Years ago I was interviewed by a dogmatic pacifist (note to self: bad idea), who in his (grossly inaccurate) write-up said he thought I wanted all activists to think like assassins. That’s not true. What I want is for us to think like members of a serious resistance movement.
What does that look like? Well, to start, it doesn’t have to mean handling guns. Even when the IRA was at its strongest, only 2 percent of its members ever picked up weapons. The same is true for the Underground Railroad; Harriet Tubman and others carried guns, but Quakers and other pacifists who ran safe houses were also crucial to that work. What they all held in common was a commitment to their cause, and a willingness to work together in the resistance.
A serious resistance movement also means a commitment to winning, which means figuring out what “winning” means to you. For me, winning means living in a world with more wild salmon every year than the year before, more migratory songbirds, more amphibians, more large fish in the oceans, and for that matter oceans not being murdered. It means less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. It means living in a world where there are fewer dams each year than the year before. More native forests. More wild wetlands. It means living in a world not being ravaged by the industrial economy. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get there (and if, by the way, you believe that “whatever it takes” is code language for violence, you’re revealing nothing more than your own belief that nonviolence is ineffective).
That’s fine, Derrick, but what do you want me to do?
Part of me wants to tell you to bring down the industrial infrastructure, the engine driving the destruction of the planet, converting so-called raw materials — read: living beings, biomes, and indeed the world — into products for sale. But there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to suggest that, because I’m guessing you wouldn’t do it anyway. And besides, I don’t know you, and no one who doesn’t know you should ever tell you what to do (and if they do, you shouldn’t listen). In any case, ignoring what I have to say may not be such a bad idea, since what I really want is for people to think for themselves — not to bring down the industrial infrastructure because I tell them it’s killing the world, but rather for them to deeply attend to our current crises and come to their own conclusions about what we must or must not do, what we must unmake and what we must make anew.
But, Derrick, what do you want me to do right now?
Okay, here’s a list:
A lot of the indigenous people with whom I’ve worked have said to me that the first and most important thing any of us needs to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. Decolonization is the process of breaking your identity with and loyalty to this culture — industrial capitalism specifically, and more broadly civilization — and remembering your identification with and loyalty to the real physical world, including the land where you live. It means re-examining premises and stories this culture handed down to you. It means seeing the harm this culture does to other cultures, and to the planet. It means recognizing that we are living on stolen land. It means recognizing that the luxuries of this way of life do not come free, but rather are paid for by other humans, by nonhumans, by the whole world. It means recognizing that we do not live in a functioning democracy, but rather in a corporate plutocracy, a government by, for, and of corporations. Decolonization means recognizing that neither technological progress nor increased GNP is good for the planet. It means recognizing that this culture is not good for the planet. Decolonization means internalizing the implications of the fact that this culture is killing the planet. It means determining that we will stop this culture from doing that. It means determining that we will not fail.
And this is just the absolute beginning of decolonizing. It is internal work that doesn’t accomplish anything in the real world, but it makes all further steps more likely, more feasible, and in many ways more strictly technical.
Next, ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe. People sometimes ask why I write instead of blowing up dams, to which I reply that my only D in college was in quantitative analysis chemistry lab, meaning you don’t want me anywhere near explosives. Some people have said I should be an organizer instead of a writer. These people have never seen my work space; if I can’t keep track of my pens, how would I possibly keep track of anything more complex? Likewise, I’ve filed dozens of timber sale appeals, but it was a very laborious process for me; it took me twelve hours to do what others could do in two. And I write terrible press releases. I can, however, write books. Harness your gifts, and put them in the service of your landbase.
My third suggestion is to ask yourself: what do I get off on? One reason I don’t burn out as an activist is that I love what I’m doing. I was out one day with a wetlands specialist. We were trying to stop a developer from ruining a forest. The specialist dug into the soil, rubbed some between his fingers, and compared the color to a chart, which would help him determine if these were wetlands. I asked, “Do you get off on this?” He laughed and said digging in dirt was his second favorite thing to do after playing with his dogs. I laughed too and said I wouldn’t like to do that work. I, on the other hand, have condemned myself to a life of homework: I get off on trying to figure out, for example, the relationship between perceived entitlement, exploitation, and atrocity.
My next suggestion is to make protecting the land where you live — and by extension the rest of the natural world, since protecting the land where you live will be insufficient to protect anadromous fish, migratory songbirds, or anyone in a world being burned alive by global climate change — the most important thing in your life. That may sound drastic, but we’re talking about life on the planet here. There can be nothing more important than this.
So, Derrick, what exactly do you want us to do?
I want you to make the time to find what or whom you love — whether it’s salmon, sturgeon, a patch of forest, survivors of domestic violence, your own indigenous tradition, migratory songbirds, coral reefs, or Appalachian mountaintops — and I want you to dig in and defend your beloved with your life, and, if necessary, with your death. I want for your actions to positively contribute to the health and defense of the planet. I want for you to figure out how to make it so the world — the real, physical world — is a better place because you were born, and because you lived here.
All of this leads to the point, which is, put simply, to do something. Several years ago I was giving a talk to several hundred people about bringing down civilization. The audience was excited. The atmosphere was like a rock concert. I suddenly stopped and asked, “How many of you have ever filed a timber-sale appeal?” Four or five. “How many have worked on a rape crisis hotline?” Ten women. “How many have done indigenous support work?” Three or four. And so on. It’s all well and good to talk about the Great Glorious Revolution, but what are you doing right now?
The big dividing line is not and has never been between those who advocate more or less militant forms of resistance, or between mainstream and grassroots activists. The dividing line is between those who do something and those who do nothing.
That’s what I want you to do. That’s what the anadromous fish and the Appalachian mountaintops want you to do too.
Originally published in Orion MagazineFiled in Essays