This essay is adapted from the book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time.
In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we’ll even stop to help another driver stranded with a roadside breakdown, or to give some spare change to a stranger. But increasingly, a wall now separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who’ve likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries. We’ve all but forgotten how much public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and how much it can enrich our lives.
However, the reason for our wholesale retreat from social involvement is not, I don’t believe, that most of us feel all is well with the world. I live in Seattle, amidst a seemingly unstoppable economy. Yet every time I go downtown I see men and women with signs saying “I’ll work for food,” or “Homeless Vet. Please help.” Their suffering demeans me as a human being. I also travel extensively, doing research and giving lectures throughout the country. Except in the wealthiest of enclaves, people everywhere say, “Things are hard here.” America’s economic boom has passed many of us by. We struggle to live on meager paychecks. We worry about lay-offs, random violence, the rising cost of health care, and the miseducation of our kids. Too stretched to save and uncertain about Social Security, many of us wonder just how we’ll survive when we get old. We feel overwhelmed, we say, and helpless to change things.
Even those of us who are economically comfortable seem stressed. We spend hours commuting on crowded freeways, and hours more at jobs with demands that never end. We complain that we don’t have enough time left for families and friends. We worry about the kind of world we’ll pass on to our grandchildren. Then we also shrug and say there’s nothing we can do.
To be sure, the issues we now face are complex — perhaps more so than in the past. Yet what leaves too many of us sitting on the sidelines is more than a lack of understanding of the complexities of our world. It’s more than an absence of readily apparent ways to begin or resume public involvement. Certainly we need to decide for ourselves whether particular causes are wise or foolish — be they the politics of campaign finance reform, attempts to address the growing gaps between rich and poor, or efforts to safeguard water, air, and wilderness. We need to identify and connect with worthy groups that take on these issues, whether locally or globally. But first we need to believe that our individual involvement is worthwhile, that what we might do in the public sphere will not be in vain.
This means that we face as much a psychological as a political challenge. As the Ethiopian proverb says, “He who conceals his disease cannot be cured.” We need to understand our cultural diseases of callousness, shortsightedness, and denial, and what it will take to heal our society and heal our souls. How did so many of us become convinced that we can do nothing to affect the future our children and grandchildren will inherit? And how have some other Americans managed to remove the cataracts from their vision and work powerfully for change?
When we do take a stand, we grow psychologically and spiritually. Let me talk of someone I know well. Pete Knutson is one of my oldest friends. During his 25 years as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, he’s been forced, time and again, to respond to the steady degradation of salmon spawning grounds. “You’d have a hard time spawning too, if you had a bulldozer in your bedroom,” he says, explaining the destruction of once-rich salmon habitat by commercial development and timber industry clear-cutting. Pete could have simply accepted this degradation as fate, focusing on getting a maximum share of the dwindling fish populations. Instead, he’s gradually built an alliance between Washington state fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, persuading them to work collectively to demand that the habitat be preserved and restored.
Photo by William W. Hartley, U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service.
The cooperation Pete created didn’t come easy: Washington’s fishermen were historically individualistic and politically mistrustful, more inclined, in Pete’s judgment, “to grumble or blame the Indians than to act.” Now, with their new allies, they began to push for cleaner spawning streams, preservation of the Endangered Species Act, and an increased flow of water over major regional dams to help boost salmon runs. But large industrial interests, like the aluminum companies, feared that these measures would raise their electrical rates or restrict their opportunities for development. So a few years ago they bankrolled a statewide initiative to regulate nets in a way that would eliminate small family fishing operations.
“I think we may be toast,” said Pete, when Initiative 640 first surfaced. In an Orwellian twist, its backers even presented the initiative as environmentally friendly, to mislead casual voters. It was called “Save Our Sealife,” although fishermen soon rechristened it “Save Our Smelters.” At first, those opposing 640 thought they had no chance of success: They were outspent, outstaffed, outgunned. Similar initiatives had already passed in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, backed by similar industrial interests. I remember Pete sitting in a Seattle tavern with two fisherman friends, laughing bitterly and saying, “The three of us are going to take on the aluminum companies? We’re going to beat Reynolds and Kaiser?”
But they refused to give up. Instead, Pete and his coworkers systematically enlisted the region’s major environmental groups to campaign against the initiative. They worked with the media to explain the larger issues at stake. And they focused public attention on the measure’s powerful financial backers, and their interest in its outcome. On election night, November 1995, Initiative 640 was defeated throughout the state. White fishermen, Native American activists, and Friends of the Earth staffers threw their arms around each other in victory. “I’m really proud of you, Dad,” Pete’s 12-year-old son kept repeating. Pete was stunned.
“Everyone felt it was hopeless,” Pete said, looking back. “But if we were going to lose, I wanted at least to put up a good fight. And we won because of all the earlier work we’d done, year after year, to build up our environmental relationships, get some credibility, and show that we weren’t just in it for ourselves.”
We often think of social involvement as noble but impractical. Yet as Pete’s story attests, it can serve enlightened self-interest and the interests of others simultaneously, while giving us a sense of connection and purpose nearly impossible to find in purely private life. “It takes energy to act,” said Pete. “But it’s more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you’re powerless, and swallow whatever’s handed to you. The times I’ve compromised my integrity and accepted something I shouldn’t, the ghosts of my choices have haunted me. When you get involved in something meaningful, you make your life count. What you do makes a difference.” In the process of fighting to save the environment and his economic livelihood, Pete strengthened his own soul.
“We often underestimate our power,” Pete believes. “W
e fall into a trap of intellectually convincing ourselves that there’s no way we can change things. We get paralyzed by the enormity of the problems and the apparent strength of our opponents. But in a weird way that magnifies our helplessness. We think of ourselves as beleaguered and isolated. Yet lots of other people share our sentiments about the difference between greed and human respect. We need to help give them a voice.”
Maybe, Pete wonders, the forces we challenge recognize the power of an engaged citizenry better than those of us who are involved. “When the major industrial interests behind Initiative 640 were meeting, they had a copy of the article I wrote for the local Sierra Club newsletter opposing it, and exposing their environmental duplicity. They read it aloud, and were just livid. They referred to me as ‘the eco-gillnetter.’ You just have to laugh when you realize that you’re some multi-billion dollar corporation’s worst nightmare. It’s like Nixon being totally obsessed by the antiwar movement, while he denied he was even paying attention. We just can’t predict the impact we’ll have.”
We can’t predict our impact, which is why we should persist. We can view the stubbornness that Pete exemplifies as the deepest kind of patriotism, standing up for the well-being of the planet and saying in effect, “We aren’t just visiting. We live here. And we intend to pass on a better world.”