Posted by: Jon | 10/01/2011

On not being willing to compromise…

“If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
Wendell Berry “A Poem of Difficult Hope”

Expressing strong opinions on environmental and social justice issues can often be seen by others as implying criticism of their own values and lifestyles. I have learnt to minimise the social discomfort I can provoke by holding back when conversation turns to the desirability of this or that new digital gizmo or how the winter’s heavy snowfall disproves global warming. Instead I confine my views to less contentious outlets such as this blog which other people can choose to read or not.

But, however much I might try to be non-confrontational in everyday social situations, I’ve found it can be difficult not to cause awkwardness by my mere presence, especially if it is common knowledge that I am actively striving to bring sustainability ideals and practice into congruence. Once publically outed as an ‘eco-warrior’ or a ‘bleeding heart socialist’ or any of the other ideological labels that we tend to use to deflect the disconcerting impacts of views other than our own, invitations to social occasions can diminish somewhat.

George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, has noted “there is something about climate change….that triggers a defensive response in people”, making it, as once the case with religion and politics (and even now with personal income), an unacceptable topic for polite conversation. In his video presentation ‘The Ingenious Ways We Avoid Believing in Climate Change’, George explains the ‘Spinach Tart Strategy’, recounting how the septuagenarian architect and climate activist, Meyer Hillman, at a well-heeled professional dinner party, could contain himself no longer during a succession of tales of long-haul holiday trips and demanded to know why everyone still thought they could fly anywhere that took their fancy. His outburst was met with a long embarrassed silence, eventually broken by a guest at the far end of the table – “My word, what a lovely spinach tart!” And so conversation resumed around the special merits of the tart – “Could I possibly have the recipe?”, “Simply delicious”, “Where did you find that marvellous spinach?” George does not reveal whether Dr Hillman was invited again… 

Of course, an obvious remedy for social pariah-ship is to desist from the struggle that marginalises one and revert to how life was before one’s personal environmental ‘apocalypse’ occurred (Greek: Ἀποκάλυψις  Apokálypsis; ‘lifting of the veil’) But this seems too much akin to the alcoholic who, having acknowledged the addiction and made a half-hearted attempt to tackle it, found this too lonely a course and so lapsed back into the easy conviviality of the saloon bar. It is hard to see how this sort of compromise for the sake of social acceptance could possibly end well. 

Another solution I have several times heard is to surround oneself only with like-minded people, perhaps by moving to Findhorn or organising street protests from an East-End squat or relocating to a community with a Transition initiative. I’ve not tried the first two but have been involved with the latter – in affluent Surrey – and whilst I undoubtedly see wide uptake of the Transitions movement as our best grassroots hope, I have to say that, when set against the daunting urgency of our environmental predicament, activism in the Surrey Hills did seem to me to stay well within its pale green comfort zones. (Actually, thinking about it, it’s probably exactly that sort of opinion that gets me into social difficulties…)

But the question of idealism and compromise is a serious one for me as I ponder where amongst the actively engaged – the ranks of impassioned Climate Camp protestors, the driven young Guardian journalists, the furrow-browed Hadley Centre scientists, the enlightened intellectuals lecturing at the RSA and the community-building Transitioneers of Surrey –  does my own self-imposed brand of frugal living fit? And what difference does it make as climate change slips further from the agenda in the wider world? And what difference can I hope to make from where I live with a vegetable garden and an aspirational sustainability education project here in rural France, with only a handful of locals remotely interested in environmental activism?

My loyal and life-long friend Anthony wrote me a thoughtful letter the other day expressing admiration for my tenacity but suggesting that it may be time to make compromises in my intent. And with money increasingly hard to come by and Louise away replenishing our funds in England for the indeterminate future, I have to agree that he has a point. By going against the flow it seems that our sustainability project has itself become unsustainable and it may well be time to compromise along with the mainstream.  

In his thought-provoking film, Beyond the Tipping Point, about how we respond (or not) to climate change, Stefan Skrimshire interviews Kim Bryan, from the Centre for Alternative Technology, who says:

“What I do is surround myself by people that think like me who are also living-low impact lifestyles and believe that we can change things.  But the moment I step out of that bubble and go and read the Sun or something like that, then I get fearful because I realise how much more there is to do before we can bring about the societal change that we need….”

This is the nub of the problem of compromise. If we were to give up on our own project here in France and, say,  join an intentional community willing to have us, would that simply be a way of making our own lives easier and avoiding the real issue of how to adequately confront the inertia of the mainstream? Or if I were to return to join Louise in the UK and find a job at Tesco or in a bank, am I capitulating or just being pragmatic about how little I can really do to alter the supermarket’s relentless undermining of local communities or the bank’s lucrative investments in tar sands and land mines?

How much must we compromise our ethical values in order to sustain life and livelihood in a system that shows no signs of making any compromises itself to avert ecological disaster and the almost certain end of our species. Or, put another way, if the prospect of an unimaginable catastrophic future is not yet sufficient to stir the mainstream into concerted action, exactly how up close and personal must our personal experiences of financial greed, extinction of species, resource conflicts, and hunger and suffering be for us to cease from making compromises and start living our ideals to the full, regardless of the systems and the social conventions that we tell ourselves constrain our ability to do so.

Writer and activist Derrick Jensen refers several times in his writings and lectures to ‘The Nazi Doctors’, Professor Robert J Lifton’s study of how medical professionals rationalised their participation in the Holocaust. Jensen explains that Lifton found numerous examples of concentration camp doctors doing all they could for inmates to ease their suffering, smuggling scraps of food, hospitalising prisoners to keep them off the extermination lists and illicitly giving them aspirins to lick to lessen their pain. In short, they lived up to their Hippocratic Oath in all but the most crucial thing: standing up to resist the regime that systematically devalued life and normalised its extermination.

Of course, the invidious choice for those doctors was between compromising their sworn oath or taking a stand and becoming victims themselves. This is not a choice we see ourselves as faced with in our own immediate here and now. But there are clear parallels to be drawn – and one does not need much knowledge of even very recent human conflict to see how resource depletion and climate impacts could lead this way again. So whilst we may not now be as starkly confronted by death and suffering in our daily lives as those doctors, we can comprehend how our modern industrial culture also devalues life, human or otherwise, and how we are all complicit to one extent or another. So where does acceptable compromise end and taking responsibility begin?

I do not for a moment think to pass judgment on the individual who supports themselves and their family through holding down a job that, directly or indirectly, perpetuates the destruction of eco-systems or deprives someone somewhere else in the world of a livelihood. But I do think that, if culture change is to be our goal and our possible salvation, then we must become willing to make these connections and discuss openly with each other what is constructive and destructive about our lifestyles, not keep such conversations off-limits simply because we are made uncomfortable by them. 

Derrick Jensen’s point is that just as the well-intentioned small acts of bravery by doctors in the camps did provide some relief to the sufferings of prisoners, they did not put an end to a regime that normalised genocide. Instead it took the concerted and unprecedented resources of the free world and five years of total war. By the same argument, whilst re-cycling our household waste and re-using plastic bags may all be helpful acts of virtuous behaviour, they will not in themselves bring to an end a system that causes climate change and ecocide. Only the willingness to take an uncompromising stance against what is destructive in that system could possibly create momentum for the daunting societal shifts that are needed to alter its course. There is no doubt that lives were saved from the concentration camps by the actions of a few uncompromising people (who were, at the time, themselves uncomfortable – even dangerous – to know but whom the course of history now allows us to celebrate). But there is no historical precedent by which we can gauge the potential for uncompromising individuals to motivate the scale of social change that could possibly avert environmental crises. Nonetheless, if such refusal to compromise occasions some comparatively trivial social ostracism, this seems a small price to pay to try to find out.

In a perfect world, going beyond the conventional bounds of polite discourse to express our ideals would not provoke defensive accusations of being ‘holier than thou’ . But this would require us to be willing to curtail our all too prevalent cynical knowingness and place a higher cultural value on idealism.

In 1994, the pioneering environmental scientist and systems thinker, the late Donella Meadows, presented her paper, Envisioning a Sustainable World’:

“The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision…

“Why is it we can share our cynicism, complaints, and frustrations without hesitation with perfect strangers, but we can’t share our dreams? How did we arrive at a culture that constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries? Whose idea of reality forces us “to be realistic”? When were we taught, and by whom, to suppress our visions?

“Whatever the answers to those questions, the consequences of a culture of cynicism are tragic. If we can’t speak openly of our real desires, we can only marshal information, models, and implementation toward what we think we can get, not toward what we really want. We only half-try. We don’t reach farther than the lengths of our arms. If, in working for modest goals, we fall short of them, for whatever reason, we reign in our expectations still further and try for even less. In a culture of cynicism, if we exceed our goals, we take it as an unrepeatable accident, but if we fail, we take it as an omen. That sets up a positive feedback loop spiraling downward. The less we try, the less we achieve. The less we achieve, the less we try…

“Children, before they are squashed by cynicism, are natural visionaries. They can tell you clearly and firmly what the world should be like. There should be no war, no pollution, no cruelty, no starving children. There should be music, fun, beauty, and lots and lots of nature. People should be trustworthy and grown-ups should not work so hard. It’s fine to have nice things, but it’s even more important to have love. As they grow up, children learn that these visions are “childish” and stop saying them out loud. But inside all of us, if we haven’t been too badly bruised by the world, there are glorious visions…

“So I have been honing my capacity to envision. I rarely start a garden, a book, a conference, or an organisation, without formally envisioning how I want it to come out – what I really want, not what I am willing to settle for. I go to a quiet place, shut down my rational mind, and develop a vision . I present the vision to others, who correct it and refine it and help it to evolve. I write out vision statements. When I lose my way, I go back to those statements.

“Sometimes I still feel silly doing all this. I was raised in a skeptical culture, after all, and worse, I was trained as a scientist, with all “silly irrationality” drummed out of me. But I keep practicing vision, because my life works better when I do. Here are some things I have learned about the way vision works:

  • Envisioning is not a left-brain activity; it doesn’t come from the part of me that does rational analysis. It comes from whatever part of me informs my values, my conscience, my sense of morality. Call it heart, call it soul, whatever is the source of vision, it is not rational mind.
  • I have to keep filtering out any remnants of past disappointments, any tinge of negativism, any analysis of “reality.” I have to work actively to focus on what I want, not what I expect.
  • I have stopped challenging myself, or anyone else who puts forth a vision, with the responsibility of laying out a plan for how to get there. A vision should be judged by its clarity of values, not by the clarity of its implementation path.
  • In my experience that path is NEVER clear at first. It only reveals itself, step by step, as I walk along it. It often surprises me, because my computer and mental models are inadequate to the complexities and possibilities of the world. Holding to the vision and being flexible about the path is the only way to find the path.
  • Vision is not rational, BUT rational mind can and must inform vision. I can envision climbing a tall tree and flying off from its top, and I might very much want to do that, but that vision is not consistent with the laws of the universe; it is not responsible. I can envision the end of hunger, but careful modeling tells me that it can’t be accomplished tomorrow; it will take time. I use every rational tool at my disposal not to weaken the basic values behind my vision, but to shape it into a responsible vision that acknowledges, but doesn’t get crushed by, the physical constraints of the world.
  • One essential tool for making vision responsible is sharing it with others and incorporating their visions. Only shared vision can be responsible. Hitler was indeed a visionary, but his vision was not shared by the Jews or the Gypsies or most of the peoples of Europe. It was an immoral, insane vision.
  • Staying in touch with vision prevents me from being seduced by cheap substitutes. If what I really want is self-esteem, I will not pretend to achieve it by buying a fancy car. If I want human happiness, I will not settle for GNP. I want serenity, but I will not take drugs. I want permanent prosperity, not unsustainable growth.
  • Vision has an astonishing power to open the mind to possibilities I would never see in a mood of cynicism. Vision widens my choices, shows me creative new directions. It helps me see good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision. I see what I should support; I get ideas for action.
  • People who carry responsible vision become, in some sense I can’t explain, charismatic. They communicate differently from cynical people. Even if the vision isn’t overtly expressed, it’s there and it’s noticeable. Inversely, many progressive, dedicated, “realistic” people unconsciously communicate their underlying hopelessness. Being around them is a “downer;” being around visionaries is a constant inspiration.
  • I have rarely achieved the full expression of any of my visions, but I have learned not to be discouraged by that. I get much further with a vision than without it, and I know I’m going the right direction. I can take comfort in my progress, even while I continue to bear the tension of knowing I’m not there yet.

“I am a practical person. I think of myself as relentlessly realistic. I want to create change in the world, not visions in my head. I am constantly amazed, but increasingly convinced, that envisioning is a tool for producing results. Olympic athletes use it to make the difference between the superior performance their trained bodies can achieve and the outstanding performance their inspired vision can achieve. Corporate executives take formal classes in vision. All great leaders have been visionaries. Even the scientific, systems-analyst side of me has to admit that we can hardly achieve a desirable, sustainable world, if we can’t even picture what it will be like.”

We have ample evidence now to know that the state of the world is more precarious than it seemed to most of us seventeen years ago when Donella Meadows, one of the first to draw attention to The Limits to Growth, wrote the above. We can no longer aim to avoid all the foreseeable consequences of climate change but only to try to mitigate and adapt to them. But her words are as applicable today as ever before.  

If compromising our ideals to hold on to all of our accustomed conveniences and comforts means acquiescing to blighted lives in the poor world, squandering the legacy of our descendants, and being complicit in the on-going degradation of the natural world, then what hope is left for us? In issues of ethics, compromise really isn’t an option. So whilst my good friend Anthony is right in saying that Louise and I must now make pragmatic compromises to amend and adjust our intended course, this does not mean that we need compromise the ideals that determine our overall direction.


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