The Many Are One
by Mike Kaulbars
To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing” -Raymond Williams
Many years ago I attended a talk by a Native Elder with a long time friend who was a passionate Native Rights advocate. Our discussion going in to the talk was what it so often was, with her responding to me that while she supported environmental issues in the general sense, she “needed” her car, and air conditioning, etc. A discussion I have had too often with too many progressives.
I have always found this attitude particularly frustrating because it was easy to imagine the response I would get if I ever dared reply with a similar argument with regard to their focus issue. “Hey, I sympathize with (insert issue) but I like/need (insert behaviour).” Can you imagine? I persisted, she resisted, and somehow we remained friends.
As the Elder’s talk progressed she sank lower and lower into her chair as he talked about the hypocrisy of waving a sign for native rights while wantonly consuming power, thereby creating the very demand that was driving the destruction of the Native people and their land. This happy coincidence made the point for her that is so often missed by most. It is not that we should support one another’s progressive issues, but rather that there is only one issue with many facets and aspects. We are the proverbial seven blind men and it the elephant that we imagine to exist as separate entities.
Our “issues” are all part of a vast interconnected web. We cannot affect one part of it without affecting all of it, and all the rest affects our particular focus area. This reality has both positive and negative elements to it; let’s begin with the negative so we can get them out of the way.
Take the example of climate change. We know that the impacts of climate change are going to be catastrophic, and that they will affect the marginalized first and worst. This includes women, the elderly, people of colour, all of those with less power. It is also going to drive wars, cause wide spread poverty, and so on. Anyone who devotes themselves to one of these issues while leading a lifestyle that worsens climate change is just fooling themselves. They are undermining the very thing they care most about with their other actions.
The reverse is equally true. We will not be able to really deal with climate change unless we also address the various other inequities and injustices. There will be no real solutions until women, First Nations etc are empowered. The desperately poor will do whatever they have to in order to survive today regardless of the consequences for tomorrow. A world at war is not going to address environmental issues, and so on.
I could have chosen any of the “issues” as an example because they really are simply one issue with many facets. Unfortunately this makes the already huge challenges we face seem all the more vast, monolithic and insurmountable. Most of us are running full out trying to deal with issue that we focus on, we cannot possibly take on more. The good news is you don’t have to.
In the first place the interconnectedness means that by working for labour you are working for peace, by working for peace you are working for First Nations, and so on. The caveat is that your work on one issue promotes the advancement of all issues only if you are not undermining yourself with behaviours that presume the issues are separate. If you do that, then you are doing those issues and your own no good to speak of. Do you lead a life that all of your progressive allies would approve of? Or do you hear yourself making the same kinds of excuses that others give to you?
Granted this requires taking a certain amount on faith since we don’t have the time to know every issue as completely as we know our own. While we may feel the connection between women’s empowerment and food security is obvious, it may not be so clear how gay rights and a healthy environment is connected, or vica a versa.
Sometimes that faith will be misplaced and we will get it wrong, just as we are sometimes wrong about aspects of our own issue despite the considerable knowledge we have of it. That being said, we are wrong far more often when we fail to acknowledge that our fellow activists are just as knowledgeable and informed about their issue as we are about ours.
We can’t do everything, but we can behave in ways that acknowledge how our one issue manifests itself in all forms. Our environmental group office can and should have gender equality, be gay positive and use union made materials. We can take public transit to the peace rally, and to everywhere else. We can and should become largely vegetarian, support affirmative action, etc.
If that is how you lead your life, then your are fighting for your issue on all fronts. Your work at the shelter is helping women in crisis in your neighbourhood, but equally your purchase of fair trade helps women in developing countries, your low energy life style is protecting women in those same countries, your choice of union made goods promotes women’s rights in the workplace.
We could quibble about whether the core issue is about violence, or power, or fear, but I don’t think it matters that we agree on the label. As long as we understand our own issue, do our work well, and lead lead lives that are truly coherent and consistent with the values we are trying to promote, then we cannot help but be working for all of the issues.
Equally, if we attempt to compartmentalize and pretend that the other progressive issues are somehow unrelated to ours, and that it is possible to be progressive in one sphere and not the other, then we cannot help but undermine our own efforts. The question is not so much whether the movement is fragmented, but how fragmented we are personally.
Which is to say that the call for unity and solidarity is not a threat of being torn apart by being pulled in too many directions, but rather an invitation to become whole personally. The challenge may seem a large one in some respects, but it is also an opportunity to show the world what we struggle for by living it. Our unity is hollow and unachievable if it is based only on statements of solidarity and attending the occasional rally. When we are able to confront the monolith with our personal coherence and integrity we become resistance movement itself; vast, multifaceted, unimaginably powerful and undefeatable.
“The way chose you and you must be grateful.”
Dag Hammarskjöld Markings
This is the first article in a new daily series on NewsJunkiePost known as the Progressive Unity Project. Each day, there will be a new article published from the perspective of the environment, labor, LGBT, immigration, science, legalization, or secularity. About the weekly contributor on EcoMonday:
Mike Kaulbars is an environmental activist and writer on the science behind global climate change. He trained as a research biologist (entomology, systematics, ecology) and now directs a small NGO active on environmental and social justice issues. Climate Change was one of the big reasons he left research to get involved in public education and activism. He also teaches political action. He is the main author of Greenfyre’s, a rich resource with excellent documentation.