When we look at the new Congress we see little possibility of meaningful legislation, given the very thin margin between the parties in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. I have felt cheered up, lately, by accounts of solutions to our most serious problems – like hunger and nutrition – that people are getting together to solve at the local level.
Here is my take on some really great programs addressing child hunger in Michigan, along with some good news about innovative indigenous farming practice:
With thanks to Cousin Sarah for her home made sausage photo
“What’s needed now is research on tactics and strategies at the organizational and societal levels: moving beyond public opinion and messaging to get elbow-deep in how the proverbial sausage is made.” Sarah DeWeerdt, “Climate research needs a better understanding of power,” Jan 8, 2019 in Anthropocene Magazine
Every day, protesters from our local resistance movement shouted outside our Republican Congressman’s office, demanding he hold a town hall and deploring his cowardice for not doing so by brandishing rubber chickens. If, as Deweert suggests, “What climate advocates need to know is how to build enduring relationships with political decision-makers,” was this the way to do it?
I didn’t think so, and that was why I was not among them. I had been visiting him for several years as a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, promoting carbon fee and dividend policy. CCL’s long term goal is to develop the political will of both citizens’ and legislators to reduce global warming. Our strategy is for local chapters to cultivate their Members of Congress; our tactic to that end is civil conversation. Here’s how that goes:
1. We start our meeting with a statement of gratitude for an action he/she has taken.
2. We ask for his/her views on environmental issues and listen as he/she talks for items we hold in common.
3. We speak from those common interests, then provide information on carbon fee and dividend policy.
4. We have one “ask” per meeting. For example, “would you consider joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives?
5. We offer ourselves as resources on environmental questions and provide a notebook of carefully organized background materials as we say our goodbyes.
By no means a moderate, our Congressman came out against Pipeline 5, which endangered Lakes Michigan and Huron; he signed a letter to President Trump asking him to urge Canada not to dump Nuclear Waste near Lake Huron; he joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives and, to top it all off, co-sponsored The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act when it was introduced in the House of Representatives late in the 2018 session.
Did I mention that CCL is bipartisan? Our Congressman’s political will was undoubtedly influenced by a member of our group who had worked in his previous campaign. With local chapters conducting respectful visits with Members of Congress all over the country for a period of years, you can see how this tactic of civil discourse creates legislative results. That is how interest group politics works: think of the Sierra Club, for example, The National Organization for Women, The League of Conservation Voters, The NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In “The Path of Greatest Resistance,” a review of two books on the Resistance Movement, David Cole worries that demonstrations and marches do not, in and of themselves, create movements. “The challenge is this,” assert researchers quoted by Deweerdt: “in most cases, the null assumption is that activism becomes power at scale: that collective action is merely the sum of its parts, and the more people who take action, the more likely a movement is to achieve its goals.”
Historically, political sausage is made by mass demonstrations as the end result and public face of long term planning. Take the case of the Civil Rights Movement: the Selma March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Poor People’s Campaign were effective public outcomes built upon years of organization. The timely dissemination of strategically worded press releases, careful decisions about who was to speak on TV and word by word crafting of their statements were tactics in a long term strategy designed to create national support for the desired legislation.
“Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform,” Cole asserts, “will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.”
Wait a minute! Contemporary political movements use smartphones and screens to sharpen their messaging and widen their base; tweeting and posting, messaging and emailing are powerful and effective tactics of long term organizational strategies.
Flash back to 1967 when I set up the first National Organization for Women Chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. This involved telephone calls back and forth to Betty Friedan on our landline (a hard person to reach, which she made up for by calling us day and night), a telephone tree for letting members know about actions and meetings (extremely time consuming, as you couldn’t leave a voice message for fear you were talking to a misogynistic family member), and tons of slow moving snail mail to and from national headquarters.
Fast forward to 2019, when social media has exponentially strengthened political effectiveness. In the case of CCL the organization’s web site provides detailed instructions on such tactical items like how to set up a a meeting with your Member of Congress and what talking points to use. I am in a group that alerts me by email when to respond to a newspaper article with a Letter to the Editor, and also a Social Media unit which notifies me when a Tweetstorm needs to be raised or a Post needs a commented on and shared. Where in an earlier life I established newsletters for every NOW chapter I joined, now I administer the Facebook page for our local CCL.
From my experiences as a long ago NOW organizer and a present day environmental activist, it seems clear that the development of political will and the achievement of legislative success depends both on crowds waving rubber chickens and lobbyists making nice, on a strategic blend of rabble rousing and long-term planning.
Last summer I wrote an essay about whether climate warming will cause the extinction of the human species, so when I came across an article by Lucy Jakub on “Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans,” I was interested in her startlingly idiosyncratic take.
I spend many happy hours facilitating Socrates Cafes, where people ask philosophical questions and examine philosophical premises in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. As I read Jakub’s survey of speculative writing about the end of the species, I found myself querying the writers’ premises about how we got to this pass.
Geologist Dougal Dixon (who assumes in those innocent years that it is a new Ice Age that will do us in) devotes his 1981 After Man to a scientific study, based on evolutionary genetics, of life forms that might evolve when we are gone.
“Humans go extinct because we lose our evolutionary advantage by adapting our environment to our needs, rather than the other way around. When the resources needed to maintain our civilizations run out, we are unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crucially, nothing takes our place, and the planet reverts to an Edenic state, uncorrupted by knowledge.”
Let’s look at this philosophically: Dixon considers our capacity for adaption the fruit of our advanced cognition, which isn’t advanced enough to prevent us from depleting our own ecosystem. But if this is so, is it our knowledge that corrupts us or poor choices about how to use it?
We did not all make those choices. Only a small (if powerful) elite of westernized humans – mostly male and mostly industrialists (think of Wordsworth! Think of Dickinson!) propose such a preposterous idea. Their presumption that human beings are separate from and in control of nature serves their bottom line and profit motive, while the rest of us have come to realize that we are more like ruinous genes running amok within it.
Jakubs describes the “Speculative world-building,” of science fiction as a way to explore solutions to our environmental predicament. But Pierre Boulle, in his 1963 Planet of the Apes, is less worried about what is happening to the environment than what is happening in the pecking order, namely “man’s fall from dominance,” while Brian Aldiss, similarly, frets in his 1962 novel Hothouse that human beings have ceded control to (of all things) vegetation.
Do you see the pattern here? Nature (apes, plants) is a terrifying external force usurping human power/over everything.
As we move into recent decades, however, Jakub notes that the “bourgeoning environmental movement led to a new genre, Eco-fiction, whose authors -Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and Barbara Kingsolver- are especially beloved – mourned not the fall or humanity but the degradation of nature and our lost connection to it, and whose utopias didn’t necessarily include humans.”
Is it just a coincidence that the three authors she cites are women? Or is the premise that nature is a degradable “other” less universal than it seems?
When women novelists write about nature there is a significant gender difference in our premises. In the 1980s I analyzed more than 300 novels by women to compare women heroes’ quests to those outlined (for “man”) by Joseph Campbell. What I found was that while his male hero took women as both “other” and embedded in an alien and dangerous realm of nature,” women saw themselves as deeply integrated in and interdependent with the green world around them.
In recent years, both men and women have embraced the Gaia hypothesis that our planet is an organism within which we and all other life-forms live and must maintain a mutually beneficial balance. Meanwhile, Eco-fiction has become a widespread and popular genre to the extent that Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fictionlists more than 1000 volumes from all over the world.
Mary Woodbury, its most thoroughgoing curator, describes “Eco-fiction (as) ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). . .Eco-Fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us – our natural habitat.”
Ecology deals with the interactions of organisms within a system and takes human beings as one of those organisms. Eco-Fiction. in Woodbury’s definition, is connective and understands nature as our commons. How we are to do the work of that connection and how we are to take our rightful place within that commons are questions this excitingly speculative new genre raises in our minds and hearts through the deep truths of storytelling.
I have always loved Geoffrey Chaucer’s send off to Troilus and Criseyde: “Go, lytl book, go, litel myn tragedye” (go little book, go my little tragedy).I intone his hail and farewell every time put a manuscript in the mail or, more recently, hit the send button which delivers it to my publisher in an internet instant. It is my affectionate send off for a book I have spent years writing, my fervent prayer that out there upon the deeps of the reading world someone will enjoy this bread I am casting upon the waters.
And so, this week, I am sending The Battle for the Black Fen, the last of my four-volume eco-fiction series that I have spent twenty years writing, out into the world. Everything that I have ever longed for – love, friendship, family fellowship, a life led in harmony with community and nature, human beings working together for the good of our beloved planet – is in my Infinite Games novels. Here, in the final novel to the series, it all comes down to one decisive conflict between my self-sustaining Marshlanders and greedy developers.
Years ago, apropos of white writers using tribal images and spiritual practice in our work, my Native American students challenged me: “Don’t you have some nice Euro-pagan ancestors you can write about instead of us?” That was when the Fen Tigers, marsh dwellers in the east of England who fought for three hundred years to keep their wetlands from drainage by “Merchant Adventures” and who probably included some of my Lincolnshire ancestors, became my inspiration.
It is all about the question of whether we can build the worlds we long for or whether we will be crushed at last by greed and environmental degradation.
Can we abandon our finite games between winners and losers, between people with power and people they have power over? Is there time, before the demise of the human species or of even our entire planet, to engage joyfully together in infinite games where everyone wins and we all share power amongst us?
In the Metro Detroit Area, you can buy your copy of The Battle for the Black Fen at the Paper Trail Books, 414 South Washington in Royal Oak. All four volumes are available at Amazon.com.
By this time most summers, I expect my living to be easy – keeping up with my correspondence, a blog here and there, short pieces of nature writing to accompany lots of time out of doors – but this summer, things are more exciting than usual.
With the help of my (very) patient publisher, Mary Woodbury of Moon Willow Press in Canada, I am doing the final proofreading of The Battle For the Black Fen, the last novel of my eco-fiction series. Our publication date is August, so I have kept my eyes on my computer screen to find every lost comma, confusing bit of dialogue, and typo.
A couple of tips I have picked up while proofing: in dialogue, always state who is speaking. Silly me, I figured that if I know who it was, my reader must get it too; similarly, if I start with “Clare thought” and have her musing away about other characters besides herself I had better bring her name in again, even in the same paragraph. And those pesky quotation marks that seem to have vanished into thin air, not to mention the commas and periods before the ends of the quotations…..needless to say, my eyes have been glued to the page.
I never like to dwell in my brain for days on end, so I have been to my Betsie River cabin a couple of times, and every visit the temperature has plunged to 50 degrees or lower during the (summer?) nights. The wood turtle laid her eggs in mid June; now that other people appreciate my nature observations, I did my duty as a “citizen scientist” by reporting her to the Michigan turtle authorities.
By the end of June, tiny fry have hatched and flit about in the warmer shallows, and les becs scies, saw-toothed ducks (mergansers) that give the river its name, are busy and active.
And so are the beaver. Last winter they didn’t fell whole stands of slender trees but were hungry enough to chew completely around the trunk of a sturdy hardwood:
This circular gnawing serves two purposes: the beaver get to eat the inner bark that they can reach and, at the same time, fell the tree so that they can eat the rest. I have never seen them drag a tree this heavy into a dam. It might be possible, but I think mine are bank beaver, only stripping such larger trees for nourishment.
So I let the babble and ripple of the river rest my mind for a while, strengthening my spirit for one last edit of my novel.
Every day of this daunting political year, my fictional battle between a self-sustaining nature-loving people and cruel enemies greedy for wealth and self-aggrandizement seems less a fictional plot than a grim reality. We are trapped in a finite game of victory and defeat; only if we give up on this hoary and outdated paradigm will any of us – enemies and friends alike – survive. Are we strong enough, smart enough, open-minded enough, resilient enough to abandon the utter destruction of win/lose, you-or-me thinking for an infinite victory where everyone wins, nobody loses, so that we can enter at last the worlds we long for?
On the front page of my web site I described Bethany leaping off a cliff into a gale. With the publication of the third volume in my Infinite Games Series, The Road to Beaver Mill, you can find out what happens next.
While eleven year old Bethany is excited and enthusiastic about soaring through the wind on a winged pony, her mother is purely terrified. Nonetheless, Clare must ride into the storm while the rest of the Marshlanders leave their refuge on Cedar Haven to climb the perilous Cliffs of Doom. It is time to call their allies to battle lest their enemies succeed in entirely draining their marshlands.
The problem is that everyone knows about these plans but Bethany, who is too stubborn and self-willed to trust with such important secrets. She visits her friend Ben’s Western Fisher folk, who want nothing to do with her; her own Eastern Fisher folk cousins welcome her warmly but she runs away from them too, stowing away on a ship heading for the dangerous merchant city of Brent.
My new novel is a Kindle Select Book, available here from Amazon.com .
“Consider the philosopher and writer John Zerzan,” he writes, “a self-proclaimed anarchist and primitivist, who criticizes industrial mass society as inherently oppressive and warns us that technology is leading humanity into an increasingly alienated existence, at the same time that it threatens to destroy the natural environment .”
“As an anarchist, Zerzan would like to see a society that is free of ‘all forms of domination,’ and as a primitivist, his model for authentic, intimate existence is the ‘face to face communities’ of our hunter gatherer ancestors, who prior to agriculture, operated in small bands without specialization of labor or hierarchy.”
I am by no means as cheerful as Zerzan about our hunter gatherer ancestors, who engaged neighboring communities in wars to the death even while practicing altruism amongst themselves. Nor am I convinced that either agriculture or technology is a bad thing in and of itself. In Cli-Fi and Solarpunk, for example, as in other genres of science fiction, technology is value-neutral. It is we human beings who decide how to use it.
Any of us who survived the anarchic idealism of the 1960s will remember how the absence of rules led to the “tyranny of unstructuralism” when some blowhard rose quickly out of the group to order us all around.
Although the invented world of my Infinite Games series is pre-modern, my characters are engaged in social, agricultural, and technological experiments. Their leaders are chosen by popular acclaim, never dominate, and govern gender equal communities where decisions are reached by consensus. My Marshlanders are not against their enemy’s drainage projects as such; they are opposed to the inhumane and greedy means and ends to which the technology is put. At Dunlin, my farmer character wins high praise for his ditching and draining inventions as well as for his soil improvement and seed cultivation. When technology oppresses my city dwellers, they replace their oligarchs but not the looms, working out ways to reform the weaving trade on more ethical lines.
I believe that we have evolved since our primitive days, not only in our governance and tools but in human consciousness itself. Just consider Steven Pinker’s data in The Better Angels of Our Nature, documenting the diminution of violence on a world-wide basis. Where we were once devoted to finite games with win/lose and winner-take-all rules of play, our hearts are opening to “infinite games” with their inclusiveness and win/win outcomes where “we laugh not at what has surprisingly become impossible for others, but at what has surprisingly come to be possible with others.” **
*brought to my attention by Joe Follansbee , a thoughtful blogger concerned with how writers create speculative fiction in the “strange new climate” we inhabit.
** not to mention the wonderful new P2P paradigms for post-Capitalist societies.
When you are writing speculative environmental fiction about future worlds (as in the solarpunk and cli-fi genres) you embellish present-day technology with marvelous new features. When your invented world is based on history, you research and repurpose features of past cultures.
Dystopian novelists create worlds so deep in disaster that, by targeting the horrors, they nudge their readers to think about better solutions, You wouldn’t think it, but the new Solarpunk genre is more (is this possible?) utopian.