Monday, December 11, 2017

The Big Forces Theory

A little more than a week ago, Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos, called a political opponent “Pocahontas” at a ceremony honoring Native Americans, and reveled in Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct allegations (even though Trump has his own allegations to deal with). For any other president, a series of gaffes and embarrassments like this would have been catastrophic. But for Trump it was just another week.
  
These stories make me angry. They make me hate the voters who put such a monster in power. I want to slap them, shake them by the shoulders, berate them. Look at what you did! Look at who you put into office! In Trump’s immaturity, I see theirs. In Trump’s stupidity, I see theirs. In Trump’s moral depravity, I see theirs.  

But these fits only last a few moments. The part of me who enjoys being angry is weaker than the part of me who wishes to understand. My hatred eventually dissolves and turns into curiosity, making me wonder: Why did they vote for him? What made 62 million Americans vote for a man who is so clearly unfit for office?

There are plenty of reasons that have been cited: fear of immigrants, contempt for environmental regulation, anxiety over the economy, hatred for the political establishment, the desire to “blow the whole thing up,” racism…

I’m going to focus on racism, but first I’d like to establish a theory that’s essential for this post.

The Big Forces Theory

I’m proposing that Trump voters — all people, really — have only so much control over what they think and believe. Until I learn that this theory has already been developed and named, I’m calling it the “Big Forces Theory.” It proposes that our ideologies — and essentially everything about who we are — are shaped by tremendous forces that are often invisible to us. 

Let’s talk about the forces that contribute to our economic success. Our culture celebrates nonconformity, independent thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Our culture would like us to believe that we are the creators of our own lives and makers of our own destinies. By pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we, as individuals, are principally responsible for our successes.

Studies show that this isn’t the case. We fail to appreciate how our place in the world — our health, our socioeconomic status, our life expectancy — has far more to do with when we were born, who our parents are, and whether we were fortunate enough to have been swept to prosperous shores by the grand tides of history.

The work of Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his team at the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that we are only partly in control of our fates. Our likelihood of achieving economic success is influenced by factors such as residential segregation, income inequality, social capital, school quality, the year we are born, and whether we have one parent or two, among other factors. Someone born in San Jose, California, for instance, has a much better chance at climbing the economic ladder than a person born in Atlanta, Georgia. Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises has shown that our income mobility is partly determined by our surname and how our families fared hundreds of years ago.

The map shows the opportunity for economic mobility by county. Credit: New York Times
I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Ulysses S. Grant. We love Grant’s story because it’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story: from drunken firewood peddler to savior of the Union. When Grant had a young family, the economy was a mess and he became something close to destitute. After struggling to sell firewood, he had to swallow his pride and ask his younger brother for work. This is what we remember about his story. We tend to forget that Grant had an advantageous start. Grant’s father was rich (so much that he’d be a millionaire today) and had good connections—connections that he used to get a teenage Grant enrolled at West Point. Grant’s privileged education would come in handy during all those future military battles.    

We think of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as self-made men, and of course they, like Grant, had incredible vision, drive, and god-given talents. But they greatly benefited from stable home lives, early access to computers, great schools, and an environment that had a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Finding a true rags-to-riches story (in which the social climber has not benefited from wealth, connections, good families, or good schools) is difficult. Even Andrew Carnegie, who we remember as one of America’s great self-made men, had an uncle who was a politician. In his youth, Carnegie befriended a colonel who opened up an impressive library to Carnegie, giving the boy advantages that other boys didn’t have.  

There are probably a few true rags-to-riches stories and there are indeed people with rare, god-given talents, but I think we can agree that, generally, those who have wealth, good parents, good schools, and good health tend to succeed far more than those who don’t.

Let’s zoom out and look at how some societies succeed. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, reports that Europe came to dominate the world, not because of brilliant, revolutionary leaders, but because of something far simpler: geography. The Fertile Crescent and greater Mediterranean area were blessed with good climate, a disproportionate number of animals capable of being domesticated, and 32 of the world's 56 most useful grasses. Europe’s geographic connection to these resources, not to mention all the diseases that they grew immune to (and that they would pass on to Native Americans), would put inhabitants of the New World in a serious position of weakness for the coming clash. In Earning the Rockies, Robert D. Kaplan, says that American geography  with our helpful network of rivers across arable land (perfect for transport and commerce) and two protective oceans — has made our global foreign policy, as policeman and world leader, practically inevitable. “What all of this amounts to,” writes Kaplan, “is something stark: America is fated to lead. That is the judgment of geography.”

These are examples of Big Forces. The big things — such as climate, geography, wealth, good institutions — largely determine the fate of people and civilizations. I’d like to extend the reach of Big Forces: I propose that Big Forces are almost entirely responsible for how you and I think. They determine who becomes a progressive, a conservative, an environmentalist, a libertarian, a Christian, a racist, and so on…*  


In the above meme, which appears to be well-vetted, we see many problems that plague the southern states, all of which voted for Trump except Virginia. In the South, there is disproportionate poverty. There is inferior education and poor health. And up close and personal is the legacy of slavery. (An updated meme also contains maps that show that the southern states have the highest levels of teen pregnancy and venereal disease, which I believe are accurate as well.) Together, Big Forces like these create large-scale cultural patterns and broad political trends.

Consider those maps as we go through post-election voting data analyses.

Health. Findings from The Economist suggest that poor physical health was one of the most reliable predictors of a Trump voter.

Educational level. According to FiveThirtyEight, Hilary Clinton (in relation to Obama’s 2012 election) lost voters in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in America. Nate Silver says education levels were the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016.”

Racism and xenophobia. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that racism and xenophobia were leading factors in Trump’s victory, more so than economic anxiety. An analysis done by The Nation also suggests that it had more to do with racial animus than economic anxiety. Analysis done by the Washington Post concludes that, “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.” Using data from the Southern Law Poverty Center, I’ve calculated that the states with the most hate groups per capita went solidly for Trump, including the top eight most hateful states and 16 of the top 20.   


Here we see Big Forces at work. Poor health, poor education, racism, and xenophobia — things, I’m arguing, that we have little control over — are all correlated with voting for Trump.

And how about propaganda as another Big Force? Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains describes the decades-long attempt to radicalize the right, dupe millions of voters, and undermine democracy. This effort has been funded by billionaire true-believers, like the Kochs. Elaborate strategy and billions of dollars make their way into millions of minds through AM radio, Fox News, and many dark, but well-supported, corners of the Internet. 

We could look at racist Trump supporters as angry nincompoops, or as the products (victims?) of not only wide-scale regional educational, religious, health, racial, and economic patterns, but also a conspiracy that is powerful and compelling enough to overpower the enlightened sides of their minds.

Maybe these voters, who consistently vote against their self-interest, aren’t deserving of our scorn. Maybe they’re deserving of our understanding. Instead of hating them, we must consider the tremendously powerful — and invisible — forces that have made them this way. They did not invent their own stupidity. They are not inherently racist. They do not control the Big Forces around them. They did not parent themselves. They did not under-staff the schools they attended. They are the products of an almost inescapable culture. They are inevitabilities. They are algorithms, as we all are. Their Big Forces made them into Trump voters, the same way our Big Forces made us into who we are.

Of course there are examples of people who’ve rejected their dominant culture. Take for example Derek Black, who grew up in a prominent white supremacist family and who is the godchild of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Derek, as a teenager, was an active white supremacist, but he would later renounce his family’s views soon after he went to college. Was this change due to the workings of moral logic in one young man’s independent mind, or might it have something to do with the fact that he attended a liberal arts college, far from his parents, and that a few Jewish students would kindly invite him to Shabbat dinners and show him up-to-date research that disproved Derek’s racial theories? Is Derek responsible for the change of ideology, or was it simply an opposing Big Force (the liberal arts and fact-based thinking)?

This all makes me wonder: How much is racism a choice and how much is racism imposed on us? How much of our minds are products of Big Forces, and how much of our minds are products of our own creation?   

Perhaps genetics play a role in determining who we become and what we believe. We’re all born with different bodies and brains. It follows that these differences may somehow affect how religious, liberal, or scrupulous we become. The term “genopolitics” describes how our genes may contribute to our politics. But this is not a theory I’m eager to endorse, as this skeptical New Republic article does a pretty effective job shooting it down. Perhaps you could talk me into believing that if you become sufficiently enlightened  which includes recognizing the Big Forces that shaped you  you might to some extent be freed from the grip of Big Forces. But this is leading me into philosophical thickets that I can't get through on my own. 

Enlightenment and genetics aside (which I don’t even get to choose), I feel it’s more likely that I am merely a ball of clay that my environment shapes. If I’d grown up in Wheeler County, Texas — where Trump got 90.5 percent of votes — I think it’s quite likely that, if I’d grown up with normal Wheeler County values and experienced the Big Forces typical to Wheeler County voters, I would have voted for Trump as well.** 

For the most part, I believe that we are malleable creatures, that we are products of our environments and Big Forces. Personally, I’m comfortable thinking that my thoughts and beliefs are not my own. I am merely a smoothie of all the things I’ve read, watched, listened to, learned from, and experienced. Sure, a little bit of genetic endowment, a little bit of spirited individuality might come into play, but for the most part I am an algorithm. While I actively watched, read, learned, and listened to a number of things that developed me, it was cultural and institutional forces (like the entertainment industry and the New York State school system) that presented me with a relatively narrow set of options that I could choose to be influenced by.***

I realize that I’m saying nothing original. We all recognize that our environments shape us to varying degrees, but I think we recognize this only on a higher intellectual level. We seldom apply these thoughts to face-to-face interaction. In the heat of the moment, it’s all visceral. Same thing with when I get frustrated with Trump and his supporters. But I think it’s worth writing about the Big Forces in the way I have because I think we tend to give too much credit to the concept of individual self-determination. We tend to think that racism needs to be solved on a person-to-person micro level, when I think it needs to be addressed on a much grander macro level. Also, as smart as we are, I think we need to be reminded of the forces around us that are so ever-present that they become invisible.  

When I think about Big Forces, I think of racist Trump voters less as baskets of deplorables and more as products of Big Forces. If you have the same tendency to feel anger and hate, I urge you to think of us all as Big Force products, which are impossible to hate. (Admittedly, the irrational part of me will most definitely get momentarily angry with these voters the next time Trump does something terrible).

I’m not trying to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling about “respecting” the other side. I’m not trying to make racism or xenophobia in any way okay or forgivable. I may not even be trying to help you shed your anger, as anger and passion can be converted into useful activism. I’m merely suggesting that by acknowledging the existence of Big Forces, we may be more able to deal with unruly emotions, and we may think more on a Big Force level to help prevent future electoral calamities.

Under my value system (which calls for equality, justice, and fraternity for all of humanity, as well as care for the planet and all earthly species), I can think of a few helpful Big Forces that might produce a future citizenry that could accomplish some wonderful things.

1. Enhanced democracy. An enhanced democracy that promotes vigorous civic participation would severely reduce the number of voters who feel disenfranchised, alienated, and forgotten. These citizens, once they feel like citizens, will be less inclined to vent their frustration in elections by trying to “blow the whole thing up.” In his book Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot explains how the revival of tight-knit communities could resurrect a dying civic spirit, which could make everyone feel valued and give everyone a voice. On a more national level, referendums would make us feel like we play meaningful roles in deciding big things. Switzerland offers about ten referendums a year, which is a big factor in why 75 percent of Swiss citizens (the highest percentage among the forty countries studied) expressed “confidence in government.” On another (and rather obvious) note, getting money out of politics would be key.

2. Enhanced public trust. People feel like strangers in their own land. We are racist and xenophobic. We have extremely low levels of trust for our media and government. There is a severe deficit in social capital. We don't interact with members of our communities as much. We bowl alone, or we bowl at home on our Xbox. Studies have shown that income equality is a common feature among countries that have high levels of public trust. In other words, when society isn’t too stratified by outrageous differences in wealth, people tend to trust each other and their governments more. Society could benefit considerably from a different tax structure. On a related note, in my coming book This Land Is Our Land, I write about how the “right to roam” — and a more shared understanding of private property — could help us create a nation that’s more equal, neighborly, trusting, and united.

3. Enhanced education. In Against Democracy, Jason Brennan describes just how uninformed that average American voter is. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Brennan lists a few findings from his research:
Voters don’t know which party controls Congress, who their representatives are, what new laws were passed, what the unemployment rate is or what’s happening to the economy. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly more than half of voters knew that Al Gore was more liberal than George W. Bush, they did not seem to know what the word “liberal” means.
We need to be smarter, more savvy, more skeptical, more critical, more self-aware, more informed. We need strong public schools that make kids enthusiastic about learning. We need to make higher education dirt cheap. I just passed through Poland, and there, I’m told, the concept of being a “nerd” doesn’t really exist. It’s this way in many places across Europe. In other words, being smart is not the same as being uncool. I think we need to adopt this way of thinking. Americans universally value kindness, confidence, an independent spirit, a go-get-um attitude. These are great, but I think “worldliness” — achieved by travel, study, and self-reflection — should be added to the core values that we encourage each American to cultivate.    

These are just a few pie-in-the-sky dreams. You might call them implausible, but I’m okay thinking of these as long-range goals. And I’m finding inspiration from modern-day Western democracies, so these dreams aren’t all that far-fetched. Plus, this is a blog and there’s nothing stopping me from enjoying my role as armchair reformer. So there.  

These things won’t end racism (maybe nothing will?), but they might create a set of conditions where something like racism can be contained in its quieter Jekyll shell rather than being unleashed every few election cycles as a dangerous Hyde.  

***

*Of course I’m not suggesting something as simple as tabula rasa, that we’re clean slates from birth to be entirely shaped by our environments. I understand that we’re born with many things innate that direct us to, for instance, survive, be social, be cooperative, to laugh, to individuate.

**That said, I do wish to believe that there is in us all some “true you” that could never be touched by our culture, our environment, and our Big Forces. Sometimes I imagine myself in scenarios where I have the same genes, but where I’ve grown up in an entirely different place, with different guardians, with different circumstances. It begs you to ask the question: Just how malleable are you? Despite identifying as a peaceful person, if I’d grown up in a warrior tribal society, I can imagine myself enjoying war. Despite identifying as an atheist, if I’d grown up as a Western European peasant in the Middle Ages, I likely would have believed in the Christian god. If I’d been beaten and traumatized and unloved as a child, I could see myself as some broken human, capable of committing atrocities. If I’d grown up with a prized tutor in aristocratic England (and didn’t spend my boyhood playing Tecmo Super Bowl) perhaps today I’d be a much smarter and more accomplished person, though perhaps I'd be a more maladjusted person, too. But what characteristics would transcend all of your alternate reality selves? I know we all want to say “honorable” and “brave” and “principled,” but we’re probably so malleable that even our most cherished personal characteristics would be lost in certain circumstances. I’ve thought about this and to me my clearest answer is (apart from a set of obvious physical characteristics) my introversion. I think no matter what society I came from, I’d be introverted.

***Here are my Big Forces… I grew up in a Western New York suburb, where I had good public schools, good public parks, and parents who benefited from fair wages and unions. At a young age, I had a TV of my own and parents who didn’t restrict me from watching whatever shows and movies I wished to watch. I never felt threatened by immigration (my dad’s a Scot and I was born in Canada, so I’m sort of an immigrant myself), I’ve had very few unpleasant encounters with members of another race, and certainly nothing serious enough to make me judge a whole group in one way. I went to a good public university where I was exposed to a world of thought and where I intermingled with many cultural groups. The things that have hurt me or hurt others around me include fundamentalist religion, student debt, unchecked consumerism, Big Sugar, fossil fuels, private health insurance, and pollution. In short, these influences have made me into a progressive environmentalist who believes in institutions, who isn't afraid of diversity, who doesn’t have any weird gun complexes, and who can imagine living contentedly in several sorts of pre-industrial societies, but who, given the realities of the present world, would like it if America shifted toward a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Scottish Desert



There is great beauty in the wild, solitary Highlands, but it can be a haunting sort of beauty. You could walk for miles and never see anything move, except maybe the ripple of a stream and the swaying of grass in the wind.

On my recent hike from the town of Inverie to Fort William, I didn’t see any cattle or sheep. No bugs, no birds, no rabbits, no squirrels. Nothing. Entering the Highlands feels as if you’re entering a deep and otherworldly past. You time-travel well beyond the Neolithic, when humans domesticated animals, and enter the Cambrian, when life hasn’t yet slithered from the sea onto land to breathe air and colonize firm ground.

I’ve now visited several islands of the Hebrides, walked a good hundred miles of the Highlands, and, according to my Scottish family, traveled more of Scotland than many Scots. There’s much I love about the country, but I’d like to discuss one thing that’s disturbed me on each of my hikes.

There just isn’t any biodiversity in Scotland.  

The Highlands seem fertile for expansion. They beg to be explored. This sounds romantic, and the empty, grand Highlands make for a pretty picture, I know. But seclusion from all animal species leaves you feeling a bit lost. Imagine walking into a New York City that has no people. That’s how it feels entering a Highlands without any animals.  

In his fabulous book Feral, George Monbiot calls for rewilding Britain by reintroducing the species that humans hunted into oblivion thousands of years ago. These species include beaver, bison, elk, wolves, boars, lynx. Some of these are “keystone species,” which are species whose existence enables other species to exist. For example, beavers create ponds, which create habitat for frogs, birds, and insects, which create micro-habitats for other species to thrive.

Monbiot, who lived in Wales, said he became “ecologically bored.” In Wales, like in other parts of Britain, intensive sheep grazing (an animal brought over from Mesopotamia) has completely transformed the British landscape. Sheep chew on and destroy young tree shoots, turning what was lush forestland into a shrubby, grassy, monotonous landscape.  

I wasn’t ecologically bored. (I likely would get bored if I lived in such a landscape for years.) Rather, on my hikes, I just felt as if something was oddly, perhaps sadly, amiss. The Scottish Highlands just don’t feel right. And this feeling, at first, was not at all informed by Monbiot’s research or any educational grounding in Britain’s natural history. It’s simply something you feel.

Perhaps this feeling was informed by my own wilderness experiences in Alaska. I’ve lived in Alaska’s Brooks Range for a number of summers. The Brooks are, in many ways, like the Highlands. The Brooks are an unpopulated, shrubby, mossy, grassy expanse of mountains that are only slightly taller than the Scottish hills. 

There are two big differences, though: 1. The Brooks, have a much shorter growing season. Alaska gets far less sun, far less rain, and its far colder. This should make the Brooks one of the least habitable places on earth. BUT… 2. The biodiversity of the Brooks Range seems far more lively, diverse, exciting, and plentiful than the biodiversity of the warm and wet Highlands. On a patrol across the Brooks, I’d be sure to see countless migratory birds, millions of mosquitoes, the tracks of wolves, the droppings of moose, a family of white Dall Sheep atop flint-grey mountaintops, a bear and her cubs in the distance, and perhaps a field of lichen chewed down to the nub by a herd of caribou.  

On my five-day trip across Scotland, I saw one mouse, one frog, a few raptors flying high in the sky, and a lot of deer. (The deer are part of managed herds, which have no predators except for the gamekeepers and rich clients who pay to hunt them.) That’s it. That may sound like a fair bit, but spread those few animals out of over several days, and over a landscape where I could usually see for miles, and the place just ends up seeming absurdly, tragically, consistently empty.

I walked over mountain passes and looked down at bare valleys that ought to have been covered by forest and alive with boars, wolves, bears, and birds of all colors and sizes. There are indeed a few forests (though in Britain the forests are only 1% of their full range), several of which I walked through. But most of these forests are meticulously planned and hardly wild. The trees have been planted in neat rows, usually a monoculture of sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and western hemlock. There is essentially no understory to these forests. They’re bare and clear, with no rotting wood (which creates habitats for birds and insects) or just the general thick shrubbery of a normal forest floor. 

Yet the ghosts of Scotland’s bygone animal kingdom somehow remain. The Highlands, I thought, call for a lynx, a beaver, bison, and wolves to be introduced. As a foreigner, it may not be my place to meddle in another country’s affairs, but I do think it's important for we sightseers to help dispel the myth that Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, when its lands, when looked upon with a little perspective, are in fact diseased, barren, and ugly. And I’ll also say that I believe there’s nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign ecosystem suffering from mismanagement the same way there's nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign people suffering from Apartheid.

In the U.S., we can claim that we still have plenty of our wild animals. But that’s only because our country is so big. Wolves live in Yellowstone, but not South Carolina. Grizzly bears are in Alaska, but not the Great Plains. We have moose in Maine, but in my lifetime they’ve never been to Western New York. Many of our lands are just as depleted of life as the Highlands.  

Rewilding is of course important for ecosystems and the animals themselves, but as Monbiot argues, it could enrich our lives with wildness, wonder, enchantment. In Alaska, I have been haunted by the wolf’s howl, terrified by the stare of a grizzly bear, awestruck by a passing herd of caribou. These are moments that stir the soul, pump the blood, and makes us feel alive. To speak from a purely human point of view, they make our lives better. 









Friday, November 10, 2017

The Value of the National Petroleum Reserve

From Gates of the Arctic National Park, just south of the National Petroleum Reserve
Christopher Solomon has a lovely piece in NYT's Sunday Review. 

I have lived near the National Petroleum Reserve (a cold and undignified name, sadly, for this beautiful place) in Alaska, on and off, for years. I have never stepped foot in it, but I know the reserve by reputation and I am familiar with the Alaskan Arctic’s surrounding lands, which are breathtakingly wild and inspiring and full of life. It’s likely that I will never step foot in the reserve, yet I am grateful that it exists. It brings me comfort to know that, although we are altering the climate, removing forests, and losing other species, there is at least one place on earth where ecosystems are strong and intact, or, at the very least, where nature gets to exist, change, and evolve without our meddling.

A few nodding donkeys in an empty land may seem harmless, but when we drill for oil we do more than just drill for oil: We build a network of sprawling roads. Other extractive industries move in and plunder the land. Businesses spring up, buildings are erected, tourists flood in, hunters exploit fragile animal populations, and the tentacles of civilization creep up and around and strangle yet another wilderness. You can talk me into agreeing that, some of the time, this pattern is good and okay. But to let this happen everywhere, all of the time 
 from the East Coast to the West, and finally the Great Alaskan North  will always seem to me shortsighted and uncivilized.


When we think of the best of civilization we appropriately think of our cathedrals, our cities, our cars, our beautiful art, our music, our films. It’s stuff we’ve built. It’s stuff we’ve made. I admire these things too, yet I think sometimes the most civilized thing a civilized people can do is to leave an already-perfect piece of artwork untouched, to let alone one great big expanse of land. Not only so that we have something to revere, imagine, dream about, and enjoy, but so that we can, in our most enlightened, our most civilized state of mind, refrain from thinking purely of ourselves when we can do something bigger: give space for a healthy ecosystem, an animal kingdom, and the whims of nature to exist and thrive. I wish we’d think of our wild lands less as random areas we’ll never photograph or hike in, and more as astounding human accomplishments than can imbue national pride in us all. The deliberate protection of a great, wild land ought to be thought of the way we think of national independence, the moon landing, the abolishment of slavery
grand feats of ingenuity, passion, and sacrifice. Protected land, when you think about it this way, is also something we've built. It's something we've made. Wild land is not something we've merely refrained from developing; it was built by philosophizing, planning, conserving, and protecting, and thus should be admired not just as pretty scenery, but as a product of our ingenuity, enlightenment, and labor.


I understand that oil is valuable, and that we are dependent on fossil fuels. I understand sacrifices and compromises need to be made until better answers are found. I understand people need jobs. But I can only hope that wants are not confused for needs, and that we will recognize that places we value as profitable “commodities” can actually achieve a greater value if we embrace them for what they can be—sacred places, reminders of our humanity, examples of our enlightenment, landscapes of our dreams.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The making of "This Land Is Our Land"




So I recently finished my third book, This Land Is Our Land, to be published in the spring of 2018 by Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint.

The book proposes something many will consider radical: opening up private land for public recreation. I have much to say about the “right to roam,” but I’d like to use this space to talk about how the book came to be.

The idea for the book came about during a dinner table conversation at my friend David’s home in North Carolina. I was living elsewhere at the time, but I was driving through North Carolina on my Trespassing across America book tour.

Either I was talking about the recent Scottish law that opened up private land, or I was moaning about all the No Trespassing signs in North Carolina. I don’t know how it started, but I’m sure I at one point said something like, “Roaming ought to be considered a natural right!” David, seeing that I had more than a bit of passion for and knowledge of the subject, suggested I write a book about it.

Recognizing that I had this topic more or less to myself (in the U.S., at least) and reminding myself that I’d already done a great deal of research, I figured I could pump out a 20,000-word treatise that could be an e-book accompaniment to the paperback version of Trespassing across America. It would ultimately be an extension of my New York Times Op-Ed, “This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.” That one NYT article gave me the standing to write the book, and the reaction it got (many hundreds of reader comments) made me think this subject needed expanding.

Once my book tour was over, I went to work, crafting up a book proposal and planning chapters. Soon, I got the okay from my agent, my editor, and my publisher, and I had my third book contract and a $20,000 book advance.

Over the next few months, though, I began to see that the topic was too big for a 20,000-word book. I felt like the book should not just propose a radical idea, but that it should describe how land is being seized from the public, and how we’ve for decades been losing our green spaces to either development or private landowners. The book should go deep into American history: It should chart how our present understanding of private property came to be. Moreover, the book should go deep into human history: It should describe how different cultures and different peoples understood property differently, from our hunter-gatherer past to urban-suburban present.

In time, 20,000 words would grow to 70,000. Six months turned to twelve. An e-book accompaniment turned into a legitimate paperback book. And, finally, I’d have to deal with the mess of 575 footnotes.   

I often asked myself, “Why am I writing the book?” I have little hope that Americans will gain a “right to roam” anytime soon. I may very well be the only American, out of the 324 million of us, overtly calling for it. There are no groups or politicians calling for a right to roam. There are no magazine articles advocating it, nor organizations. Nothing and nobody. [There are about half a dozen law scholars in favor of a right to roam, but their works usually deal with the issue obliquely, often (and very helpfully) describing other countries’ systems.]

This was exciting: I had the subject all to myself. But it was also discouraging: I wasn’t sure if there would be an audience for the book. Being the author of a book that proposes something nobody else is advocating can be lonely, even a little scary. Will I be ridiculed by critics? Will I be attacked by the Twitterverse? Or, worst of all, will I be completely written off and ignored--an author’s worst fear? But one ought not write a book that has nothing new to say, and mine certainly has plenty to say. And as scary as the book was, it was exciting: I’d get to be a sort of “thought pioneer,” even if a lot of my thinking draws from current countries and centuries-old history.

My work, though, began to feel particularly pointless when, halfway through, Trump got elected. The whole country seemed to be sliding into the Dark Ages and here I was, talking about something as terribly important as… walking rights?

The election took the wind out of my sails, but I sailed on when I began to think about the book not as a book for the twenty-first century, but as a book for the twenty-second. It’s critical we work to fix the concerns of the present (no one would argue that), but I also think it’s necessary for a few of us to set aside the immediate now to think about the possibilities of the deep future.

I’ll be the first to admit that we have graver problems than our problems of nature-deficit disorders and recreational access. Racial inequality, environmental justice, prison reform, climate change, a broken political system are issues more serious and more pressing. So, at times, I’d feel guilty for focusing on something so un-immediate and faraway. It was like I was planning for a far-fetched future while the rest of the country was hard at work, focused on fixing the difficult problems of today.

But the truth is that the difficult problems of the present already have their champions--champions with greater expertise and greater passion for their subjects. The right to roam, though, was practically my own. That’s not to say that I care about the right to roam more than anything else. That’s not the case at all. I care about climate change, wealth inequality, and a number of subjects more. But those subjects have their share of experts, whereas the subject of roaming only had me.

I remember listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast interview with co-founder of Wired, Kevin Kelly. Kelly said that he has had tons of ideas for books, but that he tries to give those ideas away. He only writes a book when he knows he’s the only person who can write it. And I suppose I felt this way about This Land Is Our Land, that I was the only person who could write it.

Why? Firstly, it’s emotional: I have always been unusually irked by unnecessary "No Trespassing" signs. The idea that someone could selfishly close off access to land for one’s exclusive use has always seemed plainly unjust. Let’s say I’ve always been predisposed to an open roaming culture. Secondly, I literally trespassed across America when following the Keystone XL, an experience that gave me a one-of-a-kind perspective on private land and what natural glories lie behind all our fences and barbed wires. Thirdly, from my research, I'd been acquainted with the roaming laws of Scotland, Sweden, and England. Knowing that these systems not only existed, but worked, made the idea seem less fantastical and more possible. It made me think that it’s something we should discuss, whether in this century or the next.

There are a few property law scholars who could write this book, and who could have written the legal parts of it with much more ease, but I felt that the subject wouldn’t gain a proper audience if written purely from a legal point of view. I thought that my voice, which combines interests in land use, philosophy, pop culture, history, and nature writing (plus a memoirish touch here and there), might do a better job helping the idea spread than that of a more restrained legal voice. (Legal scholars tend to be dispassionate in their prose and conservative in their ideas, always judging what can or cannot be done based on a few Supreme Court cases. My healthy distance from the law gave me a bit more room to be bold.)

Looking back, I see a book crammed with research and interviews and I ask myself how I did it in the space of a year. But this is how it works: one question leads to another question, which leads to another and another. Once you’ve answered all your questions with research, you’re done. This book was propelled by curiosity. Every enthusiastic researcher, I think, has a bit of the explorer in him, because to him the uncovering of a long-hidden fact, or quote, or idea may be just as exhilarating as cracking open a chest of buried treasure.

But it was also propelled by something else, something close to heresy. There is something exciting (dangerous, even) about saying what has yet to be said, about trying to make a country think critically about itself, about being the first to stick your neck out there. In ways, I welcome (even desire) the criticism, the malice, the ire, as any true heretic might. 

I mentioned before how I thought the right to roam was somehow irrelevant to our present times, but after researching the subject I began to see that many of our present-day issues are tied to how we use and own land. We see the same sort of inequality in land ownership that we see in wealth. We see racial groups underrepresented in their ownership of land and their access to green spaces. We see an isolated Bowling Alone society, cut off from one another and scared of everything. We see growing obesity in adults and kids. We see an America that is blind to the ecological atrocities committed on private farm land. We see forces that want to privatize the public, exploit the sacred, and favor individual liberty over the common good. And so my book went from the twenty-first century, to the twenty-second, and came back again to the twenty-first, oddly relevant in the age of Trump.

It remains to be seen how the book will land when it comes out in 2018, when our backwards-looking president and Republican-led Congress will likely still be in power. Readers may very well be too fixated on the slow-motion train wreck we all can’t look away from, or just maybe we’ll all be itching for something new.