“Oh, goddess! Did you hear the news about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet? Scientists have been warning for a long time that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (the little ice sheet compared to East Antarctica) may collapse and now they say it’s happening. A bunch of glaciers that flow into the Amundsen Sea have already melted so much that the collapse of one whole section of the ice sheet can’t be stopped. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels right now, the whole damn thing will melt away. Even worse, it’s likely to take the rest of West Antarctica with it. That would mean 12 feet of sea level rise over several centuries. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is projecting sea level rise between 4 inches and 3 feet by the year 2100, but they pretty much ignored both West Antarctica and Greenland melting in making that estimate, because they ‘lacked sufficient data’. Well, some of the data is in now and even NBC News is reporting that a three foot rise is looking like a middle of the road estimate. There goes New York City, New Orleans, Miami Beach…”
[See NBC News report and Mother Jones]
“I’d really like to do something to get us off fossil fuels. But, it all feels so hopeless. Our culture is killing off all these different species. The frogs are dying of a fungus we’ve somehow spread all over the place. But, when this climate breakdown gets really underway… They’re starting to call this the Sixth Extinction, but it isn’t a meteor taking out the dinosaurs this time. No, we’re causing it and we may well end up like the dinosaurs.”
“I know what you mean. The problem just feels too big. There’s just not that much we can do. I want to do something, but I just can’t think of anything that can work. The ice sheet melting is unstoppable no matter what now. But, this culture - it feels just as unstoppable to me. I mean, I’ll keep signing petitions and protesting Keystone XL and all that. But nothing feels like it makes a real difference.”
Change From Within, Change From Without
I don’t know about you, but I can’t begin to tell you how many conversations I’ve had that sound something like the one I’ve reported. But, not everyone is stuck in the mud, suffering from a stuckness of spirit like the women talking above. People who believe that the “system” can be changed from within know they have plenty of work to do. For example, where I live some folks are invested in the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, working to get a carbon tax passed by Congress and to convince conservatives that a carbon tax will benefit them . They may succeed. The ones I know have great determination.
Then there are the people who are determined to force change by applying pressure from outside the “system.” Some of them want specific major modifications (like not piping tar sands oil through the U.S.). Others are focused on broader revolutionary change. Again, near where I live, folks in Oklahoma with the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance have been using nonviolent guerilla tactics such as chaining themselves to heavy equipment to slow down the laying of tar sands pipelines . Some of these protestors have been camped out for what must be years now, dedicating their lives to stopping this environmental destruction. On an international level there is the 350 movement, organizing marches, demonstrations, boycotts and all manner of non-violent actions to attempt to garner the attention of powerful decision-makers across the planet. Another international movement, Deep Green Resistance, is in its early stages of organization and they are advocating an end to civilization, patriarchy and industrial society, including the use of violent action. None of these folks - the lobbyists, educators, non-violent protestors, or resistance fighters – are stuck in the way others of us are.
Trapped on the Ice, Stuck in the Mud
So, who is it that is stuck and why? Obviously there are people who are clinging to an old patriarchal world, powered by fossil fuels, distributing astronomical wealth and power to a small elite and distributing privilege to a middle class (and military) whose work and support keeps the system functioning. When I say we’re stuck, I’m not talking about the elite or the people who happily support the status quo. And, as I already explained, I’m not talking about the activists who lobby Congress or march on New York City or commit acts of civil disobedience and believe that these strategies will actually work. Nor, am I talking about the resistance fighters. It’s the rest of us. Call us the inactive activists. We know all too well how bad things are, from climate breakdown to biogenetic engineering to racism to nuclear energy to poverty to female sex slavery to extinction to ecosystem breakdown and you can name the rest, if you have room for the list. We’re conscious of at least some of these problems and, on one level or another, fighting, or at least hoping, for change. But, lobbying and protesting and even sabotage seem inadequate to the great change we know is needed. We know that changing light bulbs (a la Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth) or getting a carbon tax passed or even leaving the coal in the ground is not enough by a long shot. (You could stop all fossil fuel use today and the oceans would still be full or plastic and depleted of fish, the corporations would still be churning away turning nature into profitable products, men would still be raping and beating up women, and you get the picture.) We “inactivists” don’t have a strategy or even a vision for bringing about the level of social change needed to create societies that would nurture, not destroy, the earth (and us humans too). And maybe that allows some of us in the “developed” world to just take it easy, to do a little political work here and there, but to settle into enjoying our privilege and our earth-destroying lifestyles.
It’s hardly surprising we’re stuck given the depth of destruction created by globalized patriarchy, the failing natural systems, and the level of social change needed.
It’s hardly surprising we’re stuck given the depth of destruction created by globalized patriarchy, the failing natural systems, and the level of social change needed. The fossil-fuel driven, power mad, patriarchal world is self-destructing and that makes the whole situation overwhelming. Even the middle of the road three foot sea level rise prediction for this century will put some or all of major cities like New York City, London, and New Orleans underwater, not to mention huge sections of nations like Bangladesh and Holland, and entire island nations such as Tuvalu. How many governments are going to survive massive migrations as people flee areas made unlivable by drought, wildfires, storm surges, and permanent flooding? What happens when the glaciers providing water to the peoples of India, China, Peru, Bolivia finish melting away, causing rivers critical to billions of people to dry up? Which ecosystems are going to finally collapse as the extinction of that critical frog, micro-organism, or keystone predator comes to pass? What happens when the global food supply shrinks drastically due to a drought in a really bad location – say the main agricultural areas in China?
The globalized, industrial patriarchy will self-destruct, but will that happen quickly enough to stop the accelerating climate breakdown, loss of species, and loss of ecosystems (including the human-modified ones that produce food for 7 billion people)? What ways of life, social structures, technologies, economies, governments will replace the failing globalized and national systems? How can we stop this destructive way of life fast enough and come up with new ways to live? These are the kinds of problems that are overwhelming people who have plenty of political consciousness, but little to no faith in the ability of lobbying, marching, or civil disobedience to bring significant change to established political, economic and social systems. No wonder some of us are stuck!
Back in 1989, EPA director William D. Ruckelshaus asked:
“Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation…”
Global society is faced with an enormous challenge – comparable in scale to the agricultural and industrial revolutions - and must make the big changes called for. Meanwhile most national governments and huge powerful corporations are, not surprisingly, resisting change, denying the extent or even the existence of the challenge we face. But, then, who would expect that the powerful, mostly male, elite who run governments and corporations, would want to shed their most treasured and central principles– domination and greed. Let’s face reality, Exxon is not going to cease its concern with providing a profit to stockholders (and millions of dollars to the CEO) in order to bring us back to 350 ppm carbon in the atmosphere. Some more truly democratic governments (unlike the U.S. where corporations control many politicians) may take some real measures to address climate breakdown (like the much needed carbon tax), but will never challenge capitalism, industrialization or runaway technological change.
What is there to do when you realize that a system based in domination and greed cannot address the problems that result from human practices of domination and greed? You can’t reasonably lobby that system or protest it because its investment in destructive practices lies at its very core.
The major institutions of modern society are all based in the exercise of “power over” or domination. They are top-down structures that use hierarchy to enable the people at the top to exert control over people below them and control over society. Our large-scale, top-down political and economic systems favor dangerous technologies that work with a large-scale, top-down approach. For example, most governments, especially in the developed and rapidly developing worlds, support and promote large-scale, industrial agriculture and not small scale market or subsistence farmers.
The activists who are lobbying and protesting governments may or may not lack full awareness of the extent of our problems, but they must at least have hope that those governments can adequately respond to the challenges we now face. Their quarrel is likely with specific laws or specific government or corporate activities and not with the top-down, power over structure of these institutions, the structure that generates all the problems. In contrast, those of us who are stuck do have a full understanding of the extent of the challenges we face, but lack hope that the top-down, power over “system” can respond. What is there to do when you realize that a system based in domination and greed cannot address the problems that result from human practices of domination and greed? You can’t reasonably lobby that system or protest it because its investment in destructive practices lies at its very core.
What actions are available to the activist once she realizes that the top-down system cannot rescue us? There are two that I am aware of: abolish the system or create a new way of living from the “bottom-up” that is based on “power with” and not on a top-down system (or power over/domination in any form).