another self interest. Are you part of *all* this.. or separate as each in his or hers own little subjective world..?

    @#$k if I know!

    These ideas have been mashed for centuries…no progress yet!

    I like St.Expuery….more context in the complete quote but it has worked for me for 40 years: “There is no liberty except the liberty of some one making his way towards something.”

    Forward Grizzly…in the end it might be ALL you!



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