Dan O’Neill cartoon from the Jefferson Airplane CD Volunteers
Most of the people I know are optimists. They believe that we, this vain and arrogant and fierce and modestly intelligent species called homo sapiens, will endure, despite the challenges our world faces. Many of those I know, perhaps because of this optimism (or perhaps because they tend to be better informed and more progressive than the average human) are, in one way or another, activists. They devote a significant amount of their time, energy, and wealth to fighting social, economic and environmental ills such as:
And I salute them for it. This is important work that needs to be done, and they are doing it.
I, however, am a pessimist.
On the one hand, like John Gray, I believe our civilization is in its last century. Just as human numbers, and influence, and destruction, and consumption, and pollution, have all grown like the left side of a normal ‘bell’ curve, they will all, at some point in this century, plunge down the right side of that curve, and then, slowly over perhaps millennia thereafter, decrease to zero. I do not believe we will be ‘saved’ by a great collective human consciousness raising, or by human ingenuity and innovation, or by ‘free market forces’ (even if such thing were ever to come into existence), or by globalization or One World collectivism, or by the Rapture. None of these things is in our nature, or in nature. These are all different forms of religious, magical thinking. They are self-delusion, romanticism and folly. They can be, for many, excuses to continue to behave and live unsustainably.
But on the other hand, I do believe we need to do all we can do, short of inflicting even more misery and suffering than our civilization already has, to understand how the world really works, and to learn and model a better way to live and make a living. Why do I believe this, if the world as we know it is inevitably going to end anyway? Because:
We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.
Some people think my beliefs make no sense. They tell me that if they were as pessimistic as I claim to be, they would kill themselves.
And then I tell them that I believe in the inherent good nature of every human, that I think all the problems we have created in this world are the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.
Then they tell me they think I’m crazy.
Most activists get a lot of their strength and energy from fighting a common enemy. It’s not hard for them to get worked up about issues like the long list in the yellow box above. They know who’s and what’s to blame. What they need to do is mobilize, connect, reframe, intervene, subvert. In fact they have two enemies: the perpetrators of the social and environmental ills, and the victims who need to be engaged to join the fight against the perps and bring about the evolutionary or revolutionary change that is needed. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. Pacifism is passivity, and that, to many activists, is inexcusable.
My problem is that I don’t think there are good guys and bad guys. Things are the way they are for a reason, and there is always a reason, even when the result is atrocity and outrage. Our civilized world is overpopulated and stressed to the breaking point, an unnatural place that makes us all desperate and unhealthy and mentally ill. We are not meant to live like this, crowded together and struggling over increasingly scarce resources. The ills in the yellow box above are mostly the result of our attempts to cope with this. It’s the best we can do.
At a macro level, we are the rats in the horrifically overcrowded maze, fighting each other, hoarding, eating our young. The system is beyond rational reform, because that maze is now our whole fragile and desolated planet. There are no frontiers left, no places to escape. We are prisoners in an unnatural madhouse of our own, natural, well-intentioned making. Everything we have done seemed to be a good idea, at the time.
But now, as David Suzuki says, we are in a huge vehicle headed at light speed towards a brick wall, and we’re all arguing over the seating arrangements. There is no helping us.
But at a micro level, within our communities, here, now, there is yet much we can do, still and always. At this level we do need to mobilize, connect, reframe, intervene, subvert. The community is at a scale within our control, and it can be rescued from stupid, unimaginative, greedy, uninformed people and the parochial systems and processes that they have put in place, and which can be changed for the better. At this level, if it energizes you to get worked up and adversarial, more power to you. We need your energy, passion, commitment, ideas, knowledge, insights and perspectives, one way or another, no matter how motivated, because at the local level there is hope — we can create models of a better way to live and make a living, and bring about change that will benefit the people in our communities, and just maybe, beyond.
As much as I rail against corporatists and lawyers and real estate speculators and other reprobates, at the community level they’re an awful lot like us, doing what they’ve been taught is right or necessary or useful or productive or beneficial. In some cases we can educate them, persuade them, show them a better way. In other cases we need to mobilize, connect, reframe, intervene and subvert. So, to all the local activists in the world, bravo! You really do make a difference, and you are making the world a better place than it would be without you.
But if you believe that the sum of a million local efforts is somehow more than the sum of a million local efforts, I must beg to differ. For every local success there are many local failures, dozens of errors of stupidity and unimaginativeness and greed and ignorance and disinformation, that will need us to act to educate and persuade and mobilize and connect and reframe and intervene and subvert, next week and next year, to undo the damage that grows everywhere and every day. The battle of the local activist is always a heroic but rear-guard action, a minimizing of cumulative losses.
And compounding the local failures are the larger, macro-scale endemic failures, the momentum of the machine, the systems, political and social and economic and legal and educational and technological and institutional, that confound us everywhere, that allow forests to be razed before the local people realize what has been done, that allow wars to be perpetrated, and factory farming systems to grow larger and uglier and more grotesque and inhumane, and that engender on a massive scale all the horrors in the yellow box above. These are systems out of anyone’s control, Frankenstein monsters that have evolved to do what we once thought was a good idea, but which now grow and propagate of their own momentum. The corporation became psychopathic because the way it was designed, with the best of intentions, it could become nothing else.
This is the machinery of the speeding vehicle headed, light speed, for the brick wall. And all the activism in the world is not going to change its direction, its momentum, or its catastrophic outcome. And no one is to blame for this. It’s been heading this way for thirty thousand years, and it reached the point of no return long before we even began to realize what we were doing. All we did is do what humans do.
And despite all this, my heart is filled with love and joy and hope and intention and the will to practice, everyday, making things a little better for those I love, for my granddaughters’ terrible future world, for all-life-on-Earth. I have never been happier, or more centred. I know who I am and what I am meant to do. I am content to practice, to do what I can, what I must.
Laugh, sing, love, share, create, imagine… there is no saving the Earth, which will go on long after we have gone. It is an amazing place, this home we have messed up so horribly. But Gaia will clean up what we cannot, so there is no need for sorrow, or anger, or desperation. There is still time to live in wonder and in joy, here, now, in community, in the moment, just doing our best. Thank you, activists! We’re with you, in love, and art and labour, until this extraordinary passage is over and the last of the lovely lights flicker and die.