Ren stood in the middle of the stream, tossing his line into the water, not looking at all like a real fisher. He wore only a brief bathing suit, revealing the huge tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon that covered the whole back half of his body.
Gabrielle sat on the bank near him, playing with one of her piercings, her legs stretched out into the fast-rushing water. Her peasant dress was wet from wading in the stream and was now plastered to her body. She was shivering despite the day’s warmth and sun.
“You’ve gone all weird since you got into this non-duality shit,” she said to him. “I’m not sure I like you very much any more. We need you at the Lelu Island occupation. We’re not going to stop this LNG disaster by meditating. We have to block it. You’ve done this stuff, Ren, you know what we have to do to stop them.”
Ren didn’t reply, other than shrugging; he just kept casting into the water.
“You still have a great butt, though,” Gabrielle added, shouting a little over the noise of the water. Staring at the wet rocks in front of her she yelled out at him “You have an activist rep that goes back a long way, and your presence would make a difference. We need your organizing skill. Most of the people on the front lines are just kids. They don’t know what they’re doing, and the PR scum from Petronas are trying to scare them and provoke them into doing something stupid on camera so they can call in the cops. We need leadership, Ren.”
He waded over toward where she was sitting and crouched down in the stream. “You see this stream, and how it works its way around my body? I can’t stop the stream flowing no matter how I splay my hands and body. I could get 50 people out here with their arms out trying to stop this stream and it would accomplish nothing. That’s how complex systems work. They work around obstructions. The political and economic system that is working to introduce LNG is another complex system. You can’t stop it. We can’t stop it. It will just work around us. I’ve wasted too much of my life trying to change complex systems. Not going to do it any more”. He wandered back to the centre of the stream and cast his line out again.
Gabrielle scowled at him. “Activism can bring about change,” she shouted at him.
“Give me an example,” he called back at her.
“End of slavery and segregation. Women’s vote. LGBT rights.”
“Physical slavery, the ownership of people as property, was no longer needed with the advent of automated machinery, otherwise we’d still have it. Instead we have economic slavery, wage slavery. Most of the world’s people are economic slaves. We may not have legal segregation but it was just replaced by economic segregation. It costs money that most people of colour don’t have to live in the neighbourhoods with decent schools, and to pay for a university education that has any economic value at all. If your parents had wealth and power, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will have it, and vice versa. Your chances of moving out of the economic quintile your parents were in are less than 5%.
“And as for women’s suffrage, the vote was only ‘given’ to women when voting ceased to make any real difference, when the essential part of the political process had shifted from the voting booth to the back rooms. The ERA was never ratified for the same reason — it might have actually led to real change. Corporations have all the power now, and they’re totally dominated by men. And LGBT rights cost no one anything, so they were an easy ‘gift’ for the people in power to give away. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference has been diminishing because it’s an anachronism of religious fundamentalism, and because the generation of terrified fundies is all dying off, not because people marched in the street for the end to it.”
Gabrielle jumped on Ren’s last remark: “Are you telling me that all the Pride marches had nothing to do with the incredible changes in the laws in the last decade?” she asked.
“Most of the people in the country couldn’t see why there should be discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the first place, but they don’t feel passionate about it. The fact that the marchers did feel passionate about it might have accelerated the change in laws a bit, but practices were already changing before the laws changed, and the minority of people who hate and fear them aren’t going to change their behaviours because of laws anyway. They’ll find ways to discriminate, to work around the laws, until they finally die off.
“Look at what all the marches for access to safe abortions have accomplished — the situation in many places has been getting steadily worse for four decades. The marches and activism temporarily moved the goalposts, but over time the stream of people in power — the patriarchy — who fervently believe abortion is wrong, have just found new ways to work around the laws, to erode them. Eventually the people who think abortion is evil will die off, and their kids and grandkids won’t care about the issue the same way, so then the practice, which was perfectly legal (though not safe) until around 1850, will become fully legal again. Not because anyone marched, or changed their mind, but because a new generation came along with a different mindset from the old one.”
“So you’ll admit that protests can at least ‘move the goalposts’, that they can lead to at least temporary changes?” Gabrielle replied.
“At least and at most, yes. I greatly admire people who are willing to put in the time on that basis, to do ‘holding actions’ as Joanna Macy calls them, that can at least prevent things getting much worse for a short time, and might even produce some fleeting victories. But in the long run they mean nothing. I haven’t got the heart for that any more.”
Gabrielle waded out into the stream and hugged him from behind. “Yeah, we’re getting old and tired. It’s hard. But to me it’s harder not to fight. If you won’t acknowledge the long-term value of passive protest, will you at least agree that direct action works? The work Derrick Jensen is doing to decommission dams and restore rivers is accomplishing a lot.”
“It’s ironic. The new resistance movements think they’ve invented something new with ‘Block it, Break it, Take it’. But this is precisely the tactics of the patriarchy, of the military and corporations. It’s always been that way — that’s what the system rewards. New regulation coming in to ban pollution that we profit from? Block it. Protest group chained together in the path of our new development project? Break it. New competitor threatening our margins or market share? Take it — buy them out and shut them down. Legal threats, bribery, offshoring, hiding profits in tropical island banks, numbered companies, deregulation, ghost-written laws for bought legislators, dumping toxins, paying third world authorities to kill opponents and protesters, everything involved in ‘externalizing’ costs and risks — they’re all workarounds using these same three direct action tactics to maximize profit and growth. Everyone knows its psychopathy but no one knows any way to change it. It’s the system, my dear, it’s designed and evolved to resist change and to block, break or take any attempt to change anything long-term.
“So by all means, take direct action. Just don’t expect it to have any enduring effect. For every dam that Derrick gets decommissioned there’s a huge new Site C dam to take its place. Your cleanup of the local riverbanks and oil slicks will make a difference for a while, but the effluent from the city nearby and the next deepwater or tanker disaster will undo it all soon enough.” He turned around to face her, hugged her and added, “Just promise me you’ll stay out of jail, and not get yourself hurt. No short-term victory is worth that.”
Gabrielle looked despondent. She buried her face in his shoulder and said quietly, “So let me get this straight. Your disillusionment with activism has to do with your understanding of the way complex systems work, and not with this non-duality stuff you’ve been reading, right?”
Ren smiled, and said: “The term ‘non-duality’ has a lot of very muddled meanings. Let me summarize what I currently believe before I answer your question. A lot of ‘moderate’ non-dualists argue that we have to behave responsibly, to do what we believe needs to be doing, even though they accept that there is no free will. They say otherwise we might well sink into nihilism. A lot of people who’ve studied the subject, scientists in particular, get fussed about whether our world is deterministic or subject to some degree of volition or ‘free will’. Einstein said, for example, ‘I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly. . . I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.’
“Radical non-dualists, on the other hand, assert that the world is neither deterministic nor subject to free will. For them, the whole question of ‘free will’ is moot because there is no ‘one’ to exercise it. And there is no ’cause and effect’ so the world is not deterministic either. They would argue that Einstein had no choice about either his behaviour or who he would take tea with, not because his actions were pre-determined but because there was no separate ‘person’ called Einstein. But the illusory self believes it is separate and has free will, and from the perspective of that illusion it can’t believe anything else. Nothing else makes sense. Einstein was getting close to this realization, though, I think, when he said ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Space and time are not conditions in which we live, they are modes in which we think.’ At the moment the radical non-dualist position is the one that intuitively and intellectually makes the most sense to me.
“So to answer your question, yes, my disillusionment with activism has everything to do with an appreciation of the intractability of complex systems, rather than my enthusiasm for a radical non-dual worldview. In fact, as long as my ‘self’ hangs around, it has no choice but to act as if it has free will and hence act ‘responsibly.’ ”
Gabrielle thought for a moment and then smiled at him slyly and said: “You’re telling me that your very intellectual ‘self’ thinks that activism is risky and ultimately futile, but also that your ‘self’ must behave responsibly as if it had free will and self-control. So what, I ask your ‘self’, is the ‘responsible’ thing to do about Lelu Island?”
Ren laughed, bowed to her, and pointed at her, and then, with a sigh, almost reluctantly said “Stop the bastards.”
“And how, oh exalted and wise ‘self’ that is under the illusion of being Ren, do we do that?”
“You know what I was saying about complex systems being like a stream? It’s all about disrupting the flows. It’s about taking actions that cause the maximum amount of time, energy and money to restore things to the position and momentum they had before the disruption. Since they have the money and the bought politicians and the police and the media and the armies of lawyers on their side, we have to be smarter, and we have to catch them off guard. I knew I wasn’t going to dissuade you, so I wrote down some ideas that might work, and which will be inexpensive to pull off with minimal risk. Shall we call it a day and go stir up some veggies and I’ll walk you through them?”
“Yay,” Gabrielle replied. “I knew you’d come around. And I’m freezing. Are you just going to lay these ideas on me or are you going to come with me to Lelu?” Tweaking his bum gently, she added “I’ll make it worth your while!”
He refused to promise, but she knew the trick to convincing him, a technique she’d learned when they’d studied complexity theory together: She made it easy, and fun, for him to agree to join her.
As they unlocked their bikes and packed up their gear, Gabrielle said, “Now, let’s suppose one of these days the illusory self that calls itself Ren should vanish into the ether of enlightenment. Should we be concerned that the character that is left will shirk all responsibility and leave us high and dry on the front lines?”
“I have no idea. Since ‘I’ wouldn’t be around to take any responsibility for ‘my’ actions, it’s anyone’s guess. But since there actually is no free will, ‘I’ would think it likely that the character that once self-identified as Ren would probably continue to do the only things it could possibly do, so your ‘self’ might not even notice much difference, other than a little less moodiness and internal conflict.”
“I think I might like the self-less non-you even more than your current self-ish self. Just as long it doesn’t act all ‘enlightened’ and holier-than-thou,” she replied. Then she added: “Oh, and just out of curiosity, since I happen to know you’re vegetarian, what’s with this fishing thing?”
“It’s for my cat. Do you know what crap they put into packaged pet foods? It’s criminal.”
“Maybe we should do something responsible about that, too,” she replied. “Even though, in the long run, it is of course futile.”
image from freetattoodesigns.org