I attended a Catholic university, and during my time in college, I embarked on several school-sponsored retreats. While semi-religious, these days-long outings in the wilderness really more resembled self-help or mindfulness groups than zealous theological preaching sessions. In one very popular retreat, we broke into small subsets and discussed our fears, woes, past issues, and current predicaments. We shared our feelings, our meals, and our hearts. We opened up to people at whom we would have never batted an eye back on campus. It was all very kumbaya, with ample servings of respect, understanding, and helpfulness. Narcissism, competitiveness, back-stabbing, and ladder-climbing were left at the cabin door.
Upon returning to school, our larger retreat cadre reassembled at a future date. I was asked to represent my smaller group and give a talk about what I gleaned from the outing. Though I do not recall the details, I vividly remember my main point: I asked, why can we not live the same life we lived on the retreat, every day? Why do we have to come back to campus and return to the unethical, corrupt, and unjust "normal"? Suffice it to say, I don't think many people were pleased with this notion - not the least from whom I sensed unease, were the priests who ran the retreat.
In 2011, I participated in the massive, unprecedented, yet eventually, unfruitful protests in against the anti-union and corporate capitalistic policies of the then newly appointed Walker administration in Wisconsin. For weeks, citizens occupied the state house in Madison, living cooperatively, sharing resources and assets, providing each other with basic needs and necessities. Ultimately, we were forced from the capital building, foolishly abdicating the fight in favor of the contemptible political process. We retreated back to our comfortable - or, for a large constituency, not so comfortable - lives, and far too many people were more than pleased to return to "normal."
Occupy Wall Street and other such occupy encampments, much like in Madison, demonstrated on a small scale how easily social-democratic and social-anarchist communities can work to mutually benefit everyone. They provided alternative paradigms to the morally bankrupt, ethically corrupt, environmentally destructive, socially deplorable, vacuous lives that we are all complicit in living each day. But alas, acknowledgement that such cooperative societal endeavors are possible, and may be even preferable to the majority of the downtrodden and exploited citizenry, is not considered polite conversation or acceptable media discourse.
Much like my college retreat, these extended protests and others like them provided a moment to step away from the mindless treadmill we continually trample and offered a different, and likely, better path for humanity. Now, we witness a similar circumstance with the Standing Rock encampment of water protectors fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Only this time, the people at the forefront of the struggle are the very people who have suffered perhaps the most oppression of any single faction of citizens on the North American continent, and who, in their traditions, may present the clearest course toward combating the mutual scourges of environmental degradation and social injustice. As one water protector explained to Ann Wright (in her November 8 article),"I am now living as my ancestors lived...in nature all day, everyday, in community living, working and praying together. I have been waiting for this gathering all my life.” Perhaps we should all be working toward such a permanent global gathering.
Our only real chance of contending with climate change and inequality is through a sustainable way of life - which means wholly altered social, political, and economic systems that value biology over business, ecology over economics. More equitable and sustainable ways of living have been illustrated during protests in recent years, but for them to matter, they need to be maintained after these short-term gatherings and adopted as "normal." The cultural values that indigenous communities hold embody a critical route toward sustainability and justice. Our greater societal embrace of their values may be our last best hope to save our species.