A Paean to Activists

BLOG The Paradox of Activism

dan o'neill 2
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:

environmental degradation
global warming
dysfunctional/inaccessible health systems
dysfunctional/inaccessible education systems
unhealthy food
social neglect
cruelty to animals
fragmented communities
learned (and real) helplessness
intellectual poverty
imaginative poverty
species extinction
loss of wilderness
waste … and so on

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:

  1. It is our responsibility, as members of Gaia, as a part of all-life-on-Earth, to do what we can do to mitigate the damage we have done, and
  2. It is our responsibility to our children and future generations, both to make the world better for them and to help them prepare themselves for life after civilization, when our current way of living will not be possible. As Charles Bowden puts it in Blood Orchids:
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.

Category: Activism

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13 Responses to A Paean to Activists

  1. Jon Husband says:

    A real dyed-in-the-wool pessimist would (probably) not blog as prolifically, with as much advice and “solutions” to the problems, as do you … in my opinion.I too think I am a pessimist (rationally) but I believe I recognize that I feel (at a deep level) unconsciously hopeful in my drive to survive.I think you are an activist, merely by the practice of writing regularly about the range of wicked challenges upon which you are supremely well-informed, and which you obviously think much and deeply about.

  2. gregorylent says:

    nah, there was never a time when man was not .. this whole thing is a play in consciousness, and we are that … and taking care is part of the program … life is eternal ..

  3. There is a parallel between your argument here and that of an individual who, faced with his own mortality, decides there is no point working toward a better life.Civilization will collapse, sooner or later, either of the illnesses that currently afflict us or of some unknown future disaster. But it does not follow from this that civilization is not worth enhancing, improving, saving.Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that “human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.” (quote from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death ).The denial of death may be a fools errand, in the long run. But it is also the only thing that gives meaning to hope and happiness, love and adventure. The very act of ‘living in the moment’ is the only rational response to a death that is, ultimately, irrational.When we seek to improve ourselves, to enhance our moments of happiness, to stay healthy and build a more secure future, we are doing this not in spite of the ultimate failure of all our endeavours, but rather, because of it. We rage against death, not because such rage will ever be effective, but because to acquiesce is to die immediately.Like the other activists who work – nay, who devote their lives – to the preservation, enhancement and growth of civilization, I do it because it is the only rational response in the face of the mortal threats it faces very day.I was born at the dawn of the space age, in the shadow of nuclear holocaust, within short living memory of a horrible world war, in an age of global conflict. The seeds of our self-destruction were intermingled with the seeds of our immortality.As did most members of my generation, the post-baby boom generation, we saw in this grounds forcynicism and concern. This particularly given the reaction of our immediate predecessors, the narcissist inward-looking self-serving materialism and hedonism of the baby boomers.But rather than retreat into a generational fetal position, as they did, members of m generation began to organize and to create something new. It is no coincidence that the baby boom generation gave us presidents Clinton and Bush, while the post baby boom generation gives us Obama.Activism isn’t about guarantees of success. It isn’t bout knowing that, in the long run, your work will lead to a better future. Activism is about being alive, about there actually *being* a civilization to which we all belong, and about that civilization being worthy of a life, being worthy of a future.Even were we to think that the current ills afflicting our society are terminal, we continue the struggle. For, of course, a great many of us do not, for we do not see the death of the current state of civilization as death, just change. And even those who feel we cannot survive continue to build a legacy, to build an achievement worthy of literature and song.It is as though we activists believe that it is not enough merely to live well, it is also important – perhaps most important – to die well. To go out swinging, with our heads held high, believing to the last breath that there is something worth living for, something worth fighting for, that so long as there is a breath in our body the dream lives on and can be carried forward.When faced with the immanent extinction of humanity, I ask, is there anything of civilization worth saving? Is there anything of civilization worth preserving? Be it an idea or an artifact or a culture or a practice, I say then, dedicate yourself to *that*, and civilization, whether it lives or dies, will be worthy of your efforts.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    What Stephen Downes said …

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Oh, and … too few people have read Becker’s Denial Of Death. Thanks to Stephen for making that important link.

  6. james says:

    maybe time to rephrase you blog title? What would it be now? “How Not to save the world (as you can’t, we’re long past that), but to love and deeply participate in the communities around you as the human race slowly dies forever.”

  7. David Parkinson says:

    I would be really interested to know more about how ‘activists’ perceive themselves, their work, and the world they fight in and for. I would be prepared to learn that a great number of them share Dave’s pessimism about the chances of ultimate victory or vindication — esp. in the wake of the failure of most 20th C utopian philosophies to produce anything of lasting value (and their success in typically producing misery and mass death).At the top level, i.e. the folks who lobby governments and travel from conference to think-tank to position paper, I bet that activists are more likely to believe that they are making a large and lasting difference. They are intervening in the machines of power, so they can imagine small changes at the top having a big trickle-down effect.At the lower levels, i.e. smaller NGOs operating at lower levels of scale and complexity, activists are probably less likely to be optimistic about the chances of lasting change.I would guess that the activist’s disposition steers him/her towards the kind of work that is most suited to where he/she lies on the optimism/pessimism scale. I.e., if you think that the world can be saved, you’re more likely to go large and try to control as much power as possible for maximum benefit. The pessimists are more likely to work close to home and restrict their attention to problems that can actually be solved, leading to an improvement in the world, if only on a small scale and for a limited time. But that’s good enough.I wouldn’t be surprised to find that more activists than we imagine are (screctly) pessimists, only they have not been able to externalize and come to grips with what they might feel is a negative attitude that could undermine their effectiveness. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that a deeply pessimistic attitude is not necessarily an impediment to living a happy life and being effective. In fact, it almost strikes me as a precondition to a clear understanding of the limits of our powers and what we can reasonably expect to accomplish on this beautiful but damaged planet we find ourselves on.And I agree that it’s nice to see Becker being discussed here, although I think that Escape from Evil is a better book than Denial of Death. His ideas are scarily profound and disturbing (in a good way).

  8. Paxus says:

    I agree it is time to change the name of this blog, since it is clear David has no intention of saving the world and does not think it is possible. i like the blog title, it is big and immodest – but it does not feel appropriate.My blog is called Everyone but the Devil means well. So i certainly agree that the people designing and building nuclear weapons, which basically can only be used to destroy human life on a massive scale – are probably fine people generally, are nice to their kids and think that they are making the world a better place thru their work. The same is true for the folx who design reactors and GMO food.My work requires me to be an optimist. We take on reactor construction projects and we know are chances of successfully stopping them are small. We also know if we go talk to local people and say “we are probably going to loose this one and we need your help anyway”. They respond by saying they have more important things to do than fight loosing battles. Pessimism kills hope, hopelessness kills movements, dead movements lead to the status quo – which we all agree is a problem.i dont have to demonize individuals to do my job (tho many campaigners believe that is the most effective way to facilitate change). I can happily go after the psychopathic corporations. This does not mean you cant be a realist and be an activist. We fight reactors, knowing we will likely loose and also knowing that the fight, changes the conversation about future reactors, builds a movement which can take on other problems and sometimes when you are brilliant and lucky you do win.Dave Pollard is a peculiar guy. He is a pessimist and he keeps on working the problem. I appreciate that, but this is not an easy to export model. It has poor memetic structure, broken hooks. Hope works. I’ve seen it work, i have worked with tiny groups trying to stop reactors in eastern Europe and seen them succeed. They succeeded, in part because they believedit was possible to and they kept pressing on with different things until they finally succeeded. The problem the pessimist has is that since you think you are going to fail, you dont switch tactics when you realize you need a better one, because you think none will work. David Parkinson asked how activists perceive themselves. i will speak for myself. My job title gives me license to change peoples lives and their perception of the world. I get to shake things up. This is incredibly rewarding for me.People often ask me to help them find the issue they should work on. I tell them that the issue is secondary, and what they should be looking for is that people they want to be working with and help them. This is not a search for politically expedient causes – you are looking for you clan. Not because your clan will have necessarily chosen the “best” campaign for saving the world. But because your clan is the best place for you to develop and feel whole and loved.Thanks for you evocative work, Dave.

  9. Tree Bressen says:

    Check out this link to an article by Bill McKibben in the current issue of Orion magazine, called “Multiplication Saves the Day”: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/3650It makes the argument that while making changes toward a more ecological lifestyle on the individual level is useful and good, it’s utterly inadequate for the level of changes needed now on these issues in society. Meanwhile, a very, very small portion of people getting politically active can have a major ripple effect on results.”In the fight against global warming . . . the practical acts are for the most part symbolic, while the symbolic acts might just save the day.”

  10. laprensa66 says:

    Genuinlly I think you’ve got in with the wrong crowd. :)Agree totally – humans are lovely. Where they are not – we can intervene and allow there true nature to flourish.Dont be unhappy. Think about how crap life was in the Wetern World – even 100 years ago. And how Crap it is for the great majority now. And yet – you would deny that to the third world?How can our love for humanity drive us to such opposite conclusions?

  11. laprensa66 says:

    Also please add me to FriendFeed or Twitter. I Have only discovered Social Media, and thought it was only me who thought about things like this.Your view really makes me sad. They are still stoning prostitutes in Iran, Throwing Acid in the face of ‘Harlots’ in Pakistan, slashing illicit lovers (!) in South America. God – we are so much more advanced than that. If we win there will be 6 billion people who thinks like us.

  12. Siona says:

    I would, belated, like to chime in with another endorsement of Becker. (And for those put off by the length of the tome, there’s an excellent film called “Flight from Death” that neatly encapsulates his ideas.) His work, as well as James Carse’s exuberant “Finite and Infinite Games,” has helped capture so much of what I’ve felt at a cellular level but had never been able to put into words. We are always already dying (the cast-off pieces of skin and hair with which I wreathe the house are testament to this) but we are also always already renewing ourselves (until, that is, we don’t, upon which time something else will feast on the matter we’ve graciously given up), and the challenge, to my mind, is determining what to do with that sweet and delicate balance. The challenge, to my mind, is to embrace and affirm both sides. So to this whole post, and all the comments here, yes. And yes. And…

  13. You said and or asked the reason why I fight on.”It is our responsibility to our children and future generations, both to make the world better for them and to help them prepare themselves for life after civilization, when our current way of living will not be possible.”They did not ask to be in this Wonderful Old World. We invited them. The least we can do is help them to prepare to deal with the good and evil of it all as they pursue happiness as they see fit to do.Veritas VincitDavid Raymond Amos

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