"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare." ~ Japanese proverb
And what a nightmare it is.
Greenpeace and others like those filling the streets in Copenhagen, Denmark are showing that action is not in short supply, but as I listen to many environmentalists (or their organizational leaders) I can’t help but feel that Vision is AWOL.
I often see or hear phrases like "Tell Obama/World Leaders to…" or "Stop Mountaintop Removal." Impregnated in these phrases is the deference to authority and a complete lack of vision of what to replace these undesirable practices with. Why are we asking leaders we know are not accountable to us to not do things we have little idea of what to do differently? "Let’s Stop Mountaintop Removal" at least, with the aid of one solitary word, completely changes the dynamic from asking someone, a person in an authoritarian position, to do something to inciting others to doing it themselves!
Consider this taken from Greenpeace’s international page on Copenhagen:
The UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark will decide what the global fight against climate change will look like. Will world leaders step up and lead us to a safe and secure future or will they bow to pressure from the oil and coal industries and wait for someone else to lead?
We are in Copenhagen – at the UN Climate Summit – to bear witness to the decisions being made about our future. We’ll also be on the front lines of the demonstrations in Copenhagen – taking action and bringing your voice directly to world leaders as they shape our future.
The language completely reinforces authority and says nothing about the structural issues or the roles non-leaders can play in taking control of their lives and environments. They are there "to bear witness." Just look to the heavens and pray "world leaders" will "lead us to a safe and secure future"!
We have shown very well that we understand something is wrong. The scientific data about climate change is undeniable to all but those with ideological or vested interests to intentionally remain ignorant. We know that the issue is more than CO2. We know that our destruction of rainforests, wetlands, grasslands, and so on are part and parcel of the ecological catastrophes we are creating. We know that the polluting of air, water and soil is creating undesirable results. But what I am afraid we don’t know is the structural roots that market systems (and other factors like imperialism) are playing. Which is odd because our leaders have made it clear that to be good stewards of the environment would be bad for business and that’s true. It would. Business as is operated today runs on not being good stewards.
Don’t take my word for it. Do some independent research. Analyze the language of environmental organizations; look for clear critiques on the role markets play. What is the dominant picture you see?
If we look at this from the economic perspective we see that our activities – extraction, production, consumption and disposal – have a cost. There is a price being paid but it’s not being included in the costs of the item you purchase. When you put a gallon of gas into your car you are not paying the full tab. No, the tab is being picked up by Mother Earth and the current and future generations of living organisms that are affected by it in the form of pollution, health effects, exploited labor conditions and so on.
Why don’t markets account for these costs? The obvious answer is because markets (A) exclude all those affected by the transactions from participating except the buyer and seller; and (B) is motivated by profits, which these costs interfere with.
Try and imagine that if markets never existed. Imagine that the allocation system we have had throughout the Industrial Revolution was participatory planning. Imagine that the inclusion of preferences and effects of health and ecology were calculated and reflective in prices.
This would mean that McDonald’s would not be able to charge $1 for a double-cheeseburger because the cost is considerably more than a buck if you count all the costs – not just the ones convenient for profit-making.
The use of toxic chemicals in industrial and technological production would undoubtedly not exist at the levels today and the use of fossil fuels as well, because we would have a strong fiscal incentive not to use those practices but to seek out or create new regenerative technologies and processes that are more efficient.
A solution here is to realize that our words and actions are weapons. We should use them in ways that empower ourselves and others and organizes us into action around a clear vision. If we shape our communication in ways that deprive our listeners of a deeper understanding of the problem and that does not look to them for a more participatory role in not only solving the problem but managing it from here out then what results would we expect?
Social structures play a large part in social evolution. While there is no tabula rasa we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath: social environment is a factor in shaping us. A population excluded from popular participation, either by indoctrination or political laws, lacks the confidence and skills needed to manage their own lives. Over ten years ago, Noam Chomsky added to this logic by saying, "Freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift." So not only do we need the doctrinal and political support to be free, we also need the opportunity. To empower us with confidence and skills and to gain those opportunities we must first liberate our consciousnesses and become aware of how our own words and actions shape us. How can we push for the opportunities, the doctrinal or political changes if we aren’t even conscious of them?
Seeking a participatory economy is on one hand, instrumental. We have an objective: to have a just economy. But on the other hand, it is transformative. It is a force of social evolution that breeds compassion and cooperation. This is a dramatic change from market capitalism with its greed, anti-sociality and environmental destruction.
Let’s stop looking to and asking leaders to make good decisions and start looking to and asking ourselves to build a popular revolutionary movement from below until there is no above.