How can we work better together on a survivable future? What supports climate activism, and climate activists, in being more effective?
Here are some observations using Regenerative Culture (Regen Culture) as a lens. (Regen Culture is Extinction Rebellion's (XR's) branch that supports activists.) The observations are filtered through a lot of exploration of small groups and what seems to work, some limited exposure to local groups here in Canada, and reading between the lines on the text communication channels, locally and internationally. Some conversations with friends here and in Europe played a role too. I'll point to what I take to be difficulties and make an observation about a possible direction. I'm open to correction.
The challenge facing social changemakers is enormous. But the challenges in Regen are a snapshot of a pattern showing up wherever people raise their heads above the cubicles and, like astonished prairie dogs, marvel at the complexity of what we're facing.
Many Regen Culture people in Extinction Rebellion (XR for short) are frustrated with their connection to XR. Some or perhaps many don't feel they're being listened to or that their gifts and unique contributions are being received. Some are confused about the censure of XR co-founder Roger Hallam or what it means; some are adamantly in favor of the Green New Deal and others don't think it's XRs business; some have specific requirements about how hierarchy, patriarchy, privilege and decolonization should be handled; others don't feel they should be touched at all. And others fear speaking up about these difficulties lest they be disliked. And who's in charge here anyway? Reading between the lines on Mattermost, and with some personal contact, I'm guessing that this concern is widespread across the global community and not just where I am in Canada.
It's important to say I don't think it's a personal failure of the individuals within the groups that things are this way. It's not that individuals are doing it wrong. Each person is coming in wanting to make the biggest contribution they can.
And there's a very good reason for the confusion nonetheless.
Regenerative culture in its deep structure is a child of the existing culture and has adopted that culture's core assumptions. Though the content of XR is different, the core assumptions have migrated like a parasite from the mainstream culture without us seeing or imagining it.
In the prejudgment I'm talking about, the prejudice is the one in favor of "us" and "them" thinking that's deep in human culture. This is hard to get experientially because much of it is not even cognitive. "Us and them" thinking is woven into our sexual, ethnic, religious and national identities. We define "us" in terms of "them." We're not like "them", we're "us". This is our identity we're talking about so it's firmly held and hard to see. So for example, we become emotionally charged against those who we think are doing it wrong. The wrongdoers might be the obvious candidates like government or the polluters but we also feel pressured to "other" our own members and we fear lest they do the same to us.
Another way to ask that question is, is there something beyond "us and them" and can we find it? I think the answer is that yes, there is something, but it's difficult to discover because of how deep the split is. "Us and them" thinking is deep-rooted. All previous cultures, presumably going back to the earliest warring tribes were based on it too. Identifying and even thinking of getting past "us and them" is a very new idea. To actually do it experientially is a new capacity of self, one we grow into slowly.
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there." - Rumi
Here's how this tendency to "us and them" thinking shows up in the groups we may think it wouldn't.
To belong to the culture or the group there's a strong but invisible pressure to conform to the others, in thought, behavior and deed, and this pressure increases the more the others and the group are important to us. This pressure is constant. Generally speaking, we humans feel tremendous pressure to conform so can we belong and not feel the pain of not belonging. We're anxious to prove that we are part of "us" and not one of "them".
Being part of Extinction Rebellion or DA does not give us any kind of a pass from this tendency. The pressure to belong is at the level of system, not content.
We think of ourselves as free-thinking individuals. To an extent that's true but we humans are highly social beings. Tribes did not produce free-thinkers first but social cooperators; free thinking comes later. We survived from infancy by bonding with our caregivers and conforming to their wishes, in order to be safe in the world. Our identity is tied up with theirs.
As adults it's still true that our identity comes from our secure bonding to the people who are important to us. We know instinctively what words and actions connect us more deeply to others, strengthens our bond with them. And we know instinctively what threatens our belonging in the tribe and what would get us into trouble. We know what lowers our status or even risk our expulsion if we say or do it.
It's not that we lack courage to think outside of the allowed tribal culture; it's that we seldom see the possibility. The imperative to do what it takes to belong is so much the norm, that we can go our whole lives without noticing that we're shaping ourselves to fit in. We literally don't think of it. This is as true for rugged individualists as it is for the seeming timid. We literally don't think of it until we do.
In a meeting of activists who don't know each other well, no one know if she really belongs or not. Each person may have many different contradictory voices inside herself. For example, imagine a new person, a young woman say, who is just out of school and concerned about the future and whether she wants to bring children into the world. She likely will have a story on whether she belongs based on her age, skin color, income, religion, sexuality, trauma background or any other thing. But most of these voices are private, not public. She may have deep seated beliefs about what others in the group need to do to believe in order to be OK in her opinion and so is wondering when she can share her ideas or whether she'll fall into disrepute if she does. Are men in the group fully welcome or should they stand down because of privilege? And how much and for how long? Is patriarchy the problem or something else? Should there be equality of outcome or equality of opportunity? What should be done in the present generation about decolonization from the past?
And of course it's not just this young lady fresh out of school. Everybody else in the group is wondering about which parts of their experience are welcome too. The only safe thing to say is very superficial stuff about the activist group itself and why we're meeting together.
The proclaimed reason for the group (in XR these are the three demands) are only a small part of what interests these others.
There are a many holes to trip over as our horse gallops forward in search of a new regenerative culture.
When all this remains hidden, the group can accomplish little because part of everyone's energy is tied up with staying safe for the reasons mentioned above. Risks are hard and a paradigm or phase shift is impossible to even imagine. The unsafe tribe becomes skittish, afraid of ambush from the enemy. It's preoccupied with keeping the dissident voices out.
A way forward?
The amazing thing is that this entire dynamic continues only because it's hidden.
There's a simple way forward once this dynamic is allowed to be seen, once it's on the table in front of us. We don't have to solve the problems we thought we had. It's more like we have to listen to each other.
I repeat that the challenge we have isn't anybody's fault. The groups we have now are a natural outgrowth of the culture that we inherited. There underlying structure is of a conscious "us" we welcome, and an unconscious "them" we try and keep out. Activist culture everywhere borrows this dynamic from mainstream culture and we can't help but be caught up in it.
The traditional way to solve a problem is to ask for a better analysis because that's the way it keeps everyone safe: Just study it more! But analysis, as Peter Block, one of my mentors said, is interesting but not transformative. It's not enough
There's no way around the need for us to risk listening to each other just as we are, to let those hidden voices be heard. It's certainly more fun than the alternatives.
Listening to each other's lived experience includes listening to the dissident voices in each other with respect, listening without trying to change or convince them. We don't need to see the world the same.
But how could this be accomplished?
With the most simple human technology. For example, imagine being in a group of three people, within a larger group that has many other groups of three, with each person speaking to these questions.
What are you paying lip service to that you no longer believe?
In what way are you contributing to the problem in the system you complain about?
How is the regen culture experience like your psychological or emotional or spiritual life?
What gifts for the whole do you keep in exile?
What are you experiencing now?
And many other similar questions. See how these allow others into our world rather than keeping them out? Somewhere along the process of listening to each other and saying what's true for us, we may see, may experience that we're in this together. This takes earnestness and sincerity because all this listening and speaking can be faked, something to get out of the way. But it's a step toward experiencing there's no "them", no other to project on. We're just humans listening to each other - rather than blindly striving for competitive advantage which is the rule in the "us and them" world. At a certain part of stumbling along, regeneration may find us, all by itself. I don't want to whitewash the difficulties but it's important to remember what's possible.
Regeneration is ready already, even when we're not.
If an experience beyond the "us and them" does enter the group, many people notice. This distinct experience, often called collective intelligence, is a liberation from the strict limits of ego thinking, like taking off a tight shoe and wiggling toes.
We're not less of an individual, in fact we're more of one yet somehow we have access to the intelligence and wisdom of the others too. We have an exponential increase in smarts, not just an arithmetic addition of one plus one.
I believe we're at the very beginning of something important here. We're learning to break through the shackles of the past to see something that's glimmering ahead in the darkness.
It's a sense of possibility, even Presence, that perhaps has been searching for us all along.