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ALBUQUERQUE -– Socialism has been bandied about as a scare word in the run-up to Election Day, but New Mexico author John Nichols embraces it as the answer to the climate crisis.
This is not “old-style socialism or old-style capitalism,” he says, but Declaration of Independence-style socialism that posits “that all living beings on earth have an equal right to exist and must be protected” if earth is going to remain viable for human life.
Nichols, who has published 19 books, three of which have been made into movies, made his remarks Saturday night on the occasion of the University of New Mexico’s acquisition of 50 years of his voluminous archives.
To a small group of about 40 parents of UNM students he delivered with generous doses of both humor and gravity the essay he said he wrote for the occasion on Sept. 30, “…while my Congress people were bickering about a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, using MY tax dollars, which, thank God, I’m actually going to have to be paying this year gracias to the willingness of UNM to give me some money for my literary archives.”
In keeping with the sustainability theme of UNM’s first Parent Weekend being held at the same time, Nichols’ talk was titled, “To Sustain or Not to Sustain: That Is the Question ” — the obvious answer being that sustainability is the only way the planet can survive.
Known for living simply and inexpensively in Taos, Nichols still works on a table he bought for $20 in New York City in 1965 and says he shops at Albuquerque’s ThriftTown. But Nichols nonetheless says he’s a despoiler of the planet simply due to his literary output:
I am Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Barry Commoner and David Suzuki’s worst nightmare. … I have wasted more typing paper than a government bureaucracy in a Franz Kafka novel, and now, instead of being pilloried for my profligate behavior, I am being rewarded for it by the leading academic institution in the state that I love.
All I can say is: May God bless UNM for my bailout.
The author of nearly a dozen fiction works, including “The Milagro Beanfield War” (which was made into a film by Robert Redford), Nichols is also the author of several nonfiction works that celebrate nature in his adopted state. In 1990, he published a photo essay called “The Sky’s the Limit” that he likened to Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in its depiction of the deteriorating environment.
And few may realize it, but Nichols is also a naturalist in the classic sense, according to Mike Kelly, associate dean of UNM’s Center for Southwest Research, which will house Nichols’ papers. Kelly said Nichols daily hikes Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest mountain, where he takes temperature readings, tallies the number of elk he sees and records events such as the day the leaves turn to gold.
Nichols says the environmental and social dilemma we are in today is nothing new.
“We have been creating it since Adam Smith published ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and humankind invented the steam engine and the cotton gin.”
More than 160 years ago Thoreau begged humanity to live simply, he says. Over the decades since then, Carson, Commoner and Gore have sounded successive environmental alarms.
Nichols says we all know the problem, but he might as well repeat it “just for the record:”
The growth of human consumption is destroying the biology that sustains us and is creating vast social problems throughout the human community.
The “fat cats” can’t take all the blame, he adds, because “the consumption habits of the average American person create the high crimes and misdemeanors of the fat cats.”
And because, as naturalist John Muir once said, everything in the universe is connected, if the fat cats go down, “we will go down also.”
Which might not be so bad, because “that’s the start of hope. … It should force us all to really start thinking.”
One form of rethinking that has emerged in the past two decades is the talk of a green revolution and sustainability itself, which Nichols defines:
A sustainable industry is one that consumes no more natural resources than can be regenerated in a timely fashion. Thus it is capable of exploiting that resource more or less infinitely.
He then offers by way of example an illustration that is classic Nichols:
A rabbit rancher doesn’t overgraze a pasture; he or she limits the number of bunnies on the land by forcing male bunnies to wear condoms, and rests the land between grazing sessions so it can renew itself, and doesn’t irrigate the land with any more water than what can be replenished annually by natural means.
This infers a limited production of rabbits from the land -– no growth … sustainability.
Of course, for rabbit ranchers to maintain a sustainable operation, society must constrain its consumption of bunny burgers to sustainable levels. Which means people must constrain their own reproductive activities so they won’t create numbers that consume too many bunnies.
Nichols, of course, is talking about limits on growth and reproduction, “about as likely as the chance that George Bush will go back home in January and open a Family Planning Center for rabbits in Crawford, Texas.”
But he makes the case that it’s necessary to talk about these things if we’re serious about the sustainable growth and green industry that Nichols notes are so coolly used in TV ads by “enormous corporations like Exxon.”
Quoting Canadian geneticist and ecologist David Suzuki, Nichols says, “As long as development is synonymous with economic growth, ‘sustainable development’ is a cruel oxymoron.”
“To me, it seems clear that anything less than radical downsizing of world material consumption will be ineffective. … And I don’t think any of this can come about without envisioning and implementing a world of social equality for humankind.”
Nichols says he feels “certain” we will need legislated limits on human procreation and offers as evidence Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us,” which says the world can only be sustainable with fewer people on the planet. Even if it could be legislated that every woman on earth be allowed one child, by 2050 there would be 5.5 billion people on earth and it would take 92 years -– to the year 2100 -– to reach a world population of 1.6 billion -– “which might make for a sustainable human community.”
Unfortunately, the American psyche has been trained “to eat the earth with an appetite that’s never satiated,” a mind-set that must be reversed.
“Our votes next Tuesday are crucial to beginning those changes, though I doubt that any American president will have the moxie to initiate the radical new world that we need. That will probably come, painfully and at great expense, from the people they govern.”
Changes are happening to the human community just as they are happening to the melting arctic, the extinction of species, the collapsing world ecosystem. History tells us that no civilization keeps going forever. … The cliché is: It’s only a matter of time.
Someday, perhaps, Americans will study it without the negative contexts of communism and oppression and “go back to its idealism.”
“There’s a huge difference between capitalism and democracy,” he added.
Ending on a positive note, Nichols said he’s promised himself never again to write a book the size of “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “The Magic Journey” or “The Nirvana Blues” (his famous trilogy).
“Today I am appalled by those 850-page manuscripts. I mean, what in God’s name was I thinking? They had to cut down a forest the size of New York State to print them. And I don’t even want to think about the bleach from the pulp mills that went into paper for those books.”
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