No sane person with a life really wants to be a political activist... Nonetheless, at this moment in history, we are called to act as if we truly believe that the Earth is a living, conscious being that we're part of...
--Starhawk, Toward an Activist Spirituality (2003)
Today, 10/10/10, the group 350.org sponsors a day of worldwide grassroots activism to bring awareness and action on climate change. As such, I felt the virtue of Activation would make an appropriate stop on our journey.
How might we define the virtue of Activation? When I first started to think about it, my mind turned to chemistry. In chemistry, molecules have to attain a certain level of energy in order to react and attain a transition state, whether that’s water and iron reacting to make rust, or soda and water reacting to make CO2. Given the goals of Bill McKibben’s 350.org, the chemistry definition seems an apt metaphor. After all, 350.org is trying to get citizens “fired up” to interact and attain a sort of “transition state” for our society.
In more formal virtues literature, however, we can also find discussion of Activation, in the form of “Active Citizenship,” which psychologists Seligman and Peterson describe as a manifestation of the root virtue of Justice. Just what experts mean by “Active Citizenship” is unclear, because it implies that citizens (of a nation, or the world) have certain responsibilities. While constitutions often spell out our rights as citizens, they rarely lay out our duties.
Still, in America (and all successful democracies), the health of society probably lies in how well its citizens carry out these poorly-defined responsibilities of citizenship, through voluntary efforts. One of the earliest observers of U.S. culture, Alexis de Toqueville, noted that the success of our nation’s infant democracy lay in the efforts of our many voluntary organizations. Americans did not wait for government to solve their problems. Instead, they reached out to their neighbors, whether through their churches, fraternal groups, or bowling leagues. (Well, I don’t think they had bowling leagues when de Toqueville visited, since the rules of bowling only got laid out in New York 60 years after his book was published. This was my half-joking allusion to Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which talks about the decline of such civic organizations in the U.S.)
De Toqueville also pointed out the juicy paradox that Americans, who so cherish virtues like Independence and Liberty, would often harness themselves together to solve problems communally.
I think the goals of 350.org have obvious merit, a “books for nuns”1 proposition if I ever heard it, and I urge any of you who haven’t signed the “Put Solar on It” petition to at least do that today. But I also admit that in the face of such overwhelming challenges like climate change, the actions of one little person can feel like a drop in the slowly-rising ocean. (I myself remember a pang of such despair after a long community activist meeting in the Castro three years ago, addressing the MRSA outbreak amongst gay men there.)
McKibben has faced criticism from his fellow activist Joe Romm, who feels that at the end of the day, it is the action of elected leaders in government that will actually realize the necessary changes.
Romm feels that, more than rallies and grassroots symbolic gestures, what we need are laws and government action compelled in the voting booth. Thus, he says a better use of people’s Activation lies in defeating California’s Prop 23, an oil company-sponsored bill that would undo some of Gov. Schwarzenneger’s progressive energy policies recently passed into law.
So, for those of you in California, make sure to vote next month, and get the word out to other voters to oppose Prop 23. If you want to get really ambitious, go door to door in the neighborhood, or mention Prop 23 at a meeting of any of your voluntary associations, be they religious, sororal, fraternal, or bowling. (Or any combination thereof.)
It takes more than one drop of water to rust a nail. It takes more than one grain of baking powder to make a cake rise.
Starhawk has said that magic consists of the act of changing consciousness at will. For some people, that magic manifests in activism. That magic is Activation.
May we see the gates of Activation, and perhaps make a home there.
1“Books for nuns”: In my personal lexicon, a cause that is so obviously good and innocuous that no one could oppose it. Who could oppose a charitable donation of books to an order of religious ladies? Only a fiend.