The Billings Outpost

Like bison, family farmers also endangered



Artificial intelligence may one day replace carbon-based organisms, a bit of progress sought by researchers who feel that “life” can be fully encapsulated in complex algorithms, that it will be more orderly in silicon. Such thinking — alarming to some, perhaps — might, in fact, be considered “necrophilous,” to use a term analyzed by the German psychologist Erich Fromm. As he saw it, increasing orderliness and mechanization is authoritarian, dangerous and life-denying.

In the 10 or 15 years since I read Fromm, his term has become part of my own descriptive vocabulary. Applying it can, however, become a complex exercise. For instance, such actions as the raising of animals to slaughter and then eat can be considered as either life-affirming (if the emphasis is on providing food for humans) or life-denying (if the emphasis is on the non-humans).

Unfortunately, the national economy (as a sort of necrophilous bogeyman) relies on a variety of authoritarian forces to create profit and loss, and, at times, coerce anyone, even a conscientious rancher dedicated to sustainable methods of husbandry, into behaviors that are almost entirely necrophilous.

The feedlot is a good example of a meat-raising endeavor tilting heavily toward authoritarian centralization, as cattle are gathered in huge numbers and stuffed with indigestible corn and animal by-products that could never nourish them even if they miraculously escaped the meat-packing plant.

But this discussion is not primarily about cattle. It is about their wild brothers and sisters.

Last spring I attended the Billings scoping meeting hosted by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to assess public attitudes toward the release of wild bison in selected areas of the state. I was not surprised to find myself outnumbered by anti-bison forces. However, our small discussion group (split 4-3) achieved a cordiality that I found quite life-affirming. No, we did not agree, but we respected each other.

As we were still listing our various concerns about such bureaucratic abstractions as “opportunities” and “management challenges,” the other groups in the room seemed to be finished. A few anti-bison activists, who had already registered their views, wandered over to us, stood behind our chairs, and steadfastly refused to sit down or become part of our group — or keep their ideas to themselves. One particularly vehement woman waved her hands inches from my face and began to galvanize the previously kind and polite folks with whom I had been engaged in reasoned discussion.

Soon I was facing paranoia about bison racing through the streets of Billings and spreading brucellosis. This radicalization was alarming and, in a measure, at least, physically threatening. No one was talking about putting a bison on every lawn or every acre, but you’d have thought so to hear our newcomers talk.

One member of our original group tried a reasonable approach. Cattle, he said, were constantly straying onto his land, he’d been in a cow-truck accident that almost killed him, and cattle might potentially introduce mad cow disease, yet he didn’t fear and loathe cattle. No dice.

These itinerant group-infiltrating people unremittingly hated bison!

As I drove home, bemused and awestruck, I began to wonder about the source of their hatred. More than most, bison are life-affirming creatures — for the native prairie and the traditional indigenous peoples who love them and once depended on them for food (and, indeed, for life and spiritual fulfillment).

But bison put a gigantic glitch in the necrophilous project of American “progress,” which seeks to mechanize, rationalize, and privatize. Bison represent all that has been conquered. To return them would be to call into question the entire authoritarian hierarchy in which land ownership and profit create power, in which animals like cattle can be turned into commodities to create more landownership and more power.

Of course, the ranching way of life is also antithetical to progress. Why produce grass-fed beef in Montana when you can create vast meat factories for a fraction of the cost in Iowa? Family ranchers, it strikes me, are almost as anachronistic as bison, and just like bison they don’t cotton much to hierarchies and commodification; independent ranchers and wild bison are true revolutionaries (not that either intends to be).

I doubt the algorithms of ranchers and bison will ever be translatable into orderly artificial intelligence. Moreover, both are troublesome to the mechanized progress Americans have been taught to depend on. And both are endangered.

Montanans should make common cause with the bison and find practical ways to return a hardy life-affirming force to at least some of the North American prairie. It is in our own interest to stop the mechanization of our land, food and cultures. Our state legislators should vote against two damaging bills up before the current session. HB 249 and SB 143 would turn wild bison into “pests” that could be essentially shot on sight. But why not, as the saying goes, choose life?

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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