Motivational Seminar: People Who Don’t Protest Aren’t Necessarily Stupid

On Nature Bats Last this morning I found an interesting piece from someone helping to blockade the Keystone XL pipeline, called “Protester Motivations” (and thank you for spelling “protester” correctly). The author’s most thought-provoking statement is this one:

While we’re at it, here’s some bonus info; I’m not a “protester.” I’m a human being who gives a fuck, and who hasn’t been morally and spiritually crushed despite the best efforts of those who profit off of the silence and complacency of the masses in the face of genocide. As a person of conscience and soul, I am not willing to stand by as the forests fall, as the waters run black, and as the least among us are continually exploited and made to suffer the most.

Seems fair enough. My only gripe with the post is this little gem:

Personally, my primary motivation for being away from my family and dangling sixty feet in the air is NOT WATCHING EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING I LOVE GO FUCKING EXTINCT! Yes, this is a possibility, if not a probability now! I know that your pea brains function on a need to know basis, and if someone you consider higher than you on the human hierarchy doesn’t tell you to believe something, you won’t believe it, but if you have an iota of cerebral capacity that hasn’t been completely radiated into gray mush by years of state sponsored propagandizing and Pavlovian boot licking, know this: Industrial activity has set in motion a series of events that through positive feedback loops have the very real potential of wiping out the life support systems of the planet.

The motivation is clearly a good one, but I’m not sure who the “pea brain” litany is aimed at, since anyone reading Nature Bats Last is presumably already very far along on the spectrum from average American suburbanite to radical Leftist doomer. Yes, everyone loves making vague demands on vague groups of people, such as “wake up!” and other calls to radically change one’s life in an instant. These calls to thought and/or action are not wrong in the goal they promote, but realistically, nobody reads “wake up!” and actually wakes up, especially if what follows is a list of generalized and impersonal insults.

As to believing what is told to you by those higher up in the hierarchy, that pressure is very real, and indeed forced and backed up by violence or the threat of violence, and is not simply a matter of people being “good Germans.” I don’t drive a car because Ford (or in my case, Chevy) tells me I should drive a car because it’s so great. I drive a car because it’s a reality of living in a city with limited to no public transport, working a job that requires I travel to schools in at least three school districts on a weekly basis. Yes, this makes me complicit in the Machine (as we all are, really), but I don’t do it because my “pea brain” can’t tell the difference. I do it, like most other people do it, because we’ve previously been stripped of our real means to sustainance (the natural world), and thus rely on the industrial infrastructure (including economies) for food and shelter at the moment. I would like to change the position we’re in, and am working to do that as best I can, but in the meantime I drive the car to work.

To be clear, I think blockading the building of the pipeline (or any pipeline) could be a useful strategy, and kudos to those who have done it. I may be joining you, in some capacity, very soon. But let’s start with what we know: that people (myself included) will not radically change their lives overnight. We probably don’t have time for a large enough change, a critical mass of change that would tip ecological scales back into the healthy category, to happen anyway; most people will accept new standards of living as the stability of empire deteriorates and brown water, or no water at all, comes out of the tap. So let’s prepare for that eventuality with eyes open, and try to recruit as many people as possible into the network of activitists and ecosystem supporters. But in the meantime, don’t assume that all people who aren’t out in the streets yet are the enemy, or are stupid, lazy, or indifferent. They’re just people, limping through a capitalist patriarchy, at a time when all natural resources are at their limit.

For example, study after study shows that people increasingly are aware of what kinds of foods are nutritious vs. what kinds are not. People know they need to eat more vegetables, and less McDonald’s. But the trends still show that they don’t make the choice they know to be right; for economic, cultural, and geographic reasons, they still eat just as much fast food. Are these people just stupid? Clearly not. But real choices have to be made, and class determines how many of these decisions play out. If you live in a food desert, your choices for healthy meals that are grown/raised/collected sustainably are limited. And news flash: we all live in food deserts.

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Reading Nietzsche: Asleep and Awake

Few could (or can) write like Nietzsche. His use of analogy and his playfulness with words is perhaps unrivaled, at least for “philosophers,” used in quotes because he may not have accepted the invitation to such a club. In his brief preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche lays waste to a size-able chunk of Western orthodoxy, including both the post-Socrates-Greek and Christian intellectual traditions, and even has room for a dig at future fundamentalists, all in one seemingly effortless stroke:

It seems that, in order to inscribe themselves in the hearts of humanity with eternal demands, all great things have first to wander the earth as monstrous and fear-inspiring grotesques: dogmatic philosophy, the doctrine of the Vedanta in Asia and Platonism in Europe for example, was a grotesque of this kind. Let us not be ungrateful to it, even though it certainly has to be admitted that the worst, most wearisomely protracted and most dangerous of all errors hitherto has been a dogmatist’s error, namely Plato’s invention of pure spirit and the good in itself. But now, when that has been overcome, when Europe breathes again after this nightmare and can enjoy at any rate a healthier—sleep, we whose task is wakefulness itself have inherited all the strength which has been cultivated by the struggle against this error. To be sure, to speak of spirit and the good as Plato did meant standing truth on her head and denying perspective itself, the basic condition of all life; …But the struggle against Plato, or, to express it more plainly and for ‘the people,’ the struggle against the Christian-ecclesiastical pressure of millennia—for Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people’—has created in Europe a magnificent tension of the spirit such as has never existed on earth before: with so tense a bow one feels this tension as a state of distress, to be sure; and there have already been two grand attempts to relax the bow, once by means of Jesuitism, the second time by means of democratic enlightenment—which latter may in fact, with the aid of freedom of the press and the reading of newspapers, achieve a state of affairs in which the spirit would no longer so easily feel itself to be a ‘need’! …But we who are neither Jesuits nor democrats, nor even sufficiently German, we good Europeans and free, very free spirits—we have it still, the whole need of the spirit and the whole tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the task and, who knows? the target

As with many of Nietzsche’s passages, the question resounds: Where to begin? Loving a good pun, I would start with the phrase “we whose task is wakefulness itself,” since it has many ramifications for becoming a doomer, i.e. looking realistically, with eyes open, at the ecological/economic/material situation in which we find ourselves.

Nietzsche is of course playing with the common wisdom that holds that leading a virtuous life leads to more peaceful, restful nights (from which the question “How do you sleep at night?” comes), and as is to be expected of him, he both challenges that notion and turns a formerly extolled idea into one that should be reviled, as if to say: The end result of your so-called virtue is sleep? What kind of goal is that? I, for one, would rather be awake, with all my senses about me and with full consciousness.

This theme is further strengthened by his use of the term “perspective,” meaning the human experience, as interpreted psychologically—subjectively—by the sensory organs, via the brain. He describes perspective as “the basic condition of all life,” offering a nod to both the strict materialists and to their ostensible foes: those who contend that emotions are as important as, or even trump, physical needs. There are those, for example, who point out that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is flawed in that it doesn’t account for the subjectivity of the human brain (when one is very nervous, she usually loses her appetite, for example), and I must admit these people are becoming more and more convincing.

But back to the point: it’s hard to keep one’s eyes open. I read the news (in print and online) every morning and, I must say, it’s getting more and more difficult to continue the farce. 200 species went extinct today, and what did I do with myself? I swam in the pool, and read the newspaper, and read Nietzsche. Then I made a pizza and now I’m drinking copious amounts of Saison. Are my eyes as open as I’d like to think, or am I in some kind of somnambulant haze?

The elephant-in-the-room tension of Nietzsche is that he surely knew what needed to be done, but he didn’t take any kind of action; he wrote about waiting for others to overcome their societally-enforced inhibitions and become free—thus in the process setting others free. He recognized civilization as a trap, and even tried to describe the escape hatch. But he never opened the escape hatch himself. He just kept on describing it until he went clinically insane (according to his sister), and was left in a state of intellectual paralysis until he died, having liberated no one.

And yet the text he created is out there, and anyone can read it for free (at your local library). He wrote so that others could take up the sword against the status quo. Is that a courageous act or a cop out?

That Will to Divest

A poem by Kay Ryan:

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you’ve swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you’ve begun.

In the anthology of contemporary American poetry I keep in my desk drawer, editor J.D. McClatchy writes this of Ryan: “What she likes looking at are the edges of things, borders and transitions.”

I, too, like looking at the margins. In looking at authors’ copies of manuscripts, for example, often what they scribble around the edges is far more interesting than what is typed in the body of the text. Here’s an article about that in The New Yorker.

Quality of Life vs. Life Expectancy

Thanks to Ran Prieur I found this piece called “The Quality of Life”, which has too many gems to count, including this one:

An indicator of the sort of absurdity that results when you take such thinking seriously is the research finding that money does not buy happiness beyond a point. Or more precisely, that subjective self-reported “happiness” does not correlate with income above $75,000 or so, in the US.

Why is the hypothesis that we earn incomes in order to buy happiness from some sort of standard-life-script store even a reasonable one, worthy of research?

This little snippet is so precise, in fact, that it suffices for the whole argument, but I still suggest you read the whole thing; it’s so good. You’ll get to stuff like:

Nobody, other than bureaucrats who fund research and economists, asks the question “how much income is needed to be happy?” We already know that talking about happiness without talking about what trade-offs we are making to pursue it is meaningless. The rest of us real people ask the question “how much wealth is required to be free of scripts that dictate what trade-offs you are allowed to make?”

Quality of life, however defined, is after all one of the more prevalent blunt instruments used to club—or to attempt to club—ancient, traditional ways of life, especially hunting and gathering. Why would you want to live in a non-hierarchical, sustainable community when you can live in an industrialized, standardized one for twice as long? Or so the arguments go.

Next usually follows some vague treatise about the gifts bestowed upon all of us by modern medicine, which wouldn’t be possible without plastics, and how this is just one example of the many innovations that, sure, have come at an ecological cost, but have certainly increased our quality of life, giving humankind a net benefit. This argument also coils up neatly inside a broader term: progress. You just can’t go back to the way things were, or else, some unnamed bad thing happens to progress.

It should be pointed out, however, that people making these claims usually conflate quality of life and life expectancy, which are wholly different things. Yes, people who join civilizations tend to live longer (or so I’ve read), but is dragging oneself through the drudgery of cubicle hell, only to slowly deteriorate physically and psychologically (thanks to poisons in our food and water, no stimulation of any kind, hollowed out communities, schedules devoid of meaning, etc.), finally eking out an existence with the aid of machines while drifting toward a painful and lonely end really a quality life?

Also, while we’re living these quality lives, what about the lives of other humans who have to suffer to make them possible? What about the non-humans who are tortured, poisoned, and killed to make them possible? What about the rivers that are destroyed to make them possible? What about the nuclear winter that will most likely result in the on-going effort to make them possible? What will humans’ quality of life be when there are no bees left?

* * *

A tangent of sorts (but something ultimately germane, according to the author of the aforementioned piece), on the recent snafu over McDonald’s publishing a guide to living on a minimum wage for its employees:

The problem isn’t specific stupid numbers or specific ideas about how to live on certain incomes. The problem is that we have stupid discussions about numbers because we cannot have intelligent discussions about what quality of life means. Our culture forces us to argue about how others ought to pursue quality-of-life. You there, save for college. You there, buy a house. You there, get your calories and daily protein requirement before you get your psychadelics.

Both McDonald’s and the Indian politician might have sparked far more interesting debates if they had included the local price of pot in their speculations about the budgets of others. But of course, they couldn’t, because they would have faced even greater punishment for tangibly highlighting freedom as potentially being a component of a quality life.

A (Slight) Critique of “The Time Lag of Irreversible Change” -or- When You Talk About Destruction

In this post on Nature Bats Last, Deep Green Resistance activist Joshua Headley makes some strong points about the nature of the trap in which we find ourselves. He cites the melting of the ice caps, the pyrite that is “clean” energy (excuse the mineral extraction joke), and other parts of industrial civilization that are continually tightening the noose. In short, this post is a good summary of the problem.

And that, by itself, is useful. As I’ve written here, paraphrasing Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the nature of the problem and 5 minutes coming up with solutions.”

And yet, Headley’s insistence that, “Quite literally: we have to completely dismantle the industrial economy, we have to do it soon, and really, we should have done it yesterday” is, sorry, just silly. It’s not that I’m a fan of the industrial economy (which, really, should be “economies,” plural), and any regular reader of mine (all three of you) need not be reminded of such. It’s just that every word in this prescription goes without a definition. Who is “we”? How can one “completely dismantle” an economy? Can the industrial network, if it exists as a monolith, really be dismantled by people?

The idea of bringing down the machine is a quite tempting one to entertain, especially in daydreams while at work. And I also realize that sabotage, no matter how isolated or small in scope, can be fun. As Edward Abbey once wrote about pulling up surveying equipment used to plan the construction of a highway through Utah’s desert: “a futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good.”

At the end of the day, I’m completely in solidarity with Mr. Headley. Yes, the problem is infinite growth on a finite planet. Yes, technological solutions are pipe dreams. But so is thinking that people can or even should dismantle our infrastructure. Now, I think people could stop building any more, and that’s a different goal entirely. But really, the fact that the latter objective is also pretty much an impossibility sheds light on the puerile naïveté of the former.

Forget about vague notions of destroying the entire system. We’re in a long emergency. And yet, time is precious—too precious to fritter hours away making unsubstantial, imprecise recommendations.

I think those who care about ecosystems should think about working on real, local things that might help, which usually don’t seem like they’re helping and take years of hard, boring work to put into action (and as I’ve previously written, maybe there are no solutions right now, only ameliorating rear-guard actions). And, no, I don’t mean using our “buying power,” changing the light-bulbs, or taking shorter showers. These ideas are just as silly as “smashing the state.” The last time I checked, doomers were supposed to be characterized by an unfailing realism about the current state of affairs, no?

To be clear, I’m not saying taking apart a cell phone tower or jack-hammering some concrete are categorically bad ideas. I’m just saying that in the process of creating a resistance movement, one can’t skip steps. Dismantling the economy, whatever that means, may be a logical step at some point in the long chain of necessary actions. But right now it’s not helpful to talk about, because it’s meaningless, even as a context. Instead, let’s continue educating people on the nature of the problem, and then (privately) discuss strategy and tactics with as much detail as we can muster, shall we?

Meet ALEC, Oiler of the Corporate Machine

As I was boarding a plane to London on June 21st of this year, hearing rumblings of something or other going on at the State Capitol (what? they want pizzas?), I had only heard the name ALEC a few times in passing, on some talking-heads TV show in the background. But when I touched back down in the U.S. of A. two weeks later, I felt like I knew ALEC in the biblical sense. And when I joined my comrades at the capitol on the night House Bill 2 was passed, I knew that ALEC would need to be a focus of the widening critique.

So who is ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council)? Well they have their own website, according to which, their motto is “Limited Government, Free Markets, and Federalism.” This theme runs through the more bland wikipedia entry as well: “The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a 501(c)(3) American organization composed of legislators, businesses and foundations which produces model policies for state legislatures and promotes free markets, limited government, and federalism at the state level.”

This blurb should really tell you everything you need to know about ALEC, since their motto is comprised of code words (limited government = no social services for poor people with corporate welfare; free markets = no regulation of big business with regulation of everything else, especially environmental groups; and federalism = Tea-Party originalism, only or especially about guns) and since, really, what’s more American than businesses and foundations writing legislation?

At least they don’t pretend the oligarchy doesn’t exist, I guess one could say in their defense, since they just go ahead and write the bills themselves, whereas in the past it was considered uncouth (businesses bought politicians, sure, but the politicians still served some kind of function, i.e. pretending to come up with the idea on their own).

While I tend to think allusions to ancient Rome are usually trite, since every empire has its own unique qualities but is essentially the same kind of machine, such comparisons are getting easier to make, as history repeats itself (first as tragedy, then as farce). This bypassing of the Congress should therefore be no surprise, cf. Caligula. And of course, that means we still have Nero to look forward to (although the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy, so… hope and change?).

Here’s the best primer on ALEC and its role in the recent Texas anti-abortion bills I’ve seen: a post on Burnt Orange Report by Phillip Martin.

Others have been criticizing and calling out ALEC for some time now:

John Nichols, The Nation, via Bill Moyers: ALEC exposed

Michael King, The Austin Chronicle: Stand your ground against ALEC

Rachel Weiner, The Washington Post: How ALEC became a political liability

Andy Kroll, Mother Jones: ALEC’s own senator?

Surprise! People Hate Their Jobs

Here are some completely predictable statistics I read in “Living in America will drive you insane—literally,” a post on Salon:

  • According to June 2013 Gallup poll, 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them.
  • In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years.
  • Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged.

The first statistic in the list should really tell you everything you need to know about not just America but the whole industrialized world. It’s become a truism that “life’s a bitch,” and in fact we print that phrase on coffee mugs and carry those mugs to places we hate to do things we hate with people we generally at least mildly hate, at least most of the time. But this truism is bolstered by other corollary truisms: everyone’s gotta’ eat, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, life’s not fair, life is hard work.

The part in the aforementioned article about eating shit reminds me, of course, of Kafka, and of David Foster Wallace’s writing on The Metamorphosis and A Little Fable. Of even the most regimented, caste-society insects, at least it could be said that they get to go outside once in a while.