9/11: One Year Later

Words from the Wise

Scott Nearing didn't just start the back-to-the-land movement. He was a fierce social and political critic whose writings on modern war and abuses of power ring true today.
Twenty years ago I would drive up from the crowded Boston area to remote Maine to visit an old but lucid man with a leathery face in his late 90s. Still chopping wood and growing most of his own food, Scott Nearing at his Good Life Farm was a welcome break from my tedious academic work at Harvard.

Nearing is best known for a book he wrote in 1954 with his wife Helen, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. The Nearings stimulated a back-to-the-land movement that they embodied for 50 years, until Scott's death at 100 in 1983. During his lifetime he built dozens of stone structures and wrote or co-authored nearly 50 books -- on many topics, including economics, gardening, war, peace, politics and personal responsibility.

Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly since September 11th, I find myself drawn once again to Nearing's thoughts. What might a man born in the 19th century, who wrote during and between the World Wars, say to us as the United States starts the 21st century's first major war? The answer is plenty.

America's weapons have developed, but the main reasons for its war-making remain the same as described by Nearing over 80 years ago. A young University of Pennsylvania economics professor as World War I began, Nearing wrote a pamphlet, "The Great Madness," that documented the commercial causes of war.

Nearing asserted that the main purpose of the U.S. military was "to guard the hundreds of millions of dollars ... invested in 'undeveloped countries.'" For such views and speaking out against child labor, the university fired Nearing. He was even tried for treason. Though not found guilty, Nearing became academically unemployable.

In publications such as "The Menace of Militarism," he analyzed military preparedness and war-making as sources of business profits. His "Oil and the Germs of War" explained the role of the petroleum and other big business interests in the international struggle for raw material, markets and investment opportunities. Today, as the United States (lead by oilmen) deploys new forces to oil-rich countries next to Afghanistan and plans to spend millions defending Occidental Petroleum's 500-mile-long pipeline in Colombia -- inserting ourselves into a civil war -- history is repeating itself.

"War has wider implications," he wrote. "War offers those in power a chance to rid themselves of opposition while covering up their designs with patriotic slogans." The leaders of the United States' current war certainly have pursued a domestic agenda ridiculing dissent. In the meantime, our foreign activities have served as a cover to reduce civil rights, freedoms, and democracy here at home.

But what may be most telling for me are Nearing's thoughts about nuclear weapons. Though the White House backtracked recently after a Pentagon report reconsidering nuclear weapons use was leaked, the prospect of opening the atomic Pandora’s box is frightening.

"The event which finally tore me away from my commitment to Western civilization was the decision of Harry Truman to blot out the city of Hiroshima," Nearing wrote five decades ago. "This decision was one of the most crucial ever made by modern man. The decision was the death sentence of Western civilization."

"The use of atomic weapons against Japan was not only a crime against humanity," he asserts, "but it was a blunder which would lead to a gigantic build-up of the planet's destructive forces. Humanity is today astride a guided missile equipped with a nuclear warhead." As the Pentagon prepares to build a space-based missile defense, little -- apart from the technology -- has changed.

Nearing’s criticisms and conclusions about war, profit-making, pollution and politics led him to become the practical conservationist who was associated with the "back to the land" movement. As the war on terrorism expands, it's worth returning to Nearing's writing and his model of living in harmony with nature.

The words of this great teacher still ring strong in my ears, as does the image of an old man continuing to chop his own wood to heat his house. Rereading Nearing inspires and reminds me: the struggle against American war-making that he began 80 years ago endures -- one which I remain committed to continue during this new century.

Shepherd Bliss owns the organic Kokopelli Farm in Sebastapol, California.