How to Be an Activist
Six steps to make a difference in a darkening world
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For more than 30 years, I’ve been a full-time environmental activist. I’ve been arrested more than a dozen times—three of them on purpose—written dozens of books about the natural world, served on activist boards of half a dozen conservation organizations, spent what feels like a tenth of my life in public meetings. I’ve been threatened and even shot at. I have fought against global warming, the gutting of the Endangered Species Act, the Mining Act, dams, road building—there’s never an end to the fights. For as long as one cares about beauty, there will never be an end to them. And where I live, in the nearly pristine Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, the overriding issue is always forestry practices.
Our little group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, defends a million acres. We’re the frontline of defense against the destruction of the Endangered Species Act. We have only 20 grizzlies left in our valley, yet the state legislature has passed a resolution seeking to delist—and allow hunting—all the grizzlies in Montana. The Kootenai National Forest is being clearcut again, violating the Forest Plan so regularly that it doesn’t even look like Swiss cheese—it just looks like nothing: spindled, mutilated. At Rock Creek, Hecla Mining Company has proposed a copper and silver mine in the wilderness that will drain alpine lakes, with proponents claiming that wilderness is only skin deep, that the water in a wilderness is not wild, that the rocks themselves—the geology of the wilderness—is not wild.
Our group’s battles sometimes seem small compared to what’s happening in the broader world: the stripping of protective regulations to allow unfettered corporate liquidation of public resources, a skewing of the courts, the revision of Senate rules to a mere 51-vote majority, and the retreat by a president ever deeper into the unaccountability of shadows and more lies. In an age when every fight is local, people ask me: What do we do, locally, individually?
I have a few ideas.
Get Ready to Fight
To be a successful activist is to be a combination of lucky and good. My own experience has been that no work is ever wasted. That if you go to the mat, if you keep pushing hard enough and long enough, then one small thing will shift and you’ll get the break you need. A moderate Republican will switch parties; a lone Democratic representative will fight for you on the House floor. A rogue Forest Service supervisor will be transferred; a monstrous timber sale will fall through at the last minute due to market volatilities. You never know. You always have to play it out. You can never give up, even when you are beaten.
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
To be an activist in the time of Trump is to know rage in every cell of your body. And to know rage is to know, soon enough, the cumulative disempowerment of paralysis and burnout. One does not consider one’s self beaten but lies down nonetheless to nap. Any first-year psychology student will reflexively trot out the hoary bromide that one cannot take care of the world unless one takes care of one’s self.
In these troubled times we all—artists and non-artists, activists and non-activists—need solace and balm. Balance is a weak and ridiculous word, abstract to the point of powerlessness. When scales balance, they are static, and life, by definition, is not static. So it’s best not to think in terms of trying to balance one’s life as an activist, but instead to be mindful of the need for repair.
Find Your Tribe
You cannot go it alone. You need a clan, a band, a core. My two greatest mentors are also two of my greatest friends—Doug Peacock and Terry Tempest Williams. Doug is 15 years my senior; Terry only two years older, though it feels to me we are all the same age, for this is how it is in war. The bullet does not care. Doug and Terry are wonderful writers, and they know how and when to use that talent—but they know how to put the pen down and work to motivate others in person. They know how to obsess on a problem and come up with strategies and tactics that connect what few dots might exist on a wandering path to victory, or, as David Brower and others have put it, necessary perpetual defense.
Doug’s mentor was Edward Abbey, of course, though they were often more like brothers. And Doug has written, “I take my strength from the Greek myth of Antaeus, who derived his power solely from all four paws fiercely gripping the earth.” I have learned from Doug how to be passionate—joyous but also angry.
Three of Terry’s many mentors were Margaret Murie, Rachel Carson, and Wallace Stegner—the latter the author of the magnificent “Coda: Wilderness Letter.” Terry tells the story about a time when she and some other wilderness advocates worked on a manifesto for the Wilderness Society that was to be published in the New York Times as a response to the first President Bush’s environmental policies. They thought it was visionary, immense, bold. They flew out to California to show it to Stegner and placed it on his desk with great anticipation. He took his glasses off, looked up at them, and said, “That’s it?”
Step Away from the Fight—At Least Sometimes
In recent months, I find myself for the first time counterbalancing the incandescent rage with the almost narcoleptic and trivial—an instinctive response to red-lining. I listen to Sirius NFL Radio on satellite radio. The mindless, insignificant soap opera drama of each day’s events washes over me like a balm. It’s like lying in a cold stream on a hot day. It’s like the tinkle of ice cubes in a gin and tonic in July on a porch in the high country, when the days are long and you have put in a full day of good work and your side is winning and there is still, amazingly, time left in the day for whatever your heart desires.
Where is the peace, the beauty, that we seek to preserve? How far down into that clean blue lake must one plunge, each day, and how hard is it to then kick back up to the surface from such an ever-deepening depth? As the struggle becomes greater, the distance back up to the top becomes greater, which means we must somehow take greater care of ourselves and one another.
I show our staff at the Yaak Valley Forest Council the individual creeks and mountains and how they all fit together; the comings and goings of the animals, so many of which are endangered. It takes a long time for the pieces to come together, for a fluency of place to take root in your heart, and then in your mind. In the meantime, what to teach? Passion and never-giving-up-ness. It is the fuel you most need. What else?
Pacing. Creativity. Inspiration. Learning pace comes from being down in the weeds, locally. Creativity and imagination come from simply daring, from playing to win. If you’re going to pour your life into a thing—your one life—shouldn’t you try to maximize the fruits of that labor and be as bold as you possibly can?
Remember What You’re Fighting For
We fight the tar sands routes that would supply megaloads of immense machinery to Alberta, and we fight the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cut off an ear of Montana. We fight Warren Buffet’s coal shipments from the Tongue River Valley to Asia, designed to get China hooked on coal by giving them coal so dirty it’s illegal to burn even in our lax country. We fight an epic clusterfuck by the Forest Service, a goofy-ass recreational hiking trail, a section of the Pacific Northwest Trail, that’s proposed to route through the upper part of the Yaak Valley, destroying designated (and legally mandated) core grizzly habitat for the last 20 grizzlies that hold on here.
The proposed route would force the Forest Service to close dozens of miles of open logging roads on the Kootenai National Forest, endangering not just those last 20 grizzlies—only two, maybe three of which are breeding-age females—but also jeopardizing logging sales, a boondoggle and impending train wreck of the sort of which it seems only the Forest Service is capable. And oh yeah, we have our own border and illegal immigration issues. The proposed trail route would skate along the northern border, luring in more than 4,000 permitted hikers annually, and who knows how many illegally, bumping into drug smugglers and human traffickers and rendering the Border Patrol’s efforts totally ineffective, while also promising to deliver a thoroughly unsatisfying wildland experience to thru-hikers.
I live in one of the youngest places on earth, younger than even the Galapagos. It will be Montana’s sanctuary ecosystem for the ecological refugees of the future—grizzlies and otters, orchids and sundews, three-toed woodpeckers and the slender dying breath of glaciers. And our little ragtag community service group is working to protect as wilderness the last 14 roadless areas—each one a garden of Eden, providing a gold standard of ecological integrity and stability.
We all know we must take our country back. That is no longer the question. The question is how. The country has been stolen from us, it is being carpet-bombed, while we stand up and stare, slack-jawed, at the skies. The country is in smoking ruins, and we walk through the smoke, blinking and rubbing our eyes and doing what we can, but our Facebook postings are not getting the job done, and Citizens United is allowing them to outspend us.
Fury—the foundation of rage—is all we have to our advantage in these hard days. The old men of the Trump regime are fleeing the battle zone with heavy satchels in each hand, loaded with bullion and cash. Serpents flicker from their mouths as they pant and laugh. Maggots writhe in the cavities where their hearts should have been. We are no longer under siege or surrounded. We are in hand-to-hand combat, and we must take our country back in every breath, every day, every moment.
We have to mind the words of Thomas Merton, who said that the frenzy of the activist is a kind of violence unto itself, in that it destroys the inner peace of the individual. We have to mind also the words of Wendell Berry, who speaks of how, when despair for the world grows too great within him, he goes down “into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” (Though remember that this is the same Wendell Berry who handcuffed himself to the desk of the governor of Kentucky to protest global warming.)
We must find vehicles, reservoirs, vessels for our rage and humiliation. We must bring pride back to our country and its name. We must compress our rage to focal points, eliminate the criminal upon which it falls, and then move on to the next point.
We must take care of ourselves, and we must spend ourselves.
No one knows what’s coming. Only that we must meet the enemy in the middle of the field, or further in. That there can, and will, be no retreat.