Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pain and Progress

It hurts to alienate people I love with my words. Unfortunately I can only assume this is part of the process. There is no change without struggle, nor without breaking out of familiar patterns and comfortable exchanges.

It's hard to see things the way I see them now, but when I think about trying to "go back," it is impossible. Though I am now liberated to clearly view my choices about the impact I make, I also feel condemned to obsession with the idea that I must do more. Others believe I hold them to the same standards. I do and I don't. I hold people accountable to do only what they can do, and to think about their actions. If all they do is think and never make a change, I've still accomplished something. Though I believe we have a very serious responsibility to undo the damage we've done ("we" meaning the human race, not just our generation) ... I also believe strongly that we are victims of an insidious system which, though it presents a certain freedom, has imprisoned us psychologically and will not relinquish its hold on us with ease. I do not know enough about capitalism to imagine whether it can work without massive destruction in its wake, but I do know that as far as our species and countless others are concerned, it's a death sentence. Our culture is devolving and we're taking our beautiful, mysterious world with it. Yes, the planet will continue to exist regardless ... but in what form? And what of the suffering of people and animals while it is in its death throes?

We've been trained to want. It feels natural. But for those of us who can break out of it, we must. Our example will plant seeds in others. In my lifetime I hope to see the change on a wider scale, but that's neither here nor there. I must act as though the change is beginning with me. I'm starting with the man in the mirror. Ha ha. That reminds me, listen to Tuck Andress' version of this tune, if you never have. As a matter of fact, hear this album if you get the chance: Reckless Precision. (I almost said "buy this album" ... I don't want to tell anyone to buy anything!!)

Incidentally, the only time I get to stop thinking about this stuff is when I'm playing music. Or when I'm sleeping - though I suspect my subconscious doesn't let go entirely. I'm so grateful for the music. My wish for you is that you have something that fully engages you and makes the rest of your troubles fall away.

But I digress.

Though it's difficult to explain myself to others, and though my outspokenness might appear radical and self-righteous, I must continue on this journey. I am called to make these changes and learn as much as I can. I'm called to speak about it. There's no less love in my heart for even the rich white guy with the biggest SUV and six houses full of stuff, who thinks the world is ours to own and exploit. I have love in my heart for all of us, and I weep for what we've become. I also know we're a wonderful, miraculous species with the potential to make beautiful music, plant gardens, tell stories, help our loved ones, dance with each other, care for our sick, seek solutions, and live in harmony with the Earth from which we began. If I did not have this vision I could sink back into apathy and nihilism. I cannot.


At 3:29 PM, Blogger Nick Hart said...

I agree with your sentiment that "we're a wonderful, miraculous species with the potential to make beautiful music, plant gardens, tell stories, help our loved ones, dance with each other, care for our sick, seek solutions, and live in harmony with the Earth from which we began." I also admire your conviction, but I am skeptical of how effective your message will be if people really are alienated by it, as you said.

As an example, look at PETA. Now, I happen to believe that we shouldn't be cruel to animals, and I don't doubt that they've converted some people to veganism. But will their tactics actually convert all of humanity to veganism? Many people find their messages to be abrasive or insulting. The ideas they are trying to spread are incompatible with the material conditions of many people's lives. How do they expect to convince someone to become vegan when that person received little or no health education in school and who doesn't have the time or money to cook healthy food?

Getting back to sustainability, how can we expect to convince everyone to stop driving and use public transportation when it is inconvenient or inaccessible for so many? Moreover, how are we going to get better public transportation when the government prioritizes war and tax cuts for the rich ahead of social spending? It's one thing to argue that people must make sacrifices, but to expect everyone to do so isn't realistic--especially when so many people in society sacrifice daily just to scrape by.

Ideas don't exist in a vacuum. The ideas in our heads flow from the material conditions of our lives. ie: What does it take for me to feed, clothe and shelter myself? Someone could propose the best, most noble idea in the world to me, but if it conflicts with how I expect to survive then you're not going to win me over to it. Even if you convince me that your idea sounds good but I choose not to pursue it (ie: I agree we need to save the planet, but I can only afford to live in the suburbs and am forced to drive to work) then it still hasn't changed anything.

Ideas can certainly shape people's behavior, but if the idea is incompatible with the material conditions of one's life it is more likely to be ignored than acted upon. The sort of ideas we should be spreading are ones that will guide people to action. Convince them that we need to make a change in how society is organized in order to solve the considerable crises we face today: poverty, unemployment, war, environmental destruction, homelessness, racism, homophobia, etc.

If we convince some people to organize, fight back and win substantive changes that materially improve people's lives, then that in turn affects a broader layer of people's conception of what's possible and begins to change their ideas. This is effectively how the civil rights, labor, Vietnam antiwar and women's suffrage movements started from a small group of dedicated activists and were able to organize masses of people and win real change in our society. These victories in turn led to others. One has only to study the civil rights movement and see the profound influence it had on the Vietnam antiwar, gay and women's liberation movements that followed.

For instance, if a we actually forced our government to raise taxes on corporations and build a much cheaper, faster and more convenient public transportation system that serves the entire region, then it will be far easier to convince people to abandon their cars. Such a victory could inspire activists to fight and win other important things such as universal health care.

In order to win real change we need to organize and fight back, not just make changes to our own lifestyles. It is going to take more than a passionate appeal to reason to change people's ideas and change society. We especially can't count on such tactics working on the ruling class, the people who are actually destroying the planet--because it's in their own self interests to keep pillaging and raping our planet in order to stay in power.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger SustainableGirl said...

I hear you, totally. Sadly, I believe that most people are even less likely to "organize and fight back" than they are are to abandon their cars and ride a bike to work. I have been reading the Socialist Worker website and I am really intrigued and want to learn more, both about what a new system could mean, and how I could help to bring it about. Where I take issue is this idea that people in the suburbs have to use their cars?? What??? They've never heard of buses? If there's not a bus line near their house, they've never heard of a park-n-ride? Naturally the whole system needs restructuring. The structure now serves the few rather than the many. However, what I see, and cannot un-see, is that there is not enough time left for this ailing planet to wait for the societal restructuring before we make changes and personal sacrifices. I would be hard-pressed to believe that anyone "has to" drive their car to work, unless they live in a rural area too far from their workplace. The difference between what we perceive as "need" and "want" is our biggest problem as consumers, and I blame it entirely on the manipulative corporate industry which encourages us from birth forward to abandon active living for passive entertainment and the acquisition of material goods. The extreme example of PETA and converting everyone to veganism doesn't really help me see this situation any more clearly. There are lots of words that can be said, but none of them seem like much more than excuses for not making these difficult changes, IN ADDITION to fighting for social justice and restructuring of the system as a whole. I am doing my part the only way I can right now, and the more I learn, the more I can help in other areas than just environmentally. Meanwhile, I believe a small impact is better than none.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Nick Hart said...

My point about PETA was one of tactics (and you can see this with most liberal groups): their strategy for change typically is founded on arguing abstract ideas with their audience and expecting people to change their behavior on the basis of those arguments. ie: a mere appeal to reason is all it takes to change people's ideas. My argument is that such a tactic is ineffective and ultimately can't change anything.

Marxists see that ideas are shaped by a dialectical process. That is to say, the ideas in our heads arise from the material conditions of our lives and the way to change those ideas is to change the underlying conditions that give rise to them.

Think of spreading an idea as trying to plant a seed. Usually seeds will only sprout under particular conditions (and different seeds need different conditions). Trying to convince people that are forced by economic circumstances into commuting by car to switch to the bus if there is inadequate bus service is like sprinkling your seeds on barren rock and hoping for a harvest.

How do you expect people in the suburbs to abandon their cars and use busses? The bus service in suburbs is typically terrible. The suburbs are organized so that people need their cars to perform their daily activities. There isn't even enough bus capacity for everyone to start using the bus service.

If you really want people to start taking buses you need to first win better and cheaper (ideally free) bus service. Why don't we have better bus service? Because under capitalism building highways, selling cars and gasoline is more profitable than providing cheap and convenient mass transit. Until this condition changes the majority of people that think they need their cars will not be swayed to abandon them.

Also, all this talk about getting people out of their cars and onto busses (or telling people not to buy particular products) shifts the blame for our planet's environmental destruction from the root of the problem to the victims. Even if we all stopped driving tomorrow the US government would still be using half the oil in this country. We'd still be in Iraq vying to control the Middle East's oil so we can use it as leverage over the US government's emerging competitors. Factories would still be spewing filth into the skies and oceans.

If we want to see any real progress on saving the environment we need to see it first as a class issue and recognize that it will take collective, not individual, struggle. As individuals we have little power over the system--in fact about the only power we have is the choice of what products to buy. I can understand why people would draw from this the conclusion that we need to be better consumers. However it both ignores our more powerful weapon for change and in some ways undermines the fight for change by misdirecting people's ideas and energies.

Collectively we have far more power to push for change than as individuals. Just look at how we won the EPA, OSHA, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts under Nixon! It was an organized mass movement that forced these reforms from the US government. But why have things gotten worse since then, and why have so many of these reforms been rolled back? Because we didn't address the underlying problem and abandoned class struggle in favor of the Democrats. Until we understand where the attacks on the environment come from we will be unable to fight for reform effectively.

As consumers, how do we stop factories from polluting? How do we get the government to regulate pollution and clean up the environment? How do we get better mass transit and cleaner fuel? Ultimately fighting consumerism doesn't really provide any answers to these questions. Consumerism isn't the source of our problems, its an effect of capitalism.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger SustainableGirl said...

There's no shifting of blame in anything I advocate. I've noticed since I began this process that people quickly want to shift blame AWAY from themselves, in order to justify continued participation in wanton and destructive consumerism while waiting for capitalism to fall apart, or for the fragile system of this planet to collapse. I recognize it because I fight this battle within myself every day. We will be more effective in the bigger battles when we disengage from the system of created wants. As I have said before, we are all responsible. While we're working for capitalism to change or disappear, STOP BUYING STUFF. START WALKING. SUPPORT COMPANIES THAT ADVOCATE SUSTAINABILITY. There's simply no excuse for not doing it once you are informed ... I don't care who you are.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger benjamin said...

I have to agree with Nick. Activism transcends asceticism. If you feel alienated - or alienating - think about the means you have chosen to reach your end: living through example. Our lives are saturated with people who live differently than we do; we are acutely aware when someone does something we would never do or vice versa. These are notions that we carry with our core beliefs, the mental infrastructure from which we take direction and make judgment. It follows that extremism gets its name; it lies too far from the core to have any gravitational pull. Despite the urgency of your message, the example you present of a world of people suppressing their wants may only make the end of the world look more appealing.

Since the term self-sacrifice is being thrown around a lot ( it’s always difficult to tell if it is inspired, incidental, valid or vapid ), I need to address the ascetic nature of the blog. This may be my own existential issue, but the “other’s” asceticism forces an issue – I cannot look away with ambivalence. If a lot of other people are like me in this respect, they are either going to be pushed away or inspired. I have to admit, I opt for the former for two reasons: I feel like I am already a socially conscious person, and I feel that too much good has come from mass consumption. Yes, a lot of good along with the bad. So…if part of me is part of the choir, why do I walk away with a negative impression? Probably because asceticism is like a game you feel that you should be competing in, and I don’t feel like I could commit. I know this is not your intent; I’m only trying to provide feedback.

Since this is a blog, your audience is going to mostly be comprised of those who know you or who are in line with your beliefs – when you are a voice amongst thousands, how effective is the example case? I believe the internet is a great tool for getting information, but a miserable tool for passing it on or achieving a persuasive goal. We’ve reached a stage in our evolution where we can share information as easily as a group of monkeys might toss their poo at one another – begging the question about whether or not we may want it.


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