From Conservative Mormon to Pagan Anarchist: Radicalization (Part 6)

Over the course of my adult life, I have traveled a significant part of of the breadth of the political spectrum, from right to left, from authoritarian to libertarian, from politically conservative Mormon to radical Leftist. Someone recently asked me how this happened, and the question brought me up short. My lack of a ready answer surprised me, because I am a very introspective person. So I decided to reconstruct the course of my life as best as I could, to see if I could identify the events or people which were most influential on my transformation.

I’ve identified six phases of my life and broken this (relatively short) autobiography into corresponding six parts.

  • Upbringing: Ages 5-19 (1980-1994)
  • Disillusionment: Ages 19-24 (1994-1999)
  • Liberalization: Ages 24-29 (1999-2004)
  • Complacency: Ages 30-34 (2005-2009)
  • Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)
  • Radicalization: Age 40-Present (2015-present)

This series is something of a personal indulgence. Which is to say, I don’t expect or even hope anyone will read it. But I feel compelled to write it in any case. Note, this is a political autobiography. Though religion intersects my politics at several key points, my spiritual autobiography is a different topic and one for another day.


Part 6: Radicalization: Age 40-Present (2015-present)

When I look back, I’m amazed at all that has happened in just the last five years. I went from being a progressive to being a radical, from being a prominent voice in the Pagan community to cutting most ties with it, and from being a mainstream environmental activist to being a pessemistic “collapsenik”.

In 2016, I voted for Jill Stein. I was, by then, completely disenchanted with the neoliberalism of mainstream Democrats. I had learned my lesson about shallow identity politics after eight years of Obama and I was beyond electoral realism or whatever you call voting for the lesser of two evils. That was the beginning of my shift away mainstream politics.

My wife had first introduced me to systems thinking years before, when she was a graduate student. Family therapists take a systemic approach to personal issues, which means you don’t treat individuals in isolation. At the time, I was still fascinated by Jungian psychology, so I was initially resistant to the concept. But gradually, as I learned about climate change and ecology, as well as various systemic forms of oppression, I embraced a systemic perspective, which would be foundational to my later radicalism.

I wrote my first essay for an anti-capitalist website, Gods&Radicals, in 2015. I was starting to get more politically active. Like a lot of people, the election of Trump in 2016 was galvanizing for me. I participated in some of the largest protests in U.S. history, including the Women’s March (7M global/500K D.C.), the People’s Climate March (200K D.C.), and the March for Science (1M global/60K Chicago), as well as many smaller demonstrations. I found that kind of demonstrating exhilarating, and I had high hopes for the potential of these mobilizations.

I was one of the founders of the first chapter of 350.org in Indiana. We were only active for a few years, but in that time we did a lot. In 2016, I was arrested as part of a protest at the BP petroleum refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The protest was part of the Break Free campaign which involved 20 coordinated actions on six continents and was hailed as the largest ever act of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. I organized my first protest, at the courthouse following our sentencing.

As part of 350 Indiana-Calumet, I organized a lot of events, including two pipeline walks (called “Walk the Line”) in 2017 and 2018, to raise awareness about the presence of tar sands pipelines in our communities. One of the walks also helped draw attention to the lead contamination of a nearby community and raised money for and brought bottled water to those residents. Our last event was an interfaith prayer vigil, which brought together representatives of a dozen different faiths (mostly non-Christian) around the issue of environmental responsibility on Earth Day 2018. (It’s probably telling that I went from marching in 2016 to praying in 2018.)

Organizing protests brought me into contact and sometimes conflict with the police, who I began to see, not as brave civil servants, but as racist thugs for capitalist elites.

During this time, I also served on (and also chaired) the social justice committee at my Unitarian Universalist church. I helped organize numerous social justice actions and educational forums around issues of climate change, environmental justice, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and immigrant rights. I advocated for my congregation to become more openly anti-racist, and I carried Black Lives Matter and LGBT-welcoming signs, flags, and banners with the church in the Fourth of July parades of the conservative town of Hobart.

I acted in multiple capacities to support numerous Black Lives Matter protests and immigrant rights protests, including at the Gary airport, where immigrants were being deported. I acted as a legal observer for numerous protests on behalf of the National Lawyer’s Guild, trained other legal observers, and provided other legal support to activists. In my professional capacity, I spoke for immigrant rights at the 2018 Fourth of July naturalization ceremony in Hammond, Indiana, which resulted in my being censured by the presiding judge who was very conservative.

During this time, I continued to write online about environmental and social justice issues, including at the Huffington Post. I wrote my first essay in support of Black Lives Matter in 2016, which drew a lot of praise (mostly from Black people), as well as a lot of criticism (mostly from White people). My writing at Patheos was becoming increasingly political, and in 2017, I was kicked off the site, following my criticism of the channel editor and site owners of their labor practice and their affiliation with an anti-LGBT organization. About two dozen other writers also left the site in protest.

After leaving the site, my chronic disenchantment with the Pagan community came to the fore. Paganism had helped me to reclaim some parts of myself that had been buried by two decades of Christian conditioning. And I saw great potential in the movement to help effect a cultural transformation toward an ecologically sane existence, but I felt it was mostly wasted in indulgent self-expression.

I was frustrated with the self-centeredness of many Pagans. I questioned whether Paganism really was as earthcentered as many of its practitioners claimed. I was disappointed with the otherworldliness and pietism of polytheistic Paganism (which was on the rise), the lack of political engagement by most Pagan writers, and just the overall silliness and credulity of much of Paganism. Rather than finding a true re-enchantment of the world, I saw Pagans reproducing the disenchantment of the mainstream culture. Finally, in 2018, I cut my last emotional ties with the Pagan community (though I still remain connected to a select group of pagan friends).

Also in 2018, our 350.org group went on hiatus. After that, I continued to act in a supportive role for other activists. But I also became more critical of what I saw as mostly symbolic events with little to no connection to the most impacted communities. I authored an open letter to local activists setting forth my concerns, which upset some of my fellow activists. That was the beginning of my shift away from mainstream activism.

As I realized the depth of the cultural and economic transformation that was needed to avoid environmental catastrophe, I grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of any such change happening. In addition to climate change, the concepts of exponential growth, peak oil, and energy-return-on-investment (of renewables compared to fossil fuels) were critical to the demise of my former optimism. In 2018, I published an essay entitled, “What If It’s Already Too Late?: Being An Activist in the Anthropocene“. The article drew the attention of the post-doomer/deep adaptation community, which I hadn’t known existed before that. Following the publication of the 2018 IPCC report, I continued to write more on the topic, did several interviews, and eventually published a small book titled Another End of the World is Possible, in which I explored what it would mean to really accept that our way of life (and maybe even our species) is terminal. (And I have to mention Paul Kinsgnorth here, especially his collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, as having a profound influence on the course of my thinking in this regard.)

I met more people in the post-doom/deep adaptation community. Eco-theologian Michael Dowd had been a kind of mentor for me on this topic. I started a new site anotherendoftheworld.org to host my own (and others’) writing on the topic. In 2020, I also started a climate/environmental grief support group to help local activists and others process eco-anxiety and grief in community with each other. Unfortunately, we had to stop meeting in person when Covid arrived in the U.S.

I started resonating with anarchist ideas, after learning what anarchism actually is. Conceptually, by anarchism, I basically mean direct democracy and small-is-beautiful economics. Practically, by anarchism, I mean creating ways to meet our needs (material and spiritual) together and outside of the capitalist market or the state. In 2020, I wrote a series of articles on anarchism in which I tried to make these idea accessible to non-anarchists.

Though I had pretty much given up on electoral politics, I still voted for Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker in the 2020 election (to the chagrin of many of my progressive friends)–mostly because I see national voting as a quasi-religious communal ritual that still has value as such. I also joined a group organizing a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, not because I’m interested in what real organizing (instead of just activist mobilizing) might look like where I live.

But where I really want to put my energy is in a twofold strategy which takes environmental and economic collapse as given. First, on side of cultural transformation, I want to continue to work with the Deep Adaptation community to help transform how we think and talk about our relationship with the more-than-human world. My writing, the grief group, and creating rituals for use as tools of transformation, are all part of this.

On the side of material resistance, I want pursue what David Holmgren calls “permaculture activism”, which I mean creating parallel/alternative economies at the household to small community levels, in order to (1) increase resilience in face of collapse, (2) as a kind of boycott of the dominant system to possibly accelerate that collapse (which, as Holmgren explains, could be a good thing), and (3) ultimately to help shape what follows collapse in an ecologically positive way.


So that’s how I got here–from being raised as a conservative Mormon, attending Brigham Young University, and being a missionary, to becoming a progressive activist and eco-pagan, to being a collapsenik anarchist. Looking back, I think it all started with my experience in Brazil, which jolted me out of the bubble I had been raised in. The Pagan community, my Unitarian church, and a handful of special individuals, including my wife, challenged me along the way and helped me grow. An anthropology professor, David Crandall, and a professor of feminist jurisprudence, Susan Williams, deserve special mention, as do an anarchist pagan writer friend and sometimes-antagonist, Rhyd Wildermuth, and a local contrarian organizer, Vince Emanuele, both of whom have been persistent gadflies to whom I will be forever grateful. I don’t think I would have gotten here without all of you. Thank you.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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