From the Pleistocene to the Motor City: Revolutions in Human Ecology



It’s Earth Day yet again. Scores of us have flown or driven thousands of miles to this extravagant oasis. Let us pay our carbon dues by resolving to go forth with a renewed sense of urgency to right humanity’s ecological role, and with newfound colleagues and inspiration for the work. And may those who go forth tonight to gamble win big and take the rest of us out to dinner. From the microcosm to the macrocosm, we could all use a little luck.

I come here as a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank. Our operating assumptions is that: We have hit the limits to growth and we must prepare for the ride down the bumpy slope of fossil fuel, fresh water, topsoil, and biodiversity depletion. Our hope is to provide information, analysis, and vision to prompt the kinds of planning, action, and change that will allow for decent human survival and a social transition to living within the constraints of our ecosystems.

As the name Post Carbon Institute implies, both the peaking of oil production and the climatic consequences of the world’s combustion of fossil fuels are pivotal concerns. The brief but ecologically devastating fossil fuel era underwrote the industrial revolution and the 20th century’s explosive growth, drastically remade human communities, to say nothing of having deranged the climate on whose stability civilization and the planet’s current biotic community depends.

Stratigraphers now mark the consequence of the vast discontinuity wrought by such human activity, saying we have entered a new geologic era—the Anthropocene. What will human ecology be from hence?

In the months and weeks since I began working on this talk, history, even geologic history seems to have sped up. My original plan was to look back and pay homage to Paul Shepard, the American biologist, scholar, and author who helped found this unruly discipline and held the first chair in human ecology anywhere.

But the times grew more turbulent. Regimes were falling. There were even political uprisings in my bioregion, so it seemed that current events warranted comment, too. An opportunity to have a look at some relevant work in Detroit Michigan came up. So I decided to try a two-part invention: To consider Shepard’s radical analysis of our deep past and to report on the revolutionary simplicity of some Detroiters’ actions to reclaim their city and themselves; and to introduce Grace Lee Boggs, a longtime leader of such struggle. Hence the title: From the Pleistocene to the Motor City: Revolutions in Human Ecology.

It seems fitting to begin by considering Shepard’s ideas. That great devotee of our Pleistocene heyday is an elder of this tribe. His erudite, iconoclastic study of humankind still recalls us to the root of our being:

“Man is in the world and his ecology is the nature of that inness,” he wrote. “He is in the world as in a room, and in transience, as in the belly of a tiger or in love. What does he do there in nature?” He asked. “What does nature do there in him?” Such questions are at the heart of our concern.

Shepard conjured with the tension inherent in being Pleistocene creatures in a post-industrial world.“ Despite the rapacious work of the 19th century lumber barons and the twentieth- century corporate energy moguls in homogenizing the continent,” Shepard wrote In “Place and Human Development,” “much wildness remains, and the fluidity of society is itself perhaps a doorway to the realization…that ‘a real revolution is born from genetic memories of ancient reality.’”

Revolutions in human ecology might usefully be grounded in a sense of humanity’s deep past, for that is where our power arrangements began. Paul Shepard’s work investigated the paleo history of our human nature. Shepard lived from 1925 to 1996. He studied English literature and wildlife biology at the University of Missouri. In 1950, he attended graduate school at Yale University; studied under Paul Sears and G. Evelyn Hutchinson and wrote his PhD dissertation on the relationship of ecology and art in American culture. He served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Fulbright program in India, and received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. He taught at Knox, Smith, Dartmouth, and Pitzer Colleges with Claremont Graduate School. And was, by all reports, a teacher with a deep commitment to pedagogy.

He was also an uncommonly powerful writer whose prose was learned, lyric, wild and intricate. Most significant, he was from childhood on an avid naturalist. who would embark on his lifelong study of our species’ nature as a matter of both fascination and urgency.

“Why do men persist in destroying their habitat?” he asked. “It is hard,” he wrote, “to be content with the theory that people are bad and will always do the worst.”

Like many an ecological activist, I first encountered, and was galvanized by Shepard in The Subversive Science, his 1969 anthology edited with Daniel McKinley. In the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived during the 70s, revolution was in the air, some versions of it even grounded in an ecological worldview. Indeed, most institutions and their paradigms seemed to be in need of subversion, and an ecological worldview is subversive of centralization, uniformity, authoritarianism and human exceptionalism.

Through his many books, Shepard investigated the natural history and cultural and evolutionary pathways of our species’ mentality. His work on consciousness mostly predated the neurobiology craze. It was not mechanistic and instrumental, but philosophical and observational. A brilliant, ominivorous thinker, he was not driving towards ever-greater possibilities of manipulating ourselves, other beings, or environments, but towards a biotic self concept.

Depth psychology, child development, ancient history, anthropology, theology, primatology, mythology and art were among the subjects he studied and drew on in his work. All these bodies of knowledge were digested to form a strong, supple, human-species consciousness. Shepard understood species to be existentially wild, and tribal, formed by hunting and gathering.

“All major human characteristics—size, metabolism, sexual and reproductive behavior, intuition, intelligence,” he wrote, “had come into existence and were oriented to the hunting life.” a kind of creature whose ontogeny may be crippled in agricultural or industrial milieus. If the resulting distortions of our psyches animate our ecocidal ways, then we must admit and grapple creatively with those facts.

We are “space-needing, wild-country, Pleistocene beings,” a species that emerged from “small-group, leisured, foraging life-ways with natural surroundings,” he wrote. At this point in history, we exist “in overdense numbers in devastated, simplified ecoystems.”

In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Shepard condemned the agricultural revolution that began about 10,000 years ago as a biological catastrophe and decried its ravages: the habitat destruction, the social stratification, the decline in health, the launching of the population explosion, and a host of other woes mortaring the foundation of civilization. Although we didn’t domesticate ourselves, in domesticating plants and animals, we infantilized the Others who environ us. Here was a plausible ecology of man’s Fall.

Acquisitive proprietorship and territorial aggrandizement that resulted from this development is apparent,” he wrote in “Ten Thousand Years of Crisis.”

“Today’s myth of progress and gospel of radical change, orientation to tomorrow and frantic exchange of old things for new are modern only in terms of the whole human span that preceded them. Though we may picture ourselves as very unlike old-world peasants, it is in the agrarian mind that modern life begins.” ​ By questioning something as foregone as agriculture, Shepard qualified the Arcadian vision of the human future. We incorporate a hundreds of millennia in the wild. Our inborn developmental processes depend on reciprocal rather than dominant relations with other wild creatures. And our lives best unfold in small groups. How can these precepts serve us now? ​

If the first snag in the celebration of Pleistocene life is that there are ‘no universals,’ as Shepard concedes, “The second snag in the acceptance of the Pleistocene as a model is that ‘you can’t go back.’ As a student I knew about time’s arrow and evolution. Extending that to social process seems only natural. It worried me for years. Then it finally came to me why it was wrong. It is not necessary to ‘go back’ in time to be the kind of creature you are,” he said. “The genes from the past have come forward to us. I am asking that people change not their genes but their society, in order to harmonize with the inheritance they already have.”

Uprisings all over the world now seek to change society. And, wonderful to say, in a few places like Ecuador and Bolivia, the rights of nature are being acknowledged as primary.

Perhaps the age of Grassroots Revolutions has only just begun.

Even where I live, in the upper Midwest, popular uprisings have begun in reaction to the power grabs of right wing governors and state houses. On the pretext of dealing with budget deficits, these narrowly-elected juntas have rammed through legislative packages eliminating public employees’ right to collective bargaining and permitting fire sales of public assets.

In my state of Michigan these laws allow the executive branch to appoint satraps, called Emergency Managers, to usurp the powers of local elected officials and take over administer units of government deemed to be in fiscal distress. The long-suffering city of Detroit’s public school system was the testing ground for this approach. The upshot of these special-interest coups has been an awakening of at least a fraction of a normally somnolent public. Thousands of citizens have poured into the streets, thronged their capitols, and protested such egregious legislation. Whether this portends revolutionary change and an upsurge of people power in the American Heartland is an open question. It certainly bespeaks a spreading systemic breakdown and raises the possibility of transformational change.

Once notorious for being mostly black, de-industrialized and desperate, Detroit nowadays is being seen as the frontier of the grassroots struggle to build neighborhood self-reliance. If an honorable subsistence for people and a regeneration of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community” can be home-grown in the hard used Motor City, surely there is hope for many such human settlements.

While the future is indeterminate, given the implications of Peak Oil and other limits to growth, it seems clear that even in the overdeveloped countries, and in the world’s cities, day-to day life is likely to be increasingly localized and dominated by the hands-on endeavor of meeting basic needs. Most people are just contending with what’s in front of them. The challenge of getting enough to eat is preceded, in an increasingly urbanized and almost entirely monetized world civilization, by the struggle to obtain sufficient food.

The Motor City: Chiapas of North America

Sitting in my kitchen is a jar of honey from an apiary on 8 mile road in Detroit, Michigan. It’s a gift from the community activists who invited me to visit the city, former arsenal of democracy, former epicenter of the automobile and consumerist phase of industrialism. This once booming, opulent town boasted a grand civic architecture, embellished and built, seemingly, for the ages. Its well-paid, if arduous, manufacturing jobs underwrote the highest rate of home ownership in the US. I went there on a scouting mission to see what the prospects might be for a human future in a busted, post-industrial, post-globalized metropolis.

Given its dire financial straits, Detroit’s present governmental situation is not so much Byzantine as late Roman imperial hinterland. City politics is decadent. Manufacturing firms have long since relocated to cheaper labor markets. Of Detroit’s 138 square miles, about 20 per cent are vacant. The recent real estate bust accelerated the checkerboard abandonment of residential and commercial buildings within the city. Now some parts of town are being eyed by developers as potential sites for grandiose projects promising trickle-down benefits. Their construction would displace present residents, and prosper only a well-placed few.

The unimaginative rescue strategy is to gentrify a downtown area or two—build a big medical complex or maybe another stadium downtown.

Huge, shiny, graceless theaters, hotels, amphitheaters and office buildings downtown turn blank featureless faces to the street. Among these, lurking closer to the ground, are substantial old stone and brick buildings, like the courthouse—ornate, and embellished, but derelict now. Outside that small zone, everywhere vacant lots gape next to solid handsome apartment buildings and big family houses. In some parts of town where there’s 100% unemployment, even the cost of utilities is prohibitive. Tens of thousands of homes lack water or electricity. There you see houses crumbling, porches collapsing, discarded furniture with soaked and rotting upholstery strewn in vacant lots, the occasional orderly pile of rubble, a multitude of small businesses gone down, shrouded with plywood.

Yet amid the battered structures of the Motor City remain plenty of loyal citizens who insist upon their right and responsibility to have a say in the community’s governance. Making a stand in Detroit is visionary and practical, but hard and dangerous. There’s mostly petty crime and the doors are always locked. In certain parts of town, you just assume that you’re going to be robbed on occasion. Several different police forces operate within the city, equipped with tanks and helicopters. The cops often wade into domestic disputes, shooting first and asking questions later. These are the real conditions of the lives of many longtime Detroiters. So, as humans who value place generally do, they are working with those conditions, responding directly, self-organizing myriad forms of constructive direct action. With scores of such compatriots, Grace Lee Boggs envisions her hometown as Detroit, City of Hope.

Thus other ideas about Detroit’s future have taken root. There are at least 800 community gardens in the metro area. These have been launched under dozens of auspices, from households to religious orders to schools, and by a Boggs-inspired program called Detroit Summer. Begun in 1992, Detroit Summer invited young people from throughout the US to come to rebuild Detroit, and learn about the city’s plight and potential. Working side by side with residents to create murals, youth help with home maintenance, create community gardens, and develop organizing skills along the way.

On a cold, gusty April Fool’s day, I had my whirlwind tour of some of those murals and gardens on the east side of town. I became just one of the thousands of visitors to Detroit who come to see whether, as the motto of the World Social Forum has it, another world is possible. Amid the gutted factories of the automotive era, planted by the genius of a diehard multiethnic community rise the shoots of a different kind of human future than that envisioned by greedlocked governments with their undemocratic agendas of privatization, liquidation, and profit at any human or ecological cost.

The modest Earthworks Urban Farm, comprising about an acre, and recently unfenced bespoke such possibility. Created as a part of a Capuchin ministry, the program grows food for soup kitchen and conducts youth programs to involve children and teens in gardening. Alongside the garden were fragrant, head-high compost heaps. A good-sized hoop house fostered imminent spring plantings. At the garden entrance was a shapely straw bale portal, with a plaque invoking St. Isadore, patron of farmers. Another sign proclaimed “We work for a just, beautiful food system for all.”

Not far away another, smaller garden, a project of the Friends of Detroit, still needed protection behind a chain-link, barbed wire-topped fence. Elsewhere around the neighborhood were hundreds of fruit trees planted by the group. The garden lay on a small city lot across from a community center and business incubator called Club Tech. Michael Wimberly, one of Detroit’s many social entrepreneurs and the leader of the group, explained the workings of the garden’s rainwater management system to us, and much else besides. The first flush of rainwater, said Wimberly, carrying the roof’s accumulated particulate pollution, would be shunted through a gravel bed bordering a flower garden; selling those flowers at Detroit’s Eastern Market could be a cottage industry. In a jobless neighborhood where utilities can be impossible to afford, rainwater harvest, fruit trees, and market gardening could be the makings of survival. Wimberly noted the paradox that the abandonment of such neighborhoods by industry and government makes them free zones inviting riots of social invention.

The Next American Revolution

Revolutions in human ecology have rolled from the ancient reality of wildness to post industrial wastelands. There are urban prairies now in Detroit, and a robust population of Chinese pheasants. From that modern matrix comes another venerable thinker whose work is worth conjuring with: Grace Lee Boggs, a political philosopher and an activist of more than fifty years in the black power, civil rights, labor, feminist, and environmental justice movements. She works to foment the next American Revolution.

Over the years, Grace Lee Boggs and her late husband James (Jimmy). nurtured community leadership in Detroit that has given rise to an extensive, intergenerational network of action groups. Jimmy Boggs was an African-American who like tens of thousands of others in the early 40s migrated from the deep South to Detroit in search of work in the recently desegregated defense plants. ​

“Jimmy was,” Grace wrote, “….an organic intellectual, someone whose ideas came not out of books but mainly from reflecting on the experience of his own life and those of his ‘kind.’” A rank and file militant who worked on the line at a huge Chrysler plant on the Eastside of Detroit, he came “to see himself as a continuation of thousands of years of human struggle to be free and self-determining.”

The Boggses’ insight into the need for the individuals to make a real contribution to their community—to sacrifice–has been a shining feature of their work and influence. “[T]he important thing for us,” writes Grace in her latest book The Next American Revolution, “was to see the oppressed not mainly as victims or objects but as creative subjects.” Theirs was and is a philosophy of mutual aid, self-responsibility, and continuous struggle to create the future by creating the new human being.

As early as the 1960s the Boggses and their comrades, Grace wrote, recognized that “we were coming to the end of the relatively short industrial epoch….that the United States was in the process of transitioning to a new mode of production based on new information technologies…that this…was…liberating us from the industrial epoch that had alienated us from the Earth and…each other…therefore…its cultural and political ramifications are as far-reaching as those involved in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture or from agriculture to industry.”

Grace Lee Boggs, pragmatic, acute, enthusiastic and increasingly revered at 96, is a Chinese –American. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Educated at Barnard and at Bryn Mawr, where she received her doctorate in philosophy in 1940, Grace became a radical socialist through organizing for tenant’s rights in Chicago. She plunged into activism and the process of forging and contesting ideas, never succumbing to cynicism or dogma, and with a decided focus on “creating actual history as opposed to speculative scenarios.”

She spoke with me at her home on the east side of Detroit, downstairs from the Boggs center, taking up the ageless but ever pressing question of “How are we going to live?”

“I welcome the deindustrialization and the devastation that’s requiring us to live simply,” she said.

“People are trying to find their way to live safe and happy lives; and people begin creating the structures that are needed.”

“Here in the US we have more of an opportunity to make an impact than ever before. We have the opportunity to make the world anew; we’re the ones who are going to have to do it.”

“What’s happening here in Detroit is that we are setting up parallel structures. I see myself as serving that.”

At the US Social Forum, held in Detroit in June of 2010, Boggs said “Detroit is becoming the national and international symbol of a new kind of society. a society where the gulf between the industrial and the agrarian epoch is becoming reolved. Not because anyone thought that would be desirable, but because living at the expense of the earth, living at the expense of other peoples have brought us to the edge of disaster.”

And towards the end of our visit Boggs said “The world urgently needs people who have a sense of relationship to the planet, the country, and the place where they live.”

Shepards core understanding of our species suggests that we are bon to live in dynamic equilibrium with natural communities. The Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence and relationship to place made us the kind of organisms that we are and determined the pattern of human individuation and maturity. This maturity incorporates the knowledge that the individual’s life in the fabric of nature, must not trump the welfare of the group or of its terrain. ​ We find serious promise of recovering such maturity and relationship in this lovely passage of Shepard’s:

“A journey beneath the veneer of civilization would not reveal the barbarian but our (‘romantic’) recollection of a good birth, a rich plant and animal environment, the reception of food as a gift rather than as a product. The generic human in us knows how to dance the animal, knows the strength of clan membership and the profound claims and liberation of daily rites of thanksgiving….[T]his secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by the most ordinary acts of life.”

If we are willing to notice the resilience of nature and the newfound humility in people now confronting the exigencies of subsistence, we may discern further grounds for hope. There are innumerable projects around the world where loyalty to place and to the beloved community, far from being extinguished by the stresses of the Anthropocene, remain the basis for a possible human—and ecological future. What’s more, many of them hearken however faintly to the Pleistocene social matrix of the small group, with its self-reliance, conviviality, and mutual aid. Everywhere there’s responsive, inventive and hopeful action to begin to meet basic needs, restore life places and to rebuild individual and community capacities for self-governance. ​ With a mind opened wide by the likes of Paul Shepard, I went to Detroit to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of another human ecology, the long, patient workings of a revolution, to witness the efforts of those who aren’t abandoning their terrain, who aren’t motivated by greed, or seeking to be ruled. Like millions of people around the world, they are settling the frontier of the Anthropocene. It is not inconceivable that through such hope and persistence—and self-responsibility and self-determination–the conditions allowing for some further unfolding of human nature might develop.

So let us proceed.

As Grace Lee Boggs says, “We want and need to exercise power, not take it.”

Thank you.