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Excerpt from Endgame

Symbolic Actions (p. 778)

From chapter "Symbolic and Non-symbolic Actions"

Environmentalists and other social change activists often make the opposite mistake: we pretend that symbolic victories translate to tangible results. We hold great protests, make great puppets and witty signs to carry, write huge books, hang banners from bridges, get mentioned in newspapers, sing empowering songs, chant empowering prayers, burn sacred incense, hit politicians and CEOs with vegan cream pies, and participate in thousands of other symbolic acts, but the salmon still go extinct, phytoplankton populations still plummet, oceans still get vacuumed, factories still spew toxins, there are still 2 million dams in this country, oil consumption still continues to rise, ice caps still melt, hogs and hens and cows still go insane in factory farms, scientists still torment animals in the name of knowledge and power, indigenous people are still driven off their land, still exterminated.

We especially in the environmental movement are so used to losing that we have come to celebrate and often even live for whatever symbolic victories we can gain, whatever symbolic victories are allowed us by those in power. We lock down on logging roads and stop logging at this one place for one hour, one morning, one day, one week, and then we’re removed, and so is the forest that has stood on this ground for thousands of years. But we do sometimes get some good press.

I have no problem with symbolic victories. Sending a message can be important, and is indispensable for recruiting as well as for shaping public discourse. Sometimes sending messages even makes a difference in the real world. I often think about a story a friend told me, about symbolic actions in response to violence. She wrote: “My friend Erica worked at the local Whole Foods Market (I know, the evil empire). There’s a small but visible Tibetan immigrant community in the area, and a number of them had jobs at Whole Foods. This one Tibetan man had immigrated a few years back, saved up money and sent for his wife. She arrived and one day soon after he hit her. First thing to note is that she packed her bags and never went back to him. Second thing to note is that everyone else in that community would have taken her in for as long as she needed—she had multiple safe places to go. And third—this is the part I like the most—he was shunned by everyone. Nobody would speak to him. They would turn their faces sideways so as not to look at him and even put their hands up over their eyes to block the sight of him. If he tried to speak to people they would ignore him or walk away. When Erica started working at Whole Foods, this had been going on for two years! So it can be done. We could live in a world where violence against women had severe consequences that wouldn’t even necessitate the removal of body parts.”

This is an important case study, but I hesitated to include it in this book because I have a concern that too many of us—I’m thinking especially of pacifists, but this concern applies to all of us—will attempt to too generously generalize this example. Too many of us will be tempted to say that because this shunning might have had an effect on this Tibetan man that we should do the same to George W. Bush and Charles Hurwitz. If only we avert our eyes, if only we make these larger-scale abusers feel supremely unwelcome, they will stop destroying the planet. But turning one’s face away would only work within a face-to-face community. It only works when the other cares what we think. Hurwitz no more cares what I think about him than he cares about the forests he is destroying. Part of the key then is to force these others to care what we think.

For a symbolic act to bring about change in the real world, at least two conditions must be in place. The first is that the recipient of this message must be reachable. We can send all the postcards we want to Bush and Hurwitz beseeching them to stop killing forests, and it won’t make a bit of difference. Here’s an example. Although Bill Clinton’s environmental record was disgraceful, he did enact a moratorium on punching roads into the relatively few remaining roadless federal lands.He did this only after a public comment period lasting three years, during which the feds received more than 2.5 million comments, approximately 95 percent in favor of the moratorium. Now Bush has rescinded the moratorium, citing insufficient public comments and support.The response by most environmental organizations has been to ask their members to send letters to Bush respectfully requesting he reinstate the moratorium.Neither Bush nor Hurwitz—and by extension most of those in their positions—is reachable through these means. Neither of them gives a shit about forests, except as dollars on the stump. Sending them a million postcard messages—or a million messages on signposts, or a message from streets filled with a million protesters—will make neither of them do the right thing.

And it’s not just those directly in power who are not particularly reachable. As we discussed earlier, I do not think the mass of the civilized will ever rise up to stop the destruction of the world.

But there are those who will.

The second necessary precondition for a symbolic act to bring about change in the real world is that the recipient of the message must be in a position to bring about that change. That is, the person must not only be willing, but able. This doesn’t mean the person has to be in power, in fact I would say that for the most part those in power don’t fit the first necessary precondition, in that they’re not reachable, and if they are reachable (and get reached), as we’ve discussed earlier, they’ll simply lose their power to someone else more well-suited to the psychopathology the system requires of those who make the decisions. It just means that while broadcasting a message can certainly be a good thing, we should also prioritize our efforts to recruit. One willing person with the right skills may help us more than a hundred semi-willing people who can write postcards.

The necessary preconditions for symbolic actions leading to significant social change are not often in place. Most of our actions are frighteningly ineffective. If that weren’t the case we would not be witnessing the dismantling of the world. Yet we keep on doing the same old symbolic actions, keep on calling the making of this or that statement a great victory. Now, don’t get me wrong, symbolic victories can provide great morale boosts, which can be crucial. But we make a fatal and frankly pathetic error when we presume that our symbolic victories— our recruiting and our morale boosting—by themselves make tangible differences on the ground. And we should never forget that what happens on the ground is the only thing that matters.

There comes a time in the lives of many long-term activists when symbolic victories—rare even as these can be sometimes—are no longer enough. There comes a time when many of these activists get burned out, discouraged, demoralized. Many fight despair.

I think fighting against this despair is a mistake. I think this despair is often an unacknowledged embodied understanding that the tactics we’ve been using aren’t accomplishing what we want, and the goals we’ve been seeking are insufficient to the crises we face. Activists so often get burned out and frustrated because we’re trying to achieve sustainability within a system that is inherently unsustainable. We can never win. No wonder we get discouraged.

But instead of really listening to these feelings, we so often take a couple of weeks off, and then dive back into trying to put the same old square pegs into the same old round holes. The result? More burnout. More frustration. More discouragement. And the salmon keep dying.

What would happen if we listened to these feelings of being burned out, discouraged, demoralized, and frustrated? What would those feelings tell us? Is it possible they could tell us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we should try something else? Perhaps they’re telling us, to switch metaphors, that we should stop trying to save scraps of soap and try to bust out of the whole concentration camp.

I hate wasting time on makework. It’s not that I’m lazy, far from it. I love accomplishing things that I want to accomplish, and love working furiously when I see movement. But I’m extremely sensitive as to whether the work I’m doing is actually accomplishing anything. And the feeling I get when I’m working futilely feels a lot like burnout, discouragement, frustration, and so on. I’ve felt this sensation often enough to know that it doesn’t mean I need to take two weeks off and then come back and do the same damn useless job, nor does it mean I need to work even harder at this damn useless job. Nor does it mean I need to collapse into a sobbing heap of self-pity. None of those do any good. It usually just means I need to change my approach so that I accomplish something in the real physical world.

Useful work and tangible accomplishments make burnout go away quickly.


This once again raises the question of what we really want. Do we want to slow the grinding of the machine just a little bit? Do we want to stop it completely? Do we want the Giants to win the World Series and oh, by the way, it would be nice if we still have a world? Do we want to keep our cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet? More to the point, do we want to allow others to keep their cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet, which of course includes at the expense of poor humans?

Most of the people I know recognize that the choice really is between life and civilization, and if they could snap their fingers and make civilization go away they’d do it in a heartbeat. I know many people who were hoping and praying that Y2K would bring it all down. Now the big hope is peak oil. Some would not be unhappy if a virus took us all out. Anything to stop civilization’s grotesque destructiveness.

Look, however, at what these three hopes all hold in common: they’re beyond our control. There are many of us who want civilization gone, and who would even conjure it away through magical means if we had them, but in the real physical world don’t know how to bring it down, or if we have some useful knowledge, we do not want to take responsibility for actually doing what needs to be done. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are those who are willing to take on that responsibility.