A space for conversations in a time of global disruption
Here's a recent Dark Mountain-linked post from my blog on optimism in the Activist movement and how as it evolves into 'Utoptimism' it becomes detached from reality.
I’ve noticed an increase in the popularisation of fantastical ideas amongst those of an Activist disposition recently – things like supressed free energy technology, New World Order conspiracies and the extremes of transhumanism are becoming seem to be getting ever more popular. Occupiers in my city (although they haven’t actually occupied anything as of yet, so I use the term loosely) exemplify this with praise flowing in the David Icke-esque direction, whilst amongst student activist groups at the local University similar claims seem to be cropping up ever more often.
Perhaps it’s the bleak situation that we face or the lack of reasonable courses of action that convince people to depart from reality so dramatically. However, I don’t think these cases represent more than just the tip of an iceberg of fantastical beliefs about the world and the future – and it’s more normal Activists who shoulder the root of it.
Take, for example, the fanfare around Rio +20. In a few months time the next stop in the seemingly never-ending parade of global environmental conferences of states and their representatives to supposedly thrash out the solution to all our problems will be held in Rio de Janeiro, marking the 20th anniversary since the last stop there concluded that action would be nice and that states would head towards taking said action (at some unspecified point). Environmental NGOs and greenwashing companies are already cranking up for the prestigious event, once again painting this conference as the world’s next best hope (where have we heard that before?).
It doesn’t take much to see through the hope of such grand exercises. Hope that our own government are committed to the UN process has already been shown up the Prime Minister’s refusal to go along until the conference moved dat..., whilst a leak of a draft of the proposed agreement has shown that no bindi..., instead favouring voluntary targets by each country, much like the UN climate conferences so far. But trumpet this they will, in an extended greenwashing exercise for all the states, companies and NGOs involved, before moving on to the next theoretically crucial global conference.
The NGOs and activists will see through some of the process of course, and when questioned will say it’s not exactly what they want. But hey, it least it’s SOMETHING, at least it’s some PROGRESS! The feeling that something is at least better than nothing pervades through much of the rhetoric of environmental and social justice campaigners, and on the basis of this we’re exhorted to keep on writing in to our elected representatives, keep on boycotting bad company X, keep on protesting outside either’s headquarters, keep on hoping…
Some of this can be a good idea on occasion – for example, the turnaround by the British government on the proposed forest sell-off has at least been delayed and dredged up the old issue of land rights more into the public domain. Petitions, marches and boycotts can work in some cases, specifically when image is important to the target and when activists’ tactics can tarnish this image enough to make it more productive for the target to change than to stick to their guns. When the issue at stake is one that the target can afford to change, it’s possible.
But we’re not facing these sort of issues globally. We’re facing a network of systematic problems that pervade our civilisation to the core. States and corporations can’t afford to change these, as they’re embedded with the problems; they are products of the rot and so have a lot at stake in the rot’s continuation. Can we petition the state to never go to war or suppress liberty again? Can we boycott the industrial system out of eating the landbase and fouling the world for profit? Can we march enough to abolish poverty?
These points seem self-evident, but to make them is not well appreciated in discourse with many activists. The number of times I or other Dark Mountaineers are painted as being too negative or as pessimists for pointing out the reality of our situation is too long to bear repetition. Instead we’re told that we must be more positive and optimistic about the world – you see, we CAN solve all this problems, if only we try hard enough!
But what if we can’t?
What if the system is too rotten to fix, and too monumental to replace? What if we’ve already done irreperable damage and are destined to do more? What if utopian-optimism actually blinds us to reality?
“NO! It can’t be true! Don’t be so pessimistic – we have to hold the hope that anything is achievable! Together we can do it, if only we believe in our own power! This next conference, we’ll DEFINITELY convince our leaders to ACT, if only we UNITE and try HARD enough!”
If it only it were true.
Too often truthful and frank conversations about where we stand and what we can effectively do in the face of such problems are quashed by a smokescreen of utoptimism, whilst rendering those conversations as pessimistic and doomsterish and thus consigned to the rubbish bin of negativity. And so Activism can proceed afoot, with victories proclaimed when leaders consider some minor possible action or industry changes one particularly harmful process.
I can see why it happens. It’s hard to accept things as they are – the relentless march of destruction and suffering – without comforting ourselves with stories of our own power to stop it. It would be psychologically odd if people didn’t. We have to support ourselves emotionally in the face of such problems, and taking an optimistic stance based on a realistic outlook is a valuable way of soldiering on.
But that doesn’t make utoptimism the right thing to do, or make it capable of producing good tactics. There are some things we can do to prepare and take on global issues, but without seeing reality eye to eye at least occasionally we can get lost in our own comforting stories and become ineffective in the areas we can do something.
The Dark Mountain Project is one of the foremost groups taking a stand against the relentless utoptimism used to justify much groundless activism, and instead aim to take reality on for what it is – I’d reccomend it anyone interested in engaging in honest conversations about these issues. There are projects and campaigns we should get invovled with too – protecting your local landbase through a whole spectrum of tactics and building resilience in human and non-human communities is admirable and necessary to preserve as much of natures diversity through this century, amongst other useful things involved in preparing for a precarious future.
Whilst free energy machines and global conspiracies are easily spotable as fantasism, the more subtle and comforting illusions of Activism are more difficult to confront and debunk. I hope that more environmentalists and social justice campaigners will come to terms with this soon as time runs short to prepare effectively for future crises. Optimism must be based on reality if it’s to be effective, but utoptimism leads us into fantasy and will direct our energy away from truly useful actions.
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