Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pagan Values Part 1: Did The Internet Kill Pagan Environmentalism?

This is first of what I assume will be at least  two (if I'm not lazy) essays relating to some stuff that was written on the subject of Pagan values.  The first--this one--is about environmental concerns.  The second will be about nudity at Pagan events.  They're both connected and will likely reference each other.

I'll be honest: I haven't really kept up with that much of what's going on in the Pagan community right now, but I did happen to catch an article on Patheos by Peg Aloi entitled "Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed? Yes, Yes, A Resounding Yes."  I should mention that I agree... with the premise in the title.  But upon reading it, I have to question the entire point of what Aloi is saying, and I'd like to explain why.  Oh, and for this essay, when I say "Paganism" I am talking about the part of the movement Aloi seems to talk about, which is the earth-based, for lack of a better word "Wiccanate" form of Paganism prevalent in the United States.  Based on some of Aloi's comments I believe this is really what the article is about.

This is what I got out of the article (and of course, I may be misrepresenting so you are welcome to read it via the link I gave above):
  • Paganism in the United States started out as a bastion of liberal values, devoted to feminism, environmentalism, the sexual revolution, and civil rights.
  • The Internet came along.
  • Shortly after, we were suddenly able to get everything we need from the Internet, including supplies and information.
  • Now nobody reads books anymore, nobody plays in dirt anymore, nobody goes to community rituals anymore, and therefore environmentalism is failing.
I reiterate, I do agree that Pagan environmentalism--and all of our politics--are in an incredibly sorry state.  I didn't come to this conclusion based on things I read from other people online, though.  I gained that perspective almost entirely from my interactions with Pagans I met or did work with offline.  But I'll get into that a bit, later.

Here's where this article falls short:  It makes the assumption that Pagans were at one point excruciatingly enlightened about the environment, and then we lost it as soon as we started connecting online.  But I don't agree that either of these things are true.  I would argue that:
  • The political environment people are reminiscing about probably wasn't as unique as people think it was.
  • The political environment today is imperfect, but it has to do with a hell of a lot more than the Internet or even individual Pagan behaviors.
  • Many of the things Aloi is talking about as being signs of environmental downfall really don't have anything to do with being environmentally friendly.
First, let's talk about this mythical understanding of the Paganism of the '60s and '70s.  The way some of these people talk, Pagans during this time were the shining star of progressivism, a safe space for all minorities and a leader in per-member environmental improvement.  And you know what?  The environmental progress made during these times was (and continues to be) pretty damn important.  Pagans during this time were involved, but let's be fair: Environmentalism or at least the appearance of environmentalism was fashionable at the time.  Paganism back then was pretty much defined as earth-centered.  So it makes sense that people who defined themselves with regard to their relationship to the Earth would actively participate in co-existing environmental movements.  Pagans before this time were not typically that gung-ho about this subject.

Paganism has changed a lot since then, with the practical definition of "Pagan" widening to include a lot of people who do not self-define as earth-based-worshipers.  This is, by the way, one sliver of the "problem."  That widening of the definition is a good thing.  It means more "oomph" in numbers!  But it also means there are more self-defined Pagans out there who are not just indifferent to environmental concerns, but actively opposed to them.

But again, that's a sliver.  It's absolutely true that Pagans have been failing environmentally.  Aloi's argument, though, seems to rest on the idea that the Internet is stifling learning, preventing people from going outside, and encouraging buying Pagan products.  There are a lot of things that really need to be said about this, though:
  1. The Internet hasn't stifled learning among Pagans, just as it hasn't stifled learning among the general population.  In many ways it's actually enhanced it.  Pagans today have the opportunity to understand more about our own history than ever before (back in the '60s and '70s and even the '80s Pagans regularly truly believed they were descendents of an unbroken Witch Cult, that people killed during the European Witch Trials were literally Witches, and lots of other incredibly false stuff).  The Internet gave us the ability to say "Wait a minute, this thing people have been taking as undeniable fact from a book published back in 1979 isn't entirely accurate."  It's given resources to Pagans who don't have the money or the appropriate home environment to buy or borrow actual books.  As somebody who did not touch an actual Pagan book until he was a Pagan for at least five years, and who subsequently has read dozens of them, I can tell you that books are overrated.  That's going to be a statement that'll probably bite me in the ass at some point, and they're certainly beneficial, but there's nothing about being a Pagan that requires actually handling a book.
  2. Playing in dirt does not make you an environmentalist.  Eco-friendliness is distinct from outdoorsiness.  We have this romantic conception of environmentalism as inherently being a deep, hands-on experience shared by people who regularly go out into the woods and commune with nature.  Aloi talks about literally going out and hugging trees.  And hey, I'm not dissing tree-hugging, but aside from any spiritual healing you may believe in (which is great but outside of the scope of this essay), its main purpose is to motivate people to care.  I assure you, though, that people can care about the environment without hugging or even touching a tree.  People can care about the environment while spending all day on a computer.  People can care about the environment while doing all their rituals indoors.  Which reminds me...
  3. The Internet has facilitated a great deal of accessibility for Pagans in remote areas or who have disabilities.  I have a deep love of in-person Pagan events, and I try to go to them regularly, but I didn't for years because of debilitating social anxiety and lack of appropriate transportation.  And it's important that I mention this, because not enough people are: In-person Pagan events are often extremely inaccessible.  People pump incense and smudge everywhere without thinking about allergies or asthma, people often pick locations for public rituals based on prettiness without regard for whether or not someone can get a wheelchair in there, food served during cakes and ale is picked without regard for food allergies, diets, or ethical preferences (My very first public ritual we all had our eyes closed as we reached into a basket that they didn't disclose the contents of: Eggs.  I was a vegan.).  The Internet is largely responsible for giving people an outlet who can't handle these issues, and has helped spread awareness of them.
  4. That all said, when Aloi says that Pagans "despite feeling more connected, are actually more fragmented than ever," she's ignoring a few problems with her reasoning.  First, the Pagan community is massive compared to how it was in the '60s and '70s.  Covens and groups were smaller, rarer, and more insular.  Remote Pagans were often solitaries and had to stick it out alone and didn't have the web to fall back on for camaraderie.  Next, the widening of the Pagan umbrella means that people who would not have identified as Pagans--or been identified as Pagans by other Pagans--are getting more recognition.
What I want to focus on, though, is something I feel Aloi gets right:  The Internet has increased the level of consumerism among Pagans, turning us into a market, and that has probably contributed a lot.  And I speak as somebody who is somewhat addicted to Pagan trinkets.  I have divination tools and spell ingredients and ritual weapons I practically never use.  People try to fill a hole left by shallow spirituality with pretty things, which both distracts from the deep environmental respect Pagans typically try to have and contributes to waste.

That's a function of overall capitalism, though.  It's not unique to the Pagan community in any way, shape, or form.  We live in a culture of buying things and then throwing them away, we live in an era of planned obsolescence and cheap goods that keep us having to go back and constantly replace things we've broken.  We live in an era of uncertainty and off-balance understandings of the interplay between health, money, and the environment.  We live in a time when corporations pay millions of dollars to convince you that something environmentally devastating is actually environmentally friendly, and average people often don't have the resources to understand the difference.

Most of these problems are not unique to Pagans.  We have absorbed them the same way everyone else has absorbed them.  It's frustrating that people continue to separate Pagan psychology from that of the rest of humanity.

It's not inherently due to not going outside enough or not hugging enough trees, and it's also not actually new.  I'll give you an example.  I went to Pagan Spirit Gathering last year.  And the environmental situation?  Fucking deplorable.  People were chucking perfectly good camping equipment in the dumpsters just to avoid packing it.  People were leaving trash on the ground.  The recycling and regular trash were so intermingled they couldn't separate them.  This year I heard of people who neglected to refill fire pits, leaving more trash, leaving more perfectly good stuff to be shipped away. This is a weeklong, entirely outdoor gathering.  Yes, people have cellphones now. 

I remember thinking of Woodstock when we got the announcement of how much trash was around.  This is iconic of the countercultural movement, the same movement we associate with environmentalism.  People at Woodstock didn't have Facebook.  But it was still pretty indistinguishable from a landfill after the festivities were complete:

The point is, the reason Pagans fail so hard at environmentalism these days is because practically everybody fails hard at environmentalism.  We aren't given proper knowledge or resources and we're barraged with advertising meant to encourage us to buy the plastic bottle with 20% less plastic rather than the refillable bottle or to ignore the massive, pressing problems in our habits--and corporate habits--while we focus on little things like avoiding aerosol cans or occasionally buying a few things organic.

Can Pagans do better?  Absolutely.  And we have the cultural mentality--the desire to do good for the planet--to want to do better.  But it really is unfair to point the blame squarely on narcissistic use of technology or lack of time spend outdoors.  There's far more to it than that.