Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Activist Gene

I recently recited a frightening statistic about pollution to a friend and referenced the book my statistic came from. I expected outrage. Sadness. Despair. A search for a solution. His response contained none of those things. It was simply this: "Why do you read those kinds of books?"

I immediately defended the book and extolled the upbeat manner in which it delivered pertinent information along with constructive avenues for action. After reflection, though, I didn't ask the important question. I should have answered, "Why don't you read those kinds of books?"

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan disclosed the inhumane horror in which we produce meat and posited that either "you look away - or you stop eating animals." A reader recently commented on The Church of Climate Change post about the moment when she decided to "go green". Theresa wrote that everything "clicked" as she stood next to a transport truck while waiting for a ferry to dock. She turned and made eye contact with "a chicken, stuffed into a tiny crate with 4-5 other chickens. The truck was full of hundreds of these crates. At that moment [she] felt more shame than [she] had ever felt before. [She] was ashamed to be part of the reason for the suffering of that chicken who was looking [her] right in the eye. [She] looked away first" and is now a vegetarian on the way to veganism.

What is it about Theresa, though, that caused her to not avert her eyes? Why did she look in the first place? And, once having looked, why did she confront the truth instead of turn away from it? Why did I read that book, and many others, absorbing the grim facts about the state of our planet, our food system, our marketing system? Why, dear reader, do you read this blog and millions of others like it? What are we all seeking?


We are truth seekers, scouring the Internet, the library, the newspaper, the transport truck next to us for truth. What separates us from those who would look away? Those who cling to the walls society has constructed to shield us from the abomination of the factory feedlot, the heartbreak of drowning polar bears, the despair of clear cut forests, the emptiness of our oceans? Those who think "ignorance is bliss"? Why are we different?

Perhaps we were born with an activist gene - one that forces us to not only seek the truth, but to grasp it. To not only face facts but to fight them. To pick up a sign and march. To pick up a phone and call. To peck out letters on a keyboard and publish. To find our voice and speak up. To line dry our laundry, bring our own bags, plant victory gardens, sit in our dark unheated homes reading "those kinds of books." To believe the adage that knowledge really is power.

Or maybe we too experienced a bracing moment when truth slapped us in the face like a chicken's gaze in the truck next to us. Maybe that sting never left us but instead urged us onward.

Again though, I'm not asking the important question. I should ask, not whether we have the activist gene, but how can we pass it on to others?


katecontinued said...

Well written and inspirational. I wish I had a clue. I do know that I seem to have be born with an activist gene that lacks the part where I want to talk to others face to face. In fact my activism is very much like spitting in the wind. I don't blog under my real name, I closed my comments and I don't belong to community groups. So, if someone gets his or her 'aha! moment' from me, it is a miracle.

Theresa said...

The answer to the question why I looked over at the transport truck in the the first place is part of where my shame came from. I was pissed off that my nice shiny red jetta had been shat upon during the ferry trip by some filthy chickens. I looked over, and then saw the mournful look in the chicken's eye. There too I saw fear, helplessness, confusion, resignation.

It was wrong, so wrong, how these chickens were being treated, and I was ashamed that in the face of such cruelty I was only worried about the paint on my car. I made a promise to that chicken that day, and I strive never to break it.

That incident must have woken up the dormant 'activist gene' in me. I think a lot about how people can somehow come to feel such a direct connection with nature, to the point that they feel one with it rather than separate from it. Because when that happens, everything changes: you take care of the earth and all it contains, because in doing so you are taking care of yourself and your loved ones. But I don't know how one would go about inducing these kinds of experiences.

Raw Food Diva said...

I sent the video about the downer cows out to a few people. one reply was to tell me I was so negative.....
um she sends me chainmail stuff about you better mail this to 10 people or you will have bad luck for 10 years kinda emails...but mine are negative.
I cant figure people out.
yeah, I guess I too have an activist gene and just assume others want to know the truth so they can do something about it.

Green Bean said...

KC: You slay me - "spitting in the wind". I too am pretty awful at being an "activist" face to face. It is so hard for me to tell my neighbor to please don't idle your car while I'm push mowing my lawn with my asthmatic son. I just bite my tongue but, really, we can't convince others to change that way. I'm not sure how we go about it though.

T: Your story continues to resonate with me. The additional details make it even more haunting - maybe because we've all been there to a certain degree. You are so right - if we can build connections between people and nature, everything else takes care of itself.

RFD: Isn't it amazing that the truth is just too negative to share? My husband disagrees with my belief that people avert their eyes to that they don't have to know the truth because it is simply too awful and would require change that is simply too uncomfortable. Your friend is a perfect example. That video was too negative because, if she really bought into it, she'd have to step up like Theresa and do something about what she saw: stop eating meat, search our grassfed beef, what have you. It's far easier to send off another chain email than to look in look the truth in the face.

Shannon Hodgins said...

I was a happy vegetarian for six years, vegan for two. I'm ashamed to say I began eating meat again....I think part of the environmental auto-pilot I went into in a while.

We are down to very low meat consumption at this point, and I'm moving us in the direction of non-meat at this point.

I totally agree with the animal cruelty of agrabusiness. It is heinous. I watched the downed cow video and told husband we will never, EVER eat beef again. I can't have my diet on the back of the suffering of animals.

We are hoping to take a few unique classes this year including martial arts and archery. I think if I ever had to hunt my own food I "could" do it to survive, but I don't think I want to participate in the gross slaughter of animals any more.

And yes, you are right about the gene. Man, I can be driving down the road and just choke up hearing about something. It's why I left news years ago. It's just too much at times.

My mom actually said that my Sunday School teachers said I was the most opinionted little person they ever met- - -I'd debate them to death as a little child. I wanted to know all the psychology and philosophy behind their stories. Drove them blooming nuts!!! Shannon

kale for sale said...

You rock! I once had a friend ask me after I'd gone on about the harm and injustice of the farm bill, if reading that kind of stuff made me happy. It was a stunning question. My answer was, that the alternative I saw, ignorance, would be bliss. And we changed the subject. The whole interchange pissed me off but since then I've tried to focus on the bright side of activism. Anne Lamott once said you have to give your audience a place to sit and rest when presenting bad news. A little bad news, a lot of entertaining rest.

CindyW said...

Seems like we all have this kind of experience with a friend or friends. One of my close friends asked me not to tell her anything about the horrifying conditions animals are in just to be our food. She then offered, "I love animals. I would not bear it if I knew the details. But I love meat too much." It sounded so incredible illogical and strange too. She knew the truth, but chose not to face it. I can't really figure it out. Perhaps the "aha" moment (the moment the activist genes are expressed) comes at different times for different people. It never happens for many.

spelled with a K said...

In the same boat, only for me the ones I hope will change the most are the ones I "preach" to the least, because I don't want to alienate them.

What are we left with? a living example. In some cases its enough, in others...

I don't think its a matter of either having the gene or not, its a matter of sensitivity. Certain people have certain triggers, I believe (hope and pray) that everyone is capable of seeing and changing, it just takes the right stimulus.


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