What is to be done (this time)?

Cherneshevsky’s famous novel “What is to be done?” opens with the story of a suicidal imbecile and ends on a note of blind, romantic optimism – a paean to enlightened self-interest.  So, in other words, no development at all.

Let sorrow fly away in shouts,

And into rejuvenated hearts

Let unalterable joy descend

Dark fear flees like a shadow

Rays that bring the day

Light, warmth, and the spring perfumes

Quickly drive away the darkness and cold

The odor of decay diminishes

The odor of the rose ever increases.

Responses followed and were varied, but V.I. Lenin was a huge fan and some people have credited the work for contributing to the Russian Revolution.  Dostoevsky, in contrast,  mocked Cherneshevsky’s fans, most notably in the first section of his novel-like-thing, Notes from Underground. On balance, I’d say that Dostoevsky was channeling the higher power he insisted upon believing in when he wrote that response, and I’d rather gouge out my own eyes than read Cherneshevsky again – but as I watch the oil spew into the gulf and listen to the discussions about our future possibilities spin off into an endlessly repeating cycle of familiar denials, I’m not terribly comforted by my steadfast belief in the irrationality of my fellow humans.   I don’t doubt it; I’m just not pleased by the thought.

Thanks to the Humboldt Herald and Jen Savage and all of my maddening neighbors for the gloomy thoughts.  Ms. Savage’s recent article, “Oil Addiction Must End,” heralded the latest and most concrete action in response to the horrific, seemingly-unstoppable, human-induced undersea tragedy inexorably unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico and threating life as we know it – again.  The solution?  [Two months in…  Best minds at work…  Wait for it…]  Hand-holding.

Hippies spring into (in)action

Okay, you may say that hand-holding doesn’t sound like the most effective response to an oil spill of such catastrophical import, but this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, pedestrian hand-holding event.  This was a hand-holding campaign on a grand scale.  This was hundreds, if not thousands of neo-hippies individually driving to the beach to link arms and…um…   What was it again?  Well, I’m sure it’ll come to me.  The event produced some reliable feed for the news machine, anyway.  Sure, it didn’t come close to matching the grandeur of the 1970s, “I’d like to buy the world a coke” commercial, but that was professional hand-holding; really, the high-water mark for feel-good optimism dressed up as social activism.  Plus, Coke tastes great and is less filling.  Or something.  I know it eats the enamel off of teeth and clean the rust off of pennies.  Hey, I wonder if we could use it to clean up oiled pelicans?

Who needs real animals?

Hippies are always good for a laugh, but really, what is to be done?  I can’t blame Ms. Savage and Surfrider for promoting the grand (if, kinda stupid and hollow) gesture in the absence of any real alternative.  That’s not to say that I agree with the mean-spirited, pessimistic comments posted in response to her article.  (Sorry, cyber-douchebags, but just because I think the hands-across-the-oily-ocean campaign was dumb doesn’t mean that I’d want to hold hands with any of you, either.   It’s not that you’re not right, it’s just that I don’t see the point in repeating the problem to those who want to look for hopeful signs.   That’s why I didn’t comment.)

Here’s how depressed I am now, though – I used to think that it would take a global catastrophe to get us on the right track, but now that I see how readily we can compartmentalize global catastrophes and go on with our day, I don’t even think that’s an option.  My new hope is just that something survives us.  A hardy paramecium, perhaps.  Maybe a sponge tucked in a deep corner of the earth.  Frankly, I don’t hold out much hope for the multi-cellular among us.

Speaking of pointless social activism…  Back when I had hope, I took this pledge for Surfrider:  I promised to stop using plastic.  It sounded impossible to me at the time, but as much as I dislike surfers, I like Surfrider, and I don’t mind offering my support for their wacky ideas from time to time (so long as they don’t involve touching people).  So, I made a concerted effort to stop using plastic.  I don’t want to blame them for my ensuing pessimism, but that was probably the nail in the coffin of whatever optimism I had left.  Maybe that was their point – to prove to me, once and for all,  that I really am thoroughly powerless to effect any change for the better; that pubic apathy and the rhizomatically-organized corporate will so overmatches even collective social agency, that there’s no reason to hope for anything better than what we have right now, and good reason to expect much worse.

Sure, you could bring your own, but plastic grocery bags are so convenient

In short, what I found is that I can only keep that promise about not using plastic if I devote my life to not using plastic.  That, and nothing else.  No career, no free-time, no travel, no art, no books, no health care of any kind, no conventional luxuries, probably no romantic relationship.  As much as I would like to live a carbon-neutral life that doesn’t add to the misery of other living things, I’ve discovered once again that I’m more selfish than selfless.

Before taking that pledge, I assumed I’d be able to get closer to a no-plastic life than not.  60%-40%, maybe.  I stocked up on cloth grocery bags and tupperware (plastic, but better than the disposable plastic bags I’d been using), I shifted my diet from the convenient pre-packaged crap that I’d been relying upon to save time and money, and started buying more organic fruits and veggies.  I won’t say that I moved from the city to the woods because of that pledge, but there’s probably a link between those two things somewhere in my head, and I assumed that the one would make the other more do-able.   I cut out a lot of the luxuries that most of my friends and acquaintances view as necessities, but that I knew to be otherwise.  On balance, I would bet that I use far less plastic than most.   But have I managed to stop using plastic?  I have not.  I don’t even use very little plastic.  I’m probably closer to 80%-20% than even the modest-seeming 60% I was pessimistically expecting.  Plastic, I have come to find, is almost as unavoidable in modern life as oil.  No real surprise there, since the one is made of the other.

So, what is to be done?  Well, I hear BP is going to start deep-water drilling in the Arctic, where skimmers wouldn’t work, and where Anderson Cooper won’t go.  After what we’ve watched in the gulf, we have to know that all the happy-talk about safe-drilling is just corporate bullshit, but we’re going to let them drill and spill there, too.  So, what is to be done then?  And then after that?  At some point, we’re going to run out of chances to do nothing.

Thus it would follow, as the result of acute consciousness, that one is not to blame in being a scoundrel; as though that were any consolation to the scoundrel once he has come to realise that he actually is a scoundrel.

Dostoevsky’s right.  It’s no consolation at all.  I wonder if it’s too late to find someone to hold my hand.


10 Responses to “What is to be done (this time)?”

  1. 1 Kym
    June 29, 2010 at 6:53 am

    My theory is that whatever people do to combat despair, whatever they do to build community, if it works for them, even if it doesn’t work for me, I should support it. There is enough apathy and discouragement in the world. I don’t intend to be part of the suffocating blanket covering up the first breath of what may grow to be a vital response.

    So I may not drive hours to hold hands, I may not even be convinced that the event alone will solve anything, but I do believe that people who care, who join with others who care, can do a hell of a lot in this world. Protests and marches have changed the course of history. I hope that from this beginning gathering will come more effective action that I can join in with my whole heart.

  2. June 30, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I want to have that same hope, but I’m not as willing to celebrate social movements for their own sake. You’re right when you say that social movements can produce profound social changes, but that’s truest when the goals are clear and achievable, when practical solutions are clearly laid out and supported. And sometimes, those goals can be counter-productive. The tax revolutions are a case in point – social activists clearly laid out policies to starve government of funds and whittle away at the commons. Those activists may have felt good about winning back their property tax money, but we’ve suffered as a society as a result. We have fewer libraries, we invest less in education, crumbling infrastructure, etc., etc., etc. Even worse, we seem to have given up on the notion of the commonwealth – that we are all responsible for the betterment of our society as a whole.

    As much as I detest that social movement, I’d love it if a positive social movement with that same sort of power arose out of this crisis. I don’t see it, though. The oil is still spewing, and we seem to have no idea about a long-term response. We don’t have the sort of clarity of view and practicality of action that we need yet, and that’s especially maddening when you consider the amount of time we’ve had to come up with solutions. Instead of insisting upon a grand expansion of scientific research on clean technologies, we’ve allowed ourselves to be stymied by flat-earthers who posit the superiority of anecdotal evidence. “It was cold last year, so global warming must be a conspiracy to raise my taxes!” – that sort of thing. Even worse, lots of people are seeing this crisis as a reason to support more oil drilling and less oversight. It’s crazy.

    I’m not giving up, but it’s got me down. I still give my money to Surfrider, in the hopes that it can convince its members to take science a little more seriously. I just wish that they had proposed something a little more concrete in this recent campaign. More fight; less love.

    • 3 Kym
      July 1, 2010 at 6:09 am

      I’m torn when I attend another “feel good” event–on the one hand, feeling good how bad can that be? On the other, can’t we just jump in and get stuff done?

      I’ve come to believe that one of the hallmarks of people who are concerned with being kind is that they are reluctant to point out problems in others’ ideas. This is good because it fosters a place where new ideas aren’t squelched but can be problematic because new ideas aren’t pruned to achieve maximum results. I used to get pretty frustrated but after thinking about it, I decided that I’d rather err on the side of being open and kind. Still, I’ve decided to operate on the spinach in the teeth principal. If something is easy to fix (in the early stages) point out the problems gently. If someone has already invested tons of work and I wasn’t in the planning stage, shut my mouth and be grateful that someone was willing to put energy into doing something–anything.

      Anyway, I know how I feel when I’ve put a great deal of work into a project then someone comes along late in the game wanting to point out how things should have been done better. Muttering to myself, “Then why don’t YOU do something” is the kindest of my reactions;>

      • July 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

        I am doing something. I’m whining on my blog. Now that you mention it, though, I suppose it’s not the most productive thing I could do. It’s certainly not kind. I hope your hope is more productive. And at least it wasn’t a benefit concert – I was tired of those accomplishing nothing back in the 80s.

  3. 5 Kym
    July 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Yikes, that did come across like I was pointing at you. I didn’t really mean it that way. I meant it as, in abstract, this is my belief. I should have prefaced all that with a Surgeon’s General Warning at the very least.

  4. July 3, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    No worries! When the belief fits, I wear it.

    Andrew Sullivan quoted Primo Levi on hope this morning, and it reminded me of what you’d said:

    “You may be certain that the world is heading for destruction, but it’s a good thing, a moral thing, to behave as though there’s still hope. Hope is as contagious as despair: your hope, or show of hope, is a gift you can give to your neighbour, and may even help to prevent or delay the destruction of his world,”- Primo Levi, 1985

  5. 7 Kym
    July 4, 2010 at 4:18 am

    That brought tears to my eyes. How beautifully said.

  6. 8 Goldie
    July 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Amazingly well written. First I was all mad at you cause you were arrogant and making fun of my friends and getting together can not be a bad idea when there is no other idea. Maybe someone will get an idea in the porta potty line, stranger things have happened. Then you got all smart and I started thinking but I was sill mad. Then you popped out a few out of the ball park sentences and I was remembering how I always enjoy your writing… and then, and then you went humble. And you brought me back. I wasn’t mad at you anymore.
    What a ride. What a writer.
    Now I ask you, maybe it was asked on the Titanic, What are we going to do?

  7. July 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Hell if I know. I might just get you angry at me all over again, but my problem with the hand-holding is that it’s a variation of preaching to the choir without actually motivating the choir to do anything. Use less oil? Nope. Insist on government subsidies to encourage renewable energy? Nope. Force companies that profit from oil extraction to fund alternative energy technology? Nope. Restart a public works program to mitigate all the environmental damage caused by a century of wildcatting? Nope. Nothing. What good is a mass-expression of support for a non-existent plan? I guess it makes for good teevee, and it serves as a nice reminder that there’s a vast population out there hungry for some kind of action, but otherwise, what’s the upshot (weeks later)? Surfrider isn’t saying. The Feds seem eager for us to forget about the fact that these wells will inevitably fail again. BP certainly won’t propose any alternative to more drilling. We’re left with a public that seems bored by the crisis, a gulf that’s even more polluted than normal, and the same fucking problem we’ve known about for half a century. I sure hope that someone smarter than me is working on some concrete alternative, but if they are, I don’t know why they’re keeping it a secret.

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