knowing and acting

Freddie deBoer sent me this:

In Roman times, “belief” in the gods, as we understand it, was irrelevant. An atheist was not someone who didn’t “believe”, but someone who refused to take part in the civic rituals which kept the city and republic healthy. Someone (maybe Cicero?) might privately be as skeptical as they wished, as long as they performed the rites; failing to do so, regardless of private belief, would be to put the community in danger for no reason. In the American liberal bourgeois civic religion, there are two central rites the neglect of which makes you an “atheist” in that sense, someone letting down the side: voting, and awareness. Many, even some of the most self-righteous about voting, do not believe that it changes anything, but not to vote is unthinkable. The rage expressed about the man in the NYT who, unable to deal with the constant outrages of the age of Trump, refused to read or watch the news media, shows that awareness, too, is a civic sacrament. Despite the fact that he was doing some physical action to improve the world, his refusal to perform the holy rite of awareness was endangering the community out of some perverse selfishness, like a Roman sitting out an imperial triumph. “I don’t do enough,” they say, “But at least I know what’s going on in the world.”

Which put me in mind of a passage from Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

After years of living in cities with barely any contact with the ground, fuelled by anger and righteousness, driving myself into the ground, I decided to exchange activism for action. I decided to dig in, to use my limited powers to improve at least one small square of Earth, and to write, sometimes, about what I discovered by doing so.

Not everyone has been impressed with this approach. Some environmental activists in particular have reacted with anger. All this talk of grief and acceptance has sounded to them like a dangerous abdication of responsibility. It’s all very well for you to run away from the ‘fight’, I have been told, but this is the fate of the Earth we’re talking about. Forests are falling; the climate is changing. Millions of people are going to die, and you are advocating doing nothing. Are you depressed? Are you burned out? Whatever is wrong with you, you need to stop talking, because you are getting in the way of the necessary work.

My first reaction to responses like these was to defend myself, but when I got past that, I found I could easily understand their perspective. But I still thought there was something missing. Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.

All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.