Anyone who has done non-profit or volunteer work knows that the weight of institutional history, or even simple bureaucracy, can get in the way of feeling you are effecting the change you signed on to effect. The inertia from the way things are done can run counter to getting things done unless the minds involved stay lively. Dealing with the way things are done can be easier and more gratifying when you’re grounded in practice and you have a gut appreciation for the ephemeral connection between disciplined work and reward, but sometimes there is a lurking feeling that we’ve lost track of the point.
Especially in the high-stakes political climate of the moment, routine functioning can feel alarmingly like the culture of denial we’re struggling against. Georgetown Law professor Jedediah Purdy described these conditions elegantly in his account of the Occupy Wall Street encampment: “It’s hard to overstate the inhibition that has been squatting like an imp on the anxious chest of “responsible” opinion for two decades or more. Call it the inhibition of realism.” I am noticing a heartening trend of lively minds breaking with institutional routines, some resounding nos from traditionally yes-minded groups.
When Bill McKibben got arrested on Wednesday outside the White House, he was joined by forty seven others, including Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, and former NAACP chairman and Civil Rights leader Julian Bond. Bond and Brune issued a thoughtful statement earlier this week explaining their decision to ritualistically, non-violently break the law:
Simply facing a powerful foe does not justify civil disobedience. Anyone familiar with the histories of the Sierra Club and the NAACP knows that both organizations have long and proud traditions of working within the system to effect change — through the courts, public opinion, community organizing, and the ballot box. How, then, do we choose the moment that demands something more? In truth, it is the moment that chooses us.
They make the point that the climate crisis punishes the oppressed for the crimes of the privileged, and go on to say that the Keystone XL decision is big enough to largely determine the outcome of our struggle against climate change. As they point out, their organizations have been involved in environmental and racial justice, respectively, for a long time. But they have been very clear that they came together to get arrested because they feel that this is different.
I was walking home from an anti-fossil fuel rally a few weeks ago with Beth Doglio, my boss at Power Past Coal, where I volunteer. I’ve only recently moved to Olympia, WA, and am just learning about the local organizations. She was explaining to me about how Climate Solutions, her organization, came to run the Washington branch of Power Past Coal. She said that it was very unusual for her organization to take a ‘no’ position against anything, that they always focus on legislative goals and things that can be done, instead of things that shouldn’t be done. But here I’d been shoulder to shoulder with her, watching her wield considerable might against coal export proposals: a radical no without a countervailing yes in sight. “It’s what we’ve been talking about,” She was saying, “how can we trifle with appliance efficiency standards and call ourselves a green state when we’re going to ship hundreds of millions of tons of coal to Asia?”
It’s easy to see that this crisis is unique in its badness, and demands our best effort. But what interests me about these instances is this; here are principled people who are already committed personally, professionally, entirely, to their vision of a more just world. They have made a point of doing their politics one way, to great effect, for a long time. But when the moment calls, they have set aside the letter of their own law for the spirit of it. The implicit challenge is to find this same vitality in all the daily tasks we do. If it’s part of your life, surely it’s in service of good. And if you find that it’s not, accept the challenge of saying no.