Last evening a group of about 30 Bowen Islanders watched a documentary called The Reluctant Radical. I arranged it, since the film profiles Ken Ward, who is a friend of Tree’s and who I’ve met a couple of times myself. Ken joined us for Q&A via video link after the screening.
It’s one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t met Ken. It’s concise — no superfluous material, no sensationalism, no waste. It doesn’t manipulate the viewer — it simply tells Ken’s story from his early years as a within-the-system activist to his more recent Direct Activism, most notably as one of the five “valve-turners” who, for a day, stopped the flow of tar sands bitumen to the US through four major pipelines by brazenly, but safely and carefully, breaking into the fenced pipeline enclosures at strategic places across the US and turning off the valves that controlled the flow.
What makes this film remarkable is that it answers, completely and definitively, the question that I suspect all of us are going to have to answer for ourselves at some point in our lives, and possibly quite soon: What will it take to get us to the point we will be willing to do whatever it takes to halt the destruction of our planet? That could include giving up our safety, our freedom, or even our lives. The film makes it quite clear that until enough of us reach that point, the destruction will continue unabated.
It will, at the very least, require us to personally move beyond symbolic and passive protests, to Direct Action, which Derrick Jensen has explained using the following chart:
Non-Violent Direct Action, according to Extinction Rebellion, must, in addition to being safe, respectful, well-researched, and carefully planned (to avoid the risk of itself causing harm to the environment or living creatures), be disruptive of the destruction it aims to stop, as the top box of the chart shows, by blocking, breaking, or taking control of land or property to prevent or reduce the damage being done to our planet.
It’s a time-honoured way of forcing change, used effectively in achieving women’s suffrage and ending slavery in many countries. But it carries with it the risk of arrest and incarceration, and even injury or death, by the agents of the political and economic establishment that are unwilling to tolerate any direct interference in their world-destroying activities. This establishment would much rather we limit our activities to protests, petitions and other passive actions they know will have no enduring effect. Since 2011, Ken has become a Direct Activist, at enormous personal cost, but with no regrets. Watch the film to see why this is so.
Since the 2016 “valve-turner” event described in the film, there have been some important developments:
- Ken has joined the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, since its goals and methods are closely aligned with his, and since it brings a new, younger, global, and much larger cohort into the fold of those committed to Direct Action.
- While Ken’s first trial for the 2016 valve-turning resulted in a hung jury, and the second resulted in a conviction for “burglary” only (with a sentence of two days’ time served and community service), the burglary conviction was recently overturned because an appeal judge ruled Ken was deprived of his constitutional right to use the Necessity Defense. This ruling (which the prosecutors have just appealed) will be essential to the success of many Direct Actions going forward (which is precisely why the prosecutors have appealed it).
- Ken has been arrested again (last month) for blocking rail access to trains carrying tar sands bitumen from Alberta to a port in Portland OR, for shipment on to China. In explaining this latest action, Ken and his colleagues wrote a stirring Letter to Portland City Council.
This is only the second documentary I have seen that moved me to tears (the first was March of the Penguins). I am trying to figure out why. In the first place, while I have consistently expressed support in every way possible for those who take the risks of Direct Activism, it has been more than forty years since I participated in such activities myself. And while I don’t believe any of the actions on the chart that fall short of Direct Action will make any enduring difference (they certainly haven’t so far, except in very local, small scale battles, and even those will likely have to be fought again, and again, what Joanna Macy calls holding actions), I don’t believe Direct Action will make any enduring difference either. Why? Because the complex systems driving our global industrial civilization are designed to work around disruptions and quickly and expediently restore the status quo, and to continue to do so until they can no longer be sustained, and hence collapse. All complex systems work this way.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be any short-term effects, with long-term impacts, even though they won’t be enough to significantly alter or delay the Endgame. What if, in the latest action in Portland, when the police issued the ultimatum that anyone who did not immediately leave the area would be arrested, instead of 52 people remaining on the tracks, there were 5200? As the predicament of our planet worsens, we will get to that point. While 52 people can easily be arrested and a rail line hence cleared to resume its shipments of toxic cargo, with 5200 it’s not so easy.
What happens when all destructive industrial activity, from tar sands production to factory farms, faces cradle-to-grave disruption from so many thousands of people that arresting and charging or otherwise stopping the disruptors becomes unfeasible and the economic viability of the destructive activity falls apart? History suggests that, after a brief period of extreme violence from the oppressors, they will give up and look for easier ways to make profits. Oil companies will, reluctantly or not, sooner or later, shift to making a living from so-called renewable energy. Other destroyers and oppressors in other industries will likewise make the necessary shift to keep profits flowing; very few actually want to fight battles with their customers and neighbours using threats, coercive power and misinformation.
So there will be changes, Direct Action or not, and Direct Action might make some of them happen sooner. But none of them will be enough. Our global industrial economy is so far overextended in its massive and accelerating debt to the environment, struggling nations, and future generations that its collapse is certain, quite possibly before climate change has fully weighed in and layered ecological collapse on top of it. And there is growing evidence that we passed the tipping point for stopping climate collapse decades ago, and that massive reduction of human numbers due to plunging carrying capacity of the land, massive extinctions and biodiversity loss, endemic disasters and immiseration of human life, unwillingness of the survivors to bring more humans into the world, the end of affordable energy, and the unfathomable challenge of dealing with billions of migrants seeking the last livable lands on the planet, will inevitably bring about an unrecognizably different world. In light of that, does it really matter if we stop extracting the ruinous Alberta tar sands bitumen sludge in five years or in fifty?
The reality is We don’t know. And as long as the Direct Activists are working to make it five years instead of fifty, I will cheer for them, support them, and cry with them, whether they win or lose each small battle. The Direct Activists are doing what they are doing, terrifying and personally risky as each action must be, because they can’t not do anything. They can’t, any longer, do what they know isn’t working, what they know isn’t enough.
We will all be there, fighting alongside them, and I increasingly believe it will for most of us be soon, in our own lifetimes. Each of us will answer the What will it take… question our own way in our own time, and join them. Too late, but never mind. This is the nature of the human creature, and we’re not going to change it.
There’s a poignant point in the film where Ken’s sweetheart says “One day people will ask us if we did everything we could, when there was still a chance to do something about it. And he [Ken] will be able to say that… I won’t be able to say that.”
And yet, none of us has a choice. None of us should feel bad or guilty for what we do, or don’t do. I’ve learned that what each of us does, each moment, is the only thing we could possibly have done, given our embodied and cultural conditioning and the immediate circumstances. That’s not an excuse; it’s the realization that our pretence of free will is an illusion.
I will cheer on Ken, and Derrick, and all the other Direct Activists who have no choice but to continue to put their safety, their freedom and possibly their lives on the line, because they cannot do anything less.
In this, none of us has any choice. We will support the Direct Activists, and one day, when it is our time, we too will reach that tipping point, and have no choice but to join them, doing whatever we can do, whatever it takes, to stop the destruction of our planet. It will ultimately not make a difference, not change the Endgame. But that will not matter.
I will see you, then, on the line.