Enough Already: Overcoming Crisis Mentality And “Us verses Them” Thinking
By G. Scott Brown
06 September, 2012
Maybe you remember the Supertramp album “Crisis? What Crisis?” The album cover shows a guy in a lounge chair enjoying the day amidst a colorless world obviously in ruins. The album came out in 1975, definitely a time when activists were trying to wake people up to the costs of industrialized society.
I worked for Greenpeace in the early and mid-nineties when the emphasis was still on waking people up to the crisis. The common wisdom was that as activists we needed to make the threats as personal and immediate as possible. And of course there had to be an enemy to fight.
I’m not out to discredit or discount the work that I and others have done, no doubt important gains have been made, and yet industrial society has rolled on, with all its life-denying assumptions intact. We’ve had over fifty years of organized environmental activism and we are still losing the battle for the biosphere. We have an even longer history of opposition to inequality, racism, and militarism, yet these and other forms of violence continue to run rampant, and the disparity between rich and poor grows wider by the day. If we’ve learned anything over the past decades of activism, it’s that we’re not making the necessary progress. Maybe that means it’s time to question some of our own basic assumptions and tactics.
I’ll suggest two mindsets that I think are worth questioning at this pivotal time in history: crisis mentality and “us verses them” thinking.
The message of crisis has played itself out. Those likely to be swayed by it are already swayed. The only ones listening already know. The question has turned from “Crisis? What crisis?” to “OK, so now what?” When we now talk about crisis it’s become critical to also talk about where we go from here. Otherwise, people get pushed toward extremes such as numbness, panic, or boredom – not really the responses we are after.
Lately, my own experience of being hammered by the message of crisis is comprised of equal parts boredom, frustration, and sadness. When I hear it coming I practically run to the radio to shut it off as quickly as possible. I just don’t need to hear more of the same basic message telling me how bad things are and that I should be outraged and focus my attention on this or that enemy. Doesn’t work for me anymore.
The message of “us verses them” is particularly grating. My body automatically responds with a big NO! My body knows it isn’t true – that it’s neither healthy nor helpful. This fits with what I know on a more intellectual level – that our exquisite nervous systems are wired for relationship and cooperation, not relentless fighting and antagonism. I cut my activist teeth promoting crisis and confrontation, now I don’t believe either moves us toward fundamental change.
This all came to mind as I read Bill McKibben’s recent article in the July issue of Rolling Stone, Global Warming’s Terrible New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe and that make clear who the real enemy is. McKibben presents the latest science on global warming and a grim prediction about our ability to avoid a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature. Anything above two degrees, the scientific consensus tells us, is likely to result in catastrophic climate change. And the real enemy is, in McKibben’s view, the fossil fuel industry. If only it were that simple.
I have great appreciation for McKibben’s doggedness and high visibility on the climate change issue. That makes it all the more frustrating when leaders like McKibben continue to emphasize us versus them thinking and fail to put their issues in a larger context.
We see the assumption that movements need enemies in play everywhere — in the Occupy movement (it’s Wall Street and the banks!), gun control (the NRA!), the Tea Party (Big Government!), and on it goes. And if the issue and movement goals are limited in scope, then, yes, there is value in establishing a clear enemy.
But there is no precedent for what we are facing. We are confronted not merely with climate chaos, but with a host of other pernicious issues. Along with dependence on fossil fuels and the many facets of the environmental crisis, there is militarism, war, terrorism, the continued threat of nuclear holocaust, poverty, racism, and population growth.
These issues are linked and intertwined, they are boiling over and do threaten life on earth as we know it. Changing course means changing who we are, what we think, and how we behave on the most fundamental levels. The root cause is our most deeply rooted beliefs about ourselves and the world, not the fossil fuel industry, the NRA, banks, or the two-party system. Most specifically, the problem lies with the belief in separateness that we have all internalized at some level – the belief that we are separate from nature, from each other, and from other species; that the mind is separate from the body, the body separate from spirit, and spirit separate from anything that matters.
What is required if we are to address the issues confronting us at root level is a “Great Turning”—a shift from a life-denying worldview and society to a life-affirming worldview and society—and there is no precedent for it. Nothing that has come before, and certainly no single-issue campaign, has come close to requiring such a sweeping and fundamental shift in our thinking and behavior. However big we make the enemy, if we make the crisis we face about an enemy “other,” we over simplify things and miss the root cause.
The way to work with the belief in separateness is to undermine it with the direct experience of interrelatedness. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It takes practice—practice deepening our relationships to ourselves, to nature, to other people, and to spirit. When we do this we experience the truth of interrelatedness on a bodily level, with our whole being, and slowly heal the wounds caused by the life-denying worldview.
This doesn’t make us wimps. It doesn’t mean we stop our activism. We actually become more fiercely compassionate, and more effective too. We become more like the leaders we admire most but tend to forget about when the level of nonviolence they practiced becomes too inconvenient. Leaders like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who made a point of loving those perceived as enemies, who understood interrelatedness on a deep level, and sowed the seeds of profound and lasting peace as a result.
No, it doesn’t mean we give up our activism, only that we do it differently. It doesn’t make us saints or solve our problems. It means we shift the view to a broader and deeper perspective.
A focus on root causes shows that we’re in a marathon and not a sprint. When we understand that the root problem is a worldview based on the belief in separateness, we realize that neither continued harping on the crisis nor finding an enemy to scapegoat is going to help very much. We then have a lot of energy we can redirect. We can then actually afford to take a few breaths and relax. Then, with more clarity, we can take the next step.
G. Scott Brown, M.A. is the founder of the Center for Restorative Activism and cofounder of the Colorado Center for Restorative Practices. He is trained in peacemaking, mediation, restorative justice, psychology, and psychotherapy. Scott holds a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology and Ecopsychology and worked for 15 years as an environmental campaigner. He lives in Boulder, CO. Contact: Scott@ColoradoRP.com
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