Confessions of a Could-Be Activist

Tracing my awakening awareness, before I became a climate activist
From The Sierra Club Iowa magazine, 2002

I am not an environmental activist. An activist takes strong, concerted action, on a regular basis and often at considerable personal cost, to try to change the world. Instead, I feel like one of Burke’s "good men." It is not that I literally do nothing. I am, after all, a member of the Sierra Club! Since 1988, I have paid my club dues, read the glossy magazine, thought some of the good thoughts, and joined some of the right email campaigns. I may do more than some people, but I do far less than others — and compared to what is needed, my actions are just a poor pittance. I am a supporter at a distance, from a place of comfort. I am not much more than a compassionate observer, watching as this beautiful world shudders under blow after blow from the unconscious, brutal advances of a senselessly avaricious humanity.

I wonder — since I am not an activist, by what name should I be called? (Other than ungracious things like "a hoser," which might be the most telling.) Am I a passivist? That sounds too much like pacifist, which is often a kind of activism in its own right — but the term will have to do. When it comes to the issues that matter, the ones that demand something of us, the passivist is fundamentally passive, he is distracted, he is otherwise engaged, he is complicated, he puts off, he deflects responsibility so well that he hardly feels it at all: he is comfortably numbed. Or he may feel the world’s distress well enough, but in unfocused, unchanneled diffusion, from which no directed and effective action emerges.

Above all, for the passivist, it is ultimately somebody else’s job to make a difference. The Sierra Club, probably because it recognizes the limitations of its members, invites "activism by proxy," letting others — the ones we may imagine to be the professionals, the effective ones, the ones with the time and the skills needed to make a dent in the adamantine political labyrinths — letting others do the real work, supported by our meager dues and our liberal sympathies. The professional environmental lobbyists are on duty — surrogates for ourselves and our own responsibility.

The passivist thereby succeeds, to an extent that is impossible for the activist, in feeling absolved from his own duty to act. While the activist feels that he must act, and right now; the passivist behaves as though he can put off acting forever.

The Sierra Club would like nothing more than to see a groundswell of genuine activism among its ranks. But with so many passivists on its rolls, one might wonder whether the Club has more of an audience than a membership. The passivist watches, notices, is aware of the trends. He is informed, but not himself truly formative.

What is most remarkable about being a passivist is the fact that it is indefensible. Ask yourself, or if you are bold enough, ask another passivist -straight up — for a justification of passivity. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, people of every political stripe can defend their own worldviews, and although you may not agree with any of their points or their values, you cannot say they lack a defined position. But the passivist has not a leg to stand on — other than disengagement and distraction, with perhaps a dose of dullness and discouragement.

Do I feel I have an obligation to act? Do I think I should be doing more about the accelerating damage to our planet? Do I believe these issues are of vital importance, more important than most other things I can conceive of? My answer, as a passivist, is immediate but equivocal: 'yes!...but.... The 'yes' is authentic; the "but" smothers the impulse.

Yes, I should do something...

  • but will anything I can do really make a difference?
  • but I don’t have enough time, with my job, my family, my life.
  • but I’m not sure what actions make sense for me to take.
  • but I don’t want to be "on a mission from God," saving the world.
  • but there are too many issues, too many tragedies.
  • but I try to contribute to the world in my own way.

Passivism is all about succeeding in not doing what we believe in. But what kind of success is that?

Most passivism is simply a bad habit. (What is more maddening, even more destructive, than our bad habits?) To change a habit, you need some simple, compelling technique to break through the inertia, to connect the desires and beliefs of our hearts with the organs of thought, speech, and above all — action.

In the end, passivism is a failure of imagination, and a failure of will. It is a failure of imagination because we do not allow ourselves to actually feel the raping and poisoning of our planet, although intellectually we may fully understand it. It is a failure of will because we are always waiting to be moved, rather than making the decision and the commitment to move ourselves into appropriate action.

What can be done? First of all, we must decide to make some changes. We can decide to expose ourselves systematically to information and discussions that make the immediacy of the need even more compelling, engaging our imagination and our hearts. Most importantly, we can commit to some first new steps on the path to a greater activism.

Whatever you are doing now, you can take an additional step. Even if the step is small, its value is great if it is done with authentic engagement, backed by conscious choice and a commitment for follow-through. Years ago, the book 50 Things You Can Do To Save The Planet popularized the idea that there are actions we can take every day — simple, mundane, not glorious — that can literally make a world of difference. Make future entries in your day-timer or calendar to get you jump-started, and don’t pass over them. Keep handy the phone numbers, email, and postal addresses of your representatives. Join email lists that remind you of pressing issues, and take action on each one you feel is important. Elsewhere in this issue are suggestions for ways to notch up our political activism, by committing to a regular process of engagement with our representatives and government leaders. We can write letters, we can phone in our "votes", over and over as the challenges continue to arise. Future issues of this paper will offer more ideas. There are many ways to make our voices heard; we can be sure they will not be heard if we do not speak out.

There is, after all, a world at stake. How sad it is to watch this world sicken visibly and weaken before us, in plain sight, and not rise up to come to her aid. Doing nothing, it turns out, is not doing nothing — it is doing the very thing that will allow the forces of mindlessness and greed to destroy the beauty, health, and vibrancy of this earth. Shakespeare’s King Lear made the dire warning that "nothing will come of nothing." Unfortunately, something far worse than nothing will be the result if we continue to fail to act.