Monday, November 27, 2006

stop asking so nicely

There really is something afoot. The sense of groundswell on climate change is unlike anything I've ever known.

With other issues there's always a lot of explaining to do; what the issue is, what the problem is, how to fix it, why anyone should be bothered. Climate change is just not like that. Everyone knows already, and the pace of change in perception - in the UK deniers only exist on message boards and in the Daily Mail's columnists - is tremendously encouraging.

The scale of change required is titanic, and the timeframe is so short that it necessarily means working alongside allies and systems that aren't entirely comfortable. One of these is government.

But please, can we drop the approach that implies 'oh, if only we explained it to them then their common humanity would make them do the right thing'?

These people do fucking know. They've had the best and most expensive research that exists. They've known longer than us, they know more than us how fucked it all is. It's just that they prefer short term profit.

The advert on excellent anti-aviation spoof site Spurt ends with an exhortation to take action; 'Be heard - email the Department of Transport'.

What, cos they don't know already? Cos they'll even open your fucking email, let alone act on it?

Polite petitioning is a safety valve. It makes concerned people shut up because they're satisfied they've 'been heard' if they do something ineffective like - as in this case - put their name and email address on a website.

It's going to take more than that to qualify as being heard. It's going to take more drastic action, stuff to slam home the urgency of what's being addressed, like Plane Stupid's recent blocade of the runway at East Midlands airport.

Part of the reason why the Camp for Climate Action got such huge and positive press and response was because it wasn't polite or timid but bold, brazen and armed with solutions that actually squared up to the problem.

Even when direct action gets a bad press, it succeeds in shifting the grounds for debate. If there's only Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth talking about climate change then they're the extreme. But along come some direct activists with more radical demands and suddenly the NGOs are cuddly moderates.

More, when the actions get positive response, they give the NGOs license to be more radical too. A few weeks after the Camp for Climate Action tried to occupy and shut down the UK's biggest CO2 emitter, Drax power station, Greenpeace did an action on Didcot, the second biggest.

And being a hierarchical organisation with large wads of cash, they pulled it off properly too.

The more they do of that sort of thing - and the less of their part in Spurt's 'email the government' stuff - the more chance we have of success.

And so hearty hurrah for the subversion of petitioning. The Prime Minister's website now has an e-petition facility. You can add anything that starts with 'We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to...'.

The present front runner is the repeal of the Hunting Act. But coming up close behind - 13th out of 683 - is 'we the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to stand on his head and juggle ice-cream'.

Please, go to the page and sign it.

Derrick Jensen is a provocative ecological thinker. Wearing my U-Know hat, I recently put his Beyond Hope as the monthly Feature article.

(Incidentally, I don't have an actual U-Know hat. Given Cope's present penchant for quasi Nazi officer hats it's perhaps just as well. I think they could come up with something good though, something purple and cyber. Maybe we should start a petition to get me one).

Jensen's discovery of the original Star Wars script, like much of his other stuff, is a bit of a heavy bludgeon but it does contain the essentials of how I feel on the petitioning approach.


I went to see Star Wars when I was in high school, which seems about the right time to see it. I liked it a lot. I wasn’t one of those people who saw it a hundred times or anything. I wasn’t that much of a nerd. Besides, I was too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons.

I saw it again recently. It’s not so good as I remember. In fact it’s pretty bad. The characters are flat, the dialog hokey, the acting nondescript. But I still loved the ending, where Luke remembers to “use the force” to blow up the Death Star.

For those of you who may have forgotten, the Death Star (according to the official Star Wars website) “was the code name of an unspeakably powerful and horrific weapon developed by the Empire. The immense space station carried a weapon capable of destroying entire planets. The Death Star was to be an instrument of terror, meant to cow treasonous worlds with the threat of annihilation. While the massive station is evidence of the evil that was the Galactic Empire, it was also proof of the New Order’s greatest weakness—the belief that technology and terror were superior to the will of oppressed beings fighting for freedom.”

That’s all pretty interesting stuff, and of course applicable to the discussion at hand: civilization as Death Star.

The website also says, “The Death Star was a battle station the size of a small moon. It had a formidable array of turbolasers and tractor beam projectors, giving it the firepower of greater than half the Imperial Starfleet. Within its cavernous interior were legions of Imperial troops and fightercraft, as well as all manner of detention blocks and interrogation cells. The Death Star was spherical, and dark gray in color. Located on the Death Star’s northern hemisphere was a concave disk housing the station’s main laser weapon....In a brutal display of the Death Star’s power, Grand Moff Tarkin targeted its prime weapon at the peaceful world of Alderaan. [Rebel princess] Leia Organa, an Imperial captive at the time, was forced to watch as the searing laser blast split apart her beloved world, turning the planet and its populace into orbital ash and debris.”

I’m not sure if you feel a stab of recognition at being a captive of the empire, forced to watch your beloved world and its (human and nonhuman) populace turned into orbital ash and debris. I do.

The website continues, “Using ...stolen technical data, [rebel] Alliance tacticians were able to pinpoint a crucial flaw in the Death Star’s design. A small ray-shielded thermal exhaust port led directly from the surface of the station into the heart of its colossal reactor. If the port could be breached by proton torpedoes, then the resulting chain reaction would destroy the station.”

We all know what happened next: By using the force, and with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca, as well as the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker was able to drop a proton torpedo right down the tiny port, and blow up the Death Star.

One small proton torpedo destroyed the Death Star. This would be a prime example of leveraging your power by using a properly placed fulcrum. In our case, to switch metaphors, where do we place the charges? Where is the correct thermal exhaust port? How do we start a chain reaction that will cause the “Death Star” before us to self-destruct?

You know, don’t you, that this wasn’t the movie’s original ending. I have in my hands an extremely rare early draft of the Star Wars film script, never before published. It may surprise you to learn that the early drafts were written by environmentalists. In this version, the rebels do not of course blow up the Death Star, but instead prefer to use other tactics to slow the intergalactic march of Empire.

For example, they set up programs for people on planets about to be destroyed to produce luxury items like hemp hacky sacks and gourmet coffee for sale to inhabitants of the Death Star. Audience members will also discover that there are plans afoot to encourage loads of troopers and other citizens of the Empire to take ecotours of doomed planets. The purpose will be to show to one and all that these planets are economically important to the Empire and so should not be destroyed.

In a surprise move that will rivet viewers to the edges of their seats, other groups of rebels file lawsuits against the Empire, attempting to show that the Environmental Impact Statement Darth Vader was required to file failed to adequately support its decision that blowing up this planet would cause “no significant impact.”

Viewers will thrill to learn of plans to boycott items produced by corporations that have Darth Vader on the board of directors, and will leap to their feet in theaters worldwide when they see bags full of letters written directly to Mr. Vader himself asking that he please not blow up anymore planets.

(Scribbled in the margin is a note from one of the screenwriters: “For accuracy’s sake, when we show examples of these letters, it is imperative that all letters to Mr. Vader be respectful and courteous, and that they stress the need to find cooperative solutions to the differences between the rebels and the Empire. Under no circumstances should the letters be such that they would alienate or anger Mr. Vader. If the letters upset Mr. Vader, the rebels’ letter campaign to the Grand Moff Tarkin would certainly fail as well.”)

Other plans include sending petitions and filing lawsuits.

Now, you and I both know that all of this should be sufficient not only to bring the Empire to its knees but to make a damn fine and exciting movie. The thing is: there’s more. Thousands of renegade rebels, unhappy with what they perceive as toadying on the part of the mainstream rebels, decide, in a scene guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of even the most cold-hearted theatergoers, to stand on the planets to be destroyed, link arms (or, in some cases, tentacles), and sing “Give Peace a Chance.” They send DVDs of this to both Darth Vader and his boss the Grand Moff Tarkin, to whom they also send wave after wave of lovingkindness™.

Some few rebels sneak aboard the Death Star and lock themselves down to various pieces of equipment. (Early in this draft of the film, the screenwriters included a long scene showing the extensive training in nonviolent communication that is a prerequisite to joining the rebels.

Most writers had originally, by the way, called it a rebel army, but several objected to the violence inherent in that word. Next came “rebel force,” but nearly as many objected to that word as well. In any case, the nuanced scene of nonviolence training was dropped in later drafts and the infamous [and horribly violent] Cantina scene was, incomprehensibly to some, put in its place.) Stirring debates are held onscreen among these rebels as to whether they should voluntarily surrender on approach of the troopers, or whether they should remain locked down to the end. In a brilliant and brave touch of authenticity, the rebels are never able to come to consensus.

The writers themselves entered into a debate as to whether the troopers should decapitate the locked-down rebels on or off screen, with one writer pleading that instead rebels must be explicitly shown being taken alive to interrogation cells: “Showing,” he wrote in the margin, “or even implying that the troopers would ever commit these acts of violence, even in response to such obvious challenges to their authority as rebels invading their space and doing violence to their machinery by interfering with that machinery’s lawful use would send absolutely the wrong message to theatergoers, and would give the wrong impression of Mr. Vader’s ultimately peaceful intentions.”

Once inside the Death Star, a splinter group breaks off from those about to lock themselves down. They rush down long hallways, somehow avoiding the myriad troopers. They burn a couple of transport ships, and use chemicals to etch “Galaxy Liberation Front” on the walls of the Death Star. This group miraculously escapes back to the planet about to be destroyed, where they’re held by the peaceful protesters so they can be immediately and rightly turned over to troopers.

That same writer comments in the margin, “Not only is it vital, once again, that the right message be sent to audience members by showing these rebels being put in a position to take responsibility for their actions, but it would also be terribly unrealistic to expect these peaceful rebels to put up with these actions that would simply give Darth Vader the excuse he needs to blow up the planet. The disrespectful hooligans must be turned over to the Empire promptly and without question.”

Near the end of the movie another debate is held among the rebels. (One problem I had with this environmentalist screenplay was that there was a bit too much debate and not quite enough action.) As the Death Star looms directly overhead, a few of the rebels advocate picking up weapons to fight back. These rebels are generally shouted down by pacifist rebels, who argue that attacking those who run the Death Star is “just another example of the Empire’s harmful philosophy coming in by the back door.” They state that the rebels who want to fight back are simply being co-opted by the need to control things. If we want to change Darth Vader, they say, we must all first become the change. To change Darth Vader’s heart, we must first change our own. We must above all else have compassion for Darth Vader, and remember that he, too, was once a child.

One writer put in the margins: “Excellent! This will be sure to moisten the cheeks of sensitive people everywhere!” He did not mention whether or not these tears would be of frustration.

Finally Leia, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and a couple of robots show up and tell these others they’ve found a way to blow up the whole Death Star. The rest of the rebels—even those who’d previously been in favor of surgical strikes aimed at “removing” Darth Vader—are horrified. They point out that blowing up the Death Star will do nothing to change the hearts and minds of those who create Death Stars, and so will accomplish nothing. Han Solo replies, “It will stop this Death Star from destroying this planet.”

The pacifist rebels are unmoved. They remind the unruly four that the Death Star has a crew of 265,675, plus 52,276 gunners, 607,360 troops, 25,984 stormtroopers, 42,782 ship support staff, and 167,216 pilots and support crew. Each of these people on the Death Star has a family. Do you want to make their children orphans? The pacifists themselves begin to cry. (That same screenwriter comments: “If that doesn’t yank the tears out of audience members’ tiny ducts, I don’t know what will!”) They say, voices firm behind the sobs, “You cannot blow up the Death Star. What about the custodial engineers? What about the cooks? What about the people who work the shopping malls? What about those who joined the empire’s armed services just so they could go to college? You—Leia, Han, Luke, and Chewbacca—are heartless and cruel.”

In the exciting final scene of the environmentalist version, a scuffle breaks out between Leia, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca on one side, and the pacifists on the other. At last the pacifists chase those four from the room and from the film. They’re never seen again, which isn’t really important since in this version they’re minor characters anyway.

The Death Star looms closer and closer. Audience members chew their fingernails as they wait to see whether the letters and petitions and lawsuits will work their magic. Viewers see lasers inside the Death Star warming up to destroy the planet. The lasers glow a hellish red. The camera switches to cover the endangered planet.

Suddenly a cheer will rise up from the audience as they see a small bright speck emerge from the planet’s surface and speed into space. “Yes!” they will roar, as they learn that all of the intrepid environmentalist protesters were able to get off the planet moments before it got blown up!

Coda: The final shot of the movie, revealing what a complete triumph this was for the rebels, will be a still showing an article on the lower-left of page forty-three of the New Empire Times devoting a full three sentences to the destruction of the planet. Yes! The protesters got some press!

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