The Machine Changes, the Work Remains the Same

When I first got involved
in left/radical political organizing in the 1990s, I don't recall any
of us referring to our efforts as "phone activism" or calling ourselves
"fax activists." A friend who started organizing in the early 1960s
assured me that he never heard the term "mimeograph activism" in those
days. We used telephones, fax machines, and mimeographs in our
organizing work, but the machines didn't define our work and we didn't
spend a lot of time arguing about the implications of using them.

the terms "online activism" and "internet activist" are common, as are
discussions about the positive and negative effects of computer-mediated
communication (CMC) on left/progressive political organizing (See
interview with Joss Hands on "Activism in a digital culture"
Is CMC so dramatically different, or is the left simply caught up in
the larger culture's obsession with life online? I will start with
observations that likely are not controversial, and then step back to
frame the question in ways that may not be widely accepted.

Two basic points:

CMC makes possible the distribution of information to a larger number
of people at lower financial cost than previous technologies (though the
ecological cost of a communication technology that creates highly toxic
e-waste and consumes enormous amounts of energy may make this
technology prohibitively expensive in the long run) and allows for
easier and faster feedback from the recipients of that information.

while the technology is too new for definitive assertions, there is a
seductive quality to CMC that leads some groups and individuals to spend
too much of their time and resources online, even when there's ample
reason to suspect that expense of energy isn't productive.

Two corollary cautions:

political information is not political action. Being able to distribute
more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead
to people acting on that information. The information must be presented
in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be
vehicles for that action.

what appears to be wasting time online is not always a waste of time.
Just as we solidify bonds with people face-to-face by chatting about the
mundane aspects of our lives, we sometimes do that online. Political
organizing -- like all of life -- includes such interaction.

it's true that the things we do with a computer online are often like
the things we do, or did, with telephone calls, faxes, and mimeographs;
the question is how to most effectively apportion our time, energy, and
resources on these machines as part of a larger organizing strategy. In
that sense, deciding whether to focus on an email or a door-knocking
campaign is a straightforward calculation about resources and the likely
outcomes of using those resources in different ways.

also true that we should be more critically self-reflective about our
use of computers for political organizing, lest we be seduced by how
productive we imagine we are being online simply because of the speed
and reach of CMC. Because an email campaign can reach more people
quickly, we are tempted to believe it will lead to the more effective
outcomes, though the patient work of door-knocking may yield better
long-term results if it builds deeper support that endures.

our organizing tools change rapidly, these calculations of the likely
success of different tactics are not always easy to make, but they are
relatively simple questions to formulate. Much more vexing are questions
about the complex changes in the world in which we are organizing. We
like to say the internet has changed everything, perhaps in as dramatic a
fashion as the printing press changed the act of reading. But the world
of the 15th century was not changing at anything like the speed that
the world is changing today. We need to think about the "everything" in
which our email messages are bouncing around. We need to be clearer
about the scale of the problems we face, the scope of the changes
necessary to address the problems, and the time available to us for
creating meaningful change. To illustrate these issues, I'll talk about
the state of the ecosphere.

Scale of the problems

many years activists focused on "environmental problems," offering ways
that humans could adjust the way we live to cope with problems of dirty
air, dirty water, and dirty land. The assumption behind those projects
was that an environment consistent with long-term human flourishing was
possible within existing economic, social, and political systems.

assumption was wrong, and evidence continues to pile up that the
ecosphere cannot sustain billions of people when even a fraction of them
live at First-World levels. Look at any crucial measure of the health
of our ecosphere -- groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical
contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size
of "dead zones" in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and
reduction of bio-diversity -- and the news is bad and getting worse. And
we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of oil with no
viable replacement fuels. And we can't forget global warming and climate
instability. Add all that up and it's not a pretty picture, especially
when we abandon the technological fundamentalism of the culture and stop
believing in fantasy quick fixes for deeply rooted problems.

troubles are not the result of the bad behavior within the systems in
which we live but of the systems themselves. We have to go to the root
and acknowledge that human attempts to control and dominate the
non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the
process destroying ourselves.

Scope of the changes

we either abandon the industrial model of development based on the
concentrated energy in fossil fuels or we face a significant human
die-off in a grim future that is within view. Abandoning that industrial
model means a sudden shift in human living arrangements that would be
unprecedented in history. We have to redefine what it means to live a
good life, dramatically lowering our energy use and reducing our
expectations about the material goods we consume.

means that we not only won't be getting a new flat-screen television,
but that we won't be amusing ourselves with new Hollywood movies and TV.
It means not only that we won't be able to buy an SUV, but that we
won't be using cars for routine personal transportation. It means a
whole lot less of everything, and such changes in living arrangements
are impossible within capitalism. While capitalism is not the only
unsustainable economic system in history, it is the system that
structures the global economy today, and it has to be scrapped. If a
transition to a sustainable economy is possible, it also means we will
have to abandon the nation-state as the primary unit of political
organization and find functional political systems at a much lower

These changes
in economic, social, and political systems mean significant changes in
how we understand the nature of the self, the relationship to other
humans, and the human place in the larger living world. When we redefine
what it means to live a good life, we will be defining what it means to
be human.

Time available

one can predict the trajectory of a full-scale ecological collapse, in
part because it is complex beyond human understanding and in part
because how we act in the present can affect that trajectory. But even
without the capacity to predict with precision, we have to make our best
guesses to guide our choices in organizing. The best-case scenario is
that we have a few decades to accomplish these changes. The worst-case
scenario is that we are past the point of no return and that the systems
in place will exhaust the ecosphere's capacity to sustain human life as
we know it before we can adjust.

ecological collapse is either coming soon or already in motion, then
traditional organizing strategies may be obsolete. The problem is not
just that existing economic, social, and political systems are incapable
of producing a more just and sustainable world, but that there isn't
time available for working out new ways of understanding our self,
others, and the world. There is no reason to assume that the non-human
world will wait while we slowly come to terms with all this; the
ecosphere isn't going to conform to our timetable.

Where this leaves us

I made no claims to special predictive powers, two things seem likely
to me: (1) All human activity will become dramatically more local in the
coming decades, and (2) Without coordinated global action to change
course, there is little hope for the survival of human society as we
know it. When I offer such as assessment, I am routinely accused of
being hysterical and apocalyptic. But I don't feel caught up in an
emotional frenzy, and I am not preaching a dramatic ending of the human
presence on Earth. Instead, I'm taking seriously the available evidence
and doing my best to make sense of that evidence to guide my political
choices. I believe we all have a moral obligation to do that.

a result, I have recommitted to local organizing that aims mainly to
strengthen institutions and networks on the ground where I live, rooted
in a belief that those local connections will be more important than
ever in coming decades. At the same time, I try to maintain and extend
connections to like-minded people around the world, hoping that those
connections can contribute to the possibility of coordinated global
action. In short, I am trying to become more tribal and more universal
at the same time, recognizing there is no guarantee that of a smooth
transition or success in the long run.

these efforts, I engage in a considerable amount of computer-mediated
communication. Whenever it's feasible, I favor direct human
communication in face-to-face settings, on the assumption that local
networks will be strengthened by such communication in ways that CMC
cannot foster. I also use CMC to reach out beyond the local, both to
learn about global initiatives and to contribute to such initiatives. I
try to take advantage of the opportunities offered by CMC without being
seduced by illusions of easy organizing through the send button.

a summary that likely isn't controversial: These days almost all
left/radical organizers will communicate online, but the social justice
and ecological sustainability at the heart of left/radical politics
isn't going to be achieved online.

tempting to leave the discussion at that level, but the questions about
scale/scope/time aren't addressed by that easy summary. With a larger
focus, the trouble with CMC -- with all the time and effort it takes to
learn new programs, keep up with the constant changes on the internet,
think about the role of the virtual world in real-world politics -- is
that it keeps us stuck in the past.

may seem paradoxical; we're used to talking about the people who don't
embrace computers as being the ones stuck in the past. After all, isn't
the internet the key to the future? Not if the future is going to be
defined by less energy and less advanced technology. If the changes
outlined above are an unavoidable part of our future, then we would be
well advised to start weaning ourselves from the
high-energy/high-technology world, not only in our personal lives but in
our organizing as well. That doesn't mean immediately abandoning all
the gadgets we use, but rather always realizing that our efforts to make
the most effective use of the gadgets in the short term shouldn't crowd
out the long-term planning for a dramatically different world.

different world may well impose changes on us before we have been able
to face them ourselves. Novelist/poet/critic Wendell Berry captures this
when he writes, "We are going to have to learn to give up things that
we have learned (in only a few years, after all) to 'need.' I am not an
optimist; I am afraid that I won't live long enough to escape my bondage
to the machines."

task is daunting, but it is our task nonetheless. Berry is not
optimistic about the future, but he concludes with our charge:

on every day left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the
means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the
age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an
axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his
memory trouble my thoughts."[1]

we lack answers to difficult questions -- or even a way to imagine
finding answers -- it's easy to put the questions aside. Better, I
think, to let the questions continually disturb us.

time I touch the keyboard of my laptop to write an essay that will be
posted on a web site, which I will send to editors via email, my
thoughts are troubled.

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