Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Fist in the Air or a Hand in the Dirt?

Fist and hand silhouettes

Tomorrow evening I’m attending a small gathering of local environmental advocates and activists to watch a documentary and just mingle with other eco-nerds. I’m looking forward to watching the film, Dam Nation, and learning about the badass activists who have worked successfully to free dammed rivers so they could flow naturally once again. I'm also interested to hear what the local folks in my own community have been up to lately. Frankly, I am certain they have been doing much more than I have, and I feel slightly apprehensive about going as a result. I’m at a place of mild disillusionment with respect to my personal eco-advocacy, and my hope is that the tension I feel is the result of a transition rather than a retreat. It is not that I don’t believe in the mission of advocacy and activism; of course I do. I would be outright lying, however, if I didn’t admit that the magnitude of our current environmental problems doesn’t grotesquely and dramatically dwarf the probability of even marginally meaningful political solutions. Yes, “hope” is important even in the face of grave situations, but hoping for miracles seems a bit childish. I genuinely admire those with the energy, stamina, and perseverance to slog it out every day, fighting the behemoth obstructions of fossil fuel interests and our almost impossibly intractable human addiction to convenience. That said, the glacial pace with which modest changes are made despite these truly heroic organizing efforts leaves me exhausted as I hit middle age (or perhaps I’m using age as an excuse; that is one of its few luxuries in a youth-obsessed culture.) Because I’m finding myself less motivated for political struggles, I am searching for both the means and the motivation to pragmatically prepare for the potential results of our eco-crisis, or at least the motivation to help model systems that make such crises less likely. This is the transition I am hoping to make, anyhow, and perhaps this post is an effort to reinforce this dedication.

By no means have I ever been a stalwart, full-time activist or advocate. I have, however, spent a great deal of time and energy writing letters to editors, penning blog posts, signing and distributing petitions, and attending rallies and protests for a range of political issues. I have joined advocacy groups, helped them raise funds, and paid my membership dues. I have made countless phone calls and penned countless letters to politicians, corporations, and others with direct power and influence. I have taken photographs, created graphics, and produced videos to advocate my ideals. In short, I have tried to be one small but persistently nagging drop in the larger bucket of political discourse. Lately, though, I have very little inspiration for such actions. For a time recently, I simply felt that “bearing witness” to a world being slowly ravaged by the tragically ambitious ingenuity of the human species was the only appropriate response where it seems we have slipped past a tipping point in terms of climate change and  the results of an ongoing yet suicidal global energy “policy.” Simply bearing witness openly and honestly, including a frank look at my own comfortable complicity, seemed the best one could hope to do. More recently, however, I have come to consider that the energy I once put into political advocacy could be better served in actually trying to embody the changes I feel are so desperately needed. Yes, the old Ghandi line, "Be the change you wish to see" feels much more relevant of late for me personally than does engaging with a political system on its own terms. I also fear for the possibility of looming disasters large and small, and it seems working towards embodying this change can only help prepare for those potential crises. While I admit these ideas are nascent, and, therefore, more skeleton than flesh, let me briefly discuss what I mean by “preparing” for a crisis.

It seems to me the largest threats, in purely pragmatic terms, of potential eco-disasters, are the ability to obtain and maintain clean water as well as grow, procure, prepare, and store food should our electrical grid and/or transportation system be dramatically compromised. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, and tornados could land us in such a situation, wholly reliant on our immediate communities for the basic necessities of life. Factor in the human tendency towards violence if such basic necessities become scarce or groups are forced to dislocate to areas less hospitable either environmentally or socially/politically (or all of the above), and the scenarios can become more dire. In short, the shit could hit the fan in small handfuls or by the truck load. I have no idea if such scenarios could arrive in ten years or ten decades. I have no idea if enough "small" disasters might strike to shake us out of our complacency and actually motivate us to thoughtfully ramp down our absurd fantasies of perpetual economic growth into something closer to a steady state economy. I do know that learning how to deal practically with a broken infrastructure (or simply a foolish energy and consumption model) feels more appropriate and valuable these days than does screaming at willfully prostituted politicians and their money-addicted industrialist johns. While I don’t expect to personally be able to grow large scale crops or dig vast water wells any time soon, I can try to make ties with those who are embodying sane land use and agricultural systems and support their efforts. I can begin to learn more about sustainable and independently resourceful practices with like-minded friends and neighbors. I have the good fortune of being acquainted with some motivated friends currently working to purchase rural land for small-scale, sustainable community living. I can’t help but think actually getting my hands dirty helping them develop areas for crop development, off-grid shelters, and clean, natural water sources is infinitely more valuable than beating my head against a heavily fortressed political machine. In short, I feel more comfortable these days working towards living a sustainable model I hope to see rather than railing against a crumbling paragdigm I find lethally inept and absurdly foolish.

I do understand that I am creating a false choice. By no means is this an “either/or” scenario – the idea of activism vs. preparation and implementation. Of course, it can be a “both/and” situation and the most dedicated embody an "all of the above" strategy. Perhaps my viewing Dam Nation tomorrow evening will remind me of the inspiring power of sustained and engaged activism. However, as someone just on the cusp of turning 42, I also realize that my personal energy is not only finite but a bit more fleeting with each passing year. So, while “either/or” may be a false choice from a universal perspective, from a personal standpoint of limited energy, I am hoping to negotiate my waning, shifting idealism for something much more literally down to earth.

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