By Will Falk
I recently attended another sustainability conference at a local university. The experts sat in a half-circle facing their audience in rank-and-file foldable chairs. I, like most of the audience, hoped to hear a brilliant solution to the ongoing destruction of the living world. The amount of experience and knowledge assembled in the experts’ panel was formidable.
There was an organic farmer, a local politician, a Christian minister, an executive director of an environmental NGO, a scientist, a green engineer, and a young indigenous woman representing the Native Students Union. My expectations were high.
Finally, the question we all came to hear answered was asked, “So, what do we do to stop this environmental catastrophe?”
The typical conversation topics were covered. “Is climate change real?” “What does ‘being green’ mean to you?” “What is sustainability?” I was prepared to sit through these questions patiently as the answers from the experts represented an introduction to Environmentalism 101 because I knew the pay-off question was coming.
Finally, the question we all came to hear answered was asked, “So, what do we do to stop this environmental catastrophe?” People took long draws from their coffee cups, cocked their heads forward, and scooted to the edge of their seats waiting for the words that would blow their minds and blow pipelines back to the hell they come from and cause. We wanted to find some enlightenment, some direction each one of us could take to stem the tide of destruction.
The organic farmer answered first. “If you care about the environment,” he said, “Never, ever go into a supermarket.” I looked around at the audience to make sure I heard that correctly. Was he suggesting that we could stop the destruction of the world by not shopping at the supermarket?
I noticed the young indigenous woman glaring at the organic farmer and knew I must not be completely crazy for disagreeing with the man. I settled myself down. I wasn’t going to let one insane answer ruin the conference for me.
The next answer came from the minister. “We need to recognize the connectedness of all living beings.” I waited for more and I started to get impatient. Yes, I understood. We are all connected. But, how is a spiritual process occurring exclusively in my own heart going to affect anything in the real world?
Then, it was the scientist’s turn to answer. When they handed him the microphone he paused for effect looking down the long ridge of his nose and over his glasses. His gaze was so intent and his pause so long that I felt we were finally going to be shown the way to environmental redemption. But, instead of answering the question, the scientist asked, “How many of you voted in the last election?”
“Voting!?” I thought. “His answer to the destruction of natural communities and the ongoing genocide of colonized peoples is…voting?”
We are going to stop the destruction of the world by stopping the destruction of the world. … Stopping the destruction means literally stopping the physical forces that are destroying the planet.
My head sank into my hands. My throat tightened in that mysterious spasm between wanting to burst into tears and wanting to burst into maniacal laughter. By the time I regained my composure enough to listen, I found the young indigenous woman berating the organic farmer for thinking the people most vulnerable to environmental disaster – the world’s poor – could afford to feed themselves on the wares of organic farmers.
She then, thankfully, turned on the scientist for claiming that anyone should consent to rule by an illegitimate, imperial government through the act of voting in that government’s elections.
We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by voting. We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by shopping. We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by opening our hearts to the reality of our connection to everything. We are going to stop the destruction of the world by stopping the destruction of the world.
You read that correctly. It’s a simple idea, but it’s true. Stopping the destruction means literally stopping the physical forces that are destroying the planet. This is not something we can wish away, pray away, write away, or vote away. Chainsaws need gas or electricity to run. Take away the gas and electricity and they cannot cut down trees. Mining companies need bridges and roads to access mines. Block the bridges and the roads and they cannot mine.
Governments need soldiers to drive indigenous peoples from their lands to access resources. Stop the soldiers and keep land bases in the hands of peoples who know how to live truly sustainably as evidenced by their existence on specific land bases for thousands of years.
Another way to think about this is to envision the typical, mainstream approach to political action. Say you’ve realized that fossil fuels are a problem. Say you’ve realized that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is one of the most pressing problems facing the world today. Say you’ve realized that stopping pipelines carrying fossil fuels to be burned in communities around the world is essential for the survival of life on this planet. What can you do to stop these pipelines?
Yet another way to look at this is to analyze any of your proposed actions for whether or not they depend on someone else to stop the problem.
Well, you can do your best to wade through the rhetoric spat at you by political candidates to find who might espouse the most responsible stance towards pipelines and cast an informed vote. Of course, your candidate might lose the election. Or, your candidate might win and then decide that jobs are more important than breathable air. Never mind the fact that voting turns your voice, your body, yourself into simply a vote cast – one number in thousands.
Meanwhile, corporations are preparing their right-of-ways for their pipelines. They’re buying up land, clear-cutting it, and surveying it for the cheapest route.
Maybe your vote didn’t work out like you wanted it to so you circulate a petition. Worded with your most vitriolic political language, you gather thousands of signatures and send it to your elected representative hoping that he or she even sees it – much less reads it. While you’re doing this, more of the forests on the proposed pipeline routes are clear-cut. Hundreds of thousands of trees, millions of birds, and countless insects lose their lives.
After several months trying to get through to your elected representative, you decide to escalate your tactics. It’s time to take this issue to the courts. First, you have to find an attorney willing to take your case. Then, you have to raise the requisite retainer. Once you find a suitable attorney, you begin work on your arguments. The research begins to cost more and more money as your argument gets more and more complex.
Finally, you get the case in front of a judge and start the years-long process of litigation. In the end, of course, you’ll be relying on the skills of your attorney and the wisdom of the judge to decide in your favor and stop the pipelines.
In the end, the judge congratulates you and your attorney for making such a valiant effort while apologizing that the law is unfortunately squarely on the side of the oil corporations. You lose in court and have exhausted all political and legal means to stop the pipelines. What can you do?
You can deprive the ability of the government, of politicians, of lawyers, and judges from making the wrong decision. You can make it physically impossible to build the pipelines. The goal is not to vote for the right candidate. The goal is not to buy the most eco-friendly soap. The goal is not to put thousands of names on a nasty letter to your politician. The goal is to stop the pipelines.
The survival of life on earth is being threatened. Every day that passes brings us closer and closer to the black precipice of utter destruction.
Yet another way to look at this is to analyze any of your proposed actions for whether or not they depend on someone else to stop the problem. When you place your hopes in voting to stop environmental destruction, you’re depending on politicians to do the stopping.
Do we need to talk about politicians and their environmental record? When you place your hopes in a petition to stop social injustice, you’re depending, again, on politicians to do the stopping. When you depend on the courts to make the right rulings, you’re depending on judges to do the stopping. Maybe the courts have a slightly better environmental record than their counterparts in the executive branches of government, but with a livable planet at stake, are we willing to place our survival in the hands of judges?
This brings me to the main point. The survival of life on earth is being threatened. Every day that passes brings us closer and closer to the black precipice of utter destruction. While scientists are arguing over the planet’s capacity to support human life in terms of years or decades, we simply cannot wait around for someone else to stop the destruction.
We wouldn’t write letters to a known serial killer asking him to stop murdering; we’d just go and stop him. Why aren’t we doing the same thing for the planet?
Lately, I’ve been receiving messages from readers of this Do-It-Yourself Resistance series asking me for specific advice on how to engage in resistance. I hesitate before writing back because, truthfully, I’m not very smart, I’m not very experienced, and I’m not very wise. Sometimes, I get lucky and write an essay someone likes, but I’m really just writing from the heart trusting that honesty is helpful.
On top of this, I only know what’s going on in a few small corners of the world. It’s hard to tell someone in New York City, for example, how to resist because I do not know the land and it’s fight for survival in New York City.
If you feel inclined to vote, vote, but please don’t let voting be the only thing you do.
This essay represents my attempt to fashion a common-sense analysis for thinking about where to direct your precious time, money, and body in the fight to save the world. If it’s not clear already, I am radical. I hate that the term ‘radical’ has come to represent extremism in popular circles and I’ve heard it asked, “Is it so radical to desire clean drinking water?”
Angela Davis, the great civil rights activist, pointed out that radical “simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” The major dictionaries back her up.
“That’s great, Will,” you might be saying, “but do I have to become a radical to engage in effective resistance?” Well, yes and no. You may not be cut out for the sort of front line direct action that at least some of us must be willing to do to stop the murder of the planet. You must, however, learn to grasp the environmental problems at their roots. You must develop an analysis that lets you see where the pressure points in this ecocidal system exist.
Most importantly, you must direct your resources at those pressure points. If you cannot occupy the front lines, make sure the front lines are well supplied and well supported. If you feel inclined to vote, vote, but please don’t let voting be the only thing you do. Please don’t restrict your activities to those already sanctioned by the State. They are sanctioned because they are ultimately no threat to the status quo.
If you sink your shovel through the decaying bones, rotting flesh, and pooling blood that fertilizes the soil growing this abomination we call civilization, your shovel will strike the physical processes – the roots – allowing the murder to continue. If you want to be an effective resistor direct all your energies at stopping those physical processes. Grasp the roots and yank them out.
John Lawrence says
Naomi Klein calls this kind of radical environmentalism “Blockadia.”
To quote from her book, “This Changes Everything”: Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen. And perhaps this phenomenon shouldn’t even be referred to as an environmental movement at all, since it is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival – the health of the water, air and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes in progress.
“Seeing those successes, as well as the failures of top-down environmentalism, many young people concerned about climate change are taking a pass on the slick green groups and the big UN summits. Instead they are flocking to the barricades of Blockadia. This is more than a change in strategy; it’s a fundamental change in perspective. The collective response to the climate crisis changing from something that primarily takes place in closed-door policy and lobbying meetings into something alive and unpredictable and very much inn the streets (and mountains, farmers’ fields, and forests.”
Lori Saldaña says
Thank you gentlemen: Great questions, great points in both the article and comment.
Agree radical resistance is necessary- which varies by age, location and many other factors.
It’s happening in the streets, but also in the mountains and along the borders of countries in Central Asia and Middle East that were artificially designed by oil industries 100 years ago.
I watched “Syriana” (again) late last night- it’s a really well done film, showing how the tendrils of ultra-rich, carbon-based energy and political power have been wrapped tightly around the world for the last century. These are the folks being most acutely threatened by emerging technologies that will wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels, and they won’t go quietly. (And one big reason Obama has focussed on increasing “domestic” energy production, despite the clear harm to air/water/land. It still appears safer in an increasingly uncertain/violent global energy market)
The social/governmental disruptions we see in the Middle East, the rising tide of ISIS et al- I suspect they see their actions as motivated by similar concerns that move blockading milennials. They want a place at the table.
The difference: ISIS is literally using our own weapons against us, while the blockaders in Hong Kong, NYC UN Climate summit et al are (for now) more polite: their weapons of choice are ingenious communication/social media technologies that defy traditional ways of coordinating actions and reporting on these events.
Which is why electronic surveillance has become a key pivot point in the last 15 years…
(If all this sounds a bit conspiracy minded, wait til later today: I’m off to see CitizenFour! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4044364/?ref_=nv_sr_2 )
Plenty of people who feel that even if global warming is real (which it is), they do not want to make any changes what so ever.
John P. Falchi says
Will Falk may not be the most experienced activist in the world but he is right on in his analysis of the situation. Moreover, he does not to say stop the other things, like voting, that we are doing, but rather to go farther, if we can, to get at the root of our problems. While I am old and infirm I will still support the radical approach to the problems he outlines that need to be tackled head on. It’s surprising what can be done to network and align forces in favor of what he is recommending, to help in fund raising, networking, and communicating the message widely.. Will’s approach reminds me of the famous radical, John Seed, of Australia who organized folks to stand in front of bulldozers to stop environmentally dangerous operations. Not all of us are brave enough to do that, but to the extent that I am able, I will be supporting the radical approach to what we are up against.
bob dorn says
It does no good to discount the so-called experts on stages at universities. All actions are necessary so long as they’re motivated by conscience and understanding.
Voting is good, boycotting supermarkets is good if you can afford to do that, standing in front of bulldozers is good (a good place to do that would be Che Cafe) as long as you’re able to leap out of the way. Recycling is good. Taking out a loan to buy a hybrid car would be good, unless you lose your job tomorrow.
I think I’m arguing with you about the first half of the article, which asks people to be as brave as Hollywood heroes in the face of overwhelming force and power. You know guns are bad. The overwhelming percentage of them are in the hands of police and government and lunatics who aim them at people like you, Will Falk, and at me. I haven’t reached the point where I’m ready to die trying to save our world. I think you understand this, when you say: “This essay represents my attempt to fashion a common-sense analysis for thinking about where to direct your precious time, money, and body in the fight to save the world.”
Maybe we can make common sense work.
Dave Chase says
Thanks Mr. Falk, I agree with your position.
Bill Schenken says
I think the trick of the deal is that non one person can do it. We are in race to evolve to a point where we can support each other enough to feel good enough about ourselves that we don’t have the urge to dominate nature. From there it is a matter of coordinating our actions to live within the capacities of the planet.
It’s the most complex task that humanity has ever faced. The problem is economic, social, psychological, physical, spiritual, epistemological, global and 100 other things.
So you want one answer? Imagination. We are going to have to imagine new ways of being and doing. Most importantly we need the imagination necessary to imagine where other people are coming from. Only when we have the ability to imagine other people’s plights can we find the compassion to work with the other: industrialists, radical enviro’s, zoned out suburbans, and the guy next door that listens to rush limbaugh. You don’t have to get 100% of the people on board with a vision of sustainability, but probably something 80% to make it work.
Frances Zainoeddin says
How do we stop pipelines if so few of us are willing to give up our gas guzzling cars? We can block bridges and roads so that mining companies cannot mine, but are we willing to give up our cell phones, computers and TVs that use copper? As long as we are a destructive consuming society, we are ALL to blame. As far as I can make out, the only people who actually can make a case against destruction are the indigenous peoples around the world – they are the ones who live simply and have great respect for their environment. As for the rest of us, we are all hypocrites. Some a little less hypocritical than others. Some have more of a conscience than others. Sadly it is all a matter of degree in terms of how each one of us contributes to the destruction of our planet. Is owning one car better than owning two? Is owning one electronic device better than owning five? As long as we own a car or a cell phone, we need pipelines and mines. What bothers most of us is how oil and mining companies get away with huge profits while destroying the environment, in order to feed our insatiable needs. The question is zeroing in on which pipeline; blocking the bridge of which mining company? Will we be less frustrated if our needs are met, while at the same time the environment and people are not damaged? If that is the case we should be supporting research and development, solar and wind energy etc. etc. but until we give up all our gizmos that use fossil fuels and copper etc. we can hardly attack our providers with an absolutely clear conscience. We all need to be chastised for destroying our planet. And we all need to change. What are we willing to give up? And how much?
Jessie Henshaw says
Well yes, to get to the root of stopping “.. the destruction of the world by stopping the destruction of the world. …means literally stopping the physical forces that are destroying the planet.” It would mean in part addressing a “broken circle” of causation, one that drives our efforts to solve problems to result in multiplying our harms to the earth too. Tracing that to its origin you find a centerpiece of modern society, one that people will want to give up collectively, as soon as they see what it really does, and the option to do otherwise. It’s true origin is the common practice throughout business to use profits to multiply systems for making more profits. It’s highly addictive for us as we all can see. It seems SO wildly profitable… till you realize it’s “just an empty bubble” of false promises in the end, rapidly bankrupting our future, very directly threatening our ability to maintain the worthwhile things we built on earth.
When people recognize that and see that even having the right to use their own profits to care for the world requires protection from people who don’t, the lines will be drawn. That will make it possible to convince others, and to organize, with the aim of changing the general code of business practice so that the current obsession with using profits to multiply our exploitation of the earth becomes an unwelcome thing of the past.
I’ve written quite a lot on it from various natural systems perspectives, as “natural steering” for growth systems, made possible by recognizing that it’s always the use of the profits that defines any system’s direction for the future. Learning from nature’s way of making those choices will take small steps becoming larger ones, to end smoothly with small steps again, but it does offer an authentic way to snatch victory from defeat and bring about thriving stability for a runaway growth system now directly headed for global failure.
My story about a college freshman named Kepler describes how she discovered it. http://synapse9.com/signals/2014/11/05/kepler/. A tool for collecting the world’s knowledge on what it takes to survive, with a common unit of measure to total up on a balance sheet of individual business responsibilities, will help too… http://synapse9.com/signals/2014/02/03/a-world-sdg/
Daniel Poresky says
We agree that climate change must be dealt with quickly and aggressively and the current approaches are woefully inadequate. The solution is to implement comprehensive coordinated campaigns to dramatically reshape public opinion so that only pro-climate action candidates can get elected. Once the general public accepts the reality of climate change, no amount of money spent by the opposition will sway them. Indeed, both parties will be forced to find ways to champion climate protecting legislation. They will differ on strategies, not goals.
The campaigns will be organized by a multi-million dollar privately funded organization. They will use the best available commercial, political, and public education/marketing methods. Take a look at a summary of my proposal at climateactionproject dot net. There you will find a link to the full proposal on Google Drive which contains campaign details, its funding and organization. All it needs to gain traction is for bloggers and others with influence to start talking about the concept.
The campaigns would include elements used to promote such diverse agendas as Valentine’s Day, a Disney movie, the post 9/11 war in Iraq and climate skepticism. Such a strategy will benefit all organizations working toward the same goal- stopping human induced global warming.