Roy Scranton Defends Pessimism (Last Born in the Wilderness)

What follows is a transcript of part of Roy Scranton’s interview with Patrick Farnsworth on the Last Born in the Wilderness podcast. In this clip, Roy responds to Michael Mann’s criticism of him as “the ultimate doomer”, providing the necessary nuance to understand how pessimism is a necessary predicate to right action. (The transcript has been edited for readability.) Listen to the complete interview here.

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The Problem with Progressive Protests

I’ve organized quite a few protests over the last few years. Around issues of climate change, racial justice, gun control, immigration reform. And I’ve attended and provided support to a lot more. Over time, I noticed a pattern. Regardless of the cause, regardless of which organization is in charge, almost all of them followed this pattern:

  1. Something happens which provokes justifiable outrage among progressives.
  2. A person, often someone who is multiply-privileged like me, who is enthusiastic about social justice, decides to “do something”.
  3. That person then contacts all of their self-identified activist friends. Those who are not burnt out already pledge their support.
  4. As we plan the action, there is little to no contact with or participation from the impacted communities.
  5. The action which we plan is largely or entirely symbolic or expressive, i.e., a “protest.”
  6. The planning of the action is disconnected from any strategic analysis (i.e., how it will actually effect any kind of change in either the short or long term).
  7. When asked about the purpose of the protest, we will say something vague, like “raising awareness,” “uniting people,” “reaching communities,” etc.
  8. Often there is no identified audience or target for the protest.
  9. The timing of the protest is often rushed because the window of “newsworthiness” is narrow.
  10. We often choose locations with limited exposure to the public, like empty government buildings on weekends, deserted public parks, or streets which have been cleared by police in advance. Alternatively, we assemble on sidewalks or roadsides in the hope of getting approving honks from drivers going by at 30-60 mph.
  11. The form of the protest usually defaults to the signs-speakers-slogans (i.e., chants) formula.
  12. Sometimes we will defer to city officials and/or the police, who dictate the when, where, and how of the protest.
  13. The event is publicized mostly through social media, ensuring that it stays within the activist echo-chamber.
  14. When the day of the event comes, most of the people present are the organizers themselves and their extended circle of self-identified activists (who hope to attract the same people to their own protests).
  15. The protest results in a cathartic release of energy. We feel good after having expressed our outrage and feeling like we have “done something.”
  16. The success of the event is judged by the number of the people who show up and whether the press reported on it, not on how it might effect change in the short or long term.
  17. When the protest is over, everyone pats the organizers on the back. There is little to no critical analysis of the effectiveness of the protest.
  18. Any nagging doubts are quelled with the assurance that “doing something” is better than “doing nothing”.
  19. There is little to no follow-up with attendees after the event.
  20. Afterward, the organizers are exhausted, which adds to their long-term burnout.
  21. Nothing changes because (1) the structures of power which gave rise to the problem in the first place are intact and (2) no alternative/parallel structures have been created.
  22. Sometimes, the protest actually energizes and emboldens an opposition which previously had been dormant.
  23. If anyone is critical of this model of activism, they are quickly shut down by other activists and accused of being unsupportive or even disloyal.

To be clear, I’ve followed this pattern as much as anyone else. And I think there is a time and place for this model of activism or some variation of it. But it’s being overused, and on the whole, I don’t think it’s working. There have to be some alternatives. I don’t claim to have the answers. But I would really like to be a part of a conversation around this.

For more on this, see my “Open Letter to My Activist Friends”.

Doom Porn as Spectacle by Vera Bradova

This is an excerpt of a longer essay on the perils of “doomer porn”. In this piece, Vera Bradova (aka Leavergirl) makes the case that doomer porn is another form of spectacle perpetuated by empire to keep us distracted and afraid. She discerns the difference between “awareness and acceptance of the multiple and converging crises we faceand obsessive dwelling on and morbid fascination with the mind-boggling, terrifying and plausible images of coming destruction” which just plays into Business As Usual. You can read the full essay here.

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“The myth of a technological salvation” by Paul Kingsnorth

This is the last of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.

“WHAT DO YOU DO after you stop pretending?” This was the question – or one of the questions – with which we launched the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. We were – still are – a network of writers, artists, thinkers and doers who had become disillusioned with our own work to change or ‘save’ the world, and who wanted to question more deeply the stories that underpinned our attempts to do so. Many of us had come through environmental activism, and had become disillusioned, or even despairing, about our ability to make the necessary changes in time.

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“Romance and reason” by Paul Kingsnorth

This is the fifth of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.

IN 1798, WILLIAM WORDSWORTH and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. A bomb thrown into the heart of the literary establishment, Ballads, though slow-selling at first, was to begin a revolution in English poetry.

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“Taking the greens out of the left-wing” by Paul Kingsnorth

This is the fourth of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.

MANY YEARS AGO, I taught a class in environmental politics at a London college. I started the class by drawing a circle on the blackboard. This, I told the students, represented industrial society. Within this circle I drew two smaller ones. One of them represented the political left, one the political right.

I then drew another circle, just outside the first one but meeting it at the edges. This, I said, was where green politics was supposed to sit.

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“The meaning of the wild” by Paul Kingsnorth

This is the second of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.

WHAT IS ‘WILD’? It seems to be an increasingly common question. A slew of books have been published in the last few years about wild places, wild living, wild food, the end of the wild, redefining the wild, rediscovering the wild … As the industrial economy eats further and further into the world beyond the human bubble, something within us seems to respond; some alarm bell seems to ring. As we lose more and more wilderness, we grow more and more fascinated with what we are losing.

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“Why sustainability is bad for the environment” by Paul Kingsnorth

Editor’s note: When I have reposted others’ writing here without permission, I have tried to remain within the bounds of fair use by limiting my reposting to excerpts and linking to the original. In this series, I’m going to be reposting the six entire essays by Paul Kingsnorth originally published at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) in 2012.

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