The Memetics and Evolution of Social Movements – Part I

Roadside Creek, Pyrenees Mountains in France

If you had asked me 35 years ago whether I would end up as an expert on social movements, I would have laughed. That’s the best way to start this piece.

I originally moved out to Pullman/Washington State University back in 1988 because I was an outdoor sports enthusiast in general, and in particular, a kayaker. I had other job offers — my Ph.D. advisor, Earl Dowell, was a noted aeroelastician (dude that looks at wing flutter), the Dean of Engineering at Duke, and a National Academy member. I was his first native graduate student at Duke to get a Ph.D., and his wish was to place me in a peer or better institution (Duke was not as famous in 1988 as it is now) to establish the Duke brand with his contribution. He was/is a wonderful man, and I still communicate with him.

But instead of taking any one of a number of East Coast jobs, I took off for the territories. WSU, it turns out, is likely the Carnegie R1 institution closer to more designated wilderness than any other. So when I flew out here for a job interview, which was a ski trip, I knew, at some level, this was going to be it. I also knew that it was going to be lonely — prospects for meeting young women were notoriously slim. Land grant institutions, which WSU is, were built in the middle of nowhere in every state, with the intent that they would both support the agricultural economy of the region, and serve as a nucleus for the beginnings of urbanization. WSU definitely has done the former, but has really failed at the latter. Pullman, where I work, and where the main campus is located, is not the Ends of the Earth. But you can see them from here.

So I moved out, found a roommate, found a girlfriend (a whole ‘nother story) and after setting up shop, the next weekend drove down to the North Fork of the Payette in Idaho, which remains one of the premier Class V runs in the world. I had found my version of paradise, at least if it didn’t kill me. Running the North Fork in a kayak has more in common with being in a four hour car wreck than anything.

I did have that girlfriend, whom I met in the parking permit line, and it turned out she was both relatively compliant, and possessing of a large family on the Camas Prairie, which is just south of here. I would go off to kayak, I’d drop her off with said family, and return to pick her up at the end of the weekend.

But that left the rest of the week. I had been programmed by my parents for acts of public service, so I found a local environmental collective where I connected with one of the chief mentors of my young existence — Leroy Lee, a hippie-turned-Indian connected with the Nez Perce tribe. I’ve told many of these stories in my book, Wild to the Last:Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater Country. The book, for a first book, is pretty good. Some of it is actually amazing and still makes me cry/triggers my PTSD. You decide. It became a modest literary sensation, because it was written, well, by me, a rocket scientist with a dark sense of humor, that was looking to make sure I wasn’t gaslighting myself.

Along the way, in 1992, a very small group of activists, calling themselves the Ancient Forest Bus Brigade, also showed up in town. They were only nominally headed up by Robert Amon/Ramon, a former life insurance sales executive, and included a handful of literal misfits, including Erik Ryberg, an activist, then lawyer, then mayor of the town of Etna, CA. I think Erik now cooks pizzas in a stone bread oven he built.

At the time, I had been working with Leroy as an assistant on what turned into the Phantom Forest scandal. This was a situation where Leroy, a forest stand examiner by trade, had noticed that the Forest Service was keeping two sets of books — one somewhat fraudulent to justify cutting more trees than were sustainable, and one that was an actual inventory of real trees. Leroy went on with a couple of other activists to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of Congress about this fraud. He considered me his successor, which, quite frankly, I had no idea what the hell that meant at the time.

But back to the Ancient Forest Bus Brigade. They had decided to set as their campaign goal the preservation of the Cove-Mallard Roadless Area, a large, unroaded space (400K acres IIRC) adjacent to the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness Area. But they were a handful of folks living on a school bus, in the middle of nowhere, for the summer. In this case, this “middle of nowhere” was located outside Dixie, Idaho.

Dixie, Idaho, is 98% pure anachronism. You have to see it to believe it. There are still places you can jump through the portal and travel back in time.

1992 ended with the arrest of some subset of the Bus Brigade getting some misdemeanor arrest/ticket for mooning a US Forest Service vehicle that was doing some road prep work, for the coming massive timber sale. I found out as much as I had previously known by reading an Outside Magazine blurb about the bunch. Outside used to be far more funny than it is now, and, well, this WAS a classic story.

It wasn’t long until the Ancient Forest Bus Brigade, or at least Ramon, ended up in Moscow, ID as a base of operations. Dixie is one of those places you can indeed live in the past, but once you do this, you’ll find out the past is not as glamorous as people like to make it out to be. Notably, there is a lack of food, or rather food diversity, in Dixie. The big grocery store is some 70 miles away, down a winding road. Moscow is far more accessible, to say the least. So I met at least some of them (the dynamics in all this involve more people than I want to write about, quite frankly) and decided to help their cause.

To say the campaign was disorganized would be an understatement. But that would be if you were thinking only a large, hierarchical organization can make a difference in the world. The Bus Brigade was hooked in with another couple of hand-to-mouth organizations — The Ecology Center of Missoula, and the Idaho Sportsmans Coalition (soon to be the Idaho Sporting Congress.) If there was one characteristic of most of the major actors in all this chaos, it was brilliance. Some amazing legal minds worked on the issue of saving Cove/Mallard. They were also what we call “low baggers” — basically living on the bum while working to prevent forests from being logged.

And they were unlikely heroes. The head of the Idaho Sportmen’s Coalition, Ron Mitchell, was an actual hunter, a fat guy, fabulously funny, who would walk around in his underwear in his house in Boise, being somewhat taken care of by his more normal girlfriend, Judy. Erik has a great story about walking into Ron’s house to find Ron skinning a turkey in said underwear in his kitchen. They were all brilliant, most were definitely non-normative, and they were all passionately committed to saving the remaining wild country in Idaho. They were going to do whatever it took.

(Side note — Ron Mitchell, along with Erik, and another lawyer, Mark Fink are probably responsible for saving the last great ponderosa pine forests in the Intermountain West. Other, more mainstream sissy groups can attempt to take the credit. All bullshit. The notion that one of the iconic landscapes of the American West was literally saved by this group of utter misfits with basically no money should serve as a history lesson for all the fucked-up-edness we’re dealing with right now. It is literally “same as it ever was.”)

But here is where we begin our story. The campaign to save this huge hunk of the Idaho wilderness was started by people who were fiercely independent, brilliant, somewhat broke, and completely committed to the goal. They had gotten to the point where the legal strategy that was running parallel to save Cove/Mallard was not going to result in a stay of action on roadbuilding in that area, in enough time to prevent the roadbuilding that would convert the Cove/Mallard area to being officially loaded. So they made a decision to launch a call to action in the Radical environmentalist paper of record, the Earth First! Journal. The text was somewhat classic (I can’t remember it) but it involved the usual stuff about implied vandalism. It announced there would be a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign outside of Dixie, ID, as well, in the summer of 1993, directly stopping the USFS from building roads into the area.

Here are some key things.

  1. The people involved at the start of the campaign were brilliant, and virtuous (well, in their own way.) They had tried everything to save these wild places, and now they had been brought to the point where the only thing they could do was place their bodies in-between the forest and the roadbuilding bulldozers.
  2. They knew that the various things that would happen in the context of the protests would likely end them up in jail.
  3. They recognized there was a price to be paid if this place were to be saved. There was none of this contemporary nonsense of safe spaces, institutional endorsement, or other such icks.

I came to the campaign because, at the time, I was passionately committed to the same cause as the Bus Brigade. But unlike them, I fancied a life AFTER all this was over. I saw arrest scenarios written all over what they were proposing. And there was, at least in my mind, no doubt that there would be other stuff going on in the woods that was NOT civil disobedience (CD).

So I set myself up to help with logistics in running the nonviolent CD campaign. I had a truck. I could drive to Dixie with bags of whatever greasy beans the various hippies, still to arrive, that would show up would eat, provided we created the infrastructure. And I did. But I didn’t hang around Cove/Mallard all summer. I also took off for 8 weeks that summer to work at the USAF Academy.

The summer of ’93 would be one for the books. Dozens of folks were arrested, protesting in the literal middle of nowhere against the timber sales and road construction. At the end of the summer, all of these people had been cited, more or less, with something, and had to be processed through the federal court seated in Moscow, ID. We had trials we had to sit through. Erik got arrested for something (I think it was diving under a USFS truck that was supposedly delivering a message for a camp inhabitant, and locking himself to the steering mechanism.) Ramon had bought 40 acres of an inholding next to the Roadless Area proper, so they could operate without the USFS harassing them. I remember the spring of 1993, preparing the camp, putting up a gate, and whatever. It turned out that all of us had been Eagle Scouts in our former lives. We were all Boy Scouts Gone Bad.

All the people cited ended up with a fine, or some jail sentence. Usually it wasn’t long (now sequence starts to blur together a little bit) but I was watching all this happen, and it became obvious. The Feds would arrest you the first time. You would go to court (often with a bunch of other people) and you would plead your case to the Federal Judge. Most of the defenses were some version of the Necessity Defense — the USFS was going to do something wrong that would violate (pick some forest law) and you were the conscious citizen who was stopping them from doing this.

The Federal Judge — an extremely powerful person (people mostly have no concept how powerful a Federal Judge is — they serve for life, they can put a President in jail, etc.) listened to your shenanigans, and then got irritated. He looked at whether you had any history of recidivism, and then he would attempt to teach you how irritated he was by putting you in jail for a night or two, and admonishing you to NOT show up in his courtroom again with your bullshit, which he didn’t find compelling.

Don’t show up again. That was the big lesson. Or it was going to get radically worse — at least for you.

Moment of analysis

At this point I started to realize where things were going to head. The first round of folks charged would be the ones that had done their homework, and were passionate, intelligent and virtuous in their cause. They had studied the law, they loved the Wild, and they were willing to jeopardize their long-term viability in society by going to jail for this cause. There was a Price to be Paid, and they realized this was how CD worked.

But the price wasn’t that high. It was a misdemeanor, after all, which might fuck with you getting into Canada (it did) but most of life would go on. I didn’t want to pay that price — I was, after all, a rocket scientist, working with various organs of the DoD, and while I’ve never held a security clearance, that would be the end of that. There would be consequences.

What then started was the realization that our social movement was in the process of some memetic evolution. Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary I have now, nor the insight, but I realized that the smart people were either going to a.) commit to a lifetime of getting arrested, or b.) fade out of the movement. I can’t tell you I completely comprehended how all that would go, but the beginning of the social devolution had begun. The only question was whether we would accomplish our goal (saving Cove/Mallard) before it all turned into truly mindless hippie nihilism.

To cut to the chase — it did. 1994 resulted in a federal injunction against the Cove/Mallard timber sales, we had another big round of arrests (I think) in 1998, we were strengthened by a couple of famous activists, namely Mike Roselle who went on to found Rainforest Action Network. Mike had been a founder of Earth First! and he is still a dear friend. He is brilliant of course, but the fact was we might be close would have as much to do with the fact that his father was a drunken womanizer, that beat him, kinda like my own dad. We shared enough background. ‘Nuf said.

SO here we go. How do large civil disobedience campaigns run?

  1. The founders are very often big thinkers, passionately committed to the reality of the change. The system arrests them, and they have to make choices. Keep going, and end up with lots of jail time, or fade to the back and attempt to have a normal life.
  2. The second tier are often very committed. But they are NOT as smart as the pioneers. They plug into an already established leitmotif and infrastructure, and duplicate, or modestly innovate on the founders’ actions. After one or two rounds of arrests, they have decisions to make, just like the founders. As opposed to six months in the federal penitentiary, living your life by homesteading in Vermont starts to look mighty attractive.
  3. The third round of activists were far more unpredictable, but one thing is for certain — they will not be the best and brightest. And it will not end well. They, too, become aware of the choices they will be faced with. But they often don’t have a whole lot going on anyway, and some percentage will be in the “Three Hots and a Cot” category. A long protest campaign provides social connection for many, and an unending diet of stewed lentils.

The last round, for someone like me, who was a local, proved the most problematic. By the time we ended up in Round 3, I can’t say I was actually “in charge” of anything. But there were things I did that were counted on (I once drove a load of food to Dixie in the middle of the winter for activists over-wintering on the 40 acre property, for all the good that did.) Ungrounded and dogmatic, their actions were completely nihilistic.

I remember this one call I got where an activist, in a fit of pique, had locked themselves underneath a USFS pickup in the grocery store parking lot in Grangeville, ID. The call came into whatever our headquarters at the time was, and we were trying to figure out jail support, legal support, whatever. I can remember asking, frustrated, “why the hell did they do this???” We were 90 miles away in Moscow, and there was little we could do. That person was going to jail. And worse, they had blown one of their arrest tickets because of some brain spasm they had. I think the answer was “they just felt, at the moment, they had to do SOMETHING.” 3rd Gen. activism in a nutshell.

But one thing to remember. ALL of us, when faced with our activities, had to face up to the fact that there was going to be a PRICE that had to be paid. The institutional structure may indeed change with time, but at the time, there was either going to be a trip to court, a fine, a mark on your record, or an ass-beating that was all part of it. We never had any illusion that universities would give us jobs for raising hell.

In my case, as a person still WITH a real job in engineering, the natural resource faculty would insult me, even though they knew I was on the right side of the issue. The local timber baron called for my job, and to his credit, the WSU President at the time, Sam Smith, told him that I had not broken the law, and he would be doing nothing. Same timber baron’s son threatened to put a bullet through my then-wife’s skull. He was such an asshole (not all the folks in the timber industry are, FWIW) that we worried about this.

I finally ended up punching one of my holes on my ticket when a friend, Rein Attemann, who worked for a local NGO (the Lands Council) and I drove past a road closure sign on the Colville NF to take pictures of a fire-prevention timber sale that had, well, caught fire. I was full-on into large-format photography, and the photos ended up, blown up to poster size, in the Well of the Senate in the middle of the ‘Healthy Forests’ debate. Larry Craig, Senator from Idaho, ended up sending the federal marshals to my house to cite me and formally arrest and release me — not fun. But by this time, the tide had turned, the US Federal Magistrate got mad at the USFS for citing me with the misdemeanor, and the whole thing went away.

The key element of EVERYTHING we did, though was tied together with the concept of Grounding Validity. We had ideals, and we were prepared to act on those ideals. But CD is NOT CD unless the potential to get your ass beat is also in the cards. That keeps it real. There’s nothing wrong with marches, gatherings, assemblies and whatnot. But you are NOT fighting the Man if the Man can’t beat your ass. It’s part of the deal. You get your ass beat, people see that and think “hey, that’s not right.” And then the world moves.

And CD in general only works in systems where people have independent agency AND have consciences. CD would not have worked in Hitler’s Germany, at least on any reasonable timescale. Or Stalin’s Russia. That’s the other thing people are NOT getting about the disturbing trends in Lefty protests. With Cancel Culture, NO ONE is encouraged to have agency. You speak up, you lose your job, you’re excluded from society. The “Free speech has consequences” assholes (who, oddly stereotypically are from Hollywood far too often) will never face real consequences for their actions. In fact, what’s actually happened is protest in its current form has been captured by these elites as a tool of social control. They’ve finally managed to harness protest as both a relief valve for their young, dissociated members, and a memetic weapon against their enemies.

Short version, folks — We’re not in Kansas any more.

Part II — the rise of the psychopathic narcissists.

Or what happens when you remove Grounding Validity from your system. When nobody goes to jail the psychopaths ascend, and you really start to devolve as a society. When there is no price to be paid, the Joker smacks his lips.

For tomorrow!

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