Erica F. Parker
Marta Vander Starre
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Next Deadline - Oct 1, 1998
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I have been thinking about Gandhi a lot lately. His image moves in my mind and imagination. A bald man of small stature walks with a stick, wearing glasses and a simple garment made from a single piece of cloth. Before him stands, in ranks, the military might of what was then the most powerful empire on Earth. He walks through their uniformed lines like an elephant through high grass, disarming them as he goes with simple acts of "Satyagraha" (Sat = truth, Agraha = firmness). I find the story of his non-violent resistant both reassuring and very relevant to our struggle in Maryland.
For like the Indian independence movement in the early decades of the 20th Century, environmentalists in Maryland face a vast empire built on exploitation. Only our opponent is a system of economic and environmental exploitation that underlays our political and business decision makers. Like the wealth of India and its people, our state's rich natural environment is assumed to be endlessly exploitable.
Oh the language of the environment is talked. And there are some small steps of walk. Maryland has passed some important legislation protecting our water and land. But enforcement remains a serious problem, one aggravated by the unwillingness of those same "environmental" leaders to fund MDE adequately. And exceptions to the rules are made regularly in the name of political expediency.
As Jon Robinson, at-large member of our Excom, likes to remind us. "It's not 'if' we will reach the environmental limits of growth, it's 'when'." And some of us believe we are rapidly approaching those limits of sustainable use of our resources; if we haven't already passed them.
Other parallels exist. Like many of the early advocates of Indian independence, some of us are co-dependent on the very decisions/institutions that we fight. Gandhi frequently commented on how well Indians copied the dress and language of their British overlords, acting out their lack of power and clarity in a desire to look and sound acceptable.
In Maryland, some environmental organizations take government money (the Sierra Club does not accept government funding at any level). Others receive trips on the Governor's yacht. Or tickets to the Governor's box at Camden Yards. These things, in themselves, compromise no specific campaign or struggle. But they contribute to a mindset about the nature and urgency of our goals, about our relationship to the power that maintains the current unsustainable system of environmental exploitation.
As Chair of the Maryland Chapter, I have tried to help us break away from a co-dependent relationship to the power we struggle against. I believe we have made some progress. But we aren't there yet. And that is why I am thinking about Gandhi.
For Mohandas K. Gandhi acted with clarity and non-violence and a concern for the truth in a century that has produced indescribable violence and destruction justified by formal acts of self-deception, deceit and a disregard for human moral order. In a age of destruction, he acted to support life. In a time of propaganda and official self-deception, he sought to speak the truth. In a culture of traditional elitism, he based his work on and derived his power from the lives of the poorest and most powerless. He walked a path built on principle; it was a path that ultimately led to victory for many of the ideas he worked for.
So what does his path, what I call "Gandhi's Way" (See page 3), offer us in Maryland? My answer is contained in eight principles of resistance, of action, of power that Gandhi adopted to guide his movement. All eight points deal with our behavior, with our actions. For we are the only people we can control and change. It is up to us.
1. We must commit to a single standard of conduct for both our public and private lives.
Our lives are our message. Leadership by example is the most persuasive and the most enduring form of leadership. Standing up and speaking for the environment in public is relatively risk free for most of us. What we do in private is where the change has to occur.
Many of us already carry cups with us to work and meetings, eschewing the disposable society around us. Others carpool, use public transportation or bike or walk in our daily journeys. Virtually all of us recycle. These are good examples of maintaining a single standard of conduct.
But there is another level of this struggle, a more costly level. For many of us have influence over resource decisions that affect our environment. Some of us work for corporations that exploit our environment. Others toil in government agencies that do not enforce existing regulations. Many of us have investments in businesses that make money from the environment.
So what do we do about this situation, especially in the light of the growing environmental failures around us?
Gandhi advocates that we bear witness to our values and concerns throughout our lives. This is easier said than done. For we all have to make a living. But at work, if we choose, we can speak up about what we think is right. We can advocate for the environment inside the system even if our witness at that moment will not change things. I believe the race between survival and extinction is a very close one as the end of the race nears. None of us will know how important each individual act of resistance will be in the long run. We have to have faith. We have to try to do the right thing all the time.
The risk for speaking the truth, as we see it, is very real. We could be passed over for promotion. We could lose our jobs. There is nothing easy about Gandhi's Way. Each of us has to decide what is possible for us to do. We lead by example. And courage is the essential quality we must nurture and support.
2. We must commit to the absolute values of truth and non-violence.
Truth is almost never absolute, especially in this era of highly paid, dueling experts. Information abounds to support competing points-of-view. So it is easy to lose sight of the truth that we uniquely know, the truth we feel inside our hearts and our bodies.
Many Maryland Sierrans feel a strong personal connection to nature, to a backyard, a special wild place, a tree, a forest, a creek, a bay. When we are in touch with that connection, we know what is true because we can feel, in some personal way, the violence humankind is committing against nature. We know we must stop. We must hold on to this "truth," remember it when our lives take us away from nature; speak and act on it in our public and private lives.
We will be told, by many authorities and experts, that our "truth" is unrealistic, too expensive, and too impractical. We will be told that everything we depend on for our lives will be lost, if we continue to act on that truth.
And that will be right -- although not in the way the environmental blackmailers mean it. For unless we act soon to stop the violence against nature we will not have any jobs, any future. "The economy", said Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson," is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment."
These words of warning are logical, are clear, and are true. We must commit to that truth and to ending the violence against nature. Our very survival depends on it.
3. We must do and say what we believe
Gandhi used public vows to impose the necessary personal discipline on himself to maintain his commitment. This reveals him to be just another human being struggling with his own weakness, like we all do. When we commit to ending our silence in difficult forums and to saying what we truly believe, we begin to change everything.
4. We must reduce attachments.
When Gandhi entered public life, he asked himself what he had to do "to remain absolutely untouched by immorality, by untruth, by what is known as political gain." His answer was to reduce his attachments to possessions and money.
There is a growing movement for "voluntary simplicity" which seeks to reduce personal impact on the environment. But not everyone can or wants to choose living with less. Some of us are committed to building our wealth, acquiring land, homes and cars. To the extent that we seek these things, we lose the freedom to make the choices outlined in the three points above.
Acquisition of attachments is driven, in the case of others, by a version of survivalist thinking. "We ARE approaching the end of the game environmentally," this thinking goes. "So I better make sure that my family has everything they want."
This I've-got-mine attitude works only so long as you are the last person acting out the survivalist dream. If you can't stop others from "getting theirs" then, collectively, we are on the path of a classic collapse scenario seen in the disappearance of fish populations.
For any of us to survive, we have to struggle to have all of us survive. To begin, we need to reduce our attachments to destructive materials and processes.
5. We must minimize secrecy.
"Secrecy, in my opinion," wrote Gandhi, "is a sin and a symptom of violence." In the Maryland Chapter, I have struggled to create a kind of transparency that invites participation and that rejects closed door deals. This kind of transparency is sometimes difficult to maintain. But Gandhi believed that a commitment to minimize secrecy forces us to think of the consequences of our actions and provides a discipline that helps us stay on the path.
6. We must focus on responsibilities,
Gandhi believed a society driven by responsibilities is oriented towards service, democracy, compassion and sustainability; a society driven by rights is oriented towards acquisition, confrontation and violence. The best example of this, in my opinion, can
be seen in the difference between the
environmental movement and the property rights movement.
Environmentalists, for the most part, are committed to our responsibility to protect nature. Property rights advocates, in another aspect of the I've-got-mine attitude mentioned in #4, focus only on their personal rights, to the exclusion, ultimately, of the common values and responsibilities necessary to preserve those rights.
7. We must make decisions and take actions in a moral way.
The values of truth and non-violence must apply to both ends and means. When our strategy includes a commitment to resisting actions that flow from our moral principles, we gain the respect of our opponents. An example of this can be seen in #1. If we take the step to harmonize the values that guide our public and private lives, even if it costs us personally, we gain the respect of our opponents for our willingness "to walk the walk".
8. We must maintain integrity in the decision process.
I believe we must commit to openness in the decision making process by maintaining clear, simple lines of responsibility. While events and lack of time conspire to make realization of this commitment to openness and integrity perfect, the volunteer leadership of the Chapter works hard for these ends.
The values outlined in this article suggest a sharp departure from "business as usual" in our fight for Maryland's environment. I know this is not an easy thing to accept. But I believe we are running out of time; that, unless we begin to do something different ourselves, we are approaching a point of environmental no return. The Sierra Club, as the most democratic, most volunteer led environmental organization in our state has a unique responsibility to lead, to do what we have to do to stop the violence against nature, to save ourselves and our state. We have the vision. We know the truth in our hearts. All we have to have is the courage to act.
This article does not advocate civil disobedience -- the planned breaking of laws to
achieve conservation goals. Civil disobedience is explicitly against Sierra Club policy.
1. We must commit to a single standard of conduct for both our public and private lives.
?Our lives are our message. Leadership by example is not only the most persuasive but the most enduring form of leadership.
2. We must commit to the absolute values of truth and
?Gandhi understood and practiced non-violence to include protecting the environment, assisting the less fortunate and putting an end to all forms of discrimination. He abhorred physical violence, which included the senseless destruction of natural resources.
?Gandhi used public vows to impose the necessary discipline on himself to maintain his commitment. We must be willing to advocate for what we believe is right and then act on those beliefs.
?When Gandhi entered public life, he asked himself what he had to do "to remain absolutely untouched by immorality, by untruth, by what is known as political gain." His answer was to reduce his attachments to possessions and money.
?"Secrecy, in my opinion," wrote Gandhi, "is a sin and a symptom of violence." We must be willing to stand scrutiny. A commitment to minimize secrecy forces us to think of the consequences of our actions and provides a discipline that helps us stay on the path.
Gandhi believed a society driven responsibilities is oriented towards service,
democracy, compassion and respect for the environment. A society driven by rights is
oriented towards acquisition, confrontation and advocacy.
?The values of truth and non-violence must apply to both ends and means. When our strategy is based on a commitment to moral principles, we command the respect of our opponents.
?Gandhi believed activists should commit to openness in the decision making process. This idea includes maintaining clear, simple lines of responsibility, transparency in decision making, and a commitment to communicating and involving
as many people as possible.
The essential quality is courage.