Thoughts for young activists

As a young anti-war activist in the 1960s, I met older radical Ira Sandperl at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in California, which he had founded with pacifist folk singer Joan Baez. One evening, Sandperl asked me, “Do you want to know the secret to organizing?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Be organized,” he said.

During this year — the 50th anniversary of Greenpeace — I’ve had occasion to speak with ecology and human-rights activists around the world. In some cases, young activists have asked my advice about how to achieve results.

On the one hand, I feel unqualified for this task because the world changes every day, new circumstances require new perceptions, new analysis, and new tactics to achieve new measures of success. One thing I’ve learned is that effective individuals and organizations need to continually re-invent themselves and their strategies. Nevertheless, having been asked to articulate some of my experiences and learned lessons, I will attempt to do so.

Truth: In my experience, taking effective action requires an effort to understand one’s self and the world, and this understanding arises from a lifetime’s work, unfolding as one lives life, genuinely, relentlessly, and openly. By openly, I mean impartially, shedding private and cultural biases. I’ve learned that wanting the world to be a certain way can be an obstacle to seeing the world as it actually exists and functions. We may never know any absolute truth, but the commitment to such truth is essential for an effective agent of change.

‘Sharpen the Sword’: Early in my social activism career I observed that our weakest link is often, if not always, ourselves. If we set out to change society, we will meet resistance, quite naturally. People don’t necessarily want to change, and may obstruct efforts to inspire change. Vested interests — people who are making money or securing power within the status quo — will almost certainly resist and sabotage change. This battle requires eternal vigilance.

However, equally difficult challenges may arise from the sabotage we inflict ourselves through the insecurities of one’s ego. In my 20s, more than 50 years ago, I first heard Buddhist teacher Kalu Rimpoche use the metaphor, “sharpen the sword before going into battle,” but in this case you are the sword. Work on yourself first. Your struggles for peace, justice, and ecology will be blunted if you are compromised by unhelpful ego, desires, fears, and confusion. We sharpen the sword by paying attention to our own motivations, working on ourselves, quieting our ego, making ourselves better human beings and better agents of change.

Do the research: It helps to understand even those who oppose us. To understand people, their motivations and expectations, one must spend time with people. To understand nature, one must spend time in nature. Not all research is done with books or the internet. I have learned that it helps to observe individuals, groups, myself, and the natural world with curiosity, openness, and rigor. Paying attention is the beginning of knowledge.

Knowledge is its own reward. It will prove helpful to relentlessly research the issues you care about. Know the science, the way nature works. Know history. How did we arrive at this place and time? Learn the story of the universe, the evolution of life, the rise of diversity and complexity, the evolution of human culture, and the varieties of human culture. I find it helpful to discover the source of conflicts, the lineage of ideas and cultural structures that lead to conflict or to resolution.

Underwater Sea Temperature Monitoring Station at Elba Island, Italy. © Greenpeace / Lorenzo Moscia
Greenpeace Italy underwater monitoring station at Elba Island to study the impact of climate change on underwater coastal biodiversity two years after its placement. Raising water temperature and clear impacts on more sensitive species. © Greenpeace / Lorenzo Moscia

In an interview in September, Vandana Shiva, the great ecologist/physicist in India said, “Behind my search for science there is a desire to know the truth about the world. This is my driving force and my oxygen. When you’re taking on the biggest brutal powers of the world, then your own seeking has to be on very sound ground.”

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates taught that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” To change society, Mahatma Gandhi practiced “satyagraha” (holding truth), and he addresses this in his autobiography “My experiments with truth,” examining his own prejudices and errors. With this commitment to truth, Gandhi defeated the most powerful empire of his time.

Beware the echo chamber: It may help to avoid superficial explanations that appeal to you or to your network of friends and colleagues. Even if such explanations contain some truth, you’ll be more effective if you understand these truths yourself and consider counter evidence. We mock climate deniers for ignoring certain “inconvenient truths,” but what inconvenient truths do we ignore? We won’t find an answer to this question if we do not look for it. Even well-intentioned people have led humanity down futile paths, often following some unexamined doctrine.

The internet has helped democratize information, but it has also created silos of doctrine, enticing people to locate the opinions that endorse their own view. This is called “confirmation bias,” reinforcing the shared beliefs of any faction.

Deep diversity: Greenpeace grew out of the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s, and has now come full circle to embrace social justice while seeking peace and ecological solutions. Our progressive social movements value a diversity of gender, culture, and life experience. We may also value a deeper diversity of ideas and perceptions about what is most important or most urgent.

In my experience, we build deep diversity by abstaining from superficial virtue signalling and abandoning the expectation that all dispute or controversy can be resolved. Part of quieting our ego is the work of shedding the desire to be correct, or to make others wrong. Building deep diversity is the art of being at peace with multiple opinions, holding contradictory ideas and ideals in our consciousness with patience and compassion.

Deep ecology: “The major problems in the world,” my first ecology mentor Gregory Bateson would say, “are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” To get a feel for how nature works, one needs to observe the natural world, the relationships, the forces, contention and cooperation, and to appreciate the long, complex run of evolution.

Sometimes we feel compelled to work at an immediate, practical level, to clean up a river, restore a forest, or reverse some industrial destruction. However, I’ve learned that it is helpful to build up a deep, emotional sense of what is sacred, what is the enduring essence of the world we care about. Many Indigenous people of the western hemisphere end prayers with “all my relations,” for good reason. We are animals too, related to all life. Humanity will be better off if we let go of notions that we will manage nature, and learn to be a partner of nature and a student of nature.

Plastic Brand Audit in Songkhla. © Chanklang  Kanthong / Greenpeace
On International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2019, around 60 volunteers from the Songkhla Forum, Beach for Life, and Greenpeace together cleaned up the beach at Laem Son On. © Chanklang Kanthong / Greenpeace

Localize: I suspect that most of the important solutions to our ecological dilemma are going to be local in scale. One may engage in global issues, but there may be few actual global solutions. Human society is too diverse and governments are too often corrupted, self-serving, and incompetent. By “localize,” I mean protect your local ecosystems, build community cohesion, grow food, examine local energy options, practice community scale health care, recycle everything, learn how to repair everything you use, and teach all you learn to the children and to each other.

Creativity is one of the most important elements of effective social change, but there is no formula for creativity. We can, however, preserve and protect the conditions for creativity. We never know where the next great strategy is going to come from. Our chances of finding those great ideas are better if everyone feels welcome to express ideas, and if new ideas are taken seriously.

Meanwhile, I find that it helps to practice personal creativity, to pursue one’s passions, the creative arts and deep learning in one’s fields of interests. Teaching others is another way to experience creativity. Nature is infinitely creative. Even the cells in our bodies appear to experiment with new ways to express genetic messages.

Mural Painting Activity in Marikina. © Basilio H. Sepe / Greenpeace
Artists and youth organizations join the mural painting activity, titled “Pangarap hindi panaginip”, features puzzle pieces that symbolize Filipino communities’ collaborative dream amid worsening impacts of the climate crisis, in Riverbanks, Marikina City. © Basilio H. Sepe / Greenpeace

The deeper crisis: We are in the midst of a well-documented climate crisis, but it will help our struggle if we recognize that climate disruption is a symptom of a much deeper crisis that ecologists call “overshoot.” Successful species in any ecosystem tend to overshoot the capacity of their habitat. Wolves will overshoot the prey in a watershed, algae will overshoot the nutrient capacity of a lake, and now humanity has overshot the resource capacity of the entire Earth. All solutions to overshoot — for any species in any habitat — involve a reduction of consumption by that species. Since we are natural animals, even with all of our advances and technologies, we will need to pay attention to the natural limits on our growth.

Understand communication: Greenpeace was influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who wrote in Understanding Media, “We live mythically and integrally.” He warned that reciting the facts of our crisis is not enough. Communication requires narrative, connecting at an emotional level. Like biological evolution itself, society consists of chaos, bursts of growth, transformation, collapse, disruption, randomness, and novelty. To create change, one has to disrupt the cultural myths that keep society stuck. We do this with narrative, so that people feel the message in their hearts.

A Hindu mentor once said to me many decades ago: “We are the ocean, not the waves.” This reminder to see the larger context, to not get stuck in trivial events, has served me many times.

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References and useful sources:

“Seeking truth and saving the planet”: an interview with Vandana Shiva, with Sara Furxhi, Welcome to the Jungle, September 2, 2021

“Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis,” Vandana Shiva, North Atlantic Books, 2015.

Gregory Bateson, “Mind and Nature,” Random House, 1984, Thriftbooks, and pdf. My favorite deep ecology book, not a list of alleged solutions, but rather how to think ecologically.

“Thinking in Systems,” Donella Meadows, Chelsea Green, 2008. Meadows is the lead author of the 1970s ground-breaking Limits to Growth; this book examines how change occurs in a complex system such as global society.

“What Can We Do?” Rex Weyler, Greenpeace International, June 2018. My suggestions for ecological priorities.

Nora Bateson, “Small Arcs of Larger Circles”: R. Weyler review; book at (Triarchy Press, 2016: Notes on how to think the way nature works.

William Catton, Overshoot, University of Illinois, 1980. The early expression of the deeper crisis.

William Rees, “The Way Forward: Survival 2100,” Solutions Journal v.3, #3, June 2012. What would it take to actually live sustainably.

The Shadows of Consumption,” Peter Dauvergne, MIT Press, 2008: On the roots of eco-justice.

“Deep Ecology for the 21st Century,” ed. G. Sessions, Shambala, 1995: A Good collection of deep ecology essays from Arne Naess, Chellis Glendinning, Gary Snyder, Dolores LaChapelle, and others.

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