Activism, Apathy, and the Antidote to Burnout (Or, A Healthy Dose of Feel-Good-ism)

I’ve been mulling over some of the things we talked about in that interview I did earlier this month. The one that’s really standing out to me right now is burnout in activism, whether that’s environmentalism or human rights or spiritual freedom. Let’s focus on environmentalism in specific, just for simplicity’s sake.

The prevailing theme in environmental activism for the past several decades has been one of urgency, bordering (or crossing over into) doom and gloom. How much of ecological rhetoric is based on “This thing is horribly wrong, and if we don’t fix it WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE”? I don’t have exact statistics, but I’m on the mailing list of a number of environmental groups, and I try to keep tabs on ecological topics in the news. Most of what I see in my inbox and the headlines is negative, problem-focused.

There’s good reason for this: we do face some pretty serious challenges environmentally speaking. From pollution in the water, land and air, to the endangerment and extinction of species due to habitat loss and other factors, to climate change brought on by carbon production–each of these is a massive, complex problem incorporating many smaller, still serious problems, and there are no easy solutions. So it’s certainly not all sunshine and bunnies on the environmental front.

The media is another really significant contributor to this phenomenon. The fact is, bad news sells. So the headlines in the papers, on the nightly news, and on the news sites online tend toward the negative (and even the sensational). This includes news about the environment and our effects on it; when’s the last time you saw a front page headline about advances in solar power or the creation of a national park (did you know we got our newest national park just this year?) Most of what we get is pushed further back in the paper or lower down the page, and it’s usually bad news. So we get a constant stream of primarily negative messages from the media making us feel even worse about the situation.

Consider that this has been the prevailing theme of environmentalism for the past four decades. Individually and socially it gets really exhausting hearing bad news all the time, and when we don’t have good news to balance it out, we can start to feel hopeless, like nothing we do matters. It’s not that people don’t care about the environment; many people have varied concerns related to ecological issues (whether they label them as such or not). But when you feel like you’re facing the problem of “a billion cars in the world, all contributing to air pollution and climate change” or “poachers in countries on the other side of the world killed the last Western black rhinos” what do you feel you can do? Apathy starts to seem like a refuge from all the pain and grief over constant environmental losses.

Well, here’s the point where I yell “HEY, KNOCK IT OFF!!!!” at the media, and the doomsayers, and their ilk.

You’re perfectly validated in being upset and sad and angry and having all sorts of other feelings about ecological destruction in its many forms. And we shouldn’t stop pointing out the issues that need addressing. But for pity’s sake, can we amp up the positive news and feel-goodness some?

No, really. I mean it. We need more fluffy, kind-hearted, bring-on-the-light reminders that things aren’t 100% horrible. They’re not just Band-aids that make people feel good about, for example, recycling their aluminum cans. I mean, yes, okay, there are low-pressure environmental efforts that go no further than encourage people to do lightweight things like recycle or take public transit more or eat one meat-free diet per week, and to an extent they are only meant to help people feel good about taking that small action. But there’s nothing wrong with that! Making people feel good is a great plan!

Why? Well, for one thing, a lot of people respond better to positive ideas than negative ones. We need good news, especially at a time when we are bombarded with so much bad news. Good news keeps us motivated and engaged. We need opportunities to celebrate even the smallest victories, an important part of activism on any scale.

Also, praise goes over better than punishment. Yelling at someone and telling them what they’re doing wrong is more likely to make them resentful and defensive, and we’ve had a lot of yelling the past few decades. On the other hand, if you tell people what they’re doing right, it’s more likely to encourage them to keep up that behavior and potentially adopt other eco-friendly choices.

This means that instead of being problem-focused, we need to start being more solution-focused. Don’t just tell people what’s wrong–give them clear strategies for making the problem better. Use the constructive criticism sandwich: start off with a victory, then bring up a related problem, and follow up with constructive ways your audience can address that problem.

Make the solutions accessible, too–not everyone can convert to solar, for example, but their utility company might offer a green option, or they can find ways to cut down on household energy use. Be open to the possibility that not every proposed solution will work for every person, or that someone might not agree with you on the efficacy of a given solution even if they agree with you otherwise. Remember that you’re working for a common goal, even if the way by which you each do it may be different.

Now, as I’m writing this, I’m hearing in my head the voices of several cynical activists I’ve met in person or online over the years. “These people aren’t doing enough!” they’d say. “They’re just recycling because it makes them feel good, they don’t really care about the Earth, and [insert rant about a dozen other, often more complicated or inconvenient things they think people should be doing but aren’t]. WE NEED REAL CHANGE!!! We have to TELL THEM WHAT THEY’RE DOING WRONG BECAUSE IT’S URGENT!!!” and then proceed to yell about it to anyone they think is the problem. However, the number of people who respond favorably to this sort of aggressive activism is a lot smaller than the number of people who don’t.

Part of what we activists need to do is to accept that we can’t control other people and let go of the idea that we must make them behave a certain way. Let’s say I have (just throwing hypothetical numbers out there) ten people who have listened to me talk aboutrecycling. Let’s say maybe half of them do start recycling, and then the other half go back to their usual ways. But let’s say one of those ten not only recycles carefully, but also is inspired to find out other ways to reduce waste in their home, like making sure they use food before it goes bad, and then goes on to try other sustainable efforts which help them make a bigger positive impact.

But that one person has to come to that decision themselves. If I try too hard to make others do what I want them to, they’ll turn away and stop listening. If I insist that my way is the only way and they have no room to disagree or find their own solution, the result is the same. A person has to have their free will emphasized if they’re going to feel that the decision they make is truly theirs. And if they do indeed feel they made a personally empowered decision, then it’s more likely to stick and perhaps inspire them to try more if they’re so inclined. 

That’s why I feel it’s important to leave people feeling empowered as well as energized and enthusiastic about activism. It does involve some feel-good-ism. And it does need to be balanced out with some of the harder realities; if all you’re doing is some ego-stroking, you’re not going to give people goals to work toward. But we’ve spent so much time erring on the side of serious doom and gloom that I think we can afford to go a little overboard on the positives with a healthy dose of feel-good-ism.

So since I’ve been talking about making more positive themes in environmental discourse, and in giving people some concrete solutions to work with, here are a few suggestions lifted from a more rough draft of these ideas I posted on Tumblr a little while ago:

—Model good behavior. People are creatures of imitation. In the worst cases this turns out social pressure to act in negative ways, but you can also use the tendency to imitate in good ways. And it’s not just “monkey see, monkey do”. When I started gardening a few years ago, I had some friends give it a try as well, because if I could do it, hey, why couldn’t they? 

—Support the victories. Too often the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism is one of doom and gloom and panic. Being informed is crucial, but after a while all the bad news can wear down on even the most dedicated of activists. Part of the problem, too, is that the media tends to focus only on the worst possible spin as a way to get attention and sales; good news simply doesn’t make money. But it IS crucial when keeping people engaged in making the world a better place. So when an environmental org puts out an article on something they (we) managed to accomplish, spread the word!

—Make use of the constructive criticism sandwich. Studies show that if you praise someone and then criticize them, they’ll only remember the criticism—and again, not everyone responds favorably if they feel they’ve screwed up. So round out the constructive crit with another positive which can help give them the energy to go out and improve the thing you were critiquing.

Like My Writing? Then Give This a Listen!

So on Sunday I was a guest on the Pagan Musings Podcast. The initial topic was animism and my anthology, Engaging the Spirit World. We did start off in that direction—but then we wandered far off-trail into topics ranging from ecopsychology and environmental activism, to humanistic/naturalistic pantheism and other theologies, to my work with skin spirits and animal remains, to how we can best communicate about the things we feel strongly about. It essentially went from “interview” to “rambling, lovely conversation”, and we went for three hours!

Please do feel free to take a listen; I cover some things I haven’t really had the chance to talk about, and my gracious hosts helped this become a wonderful spoken creation, IMO.

Click here to hear the show!

Animals, Activism, and Dialectics

Having worked with hides, bones, and other animal parts in my art and spirituality for 15+ years, I’ve had my fair share of people questioning me about what I do (or being even more high-volume in their responses and reactions). I understand it can be a pretty emotional subject for a lot of people; death is a difficult thing for a lot of people in this culture, and unnecessary death even moreso. But there’s this thing that the occasional dissenter does that drives me a bit batty. Somehow in their mind “you make things out of animal parts” turns into “you can’t possibly like animals because you eat/wear/make things out of dead ones!” It’s an accusation tossed out at other people, like hunters, taxidermists, omnivores, and so forth. And it’s completely based in a logical fallacy, with such varied names as “excluded middle”, “either/or fallacy”, “false dilemma”, and so forth. (You can find out more about this little cognitive blip here.)

First, such a statement narrows the potential options down to two, based in the idea that “you’re either with me or against me in this argument”. There’s no gray area between “If you love animals you’ll do everything I do” and “If you don’t agree with me it means you don’t love animals”. Furthermore, it completely invalidates my actual feelings on the matter. I do love animals. I’ve had many pets through the years that I cared for dearly and took good care of. I admire the beauty and diversity of other beings, and I appreciate the lives of the animals whose remains I now work with in my art and spirituality. I have always put aside some of the money from my art and book sales to donate to nonprofits that support wildlife and their habitats, not because I want to keep having hides and bones to work with, but because I want there to keep being a great diversity of life independent of any subjective (and especially material) value humans may place on it. I know my own heart and why it carries what it does.

Speaking of my heart, let’s look a little more at that idea that I don’t care as much as they do about animals (or at all). First of all, there’s not an empirical tool for measuring “caring”, or “love”, or “attachment”. And second, the idea that omnivores, taxidermists and the like “don’t care about animals” is a complete falsehood (and something I touched on earlier this year.) I can give you plenty of examples of people who eat, wear, and even kill animals who also love animals, which invalidates that “you don’t REALLY love animals” argument. I grew up in a small town with a significant farming community. I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, but I went to school with a lot of kids who did. I grew up around people who named baby calves and pigs, took good care of them, spoiled them rotten, and then took them to the FFA show or the county fair or the livestock auction and sold them to someone who would slaughter the animals for meat. Or their family would do the killing themselves, and they’d eat the meat of the same animal they cared for all year. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction. It was just the way livestock farming is; you care for animals, and some of them you kill later so your family (or another family) has food to eat. Sure, some of those farm kids grew up to be vegetarian because they didn’t agree with what they were raised with. But others kept that life/death balance, and they’re not more or less right than the ones who changed their minds.

It’s the same with hunters. Some of the most passionate nature-lovers I know are hunters. It’s not, as some animal rights people like to say, “go out and admire nature’s beauty and then kill it”. Hunters in cultures around the world, indigenous and otherwise, honor the very same animals they kill. So do many farmers, and other people involved in killing animals for human consumption, food and otherwise. In fact, it’s a sentiment that I think needs to be more widespread in the more corporate, overgrown areas of agriculture where the animals are just seen as a commodity. Seeing them as beings deserving care and respect does not mean that they are not also a source of sustenance. I do feel that as a culture we could honor the animals we depend on much more than we do, and that this could lead to changes in how we raise and kill them, and treat their remains afterward. But this requires the ability to accept both the life and the death of the animal and our involvement in both.

And that’s where we run into what I see as a big deficiency in this culture–a lot of people have trouble with dialectics. They don’t seem capable or willing to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time; it has to be either/or for them. We really aren’t prepared for the gray areas. Look at our two-party-dominated political system, and look at how they tear into each other during campaign season. Look at how often religious beliefs are framed in us vs. them terms. Same thing with sex and gender, race, and other group affiliations. We have the chorus of “right vs. wrong” drilled into our heads from an early age, and no one really prepares us for the possibility that things may be more complicated than that. I think sometimes when there comes a depiction of gray areas, there are those who shun them, and those who latch onto them; look at the strong positive response to Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke/Mononoke Hime. One of the reasons it’s so beloved by its fans is because it’s not a simple good buy/bad guy picture; here’s a wonderful short comic that illustrates something profound that Miyazaki said about good vs. evil. I think we need more of that here. We need more challenges to this black and white way of viewing a complicated, sometimes messy world.

How do we learn to be more comfortable with dialectics? By being willing to face the uncomfortable reality that there will always be someone who disagrees with us vehemently. By accepting that people will have different solutions to complicated problems, and that our way is not the right way for everyone. By knowing that what may seem like a contradiction to one person may make complete sense to someone else, and that they may put every bit as much consideration into their viewpoint as the first person has (or perhaps more!) By being willing to try and understand the other person’s perspective, and remembering that “understand” is not synonymous with “agree with”. And, finally, by not seeing a dialectic as an excuse to attack or try to force the other person to choose between two black and white ways of seeing the issue.

Finally, I invite you to question how you approach those you disagree with, to include on really difficult, emotionally laden subjects, because you may not be completely at odds. Consider that I may agree with you on Opinion A, B, and C, all the way, but I may disagree with you on X and Y, and feel that Q and K are better options for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still agree with you on A, B, and C, and I may even join forces with you on those. For example, I’m not a supporter of banning hunting, but I am a supporter of humane treatment of animals killed for meat, to include the quickest and most humane death possible. I don’t agree with trophy hunting or killing just for the sake of killing, but I’m okay with preserving the beauty of an already dead (natural death or not) animal for education, for a museum, or even for artistic expression. If you and I both think that bees and other pollinators need to be protected, my aesthetic appreciation of taxidermy doesn’t change that. But you may need to accept that I have different relationships with the bees and the deer, that lots of people relate to different beings and situations in varying ways, and that this sort of complexity is normal in this world.

Being able to understand and accept this complexity and the conflicts it may bring is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive way of dealing with disagreements than hurling logical fallacies and invalidation at someone else. Instead of saying “I can’t see how you could possibly see things that way (and I refuse to even try)!”, try saying “Can you explain why you see things that way?” If what they say doesn’t mesh with your own opinions and you accept that disagreement instead of trying to force them to your way of thinking, at least you haven’t wasted your time with a pointless argument no one’s going to win and everyone’s going to resent. And you may still be able to find common ground on another issue that you can then join forces to work on. I’d rather have people approach me with that attempt at cooperation than accusations and fallacies; it’s a better use of scarce time and resources.

(One final note: as with many things, just because I can articulate things I think need to be improved doesn’t mean I don’t make the very mistakes I cite. If anything, this issue is closer to my mind right now in part because I can see where I screw up in this regard, to include recently. These posts are at least as much a reminder for myself as an invitation to others.)

Here’s What You Can Get Me For the Holidays

I’m a pagan. And pagans tend to like tchotchkes. I’ve cut down quite a bit over the years, but there are still times when I’ll see a wrought-iron candle holder and think “Hey, that’d be great on my altar!”

These days, my knickknack and curio shelves are mostly full of natural history specimens, little stone animal statues, and house plants, and I try to not add much to the collection (since, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m in a tiny apartment). These days I usually only add to my collection with secondhand thrift store finds or handmade creations, and even then sparingly. But I know plenty of my fellow pagan folk are still in the market for these sorts of goodies, whether for gifts and offerings, specialized altar pieces, or simple home adornment.

Many of these items are representative of nature–animals, plants, landscape photos, and the like. And while I don’t want to discourage creative home decor, especially that which reminds us we aren’t the only important beings in the world, I do wonder how much money we put toward them each year? And how does that compare to the amount of money we give to efforts to protect these beings of nature we value so much? If we spend even a quarter of the money that we spend on specialty gifts on donations to nonprofits instead, how much of a difference could we make?

So as you’re pulling together holidays gifts this year, or simply shopping around for yourself, consider the next nature-themed item you’re tempted to buy, whether that’s a piece of clothing or statue or picture (or even a piece of my own artwork, for that matter!) And then think about whether you could put that money instead toward the animal or plant or other denizen of nature it represents. Instead of buying that shirt with a tiger on it, why not send the $20 to Panthera or the World Wildlife Federation to help them protect real tigers in the wild? Or, rather than creating a new altar with an endangered teak wood table from Pier 1, consider pitching the $50 for it to Rainforest Relief, the Rainforest Conservation Fund, or another organization helping to prevent the further destruction of the Asian and African forests the teak calls home. You may even be considering buying a cute stuffed wolf from the Defenders of Wildlife, but you’d be better off just giving them the entire amount of money, rather than making them pay for one more Chinese-made plush toy.

This isn’t a call to stop buying trinkets altogether. It is, however, a reminder that the nature you glorify through these items is often highly threatened by our actions, including through the manufacture of the items themselves. Rather than perpetuating the problem, consider turning at least some of your gift budget this year toward donations in the names of those you’re buying for, for the benefit of the natural world we all need to live. In addition to the organizations above, see if there are any local nonprofits working to protect the ecosystems you’re in or near, or organizations that work with habitats or species you’re fond of. Or check out this list of a few of my favorite organizations:

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
628 NE Broadway St #200
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 232-6639

This organization works primarily on pollinators and other invertebrates. Often overlooked because they’re “just bugs”, the invertebrates are an absolutely critical part of every ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy
4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22203-1606
(800) 628-6860

Focuses on protecting habitats around the world, and educating people about the importance of healthy ecosystems. This includes direct protection of individual habitats in conjunction with local communities.

The Ocean Conservancy
1300 19th Street, NW
8th Floor
Washington, DC 2003
Works to protect the world’s oceans and to create awareness of how crucial the oceans and their inhabitants are to the planet’s health as a whole.

The Sierra Club
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: 415-977-5500

One of the oldest and largest environmental nonprofits, combines government lobbying with grassroots organization for a variety of ecological causes.

Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-2700
Lobbies for the protection of both wild species and their environments, and is also instrumental in helping communities become more sustainable.

The Wilderness Society
1615 M St., NW
Washington, D.C 20036
Many plants and fungi that face extinction are vulnerable due to habitat loss; this group works to preserve wilderness areas, to include crucial habitat.

Learning From Totems On Their Terms

I was meditating a bit a few evenings ago on the fights of butterflies.

See, I’d seen an image on Tumblr of two male Monarch butterflies scrapping over territory, and the caption said that they could get quite aggressive with each other. In fact, there’s a good chance many of you out there have seen butterflies engaged in battle, fluttering at each other in midair and even clutching and pushing at times. We’re inclined to see their struggle as “pretty”, and we may even mistake it as two butterflies happily dancing together.

Now think of two male elk battling it out over a patch of territory. We usually focus on the immense power in their bodies as they tussle, the sharp tines of branching antlers and the muscles in straining haunches. In fact, it is their physical strength that is one of the elk’s best-known traits.

Yet who is to say the elk is more fierce than the butterfly just because the insect is smaller and more delicate? We’re biased because of our size. If we happen upon a grizzly bear in the wilderness, we know we’re in immediate danger and we take action to save ourselves; the bear is seen as a dangerous animal. But if we meet a spider in the woods, at most we scream and squash it, even if the actual threat to us is miniscule or nonexistent. For the most part, though, most people don’t avoid the woods just because there are spiders prowling about, and other than phobias we don’t have much reason to fear for our lives.

However, in its own environment, the spider is a formidable predator. Ask a fly or a grasshopper or a beetle what it thinks of spiders, and the feeling would likely be similar to our feelings on lions, tigers, and bears. Ask a ladybug about the risk of raindrops, and it would probably be more concerned about the watery missiles than we are. On the other hand, while a drop from a three story building would be very bad for a human, an ant might get blown about by winds on its way down but would probably survive since it’s light enough to not reach a dangerous velocity.

These are all things that have been becoming more apparent to me over the years as I’ve continued my totemic work. We often miss some very important messages and opinions from some totems because of our human biases. During my meditation I checked in with several animal totems often seen as “gentle” or “beautiful”, to include European Rabbit (of Watership Down fame), Whitetail Deer (Disney’s version of Bambi), and the dragonfly totem Banded pennant. I talked to them about their feelings on being considered “safer” totems to work with, and to a one they disagreed. European Rabbit and Whitetail Deer both wanted me to know how fiercely they protect their young and territories, and how fiercely the males fight, and how both rabbits and deer have been known to injure or even kill their predators in self-defense; Whitetail Deer further reminded me that deer have been known to eat mice and baby birds out of the nest. Banded Pennant didn’t see itself as a “flying jewel”, but as a keenly-honed aerial predator, not at all to be trifled with. And others I spoke to–Monarch Butterfly, Galapagos Tortoise, European hedgehog, and others–all confirmed, too, that while they had their gentle traits, they were far from being helpless or sweet all the time.

If you think about it, all living beings are in a competition for resources and working each day to stay alive. Just because we’ve found some ways to give some humans easier access to these resources doesn’t mean we’re free of the cycles of nature. If anything, it’s crucial for us to remember that every species is, in the end, out for itself, and even symbiotic relationships are not formed purely altruistically. It doesn’t mean we should be selfish and cruel to each other, but it is a reminder that we are learning from beings who are not characters in a Disney movie, nor are they the savage beasts of some recent sensationalistic Discovery Channel “nature” show. They are, in the words of Henry Beston, “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”* And it behooves all of us for us humans to remember that the totems are representatives of their species, to be learned about and learned from on their own terms, not just whatever suits us best.

* Yes, I realize I just used this same quote in my last post. It’s one that’s been appropriate to a lot of the animal totem work I’ve been doing lately.