Not Ready to Do What’s Needed…

How To Save The World

There is a period in most relationships when one or more of the members knows in their heart that the relationship is not sustainable and something very difficult must be done, but they aren’t yet ready to do it. Most likely they are hoping that someone else will acknowledge it as well, and maybe even do it for them, save them the trouble. This period of awkwardness, tension, partial denial, suffering and unspoken grief, can last a long time.

I think we, the human species, in our astonishing relationship with each other, in this contract we call “civilization”, are now in such a period, and we have been for some time. We don’t want to give up on the relationship — it has given us a lot, we are used to it, and we can make ourselves believe it still has promise, that what is broken can be mended, but in our hearts we know it cannot. It is time to give up on it, to let it go; time to say goodbye.

There is evidence that many, perhaps most, previous civilizations (like the Anasazi) ended when they ceased to be able to provide what was needed and valued by their citizens, who then simply walked away from them, and returned to simpler ‘uncivilized’ ways of living. That’s not to say ‘walking away’ was easy — it must have been excruciating and terrifying to give up on the wealth of such civilizations, and to learn to become self-sufficient again, no longer dependent on the systems of the culture, the only way of living they had ever known. Only those with the knowledge, capacities and social networks to create a new way of life from scratch in the resource-depleted environs of the old civilization would have been able to make the transition; the rest would die trying. Not surprising then that so many still cling to the romantic dream of escaping to some other planet where, somehow, the failings and limits of our civilization would not apply, where the empire would expand forever.

Many of those who have moved beyond the first denial (that our industrial growth culture cannot continue the way it currently operates) and then beyond the second denial (that this culture cannot be ‘saved’, and that it will collapse no matter what we do), have started to think about what is needed now.

There are I think three main schools of thought on what we should do now:

  1. We should do what we can to enjoy life for what it is now, and work peacefully to reduce our personal contribution to the damage and to reduce the current suffering of others during the collapse (a responsible pacifist approach),
  2. We should work to try to reform the existing systems through non-violent social, political and economic means to make them less destructive and reduce the suffering they cause (a reformist approach), and
  3. We should work aggressively to undermine and dismantle civilization now, even if this requires the use of force and violence, to minimize the total damage and suffering it will cause and hence make it easier for the survivors (a resistance approach).

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, but each requires a significant commitment of time and energy, so pursuing more than one diligently is difficult. All three approaches require the learning or re-learning of skills, knowledge and capacities to live more lightly on the land, increase our local self-sufficiency and reduce our dependence on our culture’s rapacious and teetering industrial growth systems. In our terribly busy modern lives, few have the time, the opportunity and the dedication to do more than pay lip service to this re-learning need. For most, it’s one more important-not-urgent “should” that never gets to the top of our “to do” lists.

And therein lies the challenge. Most of us are not ready to do what we think we “should” do to relearn essential skills and be responsible pacifists, reformists or resisters.

The reasons we are not ready are:

  1. Too busy: We are too busy looking after the needs of the moment (ours and our loved ones’), after which we are too exhausted to do anything else (except reward ourselves with easy, fun activities, and recharge for tomorrow’s work and struggle — Pollard’s Law);
  2. Hopeful it won’t actually be needed: We are (and this is human nature) hopeful that perhaps it isn’t as bad as we thought and something or someone will come along to make all this effort unnecessary;
  3. Afraid of the risks: We are afraid of being wrong, or ridiculed, or ostracized, or hurt, or arrested or worse, if we try to be reformists or resisters (“can’t you ever say anything positive; I don’t want to hear about bad things I can’t change”);
  4. Doubtful of its effectiveness: We are pessimistic that our efforts at reform or resistance will actually achieve any real, sustained results (“we though having a Democrat in the White House would change everything”);
  5. Afraid to know how bad it really is: We are afraid of not being able to handle knowing the truth of how awful things really are if we become front-line reformers or resisters (“I visited a factory farm and now I’m a basket case — we have to change this, but we can’t”);
  6. Too dependent on existing systems: We and our loved ones are so enmeshed in the existing systems that even tiny responsible pacifist actions seem impossibly difficult (“the other kids are all going to McDonalds after the game; can you drive some of us?”).

The current debate in the Occupy movement is instructive in this regard. Some pacifists have vilified the so-called “black bloc” (masked demonstrators who make media displays of seemingly mindless destruction of public and private property). The truth is that many of these “black bloc” people are undercover police and security plants staging these displays to justify police brutality and discredit the Occupy movement. And some are (not surprisingly) just angry young people filled with anomie and hopelessness. (None of them are “anarchists” in any sense of the word, and journalists of all stripes using this vacuous, inflammatory label are irresponsible.) Many in the Occupy movement are now attempting to re-brand it as a pacifist, non-violent movement that will as a matter of principle never use force or violence in pursuit of its goal to reduce inequality of wealth and power (and the abuses that inequality brings with it) in our society.

But as Derrick Jensen and others in the resistance movement have made clear, taking the use of force or violence off the table weakens the movement and emboldens its opponents to continue their abuses. Here’s a partial transcript of a section (49:30 through 1:02:00) of the new movie End:Civ based on Jensen’s books Endgame and Deep Green Resistance:

Civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. This crash will be messy. Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, whether or not we help it crash, the more life will remain afterwards to support both human and non-humans.

I did some talks around the possibility of fighting back. If it was an audience made up of mostly environmentalists and peace and social justice activists, often they would put up what I’ve taken to calling The Gandhi Shield: They would say the names Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama and Gandhi again and again as fast as they can to keep all thoughts [of using force or violence] at bay.

Pacifists and non-violence activists have had a defining and even a censoring role in determining what other people’s participation can be, in a whole range of social struggles that has made it very much easier for the state to control those social struggles. Non-violence has debilitated social struggles, taken out their teeth, rendered them harmless.

We’ve got a couple of myths on the Left we have to get over. The first is that social change happens by moral suasion. It doesn’t. It happens by force. The problem with persuasion as a strategy is that it only works on people who can be relied upon to act from their position after their minds have been changed. The problem is that we’re not dealing with individuals who can be convinced or persuaded. We’re dealing mostly with large abstract social organizations and corporations which are basically sociopaths. You can’t argue with sociopaths, with those who are benefiting from the economic system. You have to stop them through some form of force, violent or non-violent.

The left subconsciously has as its goal to make resistance harmless. States have recognized that resistance will never disappear and in the past they tried repressing struggles the first time they arose. That proved ineffective. So now states rule by accepting the inevitability of conflict and resistance and trying to ‘manage’ it permanently.

Social movements in North America are locked into this pacifist doctrine that is imposed by the middle-class reformists who want to control the movement and dictate how it conducts itself.

Advocates of non-violence frequently say that non-violence works [best] and the principal examples they use of that are Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This constitutes a great historical whitewashing. The resistance in India was diverse and by no means pacifist in its entirety. Gandhi gets used as a way to shut down conversation. His name is used to discredit anything that isn’t a peaceful means of resistance. In India Gandhi is not deified and many there despised him as a collaborator. Gandhi got negotiating power from the British because there were other elements in the Indian struggle that were far more threatening to British dominance, so the British chose to dialogue with Gandhi, someone they could work with. They knew revolution was coming and they wanted to blunt it as best as they could. As a result of Gandhi’s influence, India went from being a colony to a neo-colony. The British were still able to maintain their influence.

My problem isn’t with people doing non-violent actions. We need it all. My problem is that so many pacifists don’t support more radical or militant work. You can’t assume that people who are using radical means of resistance haven’t thought about what they are doing. When some people decide their marches aren’t enough, those that toe the Gandhi line tend to believe they just aren’t thinking about it. [They are just as capable of critical thinking as pacifists.]

What most states try to do in these circumstances is define the elements of the opposing movement that are most easy to control and co-opt, and negotiate with and hand over some power to them in order to continue the existing system [and alienate more radical elements].

The same thing the states did with Gandhi and King they have done with the environmental movement. They’ve invited moderate elements [Greenpeace et al] into inquiries and government commissions and debates, and recognized them as the ‘legitimate’ leaders of the movement. They don’t want the movement to adopt more militant resistance tactics [which they label as “terrorism” and ruthlessly repress]. The powerful do not ever give up without a struggle, said Frederick Douglass. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.

The things that so-called solutions to global warming all have in common is that they take industrial civilization as a given and the natural world as the dependent variable. It’s all about saving civilization. That’s entirely backwards. What it should be is: We need to do whatever it takes to save life on the planet. In the next 40-50 years we’re going to see the extinction of more species than we’ve seen in the past 65 million years. We have to do today the things we would be proud to tell our descendants about.

If we are serious about saving life on Earth, we’ve got to start fighting back. The big problem is power, something liberals have trouble wrapping their heads around. This culture has clearly-defined hierarchies, those with power and those who benefit from power and benefit from destroying the planet and exploiting other people. They’ve been doing that for a long time. Power is more important to them than anything else.

There is no personal consumer choice that is going to dismantle the systems of power that are behind the destruction of our planet. The politicians are servants of the system. It’s their job to keep it going, to keep the profits rolling in for the ruling class. They will never act in the people’s interest or the interest of the planet. It doesn’t matter what we say. The only thing they will respond to is force and the threat of disruption. And if we allow them to stay in power they will always take back any temporary advantage we get from them.

He is right, I think. But rather than being moved to join him, to become a resister, or at least someone who works with and supports resisters, I am left feeling torn, angry, helpless and perhaps a bit ashamed that I’m not ready to do so.

And until this internal struggle between those on the left, between responsible pacifists and reformists on the one hand, who refuse to sanction the use of force or violence, and resisters on the other, who dismiss pacifism and reform as useless and co-opted, we won’t even be able to agree on what’s needed and how to make it happen. Let alone be ready psychologically to do it.

If we really want to be ready to do what’s needed we have to get rid of each of the six impediments to action listed in green above. We are urged by our fellow responsible pacifists, reformists and resisters to do things like the following:

  1. Too busy? Free up time for what’s important (by living simpler).
  2. Hopeful it won’t actually be needed? Move beyond hope for ‘salvation’ of the way we now live.
  3. Afraid of the risks? Overcome the fear of danger or retribution for doing what we know is right and what is needed.
  4. Doubtful of its effectiveness? Persevere and keep fighting and believe we can win, and keep winning.
  5. Afraid to know how bad it really is? Help each other find the courage to face and cope with hard truths.
  6. Too dependent on existing systems? Create and embody compelling alternative models of less dependent ways to live.

Easy to say. If it were easy to do we would all be doing it. As I get older I’m learning that, rather than glibly prescribe answers like the six above, it makes more sense, if we really want to bring about change, to try to understand why things are the way they are (that’s the Corollary to Pollard’s Law). To ask someone to overcome, through sheer force of will, any of the six obstacles to readiness listed above, is, I think, asking the nearly impossible. It’s asking people to be who they are not.

I have had the good fortune to be able to retire with a (until financial markets collapse anyway) reasonable pension, so I’m no longer too busy to do what’s needed. I have learned enough (also through good fortune) to be able to move past the first and second denial, so I’m no longer hopeful that radical change won’t be needed. And because I live alone and can pretty much decide what I want to do each day, I’m no longer so heavily dependent on the existing systems I’m ill-disposed to undermine them.

Still, for reasons 3, 4 and 5, I am not ready to do what’s needed. Worse, I am increasingly tempted to give up on all attempts to become a reformist or resister, because being a responsible pacifist is just being who I am. I have never been a fighter, never been one to persevere or exhibit courage (in fact I am one of the most fearful people I know). And I suspect I’m in very good company in this.

So while I can agree with Derrick Jensen on what is needed, and how, and want to help somehow, I’m just not ready to do it, and I may never be. Derrick keeps saying that most people will never be deep-green resisters, but I get the sense he thinks that’s because their ignorance or ideology gets in the way. For most of us, I think, it’s just not in our nature. That may be a tragedy for the Earth, but it’s an honest reason, and part of the reason, I think, why things have become as bad, and hopeless, as they have. It explains why the corporatists have met so little resistance even as knowledge of their destruction has grown, and why the right wing, which lacks the pacifist sensitivities of the left and has no qualms about killing or smearing those who don’t agree with them, have held power disproportionate to their numbers for decades.

I’m weary of feeling bad about my inaction, my unreadiness to do what’s needed. Many of us know what should be done now, and the risks and sacrifices that will entail, but for some combination of the six reasons above, are not doing it, and won’t, probably, until it is too late. I acknowledge and applaud and thank those who are not held back by these six very human ‘excuses’, who are activists — either reformists or resistance fighters — doing what must be done, what I should be doing. Doing what we all should be doing, but aren’t ready to.

forms of activism, adapted from the book Deep Green Resistance