Saturday, July 28, 2012

Making yourself irrelevant

In the ideal world, there would be no "environmentalists" or "activists" or whathaveyou.

Activists and social workers frame problems. More often than not, they are the ones on the ground witnessing ecological tragedies such as an oil spill unfolding, witnessing poor decision-making that leads to a group of people being disenfranchised, witnessing human rights violations caused by fracking corporations tainting aquifers forever. It is the activist that is aware. It is the activist that fundamentally questions the nature of our choices and actions. But being aware is only the first step in creating change. Possibly the most important step for the activist comes next: How does the activist frame the problem? Is the problem the oil spill itself? Or the political complex that leads to oil being pulled out of the ground in the first place? Is the problem that people don't have food to eat today? Or is the problem really how oppressive economic structures leave people struggling to make ends meet? In framing what the activist observes, in framing the problem, the activist creates, frames, and dictates the response. The framing of the problem connects the activist with people that have goodwill, filling them with empathy and compassion. But what happens with that empathy and compassion? In the end, are people made to feel that their monetary donation is enough? Or are they made to get off of their seats and actually do something about the problem?

The goal of the activist is to take down systems of oppression, not navigate them with integrity, would say Derrick JensenThe very need for police states, for environmental monitoring, for refuges from oppressive places must be diminished. In my mind, the goal of the activist is to create resiliency. It is to instill ways of thinking and being that allow for critical self-reflection, and action based on that reflection. Sure everyone sees the world different, and there are an infinite number of means to an end. But are those means socioecologically degrading and unjust? Are those means creating disparities between people? Or are they guided by a sense of constantly putting oneself in another person's shoes? Are they guided by fundamentally creating peace rather than ending war? 

When the privileged go to a place like Africa (because it is more exotic than going to rural Kentucky or a decaying urban core in the US...or even the street corner where the homeless person spends time) it is easy to see that people are starving. Okay...That lets USAID dump buckets of food on them covered in American flags, making the Americans look good but in no way empowering Africans to make them resilient. That is not to say that food should not be given to those that are hungry. But does the donation of food come along with an understanding of why they are hungry? Does the donation in any way empower the people other than giving them energy to survive another day? 

These questions go deeper than mere policy tinkering that still maintains power dynamics, that still keeps dragging the carrot just beyond arm's reach. In framing the problem, the activist must not create more work for herself. The fundamental goal of the activist is to make herself irrelevant. The activist should not, as Wendell Berry would say, be a specialist--one that beats the same drum again and again. In the ideal world, the activist won't need "a seat at the table". Rather, the work of the activist is accomplished when a changed paradigm of decision-making, of politics, of being, comes around. The activist, or environmentalist, or whathaveyou, must go to bed every night thinking, Have I done work today that will diminish my need tomorrow? If the answer is yes, the activist is on the right track. 

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