My friend Paul Heft sent around Derrick Jensen’s article on the need to bring down the industrial systems that are destroying our planet, and my article in response, A Serious Resistance, which argued:
It is time for us to mount a serious resistance. It is time for us to tell the world, starting within our own communities, relentlessly, unapologetically, furiously, that the industrial growth economy that is killing our world must stop — now. It is time for us to start to take back our world from the thugs whose reign of industrial, imperial, colonial terror across the globe has begun the sixth great extinction on our planet, one that is desolating the world, bringing about massive and inevitable economic, energy and ecological collapse.
In this serious resistance, we must each pick our own role, yet work in concert and collaboration with our fellow resisters. We must draft others into the resistance movement, and we must do more than just talk about how bad things are, or how we might get the regime to mitigate its horrors. We must choose and commit ourselves to real measures of the defeat of the regime and the undermining and collapse of the industrial growth systems — economic, political, social, educational, technological, and media. Derrick has listed his measures. Mine include the complete stoppage of the Alberta Tar Sands and the industrial agriculture system, especially factory farming (”confined animal farming operations — CAFO”).
One of the recipient of Paul’s note was our mutual friend Nelda Martinez, who responded with this extraordinary letter:
I have read both Jensen’s and Dave’s pieces, and while I agree that the steps they outline are necessary, they remain insufficient – there is a piece missing, and I think I know what it is.
The problem that both have is in their approach. In both cases, the proffered perspective is “there’s me, and then there’s everything else.” Both insist upon individual consideration, individual decision making, individual commitment, and individual action. Jensen says, “for me, winning means..” and then rattles off a list of states of nature that he, personally, would prefer to see, and then implicitly includes the reader in his conclusion that this must be done by whatever means necessary. Dave’s step number one is to “build our own personal capacities and competencies” in conjunction with those of our communities, as though our communities’ capacities and competencies might somehow even be identified, much less honed. It is my belief that that is precisely where the insufficiency lies.
The problem is that our so-called communities are so loosely knit, so diffuse, that they are almost impossible to identify, much less mobilize. Most such “communities” are utterly non-communal; reliance upon them in any but the most immediate, most dire of circumstances is folly. And get this: the reason that “community” is such an ephemeral thing is that we collectively agree that we value our individuality more than we value membership, or participation, in community. It is the one binding characteristic, the one single shared value we place above all else – that our individuality comes first. In order for community to have meaning in the context of this discussion, the sense of belonging to community must have greater priority than the right to individual thought, belief, or expression. In order for any meaningful action to work, the self must be subsumed to the group.
I make no apology for this. I am fully aware that it rubs right against our sense of what is right and good; that’s just what I’m saying. I welcome any expression of resistance to the idea, and hold up the vehemence of such response as evidence of my assertion. The more vigorously opposed one is to the idea that individual strength and expression is the very root of our problem, the more surely one is illustrating the truth of the allegation. It truly is our top number one shared value, and all other values must necessarily fall before it.
Ours is a culture of individuals, and it will be our undoing unless we figure out a way to fix it. (I can hear the name-calling now, beginning with “communism,” “cult,” “beehive mentality,” “fanatic,” and “zealot.”) The truth of the matter is that it is precisely that very zealotry that will enable us to succeed, and without which, we will be consigned to failing – as individuals – with lots of individual thoughts, suggestions, preferences, and opinions.
What we need is a shared system of values that is, as Dave puts it, “sustainable, responsible, and resilient.” Fortunately, we know that such a system is available, in that humans succeeded in living quite well, for quite a long time, before corrupting the system. I have written before about the problems associated with the adoption of agriculture as a way of life [Dave says: see Jared Diamond’s famous essay on this], and Dave has thoroughly elaborated the problems associated with industry. I submit that it is the values associated with these two patterns of behavior that are our enemy, and that our efforts must be toward the undermining of these value sets, not toward the machinery that is their manifestation.
But the mere prohibition of values or behaviors is rarely effective; witness the efficacy of the Ten Commandments as a moral code. What is needed instead is a set of replacement values that is simply more attractive than the one currently in place. And then we, our community, must all adhere to it – all of us. There can be no compromise on this point; individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated, especially in a fledgling movement (this is where the zealotry part comes in).
So the answer comes not as some kind of conservation movement, nor as any way to maintain ourselves, or our way of life for future generations. We must embrace the notion that the system is going to come down, or indeed is coming down now, despite any efforts to halt its collapse, and that our options lie in how we will position ourselves to face that as it occurs, or is occurring.
While we still have some measure of leeway in terms of our response, we must take advantage of the infrastructure that enables rapid communication and transportation, and establish a true community. It must be a community that is not composed of merely “like-minded individuals” who put great stock in being “free spirits,” but of people committed to a single ideal, joined in a community whose purpose is greater than the whims or desires of its individual constituents. And it must be based upon a set of values that is self-propagating, popular and enticing to the point that it sells itself, as we simply don’t have time for a slow-growing, grassroots movement. It must be framed in such a way that it catches on like a fad, stays in place as unperturbedly as anything written by Beethoven, and is ultimately as universally known as shave-and-a-haircut. If we can do all of this in the narrowing window of opportunity we have available, we will have made a difference. Otherwise, I would suggest that we all go back to our televisions, put our feet up and have a beer – we have front row seats, and it promises to be quite a show.
If you are not already as blown away by this tour-de-force of thinking and writing, I should mention that Nelda is only 29 years old.
What she says is simply brilliant. We do have a cult of individualism in North America & Europe. This is not the case in Asia (thought that may be changing quickly) or in indigenous cultures.
What got us into this problem was, I think, a reaction against the fearsome power of propaganda (especially with the new ubiquitous media of radio and TV). Hierarchies got very powerful and very rich and, after Stalin and Hitler and Mao, there was an upsurge of loathing for government and for collective action of any kind (anticommunist hysteria). Americans then began to idolize the cowboy myth — of ‘self-sufficiency’ and rugged individualism and fending for yourself without government or anyone else helping you.
It’s understandable — I’m very fond of ee cummings’ lament about how prone we are to become ‘everybody else’ because our modern culture indoctrinates us into mindless and passive conformity so effectively:
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.
I do think we take on the ‘everybody-else’ ‘gunk’ that our culture lays on us and which we accept when we’re young and end up (if we’re smart) spending the rest of our lives scraping off of ourselves.
But that’s very different from the cult of individualism. I think we can be altruistic and collectivist and part-of-all-life-on-Earth while still being “nobody but ourselves”. But because we confuse the need to struggle against the loss of our individuality due to cultural indoctrination (a good struggle), with the need to struggle against all government and all collective and cooperative and collaborative work (a bad struggle), we get it exactly backwards: Instead of becoming ‘nobody-but-ourselves’ we become ‘ourselves apart from everybody’.
It takes great self-knowledge and self-confidence, I think, to be truly yourself and think critically, while also committing yourself absolutely to optimizing the collective well-being of the community. There’s a natural and very healthy tension there that I’ve witnessed among (for example) intelligent and sensitive people in the Intentional Communities movement. They are able to BE themselves but still DO everything as integral part of community.
While the rest of us are busy with our logo clothing and brand name cars BEING everybody-else and DOING things only for ourselves, alone, with our own, private and unshared property.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on Nelda’s comment that, in order to be effective, at least initially, “the self must be subsumed to the group” — that model communities must be zealous and single-minded in their pursuit of shared objectives and intentions and that until then “individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated”. It is true, I think, that indigenous cultures and truly effective communities tend to be of one mind, and fanatic about their values, principles and beliefs. Yet Chris Corrigan, who has worked closely with many aboriginal communities, stresses “passion bounded by [individual] responsibility“, that while the collective must listen carefully and respectfully to all the ideas expressed by community members, ultimately the decision on what to do (or not do) is left to the absolute discretion of the individual.
These ideas are not necessarily irreconcilable, but if we are to posit some theories or principles about the essential nature of an effective post-industrial model community, we need to tease this out. We need to respect and trust individuals in community to BE nobody but themselves and to DO what they themselves have passion and accept responsibility for, while at the same time we need to achieve a much higher degree of cultural cohesion among community members, to overcome what Nelda laments about today’s “so-called communities … so loosely knit, so diffuse, that they are almost impossible to identify, much less mobilize”. And then what we need from these cohesive communities, I think, is concerted, radical action. We can’t wait for consensus among a disparate group.
The question then becomes whether we can identify and coalesce radical model communities of people who know themselves, know what is happening in the world, know what they’re meant to do and must do, and who are willing to subvert their personal self-interest and comfort to the community’s collective programs and practices, and hence to really make a difference — to make measurable substantial progress towards undermining and ending the systems of the industrial growth society.
I agree with Nelda that nothing less than this will make any significant impact on the accelerating desolation of the earth. I doubt, however, that this degree of subsuming of individual wants and privileges to the collective need is likely to happen, even among the enlightened and progressive “communities” of human civilization culture. We’ve become far too “self-ish”, perhaps because that is how creatures respond in times of great stress. What would it take, do you think, for that to change?
Thanks to all my readers for your support and encouragement this past year. 2010 is likely to be another year of great change for many of us. I wish you and your loved ones peace, love and joy in the coming year.