A Worthy Cause
Climate change. Medical costs. Inequality. Time famine. Issues galore. So, how do we get the biggest bang for our activist buck? Try these guidelines: work for (not against), get radical (address the radix or root) and follow the money – that's where the rubber meets the road.
1. Pro or Con?
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You can expend your limited resources trying to stop the world from getting worse – e.g., by opposing coal burning. Or you can try to help the world become better – e.g., by supporting solar power.
It'd be nice to be able to do both, but one has only so much time, energy, money, social capital etc.
Being against may offer more emotional reward. Humans love to complain. And to blame. Yet, when we try to stop others from what they're doing, we acknowledge – and thus increase – their power (to do what we object to). Even when we win, we leave their power intact to wield against us another day. As Dave Brower said, “our victories are temporary and our defeats permanent.”
But when we invite others to join us in something new, we imply that the old way is passé and its defenders rigid. If our proposal resonates with a critical mass – which can be as low as 10 percent of the population – then we can climb Gandhi's ladder: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
2. Finger in Dyke vs. Paradigm Shift
How high should we set our sights? Most of us can demand that the king behave (e.g., regulate Wall Street); only a few of us can demand that we have no king at all (don't let wealth concentrate on Wall Street). It's not just that defeating power is difficult; there's an instinctual hump, too – supplicants are inferior to those in power and deferring to superiors comes to us naturally (just ask the president).
Nevertheless, a big problem requires a big solution. If you want to cure an industrial society of its addiction to oil, higher mpg is not going to cut it. You need a solution that matches the size of the problem.
A plethora of problems also requires a single solution. When few things go wrong, sure, address lone issues, but when many things go wrong, address the underlying structure. Precisely because so many issues are pressing we should not work on any one of them, but on all of them, not one by one, but by addressing what undergirds them all. That is, resolve to tolerate the symptoms while working to correct the system.
3. Which Issue?
As Thoreau said, for every thousand persons hacking on the branches of evil, there is one striking at the root. But what issue is the root? What error, if we don't correct it, means fighting the same battles again and again? What change could we make, not in human nature, which can't be changed, but in current policy or custom, which can be changed, that would transform society at its core?
Seems to me (a lifelong activist) our sine qua non is: we need to get real about sharing, not sharing private possessions so much as sharing our society's surplus. We do have a common wealth, even if most of us are not aware of it.
What do we spend money on? One category is nature; we pay (usually indirectly) for land, resources, EM spectrum and ecosystem services. Gifts of nature – from soil to oil – exist due to not anything any human does. At the same time, they have value because all humans want them. We provide the demand, God or physics the supply. Which means all of us are entitled to a fair share of that immense flow of trillions of dollars each year.
When we leave trillions up for grabs, the more grasping among us gather them up by hook or crook or both. We let our common wealth create private fortunes and elitist power. In their rush to capture ever greater amounts of natural value, rentiers impoverish both people and planet – depleting and polluting, overworking and underpaying. As long as we leave these trillions on the table, we cannot expect results any different from the problems we now endure.
On the other hand, if we were to commandeer the spigot and spray that torrent of spending to everyone, we could close the income gap, level the playing field, shrink the work week and conserve our precious ecosystem. Sound farfetched? Maybe, but Alaska shares some oil value, and Aspen shares some land value.
Where From Here?
As transformative as getting an extra income apart from one's labor or capital may be, it is within reach. New waves deliver change, and polls show that the number of “cultural creatives” (that is, socially and environmentally conscious people whose political clout is expected to grow as their numbers and ideas coalesce) in America will likely reach 60 million, a fifth of society. Further, a social salary can be won step by step, from a local housing voucher to a federal Citizens Dividend, the goal of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network.
People hacking at the root normally have to wait a long time for results. Yet, are these times normal? Now, as so many critical issues intersect, many people long for a clean break from intractable problems and insufficient solutions.
Lend your voice; even stating the ideal helps make it real. Rather than make conditions in the prison tolerable, let's tear the walls of the prison down. Throw our energy into recognizing, recovering and partitioning our commonwealth. As Lincoln said, “nothing's fixed until it's fixed right.” Let's get it right.