I was radically changed by my experience of moving to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in its earliest days and trying to build a new society starting nearly from scratch. Having just spent most of my 20s trying to do some good things in the world and thinking a lot about what was important to me, I had nonetheless found it hard to enact my beliefs in every day life. And then I moved to the ecovillage, where the whole point was to enact many of those beliefs.
My mother sometimes jokingly (mostly) referred to it as Voluntary Hardship. But the irony was that the work was a pleasure and blurred the standard connotations of “work.” It was, if you’ll forgive the jargon, empowering. Instead of “work” draining my soul, it fed it, and thus my work gave me energy. It gave me power. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that this may be our most significant kind of renewable energy.
One of my favorite Dancing Rabbit sayings came from those early days. We were trying to build a sustainable society, but many of didn’t have the skills we wanted. And when it came time to do something new, we had to just launch in and do our best. Thus we had the saying:
If you’ve seen it done, you’re good at it.
If you’ve done it once, you’re an expert.
This was later amended with “And if you’ve read about it, you’re a consultant!” We’d say it with a laugh, roll up our sleeves and make whoever had done it once teach the rest of us. We did a lot of reading and research and sometimes we made some horrible mistakes. But mostly we got a lot done by not letting our own limitations get in the way. It completely changed how I approach living in the world.
I was reminded of this when reading Derrick Jensen’s recent article in Orion Magazine, Resistance Resisters. I’ve long been a fan of Orion and I know many people who are big fans of Jensen’s. I’ve personally had mixed reactions to different things of his that I’ve read and this article fit the pattern.
I appreciate Jensen’s clarion call for deep change and his dissatisfaction with piecemeal efforts. However, I also find his rhetoric to be anything from unhelpful to damaging as a strategy to achieve the very ends he’s pursuing. For now, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect: action.
Jensen’s criticism is a strong call to action. And as per my own experience, action becomes a very useful teacher. The overcoming of inertia is a mighty feat by itself (one of the reason’s why I think Jensen’s condemnation of small steps is misled), and more importantly action leads to feedback. Action and learning are not separate acts, and in fact action often spurs greater learning than just reading or thinking, for action provides new information about the particulars of the exact scenario in front of you. So I agree with Jensen that we must take action.
But actions taken out of fear and anger tend to beget more fear and anger. And this is the problem with Jensen’s treatise. Even if one is deciding to take a direct action civil disobedience approach, even if fear or anger provided the initial impetus and spark to action, being driven by these twin demons rarely results in a greater good for the world.
I’ve certainly found this to be very true in my personal life. It’s such a simple premise, but I saved myself tremendous trouble when I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t make any major decisions or take any major actions when feeling miserable, but only once I saw something that I felt hopeful about to move to. I don’t think this maxim always holds true, especially when one is in danger or under threat. But once those kinds of threats are out of the way, I found that I did much better when I waited until I found, felt or saw something good that I wanted to move toward instead of just moving away from something that was hard. When I acted out of pain, then I was usually not happy with the results.
If we carry this analogy forward to Jensen’s article, it calls into question the danger-exception. He eloquently points out the danger and threat to many forms of life currently underway. So the call to action stands. Still, when we ask what actions we will choose I’d rather take my chances with hope and love than fear and anger. I think we’ll build a better future for all life that way.
This doesn’t mean choosing to not act at all, however. Even given my maxim. The top priority then becomes seeking the actions that provide positive directions. We still cannot ignore the dangers and damage.
Looking through the various posts of the recent blogathon, I came across this beautiful description from Liz McClellan, organizer of Hyperlocavore – A Free Yard Sharing Community about her visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage back in the early days. I think it makes an excellent mantra for this topic. It’s what she said she learned from that visit:
Stop talking. Do.
And while you do, Dance.