Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Environment of Activism

The Environment of Activism

I recently attended and participated in a podcast about the current state of activism at the home of a really good friend. We talked at length about our past experiences and our current feelings and thoughts about how things were going. There were a lot of people there, so I was not able to completely speak my peace as everyone seemed to be jam-packed with things to say. The experience was a good one though, as I always like to learn what other people are thinking in order to check my own beliefs for validity. This essay is an attempt to explain some of the things that I was not able to say during the podcast and to reflect on the ideas that were generated and crystallized there.

First, I should explain why I have any credibility to speak on the subject. I have been involved in many forms of activism over the course of the last 10 years. I have worked for many groups, primarily environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, the state Public Interest Research Groups, the Sierra Club, the Oregon Natural Resource Council, and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. I've basically been working on the fund-raising end of these groups, with some stints of voter activation as well. There is a lot that can be said about these groups, both positive and negative, but this is not the place to call out groups specifically. Instead I will talk about the larger organizational challenges that seem to be inherent in this type of activism.

The reason that I have been involved with environmental activism is pretty simple. I have a deep and abiding belief that we must do our best to live in balance with natural systems in order to have a long and interesting future for humanity. Our current dynamic of exploiting natural resources to the point of ecosystem collapse, while greatly enriching some in the system, steals from the abundance of future generations to the point of absurdity. I believe that it's important to fight for the planet's resilience and therefore for the continued survival of our species and other species that we're dependent on. I believe that the Earth is a living system, and has a consciousness that is working to teach us our basic dependence on natural systems and the consequences of breaking natural law.

I don't expect the reader to believe the same things that I do, but I'll justify my belief so that the reader can better understand it. I believe the Earth is working to tell all of humanity through the oceans that we are all connected. Because of the vastness of the oceans, humanity has a tough time thinking that anything that we do can have an appreciable effect on it. We are learning at this point in time that our appetites and reckless disregard have wreaked havoc on our oceans. The ocean is the basis of all life on this planet. Life didn't start on land, it started in the primordial waters. At our very deepest level, we are the offspring of the ocean. I will quickly note three events that are teaching us that we ignore the oceans at our great peril.

      1. The North Pacific Garbage Gyre – This part of the Pacific Ocean, close to the island of Midway is where much of the plastic dropped into the ocean goes to live out the rest of its' very long life. There are some artists that have shown the real world consequences of this garbage patch. In a series of photographs called Midway, in which an artist named Chris Jordan took pictures of the skeletons of young albatrosses, their bellies swelled with multicolor pieces of plastic that had become lodged in their stomachs until there was no room for food. These albatrosses starved because they were being fed and feeding on things that were not food, but instead the waste products of the entire Pacific Rim that was unthinkingly dropped into the ocean.

The lesson of Midway is pretty simple. Our waste does not just go away when we toss it. It gathers in ever increasing spirals of the detritus of our late stage industrial civilization. We are supposed to ignore this great tragedy of the commons because it is just the price of progress. In fact, it's better if we do not know that this is happening, because the gears of our economic system depend on consumers throwing away things that must be replaced. The deeper problem and the deeper lesson is that thoughtless action, multiplied by the millions of people engaging in it, has a deep impact on our ecosystem and our shared global resources.

      1. The Gulf Spill Disaster- The aptly named Deepwater Horizon explosion and emission of untold amounts of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico is still in its early stages, and the long-term effects of this disaster are still unknown. What is also unknown is the full scope of the disaster, as oil spills of this magnitude will unfold in their effects over decades. What is known is that BP had a terrible safety record across the US and would often not live up to their basic safety obligations and chose increased profits over safety over and over again in their practices. There is an excellent documentary called “The Spill” that shows this blatant disregard for the potential results of their actions.

The lesson of the Gulf is also pretty simple. As oil becomes more and more scarce, the risk of our extraction becomes greater than the reward. Because of our desire for cheap, plentiful energy, and the energy corporations desire to make greater and greater profits, we will continue to search in more and more ecologically sensitive areas to feed that desire. Our addiction to oil as the basis of industrial culture is a fact, and in the age of declining oil, the probability is that more and more risky projects to extract this substance will be green-lighted. The big lesson is that our addiction to this source of energy is leading us down a blind alley where major ecosystem collapse is a guarantee rather than a pessimistic “doomer” scenario. The Gulf Spill as it continues to unfold, will show us the future as more and more risky behavior virtually guarantees more spills of this magnitude.

  1. The Fukushima Meltdown- Although recent events have pushed this particular disaster off the front pages, it is still very much “happening” and the long-term effects are unknown. Because the plant is right by the ocean, this is the first time that humanity gets to witness what large levels of radiation released over a long period of time do to our oceans. The optimistic scenario is that the Fukushima meltdown could be “fixed” by the end of the year. That means that there's a lot of time for the ocean to be the petri dish for this particular experiment. Japan is one of the most heavily seafood dependent cultures on the planet, and much of their coastal waters could be heavily effected.

The simple metaphor here is that the “nuclear option” for future power generation has a very intense downside. For as long as the process of nuclear power generation creates substances that are extremely detrimental to organic life over the course of many centuries, it is not a safe bet on a globe that is never in complete stasis. There is no way to make these nuclear plants completely safe, and a meltdown can have very destructive results for all life on the planet over the course of time. The subconscious theory that the ocean, is so vast that it could never be effected by our actions is now in the process of being tested.

I would postulate that the oceans are right now teaching humanity that we are definitely all connected on this small planet, and that our actions and our inaction has vast consequences that are only now becoming clear for a large percentage of the population. Our natural response unfortunately, when faced with such huge issues is to close our ears and pretend that the problems are not happening, to veil ourselves in the illusion that we are not a part of the Earth, but somehow apart from it. This conscious veil of illusion is what keeps us from experiencing the reality of life on this planet and the real crossroads that we face as a species upon it.

What does all that have to do with activism? The first leg of activism is knowledge. It is important to look squarely at the issues of the day without illusion. The core of activism is “between your ears” as a good friend of mine is fond of saying. The critical analysis of the world is the first step towards understanding what is really going on. It's important not only to see the big picture scenarios, but also to see the little choices that when multiplied across the planet, create the current conditions. So there is an element of humility in the knowledge that you gain. By recognizing the larger systemic problems, you can also recognize the small roles that you play as an individual to either feed the problems or to feed the solutions. But the solutions to these problems are not solely in the realm of individual actions, there is no expectation of sainthood from people living in modern culture.

In activism today there are two main problems with the acquisition of knowledge. The first is systemic. Unfortunately, in the information age, knowledge is difficult to find at times. There are thousands of different points of view about any issue, and each of those points of view have their partisans. Much of the commentary and “knowledge” about crucial issues are rife with subjective interpretations, deliberate disinformation, and unexamined assumptions. Many people around the world are paid to disseminate ideas and views that benefit their employers. Many people parrot whatever talking point they heard most recently as a substitute for examining the issues. Knowledge is a rare commodity in the information age, and the acquisition of knowledge is rife with pitfalls, traps and dead-ends.

The second problem is related, but is more individual rather than systemic. It is the trap of fundamentalist knowledge, the trap of the fixed position. The people that practice this generally build their knowledge base, believe they have the full and unvarnished truth, and then proselytize and viciously defend their position from the stronghold of their world-view. This is just as prevalent in activist circles as it is in religious circles. The trap of fundamentalist knowledge demands an enemy. That enemy can be anything from industrial capitalism, to atheism, to Roman Catholics, to HAARP, to the opposing political party, and so on. In fundamentalist thought, the position is generally an emotional belief position, which is tremendously resistant to outside influence. To be in this position is to disqualify all information that contradicts or threatens to change the position. There is nothing wrong with belief, or with deeply held convictions, but if everyone that doesn't believe what you believe is “the enemy”, you might be a fundamentalist.

The second leg of activism is wisdom. Wisdom is gained through successful navigation of knowledge, it is the fruit of that which knowledge is only the seed. To use an example, knowledge would tell us that we have the physical capacity to dig up our oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, wisdom would make the case that this is not the path to long term sustainability. It is the wisdom of activism that looks at the long-term results of current actions, it is wisdom that sees where the path leads and attempts to make this path visible. Wisdom sees an extinction coming before it is here. Wisdom comes from both dark and light sources. There is the wisdom of the abyss, that comes from turning over a lot of rocks and seeing what's under them, even if it's scary. When you stare into the abyss without blinking or turning aside you gain hard-won truths. There is also the wisdom of the eternal, which religion does its' best to teach to the masses. This is the deep wisdom of the universe, the recognition of the place within it and the comfort that comes from that.

Both are absolutely necessary, and this leg can go in two maladaptive directions, fixation on the abyss, or fixation on the eternal. The fixation on the abyss is the deep dive into the darkness of the world and the universe. This is spending so much time on the monsters of existence, on the existential horror that you are unable to see the beauty. This path leads to extreme levels of isolation, fear, and paranoia. To be in this spot mentally is to be paralyzed by the immensity of the problems that are faced in our modern world. It is also to have untouchable, faceless enemies with incredible power, that you are not able to confront directly. This leads to frustration, and as most people are conditioned to ignore the abyss, it means screaming into the existential void of the Internet, and trying to find people that share your particular brand of paranoia which if found, only reinforces your position. People can get lost in this darkness for a long time. But that doesn't change the fact that seeing the darkness clearly allows a person to make informed decisions on how they're going to move forward.

The other side is the fixation on the eternal, this is a magnet for narcissism and often lives in a world of false light. Those that are fixated on the eternal have generally had an experience of transcendence, and they hope to live in that state of existence again. There is nothing wrong with the search for transcendence, but if that search forces you to pretend that everything is all good all the time, it has become pathological. By reinforcing that all reality is just a construct projected from the individual self, the individual self becomes both the most powerful ego in the universe, and the most downtrodden. People become locked up in the ideas that if they just get pure enough, and good enough, then the world will change with them. This also leads to isolation or creates adherence to the doctrines of many teachers of the false light. A lot of so called “enlightened people” on this Earth are just swindlers laughing all the way to the bank with the funds collected from their devotees.

Wisdom is seeing both the dark and light, taking them both in, and learning from both of them, but using the wisdom gained as a catalyst to both knowledge of the subconscious self and of the shared material reality that we each have a hand in shaping. To ignore the light or the darkness is to starve the soul, but to see both allows a person to actively engage in the world as it is, rather than how they fear or hope it to be. This type of balanced wisdom allows the individual to engage on issues of the time and place with integrity and this integrity is absolutely necessary to individual and collective evolution and development.

The third leg of activism is to quote a friend, justified true belief. These are the foundation stones of character in a human being. They are the examined and tested assumptions, theories, and ideas that have proven their worth based on a persons life experience. The core beliefs are the driver of the personality and give strength to the thoughts, words and deeds of the individual. Without these justified true beliefs, a person is at the whim of whatever the zeitgeist of the moment happens to be. Without these beliefs, character can only be built accidentally and the power to change and challenge circumstances is lessened immensely. To reach a justified true belief requires a lot of intellectual, psychological, and emotional heavy lifting. But to not do the lifting is to ignore the laying of the foundation of personality and character. Many have not done the heavy lifting, and therefore have not deepened their understanding of the world.

The are two issues associated with justified true belief that are important to note. Many people in this world just try on a belief system as if it's a commodity. If that belief system doesn't suit them, they discard it, and go shopping for a new one. This shallowness of character is ultimately self-defeating. Because if the work has not been done to justify beliefs, when tests come that challenge these beliefs, there is little to guide the character in his or her response. The beliefs have no bearing on the life of the individual and are therefore of no actual worth. The individuals with no built foundations will be rocked by circumstance, and at the first sign of resistance will tend to drift off into the seas of apathy. This is where many live. With no underlying structure that they have built up, the winds of change destroy their lives.

Of course there is the other side of this particular duality. There are the justified true beliefs that life and reality have outpaced, and when some people are faced with the fact that the foundation stones that they worked so hard to build are infected with rot and are no longer of service, they cannot bear to re-examine them and change them. If there is too much rigidity in the foundation, when the earth shakes, the entire lives of those that have invested so much in their own foundations can collapse. In the grasping to hold on to those beliefs that have become outmoded, they can lose the entire structure that they depend on.

Like a lot of things in life, the key is balance. The justified true beliefs that one holds as their foundation can be either too loose, or too rigid. Either extreme will cause suffering. If a belief is ultimately justified, it should be able to stand up to tests and it should be able to continually be examined, revised and updated. Justified true beliefs tend to be most damaging to society when they are mandated onto all people. This comes from the desire of the individual to expand the truth as they see it and make it available to all people. When individual beliefs are forced onto the broader culture they cannot help but to become institutionalized, which are even more resistant than personal beliefs to the changes associated with life and reality. Codified individual beliefs become the driving force behind organizing groups, but they also become the basis of the fundamentalist drives.

The fourth leg is action. To act without knowledge is ignorant, to act without wisdom is folly, to act without justified true belief is meaningless. But to act with all three in working order, is to act in alignment with one's own examined will. Activism is between your ears, but it is manifested through the will and action of individuals on the great playing field of the world. Activism that is missing any of these legs will not be able to stand the test of time. It is the activism of narcissism, or the activism of the mob. The activism of narcissism is doing the things to be seen, to be in the scene, and for the immediate ego gratification of imposing your will or your belief upon some small corner of the world. The activism of the mob is the self-righteous fires of anger aimed at the external enemy, only to find out that the new bosses are the same or worse than the old bosses. This is the activism of emotional catharsis, making “them” pay for your suffering.

I've led you from the island of Midway to the legs of activism, and now it's time to tell you what I've been picking up from my own travels through the oceans of activism. In many ways, modern activism is the justified true beliefs of individuals becoming just another extension of the market. Working on the fund-raising side of the environmental movement, I have seen this played out time and time again. I am not against this, otherwise I would not be working in that field. The justified true belief that guides me is the belief that if we want to exist long-term as humans on this planet past the survival stage we have to start learning how to exist in balance with natural systems rather than existing from the exploitation of natural systems. The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that not only is our current path unsustainable, but it is pathological. Following this path will lead us to a systemic collapse both socially, economically, and ecologically. This is my belief.

The coming ecological collapse is the most pressing issue in my opinion because the Earth is the basis of all life that we are aware of. Not only is it the home of humans, it is the home of millions of different expressions of the fundamental life principle. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves, and currently, we are abusing the Earth far past its' capacity to regenerate itself. Most of us are ignoring these facts because they force us to examine our own choices and the collective choices of our culture. We know deep down inside that we must change our behavior, but we are afraid of how these changes will effect our “standard of living”. The assumption here is narcissism of legendary proportions, that our current comfort is worth the struggle of thousands of generations that are yet to be born.

The problem lies in all of us, and in all of our collective choices up to this point, but the solution is also in our hands should we wish to grasp it. There are some real obstacles to moving forward at this point, and I believe that it's important to see them. Our monetary market system is based on the theory that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This theory, although unconsciously supported by a large cross-section of people on this planet is demonstrably false. The invisible hand of the market will never be sustainable, as it is against the interests of growth to be sustainable. We cannot fix the monetary-market system, and the good news is that this system is not a force of nature. It's just a codified system that we are holding onto even though it is a primarily resource destructive force in our world at this time.

The big task for activists at this time in history is to learn how to top from the bottom. It's going to take a lot of standing up together, not just in protest, but in service to our communities. We need to figure out how to make our houses, our blocks, our neighborhoods sustainable. We need to figure out how we can take care of our local needs locally. In short, we need to organize based on the skills that we need to be able to sustainably maintain ourselves in the communities that we are a part of. This means growing our own food, producing our own goods, taking care of our own waste, and taking the responsibility to do it together. This is real community interdependence and self-reliance. This is no longer expecting the market to take care of our needs, but to do it ourselves and in the meantime build a resilient culture. But no one can hold this kind of activism on their shoulders alone, and no group can claim credit. We have to do it together. We are the change of the culture, we are the people that can carry this burden. We're waiting for ourselves. We're waiting for ourselves. We're waiting for ourselves.

My heart aches right now, I am tired and weary. I need a hand, some support from my community. I will continue to raise money for environmental and public interest groups based on the battles that need to be fought. But I can never raise enough money to change the game, because money rules the game. I just want to see you in the neighborhood, and I'd like to put our heads, hearts and hands together and figure out how we can move together as one. It felt good to write this.


  1. But, what about the chicken-heads? They're among us, and they know!

    Seriously, thanks for sharing. Well said!