We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

This is my mantra lately. I keep it in mind because I sense a danger in taking on too much guilt around the many fucked up things going on in the world. It’s true we’re all to some degree implicated in many of these things, and so I acknowledge there is also a danger in not feeling responsible for some of the negative aspects of the state of the world. But responsibility is not the same thing as guilt, and guilt is a worse foundation for action of the two feelings.

An example that’s very present from my life is in gentrification. I grew up in San Francisco, and sure enough, due to the “hypergentrification” the City has gone through, I no longer live there due to being displaced from my last apartment.[1] Displacement is something I know experientially—it’s not some abstract thing. Most of my friends from growing up and early adulthood can no longer live in the city.

I spent my youth coming up in arts, punk music, and urban farming scenes. All three of these areas of urban activity—and those involved in them—have been called out as contributing to gentrification. You may recall the basic argument: generally white(r) populations move into down-and-out areas of disinvested cities, making them “nicer” by dedicating their time to (generally non-paying) pursuits like making art, green space, social/cultural spaces. Their hip tastes and whiteness attract new and wealthier residents who now feel “safe” and welcome where they once didn’t. … Soon rents are going up, and the original residents are forced out by elevating prices or by efforts to get them out (e.g. evictions), since there is more profit to be made serving the newer, richer and whiter populations.

I’m not saying this narrative is completely untrue. But as I’ve covered elsewhere, the narrative ends up placing blame on and directs attention to those who are in a “buying” position in the economy. These are not the people who drive gentrification through choices of investment, disinvestment, and policy-making, but those who play an important but subsidiary role. Neil Smith and others have made this point before.

Another sphere where we’re all responsible, but some more than others, is as regards the state of “the environment”. As Utah Phillips (supposedly) said “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”. Yes, I myself have killed the earth by eating take-out, by driving occasionally, by taking planes, by throwing things “away” in a landfill (somewhere)—guilty as charged. You probably kill the earth too, on a daily basis. But we are not meaningfully in control of the underlying material processes that lead to this impact: the extraction of minerals from the earth’s crust, the extraction of fossil fuels and their processing and trading, the financing of these processes, the policy-making that fails to constrain these processes or prevent their damaging impact. We too are in buying positions, which are important but not central.

It seems nonsensical to put you, Exxon CEO/U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and me on the same plane in any political analysis of the environmental problem. A political vision that focuses too much on individual behaviors risks forgetting how much these behaviors are structurally determined, and thus could misdirect political energy away from those are more so responsible for structuring such behavior.

A similar argument can be made regarding the continued harmful white supremacy that pervades everyday life. Certainly, as critical race theorists and antiracist activists have pointed out, white supremacy is “re-inscribed” in everyday life by the individual actions of “everyday” people. We can see this in the overt racism and outward hate emboldened and made even more visible in the post-Trimp era, as well as the more subtle forms of white supremacy common among self-identified “liberals”, like microagressions (forms brilliantly parodied in the smash hit movie “Get Out”).

But just as important are the actions performed by individuals who play vital roles in organizations that structure white supremacy into our lives and enforce it: political bodies, corporations and companies, policing and war-making organizations, and so on. This form of racism is less about individuals and their personal attitudes as the function their (daily) activity fulfills.

I’m thinking for example of government officials (whether executive, legislative, or judicial) making policy, and the decisions made by heads and stockholders of profit-making companies. Politicians make white supremacist laws and police enforce them. Companies pollute and exploit communities of color and get away with it. Real estate investors and their friends in planning departments make plans to displace communities of color in favor of the profit-making opportunity of neighborhood “revitalization” (i.e. gentrification). Individuals in these positions are key points where white supremacy is maintained, even if none of them show outward attitudes of racism.

Sure, we all play a role in these complex political, economic, and ideological processes that lead back to white supremacy—and so we all need to play a role in resisting, subverting, or redirecting these processes. Yet, simply stating “we are all responsible” tends to downplay that some people operate in positions of relatively greater capacity to shape the lives of others. Recognizing this greater capacity should inform more targeted and perhaps strategic political intervention. We can and should fight white supremacy in all its forms and embodiments, but we might want to prioritize fighting against people and organizations that are the most implicated.

Doing so also leaves more space for the uncomfortable and long-term process of changing the everyday ideologies and behavior patterns of people away from white supremacy. That is, if we approach everyone as part of the problem, we have a much harder time gathering a meaningful force towards solutions. This would go for environmental and anti-gentrification movements too. Sometimes, this process is difficult, as those who form the cutting edge of gentrification and white supremacy are sometimes masked by their identities and powerful “it’s not me” defenses.

The case of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) in L.A. is instructive here: in response to obvious indications of arts-led gentrification, with art forming a wedge by which to force open the neighborhood to new colonizers, BHAAAD targeted galleries which were investor’s playthings, but were fronted by queer and otherwise self-described ‘marginalized’ people. While not sparing any harsh words of critique for the process, BHAAAD made it clear: if these gallerists involved wished to avoid being implicated in this unjust process, they needed to close their galleries and leave the neighborhood.

Offering history to explain the gallerists’ role in displacement (unacknowledged by the gallerists, or possibly just too uncomfortable to recognize), BHAAAD explains this role in terms of investment, capital, and (collective) political power—not just individual behavior based on individual “values”. Thus they leave the door open for implicated folks (who were not necessarily “the most responsible”) to choose sides and see themselves as political actors with potentially better choices.

We need to hold a space for self-critique and calling out negative patterns we experience in our immediate environment (e.g. school, home, workplace, social life, etc), but we need to focus our political analysis and oppositional efforts on the structures that are primarily responsible for material conditions, and the people who are directing those structures. To the great middle—those participating in but not directing injustice—activism must be critical, firm, but offered with a structural analysis that leaves an opening for those targeted to be self-reflective and align their actions with their stated politics.

[I suppose this piece needs an accompanying one to explain why police, politicians, and investors should not be considered part of this ‘great middle’, and should be treated instead as the enemies they are. Next time.]

[1] I have things pretty good, relatively speaking: I received a buy-out payment for my eviction, and my mom was lucky enough to buy one of the last affordable houses in the 1990s so I now benefit from that class privilege.


Despair + Parenting = Desparenting?

Parents have long worried about the world they raise their children in. How can you feel good about bringing a child into the world when world conditions seem so shitty? Worse, say you’ve already procreated, and expect future conditions to worsen rather than improve: how could you not worry?

Of course this parental existential worry varies: Being relatively privileged within a socially stratified society, you may have little to worry about other than your child turning out to be an asshole or drug addict. But if you were or are a Dalit in India, a Native American in the USA, or any living example of the global precariat, you might have very immediate reasons for concern, such as finding the next meal for your child, or escaping the harsh mistreatment that awaits them.

In the modern era, it might seem unsurprising that parents would worry about the future, as we’re living through some of the worst generalized environmental destruction and social injustice the world has seen, and this destructive injustice does not seem to be improving much. (Don’t believe Steven Pinker’s Eurocentric panglossian spin, please). In addition, many know more about all this horribleness outside our doors and across the planet because information about it is readily available. Many also experience it directly—ask a climate refugee or mine worker.

I’ve been worried about (generalized) environmental destruction throughout my life, aside from anything related to parenting. For the most part, I’ve never fallen prey to hopelessness given the circumstances. I’ve taken seriously the Gramscian suggestion of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and been able to mobilize this through a belief that it matters how I live my values, not just that I accomplish my particular aims of social change.

My current condition of “desparenting” no doubt is related to this previous concern for environmental issues, but it’s really the recent U.S. presidential madness and resulting political turmoil that has brought this on. The usual feeling of doom has now combined with the increasing sense that they are winning, that we cannot stop them, and that even my own ostensible allies are weak liberals who are resigned to fight for crumbs and validate the systems that are destroying us—I’m just really down about it all, quite often these days.

My son is no doubt a light in this darkness. It’s a trope of parenting: young kids are amazing. They are positive about life in a way that is difficult if not impossible for adults. They are innocent of what is really going on in the world. They see a bird and are impressed. They see an airplane and are not concerned about the climate change implications. They aren’t yet figuring out how to adopt themselves to capitalist life. My son in many ways inspires me, and that’s great.

But he’s only 2 years old. I can’t imagine dealing with what’s to come in any positive way, to make sense of this to him when I can’t even make sense of it myself. To find a sense of agency and capacity in a time when the non-elite individual is atomized, ignored, surveilled, dismissed, disenfranchised and suppressed into impotence. It makes me want to move “back to the land”, an escapist paradigm I encountered and adopted in my teens, then rejected in my twenties. Now in my thirties, I sense a cycle.

In writing this post out, I’ve experienced something that often happens to me: I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say. I have no pithy words of wisdom. There isn’t a clear path forward for me, much less advice to offer others.

All I can say for sure is that at times like these, it’s clear that I need a stronger, more consistent community to exist within and maintain hope alongside. Communities—of practice, of ideas and ideals, of coexistence through space and time—are effective tools for feeling less hopeless in trying times. I’ve always known a lot of folks, but real “community” (an overused and ill-defined term if there was one!), or communion, is something that takes time and effort. For many parents, the first year or two isolates you from whatever social world you inhabited previously. This was definitely the case in my experience.

Good thing I lost my job recently: more time for community, and spending time with my son while he’s still like this!



Catastrophism revisited

pure rageMy involvement in what some have termed “catastrophism” started with peak oil. I found out that oil researchers and environmentalists (well, and gold hoarders and conspiracy theorists) were convinced that fossil fuel extraction would “peak” globally around 2005 (right around the time I was reading of this idea). Peak oil meant that fuel sources would become scarcer, and prices for fuels would thus continue ever upwards as we entered a period of “energy descent” for humankind.

I was taken by how certain this idea seemed and how certainly we had better prepare for such a problem: it may not be self-apparent to everyone, but industrial societies globally are deeply dependent on fossil fuel energy—precariously so. As energy prices climbed (so the theory went), so would prices for food, transport, and basically everything else! In 2004, I published a “Peak Oil Tract” to convince my friends of our impending doom and (hopefully) spur action.

But then life continued about the same for the next 10 years. It turns out, peak oil may be real but economic effects and technological developments are also real. Deep-water wells (like the one that failed in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011) and fracking, plus the effects on international pricing of national reserves, have in particular challenged the current impact of the peak oil prognosis.

These factors that mitigate the “simple math” of finite fossil fuels and inevitable energy descent have kept prices from climbing, and in the past year prices have even gone down. The point is, the correlation between oil prices going up and civilization going for a nosedive doesn’t necessarily hold. At least, not on the timeline I was expecting.

This is an example of where maintaining a “catastrophist” position or narrative—that we are approaching catastrophe and that this notion might motivate us to change our collective future—seems wrong, and maybe not so useful. Over the ten years since I published the “Peak Oil Tract”, I began to believe that the leftist environmental movement had to lay off such doom-and-gloom messaging in order to reach people more effectively, and so as to not end up wrong (and potentially discredited), as I was, due to the extreme difficulty in predicting the precise downward trajectory of resources in complex social-ecological-economic systems.

As an activist I was always more into solutions than problems. I wanted something to be for rather than just to be against. I was committed most to “sower” and “pollinator” work (that is, seeding the new world I wanted to see in practical projects and spreading ideas and connections between people working for this new world) more than “warrior” work (that is, opposing the “bad guys” and bad things happening).

In my organizing work around food systems, I stopped leveraging doomsday rhetoric. I figured that, for getting others engaged with environmental, food, and social justice issues, this seemed less appealing as talking (and doing!) solutions.

While I still believe this to some degree, a recent(ish) debate amongst Leftist environmentalists got me rethinking this position. Peak oil is but one environmental issue, to be sure, and my example above (that peak oil does not equal immediate catastrophe) doesn’t at all dispute the fact that we face myriad environmental crises.

Climate change is pretty scary. The continued destruction of our soils and waterways sure is not comforting. Doomsday certainly is happening right now, as species are being driven extinct at a rapid clip, and economies continue to grow and destroy ever-greater portions of the natural world. No joke, this is serious stuff.

A recent book (The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram & Frances Malamud-Roam) makes it even more real for people like me who live in California. In the book, Ingram and Roam utilize the most modern climate science to determine California’s prospects for the future. Weather events of the past 200 years in California, it turns out, were anomalous in many respects: on the whole, they were wetter and more consistent—with less droughts and floods—than the rest of the “interglacial” period (i.e. the historical period since North America was last covered in glaciers, about 11,000 years ago).

Even with this 200-year period having a relatively mild climate, there was a major flood in 1861-62 that affected every major population center of the time. How extreme was the flood? One quarter of all cattle (800,000 head) were drowned. One third of the state’s property was destroyed. The Governor had to row himself, out of his third story window, to the Capitol. The economy of the state was left in shambles. The book’s point: we’ve created an at-risk major civilization in an area prone to extreme weather.

The book speaks of floods, droughts, climate and related infrastructure as aspects of our everyday lives that we don’t regularly think about, but that are in fact extremely endangering. With climate change, this precariousness is only getting worse!

Of course, effects of climate catastrophes, like other environmental issues, are uneven, and differential in their impacts. Impacts vary geographically (e.g. the flooded Central Valley versus the less-damaged coast), but also based on social and economic class position. This goes for individuals: can you move quickly and stay dry and fed in a storm or flood scenario? That’s much less likely if you’re poor, than if you’re rich. It also goes for whole regions: scientific projections predict climate change-driven damaging effects will affect the rich (mostly temperate-zone) countries less than the mostly poorer countries of the tropics, due in part to climatic differences but also resources available to mitigate and adapt.

So, I no longer think we shouldn’t give people information that we are fucking the planet. We are, it’s a fact. But what do we do with this information? Where do we lead people (or ourselves) with it?

Bad news isn’t inherently disempowering. But it helps to get hints on what can be done about it. And it’s imperative to remember that not all disasters—and not all disaster victims—are equal.

When we reference catastrophe(s), we must propose solutions that can be pursued at multiple scales: by individuals, communities, and nations—at whichever scale the problem operates. Our rhetoric should reflect doable actions, and transformative, global solutions. For example, in the case of climate change: your personal “carbon footprint” can help ID courses of action (like riding a bike instead of driving, or cutting down on red meat consumption), but in the absence of larger movements at other scales these individual actions are pretty ineffectual.

Also, when we discuss catastrophes, we should be clear in our discussions of who feels and doesn’t feel their impact. We need to make clear that the “global environment” is a relevant conceptual category, but struggles to transform human impacts on the environment, and to reduce the injustices wrought by these impacts, are and will continue to be based in local and regional areas.

The indigenous tribes and allies fighting the Tar Sands pipelines in Canada are on the frontlines fighting climate change, and defending their rights and territory. This is concrete antagonism to catastrophe, and must be supported. Traditional fisher people all over the world (predominately in the Majority world) are fighting off the incursions of large-scale ecologically destructive fishing; these again are concrete struggles to support.

So now, I’m OK with catastrophic rhetoric. I just want to know, when hearing it, what comes next from the realization that catastrophe is imminent? What concretely can we do? Who is on the frontlines, staving off catastrophe, that we can support?