It seems that a few people misread my catalog of the “jaded activist’s” dismissals of various tactics as my own personal disapproval of those tactics. That was not my intent. I especially value the tactics that disrupt the governing stories of our society, and unravel the narratives that underlie oppression and ecocide. The point I was trying to make is that for any “action” one proposes, there is always a reason why it won’t work, why it won’t be enough, why it is a drop in the bucket, why it won’t bring deep enough change… why it is all hopeless.Personally, of all the tactics I enumerated, I tend to favor civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action the most highly, but even petitions and orderly, permitted protest marches can sometimes be useful. Just setting the record straight here: Charles is not telling everyone to sit at home “being the change.”
On the other hand, I also want to expand the scope of what we consider to be “action.” Conditioned by the ideology of instrumental utilitarianism, which values actions according to their calculable, measurable outcomes (and which is the essential mindset of the investor), we tend to value the big visible actions more than the private, invisible ones that actually take just as much courage, or even more. For every big-name climate activist out there, there are a hundred humble people holding society together with their compassion and service. I cannot emphasize this point enough. I refuse to accept a theory of change in which the humble grandmother taking care of a terminally ill little boy is doing something less important for our future than, say, Bill McKibben.
This is one of my core beliefs: that every act sends ripples out through the matrix of causality; that every act has cosmic significance.
Yet I am not offering these small acts as substitutes for political engagement. I believe that a well-rounded person will engage on many levels, and that when the moment comes, the courage cultivated on the intimate level will translate into the courage to step in front of the riot police. Both come from the same place.
According to our personal qualities and life circumstances, different kinds of action call to us at different times. I want to expand our understanding of what “action” is, to support people in trusting this call. Because our deep mythology valorizes certain kinds of actions, we are often left with the feeling that we are not taking significant action. Furthermore, even those who attempt the actions that are most strongly validated by our dominant theory of change often feel like they aren’t doing enough. Is the state of the environment better or worse than it was 40 years ago? Is transnational finance stronger or weaker? How about the military-industrial complex? The agrochemical industry? Many activists are coming to believe that more of the same is not enough; that we need to act from a different place — and that requires inner work and interpersonal work. i think many common tactics used by environmentalists and political progressives are actually counterproductive — not because they are insufficiently clever, but because they encode some of the same deep worldview from which ecocide and oppression arise as well. I won’t go there now though.
When someone focuses on one level of service to the exclusion of the rest for too long, the result will be a growing dissatisfaction and a desire to grow. One way that growth happens is through the broadening of the scope of one’s vision: for example, to learn about the web of economic and political relationships that is driving ecocide, or to become aware of oppression within one’s own organization, or to recognize one’s own self-delusion, sanctimoniousness, or violence. As we grow, the natural object of our care grows too, and there may be a shift in what calls to us. Someone unaware of climate change isn’t going to do anything to stop climate change.
I think the discomfort that some of the commenters have expressed with the idea of sitting in retreat (and believe me, their discomfort echoes my own) comes from two sources. One is the feeling I referred to above, that “I’m not doing enough.” I’m not doing enough and I can’t do enough and perhaps if I make myself uncomfortable enough about it, I can goad myself into greater efforts. The second is the natural discomfort that arises when the time to grow, to move, to expand is upon us. I suspect I am not the only one who is in the Space Between Stories, not the only one who feels the call to deeper and more effective service. Nor am I the only one who doesn’t have a clue what that looks like. The caution I am offering (to myself mostly) is not to temporarily alleviate that discomfort by reflexively adopting familiar or prescribed kinds of action, just so I can assure myself I’m doing something. Maybe something new wants to emerge. Maybe I need to stop all this traveling and speaking. Maybe that’s getting in the way of my next step. Maybe I need to get my hands in the soil more. Maybe I need to drop my knowledge for a while and learn something radically new, which will then integrate with my old knowledge in ways I cannot imagine.