John McAndrew

Making Our Activism Count

In environment, Thoughts on November 28, 2015 at 9:44 AM
The Native Peoples of Canada and the US Know

The Native Peoples of Canada and the US Know

Petitions? Marches? What’s that old definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? When do we give up on tactics proven not to work and begin to fight as if the survival of our and many other species is at stake?

I do want to be supportive of whatever activism people are up to, so long as it isn’t a kind of self-delusion. I’m not getting a sense that anyone is taking notes on our effectiveness or our lack, maybe because the movement is decentralized. Whose job would that be?

Isn’t it essential that whatever we do actually work? Questioning the efficacy of activism – and what else is activism for but to be effective? – seems to be taken as rudeness. Like noticing a naked emperor. I can’t imagine Sun Tzu or Clausewitz being satisfied that their army is big, even though the enemy has not fled before it, and is, in fact, having a leisurely picnic nearby. The stakes are existentially high, we are being backed off a cliff, and we seem unmotivated by the fact that all of our victories, taken together, have not yet resulted in a reversal of course.

I’d much rather have a multitude of direct actions from which to choose. I’d rather have 300 Spartans, or their modern day equivalent, than 400,000 ineffectual but well-meaning marchers. Many of those marchers must feel the same way: “I will do this because it’s what we’re doing, but I’d rather be doing something more effective.” Isn’t it a little late to be asking nicely for the rich and powerful to become Gandhi-like?

It is in the interest of the rich and powerful to keep things as they are, to maintain an immensely profitable status quo. It’s in their job description. Unless they are a B Corporation, it is literally illegal for them to do otherwise. If they are not spending millions or billions on fighting us, it’s because our “activism” has not even been noticed by them, much less qualified as a threat.

If our elected representatives (let’s not call them leaders just yet) come home with a watered-down proposal while expecting accolades for “making progress,” we will criticize them for that. Online. Where it’s safe. If we are not prepared to take matters into our own hands in the event of their failure, how are we any different, much less better, than they are? We criticize them for not making the difficult choices that need to be made. Are we making those choices ourselves?

Petitions do nothing but salve our consciences, but are fine for invalids who can do nothing more. Letters to editors or members of Congress are better.

Marches are worse than useless, since they cost carbon to travel and are easily ignored by media and the people whom they pretend to oppose. They are a simulacrum of activism: they make participants feel good, even morally superior, without asking anything of substance of them and without solving any problems. They are what Bonhoeffer called, in a different context, “cheap grace.”

So what do we do?

The work of the Good Cop part of the movement, as represented by’s divestment movement, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend, has to continue. It’s what makes COP21 a credible effort as opposed to just the next ineffectual meeting in the series. It’s essential, but slow, work, steeped in details of science and policy.

But I also think we need, and do not have, a ubiquitous Bad Cop contingent, like ACT UP, the AIDS direct action group. The two kinds of action complement each other. Tim DeChristopher once wore a T-shirt that said “I am the carbon tax.” In other words, I am a threat to your bottom line. I think we need to take a page – please, not the mic check page! — from Occupy.

There have been isolated examples:

  • Tim DeChristopher’s pranking of an oil and gas lease auction in his beloved Utah;
  • Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara using their lobster boat, the Henry T(horeau), to block a coal barge in Boston Harbor;
  • Idle No More and other Native groups in the US and Canada who have blocked the pipelines from the tar sands.

If we had 400,000 surrounding Congress, or Reagan Airport, or Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris, or every coal-fired plant in the country, for extended periods, then the good cops would be able to say, “Gee, Senator/Governor/Congress member, if you’d put a price on carbon, and end subsidies to these destructive, dishonest companies, maybe these ruffians would leave everyone alone. Sign here.”

I bet if we blockaded the Paris airports, so COP21 negotiators couldn’t leave if they didn’t come up with a decent deal, they would notice.

I bet if Anonymous messed with Exxon’s internal data, they would notice.

My plumb line is, if their quarterly reports are not affected, they won’t even begin to fight us. My other plumb line is, if CO2 emissions are inexorably dropping year after year, our activism is working; if emissions aren’t dropping, our activism is not yet working.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to be effective, or are we just content to be right? Being right is, in this context, synonymous with failure. We have other tools in our tool chest. Why are we afraid to touch them?

We Must Grapple with the Problem of Human Population

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2015 at 6:03 PM

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 12.58.28 PM

On a planet with 7.3 Billion people we have produced 100 Million more babies. So far. This year. (58 Million net, 100 Million gross.)

Perhaps some comparisons will help us understand this number. It is the equivalent of a new Philippines (102 Million. Don’t quibble: we’ll make it).

Or 1.25 Germanies.

Mehr Flammkuchen!

More than TWO Spains!

You can't have enough Spain! Rioja!

FOUR times the population of Australia!

Think of all the cuddly koalas . . . we no longer have room for.

Actually, I lied. Wikipedia says Australia has only 23.9 Million people. Multiplied by 4, that’s only about 96 Million – meaning we still have room for another . . .

Oh, look – a tree! How old-fashioned!

More cedars would be nice.

Lebanon! In addition to four more Australias.

But this may be difficult for some Americans to grasp. So let’s illustrate this with examples closer to home.

100 Million people is the equivalent of slightly more than 2.5 Californias.

That's a lot of drought-burdened hippies and celebrities!

It’s almost as big (just wait a week or so) as four Lone Star States.

Who doesn't need more oil wells? We don't! Yee-haww!

In 1974, when the Zero Population Growth people came to speak at my high school, we were just about to break 4 Billion. It was in the last 40 years that we have lost roughly 50% of our wildlife. In some cases, those losses have led to extinctions.

This is basic math. We can’t keep reproducing like this, especially at our current rate of consumption, and expect there to be no dire consequences with unpredictable follow-on consequences.

Every way in which we are damaging the planet is made worse by the number of us doing the damage.

Every solution to climate change is made less effective by the fact that we are adding millions of people to an already-stressed planet every single month.

There is no solution to climate change that does not require us to intentionally and dramatically reduce our population.

This kind of statement often elicits hysterical responses. “You’re talking in favor of genocide! Mass murder! Racial cleansing! Untold suffering! Soylent Green!” No, that’s what YOU’RE talking about if we let the laissez-faire approach to human population continue. What I’m talking about is rather mundane: have one baby, and no more. I’m certainly not against family. I am against suffering. The inevitable long-term effects of having policies that reward large families is hard to imagine. We’re already in the midst of a mass extinction resulting from our population plus our consumption. If we were reducing population by the amount that we are raising it every year, that would be progress.

Every solution to climate change would be made more effective by the reduction of our population. 

“Yeah? Well who’s going to decide? YOU?”

No: you, and you and you. Because this is simple math and elementary reasoning. It’s really hardly worth discussing. But I’m happy to suggest some possible policies, just as a conversation-starter: universal sex ed; free birth control; free vasectomies and tubal ligations; for the first child, free pre- and post-natal care and free job training and/or education – with an emphasis on educating girls; no freebies for subsequent children. You want a second child, you have to be able to afford it. Stop giving people like the Duggars tax breaks for being baby mills. It’s like subsidizing fossil fuel companies: why are we incentivizing those things that are not only not necessary, but which have a bad effect on our environment?

If you wish to argue any of those proposals based on the current economic system, don’t bother: I am assuming that a deliberate, persistent reduction in population would cause various kinds of disaster for our current capitalistic system. It’s time for a system that depends on cancerous population growth, that leaves the great majority of people behind, that has yet to result in happiness or contentment along with prosperity of a few, and that rewards those who waste massive resources and human capital, to be removed from life support.

Who has done population control well? China had mixed success with its one child policy, and the policy is often cited as the kind of draconian setting aside of personal liberty that must be avoided at all costs. And sure, I’d just as soon not legislate this, but depend on people to do the sane and responsible thing, look at the rapidly worsening state of the planet and say to themselves, “One is enough. I can help parent my friends’ kids, or adopt an orphan.” Iran had great success with their family planning program, dropping from an average of 7 births per woman to two. We can build on Iran’s program, and learn cautionary tales from China’s.

Some say that our population will stabilize as quality of life improves, topping out at a mere 9 or 11 Billion. They say this as if we have no worries, no need to be more deliberate and informed about our decisions. Let things take their natural course. This is delusional.

At some point – when the populations of other species have recovered and stabilized, and CO2 levels are dropping back to a normal range, we could return to having two babies. But because of the grotesque excesses of my generation, about which we were given adequate warning, we now have to dial back our population dramatically. We have to. Or, we will drive ourselves to extinction, ironically, by denuding the planet with too many people.

What I Learned from Tim DeChristopher’s Speech in Santa Fe

In environment, Thoughts on September 25, 2013 at 10:23 PM
By Robert Shetterly

By Robert Shetterly

Tim DeChristopher took time off from his studies at Harvard Divinity School to come to Santa Fe. He and Terry Tempest Williams, who introduced and interviewed him, were brought by the Lannan Foundation, which brings amazing authors and speakers to town and charges people a whopping $5.00 to attend. The Lannan Foundation is one of the best things to ever happen to Santa Fe.

I was impressed by how well Tim spoke extemporaneously, and how well he is handling his sudden notoriety.

The takeaway points for me were:

  1. People will act if they feel their action is needed, and that they can help. He noticed a lot of women his mother’s age coming to help out, and he surmised that it was because he reminded them of their own children and they sensed, correctly, that he was in over his head. He seemed to feel that taking a real risk – not just a photo op arrest – actually provided others with the impetus to act.
  2. He said it was important to let activists who DO take real risks know that they will be supported, that the movement will not let people go, will not forget them. His father had said that Tim would get some Christmas cards in jail but would be otherwise forgotten. Finding that he was wrong, and that Tim was not forgotten, helped bring his dad, who spent his career in the natural gas biz, around.
  3. He contrasted the responses to Katrina and Sandy. In the first case, the vacuum was filled by military people chasing people down the streets, and then corporations coming in and seeking to privatize destroyed services. In the latter case, Occupy Sandy moved in quickly, and in every neighborhood, so FEMA and the Red Cross, when they arrived later, depended on the infrastructure that was already there. He pointed out that the incessant talking that took place in Zuccotti Park was actually building a community that could organize and work together, and said that, since we have passed the point where we can avoid the worst of climate change’s effects, we have to build such resiliency into our communities.
  4. He talked about his prison experience, and one comment stuck with me. He talked about how the inmates were normal people, and they were aware that the culture inside was something they created. Part of that was in orienting new inmates – something the guards and admins couldn’t be bothered to do. And he said this was why it was So Wrong for inmates to rat on each other to guards: because it gave the guard power that they had not earned by caring about the inmates or participating in the culture. What struck me about that observation was how true this is Out Here, too. We call the cops on neighbors or those in the neighborhood in many cases because we have not taken ownership or responsibility for our own neighborhood. If we see something suspicious or harmful, we don’t confront people ourselves, as a neighborhood or community, but we outsource responsibility for our community. Tim commented how easy it was to accommodate himself to his (minimum security) prison, and how distressing that was. He said ANYone could do prison like that. That made him wonder how tractable we would be if the authorities said that, in order to be safe and comfortable, we would have to live as if in prison. He found it plausible that we would accept those conditions – which raises the question, “Have we accepted those terms already?”
  5. He said that it was interesting that so many people were passionate in their hope and work to ensure that he NOT go to prison, while his concern was how to get more people to take actions that could land them in prison. In other words, if climate change is not rationale enough to take actions that entail that risk, what will ever motivate us?

Terry Tempest Williams asked wonderful questions. One that she asked, but Tim didn’t answer, was what was the difference between sabotage, Monkey Wrenching, anarchy, and civil disobedience – and, by implication, which would he recommend? I wish he’d answered that, but they were running out of time and got distracted by a dispute over whether he was a Monkey Wrencher or not.

If I could have asked a question, it would have been this: Do you see the basic conducting of business by oil and gas companies as a form of violence, knowing what we know about the causes of climate change? What are the implications of your answer to that question?

The following is a quotation that was cited as being important to Tim, in the documentary about his action and arrest, Bidder 70.

Abbey DeChristopher

I was asked if I thought that his heart and passion, so in evidence in Bidder 70, wasn’t missing tonight. I had not thought of that, but yes: I wish he was more the fire and brimstone preacher than the cerebral Unitarian Universalist minister. He may still find that that spark is needed to fire people up, but he seems to be  taking a break from being the “angry young man.” I wish he’d been more directly challenging to us, and had put on the cloak, not of counselor but of general. I Am Dying To Do SOMEthing. Remember that John Hiatt song, Through Your Hands? I feel like kindling yearning for a spark, and am guessing that many others do, too. One last quotation:

“In classical times, when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke.’ But when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march.'” ~ Adlai Stevenson

I’m dying to march.


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