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From War To Wolves, Sociology’s Gibson Reinvents Himself

Published: May 1, 2013

To learn about Bill Gibson’s professional transformation, you may not have to go much further than to compare the titles of his first two books—The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1986) and Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture In Post-Vietnam America (1994)—to his most recent, A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (2009).

“I had spent most of my professional life studying warfare and got a lot of attention, but I went through a period of personal reflection,” said Gibson, a professor of sociology at CSULB. “I concluded that I was either making people grasp the failures in Vietnam at multiple levels or the bankruptcy of men’s fantasy culture of heroic warriors, but that did not make them necessarily want a better world. It sometimes reached a very different type of conclusion, namely that the ultimate reality is war and killing. I felt like I was not achieving what I wanted to achieve.”

So, in essence, an environmentalist was born, though that side of Gibson had certainly been simmering near the surface much of his life.

During the early days on his new path, he spent hours of on-the-job training covering environmental issues in Southern California. In particular, he covered the bitter struggle surrounding developer Playa Vista’s plan to build a city on the Ballona Wetlands and nearby meadows, the last 1,000 acres of undeveloped property in the entire Los Angeles basin floor.

“I spent a long time working as a freelancer for L.A. Weekly as kind of an environmental movement journalist trying to do research on the Playa Vista development and how it was being subsidized,” said Gibson, describing one of the projects he covered during the 1990s. “It was one of those cases where, without government tax breaks, it would have cost too much money to build that city in the flood plain. You would have had to build up so much infrastructure because it’s like a creek bed and liquifaction zone. We ended up saving about half the land, but half is not the same as the whole thing.”

In 2001 he began writing op-ed pieces on environmental topics for the Los Angeles Times and in 2006, the Ballona Institute named Gibson a “Journalist of Courage” for his work in helping save some 600 acres.

Then, in 2009, he came out with his most recent work, A Reenchanted World, a book which took a look into the sense of people’s positive connection to land and animals.

“It was basically a book about what I call the culture of the modern environmental movement and the argument that in some ways that culture is a revision of the very old hunting and gathering culture,” he said. “Up until the early modern period everybody saw large parts of land as sacred. There were places where land was consecrated and virtually everyone in Native American culture(s) had some kind of sense of symbolic kinship with certain animals. That’s called totemism, which is a statement of a kinship tie between a group of people and a group of animals. Basically that got reinvented.

“You look at the movement to save the whales or reintroduce wolves into the Rockies,” he continued. “Not long ago a bear was shot up around the Tahoe area where there had been an accommodation between people and animals; the bear even had a name. People were outraged the bear got shot. That is what A Reenchanted World was about, about these various forms of kinship and various forms of sacred places.”

According to Gibson, this whole culture of acting to protect sacred places was bitterly resisted by the far right wing—the business establishment—that viewed it as simply taking away potential resources that could never be developed, therefore limiting financial gain.

“The evangelical-Protestant movement saw it as demonism,” he said. “This was a form of idolatry and idolatry was ultimately a form of demonism. There was a tremendous right-wing assault on all aspects of the environment movement during the second George Bush administration.”

It looked like the Democrats in Congress had pretty much stopped the assault in 2006, the most famous case being the effort to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but the Republicans made one more concerted push.

“A photographer named Subhankar Banerjee came out with a coffee table book of photographs of ANWR, of the animals and the landscape,” said Gibson. “Those photos got blown up and sent to the Senate and were posted all over the Senate library. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) got up and said, ‘This is God’s sacred creation.’ So here we had a relatively mainstream population of politicians saying this is a sacred place. And it worked. At that time I thought this culture would gain momentum and the spillover into the political world would be greater, but I was wrong.”

One of the first cases Gibson became aware of was the demonization of wolves in the Rockies. They were reintroduced in 1995-96, and mark the high point of symbolic kinship totemism by reintroducing an alpha-level predator that had been deliberately exterminated in the late 1900s and through the first three or four decades of the 20th century.

“The westerners saw this as the march of our civilization,” Gibson said of the extermination of the wolves. “It was like the Indians and the wolves were bad and we drove one to the reservation(s) and killed off the other and that’s the story of the progress of civilization. So the reintroduction of the wolves was a big deal.”

To jumpstart the population growth of the wolves, 64 were brought in and released, some around Yellowstone and others in central Idaho. By 2005-06 the wolf population grew to about 1,300—633 in Idaho, 316 in Montana and 311 in Wyoming. That, according to Gibson was not considered a recovery, but rather the start of a recovery.

Like many, Gibson was touched by the news that “Cinderella,” the alpha female of the Druid Peak pack in Yellowstone, was killed in a wolf fight in 2004. Her death didn’t go unnoticed, garnering an obituary on the front page of the L.A. Times.

“When you start writing obituaries for animals, this to me is an example of totemism or symbolic kinship,” said Gibson. “It’s saying, ‘This animal is part of our community. She’s equal to us and we mourn her loss.’ So, while that was going on, I actually began A Reenchanted World with that story in the introduction.”

Soon thereafter Gibson got wind that there was an effort to delist wolves as an endangered species so he decided to follow up and see for himself what was taking place. Initially, he made some contacts through the Internet with wolf advocates who said their own personal lives were in danger, that things were horrible beyond belief. His best contact was a woman named “Nabeki,” but it took him six months to establish an e-mail relationship solid enough to where she was comfortable talking with him on the telephone. To this day, Gibson has never met her and doesn’t know her real name or address.

Wolf In Snow

“The wolves had been turned by this extreme right wing culture into foreign invaders,” said Gibson. “This was a demon who had been brought by the federal government from Canada and they were ‘huge’ and ‘full of tapeworms’ and ‘they were going to kill us with their diseases’ and ‘they’re going to kill our kids,’ and it just went on and on and on.

“And then I saw this idea spread,” he continued. “As ludicrous as this demonology is, it spread from the extreme right wing to the mainstream of the Republican Party and then delisting became the program of the Republican Party in Montana and spread to the Democratic politicians, too, who collapsed in their opposition. The effort over maintaining protection of wolves by the Endangered Species Act was fought out in the courts for several years.”

In 2011 the wolves were removed from the endangered species list by Congress and since then there have been two full years of wolf hunts.

Preparing to write a story for Earth Island Journal, Gibson decided to see the situation for himself, so he went to Montana for 10 days in January 2011. During his venture he was greatly assisted by an advocate, Marc Cooke, who helped arrange interviews and drove Gibson through the wilderness.

“He had been a professional driver in the military, so he just took that role back up again,” said Gibson. “He helped me navigate all through Montana and Idaho deep in the middle of winter. I could not have done it without that help. The distances were too far and the driving would have been too difficult. It was cold and snowy. We would do an interview in one city spending four or five hours with somebody, then ate lunch and did eight hours on the road, pulling into a motel at 10 o’clock at night. He was taking his vacation time to help me, so it was a major commitment on his part. Without him I could not have done this.”

During his trip Gibson met individuals in public places, doing face-to-face interviews with those on both sides of the issue, some he described as extreme right-wingers.

“I told people I wanted to hear their story, telling them I didn’t think it had been aptly heard, and that was the truth,” he said. “I didn’t mislead anyone, but people will talk and talk, so whatever fears they may have had about me as an interviewer were overcome by their need to tell their stories. Some of the people I interviewed got really, really excited when they talked about wanting to kill wolves. You could actually see the excitement build in their voice in a sort of pornographic pleasure that they took in visualizing the deaths of the wolves. So I got close to some of the key emotions of the pleasure of the kill, but nobody’s threatened me personally.”

On the other side, Gibson witnessed individuals who had been continuously fighting for years for the safety of the wolves.

“I saw people worn down by years of struggle,” he remembered. “Part of it is what we would associate with grief, the brittleness. The sense of sort of where you’re going out and working years in trying to protect the animals and you don’t feel like you’re succeeding at all and this has come at personal expense, either out of pocket money or physically and emotionally. So I saw people who were worn, but felt morally obligated to keep going.

“I think that is an important image to keep in mind, because sometimes we’re taught that dealing with oppression makes people noble and maybe that’s a little misleading,” he added. “Oppression makes people worn. What’s important to remember is that people struggle even though they are worn out, even though it’s caused problems in their lives.”

Asked if his 10 days of trekking through Montana in the middle of winter to work on such a sensitive subject changed him, Gibson had an immediate answer.

“Yes, because I had realized I had developed the capability to do this kind of thing,” he said, referring to writing about key environmental issues. “Academia fosters a very narrow division of labor and specialization and I had reinvented myself a couple of times before and I had made this shift from warfare into environmental studies. I had taken my time on this. I spent four or five months reading up on it, was on the ground for 10 days and about three months writing it up. So I realized I can do it, I can reinvent myself. I can drop into a place, do the interviews, write it up and get it out within a space of under a year.

“When I realized I had that capability then I think my moral obligation also increased,” he added. “A lot of people can’t do this stuff. You’re not obligated if you can’t, but if you can, then you open up another set of doors.”