A week ago, Greenfire began our perennial “Little Something Green” campaign. Each year, we cover the campus in helpful reminders to reduce wasteful resource use, written on paper rescued from recycling bins. “Little Something Greens” exhort students and staff to habitualize a litany of environmentally conscious practices — taking shorter showers, using pants instead of paper towels and drying clothes on racks.
To me, lifestyle choices like these seem both intuitively right and morally imperative. When something like 80 percent of our electricity comes from burning coal, there is a very real human cost associated with every kilowatt — both in the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining on people and rivers, and in the effects of climate change on everyone including non-human persons.
Yet you won’t be surprised if I tell you that just using a drying rack isn’t going to save the world. What about more substantial changes, like eating mostly local food?
The violence that the industrial food system perpetrates against our ecological commonwealth as well as against its own workers and against small farmers should compel us to abandon it. However, it seems naïve to believe that buying local and organic will stop companies like Monsanto from poisoning the earth.
I consider groups like SLUG, the Magpie and ECO some of the most important organizations on campus because they have begun to lay the groundwork for a better society. SLUG, the campus garden, offers us a way to work towards local, just and sustainable food production.
The Magpie — our campus thrift store — prevents waste by redistributing clothing to the students who can best make use of them. ECO shows students the way to a beneficial, rather than destructive, human presence in the land by offering opportunities to pull noxious invasive plants.
The point I am making here is not that we shouldn’t reduce our resource consumption, or abstain from unjust systems, or build sustainable, just alternatives. These things are right and important. Instead, I want everyone to realize that we shouldn’t expect more from these actions than they can deliver.
The abstention of a few thousand liberal arts college students won’t deter industrial civilization from its race to render the planet unlivable. And while building an alternative system answers a keen need, it isn’t going to work on its own. We must simultaneously dismantle the old system.
We can take advantage of our privilege and absolve ourselves of the guilt of supporting the system, but our responsibility does not end here. The resources available to us at Lawrence enable us to do more than just put ourselves on a pedestal of sustainability: They enable us to organize and fight for the rights of others, to fight industrial civilization and save some of the things we love.
As Derrick Jensen puts it, “the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”
Fighting the system means several things. First and absolutely most importantly, it means resisting the industrial ecocide perpetrated all around the world every day — whether that takes the form of civil disobedience like the Tar Sands Action I participated in in Washington D.C., or direct action to stop logging, mining and other abuses. This kind of action includes the campaigns I will be helping to coordinate throughout the year with Greenfire and Amnesty International.
Fighting the system means building a community to provide moral and material support for front line activists. It means building new, just, alternative systems: for food production, for education, for trade and economics and in art and culture.
The movement to save our planet, our home and our kin — including human kin as well as our more distantly related cousins — needs activists of all different skill sets and predilections. More than anything, it needs to agree that we must maintain a livable planet at all costs, that if we fail in this then our legacy in anything else will be irrelevant. As such, we need to support each other as we move forward in using any and all means to achieve that end.
I am audacious enough to hope that the movement that has emerged around the Tar Sands Action represents such a consensus, a readiness to move forward in mutual support. And I am ready to do whatever I can, whatever it takes, to make that happen. Jensen again: “Some people may be willing to give up on life on this planet without resisting. I’m not one of them.”