It is time for the struggle for Life. It’s time to fight the murderers of the living Earth…
What is today’s media-assigned paranoia? Ebola? Measles? Lion Cecil? Trump versus Sanders? These are comfortable bubbles of convenient palm sized problems and—don’t we all prefer our worries wee-sized? However, the comfort derived from these media driven freak-out sessions lies in their irrelevancy to reality. Realities such as catastrophic climate change, the Holocene extinction and our cultural stories that allow so many humans to participate in ecological genocide. But now, finally, we are at the critical juncture where we can no longer maintain the oil fueled delusion of human independence from the Earth. The juncture where soil loss, fresh water depletion, the end of cheap oil, and climate change meet.
Countless times I’ve ranted to my husband: We have serious environmental problems, don’t people know? I hear my friends ask the same question, you may have too. Meanwhile the answer stares us in the face: Yes, people know. And the people who don’t know, don’t want to know. They’re choosing to die with the drill in their vein and don’t care who they pull into extinction with them. But the rest of us know, we cluster in coffee shops and courtyards. Churches and living rooms, leaning forward, asking in tense tones, “Why aren’t people worried?” But we’re asking the wrong question, an irrelevant question— people are worried. Parents, like me, are heartsick, gazing at our sleeping babes, wondering what their future holds. We put our babies to bed then sob in our partner’s arms, wondering if we should have brought them into this dying world. Young adults gaze into a bleak future and listen to their elders admit they’re glad they won’t live to see it. The messengers Worry and Fear sit at our kitchen tables, we tremble in their presence, but must stop asking: “Why aren’t people worried?” and ask: “What are we doing in response to worry?” Do we heed the message or drug ourselves with irrelevancy?
Most people (myself included) get sucked into fighting irrelevant battles. Just days ago a friend shared the article “Eastern Cougar Extinct” on facebook and to my surprise many people simply denied the extinction. These are actual quotes: “I remember talking with a bus driver in New Hampshire in about 1982 who had seen one cross the road—long tail and all.” And, “maybe the scientist don’t leave their libraries enough. Part of their low statistics on a bunch of animal populations are because the people taking the data simply aren’t going to the right places.”
I spent fifteen minutes typing a scathing response to their illogic, pointing out (among other things) that, 1982 was a damn long time ago, and, I concluded, fuming in self-righteous indignation: even if there are a dozen cougars left, we still have a problem. I leaned back, prepared to hit enter and realized I’d fallen in the trap. I was wasting my time and energy on a completely irrelevant question: Is the cougar actually extinct? It doesn’t matter. Focusing on it is an irrelevant reaction to a real problem, a way to sedate our worry with the illusion of action instead of hashing out root problems and what effectively addresses them. Irrelevancy comes in many forms; the Purity Test (the kayaktivists use oil, so should not protest the Shell oil rig), bait and switch, avoidance of reality (deny climate change, extinctions), attempt to “educate” people who don’t want to be educated, etcetera—but they are all cousins, all function to protect the status quo. If we want a chance of effectively addressing our environmental crisis we must abandon the evil of irrelevancy. We must roar the Battle Cry for Life and demand relevancy.
Relevant: Extinction. Relevant: The cause of extinction. Relevant: Everyday two hundred species go extinct. Relevant: We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, recently named the Holocene Extinction—and it’s caused by humans. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” said lead author Gerardo Ceballos” [my italics] We don’t have time for irrelevant bickering, for armchair quibbling. We must engage in relevant discussion, relevant questions, and relevant, effective strategy and action.
Relevant: what strategy will stop this mass extinction and climate change? Relevant (but not socially acceptable to say): The environmental movement is not effective. Thus far, it is an exercise in shoving our fingers in the dike without a plan to actually stop the storm waters of mass extinction and climate change. Stop gap measures that fail to confront our stories about reality that created destructive relationships between humans and between humans and the world. At best, it’s too few people laying their lives in front of the pipelines and oil rigs. At worst it’s the mass of self-identified environmentalists saying, “If we all drive a Prius, use cloth bags, and buy organic it will all be okay.” Or, “people just need to be educated.” The former is simply insane and the latter is based on that false assumption that those who don’t know, want to know. Which we’ve already addressed. They—like my father dying with the whiskey bottle clasped in his hands—will die before removing the drill of industrial civilization from their vein.
Relevant: The majority of environmental protests employ only one technique: announce their disagreement with the status quo through parades, petitions, and/or peaceful protests with cardboard signs. SHellNo, protesting drilling in the Arctic, has drawn a huge number of passionate and knowledgeable activists. SHellNo states “While Shell’s rigs are in Seattle we will shine a bright light on the injustice of Arctic drilling (as well as the rest of the climate crisis). We will make it politically and reputationally disastrous for Shell or any corporation which would use the beautiful Northwest as a staging ground for such projects. And most of all we will work to build the mass movement against extreme energy projects and for climate justice and a stable, sustainable planet for us all.” This is an admirable statement, but useless without explicit goals and a detailed strategy to achieve said goals. We’re facing extinction. We’re facing catastrophic, irreversible climate change. We must be effective, not just feel better about ourselves by “shining a light on the injustice of Arctic drilling.” We need to cut down the injustices. We need to tell a new story of how humans relate to the world. We must deny the false story of “economic realities” as it obviously doesn’t work for living beings. We need to draw a line in the sand and refuse to let corporations or government cross it. As MEND is doing in Nigeria. As the Wet’suwet’en People and their allies are doing at the Unis’tot’en Camp in British Columbia. The politicians and Shell know we don’t like drilling in the Arctic—they don’t care. Obama just cleared the legal path for the drilling to proceed. They don’t need more education, we do. We must study the history of resistances, though current world powers pray we don’t. There, teachers rise from the past to guide us, they are waiting for us to listen. Frederick Douglass (one among many) speaks: “The whole history of the progress of human [and non-human] liberty shows that all concessions… have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them [extinction of our entire species?], and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
It is time for the struggle for Life. It’s time to fight the murderers of the living Earth and time to become effective fighters employing solid strategy with explicit goals. We are culturally habituated to hop on the irrelevancy train and our fighters need training to resist this easy mistake which effectively keeps activists occupied on ineffective tasks. Did all that energy we poured into Obama pay off? Is the systemic change we need even capable of coming from the top down? Or will it come by taking power back from the top and restoring it to localities?
Let’s abandon ineffective action and start crafting strategy. How will we force the City of Seattle to impound the Shell oil rig for illegal docking?11 Imagine the impound speed if we parked illegally in Seattle, though if you’re from Seattle, you may not need to imagine. If (when?) the city refuses to impound, when will we stop heralding the oil rigs with flags and paddles and start saluting it with dynamite? When will we throw rocks into the gears of the machine by studying and implementing effective strategies of current and past resistances? We learned about Gandhi, but he didn’t work alone: the Indian armed resistance had his back. Mandela didn’t fight oppression by waving peace flags. The suffragist movement, the civil rights, the Indian resistance, Mandela, MEND, and the Unis’tot’en Camp are all effective movements for change and they possess a common denominator—all set explicit goals and carefully craft strategy, intentionally including non-violent and violent techniques, while constantly assessing the effectiveness of their strategy. We can, and must, learn to become effective from these groups. We can make power tremble and crumble. David beats Goliath over and over again, but only when David uses strategy and the strength of his weakness. When he refuses to play by Goliath’s rules. It’s how the United States freed itself from Britain; the revolutionaries made their own rules. And fought to win.
What is our goal? Halt the Holocene Extinction? Stop climate change? Prevent the Shell Oil Rig from getting to Alaska? What steps must be taken to achieve our goal? What is our strategy, what will actually work?
We’ve watched the eastern cougar, the black rhino, and thousands of others slip quietly into the dark tunnel of extinction. We are shouting: No more! We’re roaring into the hurricane of irreversible, catastrophic climate change. We won’t merely voice our disgust—for irrelevancy (and insanity) is standing in line at the doors of the gas chambers announcing “the Nazis are doing the wrong thing” and petitioning the guards to shut down the death camps—it doesn’t work. We demand. We fight. We strategize. We re-write the story of human relationship to the world. We use every tool at our disposal and the most important tool may be organized strategy: setting goals with step by step ways to achieve them. We implement the plan, constantly assessing the effectiveness and tweaking the strategy. We all have a death sentence, and it will only be repealed by effective resistance. Rise up against the evil empire. We have all of life to gain, and all of life to lose.
Rachelle Burt is a former naturalist, science teacher, and kayak guide in the San Juans. Currently she is a mother, farmer and writer.