Edward Abbey died 24 years ago this week. In the second decade of the 21st century, his words live on. But is this the world and the West that Cactus Ed cherished and loved? Is the New West compatible with his vision of wilderness and wide-open spaces?
In his book Desert Solitaire, Abbey offered a unique reason for establishing wilderness. "We may need wilderness someday," he proposed, "not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression."
He warned that "technology adds a new dimension to the process," and believed (then) that the wilderness would provide escape from those kinds of Big Brother controls. For Abbey, wilderness was meant to be the vast "blank spot on the map," as Aldo Leopold longed for.
"A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness," he added, "without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge ... ."
In 2013, Abbey would not recognize the wilderness he sought to protect. Environmentalists, once dedicated to saving the wilderness that Abbey envisioned, now look at wild lands as a marketable commodity and a way to generate revenue for their own "non-profit" organizations. The economic value of wilderness trumps everything else. They've bastardized a favorite Abbey line: "The idea of wilderness needs no defense; it needs more defenders," and made it a Chamber of Commerce promo, a boost for the profitability of wilderness, and increasing the chance, they believe, of passing wilderness legislation. Never mind the collateral damage.
Even grassroots groups, once dedicated participants in "the good fight," now parse their battle cries. Their boards of directors are filled with wealthy venture capitalists, bankers and financiers who would have deported Abbey, given the chance. Together, they support a massive recreation/amenities economy that is transforming the West in unimaginable ways. Now, the most powerful lobbying force for "legislative wilderness' is the Outdoor Recreation Industry.
Abbey sought wilderness to seek "loveliness and quiet exultation." Nowadays, exultation makes a lot of noise. Ed didn't envision a wilderness experience that included smart phones, GPS units, gourmet backcountry "adventures," or daily uploads to Facebook ("Here's our wilderness sunset tonight" 126 'LIKES'). Yet, many believe they are the latter-day disciples of a man they know practically nothing about, or bother to know.
What Abbey always hoped we'd take away from his writing and from his life was a sense of ourselves as individuals, as men and women who could take control of our own lives and our own destinies. He complained of a "nation of braying jackasses." He longed for a people with dignity and courage and he loathed the mindless "bleating sheep" that he sometimes found even in his own readers.
He wrote, "If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream." Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey and have no idea what that means.
Cactus Ed may have hoped that his time and effort here might someday make a small difference, that it might alter the future for the better. But I doubt it. He wrote what he believed, with little or no hope that his views might prevail. Just remember he was the guy who really did throw rocks at "things big and glassy" and urged us to do the same. "What have you got to lose?" he asked back then.
In 2013, that's a good question for all of us.
Jim Stiles publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab.