John McAndrew

Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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 from COP21 in Paris 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?

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.

Thanks for Coming

In environment, Thoughts on July 16, 2011 at 8:27 AM

My father had two prostate surgeries when he was in his mid 70‘s. After the second one he contracted something called Guillain Barre Syndrome. It caused a paralysis that began in his hands and feet and quickly, within days, spread to his cardiovascular system. After weeks in Intensive Care, he beat it. He was rarely ill. He battled phlebitis and had the occasional flu, but that was it. He was 77, but healthy enough to beat Guillain Barre.

He was released from Intensive Care, and died three or four days later of pneumonia, which had set in while he had a tube down his throat, helping him to breathe, for 8 weeks.

I thought he was coming home. During our last visit, the night before he died, I was surprised to find that he was having difficulty talking. When he said something I couldn’t understand, I suggested that he write it down, but he shook his head no. I figured that, whatever it was, it could be dealt with when he finally came home. Since we couldn’t really talk, I cut our visit short and left. I had no idea he was dying. But for some reason, acting completely out of character for our relationship, before leaving, I leaned over and kissed his forehead and told him I loved him. Lucky: it was the last time I saw him alive. I thought we’d have a lot longer to sort things out.

Would it have been better if I had known? Maybe not. I could not have said goodbye better than I did. We might have had a longer conversation and said more deliberate goodbyes, maybe cleared the air a bit.

But here’s the thing: regardless of whether I had known, I’d have felt, and been, helpless to make a difference. I think the essence of grief may be the powerlessness. We develop a passionate desire to alter destiny, and we have utterly no ability to do so.

It’s important for people who are dying to know that they are loved, to receive the last little gestures their family and friends have to give. At least, I think it’s important to the dying, but maybe not. Maybe those gestures are only important to those of us left behind.  Little expressions of love in the face of death feel sacramental to me. They don’t turn back death, but they say, in effect, “Your life has had value to me. I will miss you.” They also say, “I’m showing up. I’m here, and I’m doing what I can, even though I suspect – I know – that it isn’t enough.”

Knowing that my friends would someday be going through what I was going through, I determined to pay attention to what people said or did at Dad’s funeral when they offered condolences. Here is what I learned.

Nothing but time can touch something as genuine as grief. But that’s okay. Because here’s the other thing I learned.

What mattered was that people showed up. One grade school friend, Tom Price, showed up to offer condolences, though we had not seen each other for years. I cried in my pastor’s arms when he showed up. Many of Dad’s colleagues from work or the Elks Club showed up, including my grade school math teacher who knew Dad from the Elks. I don’t remember what any of them said. What mattered, I discovered, was that they were there. It’s not easy to show up when you can’t make the difference we’d like to make. We come face to face with those we can’t help, when they most need help. We might as well be greeted with, “Well, if you can’t DO anything, why did you come?” Yet thirty years on, I remember many of those who came to pay their respects and offer condolences, and am grateful. They couldn’t bring Dad back, but damned if they didn’t make a difference in the face of his death. I was powerless to change my father’s fate. They were powerless to change my grief. But we all did the best we could, even if it wasn’t as much as we wanted.

* * * * * * * * *

Grief and powerlessness are parts, not only of the deaths of parents, children or loved ones, but also of things like a frustrated love affair or plan for college or career – anything, basically, on which we have fixed a passionate hope or expectation that becomes frustrated. . .

I have been trying for months to write about climate change and other threats to the environment: about my fear of the fires and floods; the plastic patch the size of Texas in the Pacific; the disappearing bees, the skies nearly empty of birds. I am aghast at those who refuse to acknowledge climate change, like smokers denying the connection between their habit and their cancer. I am confused by the lack of urgency our governments exhibit, and the questions they don’t have the courage to ask, much less debate. I vacillate between rage and a philosophical detachment. The rage is frustrating because I have no clear enemy to pummel. The detachment sometimes feels too much like giving up too soon. It’s like suffering all the stages of grief at once. It’s hard to write, at least coherently, when fear, sadness and rage are jockeying for pride of place on the keyboard.

Our predicament feels Hitchcockian. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I see loved ones in danger and am flayed by our desperate helplessness. How can you know that something this bad is happening and be powerless to stop it? What sadistic, capricious god gives us the capacity to diagnose without giving us the capacity to heal? Or the capacity, but not the will? In this sense, perhaps this grief is more like dealing with a suicide: there is a sense that the impending disaster is actually willed, not just a fate to which we must submit.

I love this Planet: the flowing, falling, freezing, heaving, melting water; all the seasons; shy deer leaping away through the trees or eating from my hand; great flocks of birds launching themselves into the morning; the shock of thunderstorms; the playfulness of young animals; massive whales, massively graceful; the sun setting on El Capitan in Yosemite, making it glow like backlit quartz; the magic of fireflies in my grandparents’ back yard; the majesty of a redwood forest that makes people giggle as often as it makes them hush . . .

I love much of the people-built world, too, though that love wrestles with my misanthropy. I despise our capacity to use power against the weak among us; our ability to delay acting, or to wait for others to act first; our selfishness, that can persist beyond childhood into a rapacious adulthood – these things make me wonder if Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said that we are an interesting, but failed, experiment. “The good Earth,” he wrote. “[W]e could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” (A Man Without A Country) What a species.

Yet our capacity for creativity, compassion, and perseverance inspire us to use words like “miraculous” for our own accomplishments. In our darkest hours, our capacity for heroism blazes. Writers and film makers move us to tears by depicting our kindness to strangers. We can find peace in gardens, cathedrals, and meditation halls, before paintings and sculptures in museums – all made by people, all expressing who we are and how much we have to give. And then there is the great-hearted writing of people like Twain, Dickens, and Vonnegut, who saw so much suffering in their own lives.

I don’t believe in blame any more. Not for this. The behaviors that have brought us here were, by and large, not ill-intended. Plastics made things safer and more convenient for a long time before they became a massive garbage dump in the Pacific. Oil and coal and gas made it possible for people to visit far-flung places, and to stay warm in winter, long before we knew that they were fouling the whole planet. Yes, there are some who take money to confuse us about our condition and its causes, and they do bear particular blame. But there are few of them, and they either know what they are doing or are pitiably deluded.

I want so badly to do something to make it all better, to be heroic. I can only make decisions for my own life, and while these are comically inadequate to the situation, they are what I can do, how I can show up. It seems the least I can do, to live a little more in harmony with my values. It won’t save the world, but it will signal my acknowledgement of the situation and my respect and love for what is passing.

Knowing the truth doesn’t always mean you can fix it. Knowing that Dad was dying would not have changed that fact. Knowing that the relationship between humans and our planet is changing doesn’t tell me how that’s going to unfold, or which of the species or people I love will or won’t survive.

There has been a lot of death recently. People died from a tornado in Joplin, Missouri; species, and the industries that live off them in the Gulf of Mexico, have been damaged by BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster; forests of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas last year, and the forests around Moscow the year before; the homes of New York and New Jersey which took the brunt of Superstorm Sandy; the sinking Maldives; and Australia, which burns with nearly 130º temperatures as I write this. I don’t see a lot of reason for hope that we can make the difference we’d most like to make. Even with all of this happening, year after year, world governments have yet to show any interest, much less urgency. It’s as if they have received the death sentence, and decided not to fight any longer.

The difference we’d most like to make is not possible, and never has been, any more than it’s possible for individuals to live forever in good health. To see our actions as inadequate in the face of a perfect world that we can imagine, but that we cannot create and has never existed, is a way of creating resignation and futility. It’s like saying, “I can’t bring them back from the dead, so I won’t do what needs doing – to go to the funeral and be with the family.” We are here now, and this is the situation we face.

We are only helpless, and our actions inconsequential, relative to a perfect world that has never existed. In the real world, people die, and make bad choices, and they and their children must live with them. And yet here, in the face of that hard truth, in that context – this is where we show up. This is really what it means to be human in the world. An ideal world wouldn’t need us. But we’re needed here.

Thanks for coming.


In Thoughts on June 9, 2011 at 3:32 PM

In the last two months, two old friends from my days in publishing have committed suicide. I had not seen either of them for many years, but had been in touch with both online in the last year through Facebook and e-mail. This brings to four the number of my friends and acquaintances who have left life by choice, at their own hands.

* * * * * *

I am the luckiest person I know. I mean that. I don’t believe most of my friends know anyone much luckier than I am. I have never known what I wanted to be when I grew up. Yet I had a fifteen year career in publishing as a sales rep for Harper & Row, later Harper Collins. I got all of my books, and most of my music, for free. I got to spend time with Barbara Kingsolver, Muhammad Ali, Tony Hillerman, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Clive Barker, and many many more. I have also benefitted from two inheritances, one of which was a complete surprise, which have permitted me to live a life of relative leisure and absolute financial security for the eleven years since my career at Harper. Before long I will have to work again, which I look forward to, but I have had my retirement in the middle of my life, and it has been a complete blast. I have traveled a lot, and learned a lot. If I were to contradict my earlier statement about not knowing what I wanted to be, I would say that I’ve always known that I wanted to live a life of inquiry. I have learned a little Spanish, and am now learning German. I’ve been privileged to volunteer for, and learn from, some wonderful organizations. I have earned a certificate in paralegal studies, taken an introductory course in permaculture, taken a short course in publishing at Stanford (so when I run for office and say I went to Cornell [College] and Stanford, it’s true!), and read lots of books – but not as many as I’ve bought. I’ve lived in Santa Fe and the San Francisco Bay Area. My life has not been what I imagined it would be – there’s been no life partner, no lifelong career, never much of the sense of direction I associated with adulthood when I was young – but it’s been full of wonderful people and experiences. I’ve been very, very lucky. Luckier than anyone you know, probably.

And I’ve been suicidal. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservatism and Original Sin:

In Thoughts on May 21, 2011 at 9:06 AM

I want to begin a discussion of Conservative Principles with a discussion of Original Sin. I will demonstrate the method I use by employing first an example that does not immediately push political, ideological buttons. Liberals and conservatives both have staked out positions on the issues of the day in such a way that merely mentioning an issue – immigration, energy, or abortion, for example – brings immediately to mind the positions that we find acceptable and unacceptable, the ones representing our side (the Good Guys) and the other side (the Evil or Stupid People).  This makes it difficult to see any points of commonality, or to see principles objectively if they are held by people whom we hold in derision.

Original Sin is my favorite Christian doctrine.  G.K. Chesterton said that it was the doctrine for which there was the most evidence. As the doctrine goes, our roots and origins preclude the possibility of human perfection. We are flawed. Sinful, even.

This is good news. Read the rest of this entry »

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