Junctures on the Path of Change
At some point in their lives, many people commit to working towards a better world.
Either they begin to connect to the suffering and pain all around them and feel compelled to do something about it, or they realise that helping others and being of service is their best bet for a meaningful life.
They enter into a life of service.
This shift happened to me when I was travelling in South America after university. I set out on the adventure aiming to have as many different experiences as I could. Back then, I still thought that the good life involved excitedly exploring as many areas of existence as possible. I had a metaphor of life being like an apple. The purpose of life was to ravage that apple with all your ferocity; sucking out every last drop of life-juice. Even with its focus on ‘having experiences’ rather than ‘having things’, this way of being doesn’t leave behind the dominant consumerist attitude of our society. In fact, this ‘experience hedonism’ is now becoming more and more the focus of advertising and media.
My travelling in South America burst the balloon of this way of life. I realised the self centeredness of focusing on my own experience at the expense of others — that life really only becomes meaningful in relation to other people. There’s something hollow about chasing endless experiences, that left me feeling nihilistic. However many sunsets or incredible beaches you see, it’s never enough to fill the hole of authentic connection and meaning within us. This can only be filled by having a purpose to life that is greater than our own self interest.
Also during this time, I noticed how many countries in South America were having their cultures wiped out and resources exploited, largely because of the spread of our western civilisation. This made me angry and started me on the journey of wanting to change things.
After now spending several years on this path of ‘service’, I have started to notice some common phases that me and lots of my friends have been through. It is these junctures on the path that I want to share today. Admittedly, my understanding of these phases comes from my limited middle class, white, male, university-educated awareness and bubble. So for others, they might be completely different.
The three junctures I have identified are Effective Altruism, Effective Activism and Emergent Activism.
For those aware of the cultural phases I have discussed elsewhere, these ‘junctures of the path of change’ broadly correspond to the stages of Modernism, Postmodernism and Metamodernism.
I will now talk about each of them in turn.
So let’s get cracking!
The Most Good You Can Do Without Actually Changing Anything
Effective Altruism aims to use the tools of science to figure out “the most good you can do” with your time, life and resources. It follows the ethical precept of utilitarianism, which argues that you should judge any choice based on its consequences and aim to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Effective altruists, like Bill Gates, William Macaskill and Toby Ord, focus on solutions that are easily measurable via their scientific calculus, which often leads them to ignore the more cultural or systemic features of the world’s problems, which are not so easily quantifiable.
They focus on interventions like mosquito nets and vaccinations which have the most obvious ‘return on investment’. As I have discussed elsewhere, these solutions often just end up putting patches on problems that were actually created by more systemic issues. The socio-economic systems of Patriarchy, White Supremacy and Capitalism are largely invisible to Effective Altruists, so they have no hope of resolving these underlying issues.
For example, in the area of environmentalism, Effective Altruists focus on technological solutions like solar panels and wind turbines. These are undoubtedly vital parts of shifting to a post-carbon world, but focusing on them obscures and ignores the fact that our entire economy revolves around infinite growth and the exploitation of people and planet.
Using the Effective Altruist’s calculus can lead you to some pretty absurd conclusions. For example, that maybe the best good you can do would be to get a job as a hedge fund manager in order to donate as much money as possible to charities having the highest possible impact. Unfortunately, this completely ignores the fact that institutions like the financial sector are very much tangled up in many of the issues in the first place.
I’m not arguing that using data and evidence can’t help us to make good interventions in the world. Just that the use of that data needs to be in a bigger frame that understands the dominant systems and culture of our society.
This is the reason my elders say: the time is urgent, let us slow down. Slowing down is not reducing one’s speed. Slowing down is noticing the others that frame us and then acting upon that framing or the new spaces of power that are opening up. — Bayo Akomolafe
I was in this Effective Altruism camp for a year or so. You can even see the remnants of it in some of my older articles. At some point, it started to dawn on me that there was something fundamentally wrong with our society and way of life that couldn’t just be fixed by ‘patching here or there’. I realised that it wasn’t the people in Africa who had the problem and needed saving. Instead it was us here in the West with the problem. And it’s a big one!
Time to Fight the Evil System
Effective Activism, on the other hand, acknowledges the systemic causes of the world’s problems. It realises that the capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist empire and its ways of being, going back 5,000 years are largely responsible for the world’s dire situation.
It realises that a seismic shift in our culture and society is required to really resolve these systemic issues and avert a complete climate and ecological collapse.
In order to produce this shift, the Effective Activist must figure out where to intervene in the present system to move it towards the new world we want to see born.
When I was in this camp, I often described this as the challenge of social acupuncture. This is to try and find the pressure points in the present system which if we pushed them just right, would have a big enough cascading, knock on effect to really change things.
Once Effective Activists have found their acupuncture points of choice, they often burn themselves out, because all that matters is pushing that spot with everything they’ve got.
In the case of Extinction Rebellion, the movement in which I am most familiar, there is a belief that climate is the most important issue for everyone and if we can just get 3.5% of the population on board then society will inevitably shift. For some, this creates a form of fundamentalism where any other approach is castigated, and all that matters is a hyper, goal-oriented focus on getting ‘arrestables on the ground’.
This approach is still a largely rational one, with its focus on thinking our way through the problems of the world. This is ironic because the obsession with understanding and optimising our impact, mirrors and re-creates our dominant culture. Of course, I’m not advocating completely abandoning the intellect but instead using it in its proper place as one of several tools for orienting ourselves through life.
Effective Activists ignore that the oppressive systems of our society also lie within us and that when we come together in social movements we often recreate the very culture and structures that we outwardly oppose. The judgemental part of me says that Effective Activists are so stuck in their heroic saviour complex, with its hyper focus on shifting external society, that they ignore the fact that we are all in different ways a part of the problem.
I spent over a year in the Effective Activist mode and have only left it in the past 6 months or so. What has shifted me into the Emergent Activist fold has been two things. Firstly, I’ve had a growing realisation of the insanity of trying to rationally grasp and respond to the entire complex system of human civilisation. Whenever I do try, I end up stuck in my head, forever ruminating on the best way to change things — never actually getting out there into the world. Secondly, I’ve had a growing awareness of how systems like White Supremacy live within us and that completely focusing on external change often just leads to recreating old patterns. Instead, I have realised the importance of coming back to the present moment and connecting with the gifts that are just waiting to come through us, in every moment of life.
Giving Your Revolutionary Gifts
Whilst Effective Altruists and Activists are completely focused on the external implications of their actions, Emergent Activists ask “What wants to emerge through me?”.
They look internally within themselves, to try and discover what gifts they have to offer. The work of the Emergent Activist then becomes to refine our gifts to the world and put them in a revolutionary context.
They do this because they realise that they cannot think their way out of the crisis. That doesn’t mean they abandon thinking. But instead they take back forms of knowledge that have been lost and put them to work in building a better world. For example, they might reclaim their emotions and use their deepest griefs or angers to guide them towards the particular gifts they were put on the planet to give.
Emergent Activists trust that if they and and others take the small steps of finding their gifts and beginning to give them to the world then this can and will make a difference.
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Howard Thurman
The above quote summarises a big part of the shift of the Emergent Activist. What i want to add is the importance of not only “Doing what makes you come alive!” but putting those gifts into the most revolutionary context possible! This involves the work of questioning ourselves, seeing how our attitudes, habits and behaviours were created and how this affects the offerings we give to the world.
One way I think about these gifts, is as a river that wants to flow out of us. Unfortunately, that river is tangled in many ways.
The first tangle, is that we have no idea what our gifts are. The western education system leaves us so stuck in our heads trying to rationalise and understand the world, that we are unable to listen to the signals the universe is constantly offering us about our place in the ecosystem of life. We are so numb, that we have no access to our emotions, which could guide us in where to show up in the world and give us the energy to stand up for what we really believe in. We have no access to our intuition or energetic bodies which could give us subtle clues in finding our gifts. We have had our imagination beaten out of us and have little connection to the natural world, both of which could be immensely vital sources of inspiration and clarity. We must reclaim these wellsprings of wisdom to discover what we are here to offer.
Soul is one’s place: one’s unique niche in the habitat of the ecology of life. Soul is the source of your dream for an evolved world. — Bill Plotkin
A second tangle is that often the solutions we advance to a problem are in fact part of the problem we are trying to resolve. Because most of us have been raised in our toxic western culture, if we don’t put any work into escaping our conditioning, then our gifts will just end up recreating the old. It’s not surprising that when people from our western society come together in organisations like Extinction Rebellion, they often re-create Patriarchal, White Supremacist ways of thinking and being. If we are to give our gifts with as few of these influences as possible, then a large part of our continual work as activists must be to root out these structures and conditioning from deep within ourselves. Bayo Akomolafe calls this approach ‘Post-activism’.
“Post-activism means not only protesting against an external injustice, but also becoming aware of one’s own responsibility at all levels. Post-activism means questioning one’s own stubborn consumer habits and protesting against oneself.” — Bayo Akomolafe
A big part of the second tangle is that it is easy and comfortable to focus giving our gifts to people like us. To engage with people like us we don’t have to change or question ourselves. Part of truly giving our gifts to the world means breaking out of the cultural contexts in which we are most comfortable, so we can serve people truly in need. Part of this untangling is realising the privileged position we are in to be able to even think about freeing ourselves from the toxic systems and culture of our society.
A third tangle, is the ways in which we are blocked from intimacy and community with others. If we can’t overcome our blockages to connection and community, then we will not be able to ask for the support needed to cultivate our gifts or really offer them genuinely to others. Whilst it might seem that the Emergent Activist represents a return to an individualistic mindset focused on ourselves, this is far from the truth. Instead, whilst we alone as individuals can discover our gifts, we can only bring them into being in relationship to others. I imagine each person’s river as a peice of the puzzle of the bigger tidal wave of a new society. Only by overcoming the blockages between us can we bring our gifts together, creating a new world.
Resolving these tangles isn’t about retreating to your cave up a mountain and doing the work in isolation. Instead this work can only be done in relationship to others and the world.
Our task becomes to work on ourselves as we work on the world. The dichotomy between self-work and other-work is broken down. All work on the outside world gives valuable feedback about our tangles and how we can overcome them. All work on the self gives new energy and ideas for doing activism out in the world.
I have now come full circle. Before I stepped onto this journey of service, I was just focused on what was exciting for me. Now, stepping onto the path of the Emergent Activist I have realised that below all the false aspirations given to me by our dominant society, what excites me is often also what is good for the world. The path of service is identical to the path of desire. If I can let what wants to come out of me into the world in all it’s force and fury and if I can support others in doing the same, then maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to change things.
Wherever you currently are on this ‘map’ of a life of service, I don’t think reading this article is going to change anything. It is only the tumultuous earthquakes we face as we walk through life that are likely to shake things up. All I can say for certain is that these trembles are coming for all of us, whether we like it or not.