My Ecology and Spirituality Reflective Journal assignment for the module Sacred Activism... take time to read, reflect and feel... and I'd love for you to email me any comments about it.
The module Sacred Activism is the reason I applied for the Ecology and Spirituality MA at Schumacher College, and I will begin my reflective journal with this story. A few years ago, shortly after discovering the truth about the fracking industry, I met a member of Frack Free Somerset activist group in Glastonbury. In my naivety, having only recently moved there, I said to her: ‘you must get a lot of support from people in Glastonbury’, to which she replied ‘No, everyone is navel-gazing’. This prompted me to write an article called ‘Spiritual Activism’, advocating for a balance between inner and outer activism; suggesting that the world could benefit from people getting off their yoga mats and actively doing something, but also that many activists could benefit from some inner healing. On discovery of this MA, I read the words ‘Sacred Activism’, and my choice was made.
The first module, Ecology and Spirituality, was headed by Andy Letcher, who was present at the Newbury Bypass direct actions 1995-1996. Although the Newbury bypass was built, the Conservative government cut the original £23 billion road project plan to only £6 billion (Letcher 2003: 64). The documentary The Battle of the Newbury Bypass (2017) states that the protests were so successful due to support from the charity Friends of the Earth. This encouraged me to join the Glastonbury Friends of the Earth group, which is working on Glastonbury’s own road dilemma. The A361 road has ever-increasing traffic, causing many problems for local residents, and Conservative MP James Heappey’s proposed solution is to build a bypass, paid for by building an industrial estate and housing (Garrard 2018). It would potentially run behind Glastonbury Tor, cutting the sacred Tor from the rest of the landscape, which could lead to huge opposition from local residents and Glastonbury-lovers worldwide.
This situation is an excellent case study for discussing the intricacies of Sacred Activism. In this reflective journal I will consider my thoughts and feelings concerning the 1995-1996 Newbury Bypass protests, anti-fracking movements currently happening in England, and potential future direct actions in Glastonbury. My discussion falls under several headings: rhizomes, separation and human agency, beyond the human-centred story, the inner journey, and delicate activism.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed the idea of the rhizome: a root system that uses other root systems to grow, like ginger. Its random growth means everything is in the middle, so: ‘when A becomes B, A does not give up being A. It continues to be A, yet it becomes B without transforming itself into B’ (Van der Klei 2002: 48). Letcher expressed that while his time campaigning at Newbury was the activist stage of his life, he never stopped being an activist, even while he was ‘being’ other things, such as a lecturer or musician (Letcher: lecture 2018). Every act can be seen as activism. Satish Kumar says he will be an activist until his last breath, and even then, to die is sacred activism, because he will give his body for the trees (Kumar: lecture 2018).
The rhizome concept means that modern society will always perpetuate itself, because everyone touched by it will always be what they are right now (e.g. a Tory MP, an activist, or compost for the trees). Gandhi may have been the ultimate sacred activist, but he still lived within the modernity rhizome. He completely rejected modernity, so that ‘The alternative to modern civilisation thus had to be located outside its domain and among people who were untouched by modern civilisation and uninfluenced by it’ (Mukherjee 2009:35). Is it possible to change things from the inside?
Gandhi understood that resistance can perpetuate what the activist already knows. His Swaraj movement in India had to be non-violent because ‘to oppose modern civilisation in India through violence would be to Europeanise India or to take it along the path of modernity’ (Mukherjee 2009: 35). Gandhi’s resistance is named Satyagraha: ‘the force which is born of truth and love or non-violence’. Gandhi’s Swaraj failed, because: ‘"People… took to non-violent resistance against the British government because they wanted to offer some sort of resistance. But their non-violence… was born of their helplessness… it was the weapon of the weak". Gandhi's Swaraj became a victim of the mass forces that Gandhi himself unleashed’ (Mukherjee 2009: 38). The rhizome grew, and India’s new rulers followed the mentality of the British. So the question remains: can activists act outside of the rhizome they were born into?
Separation and Human Agency
The modern society Gandhi rejected is still expanding, spreading its message that separation and individuality is the norm. Separation mentality is evident at the Newbury Bypass protests, anti-fracking movements, and potential A361 direct actions through opposing sides: activist vs government/ police/ County Council/ fracking company. During an A361 public meeting (2018), there was a lot of support for direct action and an almost unanimous opposition to Somerset County Council, which could, if persuaded or forced, ‘with the stroke of a pen’ (https://soundcloud.com/glastonbury-uk) de-designate the A361 as a major freight route, thereby negating the need for a bypass.
At Newbury the protesters regarded their lifestyle as ‘exemplary and as that which separates them from the mainstream’ (Letcher 2002: 82): in itself separatist mentality. Also, looking carefully at the ‘exemplary lifestyle’ of the Skyward camp, where Letcher stayed, shadows emerge: ‘In theory new members were always welcome, but this was not so in practice… some new arrivals were made to feel quite unwelcome: Skyward had an extremely well-formed group identity, which could be difficult to penetrate’ (Letcher 2002: 83). In attempting to separate themselves from others, the protesters reflect what they abhor: namely the road-builders, who separate themselves from nature. The rhizome extends: protesters re-enforce ideas of separation and individuality within their ‘exemplary’ society.
Another mentality of modern society is that humans have sole agency, and the natural world is a dead resource to be used by humans. Newbury activists would argue with this, as the Eco-Pagan spiritualities that arose out of the anti-road protests were marked by the sanctity of nature. ‘Nature, they claimed, is not simply a set of material resources, its worth to be economically determined according to its instrumental usefulness for humans, but is, rather, sacred, enchanted, sentient and crying out for protection from further human amelioration’ (Letcher 2003: 63).
The documentary (2017) shows that ‘other-than-human persons’ (Hallowell 1960: 172) also have agency. In one scene, two black horses run around a field of people and police horses, showing their distress at some huge trees being felled. Are activists trying to save the world or is the world is trying to save itself? Bayo Akomolafe says ‘maybe the world also wants to make us a better place’ (Akomolafe 2017: 266). By trying to save nature or considering that nature is ‘crying out for protection’ (Letcher 2003: 63), activists may put human agency at the centre of the story.
Beyond the Human-Centred Story
How can activists move away from this human-centred story, while still acknowledging the necessity for action? At Kirby Misperton fracking site in Yorkshire (2017), three people climbed the fracking rig and stopped construction-work for over twenty-four hours. Resonant of Newbury, these activists aim: ‘to add so much extra to the cost of construction, by virtue of the fact that they had to be evicted or removed for the work to proceed, that future projects would be rendered economically unviable’ (Letcher 2003: 64). These feats are impressive: these people are heroes! These reflections are not from a lack of empathy or understanding: I think these activists are doing the best they can in this current socio-political-economic climate, and these acts do make a difference. However, I question whether these human-centred hero-based actions will ultimately achieve what activists say they want: a different system, a ‘saved world’, and a beautiful one. Will anything truly change if force is the dominant weapon?
It seems that road-builder-mentality is still present today. Firstly, while the 1990s road-building scheme was reduced, many roads were still built surreptitiously, potentially even the Glastonbury bypass in the future. Secondly, the road protests were the first of its kind in the UK: the government had to invent ways to deal with them. Now, the government has learned tactics for dealing with direct action, such as the large-scale police presence at Lancashire fracking site Preston New Road.
However, activists have also improved tactics: the Lancashire activists are extremely well-organised, careful and safe; they know the risks and benefits of every action. Government and activist have grown together, flexed muscles against each other, and neither will back down: they both exist in the same rhizome. Activists exist in the current system, forcefully playing out the old story of the hero-of-the-hour, because these are the tools available to them. There may be limits to their success because ‘we discover that there is something strangely conservative at the heart of almost all approaches to change… The question then becomes –how to walk that terrain differently’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 5).
The Inner Journey
At the 2017 Earth First! gathering, I met wonderful activists who find this muscle-flexing extremely tiring. The situation is improving: people now turn to spirituality and other methods to look after themselves. However, Akomolafe notices: ‘In many of my engagements around the world, I am coming to see… the deep and ponderous sea of despair, disenchantment and exhaustion that envelopes activists’ conversations about change. The once high notes of idealistic hopes for a radically different world are losing octaves, crashing into a bass of cynicism and anger. It seems that no matter how much we try, we keep reinforcing and reproducing the very realities we hope to address’ (Akomolafe 2015).
So what is the alternative? Akomolafe shares a Nigerian saying: ‘the time is urgent, let us slow down’ (Akomolafe 2015). Slowing down is not the same as stopping; perhaps instead of acting with an oppositional I’m right, you’re wrong mentality, activists slow down, listen to themselves and the world, and look at their own shadows. Even three people sat on top of a rig, a moment of bright light in the anti-fracking movement, casts a shadow. Bron Taylor (2010) states that even a wonderful, light-filled belief in the sacredness of nature can be ‘dark’: it might ‘have a shadow side- it might mislead and deceive; it could even precipitate or exacerbate violence’ (Taylor 2010: ix).
Gandhi thought that if everyone adopted a life of humility, self-reflection (or shadow-noticing?), moderation and fearlessness, then each would be their own ruler, giving each person freedom ‘to regulate their own lives without harming one another’ (Mukherjee 2009: 36), negating the need for a ruler of nations. Even as Gandhi practiced Swaraj, he was aware that through his rejection of modernity, his own son felt neglected, uneducated, and lost in the world: ‘On Harilal's life had fallen the shadow of Gandhi's quest’ (Mukherjee 2009: 36). Ghandi’s awareness though, is perhaps what really matters: he acknowledged his shadows.
This is the idea behind A Delicate Activism, which is ‘is truly radical in that it is aware of itself, and understands that its way of seeing is the change it wants to see’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 1). One of these ways of seeing change concerns the successes of my activist examples: ‘So determined can we become to achieve our goals, that we do not notice that things are changing around us all the time, changing sometimes because of the very success of our work, and as they change new readings must be taken, new meaning must be made’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 6). The danger comes when activists ‘push the radical path to its limits– with certainty and without question– and we arrive at fundamentalism’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 6); extending the rhizome that activists are trying to escape. During the course I felt some level of fear of this rhizome concept; I felt trapped as if there was no way to escape it.
On the other hand, I felt free, as if I belonged here in this world. Instead, maybe we embrace the rhizome through delicate activism, which advocates for a phenomenological approach. Concepts of the world ‘inform what we see, but equally that what we see then further elucidates our concepts… This open conversation leads to an increasing wisdom both inside ourselves and inside the world that lies outside of us’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 11). One post-apartheid South African action-group, working near Cape Town with local nature and communicommunities, made some incredible discoveries during their delicate activism process:
‘Cape Flats Nature asked how we care for biodiversity in a context of urban poverty and inequity, a context of ecological, social and institutional fragmentation… What emerged… was a practice of seeing and engaging with the biophysical and social systems of ecological and social communities in and around these sites as an integrated whole, in the very same holistic way that natural ecosystems function… The ‘magic’ lay in the quality of conversation we were able to engage in, and the space we created for it– the ‘magic’ is ordinary... yet magical in that it is so often elusive... relying as it does on a quality of conversation that asks for a deep level of integrity and trust in relationship that is grown in a myriad of ‘ordinary’ everyday interactions and activities. The ‘magic’ of this practice is essential if we are going to conserve our ecosystems and our communities anywhere, and its ordinariness means it is transferable...’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 13).
Through this kind of ‘quality of conversation’ several fundamental changes in the way people think and feel came about: firstly, ‘Throughout… this process no-one has regarded nature as a ‘thing’ to be ‘saved’; rather, nature has been regarded as alive, as a whole organism– as many organisms– with its own integrity and dignity, deserving of respect, of being listened to, having intention (the ability to intend) as every organism does’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 21). Akomolafe asks: ‘What would become of economics and politics if we sought the wisdom of trees and acknowledged the collective intelligence our modernity pretends we are divorced from?’ (Akomolafe 2015).
Secondly ‘They noticed that, with more and more people and groupings actively observing, paying attention to themselves and to the other, the quality of adversarial boundedness that had characterised relationships before, fell away, dissolved, evaporated like mist. This was revelatory for the practitioners– that, as they expressed it, for the person who is really paying attention there are no adversaries!’ (Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 26. Italics in original). How would it be during the A361 discussions, if all sides really felt this way and properly listened to each other?
Vaclav Havel said: ‘Man’s attitude to the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved... We must try harder to understand than to explain...’ (Havel in Kaplan and Davidoff 2004: 28). The conversation is more important than the solutions and answers. Karen Barad says ‘there are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly’ (Barad in Akomolafe 2015). How can I, as activist, really understand? How do I already play out the belief that the world needs saving?
Akomolafe agrees that we put too much emphasis on answers, but he embraces questions. Christopher Bowers questions in Akomolafes’ How do we respond to crisis? article: ‘If we are not to be dichotomous about good and bad, what is the alternative that won’t lead us into a moral relativism that accepts the harm being done as something blameless, unaccountable or even acceptable? And what response would promote accountability without purity, without moral righteousness and without some reified goodness? What process can get us engaged in a relationship with responsibility in a world so ‘queer’ and ‘preposterous’ as this?’ (Bowers in Akomolafe http://bayoakomolafe.net/project/how-do-we-respond-to-crisis/). As throughout the Sacred Activism course, Akomolafe gives no answers, but he starts the conversation.
Throughout this reflection I have been having a conversation with myself. Many times I have written something that I feel very awkward about writing. For example, I discuss direct action yet have never been involved in one, and so I feel like, as Akomolafe would say: a ‘Sacred Hyprocrite’ (Akomolafe: lecture 2018). However, beginning the conversation is the important part, not being perfect, or reaching a conclusion. The new story will be made with humility, no matter how awkward it gets (Akomolafe: lecture 2018). As Akomolafe wrote to me: Your grace- your awkward grace- will be what saves us.
 They lived with nature and slept in the trees to protect them from being cut down (Letcher 2002, 2003).
 For a discussion on using force in activism see Charles Eisenstein (2013) Chapter 6: Force. For example, ‘We habitually apply force to politicians and corporations as well. It could be the threat of public humiliation or the incentive of public praise and a positive image... It could be financial threat or incentive… What worldview, what story, are we reinforcing when we use these tactics? It is the worldview in which things happen only through the application of force’ (Eisenstein 2013: https://charleseisenstein.net/books/the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible/eng/force/).
 David Abram defines phenomenology as the philosophy that gives ‘voice to the world from our experienced situation within it’ (Abram 2016: 47).