The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 13, 2008

Activism, Religion, and Despair – What Would Jesus Buy?

Last weekend I finally saw the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? on DVD. It follows the crusade of “Reverend Billy” and the “Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir” during this past Christmas season as they traveled across the country spreading a message of anti-commercialism, support for local businesses, and hairspray. Well, the hairspray was more method than message, but I digress.

Say what you want about environmentalists taking on the language of the Church to make their points, (and by the way, there’s been quite a bit of debate about that very issue this week on several blogs I read) Reverend Billy’s evangelical escapades, offensive or not, grab attention and draw converts to the cause. He exorcises shopping demons from Wal-mart and Disneyland. He gets himself banned for life from Starbucks. He’s been arrested more times than his wife Savitri can count.

But flamboyant showmanship aside, what spoke to me as an activist was the group’s persistence in the face of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Americans love to shop. The opening of the documentary shows footage of customers trampling each other at midnight on Black Friday in their race to get the best deals before everyone else. Everyone wanted either a Wii or an X-Box374rt43gh-something-or-other. And if they couldn’t bring it home THIS CHRISTMAS, they might as well not come home at all.

And yet there was Reverend Billy and his choir preaching in the midst of the chaos, singing revised versions of Christmas carols, and smiling at those who would deride them. What does it take to be that kind of person? Balls of steel? A white suit and an entire can of Aqua Net every day? It was hard enough for me to dress as a BRITA filter for the Bay to Breakers, an event where participants are expected to be outrageous. Now, I’m thinking about wearing my costume to the BART station to gather signatures during evening rush hour. Do I have the guts? What will it take to pull it off?

There is a scene in the film which was particularly touching to me. Billy and his wife are alone in their hotel room (except for the camera crew, presumably) feeling exhausted and overwhelmed after a particularly intense action at Wal-mart.

Savitri: [Looking like she’s ready to break.] I just don’t know if anyone hears us. Or if they do hear us, they so don’t want to hear us.

Billy: You look pretty tired.

Savitri: I feel I need for what we do to have an impact on someone. Soon.

Back in November, I left a comment on the No Impact Man blog that Colin Beavan copied (with my enthusiastic permission) as a post a few days later. The title of the post was, “On Caring Without Despairing,” and in it, I said:

My dad asked me the other day how I can blog day after day about plastic and not get totally overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problem. I think part of my coping strategy, and it might be yours too, is selective attention.

I guess I allow in as much information as I can stand in order to understand the problem and then shut it out and focus on what I can do and how I can have the biggest impact and do the most good I can without caving under the pressure.

Not my most articulate moment, but sincere. My feeling at the time was that if I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, I’d just curl up under the covers and do nothing but drink and eat bonbons. Shortly afterward, I received an email from No Impact Man reader, Brian Morton, who begged to differ with me. He actually sent me a very long essay explaining why despair is valuable and why we should all allow ourselves to feel our despair fully and completely. Here’s the last paragraph of his essay. I’d love to know what you think.

A time of black despair is coming, and if you feel like you are drowning in despair be comforted. Despair is a GOOD thing, when it functions properly. Swim in your despair, master it, use it for what it is good for. Use your despair to let go, and set new humbler goals. You are less rich, and less powerful than you think you are, than you are used to being. But you are not without any wealth; you are not without any power. Each breath is riches; each moment is wealth; each choice is power. All work is using our power. Do what work you can, plan, set new goals, and do what good you can. Despair, but do not drown in it, despair to clear a place for humbler goals. Your despair is in reality a valuable friend, helping you to re-prioritize your life, even when doing so is painful and difficult. Despair hurts, but it is a virtue in disguise. The pain of despair is the pain of healing, and adapting to humbler circumstances. All Americans will soon become acquainted with despair. Be assured, despair is a gloomy ally, but it is not in the end your enemy.

So, the question is, how do you cope? What keeps you going in the face of massive problems? As an activist (and I believe that everyone reading this blog is an activist in some way, whether you call yourself that or not) what makes you think you can make a difference? What gives you hope? And what is the role of despair in your life?

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14 years ago

one’s current enlightenment is the high peak of many many years of ingesting the Word of God. Commencing each day at 4am, eating, drinking and breathing the Word of God enjoying the most precious and wonderful person of Christ and His marvelous accomplishments on behalf of us (fallen humanity). While enjoying Him, I am being organically constituted with His life and nature, and ultimately will bear His Image. In the meantime, living by His life by exercising one’s spirit the outworking being a continual living and confessing of Him and all that living Him entails! Praise be to His wonderful name. Amen!

14 years ago

You inspire me. Every time I read your blog, you inspire me.

Not just to think, but to act.

I’ve stopped using plastic water bottles, and stopped using plastic wrap. We use re-usable bags at the supermarket, and choose products in glass rather than plastic when at all possible.

I’ve also boycotted several products that use unnecessary packaging (plastic), and written to several companies telling them why.

I’m acting, and you’re inspiring me to do so.

So don’t despair. Just because we don’t tell you we’re out here doesn’t mean we’re not.

Have a little faith. Change is everywhere, even where you can’t see it.

14 years ago

Not directly related to the post, but I love your new blog look :0)

(though I will miss the picture of little fishies).


14 years ago

I only blog stuff that interests me. And I blog stuff to keep track of my progress or activities on something (like garden progress).

The world is in a terrible state – we’re really screwing it up. I won’t have kids because I think that the planet doesn’t need more people and am thinking about an exit strategy for when I get to that point where I’ll be feeble and dependent. (seriously, how long do you want to stick around past your ability to enjoy and be useful? Until you become “Soylent Green”? I know – this is probably not helpful).

Most of the people in this country shop at Wal-mart and Target for everything from clothing to groceries. That makes me ill. I don’t feel like what I’m doing is making an impact on anything – but at least I’m doing what I can. I guess that’s all you can do.

14 years ago

Despair is such a harsh fact in our reality. Who does not struggle? Who does not find despair, at some level or another? Believe it or not, I actually find comfort in our shared despair. I am not alone. I am not the sole human struggling, wondering, taking missteps, trying again to make a difference. That others despair remind me of my connections, and this offers great comfort in the midst of chaos.

But beyond that, I keep going because I’m certain that I must. For me, it’s about tossing perfectionism to the wind, and allowing myself great joy for every small victory. When I smile at the sales clerk and say, “No thank you, I brought my own bag,” it’s a victory. When I scrub my sink shiny with baking soda, it’s a victory. When I walk to my daughter’s preschool instead of driving, allowing her to pick daisies all the way, it’s a victory. When I recognize people at my local farmer’s market, it’s a victory.

Are these small things enough? Of course not. Not nearly enough. But they are SOMETHING, and they feel good.

That’s all it is for me. It feels good to make these changes. I could focus on what is wrong, and get nowhere. I’m trying to focus on what I can do right, and this excites me.

What’s more, when I get something right (reducing waste, lowering carbon emissions, etc.), I’m inspired to do it again, or to do it better, because I want that feel-good feeling again.

And as for every breath being precious….yes. Three years ago I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, and I’ve fought hard to get where I am (and had good luck to arrive where I am without recurrence). Every BREATH is a victory. Every breath with purpose is a double victory. I’m sticking with that, and smiling, despite the despair.

Michelle Verges
14 years ago

Fabulous post, Beth. And great comments, too! My take on despair follows in part from Kierkegaard, the Father of Existentialism – To paraphrase, we need despair to serve as a conflicting force against our beliefs. In this respect, the tension produced between despair and belief offers us a motivating opportunity to hopefully use our beliefs (and actions) to overcome that despair.

Perhaps too philosophical, but at least it provides me with insight as to why despair is part of human nature.


14 years ago

Beth, What keeps me going is people like you! Colin, Crunchy, Ed, etc. keep me going. I know that there are people like me, who care so damn deeply that it hurts! My 5 YO was at a slumber party where the mom was using wipes every three seconds (her son’s face, clorox wipes on the counter, shiver). He said to her “Matthew’s mom, why don’t you just use a washcloth?” One down, zillions to go. That little guy (and also my son who teases me that he wants a hummer) are what keep me marching forward, one less plastic bag at a time.Keep on, soldier Beth! Next time you go to Disneyland, come camp at our house, I am as plastic free as possible! JenK from Huntington Beach, CA

Gruppie Girl
14 years ago

Beth~ A little off topic for this post, but can you help me with my Kenmore water filter?
I just removed the filter from my fridge and there are no recycling directions on the package. I have emailed the company, but not yet heard back.
Will this filter be religated to the land fill with it’s Britta cousins?

Green Bean
14 years ago

There is some proverb about how you cannot begin to grow until you hit bottom. I do think despair can be motivating. However, I cannot wallow in it or, like you, I’d lay in my bed all day eating chocolate. I cannot dwell too long on dying bats and bees or melting ice caps. I am doing what I can, everything that I can – this blog, a green book club, a member of my city’s green task force, a buying club (soon to be over) as well as thousand of individual lifestyle changes. That is all that I can do and so it will have to be enough because there is simply not more that I can do.

14 years ago

wow! lately I feel like most of the people (in the US anyway) are fiddling away while the Earth burns or sinks…I find myself saying all the time–“there will be no economy on a dead planet” and I do feel despair…how do I cope? it is the day to day living that keeps me going— and the knowledge that in August I will be seeing a new Grandbaby (my first) and I do want the world to be a place he can still live in…I have also learned over the years that each little action–each seed you plant, does make a difference–maybe not right away–but somewhere down the lin–like a ripple effect. Have you read Paul Hawkin’s book–“Blessed Unrest, How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World” ? I highly recommend this book if you are feeling despair…
and I keep in mind this quote from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:
“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice..” I think your blog–and your activism–are wonderful example of that. Think of how many lives you are touching with this blog!

I have had this experience a few times in my life–and I started a big project—which involved many people–which eventually became a life changing experience for me and many of the folks who participated— and also taught me that those little efforts can make a big difference…

Fr. Peter Doodes
14 years ago

Big business has multi millions to promote their cause, but the environment only has you and me, so for the sake of our children and grandchildren WE have to stand up and be counted.

14 years ago

Wow! There are some great thinkers here. I enjoy reading every comment!

What keeps me going? My children. The world should be given to them with more hope than we got. All of you, the bloggers and Greenies. I can’t do it with out you guys. The sunshine, the trees, the animals, the ocean.

Sometimes I do feel the problem is so massive I weep for humanity. But then I seek out my friends, people like you, and know they are there. We all just have to find each other and work together to make things better.

Anyway, what if we did NOTHING? That is worse.

christy b
14 years ago

This is all so excellent!

Blondoverboard – your post made me cry!

I think it’s a balance. Let the despair motivate you to do something. Whatever that something is, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – it is something. The great thing about doing something, is that it makes a difference to the world, it motivates you and if you are lucky somebody probably notices and starts to question or change their own behavior.

Brian M – You are such a great writer I almost got wrapped up in your words even though I disagree! I think it is important to examine our goals and make every effort to focus our actions to meet those goals.

However, I don’t think we can hold to inaction because we might not meet our goal (i.e. not throwing the starfish back in because it might come right back out or get eaten by a gull. Maybe that starfish took that 1/2 to procreate or that particular gull was on the verge of starvation and if it hadn’t found that starfish in that place it would have gotten sick…).

In real life I see this type of reasoning when people won’t give money to homeless people because “they might drink with it”. In my opinion, when I am compelled to give to a homeless person I do. Just based on that. I cannot worry that the person might not spend it “right” – might not meet my goals. I am not homeless and I have no idea what it feels like to be in that position. I have never had anything to drink but I hear that it warms you up. If someone spends my contribution to keep warm who am I to judge that action? I don’t know what got them there, perhaps escaping for the night keeps them alive one more day. I really don’t know and I am not a homeless activist and I cannot dedicate myself to the cause. I can however make one small change in one person’s life.

I feel that same way about these environmental challenges and individuals’ actions.

Hope that makes sense – I am not so blessed to be as eloquent as you (or most contributors here, especially today)!

Not up to my ears in credit card debt.
14 years ago

I think either approach works – it just depends on the person or the timing. My friend and I do say though, that sometimes it’s all we can do to keep our own crap together. And that’s okay. By not being a burden on others, we are helping in our small way, even if we want to do more!

Brian M.
14 years ago

Hi, I’m the Brian Morton that wrote that and quarrelled with Beth, a bit more strongly than she deserved, and in return she quoted the best lines of my essay :) The medieval thinkers (east and west) often advocated trying to transform your main vices into strengths, and I certainly struggle with despair a lot, both months ago and now.

Everything transforms anyway, whether you want it to or not, sometimes fast sometimes slow. But it is so hard to transform on purpose, especially rapidly. Since I wrote that last fall, I’ve lost a career, and the world has edged much closer to collapse. Food riots in many countries, and Spain and Portugal basically shut down.

You know it is very easy for politics to become us vs them. But environmentalism and lifestyle change is more like religion in that it is our-best-self vs. our-worse-selves, rather than us vs them.

On the old starfish story, if the GOAL is to save all of the starfish, then saving a few doesn’t make a difference. And if you throw the starfish back in and it just crawls back out again, again no difference. Or if you throw the starfish back in, and the tide retreats a bit more and it gets exposed and eaten by a gull a half hour later. It is only if you have already narrowed the goal a lot that throwing the starfish back in has a point. And it is precisely giving up grand ambitions, and settling for narrow ones that is often so hard of a transformation to make. We want to save the starfish, not just delay their doom for 1/2 an hour. We want to feel that we can help, even when we are small compared to the vaster forces all around us. We make our small changes to our little corner of the world, and then the tide goes up or down some more and our work is effaced. But that too isn’t really a disaster. The older man in the starfish story has avoided despair too, by not even trying to fight the gulls or tide, but simply walking the beach. Why would he be trying to prevent starfish from transforming into gull food in the first place?

And so we learn slowly to let go of our grand ambitions and make our home amidst the transformation of all things.

But hey, if that ain’t your cup of tea, do the best you can with what you’ve got. The boy and the man in the starfish story are trying to cope in different ways, but sadly each reaches the end of the story feeling superior to the other.

14 years ago

I am with you on the selective attention. There are days, like today’s post, where I give in to despair. But maybe I’m not enough of a zen master with my despair, because despair usually leads me to, “Well who cares. Nothing can be solved.”

Whereas the selective attention allows me to power through, gives me hope, allows me to feel optimistic about the future, allows me to continue as an activist.

I think different stuff works for different people. Personally, I am more useful, I think, when I don’t give in to despair.

Cheap Like Me
14 years ago

What a great post. I am seeing some despair around the blogosphere, and I can feel it myself, too. Sometimes I feel I am too selfish/lazy/greedy to do much to help any of our problems … and then I realize that every little step can be a lot, and compared to most people I know — even a lot of the greener ones — we’re doing a lot. It’s just that there’s a LOT to be done.

And the essay on despair is lovely — a good inspiration in the green battle and in some life decisions I am facing, and I really needed it today. So thanks to you and your correspondent for being the write-on-the-Web-and-inspire person for me today.

Hit Pay Dirt
14 years ago

Aieeee – what a struggle this is. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize warning signs for when I’m in too deep for my own good. This does NOT mean that I abandon my beliefs and practices.It means I take extra special care of myself. I say ‘no’ at work more often. I go for more runs, do more yoga. And I let my beloved and my family know that it feels tough at the moment. Taking this time for myself really makes me stronger, and able to continue on this journey.

As for it feeling all a little bit pointless sometimes…? I have to believe Malcolm Gladwell, that there will be a tipping point and that one day we will not be a minority.

Thanks Beth. :)


14 years ago

The fact that the problems still exist keep me going because I feel so strongly about fixing what is wrong. This is pretty much just my personality and something I’ve expressed in different ways over the years, including my current job. The more I learn, the more I am motivated.
I know I only reach a limited number of people that I interact with each day, but that’s more than doing nothing. Every time someone comes to talk to me about the recycling program I’ve built up at my work, I know at least something is changing and people are considering things. I think integrating my way of living with my leisure time helps too. I love a challenge and when someone sees my artwork or something functional I’ve made and can’t believe it’s made out of “trash” I hope it opens their minds a little bit about the big picture.

The Green Cat
14 years ago

Small changes keep me going. I try not to preach about things, but I manage to set an example. I’ve made a number of small changes in my life over the past few years. Some of my friends have become inspired and also made small changes. We aren’t conquering huge issues but each of us is changing our habits and affecting others along the way.

For example, through reading your blog, Beth, I’ve become more aware of plastic in my life. I try not to buy products in plastic and try to reduce the amount of plastic waste in my life. Several of my friends have started make similar changes.

If I were to look at the large picture of plastic in our environment, I would curl up in despair and never leave my bed. Rather than do that, I focus on the small amounts of change I am making and inspiring others to make. I can’t change the world, but I can change my part in it.

14 years ago

…so I left out my point. Clearly I’m not the “write on the internet and inspire” part of this.

Anyway, because it all needs doing, you can choose to do the parts that feed you and keep you going.

14 years ago

One thing about about this movement is that there is a place for everyone in it.

If you’re a homemaker, you can do the Riot 4 Austerity thing. If you’re a commuter, you can bike or find transit or carpool options. If you are a researchy, internet-y person, you can have a blog and share that talent. If you like to be in-your-face with people, you can go sing with Reverend Billy (we did that a few years ago at the Mall of America, and it was a blast.) If you are secretly a mad scientist, you can build bike-powered things.

Everything needs doing, so anything you love to do, you can do it as a way to change the world.

Susan B
14 years ago

Even though I know attorneys who believe the only way to represent a client is a sort of total emotional immersion into the matter, I find sanity in my professional life requires some degree of compartmentalization. It’s one reason I don’t do environmental law anymore — I’d rather not compartmentalize my views on the subject and I’d rather not have to adopt my client’s views as exactly my own. There is importance in examining despair but I cannot stay in that place. I think both the importance of individual action and taking the time to dwell on really small things, how my body experiences outdoor sensations, observing plants, the sky or the birds outside, as well as stopping excessive information intake helps me cope. I tell myself that I live in the world and I can only do what I can do. And that’s not a limiting thing. But I do also like the thing from “Dune” about walking through fear.
A little rambley but so it goes.

14 years ago

there are times when it all seems way too much. why should i bother? what’s the use? does it really matter? then something small happens. my bread comes out of the oven looking, smelling and FINALLY tasting like bread, my little one walks through the kitchen with her doll clothes and asks for clothes pins to hang them on the line, i overhear my sons (10&13)discussing supply and demand and the role greed plays and i realize that, while the things i do in our home may not make a visible difference in the wide world, they matter in my home. and someday those kids will have their own homes with children of their own and it will continue. so, my inspiration, my hope comes from the future and the differences i can make in one life at a time.

14 years ago

I’m with you on selective attention. You can’t linger too much on stuff that really tunes you in to the magnitude of the problems you face (because I’ve also failed at tuning out and you spend a lot of time at 3AM trying to figure out if you personally can go save the polar bears and what gear you’d have to bring with you, because it’s 3AM and you aren’t making sense anymore).

So I pay attention to what I can do and what I need to learn to do it, and help other people do it, and try to limit those “Holy crud, it’s all too big” moments. But they still happen. A lot.

14 years ago

Beth, have you heard that starfish story? It goes something like this:
A man was walking down a beach after a storm and came to an area where there were thousands upon thousands of starfish washed on to the beach, stretching as far as the eye could see. Then he saw a boy walking ahead of him, stooping repeatedly to pick up individual starfish and throw them back into the sea. “You don’t need to waste your time on that, son,” he said to the boy, “It isn’t going to make any difference.”
The boy stooped and picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.

That’s how you avoid despair. You are making a difference with what you write. You made a difference to this one.

14 years ago

I’m not coping very well, I guess. I feel really immature in the way I handle my own environmental activism because I’m having a lot of trouble overcoming my own laziness. As far as ‘preaching the message’ goes, I think I do pretty well, but when it comes to living the life, I falter, mostly because I am overwhelmed in some respects. In theory, I actually really LOVE that sometimes doing the right thing takes more time, effort, energy, explanation, etc. In practice though, I’m not always so successful and motivated. So I guess my coping mechanism is similar to what you mentioned in your comment to No Impact Man–I take in what I can process (plus a little more to plant more seeds of revolutionary behaviour) and do what I can there, and then when I’m ready, I do more.