Confusion as a State of Grace[*]:
Climate and Kinship in 2021
Installment 3 - The Shame Sham ~
"Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires"
Cara Judea Alhadeff
Photo provided by the author ~ Click image to enlarge
You cannot regulate an abomination. You have got to stop it.
— Wendell Berry
Driving across the United States in our over-heating converted eco-art school bus tiny home—painted with bursting red poppies, luna moth, and hibiscus flowers, crowned by second-hand solar panels and protruding mountain laurel and rhododendron branches, toting a used electric car topped off with a canoe and three bicycles means you get the finger—a lot. It also means you delight a lot of other travelers. But, we did not want to be on the road, and we weren't part of the Nomadlandtrend valorizing continual migration or the Romani nomadic people who do not identify with a homeland. Like my exiled ancestors, we were searching for home.
One of our many interludes was Black Dragon Canyon, Green River, Utah. By night it offered unfathomable vastness. By day it was unbearably hot. Wild (Rob) and I made love somewhere in between. This may have been before or after we watched Interstate 70 go up in flames—the beginning of a series of all-consuming infernos, that for 6,000 miles, in one of the hottest recorded summers in history, either chased us; or, we found ourselves inadvertently chasing the forest fires from Colorado to Northern California to Oregon, and back again.
Wild and I had both grown up hearing Smoky the Bear impress upon his public: “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” The 1970s were replete with public service announcements calling for individual responsibility—the iconic Keep America Beautiful PSA whose catchline “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It” was actually funded by beverage and packaging juggernauts like The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch.
The world economy is the most efficient expression of organized crime.
— Eduardo Galeano
For my Mother Pelicanessay series last month , I wrote about greenwashing in the context of insidious misrepresentation of renewable energy and the green economy. My critique of this particular manifestation of neoliberal globalization must coincide with an investigation of the divide-and-conquer ad propaganda that insidiously misdirects individual responsibility—consumer distraction in the face of corporate immunity. This is not simply a dichotomy between giant fossil-fuel interests and innocent petro-culture saturated consumers, not another David and Goliath like the tobacco industry that blamed smokers for becoming addicted to their chemically addictive carcinogenic products. Rather, as I explored in last month's essay, the 99% is also responsible—consumers are capitalism. Again, binaries dissolve when we self-reflect on our implicit complicity, when we recognize how “we” are “them.”
When we choose to only hold corporations accountable and depend on policy change as the singular solution to our destructive industrial economy, we bypass the underlying roots of climate chaos. Transnational neocolonialism maintains its power because we see ourselves as powerless individuals disconnected from the larger context. We are in fact complicit in this perverse catch-22. Through relentless deregulation and market fundamentalism, Margaret Thatcher's normalization of TINA, “there is no alternative,” represents the power of neutralizing the social imagination. Social change is impossible when our culture's evolution is based on infrastructural dependency on systemic forms of oppression through the wholesale privatization of nature. We celebrate our privatized entitlement through obsessive material accumulation (of land-as- property, for example). In the midst of this solipsistic normalization, we are taught and embrace the convenient justification that we have no power anyway (“it's only a drop in the bucket”); conveniently industrial capitalism assigns blame to the individual for climate emergency.
The trifecta of government, industry, and compulsory education breeds this ironic epidemic of self-indulgence and its concomitant valorization of private property—our taken-for-granted standard-of-living. In order to decolonize our thinking (Eduardo Kohn), we must reflect on Foucault’s following questions in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: “How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?” Internalized fascism is so integral to our cells and psyches we are often not cognizant of its constitutive and formative mechanisms. Fatimah Mernissi depicts this blurring of reality: “Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organizing my powerlessness.”
Although many of us inadvertently replicate the very systems of social control that we seek to uproot because our privatized standard-of-living is so engrained in our daily lives, my position is not a condemnation of those of who participate in dominator civilizations (characterized by a standard-of-living that depends upon the exploited labor of others). Rather, I offer an invitation to decode how power is constructed and maintained through reciprocal, rhizomatic interrelationships: the personal is as political as the political is personal. The fact that “[i]n Canada and the US twice as much is spent on private security as on public security” demonstrates the plague of normative mechanisms that reify the individual-social binary.
How can we shift our epidemic of individualism from consumer convenience-culture bred entitlement to creative self-accountability that integrates profound, sustainable changes in individual behavior, community action, infrastructural design, corporate accountability, and policy reform? Six recent seemingly minor incidents contribute to my motivation for this query:
1. For years, Bill McKibben (the first popularized environmentalist to write about the impact of global warming on climate change and now thirty years later, the founder of 350.org) had been identified as “the nation’s leading environmentalist” (Boston Globe, 2010). Yet, during his entire interview in front of the San Francisco Commonwealth audience in 2014, he drank cola from a commercial plastic bottle. During the Q&A, I pointedly asked McKibben how individuals can resist plastic use in our petro-culture? In addition to the imperative for structural change (which is McKibben’s emphasis), how can our everyday choices create an opportunity for significant ethical change? He offered no response. It must not go unnoticed that this disparity took place in the city of San Francisco which, in 2007, established the first plastic bag ban in the country and had set the (as yet unsuccessful) goal of reaching ZeroWaste by 2020 (diverting 100% of the city’s waste from landfills). Both commitments require simultaneous individual-social agency and infrastructural change.
2. The radical direct-action duo, The Yes Men, whose repertoire includes a film about global warming and infiltrating fossil fuel corporations, similarly drank from plastic water bottles during their public lecture at Penn State University, and when responding to my question stated, “If everyone in this auditorium stopped using plastic bottles, it wouldn’t make any difference.”
3. Energy Analyst and my oldest friend (we have been playing together for the past 47 years), Antonia Juhasz (author of The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry— and What We Must Do to Stop It) lectures about what “we” can do about the fossil fuel industry. During one of her recent lectures, I was again the only person in the audience who brought up our insidiously integral practice of plastic consumption as a critical element in normalizing the grip of the fossil-fuel industry.
4. Following an interdisciplinary symposium on Plastic Pollution, all the refreshments were served in and on disposable single-use plastic. When confronted with the irony, the organizers shrugged, “This is what the university can offer.”
5. During an international panel on Environmental Refugees, each panelist was given their own plastic water bottle. In response to my query about this irresponsible contradiction (given the dire subject of climate crisis and mass population displacement) the director of The Center for Global Studies said, “Yes, but only two of the bottles were opened.”
6. During my meeting to discuss our potential collaboration, the founder and director of Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC that invites celebrities such as Lou Reed to sponsor multi-million-dollar fundraiser-for-the-Earth concerts) ate from a wax-lined disposable coffee cup and sandwich wrapper, and threw them away after her meal. Chuckling with seeming indifference at her consumer-choices, she commented, “Well, I heard you are hard-core.”
Why is there such friction in activist communities between infrastructural change and personal responsibility? Why are so many internationally acclaimed activists inconsistent—refusing to practice in their personal lives what they preach—including how they raise their children? In the mid-1990s, Henry Giroux (Pedagogy of Resistance: Against Manufactured Ignorance) and I debated this conflict. His critique of ConEdison’s billboard blaming the electricity consumer instead of being an accountable corporation echoes Derrick Jensen's (Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It) seminal essay "Forget Shorter Showers.” Both Giroux and Jensen rightly critique the obscuring of corporate power relations by positioning the individual consumer as a decoy to distract from the interpenetrations of Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Pharma who use rhetorical traps: “communicating strategically to confuse the public and undermine action.”
The carbon footprint sham is a case in point. British Petroleum, the second largest non-state-owned oil company in the world, perversely adopted the ad campaign, “Beyond Petroleum.” With its now ubiquitous “carbon footprint calculator,” in 2004 BP popularized the term “carbon footprint" to displace responsibility for “global warming” by measuring consumers' polluting behavior. Consumer distraction appears in many forms; BP used shame through rampant propaganda. These fraudulent corporate tactics ensure business-as-usual because (1) they appear to be impervious to their own culpability, and (2) guilt is not an effective motivator for social action—we have seen how guilt tactics lead to further indifference and/or paralysis.
Claiming that living simply belies the “real” ecocidal culprit (as do many environmental activists) is like saying that we shouldn't practice preventative medicine because the medical establishment is too powerful. For example, Big Pharma is the largest advertiser today, the number-one lobbyist in Washington D.C., donating twice what oil and gas give to our pocket-politicians—four times as much as defense and aeronautic contractors. My argument is not a clarion call for the moral purity of “simple living,” but collective action that disrupts ossified superstructures; collective imagination in which each of us co-creates opportunities for public investment in humane infrastructures (intellectual, moral, physical) in which human rights and ecological resilience is implicit in each and every social system (health, education, transportation, shelter, etc.).
By confronting mainstream patterns of consumption, ecological-justice personal lifestyle practices can become educational models. How we live is a deliberate commitment to local and global nonviolence. “Lifestyle activism” (Laura Portwood-Stacer, Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism) is not “50 Things You Can Do To Save The Planet,” it is about integrating mutually beneficial practices and policies. This interdependency shifts our propensity to regard objects and people as disposable. It also shifts our relationship to the everyday violence inherent in consumer industrial-waste culture, which is sustained by infrastructures that use people and non-human nature as “resources.”
Jensen writes, “personal change does not equal social change.” However, Leah Penniman (Soul Fire Farm) urges us: “every change begins with personal action.” Equitable social transformation requires a deeply intimate connection to eco-social justice. Before we fled last summer's California fires, I visited with Joanna Macy in her kitchen. I felt immediately at home—her muted orange and pink flower napkins reminded me of growing up in Boulder in the 1970s. We shared how beautiful the task to which we are called—disentangling ourselves from over five centuries of hyperindividualism—the tyranny of Western Civilization.
"The gift hidden in the challenge of ubuntu is that we don't need to walk the corridors of power to build peace. Each of us can create a more peaceful world." — Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness
In reference to Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene, my climate justice book that challenges cultural habits deeply embedded in our calamitous trajectory toward global ecological, cultural, and ethnic collapse, Joanna reminded me of the Buddhist practice of Bodhichitta: a commitment to the beautiful whole of which we are apart, the tide of deep time in which we stop measuring ourselves and begin to embody our mutual belonging. In her No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg beautifully declares: “You can help turn individuals into movements.”
Image provided by the author ~ Click image to enlarge
[*] With deep respect, I cite my Iyengar yoga teacher and lifelong mentor, Judith Lasater.
 Chloé Zhao's, 2020 Academy Award film, Nomadland.
 “The carbon footprint sham, A 'successful, deceptive' PR program,” Mark Kaufman, Mashable’s Social Good Series.
Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood, 3.
 See Eduardo Galeano's description of Western imperialism's industry of fear in Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, 6.
 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xjqrq8OrtcI.
 Geoffrey Supran, a science historian at Harvard University who investigates the tactics of fossil-fuel interests.
 I've also been told that emphasizing personal action/ “citizen-activism” detracts from academic integrity. Apparently, “manifestos” are equated with self-aggrandizing hyperbole and not with profoundly conscious, passionate collective action.
 See https://mashable.com/article/why-california-camp-fire-erupted/
 Comparing Boulder, Colorado of the 1970s to its current car-culture, consumer-obsessed incarnation represents the quintessence of our epidemic of individualism.
 Howard Zinn, 1492-1992: The Legacy of Columbus, PM Press, 2011.
 Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Penguin, 2019, 43.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cara Judea Alhadeff, PhD, is a scholar/activist/artist/mother whose work engages feminist embodied theory, and has been the subject of several documentaries for international public television and film. In addition to critically-acclaimed Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era (Eifrig Publishing, 2017), her books include: Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene (Penn State University Press, 2014) and Climate Justice Now: Transforming the Anthropocene into The Ecozoic Era (Routledge, forthcoming). She has published dozens of interdisciplinary essays in eco-literacy, environmental justice, epigenetics, philosophy, performance-studies, art, gender, sexuality, and ethnic studies’ journals/anthologies. Her pedagogical practices, work as program director of Jews of the Earth, parenting, and commitment to solidarity economics and lived social-ecological ethics are intimately bound. Her photographs/performances have been defended by Freedom-of-Speech organizations (Electronic Freedom Foundation, Artsave/People for the AmericanWay, and the ACLU), and are in numerous collections including SanFrancisco MoMA, Berlin’s Jewish Museum, MoMA Salzburg, Austria, Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and reproduction, and include collaborations with international choreographers, composers, poets, sculptors, architects, scientists. Cara is a former professor of Performance & Pedagogy at UC Santa Cruz and Critical Philosophy at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. She teaches, performs, parents, and lives a creative-zero-waste life. She is always eager to collaborate with other activists, scholars, and artists from other disciplines. If you are interested please contact Cara via email at email@example.com or via her websites, Cara Judea and Zazu Dreams. See also this article: Social ecology pioneers return to Nederland.