Action: the antidote for despair – stepping out, healing the climate . . . and our lives

The climate change protest in San Francisco on November 30, 2009 — a coordinated global protest prior to the Copenhagen UN Climate conference — was more heartwarming than I had anticipated. It was a little hard dragging myself out of my routine and to the protest, and at first the chanting and signs felt forced and ritualized, but in the end the action succeeded and I left feeling energized. The climate crisis — rising greenhouse gas emissions, etc. — feel so overwhelming and disempowering. When you’re considering going to a protest like this, it seems utterly hopeless to believe that a few hundred people with signs in San Francisco could make any difference at all. Why waste time with the effort?

But there is something mysterious about actually participating in activism vs. just thinking about it. On paper, trying to change really complex, massive structures seems hopeless, but in practice, it feels one hell of a lot better to at least try something than to just give up. We marched down Market Street and to the Bank of America high-rise tower. My friend Kristi asked “why the B of A?” and it was a really good question. They are one corporation amongst thousands, all trying to maximize profits and willing to sacrifice the climate and the earth in the process. Like many others, they have lobbied against strong action on climate and for false solutions (clean coal, biofuels), and they invest in all kinds of disastrous activities. This are hardly unique.

But when we got there, the real reason became obvious. It really helps to personalize the struggle, if only to a huge concrete office tower. We rushed and blockaded the doors and even though it was just another symbolic protest — requiring a paragraph to link to the actual issues, which themselves require several paragraphs to explain — the action made the underlying conflict easy to understand. Confused business men tried to get through the door, and the looks on their faces were priceless. You could see the clash of worldviews. Are money and status, routine and order our real goal in this life? Or do our lives connect to something much deeper, which ultimately relates to the health of the planet that made our lives possible in the first place?

I’ve been to so many of these types of protests before — there is a certain routine and you can easily get jaded. But this time I didn’t feel like that at all. To the contrary, my regular life of going to work etc. has been making me feel bored and stuck. This feeling of the streets — the riot cops, the community struggling together, the closeness of being with other people willing to stand up whether it makes any damn difference or not — it felt strangely real, intense and sharp, as opposed to so much of normal life which feels like an illusion in slow motion.

We very thoroughly although briefly shut down that building and brought joyful chaos to the corporate canyons. Dancing and color and silliness and live music made the grim seriousness and “adultness” of the businessmen and the police look absurd. And it was impressive how few people it took to create such a big disruption — business as usual in a dense, modern, industrialized system is fragile and already right on the edge of collapse into chaos, requiring just a tiny push.

But I have no illusions. A tiny action like this alone can’t change the course of events. To do so will require a much broader popular uprising and a fundamental re-organization of the values and priorities that structure how things work.

What I think we accomplished was perhaps a tiny step in that direction. While maybe the people in power didn’t hear our protest, actually getting out in the streets changed those of us who participated. Maybe that change in mood, outlook and spirit can be infectious, spreading to those we’re connected to, and gradually moving the spirit of the whole community from one of resignation and depression to the kind of courage, inspiration and hopefulness we need to turn things around.

When I think back to my own life, I realize that what “normal” people consider success — getting ahead in terms of status and acquiring a bunch of possessions — is really on a fundamental level failure. It’s a failure to realize what is important and put that realization into action by living for the things that actually matter, which aren’t material things. Meaning is about experiences, relationships and having mental and emotional space to be aware of life going on around you. So many “successful” people forget to stop and notice their lives, and in the process they miss the whole thing.

Since what “normal” people consider success is really failure, then for us to achieve success on a human level may mean that we’re considered failures on a social and economic level. All the stuff you’re supposed to do — achieve status, secure material comfort — you risk giving up if you take pursuing a meaningful life seriously. If you really go for it and put your heart into alternatives to this dying system, it means giving up the types of comfort it has to offer in favor of pleasures that are off the grid.

One thing I noticed about the November 30 protest was how small it was. The organizers picked November 30 because it was the 10th anniversary of the huge protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. I was in Seattle for the WTO protest and it was one of the hugest, most inspirational uprisings imaginable. “Normal” life was completely displaced by a massive demand for a future beyond more economic growth. But N30 in 2009 didn’t carry on the spirit of Seattle.

Looking around at the few dozen protesters dwarfed by the thousands of workers and shoppers in downtown San Francisco, my friend Sandi and I wondered why the climate crisis didn’t draw a bigger outpouring of concern. In fact, if the global climate significantly changes, disrupting all ecosystems on earth as well as all human societies which ultimately fundamentally depend on natural agricultural production, the climate crisis will make injustice related to globalization and the WTO look like small potatoes.

Something about the enormity of climate change is throwing people into a sense of defeat or denial — the problem is so overwhelming that we’re becoming paralyzed. Perhaps it’s because we’re all tied to climate change — we’re all responsible because there’s no way to exist in our society without constantly consuming fossil fuels. Do people feel that since they’re “unpure,” they can’t demand alternatives to fossil fuels? Are we unsure we’re ready for a fundamental transition which may up-end the privilege to which we’ve grown accustomed as members of rich, developed countries?

Or perhaps we’re numb because climate change is a long-term problem and a gradual process. Psychologically, we’re better able to react to sudden and dramatic disasters like the earthquake in Haiti than to creeping catastrophes. Perhaps the very vastness of the danger itself makes effective action difficult — the human brain can understand a specific problem like a sick cat or a traffic accident, but tends to zone out when it tries to think about millions of species going extinct because of the millions tons of CO2 people add to the atmosphere each day. Our minds haven’t evolved to really understand millions or billions or trillions.

A better understanding of the psychology of climate change is desperately needed. Hopefully some smart radical psychology folks are working on this right now . . .

Just two weeks after the November 30 protest, the UN Climate change talks in Copenhagen ended in failure. But even the most optimistic goals of the UN conference would probably have been a failure. The governments at Copenhagen — all tied to and representing economic and political elites — were pushing gradual, market-based, essentially business friendly solutions.

Given the limited choice between denialism/inaction on one hand and gradual, modest, sensible, “adult” reform on the other, we’re still generally at a stage of denial and paralysis.

It is still up to the people on the streets — the people who aren’t sensible, who aren’t tied into the realistic institutions of power, who aren’t burdened by success — to try to figure out a third way. This isn’t necessarily a new technology or a new political coalition or a new tactic or even a new set of values or ways of thinking — it may be so big as to be hard to recognize now when we’re in the middle of it. When people sort it out (or fail to do so) future historians will give it a name.

We have to create these new ideas — this transition — from scratch and put it on the table ourselves from outside the established channels. The structures of power and the status quo maintain their control by marginalizing any sense that people can define our own priorities and our own future. They like to pick the options — multiple choice, not essay.

Direct action in the streets — getting off your computer and out of your living room and outside your comfortable peer group of friends — isn’t just a tactic or a tool to pressure the outside world. Direct action is most important because of what it teaches us and how it changes us. It nourishes us, gives us courage, gives us hope and helps us see that there are options beyond the “objective” and “realistic” ones we can see before we step over the line. Something about actually participating and doing — not just thinking or discussing — is key. It feels almost hopeless to write this because you really have to experience it yourself in your own life to know what I mean.

And of course direct action isn’t the only way to acquire these insights. The direct action scene has its own pitfalls and limitations, and can devolve into its own isolated peer group.

Everyone in this society — from us to the people who work for banks and industries — have a range of choices. We can all be held accountable for looking at the climate and the future and changing, or figuring out how to try to maintain the status quo.

After Copenhagen, it is unclear what the next step will be — not just to regular people, but to the people “in charge” who organized Copenhagen. The sense of inaction, paralysis, and denial are in themselves powerful — they hide building social, ecological and psychological pressure, like a huge spring winding up and getting tighter. The tighter you wind a spring, the more energy it stores up waiting for release.

Trying to turn away or go about our business as if we can’t see what is happening isn’t a long-term solution. We all know that our planet is endangered and sagging under the weight of too much industry, too many emissions, and too many human beings always wanting more more more stuff.

I’m looking forward to the next climate change protest. On a good day, I’m feeling less afraid and less discouraged. I’m hopeful that staying engaged with what’s really important and connected to other people with similar awareness will give us all the inspiration to create something different and sustainable.