Monday, April 26, 2010

Abandon all Hope Ye who enter Here

Not too long ago Derrick Jensen came through Burlington to speak at UVM.  He generally spoke about the concepts he wrote about in his two book series, End Game.  What he says scares a lot of people, and so the normal reaction is fear, hatred, belittling, etc of him and his ideas.  He asks questions, not just of the world he lives in, but of himself and those who share this place with him.  For instance, he asks what is your threshold for when you will act, Resist, fight back against powers that are polluting, destroying, killing the land that we all share?  When is it time?  And when that time comes, what will you do?

Here's an article he wrote for Orion Magazine.  Reading it and ask yourself:  Do salmon deserve to live? Do trees deserve life?  Will the industries stop extracting resources at the expense of life?  Will the capitalistic system change and work for everyone, politicians will act for the greater good?  Be honest.

THE MOST COMMON WORDS I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked. Most of these environmentalists are fighting desperately, using whatever tools they have—or rather whatever legal tools they have, which means whatever tools those in power grant them the right to use, which means whatever tools will be ultimately ineffective—to try to protect some piece of ground, to try to stop the manufacture or release of poisons, to try to stop civilized humans from tormenting some group of plants or animals. Sometimes they’re reduced to trying to protect just one tree.
Here’s how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they’re gone in twenty, they’ll be gone forever.”
But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care.
Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.
Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse. Rapidly.
But it isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?
We’ve all been taught that hope in some future condition—like hope in some future heaven—is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.
The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.
More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would—how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.
I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.
When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.
When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.
PEOPLE SOMETIMES ASK ME, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.
Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.
Another question people sometimes ask me is, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just party?” Well, the first answer is that I don’t really like to party. The second is that I’m already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.
I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction—the use of any excuse to justify inaction—reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.
At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn’t matter, he said, and it’s egotistical to think it does.
I told him I disagreed.
Doesn’t activism make you feel good? he asked.
Of course, I said, but that’s not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world.
Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.
A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell—you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.
And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase—not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.
When you give up on hope—when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive—you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?
But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.
And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.
In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The latest from Fiestpad...

A Hokkaido Bike Ride: Part 1 

As the ferry pulled into port at Tomakomai in Hokkaido 19 hours after leaving Tokyo, my first thought was that I was woefully unprepared for touring in Japan for the next two months. I had arrived in Japan deciding to tour by bicycle about a week beforehand. At that time I was traveling to Northern Ireland to tour Giant’s Causeway that I decided that I would tour Japan. Having just come off a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, I didn’t really have much gear to meet those ends. But I assumed that I would be able to pick up the essentials (a bike) all in Tokyo and figure it out from there.

And so, three days after arriving in Japan and running around Tokyo trying to find that one guy who worked in a bike shop that spoke English, I had already cycled 100 miles, hopped on a ferry, and 19 hours later was dropped at the southern coast of Hokkaido. This was it! This is the island I had read about for a week beforehand that is great for cycling. My bilingual map and my cyclometer, (the only two traveling buddies I would have along for the ride) I hoped would not lead me astray as I ventured forth, unprepared and un-knowledgeable, into the wilds. I pedaled off with slight fears about ravenous bears and diseased waterways, but didn’t take notice that I was alone and in a country where I couldn’t even pretend to speak the language (though I tried).

I really had no idea what I was doing, having neither bicycle toured much nor attempted a two month self sustained tour of any kind. It was therefore a learning experience my first night wild camping about how to find a nice camping spot, how to remain hidden, and how not to freak out at every little scratch and chirp outside the flimsy tent walls. As the sun started setting about 6pm, I thought an hour beforehand is when I should have found a spot for the night. So when I saw the huge industrial dam along the river I had been biking next to, I thought it, “Wouldn’t that make a nice spot”. There was some nice hard ground near the fence that kept me from plunging to my doom, and the constant background buzz of a dam at work, I assumed making electricity. I didn’t get much sleep that first night. Upon awakening, I discovered that while it didn’t rain, my tent was still soaked from not only my breathing, but from the dew that would plague me the entire trip. Slugs were also making love to my tent.

Cycling along non-descript streets, along non-descript Japanese suburban scenery, I wasn’t experiencing or seeing the Japan I had thought I would. I wasn’t seeing the wild Hokkaido the internet raged about. I had this image that I would be cycling along the pinnacles of mountains, through dark musty forests with bears scattering away, of raging rivers and 1,000 ft gorges. I also had some fuzzy image of what Japan would be like: Hello Kitties everywhere, little kids flying kites while speaking Japanese, and lots of dead whales. Thankfully, my images were surpassed by the realities of what I experienced.

And so a second night of wild camping in the fog behind a set of toilets is where I hit, rather quickly, a low point in my travels. I was ready to call it quits.
Ahhh, but that is why there are day 3’s. After my first day of grueling hill climbs, mountain tunnels and passes, I finally made my way to the first and never-ending beauty that is Hokkaido and Japan. I discovered that along the roads are millions of secret streams, coming from somewhere and gently going elsewhere. I discovered the subtle changes of the trees in autumn as I biked higher and higher near the heart of Hokkaido. I was in an art museum all day long, my admission costing only my ability to pedal and to see.

I made my way to Akan National Park where I camped in a real campsite with thieving crows and free hot foot baths. There was even a crystal clear volcanic lake at my tent’s edge. Truly beautiful. The smile that beamed from me that day never left.
Throughout my travels in Hokkaido I was learning the ancient art of bicycle touring, the secret pleasure of motion by pedaling, and the slower paced, non-touristic sense of discovery. Every roadside stream, every caw caw of those wily crows, every unturned rock and whispered hints of adventure were mine for the taking. I struggled with the hills and the trees, screamed with the birds and the rivers as I freewheeled downhill, rested with the rocks, cried with the roadkill, and reveled in the secret spots I called my own night after night.

I spent a little over two weeks wandering the wonderful wide shouldered roads of Hokkaido. I ventured to peninsulas seldom visited by gaijin (foreigners). I went coast to coast to see the variances of the rock formations, speed through Sapporo, visited nearly every lake the island has to offer, and slept on the earth every night. Pedaling for hours everyday became automatic. I invented games to play, made witty comments on the passing life in my near perfect British accent, and accepted humbly the many offerings made to me by the Japanese environment and it’s people: Food, money, beer, and a few English sentences.

I was also learning that it wasn’t where I was going that mattered so much. The act of getting there was the adventure. The experience that I was enjoying and expounding to those who could understand me. Like the drunken Japanese man who through gesturing let me know via two thumbs up that he approved of my journey, and then gave me 1,000 yen (about $10), or the intrepid backpacker that I ran into at three different campsites around Hokkaido that eventually gave me his guide book (in Japanese) to use for the rest of my Hokkaido travels.
Nobody would have cared about me in a car, as that separates us from each other and the wonderful world that we belong to. On a bicycle I was actively welcoming all of the wonders of nature (her good and bad) upon me and telling all those who saw me that I was here to see, learn, and listen.
As I hastily made it onto a ferry that would take me to Honshu and the bulk of my tour, I said a silent prayer for Hokkaido. Not only was it a wonderful, open, and amazingly beautiful paradise where nature blooms, but I was reborn as a bicycle tourer there, cradled on the roads and rivers that taught me what it means to ride.