Somehow I ended up in a Mortal Kombat style death match. Opponent after opponent. Good vs evil. I was fighting for the fate of the world. My special power was hadoken and it enabled me to breeze past my enemies: oil company executives, marketers from Monsanto, Marco Rubio, the Koch brothers, and even my 10th grade bully. And then I get to the final round. Standing across the ring is my ultimate enemy. This is it, one more battle and the world is saved. As I put my hands together for my opening flaming hadooooken, I realize that I am fighting myself. The consumer.
I've mentioned "status-quo" or "business-as-usual" in nearly every blog post I've ever written and used those terms as the entropic scape goat that is responsible for the visible decline of society and the environment. Since we can witness and measure an obvious environmental decline, then it only makes sense that the culprit is the way we currently run society. That's our enemy.
There's only one problem; that's us. We embody the status-quo everytime we get into our car. Everytime we ingest food that comes from a grocery store. Everytime we put on a t-shirt. Everytime we cast a vote for either a democrat or a republican. But what else can we do?
We all can see it. We all complain about it. We all want to do something about it. But that's as far as we can go. We've failed at even approaching a solution because we are the problem. We can't look to the Civil Rights movement and sit at a lunch counter in Birmingham or look to the Indian Nationalist movement and go on a hunger strike in a British prison. The two most successful social movements of the last century had tangible enemies. And non-violent resistance worked because of that. As we perpetuate the greatest environmental crime (climate change) in history, we are our own enemy. And there's nothing that we can do to divest ourselves.
So, back to my struggling question of last week, what now? How do we envision a different future? How do we change the system?
I thought that I had a solution by going "off-grid." It was the only thing I could think of, and it gave me something concrete to work towards. But, I realized that off-grid is an illusion. In this hyper-connected society there's no such thing as off-grid. I might have the financial privilege to afford six solar panels, a couple of batteries, and the luxury of being able to spend a few hundred hours figuring out how to harvest rain water, but so what? What did I achieve? Arguably, nothing.
And now, as I get to the final level of my dream's Mortal Kombat death match and I look into my own perpetrating eyes, do I back down or do I fight myself? We've all been avoiding that question. We know we're the perpetrators, yet we do everything possible to pretend we're not. So we go after Biotech with 2491. We go after the fossil fuel companies with 350.org. We go after the Republicans by protesting the Keystone pipeline. We put all of our energy into these skirmishes. Yet, what do they really accomplish? Gandhi fought for one thing: complete independence from foreign domination--- and he got it. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for one thing: complete equality under the law for African Americans--- and he got it. Yeah, there were thousands of battles along the way, but they were all in pursuit of achieving systemic change.
I think that's what we're missing: the over-riding goal of systemic change. As Joan Conrow recently quoted from a recent Adbuster's article:
By proposing simple and false solutions inside a framework of what’s been cleverly branded as ‘Peaceful Resistance,’ potential disruptors of the capitalist system are pacified, placated and rendered ineffective while simultaneously being led to believe that they are engaged in meaningful resistance to ‘save’ the planet.”And, as she further quoted from a New York Times article about Paul Kingsnorth:
Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.Without a vision for systemic change, these battles are potentially detrimental. Like my mission to go "off-grid," they lead us to believe that we're fighting for effective change and they keep us sane. But, they allow us to avoid recognizing our own complicity and they give us the delusion that we can repair our broken system.
I'm not writing this because I'm hopeless; it's actually unbeatable optimism that drives me to put this blog out. I wouldn't write if I didn't believe we could change the system.
Growth and technology can be good and our society can do amazing things. As I write on my Macbook and research on the internet, I won't deny that. Just look at the progression of light: from candles made of beef tallow to LED lightbulbs. In ancient Babylon a day of work earned you the equivalent of 5 minutes of light. In the 19th century you might've gotten 5 hours. Nowadays, work an entire day and you've earned 20,000 hours of light. That's an efficiency increase of 24,000,000%. And that economic growth has given us literature, science, the arts, and leisure time. Regardless of how much we've fucked the planet, we are impressive primates.
Our failure isn't caused by incessant growth or a reliance on technology. We are failing because capitalism can not adequately value the environment. There is an intrinsic worth to nature which can not be quantified. Even if we try (as people are doing) to calculate the market value of a tree (such as calculating air/water purification, carbon sequestration, etc), it's not enough. It's like trying to quantify the value of your child's life or your family pet. You can't, and shouldn't do it. Putting a monetary value on a forest (or our climate, or a human life) only lends legitimacy towards cutting it down when the price of wood goes high enough, or when oil is found under it. We desperately need to acknowledge that the open market of capitalism can only take us so far. And, as David Suzuki famously said: "capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them." While it has led to the most incredible outpouring of human ingenuity in the history of the planet, we can not be slaves to the market.
By fighting within the system, the battle is impossible to win. Because, no matter how much incremental change we achieve, at the end of the day, we still have to face ourselves.
So, again I have to ask: what now?
Along with a vision for a sustainable future, we need to face the fundamental paradox that while the capitalist marketplace is unbeatable for achieving economic growth (and the side benefits of leisure, art, science, etc), it simultaneously drives up inequality and is incapable of adequately valuing the environment. Until we address that, we are doomed to failure.
As a finishing note, I'm not saying that we shouldn't protest the Keystone pipeline, or continue to shame politicians who do bad things, or try and divest from fossil fuels. And, we definitely shouldn't criticize those who are working from within the system to fight for incremental change. They are all necessary as we move forward and I deeply respect those who are standing up. But, we need to go further and recognize our own complicity in every act of environmental degradation. That acknowledgement can lead us and drive our thinking as we use science, technology, and the power of human ingenuity in the systematic pursuit of a new status-quo. One that recognizes the priceless and intrinsic value of both human life and the natural environment