Thursday, January 15, 2009

My Belief System: Radicalism

One thing that really annoys many of my friends is that I am what you might call "radically anti-radical." I understand the value of radicalism, of course, in pushing the envelope and being the cutting edge of what it means to be an environmentalist. Its just not for me.

In College, I watched as what had been a "radical" environmental club, the Student Environmental Action Coalition or SEAC, transform itself into a pragmatic, solution-focused group. Not only did the group grow from 5 to 10 people to more than 100, but we have instated a Green Fee, planted a campus organic garden, and given every incoming freshman a Compact Flourescent Light (CFL) bulb. The individual campaign meetings in this group are now larger than the original group was!

The difference between pragmatism and radicalism, as I see it, is a focus on what can be done now rather than what should be done. A good and relevant (to me) example comes from sustainable forest use. While a radical environmental group might call for an end to all forest use, pragmatic groups are trying to reshape forest industries so that less damage is done to the regenerative capacity of the forest.

A couple of summers ago, I was zip-lining in the Costa Rican rainforest. In order to create the zip-line course, the adventure group we were with had cut swaths wide enough that one could swing around on the line and not hit any trees. While we were there, a friend remarked on how much disturbance and fragmentation this caused to the forest. There was no question that the forest was severely damaged by the zip-line course. However, one look at the pineapple plantations one plot of land over revealed that the choice was not between a pristine forest and a disturbed forest, it was between a disturbed forest and a pineapple plantation. When radicals criticize eco-tourism as "Greenwash," they need to understand that tourism is often the only thing keeping local people from simply converting pristine systems to agriculture.

Another example that will get some folks talking is the difference between becoming vegan and searching for sustainably (and ethically) raised animal products. Which will change the conditions in which animals are raised? Is it better to eat a veggie burger or grass-finished beef? I tend to believe that in terms of actually changing the meat industry, searching for "good" meat creates a demand for better practices. As long as the only two alternatives people see are vegetarianism or factory-farmed meat, meat producers will simply write off vegetarians as lost customers but never actually change their practices. If the subset of people who would normally become vegetarians instead began demanding ethically produced meat (and this is starting to happen), these products would become more available and demand would spread to people who would never consider vegetarianism but who otherwise care for the Earth and its animals. This is pragmatism in action, increasing the base of support for a cause by making it more accessible to "normal" people.

Before the past election, I was involved in a massive voter registration drive by As I went around trying to register people to vote, I repeatedly and inevitably ran into people who were "too radical" to vote. Disgusted and appalled, I tried to understand these people who decided that voting, the end product of not just one, but several, radical movements, would make them "complicit with the system." How could one be an activist and not vote?

It seems that the issue of purity is central to the distinction between pragmatism and radicalism. The idea of personally not participating in the system that one disagrees with permeates radical thought. The problem is one of scale. I believe that except in extreme circumstances (dictatorships, fascism, etc.), participation in the system is essential to changing it. So is the idea that some change is always better than no change. Many radicals see what I think is a false choice between a perfect change and an imperfect change. More often, the real choice is between imperfect change and no change at all.



Miguelito said...

You've put your finger right on what I've been struggling with for a couple of years. I am heavily influenced by Che Guevara (I'm Cuban) Rage Against The Machine, and my own disgust with people who pay lip service to the ideals of change yet do nothing but run their mouth in a faux liberal kind of way. However I don't thing blowing up Capitol Hill or not voting will solve anything either. I am becoming "pragmatically radical" and I prefer to use reasoned discourse and ridicule as my weapons.

ANDON said...

Thanks for your comment Miguelito... I'm glad for the positive response, since I was fully expecting to get jumped for that post!

Rage Against the Machine is one of my favorite bands, and one of the first bands I got into as a teenager. I'm listening to them right now!!!

Just out of curiosity, may I ask how you found this post? I'm trying to figure out how to reach out to an often geographically dispersed set of like-minded people.