“Die Early and Often”: Being Attis in the Anthropocene

“We are not going to be saved.”

From John Halstead

“The Awakening” by J. Seward Johnson, Jr. (National Harbor, Maryland)

In yesterday’s post, “‘What If It’s Already Too Late?’: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene”, I faced the fact that we are … well, f**ked.  Our civilization is rushing toward its inevitable end.  And it’s going to take out a big part of the biosphere with it.

Cap and trade is not going to save us.  Renewable energy is not going to save us.  Nuclear energy is not going to save us.  Carbon capture is not going to save use.  The politicians are not going to save us.  The scientists are not going to save us.  The activists are not going to save us.

We are not going to be saved.

For so many reasons, we are going to fail … and fail badly.

Once we come to terms with that fact, the question becomes …

So What Do We Do Now?

“The real question is what is the social role of one who understands that all this will end?”

— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times

What does socially responsible acceptance look like?

Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t look like …

I know it doesn’t look like throwing up our hands and doing nothing.

But I also don’t think it looks like more “expressive hobbyists” marching on weekends, rallying in front of empty government buildings with the hope of influencing lawmakers, and getting arrested for blocking traffic hundreds of miles away from the thing being protested–what Sophia Burns calls “catharsis politics”. (Been there, done that!)

I also don’t think it looks like more of the circle-jerk that is activist networking, where people from one activist organization agree to attend the events of another group with the expectation that the latter will reciprocate by attending the events of the former, thus creating the “comical scenario [where] 20 different organizations ‘endorse’ an event at which only 40 people show up”. (Been there, done that too!)

But I don’t think it looks like communist “base-building” either, at least not if it’s done with the ulterior motive of fostering an increasingly improbable proletariat revolution.  Even if the revolution were going to happen, it would be too little too late.

And I’m sure it doesn’t looks like endless quibbling over trivial details of Leftist political theory with online frenemies, alienating naïve progressives with superior cynicism, or sending passionate manifestos, heavy laden with Marxist jargon, into the etheric echo chamber. (See “Your Politics Are Boring as Fuck” by Nadia C.)

I think maybe it does look like building what Dr. Bones calls a “leftism with benefits”, acquiring land, skills, and resources to improve the lives of the exploited and oppressed in the here and now, while also creating spaces to which people can retreat to when as the shit hits the fan.  I think maybe it does look like building refuges, as Peter Kingsnorth suggests, for human and other-than-human life:

“Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place …

“Ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm?”

— Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”

This is a rational response to impending disaster.  A compassionate response.  A good response.  One that has the virtue of at least reducing some of the suffering that will attend the end of the world.

But I’ll be honest.  I want something more than pragmatism.  It’s not enough to keep me going.  I want something more from the end of the world.

I want transformation.

And for that, I have to turn to religion.

We Are the Dying God

“Isis and Osiris” by Susan Seddon-Boulet

“I will go down to self-annihilation and Eternal Death;
Lest the Last Judgement come and find me unannihilate,
And I be seiz’d and giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.”

— William Blake, “Milton’s Journey to Eternal Death”

One of the things that drew me to Neo-Paganism was the myth of the Dying God.  There are several examples of dying gods in ancient pagan sources: Egyptian Osiris, Canaanite Ba’al, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Dionysus … and Phrygian Attis, who sacrificed himself to the Great Mother goddess Cybele and was reborn as a pine tree.

“They say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars … He fell in love with a nymph and left the mother to live with her. For this, the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs … and then return to dwell with her.

“Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother.  Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die … For Gallus signifies the … Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. … Attis loved a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation … But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere … the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into creation and is joined to the Gods again.  Now these things never happened, but always are. … Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we obtain a higher order?”

— Sallustius, “On the Gods and The World”, IV

In the rites of Attis, celebrated the week of the spring equinox, a pine tree was cut down and carried in a procession to the temple with lamentations.  His devotees would whip themselves and sprinkle the altars and effigy of Attis with their own blood. Those who were to be dedicated as priests of the Cybele performed self-castrations.  And on the third day, the equinox, the people celebrated the Hilaria (Rejoicing), when Attis is reborn–to begin the cycle all over again.

The details of the Dying God myth very with time and place, but the Dying God archetype transcends the local instances of the myth. James Frazer and Robert Graves articulated the outline of the archetype in modern times.  From these classicists, contemporary Neo-Paganism adopted the myth of the Dying God and gave it religious expression in the form of the Wheel of the Year.

The Wheel can be understood as the life cycle of the Dying God mapped onto the solar year.  Not just the life of the Dying God, though. The Wheel of the Year represents the cycle of his relationship to the undying Goddess in her triune form of mother-lover-slayer.  (Note: The genders of these deities can be interchangeable or altogether optional.) Starhawk explains the relationship of the Dying God and the Goddess in this way:

“The Goddess is the Encircler, the Ground of Being; the God is That-Which-Is-Brought-Forth, her mirror image, her other pole. She is the earth; He is the grain. She is the all encompassing sky; He is the sun, her fireball. She is the Wheel; He is the traveler. He is the sacrifice of life to death that life may go on. She is the Mother and Destroyer; He is all that is born and is destroyed.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

The myth of the Dying God teaches us about the meaning of death and the power of surrender.  It’s natural to want to live forever, but we are destined to die.  Death is part of the cycle of life, and nothing dies in vain. No matter or energy is lost. The movement of the Wheel–the Spiral Dance of the Goddess–sanctifies death, making it holy.

The myth of the Dying God and its embodiment in Neo-Pagan ritual has the potential to foster a transformation of consciousness toward death.  In Neo-Pagan ritual, we become the Dying God and symbolically enact a voluntary offering of our transient self to the Goddess who is the Great Cosmic Round.

“Ritualistic and mythical identification with the sacrificing God honors the life spark, even in death, and prepares to give way gracefully to new life, when the time comes for each of us to die. Waxing and waning, birth and death, take place within the human psyche and life cycle. Each is to be welcomed in its proper time and season, because life is a process of constant change. … The God is that force within us that chooses to surrender itself to the cycle, to ride the Wheel.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

By identifying with the Dying God, we renounce the need for control and permanence, for the sake of meaning and transformation.  As Joseph Campbell explained,

“When the will of the individual to his own immortality has been extinguished—as it is in rites such as these—through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, he is united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of … mortality.”

— Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology

This means more than merely accepting our fate.  It means shifting from an egocentric perspective, in which death is the ultimate evil, to a cosmic perspective, in which death is part of the cycle of life.  Rather than raging against the dying of the light, we surrender to the Wheel, and in surrendering, we are transformed.  This transformation brings no apotheosis, no individual immortality, but it enables us to realize the meaning of our lives as part of a greater whole which transcends us.

“The whole point of these esoteric ceremonies, rituals, prayers, etc., was to accept the death of the separate-self sense and thus rise to an identity or communion with the Great Goddess. This was a self-sacrifice, which allowed the individual to transcend the self.”

— Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution

Learning How to Die

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Illustration by Kent Williams, for the graphic novel, The Fountain, by Darren Aronofsky

“The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of death.”

— Michel de Montaigne

If we are to be the Dying God, then our job is to die.  According to Joseph Campbell,

“When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified–and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.”

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

But we actually do have a choice.  We can accept our fate and be willing sacrifices.  Or we can rage against the dying of the light and go out in a blaze of glory.  But there are costs if we choose the latter course.  As Starhawk explains,

“The God chooses to sacrifice [Himself] in order to remain within the orbit of the Goddess, within the cycle of the natural world, and within the ecstatic, primal union that creates the world. Were He to cling to any point on the wheel and refuse to give way to change, the cycle would stop; He would fall out of orbit and lose all. Harmony would be destroyed; union would be broken. He would not be preserving Himself; He would be denying his true self. His deepest passion, his very nature.”

— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

Collectively, our society is in denial, and the costs of our denial are all around us: in the wrecking of the biosphere, in the extinction of millions of other species, in the poisoning of the soil, the water, and the air.

How do we return to the orbit of the Goddess?  How do we surrender to the Wheel?

Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, writes that, if we want to know how to live in the Anthropocene, we need to “learn how to die”.  We need to find what Isabella Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre call “a modus moriendi“.  We need to learn how to die well.

Scranton’s suggestion for dying well is reinvesting in the humanities, relearning the art of bookmaking, and trying to preserve the best of our cultural heritage:

“If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds.”

— Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

But how do we choose?  How do we decide what to preserve?  What if we end up preserving the very parts of our civilization which caused all of this to happen in the first place?

And isn’t Scranton’s prescription just another “immortality project”.  Are we really embracing the death of civilization if we are still trying to preserve its best parts for posterity?

Becoming Compost

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by Em Strang

Donna Haraway, author of Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, has a different idea:

Be compost.

Rather than humanities, Haraway writes of “humusities” or the “human as humus”.  Rather than humanism (or post-humanism), she advocates a multi-species “compostism”:

“Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters—human and not—become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.”

This kind of cryptic language is characteristic of Haraway.  (She calls it “tentacular” thinking.  Imagine literary tentacles reaching everywhere, grasping here and there, creating temporary webs of significance.)  Haraway experiments with words and phrases as a way of grasping at a different mode of being (or “worlding”), one which de-centers the human.  (This de-centering is reflected in Haraway’s substitution of the term “Chthulucene” for “Anthropocene”.)

Haraway calls this new mode of being “sympoiesis”, which means “making with”, as in making our world with other species:

“Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. … earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company.”

“The more one looks, the more the name of the game of living and dying on earth is a convoluted multispecies affair that goes by the name of symbiosis, the yoking together of companion species, at table together.”

In the face of civilizational collapse and mass extinction, Haraway rejects both hope in “technotheocratic geoengineering fixes” and “wallowing in despair”.  Instead, she urges us to “stay with the trouble”, to

“collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”

One way to do this, according to Haraway, is to “make kin” with the other-than-human beings with whom we constitute the compost piles of the earth.

Making kin means seeing our kind “as humus, rather than as human or nonhuman”.  It means recognizing that “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense … All critters share a common ‘flesh'”.  It means

“learning again, or for the first time, how to become less deadly, more response-able, more attuned, more capable of surprise, more able to practice the arts of living and dying well in multispecies symbiosis, sympoiesis, and symanimagenesis on a damaged planet …”

Roy Scranton seems to come to the same conclusion at the end of his second book We’re Doomed. Now What?:

“The dire and seemingly unsolvable fact of climate change—just like the unsolvable fact of our own morality—doesn’t signify the end of ethical thought but its beginning, for it’s only in recognizing the fact that our lives are limited, complicit, imperfect, and interdependent that we begin to understand what it means to live together in this world.”

— Roy Scranton, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”

Haraway admits this won’t be easy.  Multi-species sympoiesis isn’t something that can be “donned like a magic cape”, she says.

But we can begin by thinking ourselves beyond our egocentricism and anthropocentricism and into relationship with the more-than-human world.  Haraway calls this “thinking with”.  Other writers have attempted to think-with the other-than-human.  Aldo Leopold’s “thinking like a mountain”, comes to mind, as does Robinson Jeffers “inhumanism”:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

— Robinson Jeffers, “Carmel Point”

Writing more prosaically, Roy Scranton explains what we need is a radical shift of perspective:

“We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.”

— Roy Scranton, “We’re Doomed. Now What?”, New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015

Science Fiction or Speculative Fabulation?

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Make Kin, Not Babies

“It is through stories that we weave reality.”

“Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”

I began this essay with references to contemporary apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction, weaved in the ancient/modern myth of Attis/the Dying God, and now I return to science fiction, or what filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova calls “speculative fabulation”:

“A type of narration that enables one to unfold new worlds through arousing an appetite for what’s possible (what could or could have taken place). It is not just about understanding a totally new creation. The remarkable difference is that it is about placing lures susceptible of bringing forth today possibilities that were already in situations.”

Haraway’s “Camille Stories: Children of Compost” is an example of this kind of writing.  It tells the story of people living in a time of ongoing extinction due to climate change, the effects of which last for centuries.  The Children of Compost form communities of a few hundred people who migrate to damaged places and develop transformative practices for intentional kin making and work sympoietically to heal (and be healed by) kin in those places. This means intentionally reducing human numbers, while increasing the flourishing of all the species who inhabit a place.

In the Compost communities, children are rare, but precious.  When a decision is made to bring a new human infant into being, an other-than-human animal or plant symbiont is chosen for the child from among species who are threatened with extinction.  At birth, a few genes and a few microorganisms of the symbiont are added to the human child’s body.  The human child’s formative years are spent learning how to nurture the symbiont species, as well as the other species on whom the symbiont depends.

This commitment to symbiosis binds five generations of humans.  The Camille Stories relate the stories of five generations of Camilles, living between 2025 and 2425 in a part of West Virginia devastated by mountaintop removal. The Camilles are bound symbiotically to the Monarch butterflies, who migrate between Mexico and Canada, and work sympoietically to promote their flourishing. Storytelling is central to this work, as Haraway explains:

“compostists soon found that storytelling was the most powerful practice for comforting, inspiring, remembering, warning, nurturing compassion, mourning, and becoming-with each other in their differences, hopes, and terrors.”

But despite the deepening of the symbiotic bond and sympoietic practices over three generations, the fourth Camille is faced with the loss of monarch migrations, along with the loss of 50 percent of all species planet-wide.  Camille 4 must prepare Camille 5 for a new role, as a “Speaker for the Dead”, one who will remember, mourn, and “represence” the monarch, as a form of sympoeisis with the dead (what Haraway calls “symanimagenesis”).  Haraway leaves undetermined the question of the future of the Children of Compost and the possibility of a multi-species flourishing.  Rather than imagining a utopia, she “stays with the trouble”.

Haraway’s Children of Compost remind me of the resistance community at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, living in the ashes of nuclear holocaust.  Except instead of preserving books, the literary legacy of humanity (like Roy Scranton suggests), the Children of Compost preserve the Book of Nature and the genetic legacy of the more-than-human biosphere. Instead of individuals passively memorizing stories from books, the compostists engage in storytelling, an active and communal process in which the “text” is always evolving.  Instead of preservation being solely a matter of the mind, the Children of Compost do the work of healing with their bodies and with their hearts, as well as their minds.  And instead of the image of the phoenix, which concludes Fahrenheit 451, Haraway offers the model of compost.

Last Words: “Die Early and Often”

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
is
to open ourselves, to be
the flames?

— Galway Kinnell, “Another Night in the Ruins”

“‘Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar … Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes.'”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

At the end of the world, we are called be the flames … to be the ashes … to be compost … to be the Dying God.

This isn’t a very hopeful response, I know.  But as Robinson Jeffers wrote,

“Hope is not for the wise.”

It’s not exactly a hopeless response either, though.  It’s a kind of hopeful hopelessness or hopeless hopefulness.

“Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going–not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster.”

— poet and Radio Free Iraq host, Naseer Hassan, as quoted by Roy Scranton in “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom”

If we are doomed–and we are–we must find a way between hope and despair.  Both hope and despair are products of our belief in the myth of progress and the myth of the individual.

We need different stories, different myths.

The Dark Mountain Project is one group of artists and storytellers who are trying to tell different stories,

“to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own–a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare–might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation–and us–into perspective.”

“Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”

Others are doing this as well. Haraway’s “Children of Compost” is one example.  The Neo-Pagan myth of the Dying God, as told by Miles Batty and others, is another.  And it’s not just writers who participate in storytelling, though.  Poets, musicians, filmmakers and other artists also contribute.  Examples of contemporary kin-making and dying-well include:

Haraway herself draws from a multiplicity of media beyond books, including music, anime, and even video games.  For example, she writes about her experience playing Never Alone, a video game created in collaboration Alaska Native community members.  In the game, the player moves between Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox companion as they leave Nuna’s home village to discover the source of an unprecedented blizzard and restore balance to nature.

Haraway writes that she “dies early and often” in the game.  I don’t think I’m reading too much into Haraway’s phrasing (is such a thing even possible?) to hear an echo of the political slogan “vote early and often”.  To “die early and often” echoes the advice of religious sages from many different religions to “die before you die”.  To “die early and often” means to walk the path of the Dying God.

To “die early” means to face our death, both personal and collective, the death of the myth of individuality and the death of the myth of human progress. It means to face our fate before it arrives on our doorstep.

Vinay Gupta is a contributor to the Dark Mountain Project and a kapalika, a member of the ascetic sect of Shiva devotees who traditionally carried empty human skulls as begging bowls. Gupta writes that one of the functions of the kapalika:

“is to strip away the lies about death, the mythology and the avoidance, and to spread hope by a simple fact: the avoidance of the truth of death is worse than death itself. Death cannot be avoided, but its avoidance can be avoided.”

— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times

To “die often” means creating “new practices of imagination, resistance, revolt, repair, and mourning, and of living and dying well” (Haraway) and creative rituals of kin-making to embody our new stories and myths. John Seed and Joanna Macy’s “Council of All Beings” might be one example of such practices and rituals. There is much work to be done to translate these new stories and myths into practices of living and dying well in the Anthropocene.

I imagine such practices would yield practical goods, much like a “leftism with benefits”, but in a more-than-human dimension: multispecies mutual aid, if you will.  (Not a new idea, actually. Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid was inspired by interspecies cooperation.)

Since we must walk the Dying God’s path, we should do so together, sympoietically, with our human-kin, yes, but also with all the other earth-kin with whom we are doomed to die.  “Living-with was the only possible way to live-well,” writes Haraway.  So too, dying-with is the only possible way to die well.

Sometimes this seems like an inadequate response, too little too late, and I have to remind myself that I’m not trying to save the world anymore–I’m trying to “stay with the trouble.”

We are doomed to walk the path of the Dying God.  We must do so not in the hope of survival or salvation.  Our job is not to survive … or even to birth a new world.  Our job is to die … to die well, to die-with, to die early and often, to die in such a way that the “ash heap of history” might become the compost pile of the Goddess.


Selected Readings

Bill McKIbben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012

Brad Werner, “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”, presented at American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2012

The Dark Mountain Project, Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilized Times (2017)

David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, New York Magazine, July 9, 2017

Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene”

–, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)

Erza Klein, “7 reasons America will fail on climate change”, Vox, June 5, 2014

John Michael Greer, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead (2016)

–, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008)

Jonathan Mingle, “Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind”Slate, Dec. 7, 2012

Nafeez Ahmed, “Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise”, Motherboard, August 27, 2018

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008)

–, “How science is telling us all to revolt”, New Statesman, Oct. 29, 2013

Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, “Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”, 2009

Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”, Orion Magazine

–, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, Orion Magazine

–, “Why I stopped believing in environmentalism and started the Dark Mountain Project”, The Guardian, Apr. 29, 2010

Robert Puckett, “Plucking the Golden Bough: James Frazer’s Metamyth in Modern Neopaganism”

Roy Scranton, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”, New York Times, Nov. 10, 2013

–, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015)

–, “Anthropocene City: Houston as Hyperobject”, Mustarinda Magazine

–, We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change (2018)

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess (1979/1999)


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


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“What If It’s Already Too Late?”: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene

“We’re f**ked. Now what?”

From John Halstead

I had a terrible thought recently …

“What if it’s already too late?”

Actually, this idea has been haunting me, hovering on the boundary between my conscious and unconscious mind, for some time.

In 2016, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist organization 350.org, came to speak at a rally at the BP tar sands refinery in my “backyard” in the highly industrialized northwest corner Indiana.  The occasion was a series of coordinated direct actions around the world against the fossil fuel industry, collectively hailed as the largest direct action in the history of the environmental movement.

What struck me about McKibben’s speech, though, was its tone of … well, hopelessness. Here’s how he concluded his 10 minute speech:

“I wish that I could guarantee you that we’re all going to win in the end, the whole thing. And I can’t, because we don’t know. The physics of climate change is pretty daunting at this point. The momentum of it is pretty big. We’re not going to win everything. We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.

“But the work you’re doing literally couldn’t be more important. There’s not many people who get to say in their lives, ‘I’m doing the most important thing I could be doing.’ But that’s what you guys are doing today. I can’t guarantee you’re going to win. But I can guarantee you in every corner of the world that we’re going to fight. And that’s going to be enough for now, just knowing that we are taking it on.”

That’s pretty sobering material for a speech at an environmental activist rally, not to mention a speech by one of the leaders of the climate movement:

“We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.”

At the time, I was caught up in the enthusiasm of participating in my first act of civil disobedience, so I didn’t think much about McKibben’s words.

But they kept coming back to me.

“What Did He Just Say?”

“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”

I remembered McKibben’s words later, as I was watching Aaron Sorkin’s HBO TV series, The Newsroom.  In one scene, a high ranking scientist in the EPA is being interviewed by the show’s lead, a news anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The scientist explains that the latest measurements of atmospheric CO2 had passed the point of 400 ppm (parts per million) and what this means for humans:

EPA scientist: The last time there was this much CO2 in the air, the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of an ocean.

News anchor: And the other?

EPA: Humans can’t breathe under water.

The anchor then asks the scientist what his “prognosis” for humanity is, “A thousand years, two thousand years?”  The scientist’s response was bone chilling:

“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”

After a pause to get his bearings, the anchor resumes:

News anchor: You’re saying the situation is dire?

EPA scientist: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.

News: So what can we do to reverse this?

EPA: Well there’s a lot we could do…

News: Good…

EPA: …20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But now, no.

News: Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?

EPA: Sure. It’s as if you’re sitting in your car, in your garage, with the engine running and the door closed, and you’ve slipped into unconsciousness. And that’s it.

News: What if someone comes and opens the door?

EPA: You’re already dead.

News: What if the person got there in time?

EPA: Then you’d be saved.

News: OK. So now what’s the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?

EPA: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.

News: You sound like you’re saying it’s hopeless.

EPA: Yeah.

(You can watch the full clip below.)

 

The first time I saw this, I felt a flood of conflicting emotions: a combination of sinking horror and an absurd desire to laugh. I recognize it now as gallows humor.

Now, this was a television show, but it’s not fiction.  In the real world, we passed 400 ppm not long after the episode aired. And the fatalism of Sorkin’s EPA scientist makes sense when we understand what 400 ppm really means.

Remember Bill McKibben’s organization, 350.org?  It takes its name from the research of James Hansen, the scientist​ who drew the public’s attention to climate change when he testified before Congress in 1988.  In 2007, Hansen told the world that 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.

But we passed that point in 1988–30 years ago!

At time of my writing this, we have already seen CO2 levels as high as 412 ppm, and we are permanently over 400 ppm.  And we’re already feeling the effects: As of 2015, the planet is warmer than it has ever been in the last 11,000 years!

No wonder McKibben was fatalistic when I heard him speak in 2016.  When he organized 350.org, in 2007, it was already two decades after we had passed the safe threshold.  Now we’re in our third decade, and CO2 level had only continued to rise, with no sign of abating.  More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony than has been released in the entire history of civilization before that!

Science Fiction?

“Who killed the world?!” — Mad Max: Fury Road

“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

— Emerson

Back on the TV show, the Jeff Daniels’ character asks the scientist to explain what all this would look like:

EPA scientist: Well, mass migrations, food and water shortages, spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires. Way too many to keep under control. Storms that have the power to level cities, blacken out the sky, and create permanent darkness.

In this hopes that this was hyperbole, I started researching.  The math is right on,  and according a Mother Jones article which fact checked the script, the predictions are pretty reasonable. Even the part about blackening out the sky might come true if the “geoengineers” have their way and start sending sulfur into the atmosphere, Matrix-like, in the hopes of reducing global warming.

In 2014, just as I was starting to wake up to climate change, the New York Times reported that a large body of research indicates that it is “inevitable” that the planetary temperature will rise by 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) and that we are “locked into” a future of drought, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels.  And that’s the optimistic estimate!  In fact, we’re on track for more than 4°C of warmingThat’s the temperature difference between the last Ice Age and the world now!  So it’s reasonable to expect the world of the near future to be as different from today as today is from the Ice Age.  According to the Times, that kind of change might render the planet “uninhabitable” to human beings.

Reports like this have become part of our daily news diet.  It’s shocking that they don’t trigger a revolution.  But as Steven Yeun’s character says in the recently released movie, Sorry to Bother You, when people see a problem that they don’t know how to solve, their response is to get used to it.

Archdruid John Michael Greer, author of Dark Age America agrees with Sorkin’s prognosis.  From Greer’s vantage point, this bleak prediction is only notable for what it leaves out:

  • expanding war and ethnic conflict
  • increasingly frequent environmental disasters
  • a return to a subsistence economy even in first world countries
  • the collapse of governmental institutions
  • the rise of charismatic authoritarian strongmen
  • and drastically declining human population–

anywhere from a 70% reduction (from 7.5 billion to 2 billion), which would bring the population to a sustainable level, to complete human extinction.

Does this sound like science fiction?  If it does, it’s not surprising, since these themes are increasingly common in our entertainment.  There’s the food shortages, the police state, and the walled off cities depicted in USA’s Colony (minus the aliens). There’s the government-endorsed religious fundamentalism and regressive sexual politics in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  There’s the crop failures, resource depletion, and declining population in the movie Interstellar.  There’s the collapse of governments, the rise of walled-off corporate states, and the sprawling climate refugee encampments, in the SyFy series Incorporated (more on that later).  And let’s not forget the rise of feudal warlords like Negan, the villain in AMC’s The Walking Dead (which became bigger than Monday night football).  Each and every one of these fictional scenarios is likely to be a part of humanity’s reality in the not-so-distant future.

The decline has already begun.  Its effects can be seen everywhere, but we barely notice it because the change is usually incremental, rather than sudden.  If we step back a minute from the daily barrage of news, we can see it:

This was the stuff of science fiction not too long ago.  Today, it’s our reality–and our entertainment.  While shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Colony have the potential to numb us to our present reality, sometimes science fiction can help us see our present more clearly. Watching one of these shows not too long ago, I had another terrible thought …

What if none of this is an accident?

“Everything is Going According to Plan”

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SyFy’s “Incorporated”

“Everything is going according to plan. I don’t know whose plan it is, and I think that it’s a really stupid plan, but everything is going according to it anyway.”

—  Dmitry Orlov

I had always thought racism was a glitch in America’s social system, something that could be overcome with time and education. Recently, however, I’ve begun to see how racism is actually a function of a capitalist system.  It keeps the poor and working class divided along race lines, to the benefit of the rich. As Malcolm X succinctly put it, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

What if, like racism, biosphere-wrecking climate change is not an accidental byproduct of our capitalist system?  What if it isn’t a bug, but a feature?  What if the system isn’t broken, as progressives claim?  What if the system is functioning exactly as it is supposed to?

It was another television show that got me thinking about this, a series called Incorporated, which premiered on SyFy in 2016.  The premise of the show was that world governments had gone bankrupt and had been effectively replaced by large corporations.  These corporations functioned in walled-off cities, called “Green Zones”, outside of which was a sea of displaced people living in “Red Zones”, which included refugee camps overflowing with people having fled coastal cities flooded due to climate change.

In the show, there is virtually no mobility between the residents of the Green Zone, the corporate class, and the residents of the Red Zone, the unincorporated.  There are no checks on the corporations, other than the threat of violence from other corporations.  Although they live very privileged lives by comparison, those living within the corporate walls are virtual slaves to the corporation.

As I watched this, I was struck by two thoughts.  The first was the close similarity between Incorporated‘s dystopic future to our present reality.

The second thought was: “What if this the goal?”  What if this is the desired outcome for some of the corporate class?  Zero government regulation.  Anything can be bought for a price.  Extremely exclusive social status.  Technological wonders for the few who can afford them. In short …

What if everything is going according to plan?

It doesn’t require believing in a conspiracy to see that our capitalist system is driving us toward the future depicted in Incorporated, and that it isn’t by accident.

For it to function, capitalism depends on growth.  Without growth, the incentive for capital investment disappears and the system breaks down.  In an ideal capitalist system, there are no limits to growth.  In order to grow without limit, capitalism needs two things: unlimited demand and unlimited supply.  On the demand side, this means conspicuous consumption, socially manufactured needs, and disposable goods.  On the supply side, this means access to cheap and abundant energy, i.e., fossil fuels.  Without these conditions, the system cannot produce the kinds of surpluses which motivate the capital investment that perpetuates the system.  But these conditions–unchecked consumption and the burning of fossil fuels–inevitably lead to disasters, both economic and environmental.

It turns out, that’s part of the system too.

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein describes how the corporate class has learned to profit from natural and economic disasters, by pushing through policies of deregulation and privatization while the impacted citizenry is too distracted and disorganized by the disaster to notice.  Examples include Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf War, and 9/11, to name just a few of the many.  The corporate class benefits from these policies, while the rest of the population is left with collapsing public infrastructure, declining incomes and increasing unemployment.

“An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines …. Our common addition to dirty, non-renewable energy sources keeps other kinds of emergencies coming: natural disasters … and wars waged over scarce resources …, which in turn create terrorist blowback …”

“Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies. All indications that simply by staying the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity. Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market’s invisible hand.

“While the disaster capitalism complex does not deliberately scheme to create the cataclysms on which it feeds (though Iraq may be a notable exception), there is plenty of evidence that its component industries work very hard indeed to make sure the current disastrous trends continue unchallenged.”

— Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

According to Klein, this leads to an increasingly divided world.  Whether it is post-Gulf War Iraq or post-Katrina New Orleans, everything is divided between “Green Zones” and “Red Zones”, stark partitions between the privileged and the precariat. In the Red Zones, infrastructure is left to decay and social services are stripped of resources, while the privileged withdraw to the gated Green Zones, which are protected by the police/military. In many places, this is the present day reality, and it’s not so far removed from the future depicted in Incorporated.

We’re F**ked.

ozymandias2
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

“There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”

— Robinson Jeffers, “The Purse-Seine”

Of course, the world of Incorporated isn’t the end of the story either; it’s just a chapter in the story of civilizational decline.  And we know how that story ends: death.

Our civilization is going to die.

If you’re like me, you need to sit with that last sentence for a while.

Of course, there’s plenty of people out there saying otherwise.  I could pick different sources to believe.  With the World Wide Web at our fingertips, it’s quite easy nowadays to choose the answers you like.  I could choose more comforting answers.

But it was a question, not an answer, that really devastated me.  Radical environmentalist, Derrick Jensen, asks this question of his audiences, and it’s one which I think every environmental activist should ask themselves:

“Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life?”

That question is what convinced me that the world as we know it is going to end, sooner rather than later.

And more and more experts are coming to the same conclusion.

Like Brad Werner, a pink-haired complex systems researcher who, in 2012, presented a provocatively titled paper to thousands of scientists at the Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth F**ked?”

Werner’s answer: “More or less”.

Or like Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive psychologist who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally humans respond to problems which require immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses.  When asked to assess humanity’s chances for survival, Kahneman responded, “This is not what you might want to hear. I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Or like Mayer Hillman, a social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute who has spent the last 20 years writing and speaking about climate change policy, and who, in 2017, announced his withdrawal from speaking and writing on climate change, declaring

“We’re doomed.”

Hillman raised the same question as Jensen: Do we really think human beings will move to zero global emissions in the near future? More specifically, Hillman asks,

“Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Hillman can’t.  Jensen can’t.  And I can’t either.

That’s the point that is glossed by so many evangelists of renewable energy: renewable energy can’t “replace” fossil fuels.1

About two hundred years and fifty ago, human beings started using fossil fuels–first coal, then oil–to power civilization.  What followed was unprecedented explosion of growth.  The civilizational “progress” which we take for granted is result of the burning of fossil fuels.  But the fossil fuels are a finite resource, and when they are gone, that will be the end of growth and progress too.

Renewable energy sources cannot produce as much energy as fossil fuels.  And transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy only addresses the supply side of the equation. A renewable energy economy would only work if we simultaneously reduced our consumption.  I’m not talking about people taking shorter showers and turning off the lights when they leave the room.  I’m talking about a contraction of the economy which would crash the global capitalist system.

We simply can’t transition to a 100% renewable energy economy without also ending capitalism.  Nothing short of a global socialist revolution is going to be enough (and I’m using “revolution” quite literally here).  But capitalism has proven so adept at adapting to challenges and absorbing dissent, nothing short of the end the world is likely to bring it about.

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”

— Fredric Jameson, “Future City”

While it’s easy for most people in developed countries to look around and think that all is well, the fact is we are living in what Roy Scranton calls the gap between sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  We are like the patient goes to the doctor for a routine checkup.  They feel fine, but the doctor returns looking grim.

The prognosis is terminal.

For some, this might actually be welcome news. I have communist friends who have been waiting a long time for the collapse of capitalism.  And I have anarchist friends for whom the collapse of civilization is good tidings of great joy.  “Everything is going according to plan,” indeed.  (There’s even some people who are trying to accelerate the collapse by undermining any attempt to reform capitalism which might prolong its demise.)

It turns out that the Marxist are partially right: Capitalism is going to collapse, but it won’t require the revolution of the working class. It’s going to happen through the natural process of capitalism doing what capitalism does: consuming forests, species, and human potential and excreting carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, and radioactive waste–in short, eating everything in sight and shitting where it eats.

Even if climate change were not a reality, our civilization would still die.  Capitalism is just not sustainable.  The combination of overconsumption (only partially the result of overpopulation) and overpollution will lead inevitably to civilizational collapse.  Considering the damage capitalism is doing to the planet, that might not be such a bad thing.  But unfortunately, our civilization is going to take a good part of the biosphere down with it.

The Stages of Grieving for a Civilization

“When you become a parent, one thing becomes really clear. And that is that you want to make sure your children feel safe. And it rules out telling a ten year old that the world’s ending.”

Insterstellar (film)

When my son was 13, he went through an existential crisis. He was losing his faith in the religion he had been raised in, including the belief in an afterlife. The thought of personal extinction terrified him.  Over the next several years, he made peace with his own mortality.  He did so, at least in part, by taking refuge in a new faith, the faith in human progress.  He could accept the fact that he will die one day, but at least the accumulated knowledge of humanity would survive.

I felt the same way.  And I know many atheists and religious naturalists who do as well.  We accept our own mortality, while we cling to faith in the immortality of civilization.

But I don’t believe that anymore … and I don’t know what to say to my son.

It turns out, it’s not just individuals who die.  So do civilizations.  As Archdruid John Michael Greer, explains in Dark Age America, the last 5,000 years of human history have not been a straight line.  There have been many dark ages.  Europe in the early Middle Ages is only the most recent example in the West.  There was also the collapse of Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilization in the Bronze Age.  There were three separate Egyptian dark ages.  And there have been others, in both the West and the East.

The causes of these prior dark ages are familiar: climate change, population growth, soil degradation, and widening social inequality.

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”

— G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Our present situation is unique, however.  Those civilizations before us exceeded the carrying capacity of their land bases, but we are connected to a global economy.  We are facing collapse, not just on a regional level, but on a planetary scale. And while civilizational decline is not uncommon, the speed at which we are rushing toward ours is.  The reason why we are so rapidly rushing toward this end is because we have a terminal case of denial.

In The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker theorized that the basic motivation for human behavior is the desire, in fact the need, to deny the reality of our own deaths.  According to Becker, we engage in “immortality projects” in an attempt to create something that will transcend death.  But these immortality projects are maladaptive, because they sever us from the flow of life–of which death is a part.

We do this on an individual level, but also on a collective level. Western civilization itself can be understood as a collective immortality project–one giant, complex attempt to deny our connection to nature, to the Goddess, and hence to deny our mortality.  Climate change denial is just a special case of a much broader and deeper denial–a denial of our limits.

And it’s not just climate change deniers who are in denial.  Many activists on the other side of the spectrum, like me, are in denial as well.  I wasn’t denying that climate change is happening, but I was denying what it meant.  “I believe that we will win!” I chanted along with my fellow activists.  I was in denial.  And the origin of that denial, a faith in human progress, is what got us into this mess.

Looking back, a lot of my environmental activism looks like the stages of grief: denial, anger, and bargaining.  I moved into the depression phase recently.  The good thing about the depression is that it allows me to recognize this process for what it is:

I am grieving for the death of human civilization. 

The last stage of grief, I am told, is acceptance.  But what does that look like?  Do we go on protesting?  Do we go on fighting, like Bill McKibben says, because fighting is better than doing nothing?

To be continued tomorrow in “‘Die Early and Often’: Being Attis in the Anthropocene”.


Notes

Nor is nuclear energy the panacea that many techno-wizards hope it is, due to insurmountable problems of scale, waste, and energy-return-on-investment.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


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Letters from a Human Being in a Cage

Aaron was only 17 when he entered the prison system. He turned 30 last December. His release date is not until 2037.

Aaron is not the person he was 13 years go. In spite of that, Aaron has no opportunity to show that he has changed. The system, and those who maintain it, simply do not care whether or not Aaron is reformed.

What follows are Aaron’s words. Only minor editorial changes have been made for readability.


Stranded

The feeling of being stranded, As if I was abducted by aliens and woke up to a deserted island, has unfortunately somehow become my life. Scratching my head, trying to recall the answers, hopefully I can find one that would resolve my anger of my new reality.

I scream for help in all directions, until my voice dies in the raspy chord. I shoot a flare, start a fire and spin my T-shirt over my head like a helicopter. Nothing, no help, no rescue, no solution, no second half of the movie hero comeback. Is that a ship I see? As rescuers gather me together, wrap me in one of those cool space blankets, one of them turns to me and says, “We’ve been looking …” Cut short midsentence and I’m jolted back into real life from the dreamworld I prefer to attend. I’m still stranded.

I reach into my right pocket in search of hope, or is the word “help”?My heart skips a beat and the feeling of joy flutters over me. My hands send a message to my head saying it recognizes the object it beholds. A phone and a couple of watermelon flavored gum wrappers appear in my hand before me. Eyes wide as saucers as I gaze upon items as if they were treasures lost from the holy Ark.

Power-on the object that beholds endless possibilities, new meaningful connections, and open world conversations. With hope I dial this number, then that number, and the results are both the same. Not permitted. Not allowed. Cut off  and closed off to the people of the world. Restricted. The numbers to my mother are punched in as quickly as they flash in my memory. The excitement jumps through me as I hear the phone ring. The sweetest sound of my beloved mother saying “Hello”, as she answers the call. Without hesitation, I say “Hello” back, only to be cut off by a robotic recording telling my mother that this call is from a stranded person on an island, that this call is being recorded, and last but not least will be charged $8 for 30 minutes. Then with an upbeat, sweetest robotic tone, asks if she will except the call.

My stomach growls in protest over the absence of real food substance. The watermelon flavored gum scent snakes itself from the empty wrappers, twirling, dancing and swirling into my hungry nose. In that moment, I’m transported to a time much simpler and joyous. Funny how one moment a piece of wrapper is just an object of trash, and now it has become my beloved machine of time transportation. To fill my guts, I know eat handfuls of dirt and chunks of tree bark. It’s gritty and nasty, and you never “get used to it”, but what are you going to doing when there’s no other option?

I seek out the unknown items that my left pocket might possess. Surprising enough, I find a radio with a pair of earbuds. Feeling uplifted and happy at the mere possibility that this might bring a new experience into my life, or at the least an old familiar sense of normality for a bit. Cross my fingers as I flip the on switch. Static. Nothing but static flows from the only working earbud. Sadly enough, I rock the solo earbud in my ear sitting, listening to the static, as if getting reacquainted with an old friend, not daring to turn it off. Static, the wish-wash white noise has become my sanctuary of solace. It is the only real thing to me at this point.

The loneliness is the worst part. Wishing someone, from somewhere, will break through the static and just speak. Speak tales of hope, something, anything that I can hold onto, a hope in the knowledge that we are going through this together, that everything will be okay. But nothing. No rainbows or streets paved in gold. Memories of girlfriends passed attack my conscious like antibodies to a flu virus, leaving me sick with regrets of not doing more, being more. What wouldn’t I give for one more hug from Amanda, a kiss from Valaria, or an “I love you” from Kristen.

The realization that is just me now on the island comes falling down on my head, squashing my alternate reality I could cartoon anvil. I’m broke down, beat up, and wore out, destined to live out my life stranded to a place they can only ruin me. No help is coming and holding hope will only make you drown in this sea of life.

F.M.L.

Peace + Love

Aaron


The U.S. imprisons more of our citizens than any other country in the world. We have 25% of the world’s prisoners, even though we have only 5% of the world’s population. The U.S. keeps over 2.4 million people behind bars. The percentage of imprisoned U.S. citizens has increased by 500% in the last 30 years.

One of the things I learned about from Aaron was prison lockdowns. If a prisoner kills themselves–not a rare thing apparently–the prison is locked down for weeks. This is the worst time for prisoners. They have to spend 24 hours a day in their cell, and they are only allowed one shower every three days. The following was written by Aaron after one such lockdown.


They Always Ask Why

During the first minutes of being able to breathe the first breath of fresh air coming off a 16 day lockdown, some said, “We were on lockdown because they are tired of the incidents. And they want to know why?” So this intrigued me. How could I ever express something so deep on paper?

How can I express the reason why people kill themselves, OD, stab, fight, use drugs? How can I tell you we are in pain that you feel nothing but indifference towards us. It’s human as well as animal nature to relieve the pain one is feeling. A wolf will chew off its own leg to escape the pain of being confined and trapped in the snare.

How can I express in words the emotion that one feels when he tells his mother and other loved ones that they will die when the last place seeing them alive is in a prison visiting room?

What words can I use to describe the emotion of neverending loss and desertion and expanding separation from our loved ones, when this is the time we need to stay connected with them the most?

How can I express the feelings of strangers looking at you but not seeing you? Like you have become something less than human, not even worthy of eye contact. As others watch us gobble down vending machine gas station food like it is a four-star plate in shock.

How can one dictate to another the death of hopelessness of gaining a second chance? No matter how much I progress, change and accomplish set goals, I will always be judged on my past. No matter how much I change, I will never be able to change the past.

How do you put into words to explain the mixture of rage and despair when one sees a huge sign saying “Grand Opening” on the new building that is used to kill us?

How do you describe the frustration of wanting to do good, but are rarely given the opportunities. Or the anxiety that transforms into anger from dealing with psych patients and those who have yet to become conscious enough to change themselves?

My only true question that I seek to find the knowledge to understand is this: How do you justify putting another human being in a cage with no real intentions or efforts to try to help reform them, but simply left to their own devices, full of false hope, slim future prospect and told to navigate through a psych ward daily, while expecting us not to do bad?

F.M.L.

Aaron


I admit, when I first heard about Aaron, I wondered what he had done to be in prison. For some reason, this seemed like the most important question. I think I needed some justification for Aaron’s imprisonment, so I could go back to not thinking about it. I even went so far as to look up what Aaron had done. But it didn’t make me feel any better, because I couldn’t reconcile my image of the person who committed that crime with the image of Aaron which was forming in my mind as I read his words.

The more I read what Aaron wrote, the more I realized that “What did he do?” is the wrong question. The right question is “Who is he?” Who is Aaron? Not who was he 13 years ago? Who is he now? If we are going to try to justify someone being locked in a cage, shouldn’t that be the question? Not what did they do in the past? But who are they today? 


My Cage

Cages come in all different sizes. Some are big and hold tigers. Others are small and stop birds from flying. My cage is built from three concrete walls and a set of steel bars. It’s the size of someone’s small bathroom, and like all cages, it has a slot for food.

Some people say that the mind can be free while the body is locked away. Hold on while I pick up my imaginary phone and call bullshit. I believe that is just a human method and way of dealing with being trapped in a cage. Let’s face it, your mind can drift away to dreamland as much as it wants. When you blink and come back to your physical self, it’s still behind bars.

People claim there is a lower self and a higher self, a battle between good and bad on the moral scale of standards. I believe they overlooked or forgot to add the category of the animal self. I can understand why they made this mistake. One has to live a life in a cage to get it.

As a dog confined in a cage will bark fiercely when they see a person and then whimper and cry when they go out of sight, I have become that animal, for I now know what they are going through. The wide range of the emotional kaleidoscope: hell’s rage to the sadness of a broken heart, the loneliness of complete isolation to the thoughts of suicide, from the deepest despair. A pit of endless hopelessness that swallows men whole like a sinkhole, placed upon the shoulders of broken humans to bear. Human dignity stripped away and lost like smoke in the air.

Is a human being meant to be placed in the cage, locked away day upon days? Have I been downgraded and reclassed to some sort of weird animal status? Or has this cage brought the animal to the surface, with the rage I now feel? Has my cage transformed my humanity to animality, or is that a story they spin to justify the means to the action? When I flip on Animal Planet, will I see myself in caged habitat? Or will I flip on MSNBC’s”lockup” to compare another caged life with my own.

The new exhibit and slideshow. Come see the tactics to break the human. Push-Paul-Bend-Snap. Minds break and the animal self flows. Tiers upon tiers of cages filled with damaged human souls, transforming into animals as a prison industry growth. No reform for us. Just time in our cage to reflect and grow into our new animal ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Some truly belong here. But what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. True testament from myself: time in a cage can help transform and change a life. But there is a truth of too much of something can be a bad thing. Harm comes after the help of a changed life, once self reformed and reborn into a new person. The end result is still the same: locked away and endless time in my cage.

Some people question then what’s the point, and end up taking own life. Where is the second chance, the fruit of my labor of change? The raw truth is nobody cares and I have become that dog placed back into the cage.

F.M.L.


The prison administrators have recently changed how the prisoners receive their mail. When they receive a letter for a prisoner, the prison now copies the letter and gives the copy, not the original, to the prisoner. This might seem like an insignificant thing, but it’s not. Because they only get a photocopy, the prisoners can no longer feel the paper that their loves one’s touched, no longer trace the penstrokes their parents or their children made. They can no longer smell an old familiar smell from an aunt or grandmother’s house or the perfume sprayed on the paper by a girlfriend or a wife.  It’s just one more barrier placed between them and the rest of us.

If you would like to write a letter to Aaron, you can scan it and email to me at allergicpagan@gmail.com and I will see that it is delivered to Aaron.

My gratitude to Pete O’Day, who shared Aaron’s letters with me. Pete helps facilitate a Buddhist mediation group at a prison where he met Aaron.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit publisher that relies on reader’s donations for our work. Support us here.

 

The Police Aren’t Here For You

“The police are an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization. When I came to see this, then abolishing the police didn’t seem so crazy anymore.”

From John Halstead

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Don’t you feel safe now?

“In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency. But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution—meaning the next revolution, not the last one. The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed—at least not yet.”

— George Orwell (1932)

On a cool Saturday morning in September, about 75 people gathered in the parking lot of the Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, situated in a mostly White, mixed-income neighborhood in Northwest Indiana. There were people of all ages. Parents with children, some in strollers. Retirees and students. Self-described activists and people who had never been to a protest before. There were some people of color, but we were a mostly White group. Several people were drawing on the blacktop with sidewalk chalk, messages about climate change and pollution.

A police officer on an ATV passed by on the road. Overhead, the sheriff’s helicopter circled.

“Are they here for us?” someone asked, looking up at the helicopter.

“They’re not here for you,” my friend responded. “They’re here for you.”

We laughed nervously, as the double entendre sank in.

The reason for the gathering was a pipeline walk organized by a local chapter of 350.org. It was not a protest, per se, but an educational walk. Ten kilometers, starting at the terminal of Enbridge Line 6A in Griffith, Indiana, and walking north toward the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, the largest tar sands refinery in the country.

The Enbridge terminal sat adjacent to the nature preserve that we were standing on, about a quarter mile away. The massive petroleum storage tanks were visible through the trees in the distance. The pipeline carrying tar sands oil ran directly under our feet, directly under the nature preserve.

When we left the preserve, we followed the path of the pipeline, marked by high-pressure pipeline markers, by people’s yards, two elementary schools (including the one my son attended), a high school, a municipal playground. We walked over several waterways. Throughout the walk, the police were as ubiquitous as the pipeline markers.

The goal of the walk was to draw attention to the existence of the pipelines in such close proximity to our everyday lives, and to activate people who might not come to a more confrontational event. No one carried any signs, and no one shouted protest chants. We stayed on the sidewalks. I think we were as non-threating as any group that size can be.

And yet, all the while, the helicopter circled above. Everywhere the police presence was visible: on foot, in police cars, on ATVs, in ominous black vans. At least four different police agencies were present. It was hard to estimate the numbers, but there must have been one police officer for every two walkers. All of that for fewer than a hundred people walking on the sidewalks in a suburban neighborhood. The size of the police presence was all the more remarkable for the fact that the organizers of the walk had met with the police prior to the event, explained it was a non-confrontational, educational event, and even provided a map of the route.

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Hey kids! Did you know that Officer Dugan is a corporate tool?

Throughout the walk, the police were courteous and obliging. They helped us negotiate the more dangerous road crossings. And some of the walkers expressed gratitude and even relief at the presence of the police. But for many of us, their presence was oppressive.

We couldn’t help but feel that they were not really there for our safety. Did we really believe they were there to help us cross the street? No, they were there because we were assembled in close proximity to a piece of major fossil fuel infrastructure. They were there to protect Enbridge and BP.

I also couldn’t escape the suspicion that they were also there to intimidate us, to remind us of their power. None of the officers acted aggressively toward us. (The press was present.)  But the sheer number of armed state actors in our vicinity had a psychological impact. And I don’t think it was unintended.

Growing up White, I had always believed that the police were there for me, to protect me. With the exception of some minor adolescent law breaking, the most I ever had to worry about from the police was getting a speeding ticket. And I never really had to worry about getting shot by the police when I was pulled over.

But as I got involved in street activism, I found myself in a more confrontational relationship with the police. And I began to see that the police are not there to protect me, at least not principally. They are there to protect the social order. As long as I was playing my part in that order, I was protected by the police. But as soon as I stepped just a little bit outside of that order (by exercising Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to assemble and speak), it became apparent that they weren’t there for me; indeed, they never had been.

For most people of color, LGBT folk, and other underprivileged persons, I’m sure this isn’t any revelation.

About a year before the pipeline walk, I was marching with Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago. They were calling for the “abolition”–a word chosen deliberately–of the police (as well as prisons). As I walked in solidarity with BLM, I wrestled with my emotions. I have to admit that the idea of abolishing the police sent an instinctual tremor or terror through my being.

I understood rationally that, rather than making Black and Brown communities in Chicago safer, the Chicago Police Department actually make them less safe. And so abolishing the police makes perfect sense. The police may make most White people feel safer, but the fact is that they do so by carrying on a campaign of terror against Black and Brown people. I understood that rationally, but when marchers called for the abolishment of the police, my socialization as a White person kicked in, and I couldn’t help wonder, “Who would protect me?”

Several months later, I drove into the small airport in Gary, Indiana for a protest against ICE deportations being conducted at that airport. I had been to a previous protest at the airport and there had been just one police officer present. On that prior occasion, a group of frustrated protesters had broken off from the main group, opened an unlocked gate, and walked out onto the runaway. That single police officer had remained calm as organizers talked to their fellow protesters and convinced them to return to the main body of the protest. There were no threats of arrest and only a minimal expression of police authority.

So this time, when I arrived at the airport, I was surprised to find a large contingent of police in SWAT gear herding us into a fenced-in area. I had volunteered to be the police liaison for the event, so it was my job to find out what in the hell was going on. The officer in charge brusquely informed me that we were being put in a pen “for our own safety”. He claimed that they had received reports of the possibility of counter-protesters (who never showed up, of course). I was also informed that no one was allowed to enter the airport building (which was usually open to the public), even to use the restroom, and if we left our designated area, we would be arrested.

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In other words, let us “protect” you, or we will arrest you.

When the buses with the windows covered up, carrying undocumented immigrants who were shackled hand and foot, drove into the airport, there was no ambiguity in my mind about the reason for the presence of the police. They were not there to protect us from counter-protesters, real or imagined. They were there to protect the system, an unjust system which, at that moment, was deporting people who had committed no major crimes, and which included parents with children, tax-paying workers and business owners, and even veterans.

None of this will come as a surprise to those educated about the origin of the police as a means of quashing protest by urban workers. Or to those who have noted the connection between the role of the antebellum police in catching runaway slaves and their role today in systematically enslaving people of color in a for-profit prison system. None of this will come as a surprise who have noted the coincidence of peak oil and the militarization of the police. Or to those who have observed how the practice of ticketing people for minor violations is used to redistribute wealth from poor communities and communities of color to the state (and hence to the wealthy).

None of this should come as surprise to those who have been paying attention to the growing body of video documentation of police violently assaulting and murdering people of color. And, of course, none of those will come as a surprise to people of color or many poor people, who have always been on the business end of the police baton.

“The police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.”

James Baldwin (1966)

But it did come as a surprise to me. I’m White and economically privileged, and so its perhaps not too suprising that, all my life, I have thought that the police were protecting me. But my recent encounters with the police helped me see that that what they have really been protecting is the gilded cage I live in. I’m protected because I’ve stayed in the cage. But if I so much as rattled the bars of my cage, the police revealed themselves for what they are: an increasingly militarized arm of an increasingly fascist state, hired thugs for capitalist oligarchs, the modern-day version of slave catchers, a terrorist organization.

The more I realized this, the more the calls for abolishing the police made sense. I’m now convinced that imagining a world without police means is part and parcel of imagining a just society.

“To a population domesticated from the moment it fell out of the womb such a question seem ludicrous. All our lives we’ve been told cops, judges, and prisons are the pinnacles of civilization, needed to keep our innate savagery in check. …

“We do not need cops and we do not need prisons. We cling to these institutions not because they are necessary but because we can’t imagine a world without them.”

Dr. Bones

“But who would protect me?” the old voice still comes. But now, there is another voice as well, with new questions: “Do the police really protect you now? From whom? Why do you think you need to be protected? Where does that belief come from? Who taught it to you? What unspoken assumptions is it based on?”

Recently, my Unitarian church invited the local police department to give an active shooter training to the congregation. The officers began the training by playing a 911 recording made from inside Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre. There was no pedagogical function. They didn’t refer to the calls once throughout the presentaton. As far as I could see, the only purpose of playing the recording was to make us afraid … and thus, more dependent on the police themselves. The police could not justify their existence, or the violence they perpetrate on us, without our continued fear of a world without them.

But the fact is the police don’t make us safer. For most White people, they only provide the illusion of safety. And for most people of color, not even that. About 90% of police time spent penalizing infractions of administrative regulations. As David Graeber has observed, the police are essentially bureaucrats with guns. Of the remaining 10% of their time, during which they are responding to violent crime, they are largely ineffectual, or worse.

I guess this is for our own good?

Crime is a natural and predictable result of inequality and injustice. If we really want to reduce crime, we should invest in full employment, universal healthcare (including mental health), free university education, and comprehensive sex education (including education about consent), and we should decriminalize drug use. These things would be far more effective in reducing violent crime than the police. But when we call for these things, the response we get is more police.

I’m not suggesting that abolishing the police is a simple answer. Imagining a world without police requires unlearning a lot of conscious and conscious beliefs. For one thing, it means White people like me unlearning the fear of Black people. The mystique of the police is sustained, in part, by racist stereotypes of the Black male “thug” or “super predator”, stereotypes which have historical antecedents dating back to the times of slavery.

Imagining a world without police also means unlearning capitalist ways of relating to other people.  As William Anderson has written,

“To end capitalism, we have to end capitalism both within and around us. When we liberate our relationships from patterns of thought that replicate the inequalities built into our social systems, a great love can exist that gives us a new feeling of freedom.”

This means learning how to relate to each other on the basis of cooperation, rather than competition. It means building community, spending time with people, and getting to know them. It means and taking responsibility for our communities, rather than abdicating that responsibility to the state. And, of course, it means finding ways to reintegrate those who violate community norms, rather than just warehouse or punish them.

As Chicago activist, Mariame Kaba, has said,

“Abolition is not about changing one thing. It’s about changing everything, together.”


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit publisher that relies on reader’s donations for our work. Support us here.

Do Trees Have Rights? Toward an Ecological Politics

“[I]t turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.”

from John Halstead

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“The world is full of persons (people if you prefer), but few of them are human.” — Graham Harvey, “An Animist Manifesto”

When I first encountered contemporary animism, it boggled my mind. Animism posits a world full of persons: human persons, yes, but also hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons…and yes, tree persons. Those whose circle of friends includes many animists, pagans, and polytheists may easily forget just how radical the idea of “tree persons” is.

Hedgehog persons? Salmon persons? Mushroom persons? Even rock persons? When I first heard this, it caused me to wonder what exactly a “person” is. To the animist, a person is a being that exists in relationship. Personhood, in this sense, is an ontological statement. But I didn’t get that right away.

I’m a lawyer, so personhood for me is primarily a legal distinction. In the legal and political context, a person is a being that has rights. What would it mean, then, for a salmon, not to mention a rock, to have rights?

Personhood, in this legal context, is not an ontological distinction, but a cultural one. For that reason, it is more or less arbitrary. That’s why human beings could recognize personhood, and hence rights, of fictional entities like corporations and limited liability companies, trusts and estates, sovereign political entities and even ships, while at the same time denying rights to women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Now, you might think that, if we can give rights to corporations and states, which are legal fictions, then we should be able to give rights to living beings like trees and natural beings like rocks, which at least exist in the physical world and, in the case of trees, share DNA with humans. But it turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.

In the essay, I want to highlight some of the problems with classical liberalism, and then propose an alternative, holistic theory of rights, one in which we can ground the rights of nature.

The Standing of Mineral King Valley

As strange as it may seem to grant rights to corporations and ships, but not trees, there is an internal logic to that choice. Corporations and ships are human creations, and they have something that rocks and trees lack–human agents. These human agents can, for example, bring lawsuits to enforce the rights of their “principal”, whether it be a corporation or a ship.

Now it has been suggested that human beings might act as agents for other-than-human beings, just like they do for corporations. In 1972, the Sierra Club filed suit to prevent the development of a Walt Disney resort at Mineral King valley in the Sequoia National Forest. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue in Sierra Club v. Morton was whether the Sierra Club had “standing”, that is, the right to sue. Although the majority technically decided that Sierra Club did not have standing, in a footnote, the court helpfully suggested that the Sierra Club could amend its complaint to allege that Sierra Club made regular camping trips to Mineral King Valley, and the problem of standing would be resolved. The Sierra Club did so and, ultimately Mineral King Valley was saved from the developers.

(It is significant that the fate of the valley effectively turned on how frequently the Sierra Club camped there. More on that in a bit.)

But the case of Sierra Club v. Morton is perhaps most notable for Justice Douglas’ dissent 1, in which he made the case for recognizing the legal standing of

“valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”2

As a result, Douglas believed the case should have been entitled “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”. (Morton was Secretary of the Interior.)

But who would speak for the river and its inhabitants? Douglas argued that human beings could be spokespersons for the “inanimate” natural “objects”, if they had a “meaningful relation” or “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. In the case of the Mineral King Valley, the spokesperson might “hike it, fish it, hunt it, camp in it, frequent it, or visit it merely to sit in solitude and wonderment.” Douglas concluded that such a relation would enable them the person to speak for “the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”

Who Speaks for the Water Ouzel?

CC-BY-2.0 Ron Knight

As much as I would have rejoiced to see legal standing granted to the Mineral King Valley or the Kaweah River which runs through the valley, Justice Douglas’ reasoning gives me pause. By what right do human beings speak for a valley or river? I think Douglas was on the right track when he references the human being’s “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. But then he proceeded to speak merely in terms of the usefulness of the “object” to humans–hiking, fishing, hunting, enjoying the solitude and wonder it offers to humans. Consider the list of types of human beings that Douglas says might speak for a river: “a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger”. Of these, the zoologist at least might have a sense of the inherent worth of the valley–but the logger?!3

Douglas argued that the rivers and valleys themselves could have standing, just as ships and corporations can have standing. But there is an important distinction between ships and corporations, on the one hand, and rivers and valleys, on the other. Ships and corporations are human creations. They have no life or meaning apart from the human beings who constitute them (the crew in the case of ships). The same is not true of rivers and valleys. The latter have a life of their own. The claim to speak for them cannot be so readily justified. And the notion that a logger might speak for all the life that a valley sustains seems presumptuous at best, and dangerous in fact.

Consider also how Douglas described rivers etc. as “environmental objects” and even “inanimate objects”. Because he was unable to see the river, or even the fish in the river, as subjects, rather than objects, he was unable to appreciate the inherent value of the river or the fish beyond their usefulness to human beings. Despite his reference to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic at the end of his dissent, Douglas didn’t quite manage to escape the anthropocentrism which gave rise to the lawsuit in the first place. While he tried to make a case for the rights of valleys and rivers, these remained “objects” in his view, the value of which was determined by human beings.

In the end, Douglas’ approach would have led to more or less to the same place as the majority opinion, with rights of the valley being determined by how often a group of human beings camped there. And this is significant, because it’s not really the interest of the valley that is being protected in such cases, but the interest of humans who want to use the valley.

A State of “Nature”

Even if rocks and trees had agents to speak for them, there is a deeper philosophical problem with granting them rights. Rocks and trees cannot recognize the rights of others. Rights are a human convention. Corporations and states are made up of human beings, so they can recognize other humans’ rights. The same is not true of other-than-human beings. If we decided to grant rights to trees, the trees would not be able to reciprocate the gesture. In short, trees cannot have rights, because trees cannot recognize rights.

What I’ve describe above is the social contract theory of rights, and it is grounded in the classical liberal political philosophy of John Locke. (Note: Classical liberalism should not be confused with the contemporary partisan label of “liberal”, which is commonly contrasted with “conservative”. Most conservative and liberal political discourse today take classical liberalism as the starting point.)

The classical liberal worldview is based on certain assumptions about the nature of human beings and society. In this view, the basic unit of existence is the individual. Individuals exist prior to their relationships. It is a kind of social atomism. According to Locke, society arises when individuals form a social contract wherein they recognize the rights of one another. This can happen implicitly, even unconsciously, or explicitly, through constitutions and laws.

In the classical liberal view of society, other human beings are perceived primarily as obstacles to the individual’s freedom. Individuals enter into the social contract out of necessity, in order to escape the “state of nature”, the war of all against all. Through the social contract, an individual agrees to recognize the rights of others in exchange for a corresponding agreement that others will recognize their rights. This recognition of the rights of others is given begrudgingly, as it were. This is, at its core, an adversarial, rather than a cooperative, view of society.

The purpose of government, in classical liberal view, then, is to enforce this social contract. It serves primarily a negative function–preventing individuals from infringing on the rights of others. The danger of government, in the classical liberal view, is that it will overstep its bounds and begin imposing obligations or duties on individuals.

In order to enter into a contact, a person has to be legally “competent”. This means that they have to be an adult and of “sound mind”. It also means, though it is usually implied, that they have to be a human being. In the classical liberal view, trees cannot have rights. Trees cannot contract with human beings, so trees cannot be part of the social contract. Human beings don’t recognize the rights of trees, because trees cannot recognize the rights of human beings.

The Air that I Breathe

This is the view of rights that I was indoctrinated with, from childhood on. It is why I had so much trouble understanding animism and the animistic conception of personhood.

I was raised by Reaganites, in a religion (Mormonism) which viewed voting Democrat as tantamount to apostasy. I went to a conservative religious university (Brigham Young University), where I was spoon-fed the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who inspired the growth of neoliberalism in the late 20th century, the notion that all social problems should be solved through laissez-faire capitalism.

I then went on to law school. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the standard law school curriculum is deeply rooted in the classical liberal paradigm. Just look at the required substantive courses for first year law students: torts (injury to person or property), contacts, property, constitutional law, criminal law. This curriculum takes for granted the concepts of individual liberty, personal property, the right to contract, limited government, and the state’s monopoly on use of force–the basic tenets of classical liberalism.

But even if I hadn’t been raised in a conservative family and religion and then gone to law school, I would still have absorbed the classical liberal worldview from the American cultural milieu. It’s pervasive–from the public school curriculum to NPR. It’s the political air that we breathe today. And though we take it for granted, the classical liberal paradigm has very real consequences, both for the other-than-human beings who inhabit our shared world, as well as for many human beings who have been categorized as less than fully human at one time or another.

Alienable Rights

“Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” — Jeremy Bentham

The classical liberal understanding of rights is justified in terms of so-called “natural rights”, a reference not to nature, but to what philosophers called the “state of nature”, the imagined state of human beings prior to the advent of society.

Natural rights were originally said to derive from human beings’ purported special relationship with the divine Creator–specifically Yahweh of Judeo-Christian scripture. This is significant, because Yahweh is god of divisions, and the nature of the deity determined the nature of the rights at issue. Unlike the dying-and-reviving vegetation gods he supplanted, Yahweh believed himself to be separate from nature. Creation, in first chapter of Genesis, is also described as a process of separation: light from dark, sky from sea, etc.

Similarly, the natural state of human beings, as describe in the book of Genesis, is also one of separation. Human beings enter the world as individuals, not as a community. We are then separated from God and “fall” into the natural world, which is not our real home. Human beings can overcome the separation from God and escape nature by entering into a covenant–a contract–with Yahweh. All of the basic elements of Locke’s social contract theory can be found here: the special nature of human being, the separation of human beings from each other and from nature, and the formation of society through through voluntary contracts.

As society became secularized, so did the justification for rights. But belief in the supposedly unique nature of human beings remained among humanists. Human beings, we are told, are born with “unalienable rights”. The “self-evident” character of these rights depends upon a belief in humankind’s exceptionalism. As evolutionary biology has chipped away at the belief in our exceptionalism, the justification for natural rights been weakened. If human beings aren’t special, just one species among millions, then where do our special rights come from?

Not only is natural rights theory weak philosophically, when we look at history, it’s revealed to be a farce–a facade for the exercise of power. Humans who have had the power to do so have always withheld so-called “natural rights” from certain classes of human beings: usually including women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Personhood and natural rights exist in a tautological relationship. We define a person as a being that has rights, and then we extend rights only to those whom we recognize as persons. As Christopher Stone explained in his 1972 law review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.” As a result, people with power can grant rights to anyone or anything they want, and they can withhold rights from anyone or anything, as well. This is why human societies can, for example, extend rights to corporations, while denying rights to people of color.

When we ground rights in social contract theory, human beings will tend recognize the rights of only two classes of people: (1) those that appear like themselves and (2) those who have power. We recognize the rights of those that are like us, because it is logically consistent with our desire that our own rights be recognized. And we recognize the rights of those in power, in the hopes that they will recognize our own rights. Hence, we tend to be blind to the rights of those who are different and/or have little or no power. Trees, for example, are other-than-human and have no political power. So human beings have no reason to recognize the rights of trees–at least as long as rights are based in the social contract.

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness More Property

Historically, political rights in the West have been connected to property ownership. While Jefferson invoked the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, Locke, who had inspired Jefferson, wrote about the rights to “life, liberty, and property“. Four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Samuel Adams wrote, in “The Rights of the Colonists,” “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property.” And shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Virginia Declaration of Rights recognized the rights to the “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Rights were first extended to property owners–nobles, and then landed gentry–and those property owners sought to extend those rights as a way of protecting their property. The rallying cry of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation,” was the cry of White male property owners–not Native Americans, slaves, women, or unlanded men. Given the close connection of rights and property in history, it should come as no surprise that, today, the freedom of the market has trumped all other freedoms, and the right to acquire property has trumped all other rights.

This is important for understanding why rights are withheld from some classes of people. If people are beings who have rights, and property rights are preeminent among rights, then people, it may be said, are beings who own property. Anything or anyone that is not a person, is therefore property, and anyone who does not own property, is not a person. Enslaved people, for example, were considered to be things that were owned, not people that owned things, so it made no sense for slaves to have rights. The same was true of women and children for a long time–if a woman was raped or if child was killed, it was the father or husband who had a legal right to sue, and the nature of the suit was damage to property, not injury to person.

Similarly, trees today are considered to be things that are owned, not persons who own things. Therefore, they cannot have rights. While property ownership was eventually extended to former slaves, it is difficult to imagine how a tree might ever be said to own property. As a result, it’s unlikely rights will ever be extended to trees, so long as we are operating within the classical liberal view of rights.

Blue Rights, Negative Rights

In the 1970s, the Czech jurist, Karel Vasak, described three “generations” of rights–later called “blue,” “red,” and “green” rights. In this section, I’ll discuss the first two–blue and red rights.

Blue rights are “negative” rights, the right to pursue one’s own self-interest without interference from other people or from government–essentially, your right to be left alone. These include political rights like freedom of speech and the freedom to contract and to acquire (more) property.

Red rights refer to “positive” rights. Rather than the freedom from interference, they represent a person’s entitlement to something, Red rights create the obligations of others to you and you to them. These include economic and social rights, like the right to employment, housing, health care, and social security.

Negative rights are often described as protecting “freedom from” something, whereas positive rights are described as protecting “freedom to” do something. This can be misleading, though. In one sense, negative rights may be thought of as embodying a person’s “freedom from”, i.e., freedom from interference by others. In another sense, negative rights may be thought of as a “freedoms to”, i.e., freedom to speak, to exercise religion, and to acquire property–in the space left by the non-interference of other people and government. Similarly, positive rights can be thought of as freedoms to, i.e., freedom to work, obtain heath care, acquire an education, etc., but also as freedoms from, i.e., freedom from want, fear, ignorance, etc., which result from work, health care, education, and so on.

The classical liberal view lends itself to the recognition of negative rights, but not positive rights . Prior to the New Deal, most Americans understood rights primarily in negative terms. The role of government was to keep people from interfering with other people’s person or property. Social Darwinism was the prevailing social theory and laissez-faire capitalism, which touted competition over cooperation, was the prevailing economic theory. Little wonder, then, that an adversarial theory of rights would dominate public discourse.

The United States’ Bill of Rights is an example of negative rights. Though many Americans today speak of the First Amendment as securing their “freedom of speech”, i.e., the freedom to speak, the First Amendment actually freedom from government abridging speech. This is a negative right, not a positive one. It is freedom from government interference which the First Amendment protects, and it is only the freedom to speak in the space created by the absence of government interference.

Red Right, Positive Rights

Red (positive) rights came to be more recognized through the efforts of FDR. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt proposed that people everywhere should enjoy the freedom of speech and worship (blue rights), to which he added freedom from want and fear (red rights). Two years later, in his 1941 State of the Union address, he stated that the political rights identified in the Bill of Rights were “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness,” because “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security”. Roosevelt identified several red rights, among them:

  • The right to job
  • The right to earn enough for adequate food, clothing, and recreation
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.

These are rights which would be incomprehensible for someone operating wholly within the context of a classical liberal paradigm. The reason is this–from the perspective of classical liberalism, you cannot recognize a red or positive right of one person without creating a corresponding obligation or duty on another person to fulfill that right, and when you create such an obligation, you violate the second person’s blue or negative rights. Where there is a conflict between positive and negative rights, classical liberalism demands that the negative right trump the positive right. Classical liberalism favors negative rights because it takes for granted that free human beings exist prior to forming social relationships.

To use an example from recent news, according to the classical liberal, you cannot guarantee a LGBT’s person’s right to purchase a wedding cake at a particular establishment, without violating the wedding cake maker’s right to be free from indirect participation in LGBT weddings. When conservatives today make this argument, unfortunately many progressives have difficulty articulate a refutation, because they too are starting with classical liberal assumptions.

To contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, the wedding cake case is simply a question of deciding whose rights to give preference to: the LGBT customer’s right to be free from discrimination or the wedding cake maker’s free exercise of his religion. Progressives tend to give preference to the freedom from discrimination over the freedom of religious expression, so they will usually favor the rights of the LGBT customer. But they don’t really question the classical liberal assumptions behind the choice. When we begin with the classical liberal assumption that human beings exist prior to their relationships, then it is difficult to defense the choice of the LGBT customer’s rights over the rights of the wedding cake maker in a principled way.

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Rights of Individuals-in-Community

But that is not the only way to see the world. Rather than trying to defend positive (red) rights in the individualistic terms of the classical liberal paradigm, we can start with a more communitarian4 or holistic paradigm. Rather than seeing the individuals as existing prior to society, a holistic view sees society as constitutive of individuals.

We are born into community, and we work out our individual identity through our relationships with other human beings and with the more-than-human world. There’s no such thing as “state of nature”, in which human beings lived before forming social relationships. We born into relation and there is no way to opt-out. In short, individuals do not exist apart from their relationships.

Therefore, there is no such thing as “natural rights”. Rights are social constructions, and they only can be created in society. And they always create corresponding obligations on other people. Rather than separating people, as the classical liberal imagines, rights bind people together, into communities. (This seems to be the view taken by Kadmus in his article here, entitled “Nature’s Rights”.) In this view, a person who has liberty, but no community, can hardly be called a person.

A person only really has freedom if the material and social conditions are present for them to exercise that freedom. We cannot can really pursue happiness without food, education, work, health care, etc. What use is it to tell a person they are free to fish if they don’t have a fishing pole or the knowledge of how to use it? As Adlai Stevenson succinctly put it, “A hungry man is not a free man.” Or, as someone said in the documentary Whose Streets? (about the Ferguson rebellion), “If you can’t read, you’re a slave.”

The goal of rights, in this perspective, is not primarily to protect the atomistic individual from other people, but to enable individuals to realize their potential together, through community. This does not mean that positive (red) rights will always trump negative (blue) rights, but if all other things are equal, then positive rights will be given greater weight, because negative rights are a function of positive rights.

This is not to say that community takes precedence over individuals. Red rights are still individual rights, not communal rights; but they are rights of individuals-in-community. In this holistic view, rights arise, not from the nature of the solitary individual, but from the nature of the individual in society. The ability of people to exercise their liberties depends on other people.

Recall that the classical liberal understanding of rights was rooted in the desire of capitalists to protect their property (and acquire more). But the capitalist’s ability to acquire more property is only made possible through the labor of others (which is exploited). What’s more, the capitalist’s profits depend upon infrastructure, markets, and so on, which are built by other people’s hands. While the capitalist may pay taxes, the taxes any single capitalist pays would be insufficient to create the infrastructure that capitalist needs. In short, they need other people.

As then-candidate for Senate, Elizabeth Warren, explained in 2011:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for.”

Let Them Eat Wedding Cake

Let’s apply this perspective to the case of the wedding cake maker and the LGBT customer. Rather than starting with two separate individuals with competing rights claims, we start with two individuals who are part of a larger community. The wedding cake maker’s demand for “freedom from interference” in the exercise of their religion makes less sense when looked at from this more holistic perspective. As much as the wedding cake maker might want to deny it, they are already in community with the LGBT customer, even before the customer walks through the door.

To begin with, even if the wedding cake maker does not have employees, they nevertheless did not build their business on their own. Their business was created within a community that provides roads for delivery of cake ingredients, police to maintain a safe marketplace, and so on. Maybe the LGBT customer was even one of the people that helped build those roads or a police officer patrolling the neighborhood of the wedding cake business.

What’s more, the wedding cake maker’s right to exercise their religion in public spaces5 is only possible in the context of a culture of tolerance which is created and maintained by the community. The wedding cake maker only has freedom to exercise their religion, if they are if they are free from fear of discrimination from others. It is hypocritical, therefore, for the cake maker to insist on his freedom from one type of discrimination, while insisting on the right to discriminate against others on other grounds. So, the rights of the LGBT customer should trump those of the wedding cake maker in that case.

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Green Rights

“Environmental law is failing. And it will continue to fail because it comes from the same paradigm that created the problem.” — Mumta Ito

At this point, I would forgive the reader for having lost sight of tree persons that I started this essay with, but I intend now to return to them. Blue rights and red rights only apply to human beings, but Karel Vasak described three kinds of rights. So far, we have only talked about two. The third kind of rights is “green rights.” Vasek’s divisions corresponded roughly to the three words of the French motto: “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Green rights extend both blue and red rights to other-than-human beings and ecosystems, recognizing our “fraternity”–or “kinship” to use a non-patriarchal term–with the other-than-human inhabitants of our world.

The justification for extending rights to other-than-human beings is consistent with the logic of red rights, but simply recognizes that the community of which we are a part includes the more-than-human world–in fact, there’s much more of them than there are of us: hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons, tree persons and so on. To borrow from Aldo Leopold’s description of the “land ethic”, green rights “simply enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Recall that red rights were justified by pointing out that the capitalist’s freedom to acquire more property is only made possible through the (exploited) labor of others. And their business relies upon public goods for which they did not pay, like roads. But the capitalist’s freedom is also only made possible through the (even more exploited) natural world: air, water, soil, and the other-than-human beings who inhabit it. The roads upon which the capitalist relies run through land that used to be (and may still be) occupied by streams and prairies and inhabited by myriad living beings. And both the roads and the goods which the business produces are made from materials which come from the natural world.

Mumta It, founder of the NGO, Nature’s Rights, observes that the classical liberal political paradigm is based on a 17th century scientific paradigm–not surprising since Locke lived in the 17th century–which she describes as:

  • mechanistic (i.e., viewing the world as made up of separate, unconnected objects interacting in a predicable way);
  • anthropocentric (i.e., viewing the world as existing solely for the use of human beings – this is where ideas about ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural capital’ derive, basing nature’s value on its utility to humanity rather than on its intrinsic value); and
  • adversarial (competitive/retributive model, where one party wins at the expense of another)

In contrast, the holistic perspective is an ecological view of rights. Unlike more reductive forms of biology, ecology seeks to understand organisms in context of their relationships. The environment is not a backdrop to individual action, but a web of relations that constitute the individual. Therefore, an ecological view of rights is one which views worlds as interconnected, biocentric, and cooperative, rather than mechanistic, anthropocentic, and adversarial.

In the classical liberal view, based on social contract theory, people only have a motivation to recognize the rights of other who or like them (or those who have greater power than them). In the holistic view, based on ecology, people would recognize the rights of those with whom they are in relationship. And since we are ultimately in relationship with everyone, people would recognize the rights of every person and every thing–in fact, every thing would be recognized as a person, which is the foundation of an animistic worldview.

There are only a few examples of green rights in existence, but there appears to be a trend (albeit limited in scope so far) toward recognizing the rights of nature:

In 2008, the Ecuadorian constitution, recognized the right of nature (or “Pacha Mama”) to “integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Among other obligations, the constitution required the state to apply preventive and restrictive measures on activities that might lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles.

In 2010, Bolivia passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), which recognizes Mother Earth as a “collective interest” which includes all its component communities, human and other-than. The law recognizes the rights of Mother Earth to life, diversity of life, equilibrium, clean water, clean air, pollution-free life, and restoration where living systems have been affected by human activities. The law also imposes duties on the state and on the people to realize these rights.

In 2016, a court in Colombia recognized the rights of the Atrato River basin. In negotiations with an indigenous Maori tribe of New Zealand, the government recognized the Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River as legal persons in 2014 and 2017, respectively. This was followed by the Indian court recognizing the personhood of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017. Several municipalities in the United States have also recognized the rights of nature, beginning with Tamaqua Borough, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Nestled Rights

Blue rights, red rights, and green rights are not equivalent and competing kinds of rights. Nor are they exactly hierarchical. Red (positive) rights, in a sense, encompass blue (negative) rights, because the latter are only possible in the context of the former, just as the individual only exists in the context of society.

Similarly, blue and red rights are encompassed within green rights, because both individuals and human communities only exist within the context the natural world–the former could not exist without the latter. To look at it another way, individual human beings cannot harm their human community without harming themselves, and likewise, a human community cannot harm the more-than-human community without also harming itself.

We can think of blue, red, and green rights as nestled within each other, as depicted in the image on the right in diagram below.

Nestled Rights

Mumta Ito has written about two model of sustainability and the relationship between nature, human society, and the economy using a similar diagram:

“The diagram on the left is the usual model for sustainability. The problem with this model is that it assumes that each circle can exist independently of the others. In reality the only one that can exist without the others – is nature.

The diagram on the right is therefore more accurate. It shows a natural hierarchy of systems because without nature there’s no people and without people there’s no economy.

This then leads to a natural hierarchy of rights with nature’s rights as our most fundamental rights because our life depends on it, then human rights as a subsystem of nature’s rights – and then property or corporate rights as a subsystem of human rights.

In the model on the right, the rights are in service of each other rather than in conflict – working synergistically to protect the integrity of the whole. In this model human activities have to be beneficial for humans as well as nature – or its not viable in the long run.”

Therefore, rather than attempting to balancing the interests of individual humans, human society, and the environment, as if they were equal and competing, the holistic model of rights acknowledges that blue rights are derivative of red rights and that both blue and red rights are derivative of green rights. This does not mean that green rights will trump blue rights in every instance, but it would mean that, all other things being equal–a caveat which conceals a great deal of nuance–green rights would be given greater weight than red or blue rights.

“The Rights of Nature”

The holistic view of rights, in contrast to classical liberalism, provides a basis for recognizing the rights of nature. To say that other-than-human beings should have rights, though, is not to say that no one should be allowed to cut down a tree. Human beings have rights, but they can be incarcerated and even executed under the law. So rights can recognized, and yet withdrawn under some circumstances.

Nor does it say what kind of rights would be extended to the more-than-human world. Not every right holder holds all rights. Corporations have the right to contract, but they cannot plead the Fifth. Children have certain rights, but not the right to vote.

Nor does it say anything about the weight to be given those rights in any given case. U.S. law recognizes that humans have a right to life and also a right to a driver’s license (at least adults). But we can be legally deprived of the latter much easier than the former.

Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this essay. But, following Christopher Stone, I would propose that an acknowledgement of the rights of nature would, at a minimum, mean that other-than-human beings have legal standing in human courts, beyond any public or private human interest in them. So, in the case of Mineral King Valley, discussed above, the caption of the lawsuit would indeed, as Justice Douglas proposed, read “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”.

Merely recognizing such a thing as the “rights of nature” would be profound. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann writes about how, in 1948, with the publication of Road to Survival, William Vogt introduced the world to the idea of “the environment”, not just as a particular place, but as a global totality: “Defining a word on a new sense seems academic and abstract,” writes Mann, but its consequences are not. Until something has a name, it can’t be discussed or acted upon it. … Without ‘the environment,’ there would be no environmental movement.”

The same, it could be hoped, would be true of the “rights of nature”. As Christopher Stone observed,

“Introducing the notion of something having a ‘right’ (simply speaking that way), brings into the legal system a flexibility and open-endedness … [T]he vocabulary and expressions that are available to us influence and even steer our thought. …[J]udges who could unabashedley refer to the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be encouraged to develop a viable body of law–in part simply through the availability and force of the expression. Besides, such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be inclined to legislate for environment-protecting rules …”

It is not impossible that general acceptance of the phrase, “the rights of nature”, could trigger a paradigm shift in Western consciousness, a shift from viewing nature instrumentally–as having value only for humans–to viewing nature as inherently valuable–as having value in its own right. And that could have profound consequences for human behavior and our impact on the more-than-human world.

Animistic Afterthought

But who would speak for the rights of nature in human courts? To answer this, I would return to Justice Douglas’ idea that a spokesperson for the rights of other-than-human beings should have a “intimate relation” with those beings. And who better to fill that function than those human beings who already recognize the personhood of those beings–animists!

Who better to speak for nature in human courts that those humans who not only see, but cherish, their own relationships with the more-than human world and the beings who inhabit it? Perhaps, rather than the Sierra Club or a regulatory agency that has been co-opted by industry, nature would be better represented by a kind of legally-recognized priesthood. I leave it to people more imaginative than me to work out what such a world might look like.

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Notes

Douglas’ dissent was influenced by a law review article published earlier that year by Christopher Stone, cleverly titled, “Should Trees Have Standing?-Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”.

It’s worth noting that Douglas did not propose granting rights to the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, etc., but to a “living symbol” of the ecosystem which included them.

There are governmental bodies that are tasked with acting as nature’s guardians, but their history inspires even more skepticism about the ability of humans to speak for nature. Justice Douglas himself observed how regulatory agencies come to be captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. For example, The Forest Service — one of the federal agencies behind the scheme to despoil Mineral King — has been notorious for its alignment with lumber companies.” Ironic, then, that he would propose a logger as a spokesperson for Mineral King.

Unfortunately, the word “communitarianism” has acquired the status of an epithet in contemporary American culture, so deeply have we drunk from the well of classical liberalism. This is true of many words which share common roots with the word “community”, like “commune”, “communal”, “communalism”, and of course, “communism”.

While the theoretical wedding cake business is on “private” property, it is open to the public, and therefore a public space, to my mind.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. He is also one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community. He is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.


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Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism

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“There is another world and it is this one.”

attributed to the French surrealist and communist poet, Paul Éluard

A Message from an “Awakened Elf”

Recently, I received a personal message on Facebook from someone I don’t know promoting a book, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days: The Magical Heritage of Starry People and Their Continuation into the Modern World.  The full message is too long to reproduce here, but I will share a few excerpts from it.

The author describes the book as “a distinctive and comprehensive combination of both scientific and historical research along with also philosophical and esoterical discussions, dedicated to all elves: ancient and modern ones” which includes “the history, scientific origin, psychology, philosophy and life style [sic] of the elves, both in the past and present.”

The truth about elves, says the author, is that they are not just characters of fairy tales and legends, but “real persons who always have existed and never disappeared and continue to live among the common people in our days!”  According to the author, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is for those who have only started their acquaintance with elves and those who deny their existence, as well as for “the awakened elf”, among whom he counts himself.

The One Eyed Man is King

Reading about The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days, I was conflicted.  My first reaction–my gut reaction–was that this person had lost touch with reality and was possibly suffering from a mental disorder–being benignly delusional, at least.  This is probably how most non-Pagans would view the book.

But after some reflection, I recognized this possibly as an attempt at re-enchantment[1], or restoration of our sense of connection with the sacred and mysterious.  If The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is indeed part of the project of re-enchanting a disenchanted world, then it is possible that the “awakened elf”, far from being insane, might actually be among a minority of sane people in an insane world.  This is probably how most Pagans would view the book.

I wonder if perhaps both perspectives might be true.

What if the awakened elf is indeed attempting to re-enchant the world, but has also lost touch with reality?  What if his attempt at re-enchantment is actually contributing to the disenchantment of the world?  What if, as Rhyd Wildermuth has recently written here, our Paganism is not a cure for disenchantment, but a placebo?

This is the question that I keep coming back to.  It’s the question at the root of my ambivalent relationship with the Pagan community.  It’s the question that keeps me walking away from Paganism and walking back again in short order.  Over the years, I have wrestled with this question in various online fora, and my often unskilled (and sometimes ham-handed) attempts to articulate this question has earned me a lot of criticism (often justified and constructive).  But I feel like I am inching closer and closer to being able to say it right …

There is something fundamentally wrong with the world, or at least the way we experience the world through the lens of the overculture[2].   I think most Pagans would recognize that as true.  We call it “disenchantment”.  Existentialists call it “alienation”.  “Soul sick” is a more poetic way to describe it.  Whatever we call it, Pagans know something is deeply wrong with the world.

But the fact that we recognize the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the solution.  In fact, it’s possible that some of the solutions we offer might actually contribute to the problem.  It’s possible that some, or even a lot, of contemporary Paganism might be a manifestation of the illness, rather than its cure.

The Intuition of An “Other World”

There are a lot of theories about how religion got started among homo sapiens–psychological, sociological, and even biological explanations. I think at least part of the explanation has to be that religion is the way that we human beings account for the feeling that there is something wrong with this world and the intuition that there is something more.

Of course, not all human beings have this intuition, but many–perhaps the majority–seem to.  I know I’ve always had it–just this feeling that there is something “off” about the everyday world I inhabit and a sense that there “more” going on that what is readily apparent.

Different religions have different ways of making sense of this intuition.  Many of the dharmic religions, for example, posit that apparent reality is an illusion, and that the otherness that we intuit is in fact the real world.  Transcendental religions (not to be confused with Transcendentalism) posit that there are two realities, the apparent world which is real, but temporary, and the invisible “other world” which is eternal and therefore more real–the two worlds being radically separate.  Both responses–the dharmic and the transcendental–dismiss, or even denigrate, the present world as ontologically inferior to the other world.

I was raised in one such transcendental religion, and I left it behind because I rejected that view of the other world.  In fact, I came to see transcendental religion as dangerous–at least to me personally.  I’ve always had a propensity for escapism, and transcendental religion just seemed to feed that propensity.

But, still, I had this sense of “otherness,” the sense of there being something more.  In Paganism, I found another explanation for this intuition.  Paganism, at least as I came to understand it, rejected the dharmic notion that this world is an illusion, while also rejecting the transcendental notion of a separation of the other world from this one. Paganism posited that there is another world, but it is this one.[3]  The other world is right here, right now …

… only we don’t see it, at least not usually.

In the Land of the Blind

The reason why we don’t see the other-world-that-is-this-one is that we are blinded to it. We are blinded by the trifecta of reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion–which collectively are responsible for the disenchantment of the world.

We are blinded by a positivism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not mechanism and which makes it impossible for us to value anything which cannot be measured.  We are blinded by a capitalism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not commodity and which makes it impossible for us to value anything unless it can be bought and sold.  And we are blinded by the myriad diversions which are offered to us by consumer society to fill the gaping hole left in our souls: meaningless work, compulsive shopping, and mindless entertainment.

We are also blinded by religion, by dharmic religions (or their New Age interpretations) and transcendental religions (like most forms of Christianity).  According to these religions, the present world is either unreal or unworthy and the real world is “somewhere else”.  It was to such religions that Marx addressed his critique of religion as the “opium of the people”, as a means of maintaining the political and economic status quo by directing people’s attention away from worldly concerns, thus preventing them from taking action to change it.

Paganism, at least as I discovered it, is not one of those religions.  Like many Pagans, I came to Paganism in reaction to a world-denigrating religion, but also in reaction to a soulless overculture.  As Rhyd Wildermuth has written recently here,

“The search for authentic meaning and ways of being which draws people to Paganism springs from a rejection of what else is on offer, a malaise of what is available to us by mundane, Modern means: 40-hour work weeks, concrete housing blocks, relentlessly mediated life in which too many of us only see breath-taking views of forests or communal celebrations on screens.”

Paganism offered me not escape, but immersion–immersion in this life, in the here and now.  As the Pagan poet Ruby Sara has written, Paganism is “a religion of Right Here This Body This Planet Beautiful Beautiful Right Now, rooted in the Mama, the present, the Real”. Paganism, for me, was a rediscovery of this world, the world of flesh and blood, of taste and touch–and, yes, of something “more”.  But that “otherness” was now very present, sensible, tangible even[4].

George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”  Paganism offered me techniques for refocusing and seeing what had always been right in front of my nose.  It opened my eyes (and my other senses) to the “other world” that is right here and right now, but which is invisible to an overculture dominated by reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion.  This awakening is what we Pagans mean when we talk about the “re-enchantment” of the world, and it’s what I mean when I talk about “magic”.

The Disenchantment of Paganism

But there is another side to Paganism.  Sometimes our Paganism mirrors the disenchanting techniques of the overculture.  When it cuts us off from the earth, our bodies, or other people, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.  When it perpetuates alienated modes of discourse and alienated ways of relating to the world and the other beings who inhabit it, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when we revert to scientistic terminology (like spurious analogies to quantum physics or chaos theory) to explain magic. Rather than seeing magic as a way of expanding consciousness, it is described as a kind of technology, yet another way of achieving dominion over nature.  Rather than being a way of celebrating the unpredictable, wildness of life, disenchanted magic[5] becomes another way of reducing our anxiety through the (false) promise of control. As Trudy Frisk has observed in her article “Paganism, Magic, and the Control Of Nature”:

“Paganism’s reluctance to distinguish between symbols and living creatures is not just playful fantasy; it perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature. Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.”

And as Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects, the real aim of disenchanted magic is

“to retreat from a troublesome reality into a world of pure symbol. However difficult, uncontrollable or indifferent the external universe may seem, symbolism is manipulatible and so provides at least the illusion of comfort.”

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our attempts to “connect with nature” actually place obstacles between ourselves and nature, such as Wheel of the Year celebrations which are routinely held indoors and blissfully ignore the reality of the present (albeit sometimes unpleasant) seasonal conditions, invocations of abstract Platonic “elements”, directional invocations which ignore the local landforms, ritual circles which position us–literally and figuratively–with our backs to the world, and worship of idealized Mother Earth goddesses, while never getting our hands dirty, like with actual dirt.

Our Paganism becomes disenchanted when (both theist and atheist) Pagans promulgate facile understandings of deity which perpetuate Western dualisms and alienated and objectified definitions of what is “real”.  Words like “god”, “spirit”, and “fairy”–and yes, even “elf”–can be attempts to (tentatively) name the other-than-human presences which fill the natural world and to which reductionist positivism blinds us.  But they can also refer to the figments of our imagination, which are, in the end, no better than other distractions offered up by the overculture.  Rather than expanding our lifeworld and connecting us with the wider web of life, a disenchanted Paganism shrinks it, leaving us talking to ourselves alone in the dark.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when we create and consume images of pagan deities which reproduce the patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and imperialistic aspects of the overculture.  Far from disclosing the “other” to us, these images merely reflect our own egos back at us.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our idolization of individualism and self-expression undermines any form of social organization, rendering it impossible to create sustained solidarity with one another, and when our ethical lives are guided by a libertarian rule of freedom of expression and avoidance of harm, divorced from corresponding ethic of mutual responsibility and care–which are the hallmarks of relationship and reciprocity.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our rituals routinely culminate in a counter-revolutionary cathartic release of energy, rather than channeling that energy into constructive social action, and when we hermetically seal our Paganism off the rest of our lives, insisting that the spiritual is not political.

Paganism as Escapism

When we fall into these traps, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.  Rather than revealing the “other world” that is here and now–it obscures it.  Disenchanted Paganism does not empower us to change the world–it perpetuates the status quo.  Our Paganism becomes a placebo, yet another form of escapism, a negative enchantment which fascinates us and distracts us from the other-world-that-is-this-one.  As has been observed by Thorn Mooney, our Paganism can become just another way of avoiding our problems, of making ourselves feel special, of alleviating boredom,or  even of justifying leaving mental illness untreated.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism, per se.  A little escapism can even be therapeutic.  But it’s another thing to build an entire religion around it.  As Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ouselves to Death, wrote, “There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.”

This is what Starhawk was describing in The Spiral Dance (in a quote that I think gets far too little attention in Pagan discussions):

“Fascination with the psychic–or the psychological–can be a dangerous sidetrack on any spiritual path. When inner visions become a way of escaping contact with others, we are better off simply watching television. When ‘expanded consciousness’ does not deepen our bonds with people and with life, it is worse than useless: It is spiritual self-destruction.

“If Goddess religion is not to become mindless idiocy, we must win clear of the tendency of magic to become superstition. …

“The value of magical metaphors is that through them we identify ourselves and connect with larger forces; we partake of the elements, the cosmic process, the movement of the stars.  But if we use them for glib explanations and cheap categorizations, they narrow the mind instead of expanding it and reduce experience to a set of formulas that separate us from each other and our own power.”

The Co-optation of Paganism

We know something is wrong.  The world is disenchanted.  Or more accurately, the world as it is disclosed by the overculture is disenchanted.  It is disenchanted because it recognizes only one very narrow and objectified definition of the real and only one very narrow and alienated way of relating to that reality.  It is disenchanted because it embraces only one vary narrow definition of what it is to be human–one that is patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and ethnocentric.  It is disenchanted because of the myriad ways it separates us from contact with wild nature, both the nature within and the nature without.

But in spite of the disenchantment of the overculture, the intuition of another world persists.  Our challenge is to distinguish the genuine “other world” from the myriad counterfeit “other worlds” which a disenchanted overculture offers to us (often for a price).  At its best, Paganism points the way to the other-world-that-is-this one.  Yet, like every other aspect of contemporary culture, Paganism is susceptible to co-optation by the overculture.  Paganism is itself susceptible to disenchantment.

The fact that we Pagans have rejected transcendental religion like Christianity does not insulate us against the gnostic temptation which pervades the overculture.  Nor does it insulate us against the other forces of disenchantment: reductionist positivism and consumer capitalism.  These forces are insidious in the way they mimic genuine re-enchantment. As Patacelsus’ recently observed here, “A corporation doesn’t need to convert anyone to destroy a person’s spirituality, it only needs to hollow out your spirituality and then sell you back the rotten guts.”

We Pagans have a habit of thinking of ourselves as under siege. While there is still discrimination and harassment of Pagans in the public sphere, today many of us are more likely to be dismissed as a joke than to be actively persecuted.  It’s possible that the greatest threat to Paganism today is not from a Christian dominionist attack on our freedom of religious expression, but from something far more subtle, something more likely to come from within than from without.

I think the real danger to Paganism is not so much that our religion will be outlawed, but that there will be no reason to outlaw it.  The danger is not that guardians of the overculture will go to war with Pagans in a second “Burning Times”, but that they will have no reason to go to war with Paganism, because any difference between the two will have become merely superficial.  The danger is not that we will forced to consume some counterfeit experience for the genuine re-enchantment, but that we will no longer be able to tell the difference.

Will the Phony Elf Please Sit Down?

Pagans attach a strong stigma to judging other people’s spirituality, especially other each others’.  And yet, we have to judge.  We have to discriminate.  Should I listen to this teacher or that one?  Should I adopt this practice or that one?  Should I spend my time reading this book or that one?  Is The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days going to reveal the other-world-that-is-this-one or is it going to be a waste of time?  Or worse, might it lead me astray?

There are many counterfeit “other worlds” offered to us by the overculture, and sometimes the Pagan Otherworld is one of them. How to distinguish the real thing is the question.  How do we tell the difference between genuine re-enchantment and what Starhawk calls “mindless idiocy”?

I don’t have a complete answer to that question.  If I did, I would probably be some kind of spiritual guru.  But I have learned some ways not to do it.

I can’t judge it by the surface.

It’s tempting to dismiss as disenchanted any aspect of Paganism that doesn’t immediately resonate with me.  But if my fifteen years of Paganism has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t divine depth from the surface.  As much as I am tempted to, I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its cover.

I can’t judge it with my mind only.

And while I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its title, I also probably can’t judge it by just reading it either.  I have to live it or at least try to.  I have to put it into practice and test it for myself.  Because whether it works or not may depend more on me and where I am in my spiritual journey than anything else.  To one person, perhaps it may lead to expanded consciousness and connection with the other-world-that-is-this-one, while for another it may have the opposite effect.

I can’t buy or sell it (at least not reliably).

“Magic, connection to the earth, the experience of the Other—these things the merchants of Paganism™ cannot sell us …” — Rhyd Wildermuth, “Paganism™”

Oh, I can buy the book, of course. And the book may or may not help connect me with the other-world-that-is-this-one. But the amount of money I spend will not increase my chances. In fact, I very well could spend no money and get the same effect. Of course, teachers and artists should be compensated for their services and the work. But the fact that money has changed hands is really irrelevant to whether those services or that work will be conducive of the re-enchantment of the world.

Will the Real Elf Please Stand Up?

Still, we can’t read every book or study under every teacher.  There must be some criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I’m no expert on distinguishing genuine re-enchantment from its myriad imitators.  But I have at various times in my life experienced the real thing, and there have been some common characteristics of those experiences.  I don’t know if they are generalizable to everyone, but I offer them for your consideration:

Genuine re-enchantment gets me out of my head.

“Resistance begins in your body.” — Peter Grey

In my experience, real re-enchantment–or, if you will, real magic–always connects me with my body, with the earth, and ultimately with community.  Disenchantment manifests as a disconnection with these things.  My body is the door that leads me out of the prison of my mind.  That door opens onto the natural world.  And that world is populated by other beings, both human and other-than-human.

Genuine re-enchantment grounds me–literally.

Live a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
–Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

The “other world”, as I have said, is right here, right now.  Therefore, one indicia of genuine re-enchantment is a heightened sense of place.  So I strive to, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “live a three-dimensional life” and, in my religious life, to “stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.”

Genuine re-enchantment connects me with others.

“The danger of mysticism is that it can become an escape from concerns about other people. Entranced by the cosmic oneness of it all, we end up forgetting or ignoring the other people in the room, on our block, or on our globe.” — Roger Gottlieb, “The Transcendence of Justice and the Justice of Transcendence”

Since disenchantment breeds disconnection from one’s body and from the natural world, it leaves us trapped in a kind of mental prison of solipsism.  Disenchanted forms of spirituality perpetuate this, while genuine re-enchantment brings us into intimate contact with others and fosters community.

Genuine re-enchantment is transformative.

Because it can’t be bought and sold, and because it puts us in touch with our bodies, with nature, and with each other, genuine re-enchantment is radical (meaning it goes to the “root” of things), it is transformative, and ultimately it is revolutionary. Genuine re-enchantment fosters profound change, starting with ourselves and moving outward to transform the world through us.

These are my touchstones.  If it gets me out of my head, if it grounds me, if it connects me with others, if it is transformative–then chances are that it will be conducive of genuine re-enchantment … even if it has a picture elves on the cover.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them –
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a deeper listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires.
— Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude”

 


Notes:

[1] I have found no better description of re-enchantment than that of Joshua Landy and Michael Saler in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age:

“If the world is to be re-enchanted, it must accordingly be reimbued not only with mystery and wonder but also with order, perhaps even with purpose; there must be a hierarchy of significance attaching to objects and events encountered; individual lives, and moments within those lives must be susceptible again to redemption; there must be a new, intelligible locus for the infinite; there must be a way of carving out, within the fully profane world, a set of spaces which somehow possess the allure of the sacred; there must be everyday miracles, exceptional events which go against (and perhaps even alter) the accepted order of things; and there must be secular epiphanies, moments of being in which, for a brief instant, the center appears to hold, and the promise is help out of a quasi-mystical union with something larger than oneself.” (emphasis original)

[2] The overculture refers generally to the dominant culture.  Here, it refers to the outcome of a Western cultural paradigm which incorporates reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion.  This paradigm exists primarily in the form of implicit or tacitly held assumptions, rather than explicitly held beliefs.  It is, for the most part, culturally invisible and personally unconscious, so it is insulated from critique.  It creates and maintains the political, social, economic, ecological, and even spiritual status quo.

[3] Interestingly, the ambiguous etymology of one of the Welsh names for the Otherwold, Annwfn, lends itself to this interpretation. Two different etymologies of annwfn are given:

an- (intensifying prefix) + dwfn: deep = “The Very-Deep Place”
an- (negating prefix) + dwfn: world = “The Not-World”

Combining these etymologies, we may understand the Otherworld to be in this world, and yet not, manifest not on the surface, but “under” or at the roots of our experience of the world.

[4] This may be what French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray referred to as the “sensible transcendental”.

[5] Religious studies scholar, Wouter Hanegraaff, has argued that magic survived the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. John is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community.  John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.  John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.


Click Here to pre-order the fourth issue of A Beautiful Resistance.

Capitalist Extortion in the Pagan Community

“Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely.”

Cultural and political commentary, from John Halstead


 

Twice in the past month, capitalists have tried to extort my silence.

That sounds dramatic.  But it’s what happened.

Corporate Extortion

The first time, it was a media corporation, BN Media, which recently took over the blogging platform, Patheos, where I used to write.  BN Media/Patheos has been withholding an electronic backup of my writing (almost 1000 posts) for several months now without explanation.  They recently let it leak that the reason for the delay was that the corporation was trying to keep me from writing negative things about them.  My writing was being held hostage, and the price of its ransom was my silence.  (That’s what prompted my recent snarky “Help Wanted: Patheos Pagan Writers” post.  Suffice it to say, I don’t respond well to coercion.)

BN Media’s attempt to shake me down was not surprising, considering how they had already attempted to extort all of the Patheos writers.  When BN Media acquired Patheos, they stepped into the corporate shoes of Patheos’ prior owners.  Writers who had formerly contracted with someone else now found themselves in an involuntary contractual relationship with an evangelical organization with a history of censorship and which had previously chased Pagans out of the Beliefnet platform.  BN Media then unilaterally rewrote the contract with the Patheos writers significantly expanding the editorial control and restricting writers’ freedom of expression.  Patheos Pagan writers now had the choice to abandon their exiting writing to BN Media or sign a contract which would give BN Media even more control over their writing.  When Pat Mosley and myself raised the alarm and attempted to build some solidarity among the Pagan Patheos writers, BN Media made an example of and summarily terminated us (which is how corporations often treat labor organizers).

Perhaps even more disturbing than the actions of BN Media were the excuses offered by the Patheos management.  The actions of the corporation were defended in terms of the profit motive (“They have to make money.”), without any regard to the people impacted–neither the Patheos writers, many of whom were unwittingly signing away control of their writing to a for-profit corporation for minimal benefit, nor the people who continue to be harmed by the anti-LGBT propaganda purveyed by BN Media’s affiliates.

This, I was told by Patheos management, was “standard in the industry.”   Indeed, it is.  And yet, why that should be any excuse for unethical behavior confounds me.  Bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter how “standard” it might be.  But I’m beginning to realize that the key word in the phrase “standard in the industry” may not be “standard”, but “industry.”  In a capitalist world, the profit motive covers a multitude of sins.

Small-Time Capitalist Extortion

The second time a capitalist tried to extort my silence this month, it was a troll who owns a couple of occult bookstores (which he calls an “empire”) and courts the worst kind of publicity for the Pagan community.  This troll was upset that I would be presenting at a Pagan Pride Day event in his region.  (Apparently, among other things, he doesn’t like my anti-capitalist views.)  He made various threats, from the vague-but-ominous (“watch yourself at that event”) to the ridiculously specific (threatening to set up an anonymous domain in the Bahamas and a website in Iceland and then publish that I molest children).

Even more disturbing than his attempts to directly extort me were his threats to harass, and even fire, his own employee, who was organizing the Pagan Pride event. This troll person unselfconsciously describes himself as “someone who not only knows how to use capitalism, but also has plenty of capital” and routinely threatens to use his capital (which I suspect is less sizeable than he likes to claim) to harass and bully those he disagrees with. I was only the most recent of his targets.

When overt threats didn’t work on me, he resorted to disingenuous appeals to my sympathy for his employees, arguing that “attacks” on him would hurt the people who work for him, like the aforementioned Pagan organizers. (Later he contradicting himself by saying that any press, good or bad, helped his business.) We’ve seen similar logic many times in the past decade, as heads of corporations escape punishment for their unethical behavior because they employ so many people.  A parallel argument was used to justify bailing out corporations which were deemed “too big to fail.”

My troll even threatened to “hire an army of gutter punks” to protest me at the event.  I admit, I had to look up what a “gutter punk” was.  Apparently it refers to a homeless or transient person who displays characteristics of the punk subculture.  So, add to the list exploiting homeless and transient people, as well as abusing the First Amendment.  (I’m not saying doesn’t have the right to hire whomever he could to stage a fake protest, but having the right to do something and doing the right thing are not the same.)

Not surprisingly, my troll also defended the management of Patheos.

Part of a Larger System

In some ways, my two would-be extortionists could not be more different.  One is a large media conglomerate that funds evangelical hate groups.  The other is a petty troll who has delusions of capitalist grandeur.  But in another way, they are two of a piece.  Both are capitalists, meaning they have accumulated capital by exploiting the work of others.  Both believe that their capital earns them the right to a louder voice than those with less.  And both attempt to use their capital to extort silence from those they disagree with.

And they are not alone.  Consider the similarity between my troll, who threatened to fire his employee if I was allowed to speak at a Pagan event she was organizing, and General Motors and Chrysler, which threaten to move their business overseas unless the American taxpayers continue to subsidize their unsustainable business practices.  Both attempt to manipulate our sympathies for the victims of their capitalist exploitation, while expecting us to take that exploitation for granted.

Or consider the similarity between BN Media and the Big Banks, like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, which were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008.  BN Media held the writing of the Patheos bloggers hostage in order to coerce their agreement to a new contract which would give BN Media even more power, while at the same time sponsoring anti-LGBT groups.  The Big Banks hold the world economy hostage in order to coerce bailouts and deregulation, while at the same time funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

It’s a difference of scale, but not of method.  And the end result in both cases is that their victims become complicit in their own subjugation and the subjugation of others.

“Capitalist Extortion” is Redundant

I think this reveals something about the inherent relationship between capitalism and extortion.  I say this as a capitalist myself.  I am the part-owner of a business that employs other people who are not owners.  That we business owners exploit the labor our employees is evident by the discrepancy between our salaries and those of our employees.  And there is a kind of extortion going on there, which arises out of the unequal bargaining power between the employer and the employees, caused by a surplus of labor, the lack of a social safety net, the weakening or absence of collective bargaining organizations, and so on.  This is where the concept of “wage slavery” comes from.

But some capitalists take this extortion even further.  For them, it’s not sufficient to exploit the labor of employees.  They also have an agenda to advance–whether political or personal–and they use their capital to extort our complicity with that agenda.  For the Big Banks, that agenda is neoliberalism, with its attendant policies of deregulation and globalization (so that capital and corporations may cross nationals borders freely even while people cannot).  For my troll, the agenda was the promotion of his own cult of personality–the less said about which the better (even negative attention feeds the monster).  For BN Media, the agenda is an evangelical one, part of which involves channeling of charitable contributions to hate groups like Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and the American Center of Law and Justice, which promotes the criminalization of homosexuality.

Whatever the agenda of the extortionist, their victims are left with little to no choice: become an unwilling party to unethical, harmful conduct or try to opt out of the system entirely.  The latter path is being forged here at Gods & Radicals.

What I have realized through all of this is that this kind of extortionist behavior is not aberrant–it’s a feature of a capitalist system.  Obviously, not all capitalists will resort to such obvious shakedown methods as BN Media and my troll did, but there are no inherent checks to prevent it when they do.  After all, it’s “standard in the industry.”  It even finds its way even into our religious lives, at interfaith blogging platforms and at Pagan Pride events, for example. We can condemn extortionist behavior, but its not a problem of a few bad apples.  We need to get to the root of the problem–the inherently extortionist nature of capitalism.  Until we do, extortion will be an unavoidable part of our lives–and our Paganism.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a Pagan activist and blogger.  In addition to his writing here at Gods & Radicals, at Huffington Post, and on his personal blog, AllergicPagan.com, John is a environmental and anti-racist activist.  He is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works for a just transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy in Northwest Indiana, where frontline communities of color are facing the disproportionate impacts of industrial polution. John was also the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (ecopagan.com), which has collected over 9,000 signatures from 90 countries, and has been translated into 16 languages. It represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth.


Gods&Radicals is a non-profit, Pagan Anti-Capitalist Publisher.

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“Standard in the Industry”: Patheos and Normalizing Corporate Abuse

The recent actions of Patheos are representative of broader trends in our society which are deeply troubling.

A little background…

… in case you don’t know what happened. If you do, feel free to skip to the end (“the big picture…”).

Until this week, I wrote a blog at Patheos called “The Allergic Pagan.” I had been writing for Patheos for about four years. A few months ago Patheos was purchased by Beliefnet, which is owned by an evangelical organization. There were concerns over what this would mean for the Pagan channel, but our editor, Jason Mankey, assured us that nothing would change.

On January 30, 2017, the writers at Patheos, who are all independent contractors, received new contracts to sign—not because our contracts had expired, but because Patheos/BN wanted to change the terms. For many of the writers, they had no prior notice from their editor that the new contract was coming. I had been given a heads up by Mankey the Friday before. However, all he said was that there would be changes to the pay structure. He did not give any indication of any of the other substantial changes in the contract.

When I received the contract on the following Monday, I was shocked by what I read. I am a lawyer by profession and reading and interpreting contracts is something I do regularly. This was an egregiously one-sided contract. (Here is a link to the contract.) And the contract was due by February 1st, less than 48 hours later, giving writers little time to consider the contract or consult legal counsel.

What the contract said…

The most problematic part of the contact had to do with new editorial controls. The new contract allowed Patheos to edit any of our posts “without limitation.” We were explicitly prohibited from using profanity (with some exceptions). The contract required that the “tone” (a very subjective term) resemble that of other online media with which Patheos compared itself, like Slate and Huffington Post. The contract also prohibited advertising or “self-promotion” (another vague term). We were also barred from posting a “farewell” post without approval, and even approved farewell posts would be deleted after seven days. Patheos could move any of our posts to Beliefnet or any other site that it acquired in the future. And, finally, Patheos could delete any post it deemed, in its sole discretion, to be “offensive” (yet another ambiguous term).

The contract also prohibited “disparaging” of Patheos or any “related” company. A little research by Pat Mosley revealed that Patheos was related to a number of far right-wing organizations, including the National Rifle Association, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Focus on the Family, Gun Owners of America, Promise Keepers, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, and the American Center of Law and Justice.

The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) for example, promotes conservative Christian laws in Africa, including support for a bill in Uganda that would have implemented the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. The connection between Patheos and the ACLJ is not hard to trace. Jeremy McGee is President and COO of Patheos, and also also on the Board of Affinity4. Both Patheos and Affinity4 are BN (Beliefnet) Media brands. Guess who else is on the 4-person Board of Affinity4? Jay Sekulow, who is is Chief Counsel for the ACLJ!

Under the new contract, the organizations could be considered “related” companies that Patheos Pagan writers not permitted to “disparage.” This interpretation of the contract was independently confirmed by another lawyer and by Gwion Raven, who also reads contracts for a living.

You see, lawyers thrive on ambiguous language like “related,” “offensive,” “self-promotion,” etc. Because Patheos can afford to pay for lawyers, and many of the Patheos Pagan writers cannot, and because the contract required that legal disputes be settled in the state of Patheos’ choosing, these contract provisions would most likely be interpreted to favor Patheos.

What happened next…

When some of us raised these issues with our editor, Jason Mankey, he told us to contact the President/COO of Patheos to discuss them. I repeatedly urged Mankey to act as our advocate and not just a messenger for the corporation, but he acted as powerless as we felt.

So, the following morning, on Tuesday, I wrote a post on my blog on the Patheos Pagan channel. The post was entitled, “Read This Before Patheos Delete It.” (You can read it here, where is has been reposted.) The subject of the post was the terms of the contract and my criticism. The title of the post was deliberately provocative (and I did use the f-bomb once), but it was otherwise an analysis of the contract (kind of boring as blog posts go).

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-6-30-14-pmAfter posting the article, I was contacted by Mankey who asked what I wanted. I reiterated that I wanted him to renegotiate the contract for us. I also told him that I did not intend to sign the contract as written, but that neither was I voluntarily leaving Patheos. I told him I would await Patheos’ response. An hour later, the post was summarily taken down and my access to my entire blog (almost 1000 posts) was blocked. This was done without any further contact from Mankey or anyone else at Patheos. No request was made to me to remove the post (I wouldn’t have consented, but I should have been asked) and no warning was given before my account was blocked.

Now, all this was done before the new contract period began. This means that the terms of my original 2013 contract were still in effect when Patheos blocked my access. The 2013 contract (a link to which I have provided here) had no editorial limitations. There was no “disparagement” clause in the 2013 contract, and no right of Patheos to remove the post, much less block my access to my blog.

Rhyd Wildermuth offered to repost my original article at Gods & Radicals and I agreed. (You can read it here.) This apparently peeved Patheos off, and Mankey insisted that I amend the post to reflect his more generous interpretation of the contract. I refused. Mankey then blocked me from the Patheos Pagan Writer’s Facebook group, where there was an ongoing debate about how to respond to the new contract.

Pat Mosley, another Patheos Pagan writer, also wrote a critical analysis of the new contract, entitled “What the Fuck Just Happened at Patheos?” Pat focused on the relationship of Patheos, via Beliefnet, to the above-mentioned right-wing organizations. Now, Pat posted this on this personal blog, not on Patheos. Nevertheless, he was then banned from Patheos without notice.

The debate begins…

I won’t deny that I poked the bear. Of course, I did it intentionally. It was a test… one which Patheos failed. Patheos showed its true colors when they deleted my post and blocked me and Pat from our accounts. They said (actually in the contract) they wanted to be treated like journalistic institutions like HuffPo and Slate. Well then, they should act like HuffPo and Slate. They should act consistently with journalistic ethics. And that includes abiding public criticism in an opinion piece, even from one of your own writers.

Subsequently, Gwion Raven and I initiated discussions with Jeremy McGee, the President and COO of Patheos, to attempt to renegotiate the contract. I requested that my access to my site be restored as a sign of good faith, and I offered not to post any “disparaging” comments about Patheos during the contract renegotiation process. My request was ignored. Meantime, Mankey and McGee were telling everyone that (1) Patheos did not intend to enforce the terms of the contract and (2) we should all trust Patheos based on their “track record” and Mankey’s faith in their “intentions.”

First, it was irresponsible and naive of Mankey to suggest that we should sign an agreement under the belief that the corporation will not exercise the rights it has explicitly written into the contract. Mankey and the other editors have insisted that no one was trying to censor us, or alter our work, etc. Then why, I asked, include provisions in the contract which allow them to do exactly that? The President and COO of Patheos wrote that if we wanted to change the “without limitation” language, then the discussion was “done.” Why, if they did not intend to enforce the contract terms, insist on those terms? Neither Mankey nor McGee have ever answered that question.

Second, the notion that Beliefnet had a proven track record after only four months since purchasing Patheos is absurd, especially when you consider that those four months include their peremptory and punitive action against me and Pat. And if we look further back, we discover that Beliefnet does in fact have a history of censoring Pagans. I talked to Gus DiZerega, who used to write for Beliefnet. He told me that he left Beliefnet after they summarily deleted a conversation on his blog criticizing a Christian who had condoned the abuse of African witches by African Christians. When Gus complained, he was told it was their site not his, so he left.

And let’s not forget the contract itself. Just sending the contract to us, knowing that most people would sign it without reading or understanding it, was itself an act of bad faith and indicative of the attitude of the new owners of Patheos.

Mankey wanted us to believe the best of Patheos. I have no doubt about Mankey’s sincerity, but it would be naive to ignore the fact that he is paid by Patheos. And that does affect people’s judgment, whether they realize it or not. Mankey even told me that we should trust Patheos because they are flying him out to visit their corporate headquarters. That, in my opinion, shows an impairment of judgment.

Mankey has posted his response to recent events on Patheos (and you can read it here). However, he has closed the comments to the post, which is telling in itself.

The fallout…

2x7yURlGgqgp5p8lE0PIBgFAo1_250.jpgAfter the situation exploded in his face, the President and COO of Patheos did strike a slightly more conciliatory tone with us. A few changes were made to the contract, but Patheos still retained the right to remove posts it deemed “offensive” and to move posts to any other site it owns or may own in the future, and writers are still prohibited from using more profanity than Patheos likes or “disparaging” Patheos or Beliefnet.

Ultimately, several people left Patheos, in spite of the changes, including myself, Pat Mosley, David Dashifen Kees (who was the editor of the Agora hub on the Pagan channel), Cat Chapin-Bishop, Shauna Aura Knight, Yvonne Aburrow, Peg Aloi, Lupa, Dana Corby, Catherine Clarenbach, Laine Lundquist, Christopher Scott Thompson, Sam Webster, Starling Foster, Gus DiZerega, and possibly others I don’t know about—that’s more than a third of the active blogs at Patheos. There are still people deciding whether to leave. Now, I know some of you probably think I’m a loose cannon, and you’d be right. But anyone who knows anything about the people above who have left would have to conclude that there must be something really wrong at Patheos. (It’s also telling that quite of few people who have been consistent critics of my writing at Patheos have publicly expressed their support now.)

For some people, it was the relationship between Patheos and far right-wing groups that was the most problematic. The exact degree to which they are intertwined is unknown and difficult to suss out, but it was enough to make most of us uncomfortable and enough for some people to leave. Others who have left or are considering it were most bothered by the contract terms and/or Patheos’ censoring of me and Pat or a combination of all of the above.

The bigger picture…

Now I’m going to get to my point. Throughout all of this, we were told by Mankey and McGee that this is “standard in the world of online publishing”. Words like “boilerplate” were thrown around. First of all, there was nothing “boilerplate” or “standard” about many of the provisions in the contract. If I had sent that contract to another attorney, they would have considered it a slap in the face.

Not only was the contract extremely one-sided, it was also unusual. I write for the Huffington Post (with whom Patheos now compares itself), and I didn’t have to sign anything to write for them. I also didn’t sign anything to write for Witches & Pagans or Gods & Radicals. I did sign something for Patheos in 2013, but it contained no editorial controls. Christine Hoff Kraemer, my editor at the time, did send me a FAQ document (you can read it here) with editorial guidelines. But these were not included in the contract. They were offered in the spirit of creating a relationship, power-with rather than power-over. McGee claimed he wants a relationship with his writers, but he only knows the language of corporations, the language of power-over.

But, to a certain extent, Mankey is right: Patheos’ conduct was just standard corporate operating procedure. The thing is, that’s a problem. What happened at Patheos is a microcosm of some of what has been happening on the national stage recently, with the power of corporations expanding and those same corporations (through their political lapdogs) trying to put limits on our freedom of speech, and with the swallowing of journalistic institutions by for-profit corporations.

When we hear the words “standard in the industry,” they should signal to us, not that everything is copacetic, but that there is a problem with the industry. It’s a problem when we normalize bad corporate behavior with words like “standard” and “boilerplate.” It’s a problem when we are so accustomed to bad faith and manipulation by corporations that we just shrug it off. And it’s a problem when we shame those who try to stand up to corporate abuse.

And most of all, it’s a problem when we think we have no power in dealing with corporations. That’s what the words “standard in the industry” and “boilerplate” are meant to do. They’re meant to make us feel powerless. But we do have power. We have power when we are informed. We have power when we use our voices, and when we use our feet. We have power when we act together.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogged about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and is the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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Red Bird at Standing Rock: A Thanksgiving Message

Standing Rock

On the day of the 2016 presidential election, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it would begin the final phase of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which involves drilling under the Missouri River.  The pipeline is intended to carry a half million barrels a day of fracked oil over 1,000 miles from the Bakken oil field in North Dakata to Illinois.

The intended path of the pipeline runs through the Great Sioux Reservation.  In addition to violating sacred burial lands of the Sioux people, it threatens the drinking water of 18 million people, including residents of the Standing Rock Reservation, located just a half mile to the south.  The pipeline was previously planned to run north of Bismarck, but was relocated, in part, due to concerns about the safety of the drinking water of the (white) Bismarck residents.

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Thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people have now gathered to Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protest the pipeline.  Standing Rock has become home to the largest gathering of American Indian tribes in over a century, with over 300 federally recognized tribes present.  Over the past several months, peaceful indigenous rights activists and climate change activists have clashed with a militarized police force and private security contractors.

Protests began in the spring of this year, but for months, the protesters received little attention in the media.  Numerous celebrities have since helped draw the media’s attention to the protest, including Shailene Woodley, who was arrested.  Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, also visited the site and now faces criminal charges for spray painting the blade of a bulldozer on the site with the words, “I approve this message.”

In the meantime, former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton failed to take any stand on the matter, even after being confronted by Standing Rock youth at the New York headquarters of her campaign.  President Obama also adopted a cowardly wait-and-see approach to the matter.

Meanwhile, the pipeline construction has been rushing toward the Missouri River.  The pipeline company has refused to halt construction, despite “requests” by the federal government to voluntarily delay the project while other routes are considered.  Police and security contractors have used pepper spray, rubber bullets, teargas, and dogs on peaceful protesters and journalists.  More than 400 people have been arrested.  This past Sunday, police used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in a confined space, as well as a water canon in below-freezing temperatures, resulting in several hospitalizations for hypothermia.

As of last week, the Army Corp of Engineers has halted construction pending additional study of the situation.  While it is a small victory, it may be little more than an attempt by the Obama administration to pass this political hot potato off onto the new Republican administration.  President-elect Trump has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter, but he has close financial ties to the pipeline, an intolerance of protests, and a blind spot for conflicts of interest, not to mention being a climate change denier, so the outcome is predictable.

This is a rapidly changing situation, and by the time you read this, it may be old news.

But you may not realize just how old.

Red Bird

This story has been repeated over and over for hundreds of years.

I want to tell just one small piece of it.

Zitkala-Ša (“Red Bird”) was born a century before me, in 1876, on the Yankaton Reservation, south of what is now the Standing Rock reservation. When she was eight years old, she was taken away from her mother and sent to a boarding school in Indiana, where I live now.  The game upon which American Indians subsisted had been driven to extinction by whites, and the land reserved for them was often of such poor quality that harvests failed, leaving many dependent on government rations for survival.  Like many others, Zitkala-Ša’s mother was compelled by federal officials to let her daughter go to the boarding school under threat of cutting her rations.

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At White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana, Zitkala-Ša had her braids cut. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blade of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” wrote Zitkala-Ša, “Then I lost my spirit.”  This was the beginning of the work of trying to “civilize” her.  In Zitkala-Ša’s case, they only partially succeeded.  In spite of feeling the loss of part of her indigenous heritage, Zitkala-Ša did value the education she received.  She became an accomplished orator, author, musician, and composer, but she was never completely “civilized” by the colonizers.

After spending three years at White’s Manual Labor Institute, Zitkala-Ša returned home to her mother on the reservation.  She found her mother living in poverty.  Her brother, who had also been educated in the boarding schools, had been fired from his job with the Indian Bureau and replaced by a white man, because he had stood up for his people in some small matter.

Zitkala-Ša also discovered that white settlers were occupying her tribal lands through a policy called “allotment.” In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which redistributed tribal land, which had been held communally, to individual American Indians.  This had the effect of weakening tribal unity, which of course was the point.

In addition, land was only granted to “competent” heads of family.  “Competent” was interpreted by white officials to mean those American Indians who had abandoned indigenous dress and customs, spoke English, farmed, and attended Christian church.  The land that was not redistributed to American Indians, could then be sold to whites.  A combination of fraud, bad harvests, and unemployment led many American Indians to sell their allotments to white settlers.  As a result of this policy, 138 million acres reserved for American Indian tribes across the U.S. was reduced to 47 million acres.

In 1890, conflict broke out between the Sioux and the United States government over the the tribes’ practice of the Ghost Dance, which was believed to call up the spirits of the dead to fight the white colonists. Sitting Bull, who was believed to be the leader of the Ghost Dance movement, was killed by an Army officer.  Two weeks later, one hundred and fifty Sioux were massacred by the U.S. Army, most of them women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  Zitkala-Ša would have been 14 years old.

After staying with her mother for a few years, Zitkala-Ša returned to the boarding school of her own volition and became a teacher there.  She went on to teach at several boarding schools for American Indian children, including the the U.S. Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was run by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt became infamous for advocating the forced cultural assimilation of American Indian peoples and is best remembered for his saying, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Eventually, Zitkala-Ša realized that the boarding schools were not intended to truly educate American Indian children, but merely to prepare them to be laborers in the lowest strata of white society. She also intuited that her own success in school did not really make her equal in the eyes of whites.  Rather, she served as a kind of token, an “accomplished savage,” to prop up a system of white supremacy.

“I remember how, from morning till evening, many specimens of civilized peoples visited the Indian school. … these Christian palefaces were alike astounded at seeing the children of savage warriors so docile and industrious.

As answers to their shallow inquiries they received the students’ sample work to look upon. Examining the neatly figured pages, and gazing upon the Indian girls and boys bending over their books, the white visitors walked out of the schoolhouse well satisfied: they were educating the children of the red man! They were paying a liberal fee to the government employees in whose able hands lay the small forest of Indian timber.

In this fashion many have passed idly through the Indian schools during the last decade, afterward to boast of their charity to the North American Indian.”

zitkala-saZitkala-Ša resigned from the school and took a new name.  Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons, and she had never been given American Indian name by her mother.  On her own initiative, she assumed the name Zitkala-Ša, which means “Red Bird.”  She then began to use the language which had been forced upon her to attack the very institutions which had imposed it on her and so many like her.

Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians and later founded of the National Council of American Indians. She lobbied for American Indian people’s rights, including the end of allotment and (controversially) the extension of the right of United States citizenship to American Indians. She published articles in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.  And she criticized the boarding school system she had previously worked for, bringing her into conflict with her former employer, Colonel Pratt.

One of Zitkala-Ša’s most influential pieces of writing was titled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes—Legalized Robbery,” a political pamphlet which exposed the systematic theft of oil-rich land from American Indian peoples of Oklahoma through both legal and illegal means.  Under this system, American Indians who refused to sell their land to whites were declared “incompetent” and assigned white “guardians.” These guardians stole from their wards, many of whom then starved.  When “legal” means did not work, whites resorted to kidnapping, rape, and even mass murder.

In 1917, almost a century ago, Zitkala-Ša moved with her husband and child to Washington, D.C., in the hope of increasing their political influence.  There, Zitkala-Ša would testify before in Senate wearing traditional native clothing.  Though she despaired that she was not having an impact, her work paved the way for FDR, several years later, to pass the Indian Reorganization Act, also called the “Indian New Deal,” which ended the policy of allotment and strengthened tribal governments.

“Why I Am A Pagan”

The same forces at work in Zitkala-Ša’s life are at work in the Dakota Access Pipeline: white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism.  White supremacy was at work in the forced assimilation of American Indian children through the boarding school system, and white supremacy is the reason why the U.S. government values the health of the white residents of Bismark over the health of the residents of the American Indian Standing Rock reservation.  Capitalism was the driving force behind the theft of American Indian lands in the Dakotas in Zitkala-Ša’s time, and it is the driving force behind the violation of the sacred burial lands of the Sioux people today.  Colonialism, of a physical variety, forced American Indians onto the reservations and then stole even that land from them, while a spiritual colonialism was perpetrated in the boarding schools and corrupt guardianship systems.

While American Indians have been physically colonized, the forces of capitalism and white supremacy have colonized all of our minds and hearts.  These two forces have such power over our thoughts, so deep rooted are their assumptions, that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine any other way of being.  And when whites feel those assumptions being challenged, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and we react as if the foundations of our very world were being undermined.

How to resist such an insidious invader is the question. Short of complete withdrawal from Western civilization, how are we to be, as the Christians say, in the world, but not of the world? This question is particularly acute for contemporary Pagans and Polytheists who strive to live a counter-cultural life within the modern Western overculture.  Zitkala-Ša’s life suggests a possible answer.

If there were a theme to Zitkala-Ša’s life story, it would be liminality.  She wrote that she was “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one.”  Throughout her life, she struggled to reconcile the value of preserving her native tradition with the benefits of assimilation to white culture; she strove to be in white culture, but not of white culture.  She was mixed-race, a child of a Sioux mother and an (absentee) white father.  She was only given an English name by her mother, but adopted an American Indian name at the age of 23.  She was taken by force to a boarding school, but later returned to that boarding school as a teacher.  She valued learning how to read and write English, but she questioned the cost, “whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.”  She did not idealize American Indian people, but called out white hypocrisy, observing that whites had been as “savage” throughout history as any American Indians. She worked for one of the most infamous promulgators of assimilationist policy, but she later challenged the system which he represented.

Throughout all of this, nature was Zitkala-Ša’s touchstone, rooting her as she moved back and forth between her two worlds. “In the process of my education I had lost all consciousness of the nature world around me,” she wrote following her resignation from the U.S. Indian Industrial School,

“Thus, when a hidden rage took me to the small white-walled prison which I then called my room, I unknowingly turned away from my one salvation. … For the white man’s papers I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. … Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God.”

And so, in 1902, after spending two and half years at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Zitkala-Ša returned to the reservation in South Dakota again.  There, she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why I Am a Pagan.”  In it, she writes about how the water, sky, and sun “bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us” and how her native people “recognize a kinship to any and all parts of this vast universe.”

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In the essay, Zitkala-Ša describes her joy laying out in the grass on a river bank on a sunny day, and then returning to her mother’s log cabin to find the “solemn-faced” native Christian preacher waiting for her.  The preacher, who is a converted American Indian, observes that he has not seen her at church.  He says he is confused, because he sees no “unbecoming behavior” from her and hears only good reports from others about her, and yet she is not a Christian.  He urges her away from the “folly” of her ancestral beliefs and to belief in the “one God,” and he warns her of the alternative: hellfire. Zitkala-Ša listens respectfully, though it seems to her that “he mouth[s] most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed.”

When the preacher leaves, Zitkala-Ša reflects on the differences between Christian and indigenous belief.  “A wee child toddling in a wonder world,” she writes,

“I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

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“Pagan” Anti-Colonialism

“Pagan” is a contested term today, as are most words relating to identity.  What made Zitkala-Ša Pagan was more than her resistance of conversion to Christianity, which she calls “the new superstition” (she seemed to have little more respect for the “old superstition”). Being “Pagan” meant for her being conscious of the voice of the divine in the natural world, and feeling kinship with all the living beings in it, human and other-than-human.  The same is true for many contemporary Pagans today.

But for Zitkala-Ša, at least, being Pagan also seemed to be about something more.  It seemed to be about resisting white imperialism, specifically colonization by white “civilization,” not just of her land, but also of her soul. She seemed to understand that there was a connection between these two forms of colonization, that a vital connection to the land was necessary to resist colonization of one’s soul.  She felt this when she was separated from nature by the walls of her dormitory at the boarding school.  And she witnessed this when she returned to the reservation and saw her people’s connection to the land broken by racist government policies and the opportunistic greed of white settlers.  She saw the material effects of that disconnection in the poverty of her people and the spiritual effects in poverty of the countenance of those of her people who had converted to Christianity, whom she likened to “shadows” or “echoes.”

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Today, the Dakota Access Pipeline is both a physical manifestation of that colonization, as well as a spiritual symbol of the colonization of our minds and hearts by capitalism and white supremacy.  This pipeline carrying fracked oil not only invades the sovereign lands of the Sioux, but also non-indigenous lands on both sides of the reservation.  All our land, all our water, and all our bodies are being invaded by this “black snake” of capitalism, guided by the hand of white supremacy.

But even more insidious is how these same forces have colonized our minds, weaving their way into thoughts and words, both individual and collective. Consider how the pipeline is justified by reference to its comparative “safety” in relation to bomb trains, but the underlying assumption of our need for fossil fuel remains largely unquestioned.  Consider how easily the pipeline protest is ignored by many whites who see it as an indigenous rights issue that doesn’t affect them, rather than a human rights issue.  Consider how easily the path of the pipeline was moved from Bismark, which is 92% white, but how it now slouches implacably forward through the Sioux reservation.  Consider the disparate treatment of the (white) Bundy militia which occupied a federal building in Oregon, but escaped unpunished, and the treatment of American Indians who are defending their sovereign land, but have been met with disproportionate state force.  Consider the silence of our cherished institutions in the face of this threat, from our supposedly free press to the Democratic administration.

Perhaps, as in Zitkala-Ša’s time, being Pagan today is also about resisting colonialism.  Capitalism and white supremacy begin by alienating us from the land and from each other, and in the spiritual vacuum thus created, the way is paved for a colonization which is both physical and spiritual.  This colonization is closely related to another phenomena with which Pagans are familiar: disenchantment.

We decolonize our minds and hearts and re-enchant the world by reversing the process by which we were colonized and disenchanted in the first place: by reconnecting to the land and to each other.  By challenging narratives that “other” people of color.  By opposing policies that alienate us from our mother earth.  By standing in solidarity with American Indians whose lands have been invaded by an oil company.  By fighting all encroachments of Big Oil on our lands and our souls.

That is why I stand with Standing Rock.

To support the Standing Rock protest, click here.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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