The Stale White Male
When it comes to dealing with, and living with, the effects of the carbon burden I tend to think more along the lines of Paul Kingsnorth and his Dark Mountain Project though with a little less fanfare and revelry. I don’t feel the need for a dance macabre but it is time to learn to live with what is really happening. Nothing will stop it. There is actually some kind of odd relief or comfort in being honest finally. And there is still the work we need to do regarding all of the other things we are doing to the planet, even if it seems more and more like damage control.
I also think that one of the reasons the work to mediate climate change is so ineffective is because of the nature of its self appointed leadership. These are largely the people least likely to be seriously affected by what’s happening; the privileged white western male. This makes it not really a movement at all; a movement would be something that came up from regular people. Think of the obvious and unfortunate example of Al Gore. Access to media and education were his tickets in; his message was to what he perceived as the people that were in a position to make changes. But the real world, the people cleaning his bathroom and cutting his grass, the uncounted millions would never turn to listen. To them he was nothing, or something like a cardboard cutout standing at the entrance to a Las Vegas hotel, an act. He never could achieve any kind of leadership status with the people who could act to make a difference. To them he represented more a part of the problem, just showing up one day with this message. He did not have the credentials of an integrated leader, he was no Cesar Chavez. His lesser known and much more articulate counterparts do not fare much better for similar reasons. Even if they don’t intend to, they so often represent an elitist approach, sophisticated and scientific treatises on the earth and calls for political action and gatherings that miss the point of what to do today at ground level. Also, there is the confusion that the search for alternate fuels is mostly to replace carbon emission fuels without much consideration for reducing energy use. This is a serious sticking point to the less privileged. The people most vulnerable to these changes see the upper and middle class white male as enemy, or irrelevant at best.
The farther away from the average person’s world these self feeling leaders live the more they become regulated to the unreal world of all mass media. In Gore’s case he was not real; things like Academy Awards and Grammys make him even less so, entering the world of Hollywood where everything is perceived as merely entertainment.
This is what comes to mind when I ask myself why Mr. Gore was so ineffective. He only spoke to his own kind, (as does Paul Kingsnorth.) The most important thing to remember about the western white male is that he is perceived by the rest of the varied and underprivileged world as mostly looking out for himself and his ethic, even for fighting climate change, is for his personal ends. He wants to find cleaner energy to maintain his lifestyle, and not consider drastically reducing his own use. People like him are not of their tribe and do not speak to or for them.
I think there is a different door, whether anything is done in time or not, to making the world a decent place to live. I think as writers and artists we can work to find ways for people to speak and act for themselves, even if it’s only some small beginnings.
Just as this problem begins with the earth, the solution might lie there also. In one of his best arguments for an agrarian approach to land use Wendell Berry, (The Agrarian Standard, Orion summer, 2002), talked about the landed person. “Agrarians value land because somewhere back in the history of their consciousness is the memory of being landless.” He suggests we are unlanded, but that we still yearn for the freedom from want we remember from when we owned or controlled land. “If you have no land you have nothing: no food, no shelter, no warmth, no freedom, no life.”
He says we all need to become agrarians again. For this I think it will be an advantage to have our society blended with indigenous peoples, and new people from Asia, and Mexico, and others who can offer a better memory of these things. The Hispanic immigrants to my own home town will be a great advantage when it comes to adapting to these changes. Although how to increase these voices, may still be a problem. (I sometimes imagine this being solved by some of them becoming writers, gardening, cooking, and writing, holding readings that give all others, especially women, permission to speak and take up a more definite leadership role.) It it’s not only the people with land that need to be landed, we are all agrarians and I would add to that we are all hunter/gatherers. And this is a hint of what may be a place to start. Again from Berry, “I don’t think that being landed necessarily means owning land. It does mean being connected to a home landscape from which one may live by the interactions of a local economy and without the routine intervention of governments, corporations, or charities.” Our connection to the land gave us a power over the basics, because we remember when we were landed and have a need for that freedom. It represents what Berry is talking about, the ability to get along, in any degree we can muster, without the blend of wealth and power that has taken over our world. I have a friend from Peru, she live here in this northern town and still waits for spring like a gardener. She grows tomatoes on her window sill, “to remind me of my mother’s garden” but if Barry is right, she is also holding on to the land. She is maintaining the memory of when she was on the land and knew she had some control of when she could eat. This is the end result of being landless, someone else controls when and if we eat. What is needed is a method to move her impulse forward, the idea that we have some control of what and when we eat by being connected to land.
So this is what I think about revolution, that it is nothing if it doesn’t come up from the bottom and spread to the middle. It needs to be against the top and not part of it. It’s something like the Rebecca Solnitz idea of the revolutionary garden ( Orion, July/August 2012) but I think at some point an enemy needs to be identified and targeted. What the revolution is fighting against should be in front of us to see. Something different that Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project’s near celebration of the failure of people like Bill McKibben (who are, in spite of all of their work, part of a complex and ineffective process.) There should be a declared victory each time someone harvests or purchases a tomato or chicken that has avoided corporate profit, blows against the empire, so to speak. People need some sense of fighting and winning, even in these small ways. Every garden, every barter, every non-new purchase should be a victory, and the victor might benefit from acknowledging this to her/himself. This is where we all come in, you with the radishes and tomatoes, my fish heads; we need to become agrarians, hunter gatherers, traders, scroungers, revolutionaries. As writers, reports can be made, “today we ate kale, did not shop at Fred’s.” We should stop wasting our energy avoiding conflict, battle lines need to be drawn and it needs to begin. We need to write new manifestos and instigate the fight, I don’t think it will happen without it, not some shouting at a rally in front of a pipeline project, but in that dirt and kitchen. We need to teach people how to say no to that thing out there that the self appointed leaders of the climate movement are a part of. There may be no big hope anywhere for what is happening, but there can be and are already small hopes here and there. Clichés perhaps, but it is vastly better than the mind numbing message that there is a solution in the works.