Tonight was the biweekly meeting of my fledgling Extinction Rebellion group. We meet in the community room of a local environmentally-conscious grocery store – a big, beautiful place, the kind with exquisitely arranged piles of perfect, organic produce and myriad products that are green in ways you didn’t even know could be a problem. The store lets us use their room for free, asking only that any food or drink we partake of we buy from them.
This week there were only four of us. Me, Sally, Doug, and Mike. (Names changed for sake of privacy.) Sally is an incorrigible 80-year-old woman who joined Extinction Rebellion (commonly referred to as XR) in part because her son was suffering from Ecological Anxiety, a condition recently recognized by psychologists as increasingly common, and he had joined XR. Doug is an older gentleman suffering many health problems and no longer able to work, but passionately dedicated to doing whatever he can to help save the planet. Mike is a gentle soul in his early 20’s still finding his way in the world, but deeply disturbed by the wholesale destruction of the earth’s ecosystems.
We were all pretty bummed tonight. We did our best to raise each other’s spirits, especially Doug, who responded to expressions of discouragement with little pep talks customized to whoever he was talking to. Frankly, facing extinction takes a lot out of you, especially when you’ve got the rest of life to contend with: Loss of close friends, physical pain, mysterious health problems, not-so-mysterious health problems, loss of housing, family conflicts, sick dogs…
Here we were, gathered together under the banner of XR, having placed our hopes in this new movement. It’s not at all that we expect miracles. Heck, I don’t even know how hopeful we really are that we’ll manage to actually avert climate and ecological catastrophe, especially seeing as it’s already happening in many places. We place our hope in XR because it’s a simple movement trying to get people and governments to wake up to the truth that we’re barreling down a course headed straight to extinction. Even if some humans survive in some sad, constrained circumstances, we’ll have driven most other forms of life to extinction. And that’s probably a best-case scenario. XR is about finding any ways we can, within the strict discipline of non-violence, to sound the alarm and demand action appropriate for an emergency. I’ve heard it said, somewhere, that XR is the fire alarm, while other groups, scientists, and movements, many of whom have been working on this issue a long time, can serve as the fire department – once we get people to even admit there’s a fire.
Lofty ideals, though, are one thing, and working with other people to actually make something happen is another. I’ve definitely been a “ideas” person for the vast majority of my life. Ideas are so awesome. They’re so inspiring, so full of potential, so powerful, so pure. In my mind, I can picture being arrested for a noble act of civil disobedience while wearing my Zen priest’s robes. As it says in Zen scripture, “No sentient beings, no Buddhas.” If we all end up struggling just to survive, there won’t be many people studying Zen.
But it turns out it’s not that easy to run out and engage in civil disobedience that’s going to be thoughtful, strategic, and impactful. There’s a lot you should learn, take into consideration, and plan first. You have to set the stage for a meaningful action, and if you want it to make a difference, you can’t do it alone. And because you can’t do it alone, you have to deal with other people. There are relationships to be built, and organizations to keep from imploding because of bitter disagreements about tactics, communication, power-sharing, justice, and goals.
I’ve heard that engaging in activities that stimulate your brain, like doing crossword puzzles, can help stave off dementia. In that case I’m postponing my old-age dementia by at least a few years by trying to figure out how to participate in a movement for climate and social justice. My mind and heart are being stretched and twisted like a rubber band in the hands of someone suffering from extreme anxiety. I read 20-page critiques of the movement I’ve gotten involved with, and, humbled, become grateful there are activists out there with decades of experience I can learn from. I feel good about making time to get out of my house to at least try to do something about the climate crisis, but I know the time I devote to the cause will put a strain on my most precious human relationships.
The most inspiring thing, at this point, is probably the experience of being in room with a small handful of other people bringing their pain, outrage, confusion, love, hope, and determination out in the open. We’re relative strangers, but we’re bonded by the urgency of the task at hand. Tonight, Mike confessed his strong aversion to walking into grocery stores, where his heart and mind are assaulted by aisles up on aisles of products in plastic packaging. In most settings, such a comment would either have been met with no response at all, or an argument about how great it is plastic is recycled – as opposed to it ending up clogging our oceans, filling the bellies of wildlife, and permeating all of our fresh drinking water. In our little Extinction Rebellion group, just a little band of people refusing to take no for an answer, we just held Mike’s comment in a respectful and sympathetic silence tinged with grief.