If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

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Despite pleas from many readers, and not a few other eco-bloggers, How to Save the World remains impatient, angry, and occasionally confrontational with many moderates who do value a clean environment, but think we have to be satisfied with small victories, and even, sometimes, only small setbacks. The three biggest environmental blogs, TreeHugger, WorldChanging and Grist all take an upbeat, patient, technophile view of the future of our planet, while How to Save the World publishes grim assessments like that in John Gray’s Straw Dogs, and even supports radical acts, provided no creature, human or other, is physically hurt by them. My signature essay The Truth About Nature, and most of my environmental essays are strident, restless, idealistic, and dissatisfied with small changes.

When I was in university, I was a moderate. I joined the Young Liberals, but was actively recruited by the Young Socialists. For awhile, I debated them. When they said to me “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”, I replied that there was no point staking out a position that would always be a minority one, and that by their uncompromising tone they were alienating moderates and actually undermining opportunities to achieve small legislative victories. They were unrepentant. Nothing short of a “people’s revolution” would make a significant difference, they argued. As a liberal I was actually doing more harm to the class struggle than the conservatives. I was encouraging the illusion that some kind of compromise was possible. I was perpetuating the slavery of the masses.

Now, thirty-five years later, I’ve become the radical. I shook my head when I heard moderates cheer the pathetic, paltry, inadequate agreements of the G8 leaders this week. I am furious that the news is full of celebrity scandals, and in-depth coverage of the release from prison of child killers, while news about global warming, Bush’s and other corporatists’ criminal misdeeds, and weekly social and environmental setbacks are ignored. I am appalled that the lazy media played right into the hands of the homegrown British Arab nationalists by providing them with millions of dollars worth of free, undeserved and unwarranted publicity for this week’s cowardly, unimaginative attacks on innocent citizens, to the total exclusion of far more important, and actionable, news events.

Most people are concerned, but feel helpless to do much about important issues. They are generally uninformed about these issues, and often deliberately misinformed by wealthy and powerful people and organizations whose interest is served by spreading misinformation and suppressing the truth. And what’s the point of being informed if you’re helpless to do anything about it? So who can blame people for turning the channel when bad news that might make them feel guilty comes on, when the other channel carries either false comforts and assurances or diversions — information they know needs no action on their part, and events for which they can genuinely feel no responsibility.

The reality is that we are all complicit, through ignorance, inaction and willful disregard for the horrific state of our world — a world in which there is more suffering by more creatures than almost any other time in the history of life on Earth, in which poverty and misery and destitution are all-pervasive and never-ending in many, many places in every nation, and in which species extinction, loss of biodiversity and climate change are occurring at a rate not seen on this planet in 65 million years, and accelerating. And the truth is we want to believe there’s nothing much we can do about it, beyond the little things that are totally inadequate, and which ultimately change nothing. Because otherwise we would have to turn our comfortable lives upside down, change everything, make huge sacrifices, and put ourselves out there, giving everything, and giving up everything, to fight what may well be an impossible fight against overwhelming odds and daunting, ruthless opposition. Few of us are ready for that.

The truth is that sustainable living isn’t sustainable. It’s like patting ourselves on the back for cutting back from two packs of cigarettes a day to one, and expecting some remarkable improvement in our health. It’s like an alcoholic excusing ‘social drinking’ as not really drinking, as an acceptable lapse. For every one of us that stops eating meat, or insulates our house better, or takes a bicycle to work instead of a car, there are a thousand Chinese who are consuming vastly more than they did yesterday. For every one of us who chooses to have one child, or none at all, there are one or two planning to have three or more children right in our own communities, and a thousand in the third world planning to have more than that, especially if they can make their way to our affluent countries and have them here, where they can live the dream of unsustainable excess that was our dream just a generation or two ago. Nothing less than a revolution in human thinking and human behaviour will be enough to save the world, and it may already be too late.

One of my readers told me recently that what makes my environmental writing both accessible and sometimes agonizing is that:

  •  It is as if I am constantly trying to convince myself that what I am writing is correct, so that my readers get caught up in my internal struggle with my own ideas and ambivalence (which sometimes reflects their own),
  • I seem to be pushing myself towards a tipping point that will cause me to change everything in my life and rededicate myself to being the radical change that I claim is needed, rather than just writing about it, and
  • I seem to be looking for reassurance that by writing about needed change I will bring about enough changes in others that I will not have to make a radical change in my own lifestyle.

On the first two scores she is probably right. But on the third score, I no longer have illusions that my writing alone, and any changes I can help bring about through AHA! (our fledgling learning and discovery enterprise), will be enough to prevent me from the need and desire to make radical changes to the way in which I live my own life. Revolution is not for the weak of heart, and you can only lead radical change from the front lines, not from an armchair. Like many of you, dear patient readers, I am not yet ready for that, and I entirely appreciate your annoyance with my more strident articles when I seem so reluctant to practice what I preach.

But I’m getting ever closer. As surely as the Earth is warming, and precipitating massive changes we can only begin to guess at, so too am I slowly warming to the realization that I have a very different destiny than the one I have lived out this far. To those who have already reached that tipping point ahead of me, who are already out there fighting that good fight — I salute you: fare forward, fellow voyagers. I will see you on the other side.

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19 Responses to If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

  1. There’s nothing wrong with writing what you feel is right, even if you’re not practicing it to the fullest extent. Everyone needs something to aim for. If all we did was write about what we accomplished, rather than what we hope to accomplish, we wouldn’t have very compelling words on the page, now would we?

  2. Kevin says:

    I know what you mean. Having spant a year with a lot of people truly passionate about “saving the world”, the most disheartening thing was that everyone seemed to feel that as long as they are working hard to help others “live sustainably”, there is no need to make radical changes in their own lifestyle. In fact, it often seemed that people believe that it is not our lifestyle that needs to change, we simply need miraculous new technology which will allow us to live like we do now… just much more efficiently (to a sustainable degree), in a closed loop, blah blah… And of course, in order to lead the world to such a future where, for example, airplane travel is sustainable, we must first fly around the world to conference after conference (of course, planting trees to offset one’s carbon contribution is always good a favorite way to ease one’s conscience for such “necessary” travel). It hurts me to think about it.It makes no sense to me. As people are convinced through all this hard work, many simply join the crusade. Instead of significantly changing their own unsustainable lifestyle, the big change is that the lifestyle is now suddenly “justified” because now it’s part of a plan to change the world. I may be naive, but what *does* make sense to me is that if all the sustainability crusaders working for radical change in others would concentrate more on making radical change in their own life (and *then* it is good to start crusading), that would be a LOT of people making radical change. That radical change may or may not influence anyone around them, but even if it does not, we are no worse off than we are simply continuing on our current path.That being said, you write “I am not yet ready for that”.I don’t think you can just make radical change overnight when you are suddenly “ready”. It is a gradual process, and only looks radical if you zoom out, or look at it through a time-lapse lense. (at least I hope so, since I have not been able to do it overnight either), but I would say that as long as you are focused on achieving that radical change, instead of trying to justify unwillingness to do so, your miles ahead of most people.

  3. beth says:

    For what it’s worth, I think you’re absolutely right, Dave. We are making pretty radical changes in our life, but it takes time. In three years, we hope to be down to about 900 sq. feet of living space and one car, used only when we can’t use our bicycles (living in a northern climate, far from aging parents, makes it pretty difficult to have NO car). Diet changes are ongoing, as is jettisoning much of our acccumulated stuff. That all sounds good, but it’s really barely admirable when you consider how much of the world lives. I think starting with ourselves *is* the most important thing, but making radical changes in relatively settled adulthood is not easy. Like you, I got sick of writing about these things and decided I had to practice what I was preaching in a more substantial way than just growing a garden and recycling and trying not to use cars that much. Moving parttime to a different country and hoping to eventually stop paying taxes to support foreign and environmental policies I find abhorrent is a much bigger and more difficult step, and frankly it’s made me more understanding of why most people find even small changes so hard.

  4. Devin says:

    Thank you for writing down exactly what I feel. As a 17 year old who is excruciatingly informed, I feel powerless more than you can probably know.I’ll comment more in the future, I have a lot of thoughts I’d like to share. This one was too important not to comment on, though.Thanks again.

  5. We are imperalists but most of us are not even aware.The major obstacle to such enlightenment is the pervasiveness of the ideological rationalization for imperialism. The extent of this pervasiveness is not easy to perceive because such rationalization is deep-seated. Its roots are intertwined with the accepted, conventional modes of thought and the consciousness of a people. Thus they are located in the false patriotism and the racism that sink deeply and imperceptibly into the individual

  6. “Over the last two or three centuries, a heartless culture-crushing mentality has incremented its progress on the earth, devouring all peoples, nature, imagination, and spiritual knowledge. Like a big mechanized slug, it has left behind a flat, homogenized streak of civilization wherever it passed. Every human on this earth–African, Asian, European, Islanders, or from the Americas–has ancestors who at some point in their history had their stories, rituals, ingenuity, language, and lifeways taken away, enslaved, banned, exploited, twisted, or destroyed by this force.Now what is indigenous, natural, subtle, hard to explain, generous, gradual, and village-oriented in each of us is being banished into the ghettos of our hearts, or hidden away from view onto reservations inside the spiritual landscape of the Earth Body. In shamanic terms, our minds are being taught to believe that whatever we can think is actually the center of a person’s life, just like a conquering culture, or a modern culture which thinks with the mind, not with the ancestral soul.Meanwhile, our natural souls, which are like Bushmen or rare waterbirds, know that our minds and our souls should be working together to maintain or replaster the crumbling hut of life. Instead, our indigenous souls are being utterly overlooked and pushed aside in the bustle of the minds’ competitive activity, until our true beings feel just like a tribesman in a big, trafficky city: unwelcomed, lost, and homeless.For there to be a world at all, every indigenous, original, natural thing must start singing its song, dancing its dance, moving and breathing, each according to its own nature, saying its name, manifesting simultaneously its secret spiritual signature. Every Gypsy must be singing her ancient tune, every Bushman, Croat, Arab, Jew, Chukchee, Hmong, Papuan, Celt, Yoruba, Saxon, Cree, Guarani, Sami, Inuit, Kazaki, Tahitian, Balinese, Han, Ainu, jaguar, honey creeper, anteater, shrike, beetle, butterfly, oak,birch, ceiba, boabab, dog, mosquito, shark, coral, lightning, tornado, mist, mountain, deer, desert, and so on forever, each must be making its magic sound. …….We need to find gorgeous, unsellable ritual words to reanimate, remeasure, rebuild, and replaster the ruined, depressed flatness left by the hollow failure of this mechanized, orphaned culture.For this we need all peoples: our poets, our shamans, our dreamers, our youth, our elders, our women, our men, our ancestors, and our real old memories from before we were people.We live in a kind of dark age, craftily lit with synthetic light, so that no one can tell how dark it has really gotten. But our exiled spirits can tell. Deep in our bones resides an ancient, singing couple who just won’t give up making their beautiful, wild noise. The world won’t end if we can find them.”—From Martin Prechtel, SECRETS OF THE TALKING JAGUAR, pp. 281-283.

  7. “For every one of us who chooses to have one child, or none at all, there are one or two planning to have three or more children right in our own communities…”That is correct, but most people fail to grasp its real implications: the so-called “culture war” is nothing of the kind: it is a POPULATION WAR. Religious conservatives are breeding themselves into the numbers required for victory. And we are breeding our side out of existence.

  8. There are many ways to be part of the solution…many ways to affect change. Some are “visible”, some are not. And, neither can be called more valuable than the other…because what’s important is that we are sincere and that it comes from the “inside” out.”Secrets of the Talking Jaguar” sounds like it would be well worth the read!

  9. Pearl says:

    I thibnk my process is similar. Trying to flog myself into indoctrinating myself until I thoroughly beleive, internalize something valuable and right, having been thorough and rigorous, satisfying mind and heart having overturned every stone that would otherwise leave me vulnerably uninformed of the weak sides of my arguments. The drive comes in part from wanting to know in the round, be in the round and push myself to real change and consistancy about lasting things that matter. It stands against the clutter of minutae, opium of the masses, cliche thoughts, and unconnected pains and pleasures that distract and that are less gratifying. Of course I too would like to meet minds and feel the synergy escalate, pushed into new challenges and directions but contact with thoughts not already rattling around in my head. I would like things to settle, but not to complacency. It’s a juggling act to stay healthy and alert, and rest and trust enough that everything, most things are ok and more importantly, not my responsibility, yet can’t be ignored or called not worth considering. Love the thought you’ve put into what blog readers what to see more of and what blog writers want to see more of.

  10. David Pratt says:

    This all has to do with belonging, Dave. When you wrote, “It is as if I am constantly trying to convince myself that what I am writing is correct, so that my readers get caught up in my internal struggle with my own ideas and ambivalence (which sometimes reflects their own),” you hit the crux of the dilemma. We read and write, as you do, in order to share a sense of belonging that will be lost if we are to truly change. Our societies are clever at foisting isolation and alienation upon us when we begin to practice in an eco-friendly way. We begin to find ourselves at odds with daily processes and more importantly, at odds with the individual and emotional needs of those around us. An eco-practical life requires contradicting our materialist culture and yet giving to the world around us with almost total selflessness. These while we must, of necessity, maintain an intense intellectual engagement with our greater environment and historical context. The cultural irony is that we are labeled “idealistic” and impractical while we strive for a higher, more reality based life. It is a conflict filled and hurtful situation for anyone who dares it. The historical Jesus (not the Christian fable) appears to have been for this. The Native Americans, some of whom you’ve mentioned, were practicing something close to it. All were defeated. It won’t be easy to enter a lifestyle so different. The hippies tried to do it by rejecting “the system,” but there weren’t enough drugs available to overcome the psychological struggle and pain. It’s just very difficult to be different and even more difficult to feel alone. But that’s where we must be willing to go.

  11. Indigo says:

    I have a few friends who are living the radical lifestyle you seem to be hinting at as your future aim. You have never heard from them on your blog, nor will anyone across the world heare of their lives firsthand through their blogs, because they aren’t online. Their homes are powered by DC electric and AC current is only supplied when a generator as run. They try to keep those times to a minimum so they can’t really use computers much. They could, but it would be a tradeoff with other uses, such as running the power saws they use for the building they do, so the computer is the lesser need that gets satisfied. I appreciate the way they live their lives. I love going over to their houses to hang out. The energy is so peaceful and everything is so beautiful. They are real craftsmen and their homes are amazing, with much of the wood work hand milled! I love how for dinner one of them will go down to the garden and pick vegies I like for the meal. I love so much of the life they share with me. And I also like returning home to turn on my computer to tell you all about it. Dave, your writing is an inspiration and reinforcement to many, and you are informative. I have learned of many things I needed to know about, only from you. I am glad you are here doing what you do. As for myself, my path is more focused on inner change and helping people with that. I know that the more satisfied people are within themselves spiritually the less they hunger for worldly things and the less they feel “special,” entitled to have excess while others have lack. With spiritual maturity better decisions get made throughout life. We are all helping in the way that is right for us — at that time. And the manner in which we help can always change, and perhaps should, in different phases of our lives. I personally believe that at 17 inner change is the most important one. The life foundation is being laid. You can’t create peace outside yourself if you don’t have it within you.But at 50 there may be a position of power or influence over the lives of many others. Promoting change, whether with words or deeds, suddenly becomes a more realistic and likely more satisfying approach to helping the world. The bottom line to me is, do what you can while you can and rest in peace throughout it. Feel good about the choices you make and give to this world from a place of inspiration, not compulsion. The process will always imitate the process that created it.

  12. Indigo says:

    .. I mean the product will imitate the process…

  13. David G. Jones says:

    For ten years I have been building a Japanese themed garden on my Nova Scotia woodlot – using local plants and materials as far as I can – to the point perhaps of 95% compliance. I avoid chenical introductions where I can but I do allow paint and wood preservative where I would lose structures otherwise. No unnatural fertilizers or enhancements allowed. For the first 3-4 years I would not even permit myself power tools but I now need to use my chain saw with regularity for cutting up deadfall and carpentry. The garden is open to the community and I have a good many visitors. This year, because there was some cottage construction going on in the area, I built a 7 ft x 10 ft garden shed of discarded materials (8 x 8s, 2 x 4s, aspenite, bent and discarded roofing nails, 1 x 4 strapping, tongue in groove siding, and a smorg of other stuff). But I had to buy three sheets of aspenite and three bundles of roofing shingles to finish it (sigh). Total cost of project so far – $100. I need 2.5 walls of siding boards to finish.Message to folks: I advocate and practice scalvaging. It is an honourable profession for all those who decry the wanton waste of good resources.

  14. Kate says:

    My dad lived on the side of a northern California mountain in a cottage with no electricity and no phone, and grew his own food for almost twenty years. It was admirable, sort of, but it meant that he was disconnected from the larger community, including me. Now he’s more moderate in his approach: he has electricity, but he doesn’t over do it, and he doesn’t grow all of his own food. He works enough to earn a living and support his second child. Even though he’s “on the grid” now, I think his life is actually less selfish and he contributes more to the greater good than when he lived in that cottage.I think it’s okay to do what you can do. I think it’s better than okay to stay involved in your community. The internet is your community, Dave (at least one of your communities!). It’s important that you stay in touch this way. You are impacting people. Perhaps making more of an impact than my dad did living completely off the grid. It’s all good!!

  15. trilobite says:

    I suspect the population problems are, in the long-run, self-correcting in two ways. First, after a certain point, nations that get richer have fewer children because (a) the capitalist lifestyle makes kids less an advantage and more a luxury, and (b) the women get more control of their bodies and more interest in leisure time. Second, our environmental policies are harming our reproductive systems. Global growth has slowed, and will continue to slow, with mild upsurges as more of the world passes through nouveax riche reproductive binges into the 2.4 kids and a yard lifestyle. Similarly, if we can maintain a self-sustaining ecosphere for another 50 years or so, the oil will run out and our ability to destroy the world will be severely impaired. Not fun for us, but just as well. Meanwhile, focus on preservation & enjoy the cheap energy. It won’t last.

  16. Zach says:

    Vive la revolución!! You sound like a cult leader, with out the charisma. Who are you to judge that all is wrong with the world? Wake up, set your ego aside a see what is really going on.

  17. gbreez says:

    Once again I say to you, as do many others, thank you for being here, sharing your struggles, and allowing us a truly wondrous forum for the exchange of ideas and love. Unlike Zack, I see no ego in your writings beyond that which is normal and healthy. Namaste.

  18. Dave Pollard says:

    Amazing comments thread, thank you all! It’s really all about ‘being the change’ isn’t it? And the personal agony of looking yourself in the mirror and asking if you have done enough, yourself, to dare cajole others to do more. Many of you (Kevin and Beth for sure) are exemplars of this, and I salute you. Chris: Amazing quotes (and additions to my ‘to read’ list) — thanks. David: Yes, it is all about belonging — which is why I believe social force is stronger than the mightiest political or economic force, if we can show people an alternative to which they/we could genuinely belong, and not just subscribe and support, in time. Indigo: Wise words, as always — we must start the change from within, it must be discovered, not imposed.

  19. donna says:

    You are right on the money and we need to educate & start a mini revolution to get right to the point. So many of us again are fighting and doing right for the MORE than us who are NOT- lets start w/ the number ONE cause of all of this- OVERPOPULATION- The middle class and the world is suffering on so many levels. Sex is great but it is MORALLY wrong to BREED without the following… DO YOU HAVE A JOB? DO you have health insurance to pay for the costs involved with having a child? Are there 2 parents committed to the raising of the child? Do you have to get government help to raise your child???INcluding free lunches… THEN you don’t need to have a child if the answer is no to ANY question. Taxes are climbing to pay for this and the tread on the earth digs deeper. I was raised in the 70’s where 1.8 children per couple was advocated… we don’t hear this anymore and now we are at the point realistically we should only be having ONE child as a result of irresponsibility of our neighbors. This starting point will pivot all the other concerns of our earthly globally warming problems- No one seems to have the balls to talk about it in America because of the Catholic religion- BE fruitful and multiply.. .come on what could that really mean??? Perhaps be fruitful FIRST then you can multiply???? Is there a group out there that I can join to diplomatically educate and advocate this simple theory??? Help! Signed tired of paying tons of taxes to those who keep being irresponsible!

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