A Prescient Passage Edward Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’?

The cover of the 1998 illustrated edition of Edward Abbey's book 'Desert Solitaire'In 1968 author Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, a first-person nonfiction travelogue chronicling two summers spent working as a park ranger at Arches National Park in the rugged canyonlands of Southeastern Utah. The memoir is considered a classic of literary travel writing and is filled with effervescent prose and sharp, irreverent musings on the desert, nature, the environment, mass tourism, and the need for conservation in the United States. Given its message and tone, and its release in the late 1960s protest era, Desert Solitaire was viewed as a counter-culture work at the time, even something of a pseudo-revolutionary environmental manifesto.

However, like many things whose qualities have fallen out of vogue in these fast-changing times, Abbey and Desert Solitaire are nowadays looked upon with askance. Younger readers drawn to the book for its appealing subject matter – fueled by fashionable culture war attitudes – attack Abbey in their Amazon and Goodreads reviews for his white male brusqueness. This general shift in attitude towards his book is worthy of a separate discussion. But I mention it here because one particular passage in Desert Solitaire, misread and misunderstood by his polarized detractors for an extremist right-wing rant, begs mention on its own terms for its seemingly strange prescience.

Abbey more than once argues for the need to preserve wilderness and national parks, in part for the psycho-spiritual spiritual benefits nature confers upon humans. During one such musing he says it is also essential to conserve wild places to have venues from which to mount a defence of democracy against a future homegrown American dictatorship:

“The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons,” Abbey writes. “We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?”

It’s easy to forget, but 1968 was only just over two decades since the end of World War Two and the struggle against the Nazis (timewise roughly as far as we are today from the 9/11 attacks). The United States was deep in the throes of the Cold War, the divisive Vietnam conflict and domestic military conscription, and the struggle with the Soviet Bloc. The American democratic edifice was creaking and straining under the weight of its domestic and foreign conflicts, and the decisions of its warmongering leadership.

A landscape or rock in Arches National Park in Utah.
Arches National Park, where Edward Abbey spent two summers and which were the basis of his book ‘Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wlderness’

It’s highly doubtful that Abbey wrote this passage, and others in the book, in the vein of rightist white ethno-nationalism (evidenced also by his praise and references to left-leaning popular liberation struggles that similarly used wild nature to fight governments). Instead he based his idea – hard to conceive of then, but somehow easier to envision now – that all democracies experience entropy and decay, and that the United States would not itself be spared this inevitability.

Abbey writes: “This may seem, at the moment, like a fantastic thesis. Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies trend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts. Surely it is no accident that the most thorough of tyrannies appeared in Europe’s most thoroughly scientific and industrialized nation.”

Abbey’s musings, including a subsequent list of hypothetical behaviours of a future dictatorial American regime, might sound like the ramblings of those we might today call ‘conspiracy theorists.’

Yet at the same time given all that has come to pass since Desert Solitaire was published, chiefly:

  • the rise and influence of big tech over our lives;
  • the coming disruptive permutations of AI;
  • the explosion in government regulation and bureaucracy, and the co-opting of AI into its machinery;
  • the polarized culture wars and the dissolving of the social fabric of American society,

…Abbey’s passage strikes as far more relevant today than when the first book appeared.

Leaving the question aside of how sound it is to wage guerrilla war campaigns from such places as the Grand Canyon, Abbey raising the spectre of a future American autocracy even when done so with the hyperbolic literary flare of the writer trying to be controversial, is still enough to give pause today, considering where we seem to be headed.