Thursday, July 09, 2009

For and Against

Reading the current (July / August) issue of Orion Magazine, I found an opinion piece by Derrick Jensen headlined Forget Shorter Showers. It is really about the need to do more than change your lifestyle in order to combat corporatism, capitalism, global warming, etc. His closing call is to become an activist.
We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.
I was more than a little disappointed in Orion for publishing it, though Jensen has far more supporters than critics if you go by the comments on this article. My concern is that Jensen is calling for actions in opposition to all of those things I listed but gives not even a glimpse of what he want to see take the place of all that he would tear down. While citing the power of activism against Tsarist Russia, he fails to note that such activism gave us the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Pollster Frank Luntz warns us that Americans react best when politicians are "aspirational" rather than merely critical... no matter how valid the criticism's might be. The message for Greens is that we had better start explaining how our path will take us to a far better place. Until we do that, we will remain a footnote to history. Until Jensen does that, he will remain on the sidelines of the debate.


Unknown said...

I actually enjoyed this piece. The tone is negative, but that makes sense because the piece is meant for environmentalists to think critically about themselves. I agree with his major points, which I see as:

1. The bulk of ecological damage is caused by corporations, so individual lifestyle changes are not going to stop that.

2. The very idea that we can transition to a sustainable civilization through individual purchasing patterns is itself a product of an alienating, corporate discourse that sees individuals as consumers rather than citizens.

3. Only collective action will put us on the path to a sustainable civilization. That includes political action.

Perhaps most pertinent to your argument, the takeaway for Greens should be:
Asking individuals to make sacrifices for the planet makes about as much sense as asking drivers to build their own roads. Our democratic bodies of government have the ability, and the responsiblity, to ensure that we can all live in a sustainble, ecological way.

Alex Walker said...

But what is missing is "the vision thing" -- an idea to replace the obsolete model of "growth" and "progress" promoted by all of the existing political parties and factions including the "The Old Left" that loves to criticize the capitalist corporations, but offer nothing other than romantic dreams of bloody revolutions and grim left-wing dictatorship.

I read an outstanding essay on these very points not long ago, but I can't seem to find the right reference.

A similar argument was made by Chris Hedges in a commentary provocatively titled: "It's Not Going to Be Ok"


When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long period of precarious social instability.

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.

How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won’t have to wait long to find out...

Hedges quotes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin's comparison of our current situation to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from socialism to more extensive governmental involvement," he said. "There was a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think outside the box."

When I say that the 10 Key Values of the Green Party is superior to Democratic Party liberalism, Republican Party conservatism, the so-called moderate view that splits the difference, ...and... the "Old Left" radicalism, that is exactly what I'm talking about. Criticism is not enough. We must have a vision for a sustainable future.

Alex Walker said...

I finally downloaded Derrick Jensen's article, printed it out on paper, and carefully reread it.

Now, I know I don't like it.

First, Jensen violates “Godwin's Law” in the very first sentence.

Mike Godwin made the humorous observation in 1990 that "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." It has become a tradition in many Internet discussion forums that once such a superficial comparison to Hitler is made, the thread is finished.

Here's Jensen's very first line:

"Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler..."

That's a crappy opening argument and Jensen probably knows it.

On the net Jensen is described as an "anarcho-primitivist" who hates industrial civilization and proposes a different, harmonious way of life like many Native American or other indigenous cultures. Jensen has a B.S. in Mineral Engineering Physics from the Colorado School of Mines and an M.F.A. from Eastern Washington University. Oh yeah. Another over-educated, geeky "White Man" in awe "noble savages."

This piece is an extremist revolutionary pamphlet. After dismissing just about every liberal public or private environmental initiative, he says we should just go out and "take down" the system.

Sometimes, radicals like this make me sick. They write some far-out, implicitly violent shit, and (unlike "little people" like Wes Rolley) they can get it published in a major journal, and then sit back like they've "done something."

In the last part Jensen writes:

"Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting..."

Wait a minute! That sounds a lot like the boring, bourgeois work of political organizing that most of Jensen's "rap" so disdains.

When will these "revolutionaries" ever learn? Revolutions do not begin with despair. Revolutions begin with hope. Now, by his own account, if Americans did everything recommended in "An Inconvenient Truth" then "U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent."

Reduce emissions by "Only" 22 percent? I say that would be no small thing. And on the way to that 22 percent reduction we might get more people to dare hope they can "take down" the system.

Unknown said...

But Alex, you're arguing against your image of the author, not his arguments. If he's calling for "voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting..." then why do you seem to think he's arguing against it?

It's true that he violated Godwin's law. Then again, so did Benjamin Netanyahu when he said that the West Bank would never be Judenrein - 'free of Jews' - using the Nazi terminology to implicity compare Palestinians to Hitler. Anyway, moving on...

You don't have to be an anarcho-primitivist (I am not one) to agree with this basic point: the environmental movement will not stop climate change by merely encouraging individuals to adjust their consumption patterns.