I’m holding a newspaper clipping from 1996. The creases are torn, the page yellowed. The headline reads “Mother bear charges trains.” Trains had killed her two sons, and so this mother grizzly charged train after train after train.
At first I carried this clipping in my wallet, and then I taped it over my desk. It helps me remember what it means to be courageous, what it means to be alive.
I used to think the world is being destroyed by the greed, hatred, and insanity of those in power. Of course I still think that—as must anyone paying attention—but I see more and more how our own fearfulness causes us to collude with this destruction.
No, I’m not spewing the same old line about how because I use toilet paper I’m just as culpable for deforestation as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser. I’m not saying we need to have compassion for those who are killing the planet, that we need to drive all hatred out of our own hearts before we can stop those who are destroying our homes. I’m not perpetuating the magical thinking that proposes that we are all equally responsible for the destruction of the planet, and that if I personally and a bunch of other “environmentalists” collectively are just “pure” enough, “kind” enough, “loving” enough, that things really will turn out okay.
Not at all. Because they won’t.
I don’t think the mother grizzly worried about the “purity” of her own heart. She merely followed her heart to act against those who had killed those she loved.
My culpability for deforestation is much more extreme than my mere use of toilet paper. My culpability is that I do not physically stop the deforesters, that I do not defend my home and the homes of those (humans and nonhumans) I love with the ferocity and love manifested by this bear.
We suffer from a misguided belief that love implies pacifism. I’m not sure mother grizzly bears would agree, nor many other mothers I’ve known. I’ve been attacked by mother horses, cows, mice, chickens, geese, eagles, hawks, and hummingbirds who thought I was threatening their children. I have known many human mothers who would kill anyone who was going to harm their little ones. If a mother mouse is willing to put her life on the line by attacking someone eight thousand times her size, what does that say about our own hearts? (The mother mouse won, by the way.)
I say that I love the salmon who swim up the streams near my home, but the salmon are being driven extinct, and what do I do to help them? I write about them, sing love songs to them, stand and watch with tear-stained face as they spawn in silted streams. But what do I do?
The problem is not complex. If I really care about salmon, I need to remove dams, I need to stop industrial forestry and commercial fishing, and I need to stop global warming. These are actually straightforward technical tasks. But I don’t do them.
I can come up with all sorts of pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-spiritual, or pseudo-moral reasons, but when I’m honest with myself the real reason underlying all of the others is that I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I act effectively the police will kill me or put me in prison forever. I’m afraid that if I act effectively I will be an outcast from this society. I’m afraid that if I act effectively, some people won’t like me. They will judge me.
Here are some questions I’ve been thinking about lately. If Nazis or other fascists took over North America—long pause, the raising of one eyebrow—what would we all do? Consider Mussolini’s definition of fascism: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power.” What if this occupied country called itself a democracy, but most everyone understood elections to be shams, with citizens allowed to choose between different wings of the same Fascist (or, following Mussolini, Corporate) party? What if protesting and other nonviolent dissent were opposed by storm troopers and secret police? Would we fight back? If a resistance movement already existed, would we join it?
And what would we do if those in power then instituted laws allowing them to put one-third of all Jewish males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five into concentration camps? Substitute African-American for Jewish and ask yourself the same question.
Would we resist if the fascists irradiated the countryside, poisoned food supplies, deforested the continent, or made rivers too filthy for drinking or swimming? What if the fascists poisoned not only the land, but the bodies of those we love with dioxin—one of the most toxic substances known—and dozens of other carcinogens? I ask audiences at my talks how many have loved people who’ve been killed by cancer. About eighty percent raise their hands. Now, would we resist if those in power poisoned not just the bodies of those we love, but our own bodies?
If we won’t fight back when our loved ones are dying and our own bodies are being poisoned, when will we take a stand? We each need to find our own threshold: the point at which we break free of our fear and act on behalf of those we love.
Why are we so terrified? What are we afraid of? Neither of these questions is rhetorical. They are, at this point, some of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves.
On the most basic level, fear is the belief that we have something to lose. And on one level, of course, we do have so very much to lose. We all know what those in power do to those who threaten them or their possessions. Jeffrey Leuers burned three SUVs in an act of symbolic resistance, and was sentenced to more than twenty-two years in prison, a far longer sentence than that typically given to rapists, to men who beat their wives to death, to chemical company CEOs whose decisions release into the world the toxins that give so many of us cancer. If we were to seriously threaten the perceived entitlement of those in power to convert the living world into consumer products to be sold, they would try to stop us by any means.
But there are more fears too. We know that we—those of us in the United States who are the primary physical beneficiaries of the exploitation—would lose access to some consumer products. What does it say about us that we are willing to accept the destruction of the planet in exchange for products like coffee, chocolate, cars, and electric blankets?
We all face choices. On the largest scale, we can have automobiles or we can have ice caps and polar bears. We can have dams and paper and wood products, or we can have salmon. We can have cardboard boxes or we can have living forests. We can have electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither: even solar electricity still requires an industrial infrastructure. We can have imported fruits, vegetables, meat, and coffee or we can have at least somewhat intact human and nonhuman communities in Latin America.
Does this mean we should despair? Maybe. Despair is certainly an appropriate response to a desperate situation. But even more than this, we should simply recognize that these choices aren’t really choices anyway: for more than ninety-nine percent of our existence, humans have lived quite happily without destroying their communities or the planet. These choices are the result of an aberrant and frankly bizarre way of living.
On a more personal level, we can flow along with the mainstream of a culture that does not serve us well—does not really make us happy, does not really make us comfortable, does not really make us safe; but only offers illusions of happiness, comfort, safety—or we can begin the oftentimes prickly work of searching for our own hearts, for asking who and what we love, who and what we feel strongly enough about to change our lives for, to fight for, to live for. How about our own happiness? I’ve long had the habit of asking people if they like their jobs: about 90 percent say no. What does it mean when the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they’d rather not do? How about your own health? How about the health of your children? How about their happiness (by which I don’t mean the variety of toys at their disposal, but the actual quality of their lives)? How about the health and happiness of the land where you live? How about a planet not being killed? What is most important to you?
We can’t have it all. The belief that we can is one of the things that has driven us to this awful place. If insanity could be defined as having lost functional connection with physical reality, to believe we can have it all—to believe we can simultaneously dismantle a world and live on it; to believe we can perpetually use more energy than the sun provides; to believe we can take more than the world gives willingly; to believe a finite world can support infinite growth, much less infinite economic growth that converts ever larger numbers of living beings to dead objects (industrial production, at core, is the conversion of the living—trees or mountains—into the dead—two-by-fours and beer cans)—is insane.
Deep inside, we all know this. And yet we cannot speak it to ourselves, because we are afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have. And so we stand by.
But we are afraid of something else. We are afraid of not belonging. Even when the whole social system is insane, we still fear to be excluded from it. Just yesterday I took my mom to Wal-Mart to exchange a new phone that didn’t work. Now, before you shout hypocrite, recognize that in this small town Wal-Mart has already wreaked its damage, and Radio Shack was her only other choice. There was a line at the return counter, and it was a nice day, so I waited outside. On one bench sat a woman eating a sandwich, and on another sat a man smoking a cigarette. I often prefer the company of bushes to humans anyway so I sat on the curb near some imprisoned pyracanthias. Now here’s the point: I could tell that those who walked by, especially Wal-Mart employees, were uncomfortable that I was sitting in an unauthorized spot. And I know the problem was where I was sitting: I didn’t have unauthorized long hair, nor unauthorized body odor, nor unauthorized dirty clothes, nor was I frowning in some unauthorized manner. But I could feel that people wanted me to move, and consequently I could feel myself wanting to move, to get back in line. The feeling was almost overpowering.
The same psychological pressures to conform would be at work were I instead poised at a mass media magazine rack, choosing between Soldier of Fortune, Penthouse, or Car and Driver. At the next level this pressure might cause me to stand with a chainsaw in my hand, pointing it at an ancient tree, or, in another circumstance, to aim a pistol at a Russian Jew kneeling beside a pit filled with writhing bodies. We should never underestimate the power of internalized social pressure to conform.
One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to coopt rationality, to coopt hope, to coopt short-term fear. At every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interest to not resist: many Jews had the hope—and this hope was cultivated by the Nazis—that if they played along, followed the rules laid down by those in power, that their lives would get no worse, that they would not be murdered. They faced these questions: get an I.D. card, go to a ghetto, get into a cattle car or resist and possibly get killed. What happens when we ask ourselves the same questions? Would we rather get in the showers, or resist and risk getting killed?
The Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising—including those who went on what they thought were suicide missions—had a higher rate of survival than those who went along. Never forget that.
Here’s something else important: A high-ranking security chief from South Africa’s apartheid regime later told an interviewer what he had feared most about the rebel group African National Congress (ANC). He had not so much feared the ANC’s acts of violence as he had feared that the ANC would convince the oppressed majority of Africans to disregard “law and order,” that is, to think and feel for themselves. Even the most powerful and highly trained “security forces” in the world would not, he’d said, have been able to stem that threat. When we come to see that the edicts of those in power carry no inherent moral or ethical weight, we become the free human beings we were born to be, capable of saying yes and capable of saying no.
Remember that also.
In the sixteenth century, Éttiene de la Boétie reminded us that when the powerful are insatiable, submission is fatal—that the more we submit ourselves to to the “law and order” of those in power, the more they will demand. He wrote that “the more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy. But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.”
Sure, we are afraid. There is much to fear. But with a world being destroyed before our eyes, this belief that we have something to lose soon becomes an illusion. And the best guide I know to help lead me away from these illusions is my heart. Following my heart has never led me wrong.
I think often of that grizzly bear, as I think, too, of the horses, cows, mice, chickens, geese, eagles, hawks, hummingbirds who have defended their loved ones. I think of the courage of bees who have flown at me, burrowed themselves into my hair to find a way to sting me, who have driven me away from their homes, at the inevitable cost of their lives. I think of the courage of salmon, who come back home year after year, who continue in the face of all that we are doing to them, or rather, all that we are allowing to be done to them.
And I realize that before I can save them, I need to rely on them to save me, to teach me and help me remember what it is to love, what it is to step beyond my fears, what it is to act in defense of those I love.
Originally published in the May/June 2004 issue of HopeFiled in Essays