by Brian Reindel / @brianreindel
I was born in 1981, at the dawn of the Reagan Era—a time defined in this country by unprecedented income inequality, wage stagnation, and financial and industrial deregulation. It has been called The New Gilded Age. And now, our unfortunate era also has its very own unfortunate climate.
I grew up in Ohio, in the suburbs of Cleveland, the fourth child of middle-class, center-right, white, Catholic parents. From their perspective, life was pretty cut and dry—A decent education and good Christian values would get you through life just fine. I was sheltered in that simple world with its straightforward expectations. I never experienced real violence, but I also didn’t experience much diversity. Everyone with whom I had any meaningful relationship was white. I had no exposure to other religious traditions. I had very little interaction with the differently-abled. And I had so little understanding of sexuality—even “straight” sexuality—that I didn’t really know what it meant to be queer until well into my college years.
I was also profoundly ignorant of my own family’s history. We didn’t really talk about our heritage. Our diet was mostly meat, wheat, and white sugar. I don’t say this out of bitterness, of course. My family was, and still is, a very loving, stable, supportive group of people—in some ways, remarkably so. We just lived in a time and place where novelty was celebrated and history was left in the past. Our most defining characteristics were consumer choices—the places we shopped or the labels we wore. My identity as a child looked like this: I was firstly a K-Mart shopper; secondly a Roman Catholic; and thirdly a “creative” or “weird” kid (possibly a high-functioning autistic, definitely a queer), who never played sports (despite my parents’ best efforts) and couldn’t talk nerdy enough to fit in with the geeks.
Religion became the safe place to pitch my tent when it seemed like all the other camps were closed. In ninth grade, I even declared that I was interested in the priesthood. But that declaration had nothing to do with great piety or strong faith. I simply didn’t know I had other options.
Deep in my subconscious, though I wouldn’t admit it then, I did know I wasn’t straight. I knew I wasn’t interested in girls, at least, which meant, back then, that I wasn’t interested in marriage. I felt “different”, which translated into “special”, which translated into “chosen” in my adolescent mind. So, what the hell, right? Why not become a priest? Luckily, other options came along.
I lived as a Christian for the first fifteen years of my life. Heaven and Hell seemed real enough, and the cosmic battle between Good and Evil explained a lot of the mess in the world, until it didn’t. About halfway through high school, that cosmos fell apart. Ironically, this crisis of faith was largely a result of religion classes. In a course called Church History, we talked about the crusades, the Inquisition, and the corruptions of the Renaissance popes. In a course called Christian Social Justice, we discussed everything from income inequality to the damaging effects of suburbia, with readings of surprisingly progressive books like James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere.
Those tiny grains of knowledge built on each other, and gradually, I came to see that the world was not what I’d believed it to be. I suppose any decent education will do that, and I suspect the general arc of my experience was not terribly uncommon. But maybe it was. After all, in this country, most of our classes are about learning to follow rules, not learning to think for ourselves. You can drive pretty far down a road like that before it even occurs to you to turn the wheel or hit the brakes.
Now, I’m not trying to say that education and religion are diametrically opposed. I’m saying that knowledge tends to open doors that can’t be closed. It’s possible I could have remained a Christian and simply found another sect, or spent years exploring other spiritual traditions, but I didn’t. The more comfortable I became without my religion, the less any kind of religion felt necessary to me, and by the time I graduated high school, I was fine just being free.
So what does all this have to do with going green? Everything really.
I first encountered the phrase “radical environmentalism” around the time I lost my faith. I had picked up a book with a pretty heavy title – Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization by Christopher Manes. Green Rage introduced me to groups like Earth First! whose techniques of industrial sabotage, called “monkeywrenching”, are today considered acts of domestic terrorism. While sabotaging industrial operations for the good of the planet seemed heroic and even a little romantic, there was something in that book besides monkeywrenching that got my attention.
Green Rage also introduced me to the concept of “biocentrism,” or “deep ecology”—a code of ethics more far-reaching than my particular brand of Christianity had ever offered. This code wasn’t dogmatic. It required no authority. It celebrated diversity, and to me, it just made sense. Not only did biocentrism demonstrate that ethics could arise independent of religion, it also showed me how deeply interdependent everything is—every being, every action, every thought. Ecological thinking is expansive and inclusive, sublime, and truly humbling in ways that our linear, hierarchical institutions are not. I was excited.
This excitement led me to take up my required 11th grade career shadowing with a marine ecologist from the EPA. He basically took me on a tour of two municipal wastewater treatment plants he was inspecting. I got to see where all our shit goes when we flush the toilet. I think that was the first time I saw a used condom too. (Yes, there are a lot of used condoms in our water, and no, I did not get laid in high school). Amid the overpowering stench of the sludge pools that he called “job security,” I asked that ecologist what he thought about radical environmentalists. “I think they’re terrorists,” he scoffed, “They give real environmentalists a bad name.” Right. Duh. I felt embarrassed for not seeing it more clearly. I shouldn’t have had to ask. Standing before me, pungent and pale, was a REAL environmentalist, doing the very real work of managing human waste. The things I saw that day were actually fascinating, but if he suspected that I wasn’t exactly enthralled by his career choice, he would have been right. At that time, I was interested in having a broader discussion—a worldview discussion—and he wasn’t willing to engage. At the end of that day, I decided he was nothing but a complacent cog in a bureaucratic machine, and I walked away.
I folded up my enthusiasm, shoved it in the bottom of my sock drawer, and tried to move on with my high school life. But it was an uphill battle. Despite my decisive break with the church, I was still in ideological limbo. I still couldn’t see any viable alternatives to the straight, white, mall culture of the Midwest. I was also still unwilling or unable to address my sexuality. Old habits die hard, and that good ole Catholic shame hadn’t quite loosened its grip. I felt lost and trapped all at once. I got deeply depressed, and my grades went to shit. But I ended up graduating on time. I even got into a college—a small local one—and spent the next four years using alcohol, weed, and late night walks to avoid thinking about the terrifying inevitability of adulthood. I majored in Theatre, because I’d performed in high school, and again, wasn’t really thinking much about my career. I just needed to get through college. That was the goal, from the earliest age: “Go to college.” And the implied goal, “Get through it.” Career aspirations were apparently icing on the cake. I was supposed to figure it out eventually. Spoiler alert: I never did.
But running beneath the surface of my half-assed relationship with higher education was a river of conviction that hadn’t gone dry. I was still interested in deep ecology, and I still wanted answers to the big problems of the world. At some point, in some drunken conversation, someone recommended another book to me, and that book changed my life. It was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. At that time, the book was already almost ten years old, and I’m often skeptical of book recommendations, so I’m glad I was open minded then, because I’ve never torn through a book so voraciously.
I proceeded to devour two, three, four more of Daniel Quinn’s books, all basically variations on a single theme:
“There is no one right way for people to live.”
That’s it. On the surface you think, “Well, duh.” But the point of Quinn’s books was not to declare, “Some people like jam on their toast and some people like butter.” The point was to question the very existence of toast. It was a challenge to the fundamental assumptions of our way of life. He questioned the legitimacy of civilization itself, and I finally began to understand what the word “radical” really meant.
Even after reading Green Rage (whose provocative subtitle, you’ll recall, is “Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization”), I had still been conflating “radical” with “extreme.” But the two words are quite different. Radical environmentalists aren’t necessarily extremists. Some engage in “extreme” activism, sure. But the one does not imply the other. “Extremism” suggests absolutism, singlemindedness, or uncompromising fundamentalism. “Radical” means “of the roots.” (Think “radish”, a root vegetable). Radical change is root change. While extremism doubles down on the fundamentals, radicalism re-imagines them.
Once you learn it’s okay to question everything, a whole world of possibility opens up. History is not inevitable. Civilization itself is still just an experiment. Economic, agricultural, architectural systems…almost everything can be done a different way. These are some pretty profound statements, and the implications are often terrifying… until they’re not.
Once you start to see that there are other places to go, you can have hope. And then you can walk away. The concept of “walking away” is another thing I got from Daniel Quinn, but when I think about it now, I can see it’s exactly what I did with religion. Quinn rejects the notion that radical societal change needs to be violent and painful. Rather, he encourages his readers to simply leave behind those parts of our damaging lifestyles we don’t want or need—to literally “walk away” from them.
While he questions the fundamental assumptions of civilization, Quinn acknowledges that we can’t all just walk back to the forest donning loincloths and taking up spears. Obviously, there are too many humans, and too few forests left on earth for anything like that to be possible. But there are a number of things we now take for granted that I believe we can—and must—leave behind. In Part 3 of this series, we’ll talk about some of these things in depth, as well as what I believe we’ll be walking into, when we choose to walk away. Some of these things are relatively easy to talk about, and don’t necessarily constitute a truly radical change at all—single-use disposables, five-day work weeks, most of our meat—and some are a bit more radical: corporate hierarchies, standing police forces, private insurance. It might not seem like all these things are tied to environmentalism, but I believe they are. As deep ecology shows us, it’s all connected. Can human society exist with a few more centuries of our current lifestyle? I believe it cannot. So we’d better be thinking pretty hard about how we can change who we are.
Brian Reindel is an artist and activist living in Seattle. He was a featured artist at JAKE Talks - "For the Love of..."