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Why Activism Is Not Enough

By Martin LeFevre

Bill McKibben, the author of the particularly pessimistic book, “The End of Nature,” now says, “for an activist to have hope is the most important thing.” That contradictory worldview sums up much of what’s misguided about activism.

As recently reported, “Mr. McKibben has written more than a dozen books about climate change and other issues in a career that blends journalistic advocacy with activism — and occasional arrests at protests.” The implicit message is that these facts attest to his bona fides, when in fact they raise disturbing questions about the limitations and even counter-productivity of activism.

Though McKibben has been focusing on young people since he became a little long in the tooth, his activism is entirely externally oriented, toward things like “strike organization and starting my own organization.” Are superficiality and oppositional politics inherent in activism?

The reader may ask, how can anyone who cares about the planet argue with the mission of McKibben’s, which “has opposed fossil fuel industries’ attempts to block climate action and spread disinformation about the science despite their detailed knowledge of climate risks?”

As laudable as that sounds, the real question is: Can activism ever hope to turn the tide on man’s destructiveness and decimation of the Earth?

There are three false premises in most environmental activists’ worldview to my mind — that activism is an adequate response to the man-made ecological crisis; and that we must maintain hope and optimism to meet the immense challenge of man’s decimation of the Earth.

Another implicit assumption is the activists’ belief that oppositional politics is a given – opposition to Big Oil, to national governments, to right-wing extremists who want to burn it all up or burn it all down.

Political opposition however, while necessary, can never be sufficient. At best it produces shallow victories; at worst it generates even more conflict, within and without. We have to delve deeper to meet the crisis.

Coming of age during the Vietnam War (and not drafted into it only because of drawing a high draft number), I’m well acquainted with protest and activism. The Kent State massacre, in which four unarmed students were gunned down by National Guard troops, was only hours away from where I was going to college at the time.

The activism of that day was personal to all of us, as it is today for young people today in a different way. But many in my generation realized that the idea “the personal is political and the political is personal” just wouldn’t cut it. Older activists today have forgotten that lesson, and young leaders say things like, my activism “started when I first realized that my story mattered.”

It’s true that every person’s story matters on an individual level, but personal stories don’t matter very much in the larger picture. Indeed, the personal is the problem.

The quandary of activism isn’t just with regard to strategy and tactics; it’s first a matter of philosophy and worldview. The obsessive externalization that characterizes the Western mind is the fatal flaw in the activist mindset.

Not that the Eastern mind, to the extent that it still exists with its abstract inward focus on the little self and the Big Self, has provided a true alternative. Decades of Eastern influence haven’t added true inward awareness to the Western mind.

At any rate, Western culture, with its rampant individualism, self-centeredness and consumerism, has become the global culture, and it is killing the Earth, and the human spirit.

With respect to the intrinsic limitations of activism, Bill McKibben illustrates them when he says, “I am a writer and a journalist…and what are journalists not really supposed to do? Take sides.”

Certainly one has to speak up and stand against the rapacious forces and reprehensible people in power that support them. However the climate crisis, and its inseparable twin the extinction crisis, cannot be redressed, much less remedied through oppositional politics.

Why? Because the ecological crisis is the manifestation of man’s (and not just Western man’s) wrongful relationship with the Earth. Everyone on the planet is facing an intensifying crisis of human consciousness. If it isn’t first addressed as such, activism, while it may offer fragmentary successes, contributes to the fragmentary mentality that is destroying the Earth and humanity.

Under the guise of taking the long view, McKibben says, “I’m going to be dead before the very worst of this crisis kicks in.” That’s true at one level, and false at a deeper level because it contributes to the idea that we can employ the same old thinking in terms of time to meet the real and present crisis of the Sixth Extinction. Time is the real enemy, and not just because we’re running out of it.

Young activists speak of friends “switching their majors in college to sustainable fashion design in business, or doing environmental documentaries,” and say, “that fills me with so much hope.”

Hope however, is the just flipside of despair. And in this world, to live by hope is to set oneself up for despair.

The energy of young people involved in activism ineluctably leads to the burnout of middle age. One of the lead stories in the States today is the resignation of Jacinda Ardern, who became a global “icon” for progressives as New Zealand’s prime minister.

It’s a bad sign when a 42 year-old rising star of the progressive political firmament, one of the erstwhile international community’s best and brightest, calls it quits for ambiguous reasons. It’s another indication that progressivism is in wholesale retreat around the world.

So we’re not just talking about the illusions of activism. People who care about the Earth and social and economic justice are feeling a growing enervation.

As long as we do something for the sake of something else, which is what social values, including activism, are based on, we are generating inward and outward barrenness.

And as long as we are fragmented humans rather than whole human beings, we’re contributing to the fragmentation of the Earth and humanity. We need to bring about an entirely new kind of global culture, beginning with radical change inwardly, not more collective movements outwardly.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.