Driven By Desire: an interview with George Draffan

Why The Global Economy Won’t Satisfy Us

Every day, George Draffan receives calls requesting information on corporate activity around the globe. On Tuesday, an environmental group in Indonesia might call: Weyerhaeuser is moving into the area, and they want to know the company’s history. The next day, it’s someone from Washington, D.C., wanting to know which corporations are behind a phony nonprofit. Ask Draffan to trace the connections between oil transnationals and Central American political unrest, and in a few days or weeks, you can expect a full explanation, complete with complex yet readable graphics.

Draffan has had a greater influence on my thinking than any other single person. For more than a decade, he and I have been having long conversations about our culture’s destructiveness and what it will take for us to find — or remember — a more sane way to live. And for more than a decade, his stubborn insistence on pursuing these arguments to their logical conclusions has inspired me to move forward, or prodded me when my reasoning is faulty.

George and I met in 1990, when we came together with activist and physician John Osborn to write a book on how timber companies in the Pacific Northwest illegally obtain land that is part of the public domain. I was the lead writer; George, the lead researcher. For several years, we worked together on that slim volume, sometimes churning out thirty pages in a weekend, other times spending several days fighting over a word. The book came out in 1995 and is now the centerpiece of a national effort to take back public land illegally held by timber transnationals. George and I are currently working on two more book projects: one about corporate welfare, and the other on the philosophy that underlies our economic system.

George was born in 1954 and raised in Wisconsin. He discovered activism in the summer of his fifteenth year, when an uncle in Washington State took him to see a clear-cut. Looking at the ravaged, treeless mountainside, George knew what he had to do with his life. Around the same time, he first learned about Buddhism, which helped him make sense of the chaos of his teenage years. He studied Buddhism and history at the University of Wisconsin and received a master’s in librarianship from the University of Washington. In the early 1980s, George joined Earth First! and helped found that organization’s first Washington State chapter. He is still a practicing Buddhist, and that spiritual tradition informs his understanding of the economic and political realities in today’s world.

These days, George runs the Public Information Network, an organization providing research services and training to citizens working for corporate and governmental accountability. The Network’s website, is one of the best activism sites I’ve seen, full of useful, shocking, enlightening, and entertaining information. My favorite feature is the quotes from famous people criticizing our economic system, like this one from Abraham Lincoln:

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

In a sense, I’ve been interviewing George for ten years, but this particular discussion took place on a beautiful afternoon in May in the sunny dining room of his home in south Seattle, where he lives with his partner, Julene Schlack. We were sitting downwind of a Boeing manufacturing plant, and although we could not see the plant’s toxic emissions, we were absorbing them into our bodies as surely as we took in the air, the sunlight, and each other’s conversation.

Jensen: We keep hearing that international trade is good, but you’ve said that, if you could do just one thing to slow environmental destruction, you’d stop international trade. Why?

Draffan: The people who tell you that an economy dependent on international trade is good are the people who benefit from it, and they’re a very small minority. Most people in the world don’t benefit. The people at the top of the pyramid claim that, if trade is expanded, everyone will enjoy the same advantages, but what the rest of the world gets is a lot of sacrifice and deprivation and destruction.

Jensen: Isn’t international trade good for the "development" of nonindustrialized nations? The only way they can "join us," we’re told, is if we "liberalize" trade.

Draffan: That’s what we hear, but the more international trade there is, the higher the Third World debt becomes. The poorer nations have been paying off hundreds of billions of dollars in debt over the last couple of generations, yet the wealth gap between the industrialized North and the poor nations of the South is growing. Wherever there’s been economic "restructuring" to enable poor nations to join the "new world order," unemployment and income disparity within that country have increased. Once again, it’s good for the elites at the top — if you consider consuming more than your share a good thing.

In the current system, "development" is a euphemism, much like "efficiency." Efficiency is really a measure of how fast you can turn forests and mountains into wastepaper and soda-pop cans. If the purpose of life is to consume and destroy, then international trade and industrial civilization are definitely proven ways to speed up that process. International trade is the ultimate institutional and economic tool for increasing our ability to consume, destroy, and work our will on the world.

Jensen: Were human beings always this destructive?

Draffan: It wasn’t until we began to see ourselves as separate from the world that we started to see every other being as a mere thing, and to believe that we could get away with working our will upon them — without consequences.

But our power to impose our will has far outstripped our ability to discern what’s sustainable. The international-trade system is clearly beyond our capacity to control or use in a sustainable, democratic way. In fact, any economy that extends beyond the face-to-face community level is going to cause problems. How can I be a responsible citizen while participating in an international market? Even if my intent is to do good, I can have only the slightest knowledge of the impacts of my consumption. I can’t know what injustice or ecological destruction the manufacture and purchase of my computer, for example, has wreaked. I’ve had no contact with the women in Thailand who will get cancer from putting hard drives together. It is impossible to understand all the social and environmental impacts of a computer made in a dozen different countries. That’s why both consumers and industries are so enamored of the idea of certifying that certain products are environmentally friendly, so that the consumer can just walk into the store and buy the computer with the green star on the box: no thinking, just confident consuming.

Jensen: Buying a computer provides a good example of something you’ve described to me before: how our economy fragments us into many parts — in this case, consumer and citizen — and that these fragments are often pitted against each other.

Draffan: Exactly. It’s clearly in my best interest as a consumer to have my computer made by a woman who is thousands of miles away, doesn’t get paid enough, and isn’t protected by health and safety regulations. That’s how I get the cheapest products. As a citizen, on the other hand, I’m appalled by the injustice of this system.

But no matter how clear my perception or how pure my intent, as a consumer in the global economy, I’m still drawn into situations that, as a human being, I find abhorrent. I have spent the majority of my working life examining the impacts of the global economy and trying to change the system, but I still drive a car and buy computers assembled by underpaid people in the Third World. I live a mile downwind of a Boeing airplane factory that produces toxic waste. All that I know about toxins wasn’t enough to keep me from living here. I can live with these contradictions, though I may well die from cancer because of them. Polls indicate that most Americans consider themselves environmentalists — yet we’re killing ourselves and destroying our ecosystem’s ability to function.

It’s too simplistic, though, to say that if we could stop international trade, then ecological sustainability would be possible. International trade, nuclear energy, the World Bank: these things are just tools; they’re not the cause of the problem. The cause has to do with human fear and greed and agression. We’re not capable of having a global economy because we can’t trust ourselves with a tool of such power.

Jensen: This talk about the hidden impacts of consumption reminds me of a dinner you and I once had at which we tried to trace the origin of everything we ate.

Draffan: I remember. It was at that great Vietnamese restaurant in Spokane. You had lemongrass chicken with chile, and I had stir-fried vegetables. The scenario we concocted went something like this: The chicken was raised on an Arkansas factory farm owned by Tyson Foods, which supplies one-quarter of America’s chickens and ships its products as far away as Japan. The chicken was fed corn from Nebraska and grain from Kansas, and was one of about 17 million chickens processed by Tyson that week. Once frozen, the bird was put onto a truck made from plastics manufactured in Texas, steel milled in Japan from ore mined in Australia, chromium mined in South Africa, and aluminum processed in the United States from bauxite mined in Jamaica. The truck’s parts were assembled in Mexico. As the truck brought the frozen chickens to Spokane, it burned fuel refined in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Washington from oil originating beneath Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Texas, and Alaska.

As for my dish: The broccoli was grown in Mexico in a field fertilized with, among other things, ammonium nitrate from the U.S., phosphorus mined and processed by Freeport McMoRan from deposits in Florida, and potassium from potash deposits in Saskatchewan. The potash was processed by a multinational mining, oil, and chemical company such as Texasgulf or Noranda. The pesticides we ingested were equally cosmopolitan.

Another company associated with nearly every facet of that meal was Akzo Nobel, a chemical company with 350 facilities in fifty countries. It makes the chicken vaccines that allow Tyson to keep its operations relatively disease-free, as well as automobile coatings and chemicals used at many stages in the agricultural and manufacturing processes.

And that’s only two ingredients in our meal. The point is that, within the global economy, the simple pleasure of eating a fine meal in a local restaurant is tied inescapably to pernicious activities around the globe: monopoly practices and union-busting, the cruelty and debasement of factory farming and water pollution in Arkansas; loss of topsoil and the depletion of the Oglala Aquifer in Nebraska and Kansas; air pollution in Japan; toxic mining wastes in Australia, South Africa, and Jamaica; chemical pollution from refineries; degradation from oil exploration and extraction in four countries; soil toxification, labor exploitation, and the poisoning of agricultural workers in Mexico; air, water, and ground pollution in the U.S. and Canada — the list goes on and on.

We could perform the same exercise for the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, or any other activity that calls for participation in the global economy. The consumer products, the cruelty, the pollution, the exploitation, the debasement — all are tied together in this complex web.

Jensen: The global economy seems a parody of Indra’s web, the ancient metaphor for the interdependence of all things.

Draffan: A Buddhist teacher once created a model of Indra’s web for a Chinese emperor. The web he made was a net with a jewel in each knot, such that, in the sunlight, each jewel reflected all the other jewels. If you touched one part of the web, the entire web shimmered. The model illustrated how each person and thing in the universe exists in relation to everything else: everything is completely interdependent.

Indra’s web is not intended to be a description of a staggeringly beautiful ecosystem. The knots include greed and violence and wanton destruction, as well as sunlight and love and cooperation. So the global economy is not a parody of Indra’s web — it is Indra’s web. And it’s in sorry shape.

The idea that you can’t touch one part of the web without affecting the whole thing is simple to grasp intellectually, but if you try to live as if everything you do has infinite repercussions, the implications are enormous: no more denial — or, at least, no more excuses for it. Denial, we see, has consequences, too.

The root of the problem is the belief that I’m a separate unit, independent of the web. But, despite my denial, I’m smack in the middle of the web, and I’m going to get cancer from the toxic waste, and the laborers who put my consumer goods together are going to get cancer, and to believe otherwise is delusion.

Jensen: Speaking of delusions, let’s talk about subsidies.

Draffan: A subsidy was originally understood to be a public expenditure for a social good. Nowadays, though, it’s usually aimed at giving an unfair advantage to a corporation or an industry. Subsidies are a prime example of privatization and externalization, the two sides of the modern global economic coin. Corporations privatize the commonwealth — the water, the forests, the labor — for profit and externalize as many of the costs as possible, passing them on to communities, workers, and nonhuman species.

Nuclear power is a good example of how subsidies are used to externalize costs. It’s an incredibly inefficient and expensive way of producing energy — so inefficient that, once you’ve built a nuclear plant, the most efficient thing you can do is shut it down. From almost any perspective, be it economic, environmental, or engineering, these power plants should never be built. And they wouldn’t be built without massive influxes of public money in the form of subsidies. After World War ii, Bechtel and Westinghouse and the other energy and engineering corporations went to the government and said they couldn’t build the plants unless the government took care of uranium enrichment and liability insurance and other costs. Being the subsidizing wing of the corporate-state economy, the government obliged, passing financial, health-related, and environmental costs on to the public.

The entire economy depends on externalizing costs. Total U.S. corporate profits are about $500 billion a year. Corporate accountant Ralph Estes’ conservative estimate of the externalized costs of the American economy — pollution, health and safety, acid rain, crime, and so on — comes to about $3 trillion a year. So profits amount to about a sixth of the costs. Clearly, we’re mining the earth, expending "human resources," and foisting the huge costs onto the environment and future generations.

The public’s forests are sold for below cost to multinational corporations like Boise Cascade and Louisiana Pacific. Electricity is sold at a discount to the aluminum industry in the Pacific Northwest — electricity that comes from dams that were built at the public’s expense, dams that wiped out the salmon and destroyed Native American cultures. Manufacturers dump toxic waste into the drinking water and leave it for the taxpayer to clean up. Across the country, there are thousands of "brownfields" — abandoned, toxic manufacturing sites that are being cleaned up one by one at the public’s expense.

Billions of dollars are spent taking care of people made sick by automobile pollution. That’s a subsidy not only to the automobile industry, but to our entire car culture. We might think a car costs twenty thousand dollars, but it’s subsidized thousands of dollars each year by publicly maintained streets and highways, health care, and disposal of wastes.

Jensen: The military is a giant subsidy, with the government making direct cash payments to Rockwell and Boeing.

Draffan: And corporations are also subsidized through the use of military force to create "favorable business climates." As former secretary of defense William Cohen said to a group of Fortune 500 leaders, "Business follows the flag. . . . We provide the security. You provide the investment." I’d say that the public provides the subsidy not only for the security, but for the investment, as well.

Our corporate culture has institutionalized these subsidies, which include oil-company tax breaks, below-cost grazing on public lands for ranchers, free access to public airwaves for the media, and public money for pharmaceutical research and development. When a corporation dumps toxic waste, we not only subsidize it with human lives, but if the affected community sues, the corporation gets to deduct the cost of its legal defense from its taxes. The taxes corporations do pay are nowhere near enough to mitigate their social and ecological impacts.

These are only the direct subsidies; the indirect subsidies shimmer out across the web. Our whole political process has been warped to the point where it serves primarily as a legal and economic tool to facilitate the externalization of costs and the privatization of profits. For example, the costs of lobbying, whereby corporations influence the political process, are also tax-deductible — which means taxpayers actually subsidize corporate interference with the political process. It’s completely counterproductive for everyone except the few people at the top. Yet we operate under the delusion that we all benefit from it. Because I can "afford" to buy a car or a computer, I think I’m getting away with something. We’re buying ourselves off temporarily, but in the end, we don’t get away with anything.

Jensen: So we all pay the price for the expenses that corporations externalize. What about the flip side of the coin: privatization?

Draffan: Basically, it’s the process of making everything in the world privately owned. In the beginning, there was no private property. Everything was public. Then tribes began to mark off territory and claim seasonal rights to salmon streams, or areas where certain plants grew. This practice really took off with the rise of civilization, as property became no longer communal, but individual, belonging to the few and defended by property law.

The economist Adam Smith wrote, "Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in re-ality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all." The political economist John Locke wrote that "government has no other end but the preservation of property." We’ve built our system on these ideas. The basis of law today is property law, protecting one person’s right to exclusive use of a part of nature, to more than his or her fair share, and it’s so embedded in our culture that we see nothing wrong with it.

Jensen: The word private comes from the same root as deprive, because when wealthy Roman citizens walled off public spaces for private gardens, they deprived the poor of their use.

Draffan: Language doesn’t lie. The result of privatization is that today we have very little public property, and what we do have is constantly being chipped away at. Either a person or a group owns exclusive legal and physical rights to almost everything: air, water, even our own bodies, with the advent of gene patents.

Jensen: You mentioned tribes marking off territory as a form of privatization. I see the shift taking place not so much there as with the rise of civilization. I mean, the Indians may have marked off salmon streams, but they didn’t kill off the salmon.

Draffan: True. The development of agricultural technology was a big turning point. Industrial technology can be defined as something that separates us from nature, because it gives us the ability to work our will upon nature. But you can’t add more knots to the web by building bigger and better tools without affecting everything else. Nor can you cut knots away and not feel the effects. It’s just a question of how perceptive you are, of how long it takes for you to notice the damage. Feedback such as species extinctions is often not immediately apparent. That’s part of the problem: we’re not perceptive enough to see what’s happening. Or, rather, our powers of denial are so strong that we’re able to ignore it.

Ultimately, it’s not greed or aggression that’s the problem: it’s ignoring, not feeling or understanding, the effects of that greed and aggression. We think some self-indulgent action is going to make us happy, so we do it, and we believe we’ve gotten away with it, so we do it a few more times. All the while, our inappropriate behavior undermines our happiness. Somehow, we never make that connection, and so we keep doing this thing that isn’t making us happy; we do it even harder, faster.

But if we can extricate ourselves from that cycle even for a little while, we begin to see that it isn’t making us happy. The problem then is that the impacts of our behavior are so shocking and horrifying, we immediately go into denial again to numb ourselves. On a personal level, we turn away from homeless people — or never even see them at all, standing there dying. On the economic level, we buy and consume vegetables grown with pesticides because they’re cheaper.

Jensen: I’ve known you for a while, and it’s pretty clear to me that your perspective has been deeply influenced by Buddhism.

Draffan: Yes, what we’re really talking about here is awareness, and Buddhism is all about awareness. It’s about becoming more aware of suffering: that other people suffer; that I suffer. It’s about recognizing that happiness is an elusive — and illusive — goal that we keep striving to reach. And out of that awareness comes a desire for something deeper, a willingness to slow down and start paying attention to what is actually happening, instead of being so focused on getting what I believe will make me happy. When I stop long enough to see what is actually happening — both externally and internally — that clarity enables me to take effective action commensurate with what I and other people really need. Buddhist meditation can be a tool for dismantling habitual behavior and projections.

Jensen: What sort of "projections"?

Draffan: We often project our emotional states onto the world, and this prevents us from seeing it clearly. The ancient Buddhists — and, before them, the Hindus — had a different way of describing this. They believed the world is divided into six realms of being, of which the human is only one. The others are the realms of hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, gods, and jealous gods. To the ancients, these were literally different realms. To a modern person, it might be more helpful to see them as worlds we project onto this one when in the grip of certain emotional obsessions. Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod has done some excellent work on making these ancient contemplative practices relevant to us today.

The hungry-ghost realm, for example, is projected when you are habitually overcome by grasping and greed. The hungry ghosts have huge stomachs and tiny mouths and necks, so they can never get enough to eat, and whatever they do eat turns to fire. If you’re a hungry ghost, you live in a world rich in resources — like the earth — but as far as you’re concerned, you’re wandering in a desert. Nothing satisfies. Sound familiar?

Of course, normal human desire is not as strong as the grasping greed of the hungry ghosts. In the human realm, you actually get some enjoyment out of the things you acquire or consume, but the satisfaction doesn’t last very long. Once I have dinner, I want dessert. Once I have dessert, I want seconds. Humans’ endless desires lead to constant busyness — always working, always trying to achieve more, always driven by a desire that we can never quite satisfy. A thousand-year-old Tibetan text describes the human realm as one of "incessant activity and constant frustration," a never-ending sense that things are not quite right.

The animal realm is based on instinct. According to this cosmology, animals are very efficient and clever, very suited to their world, but they’re locked into certain instincts. Humans enter the animal realm when we’re locked into our instinctual way of thinking and doing.

The hell-beings realm is where everything is seen as opposition. Everyone is attacking everyone else. It’s a realm of aggression, paranoia, hate, and fighting.

Then there’s the god realm, where you feel complete satisfaction to the point of being self-absorbed. The gods live for thousands of years in total comfort, but at some point their time runs out. As they realize they’re going to die, they suffer even more than the beings in the lower realms, because they’d believed this pleasurable state would last forever.

The jealous-god realm is based, obviously, on jealousy, and also on competition. The jealous gods see how comfortable the gods are, and they want that comfort, too, and will do anything to get it. They constantly attack the god realm, but they always lose.

Even if you don’t believe that these realms exist, you might recognize these same emotional states in yourself. The hungry ghosts, for example, might remind you of the desire to have something that, once you get your hands on it, turns out not to be what you want. We need to notice when this happens and understand what the end result of these obsessions is: being stuck in a projected world where everything is viewed through those emotions.

The basis of Buddhist mindfulness meditation is to slow down and focus your attention on something neutral, such as your breath, because it helps us to see through the projections.

Jensen: You once explained to me the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, "Life is suffering," in a way that helped me to understand its meaning — something I’d never been able to do before.

Draffan: The difficulty is in the translation. I’m not sure suffering is the right word. The word in Sanskrit is dukha, which literally means "a wheel with the axle hole off-center." Dukha means that things never seem quite right, and it encompasses everything from vague existential angst, to excruciating mental and physical torture, to inescapable old age, sickness, and death. Even when we find something that gives us pleasure, these pleasures are never permanent; in the back of our mind is the belief that we should be happy all the time. We’re never completely satisfied. One of the first steps to awareness, I think, is to realize that, although we’re pursuing happiness, we’re actually suffering. We’ve been pursuing something that not only doesn’t satisfy, but doesn’t even exist. As Ken McLeod puts it, "We’ve been barking up a tree that isn’t there."

One traditional metaphor is that we’re licking honey from a knife: We keep tasting that sweetness, but we also feel the pain. So we focus on the honey and keep licking, thinking if we do it carefully enough or fast enough, or get a better knife, we’ll escape the pain.

In the phrase "Life is suffering," the Sanskrit word that’s commonly translated as "life" is samsara, which really means "round and round." It describes a circular way of thinking and behaving: going round and round grasping for things that don’t exist and therefore can’t actually bring you happiness. So, of course, "samsara is dukha," because it’s painful to go round and round trying to get something that’s not real.

The First Noble Truth could be translated as "Your reactive emotions and habitual projections cause you to suffer." Because of our delusions, and because we are controlled by the parts of us that are never satisfied, we turn everything to suffering; we are incapable of enjoying real pleasure, of letting it come and go. The problem isn’t that "life is suffering." The problem is that we are stuck in mental delusions and emotional obsessions.

Jensen: How do you link all this to our economic system?

Draffan: Well, the system is driven by our endless desire, and suffering is the result of our habitual ways of seeing and thinking and doing. I once read about a Canadian lumberman who said, "When I look at trees, I see dollar bills." Before we could deforest a mountain, we had to change the way we perceived it. Before the trees could be cut, they had to be redefined as property, and then as private property.

Once that projection and objectification has taken place — from living being to property, from trees to dollar bills — and once you identify possession of that object as your source of happiness, then everything else falls into place. The forest has been privatized, and the landslides and species extinctions are all externalized.

Jensen: You’ve suggested a connection between privatization and our notion of history.

Draffan: History is the objectification of time and events. When we become obsessed with progress and "getting somewhere," time becomes linear. If you’re not destroying the world around you, and thus not creating markers along the way, there’s no reason for there to be history; there is simply an endless cycle. So, prior to the massive ecological degradation that characterizes our present way of life, there wasn’t history. Nothing happened. We call this period "prehistory." Individuals were born, lived, and died, of course, but life wasn’t based on the emotional need to build and acquire and make progress. It just moved with the rhythms of nature.

History objectifies events and eventually privatizes the story of humankind, creating a worldview to which others can subscribe. We may or may not consciously subscribe to it, but, to some degree, most of us buy into the approved version of history.

There’s a social and political model called "the three faces of power." The first face is the myth of American democracy: that everyone has equal power, politics is just the give-and-take of different interest groups, and the best ideas and the most active participants win. The losers are lazy.

The second face says the situation is more complex than that; that some groups have more power than others and thus control the agenda, so certain subjects — like the redistribution of property — never get discussed.

The third face of power says that, as unequal power relations persist, eventually we all believe that inequality and starvation and other economic and social realities aren’t the result of political decisions, but "just the way things are." Even the powerless tend to see their position as being part of the natural order of things.

The three faces of power were developed as conflicting descriptions of reality, but I’m starting to see them as a progression over time, the story of civilization: At some point, as in the first "face," we were all equal. In hunting-and-gathering times, everyone basically had the same amount of power. The social structures of indigenous cultures were set up to guarantee that power remained fluid, passing easily from one person to another. And no one controlled powerful technologies that gave them a military or industrial edge over others.

As civilization arose, power began to become centralized, as it is in the second face. The powerful created a discourse — later divided into disciplines such as religion, philosophy, science, and economics — that rationalized and institutionalized injustice. After ten thousand years, we all to some extent believe that these differentials in power are inevitable.

Which brings us to the third face: power, like property, land, and water, has been privatized and concentrated for so long that we think it’s the natural order of things. Some of us may want to change the agenda a bit, but there’s little recognition that the whole thing is an ongoing political choice. We are projecting a world of permanent, inevitable inequality.

Jensen: You’ve traced the source of the present system back to the beginnings of civilization and technology. At what level of technology would you like to live?

Draffan: I think, in making that decision, we need to keep in mind that the tools we use shape the way we view the world. Tools are not value-free, as engineers and corporate executives would have us believe. Maybe every day, when we pick up our tools, we need to ask: What level of technology will I use to live in the world today? If I want something, do I have to get in my car and go get it, or can I watch the desire come and go? If I’m afraid of facing something, will I turn on the television and watch for five hours in order to distract myself?

Personally, I don’t use a chain saw. When my neighbor gets his out, I shake my head and feel irritated that someone is cutting down the few trees left around here. But, as always, it’s more complicated than it seems. I use paper, so I’ve been letting somebody else wield the chain saw. My sister’s an environmentalist, but some of her electricity comes from a nuclear power plant. Left to her own devices, she would never invent, construct, and operate such a plant, but there she is, using nuclear energy. As a society, we buy into these things. We need to shut down the nuclear power plants and take down the dams, too, but we’ll never do that until we really feel the suffering they cause and understand the illusions on which they are based.

If, as a society, we don’t ask, "What do we really want?" then we’ll just continue to be pushed around by our impulses and ruled by our ability to work our twisted will on the world with crude and toxic technologies. We like to think of ourselves as being sophisticated, but really we don’t have a very elegant way of life. Nuclear energy to warm up our living rooms and toast our bread?

Jensen: Why did you switch from frontline activism to research?

Draffan: I was drawn to activism on an emotional level. I lived in the West, and I saw the clear-cuts, which bothered me. I felt like doing something about it. But after a while, I began to see that my actions weren’t effective, and neither were anybody else’s. I began to see that clear-cutting really isn’t an environmental problem so much as an economic and political problem — and, ultimately, a spiritual and psychological problem. So I started questioning our tactics: What are we doing? What are we trying to achieve? Why are we pursuing certain organizing and political tactics that aren’t effective?

Deep research allows us to answer these questions and look at problems on multiple levels at once. Environmentalists who believe they can attack clear-cutting without addressing other issues are not very ecological thinkers. So long as we work on only one level, we are at best going to make little adjustments, reforms that will quickly be undone by the larger tide that washes over everything.

Jensen: So what do we do?

Draffan: Before we can ask, "What do we do?" we need to ask, "What do we want?"

Jensen: I want, among other things, a world that has salmon in it.

Draffan: If you want salmon in the stream you live on, then you should do habitat restoration. If you want to restore salmon on a continental or global level, then you have to go up against the factory trawlers and their lobbyists who get the bureaucrats to set the fishing quotas too high. Of course, you can’t do that by yourself, and you need to understand that the damage is too severe to heal in this lifetime.

The most important thing is to ask yourself every day, "What does the best part of me actually want, and what is the most effective way of getting it?" And after you act, ask: "What are the actual effects of what I just did? Are things better or worse?"

It’s not that a particular tactic is right or wrong. What counts is the ability to slow down and act from clarity and compassion, rather than from projection and selfishness; to decide whether your actions are achieving the desired results, and to adjust your goals or tactics accordingly; to perceive impacts that might be subtle or delayed, and to let those perceptions inform your behavior. Most political movements aren’t actually pursuing such an open course of action; they’re trying to defend a certain way of looking at things, a certain set of projections and behaviors — not to mention their funding and a seat at the decision-making table.

Jensen: What will it take for us to survive?

Draffan: Attention to and care for the world. No matter where you are, or what you’re trying to do — whether it’s in your personal life or in the political realm — slow down, pay attention, and take careful responsibility for everything you do.

Originally published in the December 2001 issue of The Sun

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