Chapter 8 (Part 1)
Chapter Eight – Real Activism (Part 1)
Lester R. Brown, one of the gurus of the modern mainstream environmental movement and head of the Earth Policy Institute – motto “Providing a Plan to Save Civilization” – has created a project called “Plan B”. In the book that explains the project, he writes:
There is much that we do not know about the future. But one thing we do know is that business as usual, including our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends undermining the world food economy, will not last for much longer. Massive change is inevitable. “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we’re on,” says Peter Goldmark, current director of the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. Can we find another road before time runs out? I think so. I call this road Plan B.
Plan B is the alternative to business as usual. Its goal is to move the world from the current decline and collapse path onto a new path where food security can be restored and civilization can be sustained. The challenge is to build a new economy at wartime speed before we miss so many of nature’s deadlines that the economic system begins to unravel.
Essentially, Brown’s “Plan B” is to mobilise the economic forces of Industrial Civilization (for he cannot be talking about any other type) to protect the global ecology from further harm. So let me get this straight: he is saying we have to have a thriving economy in order to protect an environment that has been destroyed in order to sustain a thriving economy. Did you notice there was no comma between “destroyed” and “in”? The very same economy he is relying on to protect the environment is the one that cannot exist without destroying the natural environment!
This is the kind of thinking that has made the mainstream environmental movement the dangerous monster it is.
Exercise: You Are The Mainstream
Do you have a job with, volunteer for or are a member of a mainstream environmental organisation such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy? I used to be both a volunteer and a member of several and have a few years experience to draw on (and perhaps a bit of therapy to undergo) for this exercise and maybe you do too. Let’s suppose, even if you are not, that you are a volunteer for such a group. For a few moments put yourself in that place, not as an Underminer, but as a dyed-in-the-wool supporter ready to follow whatever orders are handed down from head office.1 A new campaign is about to start, focusing on the greenhouse gas emissions of transport. How do you think that campaign will proceed, and in particular what do you think the main targets, tactics and desired outcomes will be?
If you have made it this far through the book as an active participant then I’m wondering how difficult it was to step back into the mainstream. Perhaps the phrase, “Focus on the reason” came into your head and you had to suppress the urge to consider the root causes of climate change (i.e. Industrial Civilization). Certainly, for me, without a bit of visualisation, it wasn’t easy to become that activist again. If you want to turn things on their head abruptly, then put certain hackneyed words in quotes: “activist”, “campaign”, “movement”, “environmentalist”, “action”. In normal conversation people refer to the “environmental movement” but really all they are talking about is business as usual; the continuation of the system that destroys all it surveys.
At best, a mainstream campaign to address human greenhouse gas emissions will raise awareness of the problems we face. It will never, of course, put them down to civilization alone, but that’s a different kind of problem. In most cases actions and campaign work will simply allow businesses to reposition themselves in the market while giving campaigners some satisfaction of a “job well done” with perhaps more (of the same) work to do in the future. Often such campaigns make it possible for, or are even designed to allow, a destructive corporation or regime to look better, as they focus not on the causes of harm from an ecological perspective but from a market perspective.
(They did the best they could.)
I was recently speaking to a senior Greenpeace campaigner in the UK about a campaign of theirs to stop Volkswagen lobbying for a cut in European Union emissions targets. The particular European target in question was a 30% cut in carbon emissions by 2020; this was being opposed by the industry, which had a preference for the slightly easier target of 20% by 2020. Both of these targets are woefully, suicidally inadequate. This is part of our conversation and every word is true:
Keith: If we brought feedback loops into this like the effects of methane hydrates, changes in ocean albedo, things like that, and actually turned round and said to Greenpeace, “Well, actually, the least we should be aiming for is a 100% reduction in emissions by 2030,” do you think that’s something that Greenpeace would support?2
GP: Er, no.
Keith: Why not?
GP: I mean, the thing is, 100% emissions [reduction] by 2030 would be better than 90% reductions by 2050, it would make us a lot safer. But we need to have some traction with corporations and governments.
Keith: So you’re happy to work with corporations to get them to achieve a compromise aim – is that right?
GP: Well, it depends what you mean. If we had scientific evidence that said you need 100% reduction by 2030, and that’s the minimum…
Keith: Which there is.
GP: Well, like I said, it’s all in probability bands. I mean, right now we’ve got – I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head – but if we cut by a certain level by a certain time that gives you a whatever percentage chance of avoiding runaway climate change. It might be the case that 100% cut in emissions by 2030 isn’t enough because it would trigger feedback loops and it would be too late. It might be the case that you can go to 2040 and an 80% cut by then will be enough…if you’re lucky. So everything has grey edges, everything’s fuzzy because we don’t understand the climate well enough to say specific percentages by specific dates giving specific outcomes.
Keith: But is that influenced by the fact that you’re talking to corporations and you’re trying to get, as you say, some kind of leverage with the corporations for them to change their behaviour? In other words, are you trying to avoid presenting them with what’s effectively a brick wall rather than a scrim net?
GP: Well, obviously we wouldn’t bother asking a government or a company something which we knew there was no chance of them doing, because then we’d all just be wasting our time.
Keith: OK, but I think you’ve answered your question there – you’ve certainly answered my question which is, you think that it’s not worth talking to corporations if you’re going to waste their time. Why talk to corporations then?
GP: Sorry, I didn’t understand that at all.
Keith: Well, if the corporations are not going to achieve anything like the cuts that you and me know are necessary, then why talk to corporations at all?
GP: That sounds a bit like an argument for just giving up.
Keith: No, it sounds like an argument for undermining the corporate system.
GP: Yeah, but that’s a bigger and much more difficult job.3
Undermining the industrial system is anathema to the desires of the mainstream environmental and social movements that claim to speak for the Earth and humanity. You could be fooled into thinking that the people in such organisations are more enlightened than those in, say, an oil company or a political party, but from bitter experience – mine and probably yours – it tends to be the other way round. The mainstream campaigner has been so indoctrinated in one particular course of action that alternatives are unthinkable, let alone unworkable. The groups that so many of us have up to now relied upon to protect our interests are as much part of the problem as the corporations and governments they consistently let off the hook. Not only that, they are guilty of leading people to believe that by barely doing anything, great things can be achieved; the spectre of Hope rearing its ugly head, waiting to be taken off by whichever Underminer has the guts to make the first move.
The End of False Hope
If any one word represents the mainstream environmental movement then it is “hope”. As we saw in Chapter 2, hope is not merely a wish for good things to happen; it is a fundamental part of an entire, self-perpetuating belief system that is not dissimilar to organised religion based on a deity or deities. This false hope (we will refer to it as just “Hope” for simplicity) allows the environmental mainstream to keep believing that something is being achieved in the absence of tangible progress. Therefore, if you undermine the idea of Hope then you unlock the minds of people stuck in that self-perpetuating loop. If you undermine Hope then real progress is possible in environmental and, by association, social activism.
So how can you undermine something as ethereal as Hope?
Imagine you are trying to undermine a well established religion. You could perhaps, as many political activists tend to do, attack the leaders. This is not as fruitless as it may seem because, unlike a politician or business leader, religious leaders are often seen as spiritual links to, and even essential parts of, the roots of a religion. So there is some mileage in doing this providing it serves to completely undermine, rather than just wound (the reputation of) that leader. Some mileage, if not a great deal – for as with any organisation, another leader will come along to replace the one that came before. Thus, in undermining leadership, you must go beyond the person who is in situ, and target the position of leader, such that any person who fills the void will be similarly tainted. For the last few years the Roman Catholic church have been, more or less, doing this themselves, with their sickening attitude to institutional child abuse. Therein lie many lessons.
More significantly, all religions, and almost all belief systems, have certain constituent parts that help to divide up the tasks necessary for undermining them:
• Mythology: the stories, sometimes ongoing, that explain the presence and workings of the belief system;
• Symbols: the various artefacts that represent, either physically or spiritually what the belief system represents;
• Doctrine: the rules by which the belief system is conducted.
We can now start to disassemble the belief system upon which the mainstream environmental movement depends, in just three easy chunks.
Task 1: Undermining the Mythology of Hope
Like all mythologies, the mythology of hope is shrouded in mystery. It is not so much the presence of Hope that is a mystery, for as with anything that requires great courage, creating great change is bound to contain periods of suspension, where only time will determine the final outcome. What is a mystery is how false hope (“Hope”) has become so embedded in the various environmental and social movements, to the extent that it has become the preeminent state: a sort of mass slack-jawed ennui, where everyone sits around staring at the world’s longest PowerPoint presentation or listening to an “inspirational” speaker who never comes to a conclusion. In effect, Hope derives from an absence of action; an inertness created from within and without. The internal inertness comes from the various movements, and particularly the “environmental movement” being so self-referential: everyone reads everyone else’s articles and books, then quotes from them saying how great they are; they cheer whenever a group of people carries out some action, however trivial and ineffective, and promptly repeat the same meaningless trick; there are Gurus, like the aforementioned David Suzuki and a host of others that walk the mainstream path, carrying crowds of adoring, puppet-like fans in their wake. No surprise then that penetrating this bubble is just like telling any religious believer that they are sadly deluded.
The external inertness is easier to express: it is the simple fact that in the face, and the hands, of the industrial system the environmental movement (and to a lesser extent Human Rights and other social movements) has achieved so pitifully little that Hope is almost all there is to hang on to. In effect, the Mythology of Hope is the environmental and social movements themselves, stuck in a cycle of failure.
To undermine this mythology, we need to take away the ideas that (a) Hope is something worth having, and (b) that it can achieve anything at all. We are not talking about doing away with all discussion and debate, nor doing things that have some genuine benefit for those who partake in them (meditation, for instance, can be an extremely powerful trigger) – we are talking about doing away with those things that actively stifle progress.
The second part, as I said, is the easier part, so let’s just start being honest. Much of the planet is in a ruined state, and no amount of “action” over the last 40 or 50 years – generally agreed to be the lifespan of the modern environmental movement – has made things any better. Since 1970, the year of the first ever Earth Day, a year which is bookended by the founding of Friends of the Earth (1969) and Greenpeace (1971), the following has happened:
• Global emissions of carbon dioxide have risen from 4083 million tons to at least 9000 million tons;
• Maximum Arctic sea ice area has dropped from 11 million km2 to 9.5 million km2;
• The deforested proportion of Amazonia in Brazil has risen from 2.5% to 18%;
• Global mean surface temperature has risen by 0.6°C.4
By these few measures alone, the mainstream environmental movement has been an abject failure. On top of that we have to look at the increasingly frenetic pace of civilized life, the gross levels of material consumption, the slavish adoration of money and any number of other indicators that show the industrial world has become progressively more entrenched in its behaviour, not less. This puts the lie to the claim that we are, as a society, far more “environmentally conscious” than ever before. What has really happened is that as a society we have become more aware of trivial matters, like recycling, economical driving and high-technology renewable energy, while becoming increasingly unaware of our place in, and impact on, the Pantheon of life. If that makes you as angry as it does me, then you will be keen to undermine the belief in green trivia.
Green trivia is the kind of activity that results from Greenwashing. Take the following list:
• Travel offsetting;
• Giving things to charity / thrift shops;
• Efficient driving;
• Tree planting;
• Turning appliances off.
So, we have a list of things which, taken in isolation, seem to be ok in themselves. But now look at the list in a slightly different way:
• Every time you do the recycling and you think it’s ok to generate waste, or buy things that are the cause of the waste, you are greenwashing.
• Every flight you take for which you offset your emissions, use public transport to get to the airport or do some other act of servitude, means you are greenwashing.
• Every piece of clothing or furniture you buy new and then take your old one to the charity shop, or sell it second hand, means you are greenwashing.
• Every car journey you take during which you decide not to use the air conditioning or to brake less harshly to save fuel, means you are greenwashing.
• Every tree you plant, while putting your money in a bank that makes money out of deforestation, means you are greenwashing.
• Every time you switch off an appliance having bought then used that appliance prior to carrying out the switching off exercise, you are greenwashing.
This sounds rather unforgiving, but then why should we be forgiving trivial acts that carry with them the weight of more damaging things? The list is obviously just a small sample of personal (and institutional, for it is just as happy at large scales) greenwashing, but it also makes it easy to undermine these various acts, all of which are actively being promoted by a large number of environmental NGOs at this very moment. By undermining any two of these acts of greenwashing, you will find you have pretty much found a way of undermining all forms of Green Trivia of the sort promoted by the mainstream environmental movement. For the sake of argument, let’s choose the “switching appliances off” and (my favourite) “recycling” acts; you should, of course, choose your own two. I’ll treat them as Quick Wins because I think that’s how they should be considered.
Quick Win: Switch What Off?
Here’s a chance for some neat reverse-psychology. I would like to create a character called Jenny Leaviton5 who, in mainstream circles, would be considered a Bad Person, rather like the infamous “Nick O’Teen” pro-smoking villain from the 1980s. Jenny Leaviton is different, though, because although she has no qualms about leaving the odd light or radio on, she has hardly anything to leave on. Jenny is cool; she is a rebel because she decides what to do in her life, not what the establishment tells her to do. Hell, she even has a couple of ordinary light bulbs! Her equivalent down the road is Konnie Switchitoff6 who religiously switches things off when she is not using them because there was a Department of Energy advert on her 42” plasma television, that showed rivers drying up if she didn’t turn things off when they were not being used. Konnie has lots of appliances, and loves the winter sales, when she can buy more; not forgetting to sell all her old stuff second hand, because that’s good too. You see where things are going?
There are some very talented people out there: animators, film makers, musicians, artists, and other people who could take the message in the right direction, in a subtle enough way to make people realise that it’s not whether you switch off, it’s what you don’t need to switch off that matters. Konnie is a fully-fledged victim of the consumer culture. Jenny is liberated. Who do you want to be?
Quick Win: Don’t Recycle
My younger daughter had to make a poster for school a few years ago. It was about recycling. Not surprisingly the poster didn’t have any good things to say about recycling, and instead featured very heavily the word “Reduce”. She is one savvy kid swimming in a sea of diluted good intentions; diluted by the system that wants to keep us contributing to the industrial economy. As a willing partner in the school system, perhaps unwittingly the environmental mainstream has done a sterling job (joke!) in bringing the mantra of “The 3 R’s” to the children of the civilized world. Except it’s never “3 R’s”, it’s always just Recycle. Recycle, Recycle, bloody Recycle. Recycling, as we all know is an energy intensive industrial process that assuages people’s guilt in producing masses of waste from overconsumption. The designer of this poster worked so hard to produce something meaningless.
The new message has to be that, taken as a part of the industrial system, recycling is a very bad thing. The word has to be struck from every single existing message that includes any one of Reduce, Reuse and Repair (the missing 4th R). We could even add another “R” that says just about everything that people of all ages should be doing, just like our new friend Jenny Leaveiton.
Once you get under the nails of the trivial things the mainstream are putting out then you can start to make inroads into the “goodness” of the mainstream environmental movement, for if a movement isn’t doing anything that makes things better then how can it be good? Gird your loins here, especially if you operate within the movement itself, for we’re going into territory that has hitherto been sacrosanct to anyone who has ever called themselves an “environmentalist”. An understandable gut-reaction is that portraying the environmental movement as impotent will be damaging for the environment; but we now know this is completely the opposite of what will happen. In reality, making the mainstream look bad will allow the more radical elements to show through – undiluted by greenwash and trivia.
As I write, another United Nations Climate Summit has ended with no agreements made, and nothing likely to be forthcoming except profits for those who can afford to go long on carbon. The NGOs, almost as one, are exclaiming their disappointment, even a bit of anger, that nations could not agree to cut emissions; completely missing the point of civilization as being something that is bound to emit greenhouse gases at an increasing rate. So they rail and rant, expecting better, all the time achieving nothing because they are looking in the wrong direction
(towards the back of the cave)
while Underminers see the truth. The environmental movement is as likely to change as governments and their corporate masters. This has to be made clear. They are no better than the institutions they declaim on a good day, and hold hands with on a bad one. Remember the radio phone-in? Think of all the channels of communication crying out for some “weird greenie” to contact them; not just radio, but the corporate print media, the television news channels – think big. Be that environmentalist.
Then say the very things you were not expected to say. It’s a long shot, but if not national or international you still have an excellent chance of penetrating the consciousness of local media and also impacting much of the grass roots (and inciting their wrath, so be careful).
A logical step on from pretending to work for mainstream groups – is actually working for them, then turning the cards. It’s dead easy to volunteer to work for a local group and get involved in small scale public-facing activities like street stalls and leafleting. In my experience, though, because such activities are so ineffective, it is likely that simply telling the public the truth about campaigns (i.e. they are just making people think the NGOs are on the case, when they are not) will be even more ineffective. The real undermining as a volunteer is to be done in public meetings or helping out at industrial or political conferences. If you want to speak on behalf of the NGO itself at a conference with bona fide credentials, for instance, then you will almost certainly need to already be working for that group: trust takes a long time to build up. Once in a position of trust, though, the opportunities for telling both the people inside the Group (this is a way of removing the Veil of Ignorance in a specific context) and the public in general the truth about mainstream “activism” are considerable. If you want to hang around for a while, then you might be best concentrating on subtle messages or “accidental” slip-ups in press releases and speeches; but if you are already sick and tired of working for the Man, in the guise of an NGO, then you can be as blatant as you like.
“At the beginning of this so-called ‘Age of Environmental Awareness’ there were people who wanted to change things and were prepared to fight to make that change happen. They were the pioneers – the battlers for whom compromise would remain a dirty word. It was not long before their uncompromising and truthful approach was subsumed and diluted in the formation of the modern Environmental Movement. The environmental organisations, such as the one I represent, claim to speak for the Earth and all life on it – the same organisations that willingly accept the ear of politicians and corporate powerhouses, and consider compromise and bargaining part of the way things have to be.
“The truth is we’ve achieved nothing in the last 40 years as a movement. The current environmental movement is impotent, toothless and has never been a real threat to the industrial system. Our entreaties to governments and companies to pollute less and be greener have only created a culture of greenwash where they are able to get away with far more than if we had never existed. Essentially we do nothing that ordinary people would not have done anyway, and prevent anything that resembles anarchy, illegal behaviour or even that which might simply upset the status quo.
“We now recognise our disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour and want to hand over control of your destiny to you, the ordinary people who care about the world far more than any institution ever can. As of today [insert name of organisation] are announcing a complete cessation of campaign operations. If we had realised up to now that all we have been doing is propping up the industrial system then we would have stopped much sooner. Save your money and your support; you are far better off without us.”
I feel a bit light-headed now.
You may only have one shot at this before being unceremoniously dumped, and be unlikely to ever work for such a group in the future; but then why would you want to work in the environmental mainstream if you consider them to be acting hypocritically? Then again, your bona fide newspaper article, or radio / television interview could completely change how the environmental mainstream is viewed by both the corporate and political world (“One of us”) and those people who really want a future for humanity (“Not one of us”).
An utterly expected effect of undermining the public image of mainstream NGOs will be to put the movement on the defensive. Of course they will be angry and try to deflect such criticism, but what will they be defending themselves against? In effect they will have to “defend” themselves not against the industrial system but against those of us making them look piss-poor (“It’s all lies…I mean, not all of it, but you see…”). The old “successes” will be rolled out (to a crescendo of mocking) and, in a bizarre turn of events, the mainstream will end up attacking anyone more radical than themselves. Unfortunately for the mainstream, this will simply make the more radical views highly visible and undoubtedly attract some of the vast majority of people who exist outside of the movement’s self-referential bubble.
Taking a peek online, can you imagine what this would look like on Facebook? Big ol’ “green” blogs like Grist and Treehugger? Twitter will be trending #greenfight and the idea that the mainstream environmental movement were always fighting the good fight will, at last, be blown out of the water. Happy days indeed.
Task 2: Undermining the Symbols of Hope
Something that represents the idea of Hope more than anything else is symbolic action. I should probably put quotes around the word “action”, but to anyone embroiled in the knotty decision over how many tea lights to bring to their next vigil outside an oil company head office, setting out a pattern of candles really does comprise tough action. Bear that in mind while reading the following:
Raimundo Francisco Belmiro dos Santos, a defender of the Amazon jungle, has requested urgent protection from the authorities in Brazil after reporting that a number of hired gunmen are looking for him, because landowners in the northern state of Pará have offered a 50,000 dollar contract for his death.
Belmiro dos Santos is a 46-year-old “seringueiro” or rubber tapper who fears for his life and the lives of his family, after receiving numerous threats for his activism against the destruction of the Amazon jungle.
“My life is really complicated today, because they have put a price on my head, and say that I will be killed before the end of the year,” the activist told IPS in an anguished voice by telephone from the Riozinho do Anfrísio reserve, where he lives.
It takes several days to reach the reserve by river from the nearest city, Altamira, which is 800 km from Belém, the capital of the state of Pará.
“I am fighting to defend life, the jungle, nature, and I can’t live without protection anymore,” Belmiro dos Santos, who is a married father of nine, told IPS.
The latest threat came on Aug. 7, when an anonymous caller told the activist by telephone: “They are going to the reserve to kill you. If I was you, I wouldn’t go back.”
But dos Santos says he will continue to return to his home.7
Meanwhile, in the USA, all sorts of “activists” are harping on about how brave and determined they are, after having a sit down “protest” at the Capitol building and being put in jail for a few hours:
Fifty-two environmental activists were arrested Monday in front of the White House as part of an ongoing protest calling on the Obama administration to reject a permit for the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline project, which would deliver Canada tar sands oil to refineries in Texas, and rather focus on developing clean energy. An estimated 2,000 people have signed up to hold sit-ins and commit other acts of civil disobedience outside the White House every day for the next two weeks — 162 have already been arrested since Saturday.8
Much activism in Brazil is a battle between the destructive forces of industrial civilization and those who think there is more than one right way to live; often, in the case of those fighting for cultures and habitats that have been in existence for far longer than civilization ever will be, putting their lives on the line. In North America and Europe, the vast majority of so-called activists have accepted that industrial civilization is the only one right way to live, thus perpetuating the power of the system over those people that are trying to defend some of the last truly wild places on Earth.
Wayne Grytting, author of the book American Newspeak writes: “Tired tactics are a damn good sign that activists have retreated behind their own walls and have become weighed down with defensive armor, just like the bureaucrats they confront.”9 There is a striking polarity here, leading to the unpalatable, but inevitable conclusion that mainstream campaigners have at least partly become culpable for the deaths of those who are truly defending the natural world. In the following short essay, I have reiterated some of the points already made in earlier chapters, but I feel that is necessary, for in order to undermine symbolic action you really need to be sure what it is and why it is dangerous.
The Case Against Symbolic Action
First it is necessary to define what I mean by “Symbolic Action”. Put simply, it is an activity that does not create any tangible change in whatever the action is targeted towards. Classic symbolic action includes petitioning, sit-ins, marches, occupations, lobbying, letter writing and many forms of direct action including what the mainstream media, and many activists refer to as “violence”. In general, symbolic actions do not break any “laws” (by which I mean legislation imposed by the system under which the action is taking place); arrests made are also, generally, symbolic, intended to demonstrate strength of authority, and rarely lead to conviction.
However, it is not so much a question of law-breaking, nor is it a question of the scale of the action or the methodology utilised: what matters is whether change is achieved as a direct result of the action. This is where the idea of “success” comes in. The definition of success of actions is a very loose currency in activist circles, particularly for mainstream NGOs and non-radical campaign groups. In very many cases we see success measured in terms of the size of a gathering, the number of politicians lobbied, the number of letters written or petitions signed, and so on. None of these can be considered “success” unless the goal of the action was merely to achieve what is being claimed; however, if the overall aim of a campaign is, for instance, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or deforestation, then in no sense can such achievements even be considered successful, let alone have achieved genuine change. Change will have only been achieved when carbon dioxide emissions or deforestation have actually been reduced, so it is possible for an action to have been successful yet still be symbolic, i.e. it does not directly cause change.
Non-symbolic action is that which does cause change. It does not matter whether laws are broken or not – though certainly in the case of achieving social / environmental change, almost by definition “laws” will have to be broken on the way to change taking place. It does not matter how large or small an action is, and it does not matter what form the action takes: what defines whether an action is symbolic or not is whether change happened as a result of that action. Furthermore you also have to decide whether your definition of “change” is something that is worth achieving, or is simply playing into the hands of the system further down the line. You see, an apparently non-symbolic action may end up being symbolic because it happened in the context of something contrary to, and greater than, the action originally carried out. For instance, a “successful” reduction in nuclear energy production may lead to an increase in coal energy production. Thus we have to add a further proviso to the definition of “symbolic”: an action is symbolic if it observes the same trajectory or actively serves the cause of that which it is trying to oppose.
Context and the long-view are critical in deciding whether an action is symbolic or not; however, we also have to ask the question: is there any point to symbolic action at all? As a tool for change then I would say “no”; others may disagree, in which case it is for those people to show where and when this change has ever happened. Their search will be long.
If you weren’t fully aware of the problem, then that should have helped. Feel free to use the essay wherever you like as a form of undermining. The next logical stage is to turn that awareness into (non-symbolic) action, something the mainstream environmental movement have tried to convince us happens as if by magic. Awareness is a classic symbol of Hope. How many times have you spoken to someone recently and heard a line not unlike, “Well, people are so much more aware nowadays”?
Infuriating, isn’t it?
The naive belief that awareness magically leads to change encapsulates the symbolism of Hope; that somehow by making people aware that the global ecology is going to hell in a handcart will actually cause them to change their ways, to fight back against the rapacious industrial system, to undermine the very core of the Culture of Maximum Harm. Think again. Seriously, by thinking again and rejecting the notion that awareness automatically leads to change you create a powerful wall against Hope. Now, I have no problem with awareness per se, for without awareness then change cannot happen; but that does not mean awareness actually creates change. That is a logical fallacy and one that has to be attacked at every possible opportunity using every tool in your communications armoury.
(Reproduced with permission.10)
Another symbol of Hope much lauded by the mainstream is the petition. Those damn things are the bane of every hard-working activist, yet are held up as genuine pieces of evidence that change is happening. A petition is like a march, only easier and with less wear to the soles of your shoes. It takes many different forms such as postcards, pre-written letters and emails, signature sheets and the latest monstrosity, the e-petition, so loved of groups like Avaaz.
Yes, Avaaz, the current masters of the e-petition. This is how they sell themselves, without irony, and with some of the more revealing points highlighted:
Avaaz—meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.
Avaaz empowers millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change. Our model of internet organising allows thousands of individual efforts, however small, to be rapidly combined into a powerful collective force.11
How they create this “powerful collective force” is through a method of symbolic action called Clicktivism, described by Micah M. White as “the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism.” He goes on to say:
What defines clicktivism is an obsession with metrics. Each link clicked and email opened is meticulously monitored. Subject lines are A/B tested and talking points focus-grouped. Clicktivists dilute their messages for mass appeal and make calls to action that are easy, insignificant and impotent. Their sole campaign objective is to inflate participation percentages, not to overthrow the status quo. In the end, social change is marketed like a brand of toilet paper.12
Avaaz’s page of “successes” reads like a schoolboy willy-waving contest in which the sheer numbers of clicks are held up as engines of change, ignoring the multiplicity of campaigns that failed to achieve anywhere near the (already diluted) aims of the organisers, and especially ignoring the likelihood that such events would probably have taken place without any Avaaz involvement at all. Denial is rife in the world of Clicktivism. Again, we need to make this much more visible; but we also have to go way beyond that. What is clearly happening is that increased awareness in the world of mainstream “activism” is leading to nothing more tangible than a whole generation of Clicktivists (also known as Slacktivists), and their cousins “Signing Up” to organisations and, possibly the most benign of all, “Status Changes” à la Facebook or whatever social network is in vogue at the time.
I’m really struggling with this one. How do you make people realise clicking on a box is achieving nothing more than making them feel better? In an image stolen from the comedy show Black Books, it’s akin to building a tower of soup. Perhaps we need to look at this from a different angle – rather than build a tower of soup, let’s create a desire for a less fluid structure; something with a bit more stability. In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov considered the hyperbole that has accompanied the growth of symbolic online campaigns:
The danger that “slacktivism” poses in the context of authoritarian states is that it may give young people living there the wrong impression that another kind of politics—digital in nature but leading to real-world political change and the one underpinned entirely by virtual campaigns, online petitions, funny Photoshopped political cartoons, and angry tweets—is not only feasible but actually preferable to the ineffective, boring, risky, and, in most cases, outdated kind of politics practiced by the conventional oppositional movements in their countries. But despite one or two exceptions, this is hardly the case at all. If anything, the entertainment void filled by the Internet—the ability to escape the gruesome and boring political reality of authoritarianism—would make the next generation of protesters less likely to become part of traditional oppositional politics. The urge to leave the old ways of doing politics behind is particularly strong in countries that have weak, ineffectual, and disorganized opposition movements; often the impotence of such movements in their fight against the governments generates more anger among the young people than the governments’ misdeeds.13
The phrase I have highlighted above is the key. The more useful the offline movements seem to be, the less tempting it is to join online campaigns; which is why something as widespread as the Occupy Movement – most definitely an on-the-ground movement, albeit symbolic in most cases – is, on balance, a good thing. Something may be ultimately symbolic, but if it provides a platform for connection with real people then it is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, so long as it does not purport to actually be a direct force for change. Gatherings of people for the sake of gathering, as we will see in Chapter 9, are almost always a positive thing for undermining the disconnection that the online world has imposed upon us.
On the other side of the fence, we see great opportunities for directly attacking the online presence of not only the clicktivist campaign groups, but the mainstream’s online presence in general. Of course, it is beyond most reasonable efforts to take down all the websites of even just the mass clicktivism brigade – but if Avaaz, for example, were to disappear overnight those who had previously dedicated themselves to more concrete forms of activism might start to stir again. However, it is not beyond reasonable efforts for the security claims of an organisation that utilises mass mailings and other uses of user submitted data, to be put in serious doubt. Avaaz claims, as of the end of 2011, to have (via a tedious counter) 10.5 million members worldwide. The political campaign group 38 Degrees claims 800,000 members in the UK alone.14 How many of those “members” would feel tempted to get their names removed if even a reported security breach were to be made public?
In fact, I am not sure if the data held in these vast databases is private anyway; after all if it is used for mass mailings in order to ramp up support for the next public campaign does that qualify as private, personal information, or has it effectively been put in the public domain already? Legal experts might want to consider that possibility next time a data grab is shared and the security of an online campaigning “force” terminally undermined.
Not yet convinced that the masses of online and nearline (groups who do most of their work online, but also have a presence in the offline world) should be undermined? Cory Morningstar, a tireless anti-symbolic environmental and political activist, recently took one particularly execrable project to task for all sorts of crimes against real action. The combined power of these groups should not be underestimated – they hold sway over the thoughts of an immense number of people:
[We should] take note of 350.org’s latest adventure; that of SumOfUs (along with pro-war Avaaz and friends). In essence, SumOfUs are predominantly white, while ‘Some of Us’ (Indians, Libyans, Africans, Chinese, etc.) are not! But not to worry – the marginalized Americans, and in fact, all those marginalized, on the receiving end of the industrialized capitalist system, will soon find bliss in the new “worldwide movement” that will make capitalism ethical, fair and even compatible with the environment which it will protect! So while SumOfUS (strapline: “a movement of consumers, workers and shareholders speaking with one voice”) will continue to “demand” and consume “ethical” iPads, ‘Some Of Us’ must learn to accept their role and be satisfied with the 1 cent raise per pound or per day that SumOfUs is going to fight for! All while the planet burns. Apologies for the sarcasm – but the truth is that there is an underlying deep-rooted racism and classism humming along under the system (and this as 350.org with TckTckTck, Avaaz, Climate Action Network & friends grossly undermined Africa). I watched it again in Bolivia as 350.org fought to undermine the Bolivian Government. The arrogance is formidable. For clarification I do not consider myself and those who believe/defend 350.org as on the “same side”. I don’t consider 350.org and friends as part of the “environmental movement”. Rather, I believe that 350.org and friends protects the system & keeps current power structures intact. I don’t believe in an org. that was created/financed (1Sky) by the Clintons and the Rockefellers for obvious reasons. The only thing powerful that 350.org and friends build – is that of a brick wall to protect the very system destroying us.15
Task 3: Undermining the Doctrine of Hope
These are the rules, the lodestones upon which the current environmental movement styles itself. They are made up of Wise Words, best selling publications, oft-repeated sentiments and a number of apparently binding axioms, such as the idea that “We’re all in it together” – implying that criticism is not acceptable and breaking ranks is a sign of failure. Again, this sounds suspiciously like the way a corporation behaves, or perhaps a political party; anyone who has spent time in the beating heart of an NGO will recognise this straight away. The thing about true axioms is they are universally applicable: but from the point of view of a giant NGO such as WWF or the Sierra Club, axioms can be changed, depending on who is making the rules. As I write, it’s heresy to suggest that businesses and environmental groups can’t work together for a better future. Much more of that later.
As for sentiments and Wise Words, here’s something you will have heard lots of: “Be the change you wish to see.” The sentiment is great; the execution is almost always terrible. Gandhi was no saint, as several authors have been at pains to point out; and neither was he a dedicated proponent of peaceful action – his saboteur followers saw to that myth. And his phrase, above, is a pretty good one if taken in the right way: you want to see change? Then do something about it. All too often, though, this phrase has been taken as an excuse just to change ones state of mind, without actually doing anything that is likely to bring about any other kind of change.
If I’m going to be accused of ad hominem attacks, then I may as well try and justify them. Any doctrine is made up of things that people have said and done and, in the words of the great Utah Phillips, those people have names and addresses…or at least they have names, those who have already left us. And it’s not so much the originators of the words who need to be undermined, as the way those words have been used and, in many cases, twisted for the benefit of the user. So, when I attack the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see” I am most definitely taking to task those copy-writers and poster designers who have completely failed to take into account the real meaning of, and the potential ramifications of Being The Change. Fuck it! I’m going to go further than that: if you use a phrase or saying and can’t be bothered to fully understand at least what the words mean, let alone the context in which those words were laid down, then you have no right to use them.
I’m reminded of the original definition of Sustainable Development by the Commission led by former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro. Harlem Brundtland, which is precisely this:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.16
Taken completely out of context, but with a careful and logical reading of the words, it is clear that any application of Sustainable Development cannot cause a net degradation of the natural environment, and thus cannot allow for anything like the current activity of Industrial Civilization to continue. For a few years I was happy to bandy around this definition, confident of its goodness. But read the rest of the Commission’s publication and it becomes clear that nothing suggested by the Commission as part of a solution to the world’s ills comes even close to its own definition of Sustainable Development. For a start, it takes the civilized concept of “development” as read, and makes a point of urging the need for economic growth above all other imperatives. The only sustainable thing that can be done with existing copies of this document is to burn them to keep warm, or perhaps line your clothes with the torn out pages!
The short undermining approach to this is to challenge anything written or said by the environmental mainstream that claims to be immutable. This goes back to Chapter 6, and the importance of Critical Thinking. So many times we are expected to accept what is said by the “great and the good” of the environmental movement as gospel – I don’t apologise for the religious imagery – and given an extremely hard time when we challenge it. So many times we see the same phrases tacked onto materials or at the head of articles, yet never think to challenge the significance of such words that have been lazily spewed into print.
There is no environmental Gospel.
1 In case anyone has any illusions as to the contrary, ENGOs (Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations) such as Greenpeace in Europe and North American, WWF and the Sierra Club are no less of a hierarchy than any other corporations (yes, many are also incorporated). In their normal operation a group of high level policy-makers decide on the campaigns well in advance, drawing up strategies and drafting campaign materials such that ordinary supporters and volunteers have almost no room for manoeuvre. If you don’t follow the campaign strategy and even the precise text handed down from above then you don’t represent that group, and most likely you will be asked to leave.
2 This is a widely cited figure for highly-industrialised nations for the stabilisation of global temperature rise; not some scare story picked out of the air.
3 The conversation took place, and was recorded in the public interest, on 28 June 2011. It was a long conversation and it turns out I had worked with the person I was talking to many years before. The conversation ended with him asking me to send him a formal proposal which could be considered by the campaign team. Despite sending a few chapters of this very book and a summary, and requesting feedback twice more, no response was ever received. This is known in the trade as “stonewalling”, which is an attempt at making the other party give up through the act of silence. It didn’t work.
4 Figures from, in order: (1) derived and extrapolated from CDIAC, “Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2008”, http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ftp/ndp030/global.1751_2008.ems; (2) Kinnard, C., Zdanowicz, C.M., Koerner, R.,Fisher, D.A., “A changing Arctic Seasonal ice zone – observations from 1870 – 2003 and possible oceanographic Consequences”, Geophysical Research Letters 35, 2008; (3) INPE / FAO, quoted in “Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon”, http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/deforestation_calculations.html; (4) GISS, “Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index (C) (Anomaly with Base: 1951-1980)”, http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.txt (all accessed December 2011).
5 I love a good pun. Jenny=Gene=Generator.
6 Konnie = Consumer. Sorry.
7 Fabíola Ortiz, “Rainforest activist asks for protection after death threats”, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/31/rainforest-activists-protection-death-threats (accessed December 2011).
8 Democracy Now, “Over 160 Arrested in Ongoing Civil Disobedience Against Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline”, http://www.democracynow.org/2011/8/23/over_160_arrested_in_ongoing_civil (accessed December 2011).
9 Wayne Grytting, American Newspeak, New Society, 2002.
10 Stephanie McMillan, Code Red, http://www.stephaniemcmillan.org/codegreen/2010/06/28/pretty-please-2/ (accessed February 2012). Reproduced with permission from the illustrator. Stephanie is a wonderfully observant cartoonist and illustrator whose insights often reveal far more about the failure of the environmental mainstream than any amount of text ever can. Her work can be found at http://www.stephaniemcmillan.org.
11 “Avaaz: About Us”, http://www.avaaz.org/en/about.php (accessed December 2011).
12 Micah M. White, “Activism After Clicktivism”, Adbusters, http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/93/activism-after-clicktivism.html (accessed December 2011).
13 Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, PublicAffairs, 2011.
14 The word member seems to have very loose currency and can mean anything from someone who has signed up with a subscription fee, to someone who has filled in a petition, to someone who has just clicked “like” on Facebook. A far cry from the active participation that the word suggests.
15 This was part of an ongoing online discussion, partly informed by Cory’s article “SumOfUs are Corporate Whores | Some of Us are Not”, http://wrongkindofgreen.org/2012/03/28/sumofus-are-corporate-whores-some-of-us-are-not/ (accessed April 2012).
16 Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1983, http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm (accessed January 2012).
Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012