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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Activation Energy (p. 181)

From chapter "Insatiability"

One afternoon, in the living room of some Maori activists, I was asked if I work on these issues so that indigenous people will like me. There was silence for a moment as I thought about the question—it had never occurred to me. Three other people in the room—two women and a man—interjected that they didn’t think the question was fair. Another silence, and Jeannette said she thought it was important.

The question had not been asked in the same inquisitional tone as had Witi’s; it seemed that Paulo, the questioner, was genuinely curious as to my motives.

Why does anybody work on these issues? As much to the point, why do so many people ignore them? I can’t answer the second, but I know that for most of my friends the answer to the first is that they can’t imagine their lives without it: working to slow the destruction or proactively shut down the machine is as natural and unquestioned to them as eating, breathing, sleeping. Many perceive the pain of denuded forests and extirpated salmon directly in their bodies: part of their personal identities includes their habitat—their human and nonhuman surroundings. Thus they are not working to save something out there, but responding in defense of their own lives. This is not dissimilar to the protection of one’s family: why does a mother grizzly bear charge a train to protect her cubs, and why does a mother human fiercely fight to defend her own? Some arrived at this place primarily through intellect, following a single strand of personally perceived destructiveness back to its source, and others arrived primarily through their emotions, feeling in their bones the outrage, sorrow, shame, and pain of residing in a sea of horrors, and only later brought it up to their minds. People in both categories find it incomprehensible that so many people don’t act.

Each year come Super Bowl time, I wonder why so many people can become so excited over a game, yet so few will pause to mourn the passing of the salmon, and almost none will work to stop their steady slide toward extinction. Imagine a moment of silence for the environment before the Super Bowl!

An activist friend once told me of a conversation she’d had with her grandmother, a devout Catholic. The two were watching a television program about prisons. My friend commented that yes, jail food did in fact taste terrible. Her grandmother was shocked and asked how her darling granddaughter could possibly know.

“I’ve been arrested several times, Grammy.”

Silence. I can only imagine the possibilities running through the grandmother’s head. Finally my friend continued, “For sitting down in front of bulldozers that were cutting logging roads into ancient forests.”

“Why would you do something like that?”

My friend thought a moment, then said, “What would you do if someone was going to run a bulldozer through St. John’s cathedral?

Her grandmother looked at the television, looked out the window, then looked back to her granddaughter. She said, “Next time, don’t take on those bulldozers sitting down. You stand up for yourself.”

I told Paulo that sure, I wanted him to like me, but only because I liked him, not because he’s indigenous. I also said I didn’t much care if he liked me for my work; if he did like me I hoped it was because, as I said, “I’m a dang nice guy.” I told him also that I’d been doing the work long before I met him, and that I would certainly continue whether he approved or not. Finally, I told him I had reasons entirely independent of him or anyone else for hating what civilization is doing to the world.

I briefly dated a woman who thought my activism was a form of acting out, and who said I despised the culture because it was safer to do so than to despise my father. I thought, and still think, that there was a shred, and only a shred, of truth in what she said, the shred being that he doesprovide me an avenue of understanding into many of the culture’s otherwise incomprehensible actions. But on the main she was wrong.

I do despise my father for his own detestable activities. I am quite clear on this point. In the parlance of chemistry, I believe he was a catalyst for my activism. A catalyst is a substance that hastens a reaction. My father initiated the reaction, but the activities of our culture make the “sins” of my father seem minor were they not properly understood as the micro version of our culture’s ‘ macro activities. Discrete catalysts can be found for many other activists as well. The Forest Service clearcut behind the activist Barry Rosenburg’s home sealed his decision to devote his life to the forests. The Plum Creek clearcut that destroyed Sara Folger’s water supply pushed her in the same direction. But as in chemistry, the catalyst is only the beginning of a process.

The question I should have asked that ex-girlfriend before we stopped dating is why more people aren’t activated by the ubiquitous catalysts they encounter daily. To return to chemistry, there is something called an activation energy, which is the amount of energy that must be present before a certain reaction can proceed. What, I should have asked, is your own activation energy? What’s your catalyst? How much—and what—will it take for you to begin to act?