One of the great challenges in any social justice activism is that the ultimate goal is, practically speaking, impossible. Whether we are talking about ending poverty or human trafficking, stopping climate change or saving the whales, any sort of realistic analysis says that they are unattainable goals that are beyond ridiculous.
Needless to say contemplating the obvious futility of one’s efforts is not the most uplifting way to spend time. Indeed it often very quickly leads to despair and apathy.
In considering whether to participate in the International Day of Climate Action tomorrow, there are plenty of reasons to consider doing nothing. The Day of Action is mean to build momentum towards the Copenhagen meetings, but isn’t that more or less a lost cause? There are certainly plenty of good reasons to think so.
At least once a day in Zen practice we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows:
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
Every day one is literally required to believe at least four impossible things before breakfast. I find the structure of the vows interesting in that each vow is preceded by a declaration of how ludicrously unattainable the goal is. One is essentially saying ‘it’s impossible, I vow to do it’, which is about as irrational as it gets.
There is not even an acknowledgment of the essential futility of the goal, no qualifying ‘even so’; just ‘I vow to do it.’ But as the Buddhist Master Ajahn Chah illustrated, it is not necessary that you believe it, just that you do it.
Of course Zen has no monopoly on impossible aspirations. Every faith tradition has them in both the great sense ie overarching universal goals, and for every day life eg never lying, or loving your neighbour as thyself, etc. I believe every faith tradition also fully understands that they are impossible to achieve, so now go out and do them.
And there is the paradox for activists. Our sense of futility is both real and reasonable, but
No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.
So how does one resolve this contradiction? As ever, reality is complex and nuanced, and I believe there are multiple elements to the answer.
Everything worth doing is unrealistic. or at least seems to be. Anyone who seriously evaluates their chances of being an Olympic gold medalist before starting down that path has to conclude that it’s hopeless, yet every 2 years many people achieve that goal. As the Adidas ads say, “Impossible is nothing!”
On thing to note about historical struggles is that success often came suddenly and unexpectedly. In almost every case when you look at the situation even a couple of years before success we find that things looked fairly hopeless. Whether the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of official apartheid in South Africa, activists were as surprised as everyone else. Perhaps that is the reason that one veteran of the apartheid struggle remains optimistic about climate change:
“In South Africa, we showed that if we act on the side of justice, we have the power to turn tides. Worldwide, we have a chance to start turning the tide of climate change with just such a concerted effort today.”
Desmond Tutu, “Unity doomed apartheid. Next up: climate change“
Dark as the climate struggle may seem now, we cannot know what will happen next year, or in five years. Two years ago the US was undermining every attempt at international cooperation, now they are talking about making significant cuts in their own CO2 emissions. Too little and too late, but even that was considered a pipe dream until quite recently, so what will the next year or two bring?
Recently China and India became the new bogie men of carbon emissions with their growing economies and huge populations. Conventional wisdom had it that any climate action was futile without their participation, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Except now they have signed a treaty of cooperation for action to reduce greenhouse gases.
Drew Jones describes a scenario where meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases seem not merely possible, but almost inevitable:
Maybe the aspirations at Hopenhagen are not so far fetched (be sure to add your voice). Will it work out that way? probably not, but we don’t know how it will work out if we act, only how it will end if we don’t.
The impossible aspirations are a shortcut to get us taking action now. If we sit back and learn everything we have to know to truly understand the issues we will die of old age before we have our answer. Nothing would ever be achieved if we waited for reasonable certainty. If it is the right thing to do and the goal actually is achievable it is necessary to act now.
Every struggle has a long history of people working towards the goal. If we look back on those that succeeded (eg women’s sufferage) we have to acknowledge that many who worked towards that goal never lived to see it. Indeed many died without seeing any visible progress at all.
That they somehow found the courage and strength to persist is a miracle to be forever grateful for, because without their foundational work the subsequent progress and eventual victory would not have been possible. They had no way to know, just as we have no way to know. We cannot know if our work will lead to success, but we do know that if we do not try the goal will most certainly never be attained.
That is the equation of hope. Inaction guarantees failure, action makes hope possible.
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”
That is your job as an activist, to make hope possible. For others, even for yourself, especially for yourself. Indeed hope is only possible when you act. It is by your action that you realize that the goal may actually be achievable. Nothing else will do it.
The person who tries to decide whether they can live without lying, or devoted to nonviolence, or without a car, will never know. The one who lives another day having done it starts to think it might be possible. Reducing one’s CO2 footprint by becoming vegetarian is inconceivable. Actually doing it is fairly straightforward and not that hard.
There is also the question of what function do these goals serve. Are they even meant to be achievable? or to serve as guides to get us traveling in the right direction? Think of the North Star, a navigational guide for millennia that got people where they needed to be. Did any of them think they were actually ever going to ‘arrive’ at the North Star?
In the same vein impossible aspirations may guide us to making the world a better, if not perfect place. We may not end poverty, but we may end it for some and lessen it for others. Surely that is worth achieving even if it is not as inspiring a goal as ending all poverty.
Most importantly, the outcomes as we conceive them may not matter at all. Perhaps the clearest example would be that of palliative care. The terminally ill are dying and nothing we do will change that, but we still recognize the importance of care. That the dying do so with dignity, comfort and love, matters.
It is the right thing to do. For them, for ourselves. A world in which there are no whales may or may not be one worth living in. A world in which whales are not loved passionately is definitely not worth living in. Ditto one in which people do not fight for justice, to stop racism, and so on.
The enemy is indifference, not caring. Our struggles may not ever create the world we dream of, but by struggling we do create a world in which there is love and hope. That is achieved the moment we act, and only by acting can we achieve it.
The paradox is that if it’s not impossible, it’s probably not worth devoting your life to. By acting we may not stop climate change or any of the other injustices that we struggle against, but we will have created a world where love and hope are still alive, a world worth living in. We will have saved our own lives by making them worth living.
So tomorrow go out and take action. Even though what you fight for is impossible, even though it may be utterly futile, do it with full sincerity and commitment, do it filled with love for all that is worth loving. The outcome doesn’t matter, what matters is that love.
“Since 1982, spring in East Asia (defined here as the eastern third of China and the Korean Peninsula) has been warming at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade.” Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 362 … still no evidence.
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