Forms of withdrawalism are another popular offer from the left. This especially includes individual, personal “growth.” One American Buddhist writes, “What I do for peace and justice is split wood.”59 To declare this political action is a level of narcissism that is insane. You are not the world. And guess what? How you feel will not change the world, no matter how much wood you chop and how peaceful you feel while chopping it.
Hyperindividualism renders this method useless. Withdrawal has to happen on a much larger scale to be effective: we need to think institutionally, not personally, which is the exact point of divergence between liberals and radicals. Alternative institutions like local food networks, communal child care, nonindustrial schooling, direct democracy, and community-based policing and justice are essential to both a culture of resistance and to postcarbon survival. Replacing one consumer choice with another is an act with almost no impact. Indeed, the choices themselves are often useless: ethanol has a net energy loss, and a solar panel may use more energy in its production than it will save in its use. But again, the individualism of liberalism obstructs our ability to use withdrawal as a serious political strategy.
We are encouraged to make lifestyle choices ranging from diet to “green weddings” to suburban sprawl ecovillages that use up slightly fewer resources while still using up plenty.60 Again, these are essentially a withdrawalist approach. None of these challenge the systems of power that are actively dismembering our planet. Remember, there are no individual solutions to political problems, not ever. At best, these attempts are well-meaning, if misguided. At worst, they hijack the very real concern and despair of anyone who’s even half awake, offering a deeply delusional sense of hope.
Spirituality, the last category of action we discussed, has played a strong role in many social change movements: the black churches have been called the cradle of the civil rights movement; Liberation Theology has been central to prodemocracy struggles in Latin America; and Christian missionaries helped end slavery and the caste system in Kerala, India, leaving a human rights legacy that still holds today. But spirituality plays a role in resistance by offering the exact opposite of the American Buddhist quoted above. First, it lends a moral-mythic framework for facing down power as in the Jews’ flight from enslavement in Egypt or Jesus’s throwing the moneylenders from the Temple. In contrast, the hyperindividualism of “inner peace” as a final goal offers nothing but moral and political disengagement. Second, a spirituality of resistance provides a connection to something way bigger than ourselves. Whatever you want to call it—the Great Mystery, the Goddess, a Higher Power—that source can lead us out of our personal pain, loss, and exhaustion, and lend us the courage and strength to fight for justice. The key words here are “way bigger than ourselves.” This is not to say that our personal suffering should not be addressed—indeed, conditions like depression, addiction, and PTSD can be life-threatening and people in our communities that are afflicted need our compassion and help. But a spiritual system worth the name must ultimately lead us out, not in, both because it offers an experience of love or grace beyond our personal pain and because it connects us to the wider world—human, planetary, and cosmic—that must call us to action.
A serious strategy to save this planet has to consider every possible course of action. To state it clearly once more: our planet is dying. There could not be a greater call to responsibility than stopping the destruction of all life. A heartfelt belief in human goodness is not a political strategy. Neither is our spiritual growth or our moral purity. We all need to decide for ourselves what actions we can and cannot take, and as in all things that matter, “No” is absolute. That should be a given. There is room—indeed there is a necessity—for every level of engagement in this project. But it is long past time to stop playing make believe about the threats to our planet, solutions to those threats, and about the courage and sacrifice that will be required to bring the system down.