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Where Social Justice and Environmental Activists Won’t Go
February 7, 2016
by Michael Sliwa
Social and environmental justice are connected and fighting for those requires being against civilization.
When I first began writing and speaking about white privilege and systemic white supremacy, I had a group of fellow activists which I shared a common vision with. Today I’ve attempted to go further down my own personal rabbit hole in search of the roots of our societal injustices while some of my predecessors and contemporaries have become critical of such a journey.
Over the years I have tried to make more connections for folks and myself in my writing and presentations. I’ve come to a place where even many of the most steadfast social justice activists won’t go. They have and continue to speak truth to power concerning our institutions and larger systems but when it comes to looking at the foundation of those institutions and systems many fall silent.
Civilization is rarely on the table when social justice is discussed. That’s not to say there aren’t those talking about the connections between justice and civilization but they are few and very far between. When I began to connect civilization to social justice I lost some folks completely. This could be due to the fact that I may not have presented the material clear enough or well enough, but over the years something tells me there’s more to it. I began to challenge our living arrangement and that for some is not up for negotiation.
When I say civilization I mean the importation of our goods and services. I mean a division of labor to do so. I mean a hierarchy that requires oppression, violence, killing, environmental degradation and progress to be maintained. I mean the global industrial economy which requires infinite growth on a finite planet to be maintained which of course is impossible.
What I see from many social justice activists is a perspective that views the world through a strictly reform based lens. They want to improve the system. Improving the current state of affairs makes sense. Folks need justice today. What must be considered is a pursuit for the root of our social inequalities and travesties. To pursue the root is radical by definition and therein lies the rub.
Reformists aren’t radicals. They often demonize radicals. They tend to focus on pursuing reform solely within our institutions and systems. Institutions and systems that are the foundations of a hierarchy that requires oppression, violence, killing, and environmental degradation to be maintained. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for change within the status quo but if that’s all we’re doing then we are clearly not trying to find the root of our societal and environmental issues.
Civilization and in particular, industrial civilization is that root. After all civilization today requires massive hierarchal institutions and systems and they are the pillars of police brutality, incarceration rates, preferential hiring, housing inequities, and an endless list of other discriminatory practices. Some will point to capitalism as the culprit but capitalism and yes even socialism are the children of civilization.
Now one might argue that all of this infrastructure that supports our lives exists because of civilization, to which I agree. There in lies the predicament. If we call for the dismantling of the very infrastructure that promotes and perpetuates massive oppression then we also should sever the head of all we know about living in the world. Being dependent upon civilization is keeping billions of us alive and it’s killing and oppressing people at the same time. What it’s also doing is devouring the very diversity that creates all diversity, biodiversity. This point further cements our predicament.
As activists and as a civilization we are stuck. We want solutions within a framework that is killing the life support systems which provide for our own existence. We want justice in a framework that requires injustice. We want our cake and eat it to. The trouble is the cake is poisonous. It tastes great going down because we see gains in the fight for justice but it also reinforces a system and perpetuates injustice by reforming it instead of dismantling it. We never consider dismantling it because we are fully dependent upon it. We never consider dismantling it because we believe this is the only way to live. Our dependency upon it has taught us that we can solve the unsolvable. Like I said, we are in fact stuck.
The question of solutions for a predicament has been going on for all of our civilized existence. Predicaments of course have no solutions so civilization is our predicament. How then to proceed? There are plenty of options but they all end badly for not only civilization but for all of humanity. There is no way to maintain an ever growing global economy on a finite planet and therefore there is no way to save 7 plus billion people. Our massive hierarchies have put us into population overshoot. We add almost 238,000 people per day (births minus deaths) and the strain is felt well beyond our own species. Our growing economy grows our population which has given us irreversible climate change. Again our options are plentiful but the outcomes remain painfully the same.
Activists are used to long and slow struggles for justice. What they’re not used to are predicaments. I could go into the variety of choices to address our situation like revolution, abandonment, or even the ill fated reforms but I can only think of one option that goes Beyond Civilization as author Daniel Quinn’s book title so eloquently states. This option goes beyond us and more importantly beyond our species. It cuts to the heart of the matter.
You see we can still fight for justice in our daily lives but at the end of the day instead of limiting our scope to only our societal struggles, maybe we can move towards the exit of such inherent civilized privilege by considering our connections to everything that supports our own existence. In other words, speak truth to power but realize we must let go of all we have become reliant upon in order for it to make any difference in our collective planetary community. Being anti-racist means being anti-civilization. Being a feminist means being anti-civilization. Being a proponent of immigrant rights means being anti-civilization. Social and environmental justice are connected and fighting for those requires being against civilization.
If we can leave any legacy maybe it can be an answer to philosopher Alan Watts question, how do we leave the world alone? We can do this by becoming part of the world again but that’s a place most will not go. The trouble is nature doesn’t negotiate so our living arrangement options aren’t really options at all but a predicament we all must face.
[Mike Sliwa is a husband and homesteader. He taught high school for 12 years and left his career for a simpler existence. Currently he and his wife are living off grid, perfecting their durable living skills in rural New Mexico. Mike speaks about a wide variety issues concerning simple living, white privilege, abrupt climate change, Near Term Human Extinction, and other consequences of the civilized industrial global economy. He’s also a co-host for the radio program, Nature Bats Last on the Progressive Radio Network (Prn.fm) and co-founder of the social justice speaking agency truality.org.]