We’re choosing our politicians while the world burns around us

This essay is excerpted from Arno Kopecky’s forthcoming book on humanity’s engagement with the crisis of our times. The Environmentalist’s Dilemma (ECW Press) arrives in bookstores this October; pre-orders are available here.

Set against the magnitude of this crisis, our inescapable smallness. There’s just no way around it: I can swear off the internal combustion engine, renounce meat, cover my roof in solar panels, touch no plastic, and plant a hundred trees a day for the rest of my life, and none of it will bring the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide any closer to 350 parts per million, nor ease the world’s biodiversity crisis. Those things will only happen when hundreds of millions of people change their consumption habits. And that will only happen when governments pass the right laws.

That’s why focusing on government and industry, as opposed to individual behaviour, has become the default position of the environmental movement. For too many years, governments and corporations alike urged us puny citizens to do our part without bothering to do theirs. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and shop green while you’re at it; refrains like these have allowed the big players of industrial society to shift their ecological responsibility onto our frail shoulders.

They’re still doing it. In fall 2020, Shell Canada launched its “Drive Carbon Neutral” program, kindly giving drivers the option of paying two extra cents per litre of gasoline on carbon offsets, in the form of a forest conservation project. This means, if Shell’s done the math right (a palatial if, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument), that for every molecule of carbon dioxide released through your exhaust, an equal number of molecules will be inhaled by a tree whose life was saved by your two cents per litre. Never mind that there’s no contingency plan should the forests Shell has chosen to sequester your carbon burn down because of climate change. Never mind that offsets like these encourage people to use gasoline and thus slow the transition to electric vehicles and public transportation. And never mind that Shell spent US$49 million in 2019 lobbying governments not to enact climate legislation, second only to BP among the world’s oil and gas companies — BP being the company that introduced the very notion of a carbon footprint into our lexicon through a brilliantly devious marketing campaign in 2000, designed to make the public think of carbon emissions as a personal responsibility. Despite these objections, one might still find it in one’s credulous heart to suppose Shell was trying to do the right thing. Where the line got irreparably crossed, however, was whenCanada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, used his office to advertise the program (that is, advertise for Shell) and urge Canadians to use it. “It’s forward thinking initiatives like this that will help Canada reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050,” Wilkinson tweeted out to his followers, provoking the only good thing to come out of this embarrassing affair, which was a flurry of entertaining replies.

To be clear: It is the responsibility of high-office holders to put policies in place that will facilitate positive systemic change; it’s also their responsibility to hold large polluting companies to account. If Canada were anywhere close to meeting its own climate targets, Wilkinson’s support of Shell’s advertising ploy might have been forgivable. But we’re not. And until we are, the only message we should be hearing from politicians like Wilkinson or companies like Shell is what they are doing to decarbonize.

That being said, let’s not forget who’s been choosing our politicians while the world burns down around us.

Nothing illuminates the vital importance of individual behaviour like an election. We know, objectively, that no single ballot is remotely likely to decide an election. Yet millions of us go to the trouble of voting anyway. We hold the principle of democracy in sufficiently high esteem that we’ve convinced ourselves, collectively, that it’s our moral obligation to engage in what reason insists is a purely symbolic act.

But a vote is not a symbol. A ballot — that slip of paper — is a physical thing. We ought to regard it as a trophy, because to hold a ballot is to physically touch a profound human victory: the overthrow of all those kings and emperors who dominated so much of humanity for so much of our history. We’ve gotten so used to being able to choose our own government that we tend to take it for granted; in most of the world, it’s not uncommon for half the electorate to stay home on election day. The consequences of that apathy can get stark in a hurry. The presidency of Donald Trump exposed that risk like nothing else, jolting Americans awake and bringing more of them to vote than in any U.S. election since 1900.

Yes, almost half of them voted for Trump. That’s because everyone, even the supporters of a wannabe tyrant, intuitively grasp the strange magic that comes into force during an election: If enough of us believe our votes matter, they miraculously do. Maybe faith is a better word than magic, because the outcome of any given election truly is a matter of belief. It’s worth thinking about that for a moment, especially for an atheist like me: Democracy is an exercise that translates pure belief into material reality.

Nobody knows this better than those who’ve been denied the right to participate. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have,” said John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights icon, who described the right to vote as “almost sacred.” One of John Lewis’s ideological heirs, the Georgian legislator and activist Stacey Abrams, picked up on that thread in June 2020, when the Black Lives Matter protests were at their height and everyone was talking about how to channel outrage into policy. While that was happening, Republicans throughout America were conniving to suppress the Black vote in advance of the coming election. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Abrams reiterated Lewis’s belief and said he hadn’t gone far enough — the act of voting wasn’t almost sacred. “As the child of ministers, I understand his hesitation to label a simple, secular act as sacred,” Abrams wrote. “Voting is an act of faith. It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power. Through the vote, the poor can access financial means, the infirm can find health care support, and the burdened and heavy-laden can receive a measure of relief from a social safety net that serves all. And we are willing to go to war to defend the sacred.”

Neither Lewis nor Abrams ever suggested that voting is enough on its own. You don’t show up once every four years and hope for the best. But voting is an essential part of our social contract, both an opportunity and a responsibility, and when the difference between winning an election comes down to less than 1 percent of the vote, as it did in Georgia and other key states, voting becomes the perfect example of how every little thing we do can matter.

Democracy wasn’t the only example that 2020 brought into sharp relief. Think of the struggle Lewis and Abrams embody. The fight against racism isn’t one we just leave to the higher powers. Nobody says, What difference does it make if I’m racist or not when systemic racism is so vast? Quite the opposite. The first thing we do is the one thing in our grasp as common citizens, which is to treat our fellow humans with respect. In addition to that, by all means, let’s pursue whatever means are available to each of us, according to our station in life, to advocate for policies that put an end to discrimination. But it starts with the daily habit of indiscriminate respect.

COVID-19 also highlighted this dynamic. Containing the pandemic is an urgent matter for policy-makers and corporations alike — there’s nothing I can do to make sure hospitals have enough masks, or that unemployed citizens receive financial relief, or to hasten a vaccine’s creation. When the powerful shirk those primary responsibilities, it becomes outrageous for them to advocate for “personal responsibility” instead. But the idea that individual behaviour has no bearing on the pandemic’s spread is equally absurd. I wear a mask; I wash my hands; I limit my personal contacts. Canada’s response may not have been perfect, but our federal leadership did seem to be trying their best under extremely trying circumstances. That gave them some authority to ask us to do the same. When the second wave began to rise, it struck me as reasonable for Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, to remind Canadians in early November 2020 that “every little thing that you do helps.” One week later, Tam was echoed by President-Elect Biden, who urged all Americans to wear masks until he had the power to enact the policies Trump had belittled. “Small acts add up to enormous achievements,” Biden said. “It’s the weight of small acts together that bend the arc of history.”

If one reason for politicians to do their jobs is that it gives them the credibility to ask us to do ours, then surely the reverse is true as well. The more individuals act like they believe in something, the more pressure it puts on our leaders to act like they believe it, too.

In 1978, in the country my father would have grown up in were it not for Hitler and the Great Depression, a playwright named Václav Havel wrote an eighty-page essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” He published it as illegal samizdat, the name for all subversive literature printed underground in Czechoslovakia and throughout the Soviet Bloc.

“The Power of the Powerless” laid out a psychological road map for the overthrow of what Havel called “the post-totalitarian system” in which he and some 250 million of his fellow Soviet citizens were trapped. “I do not wish to imply by the prefix ‘post-’ that the system is no longer totalitarian,” he clarified. “On the contrary, I mean that it is totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships.” The difference was that the Soviet dictatorship no longer relied on force to assure everyone’s good behaviour. After several generations of state control and ubiquitous propaganda, the general population had internalized Soviet ideology.

To live in this post-totalitarian system was to live “in a world of appearances trying to pass for reality,” Havel wrote. To illustrate that supremacy of appearance, he put an imaginary greengrocer at the heart of his essay. This grocer, like all his neighbours, placed a sign in his window every day that read “Workers of the world, unite!”Why did he do that? Was it because he ardently believed in the common plight of workers around the world? No. “The overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions,” Havel wrote. The grocer put that sign there “because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.” Of course, the grocer also knows that “if he were to refuse, there could be trouble,” but in a post-totalitarian society that threat has receded to the background, which is the crucial point. Fear of violence had been replaced by a numb acceptance of the status quo. “By this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

That system was built on a foundation of untruth: “It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

Some of this sounds familiar, and not only to readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It happens to also bear a striking resemblance to the parallel reality Fox and other far-right media have been building in the United States for two decades, a system that has now ensnared tens of millions of Americans, including several of my relatives. But even those of us who find the Fox world view repugnant, who are horrified by the assault on truth and democracy that’s unfolded before our eyes in the United States and elsewhere — even we are bound up in the system that produced Trump; our system, too, is based on a lie.

Our system — let’s call it modern capitalism — is the one that brought us climate change and the world’s sixth great extinction. Our system is the one that tried to bury its legacy of genocide and slavery beneath the prosperity that grew out of those crimes. We all have a different relationship with that system, and every day more of us are in open revolt. But given the direction that the world’s ecosystems are headed, given the fact that not a single country on Earth is anywhere near to meeting its climate targets, let alone challenging the logic of a global economy built on infinite growth — given all that, it doesn’t strike me as a wild exaggeration to compare our system’s grip on our individual lives to the grip Communism had on Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer. Which was, of course, the grip it had on Vaclav Havel himself. The crucial difference being that Havel was aware of it.

Our lives may be better than that of Havel’s greengrocer by almost any measure. We may be free to hang any sign we like in our windows, and write what we like without fear of reprisal. But as anyone who’s tried living without email or a credit card knows, we are ensnared, too. It’s a wonderful trap, and it’s leading us to ruin.

In 1978, when I was two years old, Havel foresaw the risks we ran. He perceived that the willingness to live within a lie wasn’t a function of Soviet ideology so much as an aspect of the human condition — not an inescapable trait, but one we ignore at our peril. “Is it not true that the far-reaching adaptability to living a lie,” he asked, “has some connection with the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity? With their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference? And do we not in fact stand as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to [the West] its own latent tendencies?”

Indeed you did, and four decades later here we are. For all the enormous differences between our system and Havel’s, some critical similarities are worth emphasizing. Not just the way we are both ensnared in a system with deadly consequences but also the internal, psychological tension both systems produce. I have described that tension as a paradox: the uncomfortable dissonance that arises when we become aware of the incalculable damage our way of life is inflicting on this planet, and on future generations. Havel described his internal tension like this:

In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.

When I read those words, I think of the pandemic that swept across the so-called Western world long before COVID-19 and which will be here long after COVID is gone: anxiety, and its sibling, depression. The World Health Organization calculates some 300 million people around the world suffer from an anxiety disorder, including almost one in five Americans; the same number of people report depression. These numbers have gone up, not down, as development and democracy sweep the world. It would be facile to declare that our declining mental health is a direct result of ecological calamity, but wouldn’t it also be naive to suppose there’s no connection? We evolved, like all species, to be in relationship with the natural world. Severing that relationship is going to have consequences, and these consequences can only grow more severe as evidence mounts that we’re incinerating the future.

There is a profound dissonance built into our daily lives. It’s not the only thing making us anxious and depressed, but it surely plays a major role. It’s not helping our politics, either.

Havel’s greengrocer, too, suffered under the weight of his own life’s contradictions. But he wasn’t helpless. Though he had no hope of overthrowing the system that enveloped him, he could take steps to liberate himself, and in so doing rattle the chains just a little. He could take down the sign and stop pretending he cared whether the workers of the world united or not.

A system based on a lie “works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie,” Havel wrote. The moment the greengrocer took that sign out of the window, he started a micro-revolution. He “shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.”

I don’t want to take the comparison too far. The consequences for a simple act of dissent in 1978 Czechoslovakia were much harsher than anything comparable in modern North America. The grocer risked losing his shop, imperiling his children’s education, or being sent to jail if he persisted. What do any of us suffer if we choose to become a vegetarian, or stop using plastic bags, or cease taking our children to Disneyland? Inconvenience, raised eyebrows, heavy sighs. But shouldn’t this lack of consequence serve to encourage us?

Clearly, it’s not fear of repercussion stopping us. Instead, a sense of impotence has yielded apathy; that familiar fear of inconsequentiality, of knowing that nothing I do will slow climate change, has a profoundly paralyzing impact. If nothing I do makes a difference, why should I do anything at all? Why should I suffer the inconvenience of living a simpler life?

I submit that the chief benefit of doing whatever little things we can is personal. Becoming aware that every little thing we do has some impact, and acting accordingly gives our lives purpose. It imbues our humdrum daily routine with a little hit of meaning. To eat with intention, to reduce our consumption of material goods, to drive a little less and walk a little more, and to choose our leaders carefully — none of these things are guaranteed to change the world. But they’re likely to make us feel better.

And you never know. Sometimes, the world does change as a result of these multitudinous actions.

Vaclav Havel believed this in 1978, the year he published “The Power of the Powerless,” when there was really no reason to think so; the Soviet Union’s grip on its empire appeared total, and people like Havel had never felt so powerless. And yet he had the faith to write, “It is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be.”

Immediately after he wrote that essay, he came under unbearable pressure from the Czech authorities. They put him under constant surveillance and interrogated him twice a day for months. Then they threw him in jail for four years. Five years after he was released, the Velvet Revolution culminated in the peaceful overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s communist government. The Soviet Union was collapsing. One month later, on December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel became president.

Not everyone has to risk imprisonment or run for high office. History is awash with movements that prevailed because enough greengrocers took down their signs and started talking to their neighbours. When the moment of transformation arrives, it often seems sudden as a shore-breaking wave, but in reality change was gathering beneath the surface all along, swelling imperceptibly toward its breaking point, one person at a time.

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