Protecting the Planet by Defeating our Cynicism

by | Mar 6, 2024 | Community Organizing | 0 comments

Fynn Manohchompoo, Student —

In our current democracy, people get left behind. Democracy is a word that we often define one-dimensionally, a statement that seems far simpler than it is: “a government of, by, and for the people.” The system of democracy we need is participatory democracy—a system fueled by the people to fill human needs. That kind relies on action and the hands of working people. When democracy breaks down like that to human needs and people power, it becomes more than once-a-season voting. In the United States, we live in a time where we struggle to get out of ourselves and form strong communities. Separated from each other, we can’t create a system that meets all of our needs. Our conduct does not serve humanity, so our legislation takes away human rights. Our conduct supports the status quo, so our education reinforces it. When complacency defines our daily conduct, we act against our own best interests. The times we live in can seem hopeless, but we struggle with a lack of collective action, not a lack of individual hope.

Emotions always come from actions. It often seems the other way around, like our emotions influence our conduct. When we are angry, it’s easy to track the conduct that matches. Our actions take on an intensity and violence. Really, intense and violent actions enforce anger. We might yell and scream to feel less angry. We might shut ourselves inside our rooms to feel better. Releasing anger like this or bottling it up helps, for a while, but it doesn’t make it go away. It’s repressed to break out later. If we want to feel better, we have to do something to make our pain into an asset. Hope is the same way. It’s not something that will come around, like a light in the darkness. It’s something people create. If we want democracy—representative, participatory ways to take care of each other—we’ll have to create it. Fill our hands that cling on to technology addiction with something wholesome. Repaint our reactionary signs with something more humanist. In those moments, we shape the world we dream about. We become more than dreamers.

 We create democracy through our conduct, and democratic conduct takes many forms. It’s measured by how much one gives, rather than takes, from others. Too many people today, regardless of age group or so-called generation, fall into narratives of “too late” and “I can’t.” People in organizations like SNCC, SCLC, and CORE dedicated themselves to nonviolence intergenerationally. In the most hopeless-seeming times, they withstood vicious attacks from white supremacists everywhere they went, from desegregating public spaces to educating voters in Freedom Schools. They persevered in the face of racism. Their work forced the United States to confront its history and legacy. They incited the president to sign the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Even still, at some point, they too succumbed to anti-democratic conduct. While some continued the movement’s work, many fell into silence and the cynical narrative. The “we” of the present tense and the “we” of the 60s have the same common enemy: a system that never meant to represent all of us. We live out the legacy of people who overcame great obstacles, battling for the consciousness of our nation today.

When it comes to cynical narratives, we portray the climate crisis as an immutable evil, coming too quickly and too soon. We live in a time where no one can escape its effects. It kills the salmon in the evergreen state, where we forget about the crisis until summer rolls around and smoke fills our skies from lands all around us. It’s easy to forget the crisis where it rains all the time, not realizing that both the summers and winters are warmer. The point of no return will not come with a flash and a bang, some huge wave towering over our coasts, or the sky falling down. Our world will warm up slowly, a degree at a time, but even a degree is enough for a fever.

Most of our problem is misplaced agency. It’s easier to blame someone else than to do the work ourselves. When it comes to pollutants pumped into the air and the carbon emissions rising from countless smokestacks, we can easily pass the guilty verdict against the corporations. After all, they know what fossil fuels do and continue to profit off them. Research shows that people experience doomsday-style anxiety about the climate crisis in increasingly high numbers. That shows there’s something wrong with our climate narrative. We believe there’s nothing we can do. It’s a good sign that people are worried. People should raise their awareness of the problems affecting the world. However, we need steps beyond that, a plan of steps for action. Our feelings of hopelessness come from somewhere, and maybe it’s our pointing fingers. It’s their fault. I am morally good and they are the source of the problem. They should be the ones to move. The status quo tells us that when we feel bad—depressed, anxious, or otherwise—it’s time to take a step back from the world. It’s time to take a break and indulge in what makes us feel good. That is a capitalist notion, sold to us to help us ignore our problems. Yes, when we feel bad, there are some natural causes. We need to take care of our bodies, to make sure we’re properly nourished and getting enough sleep and exercise. At the same time, our self-care narrative neglects the fact that we need other people. Imagine if self-care looked like working in the community garden. Cleaning the streets. Baking banana bread for our elderly neighbors. Then, we might learn what democracy feels like. We might advocate for it, and that is a dangerous thing.

When we feed into the narrative of personal inefficiency and irresponsibility, we misplace our agency. We relinquish our power to change what we see and victimize ourselves. As people, we never truly lost our accountability or our ability to sacrifice luxury. We have only stopped practicing it. So long as the narrative is “us vs. them” rather than “what can we do to solve this?” we will be stuck. It will get worse. Participating in democracy looks like recognizing our role in the system, beyond the victim. When we fail to stay awake to face the challenge of change, we become the perpetrator. When we look at the corporations and not the policies surrounding them, willfully believing that it is the fault of a few evil people, we support the corporate status quo.

When it comes to government policy, people create it. People took the time to organize the committee, to draft the bill, to debate and push it through the council to the committee to the House and the Senate. No faceless system signed the names necessary to turn a written piece into legislation. People create systems. If we do not agree with the system’s climate legislation, whether that’s at the federal, state, county, or city levels, we have the responsibility to change it. While protest is one form of democratic conduct, it is far from the only. We need teachers who will spark something real in students and teach them how to testify in favor of legislation against corporate carbon emissions. We need families willing to go door-to-door and register their neighbors to vote. We need creatives and engineers to draw up plans for the infrastructure to create clean energy. We need ordinary people who recognize the role of daily conduct and daily sacrifice that will combat the climate crisis. We cannot change any of this without first changing ourselves.

Our misplaced agency corresponds to a crisis of response-ableness, our capacity to act in any way we need to act to respond to whatever the time calls of us. It calls us right now to maintain our Earth, to keep the land habitable, and to ensure people after us can live. We can respond to the challenge of change with creative conduct. We can respond by putting down our comforts and organizing ourselves for legislation, education, and cultural exchange. Whatever it takes to build our humanity again, to be able to serve each other again. If every person who read this called up two other people and went to their state capitals together to voice their concerns about current climate policies, we would be a stronger community. We would know what hope feels like, what using our voices for something bigger than ourselves sounds like, and what mobilizing others looks like. Very few of us will become chemical scientists who can alter the atmosphere. Very few of us have enough concentrated individual power to end an entire fossil-fuel producing corporation. All of us have a voice, though, and the cultural-spiritual power that comes with it. Stand up, speak up, and we have the beginnings of the end of the climate crisis.

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