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Outside My Comfort Zone

Last Friday evening Elli and I attended an “open to the public” plenary session at the Northeast Environmental Organizers Conference. Our response was mixed. We were frustrated because the program was very late and chaotic. We were encouraged to see over a hundred committed young activists, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, focusing on how to reach out beyond themselves to build a mass movement for radical environmental change.

I appreciated their emphasis on outreach. After all, to change the basic orientation of our economy, to prevent biospheric collapse, we must involve huge numbers of people.

But reaching out to those unlike you is easier said than done. It got me thinking about my own inability to chart an activist course of environmental action. Yes, I write blogs, have read extensively and facilitated study groups about the subject. I’ve also attended demonstrations and discussed the issue with friends, but I have neither gotten involved in, nor helped create, an organization doing ongoing outreach to build the movement I feel is essential to our survival.

I find this baffling because, like so many of my contemporaries, as a not-so-old-yet recent retiree I have the flexibility and energy to get more involved. I’ve thought about this and decided that given my personal history the most effective work I could do was to reach out to my contemporaries, those who were active in the late 1960’s, to persuade them to jump on the environmental bandwagon.

But that hasn’t worked out as I expected. Plenty of my SDS buddies have stayed active, but the majority are not focused on climate change and don’t seem willing to make it their central focus. Others retain leftist, or now perhaps liberal politics, but aren’t inclined to get involved in ongoing organizing. I could not move those I felt most qualified to activate.

I talked to an organizer from the Green Party about my inability to make headway. She told me I had the wrong focus. She said people my age, unless they were already actively engaged, were too set in their ways or comfortable with their circumstances, and so would do no more than engage in liberal politics as usual. I hope she was wrong.

She told me we would find more fertile ground with younger people. They’ve been screwed by the crash of 2008. They are struggling to find decent work. Some live at the margins of society, others are stuck as low-paid corporate serfs, while those who climbed the professional ladder are saddled with massive educational debts that render them higher-paid corporate serfs. She concluded that young people see the crisis coming and that’s who will make and build the movement.

This, plus the conference, has been marinating in my mind. I realize that the growth of our movement shows many are receptive to working for basic change to short-circuit environmental disaster, and that my problem is my reluctance to engage with those outside my comfort zone. I must internalize the same lesson the conference attendees were learning. I’m not yet ready to give up on my contemporaries, but let’s also take this outreach perspective to heart and focus upon the young people who are more receptive and are the biggest stake-holders.  Read More 
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