When words failed him, George Orwell stopped writing and took a bullet in the neck.
As an essayist in the 1930s, Orwell tried to motivate Great Britain to fight fascism in Spain so the world wouldn’t have to fight fascism on their doorsteps. When his words had no effect, he left his typewriter in pastoral England and took up arms with the democratic/socialist/anti-Stalinist communist resistance in opposition to the fascists/autocratic/theocratic republicans under Franco. (This was perhaps history’s most convoluted civil war.) His cause and his fight were betrayed by Russian operatives seeking to sabotage the resistance through misinformation to prevent democracy from taking hold. He barely escaped with his life.
Orwell’s words predicted World War II, the Cold War (which he named), and the communist pogroms. But perhaps more than anybody, he knew how fruitless words could be if action didn’t follow. One hundred and seventy million people died during World War II and the reign of communism.
Today, Americans are filled with rage at national politics, but we don’t know how to channel that energy into actual change. So we spew forth on social media as if those words—whether vitriolic or rational—are a replacement for doing. They’re not. Which is why social media activism (and, frankly, much of cable news) is largely irrelevant.
Okay, tweets and posts also notify activists of important real-world happenings. And, credit where it’s due, social media is clearly effective at rallying like-minded people to like-minded causes; #metoo (Yes!) and #unitetheright (No!) prove that. But most tweeting amounts to tribal members yelling into a digital canyon in hopes of elucidating a self-affirming echo from people who look, think, and vote just like they do. Pick them selectively and your followers are your choir. Let the Russians pick and it’s an angry mob. Maybe a tweet or a post relieves the guilt of not-doing for a nanosecond. And perhaps it makes one feel less alone when the retweets and likes accrue. But social media is a weak palliative. Unless you count rifting, tweeting isn’t doing. And doing is what heals us.
As an antidote to my own spewing, both as a columnist whose essays about climate change are as invisible as methane and as a social media user (where those stories go to die, drawing fewer likes than my dog wearing the cone of shame), I’ve been making an effort to do more doing lately. It’s not exactly an Orwellian call to arms. I’m not facing sniper fire. I started by dragging my son along with friends and the Mountain Bike Missoula trail crew building a downhill flow track on an abandoned ski area near town. It’s edifying work. Blisters and thirst and sunburned necks remind you that you spent the evening swinging Pulaskis for a trail that your grandkids will someday blast down. One guy on the crew works for an excavation company. A second fights coal mines with economics.
The public land that we’re etching the trail on is also the result of doing. Beginning in the 1970s, the Five Valleys Land Trust began purchasing open space with donated funds, repairing the land, and then opening it up to recreation or protecting it as wildlife habitat. Missoula lives up to its name as the River City in part because of what that trust started—buying islands and physically dragging out wrecked cars. Only decades later did the federally managed EPA get involved upstream, clearing out a tributary river’s heavy metals left behind in the sediment from mining days. When the dam that held those metals was removed, the river in town flowed more freely again too. Today, college kids and retirees raise hoppy beers and float through the same downtown where the doing began.
As for the Five Valleys Land Trust, it has long since included mountains in its purview, helping create (there are many others) a vast network of trails that spiderweb from town for the joy of hikers, trail runners, birders, equestrians, anglers, motorized users, and hunters. In other words, pretty much everyone. Protecting distant lands with oil deposits can be easily politicized and polemicized from the top down. Protecting your backyard’s open space, beach access, and watersheds happens apolitically from the ground up, root and stone. According to a 2012 Nature Conservancy poll, “82 percent of voters think that conserving natural resources is patriotic.”
I attended a talk by David Brooks of the New York Times in September, and exactly this type of community activism (Obama’s old job) was his central theme. No matter where you go in the country, Brooks waxed on, residents love their immediate communities, and because they hold that in common, they come out and work regardless of political affiliation.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. A friend of mine in Boulder, where I recently lived, is a stalwart cycling activist. Together, we worked on a project to help restore a nearby mountain town after the 2013 floods—and build stronger ties between the town and the cycling community in the process. He did far more than I did. I just helped with the posters and handed out free magazine subscriptions. But here’s the thing: I’m an anti-theist (which I should explain means that I believe in a higher meaning to life but view organized religion as the opioid epidemic of the masses) and a liberal. He’s a Christian and a Trump voter. But, just as we share a love of bikes, we could do good work together.
Such relationships used to happen in the legislative branch, but now a politician getting chummy by working with the opposition is Twitter fodder that leads to a failed reelection bid. The federal-level doing doesn’t get done, and all we’re left with is the governance of deconstruction—each administration dismantling what the prior administration merely reinstated through executive orders. That dynamic barely exists locally, according to Whitney Schwab, philanthropy director with Five Valleys Land Trust. “Politics don’t often come into play,” she says. “The discussion is about the value of the land and your connection to it. A mountain biker who isn’t a hunter doesn’t know what that hunter’s needs are and vice versa. We start by building relationships between user groups and creating a diverse community to figure out the best outcomes.”
Writer and activist Rick Bass calls such local doing “knife fighting.” I reached out to him after he and the Save the Yellowstone Grizzly movement, along with a battalion of scientists and activists and Native peoples (the original tribes), were able to win a delay in the scheduled grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho. The stay was issued as a federal judge in Missoula deliberated whether removing grizzlies from the endangered species list was legal. It wasn’t, he determined a few weeks later. “It went the republic’s way based on the cold-blooded science that the conservationists presented,” Bass says. “It was invigorating to see the Justice Department work. We’ve become so accustomed to losing that these small victories help us find new energy.” Bass, I should point out, doesn’t see Twitter activism as an empty measure, but rather as a doorway into a continuum that leads to doing. “People need to meet the war where they are,” he says. “I’m seeing a growth process from tweets and posts to action. The anonymous essay is a good example of direct action in a time of crisis. But the battlefields of the resistance are all around us. When in doubt, fall back to your beloved watersheds and roll up the sleeves.”
It’s those types of approaches that Brooks thinks will heal the nation from the ground up. The grizzly defenders, by joining forces across the Northern Rockies and then attending the hearing in Missoula and presenting real science, took their local community concerns for bears and affected change regionally (the delay in the hunt) and possibly nationally as well (the federal judge deciding the de-listing was illegal).
Could a global knife fight of doing follow that trajectory, with local actors changing the course of a community of nations? On a whim, I attended a climate change action march in September. Full transparency: I was notified about the march via Facebook. (Hey, they could have sent me a flyer.) I follow Protect Our Winters and its fight against global warming. While marching for climate lacks the appeal of shooting Franco’s Catholic Church–backed republican fascists, it’s all the resistance I can legally muster.
Turns out marching with members of the tribe while members of the tribe drive by honking in support is about as shallow and meaningless as a political tweet. And the situation wouldn’t have improved much if we’d rumbled with science-denying Nazis. Marches just highlight our differences, not our commonalities. For two hours, I assumed the role of the right wing’s “other,” even if the right wing didn’t show up. It’s too easy a target. I’d rather convince them that I’m their neighbor—the one who rides mountain bikes and wants grizzlies and supports sustenance hunting and is willing to spend a day running a shovel. The solution to our national rift—at least in terms of climate change—might just start by convincing all our neighbors that the planet is an extension of the trails that leave from our collective doorsteps. And then, as Orwell implored England in hopes of stopping another blight on the planet, we need to do something about it.
And if those words fail, we can always put politics and social media aside and fall back to our watersheds and trails and beaches and engage the world as we know it, not as it’s presented in caustic tweets. “It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes,” wrote Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the Spanish Civil War. “And consciously or unconsciously, everyone writes as a partisan.”