This article was published in Adbusters #91, the ’I, Revolution’ issue. Right at the back. But that’s cool, because I read magazines back-to-front. Don’t know why, just do.
It’s late. Maybe 2, or 3am, and I’m scanning my email inbox for anything important I might have missed. Eventually I notice a message that lists the names of two famous activists – Bill Mckibben and Naomi Klein – in its subject header.
The email is a ‘call to action’ soliciting support for Tim DeCristopher, a climate change activist who faces 10 years in jail after disrupting an auction of oil and gas leases in Utah.
I’m interested in this, and not just because of the facts – that by his fake bidding, DeCristopher prevented the Bush administration selling off 14 parcels of land for fossil fuel extraction – and is being prosecuted despite the new US administration ruling that the land had been inappropriate for sale. I’m actually interested largely because I’ve recently been thinking a lot about jail, and wondering about what role it might play in the peoples movement for just action on climate change. So I want to know more about Tim DeCristopher.
On his website (www.bidder70.org) there is a video of DeCristopher speaking at a climate rally in Salt Lake City last October. An athletic-looking 26-year-old with a shaved head and intense eyes, he speaks loudly and succinctly, like a charismatic churchman in full swing. At times he even breaks into gospel song.
There is more than a hint of spirituality in his speech, too. He tells the crowd of his personal awakening – that every day since his action, despite knowing he may soon be behind bars, he has walked a little taller, and felt a little more free. He also offers them a form of salvation, promising that it will be the social struggle for a safe climate and sustainable future that will make us the truly noble beings we were meant to be.
In an interview with Democracy Now, DeCristopher quotes the late US environmentalist Edward Abbey, who said that ‘sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul’. For much of his time as an activist on climate change, he explains, he felt a nagging disconnection between the scale of the issue and his actions upon it. But when he began to bid at the auction, and risk imprisonment, he says, he became profoundly calm.
I feel I can understand this. As a climate activist, I have felt this disconnection, and also its absence. I know that as I signed on, again and again, to a never-ending parade of online petitions, wrote letters to politicians, and chose ‘eco-friendly’ options at the local supermarket, I was aware that such token actions betrayed my true feelings about the importance of the issue. In a way, they were a lie, both to myself and to the world. And they didn’t feel good.
But there have also been times when my actions did honestly represent my convictions. Last September, I was arrested for trespass during a mass civil disobedience action against one of the world’s most polluting coal power stations. And from early November till mid-December, I fasted on water and salt outside Australia’s parliament house calling for action on climate change with Climate Justice Fast!, an international hunger strike I co-founded. On those occasions, I experienced just the feeling DeCristopher describes.
Riding in the back of a police car after my arrest, I felt a warm contentment, and strangely enough, an enormous sense of freedom. And weak and hungry from my fast, I often puzzled the journalists who asked how I felt by responding that I felt very good indeed.
What I found, and what I believe Tim DeCristopher and Edward Abbey found, was the same thing – we cannot be at peace if our actions do not reflect what we truly believe. But when they do, our spirits soar. Then, we’re alive, and we are free.
This is no groundbreaking revelation. Mahatma Gandhi probably had the same kind of feeling in mind when he said that ‘happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are all in harmony’. Yet while it is nothing new, there may be few more important concepts for our society to grasp.
In his recent work The Freedom Paradox, The Australian thinker Clive Hamilton argues that within free-market capitalism, corporate interests actively discourage us from acting in accord with the values, preferences and desires we would endorse after careful consideration. Very few of us, he writes, would upon deep reflection say that it is our innermost desire in life to work incredibly hard at a job we dislike in order to possess the latest consumer products. Yet this is precisely the life our society encourages. From our young childhood onwards, advertisers expertly instil within us a set of values, preferences and desires that are not our own, but those that corporations wish us to have. As a result, our true ideals become increasingly neglected and stigmatized. This denial of our moral selves, Hamilton believes, can largely explain the discontentment increasingly prevalent in affluent societies.
Some empirical support for these ideas can be found in the work of Martin Seligman, the world-renowned psychologist and expert in the study of happiness. After years of research, Seligman has proposed that a major component of happiness is having ‘meaning’ in our lives, which is achieved, according to his definition, by being devoted to something larger than ourselves.
This complements Hamilton’s arguments well. The things we devote ourselves to and derive meaning from, will doubtlessly be linked with our inner values. And if devoting ourselves to things we deeply value is an important part of happiness, it seems only obvious that failing to do so – and living in societies that actively discourage us from doing so – would lead to unhappiness.
Which is all just a complex way of saying that that if, deep down, you feel like you should be taking certain actions, or that you are not living up to your true ideals, then you will probably be a happier person if you take those actions, and live up to those ideals. Simple, really.
Well, simple, but important. We, alive today, are very likely the last generation that will be able to mitigate climate change, and stave off global ecosystem collapse. So our responsibility is enormous. Yet while our politicians procrastinate, and our polluting industries and lifestyles continue to expand heedless of the risks, many of us still remain dormant. A small section of our society is alive to the issue, and politically active upon it, but its numbers are still far too small to bring about the changes we desperately need.
Our greatest hope, then, may be that Hamilton and Seligman are right, and that our societies harbour an enormous number of people who are failing to live up to their inner ideals, who are unhappy as a result. Because if that is the case, then the salvation offered by Tim DeCristopher in Salt Lake City is real. Standing up and acting upon our deeper ideals and fighting back against the forces systematically destroying our environment would not only allow for our species to continue to survive and flourish on planet earth, it would also make us happier, and more free. Matching our sentiments with actions, as Edward Abbey may have said if he had been more optimistically inclined, will make our souls sing.
So if you feel that maybe you should be doing more, my advice is simple- do more. Take that step that your real self, your moral self, has been pulling you towards. Contact that group you have been meaning to contact, or start that group you have been meaning to start.
And feel that life pulsing through your veins.