Michael Gagne on Ecocide

It helps that he looks like Tom Cruise. Or does it? Listening to Michael Gagne speak about the ecological condition of the earth, I was reminded of the ideas I wrestle with in my book The Deception of Surfaces: how what we see on the surface often leads us to erroneous assumptions about what lies beneath. I first experienced this effect in AA meetings in New York in the nineties, when a gorgeous young actress or model – some girl I had been fantasizing about for most of the meeting – would open her mouth and begin speaking. And that was when what lay beneath overwhelmed and transformed the surface, and the object became alive with wisdom, humanity and – in these cases – pain. The consequences of this syndrome are doubtless worse for women than with men.

Michael is our Yearly Meeting‘s Eco Justice Coordinator. His presentation took place alongside a conversation we Friends were having about the current state of affairs in our Yearly Meeting generally. Not to put fine a point on it, but we a million dollars short for the next fiscal year. One of the cost-cutting measure we are considering includes cutting some staff positions. His position is one of the ones on the potential chopping block. He spoke at Haverford Quarterly Meeting, assembled at Valley Meeting, for about 45 minutes. He lifted up several ideas which I scribbled down, because they affected me so deeply.

He spoke of the Iroquois Nation. They asked, how will a choice I make today affect a person in my tribe seven generations from now? Think about it – they tried to imagine 500 years in the future, and felt a kinship to their own progeny that far away. I thought about all the choices I make every day, choices I take for granted, some I try not to think about too much, like buying gasoline or using plastic bags. If I really felt a connection – a responsibility – to my people 500 years in the future, would it change anything? Do I even believe it? Do I believe that any choice I make has such an effect?

But of course, that’s not the point. The point is to pry my attention away from the awesomely seductive event happening right now, and move it outward, so that I can feel my connectedness to everything else, even to things and people who haven’t arrived yet. He reinforced the danger of our cultural myopia with a Chinese proverb: if you keep going in one direction, eventually you will arrive. What if, he asked, the destination is a cliff?

He embarked on a critique of industrial capitalism. “The enduring success of our market economy is based on the concept of infinite growth,” he said. “Even a child can tell you there’s something funny about that idea. There are only two phenomena which utilize infinite growth as their modus operandi: industrial capitalism, and cancer. Both will eventually kill their host.” Quaker meetings are usually quiet. But the quiet in the room then had an intense barometric pressure, as if the truth of what he had said pressed in on us at all sides. “Okay,” he said cheerfully, “I’ll say it: I think industrial capitalism is a cancer. And life on earth is the host.”

George Lakey walking the walk

Then he spoke about methods used to make change in societies. I had heard George Lakey describe these ideas at Residential Yearly Meeting in 2009 or ’10, I forget which. The three methods are:

  1. Force. Essentially, kill and destroy the people and institutions you want to change. If you can find the will and the weapons, it’s very effective. The trouble is what happens afterwards: people and institutions who achieve their positions through violence almost always use violence to maintain it.
  2. Words and symbols. I remember Lakey saying this is the method most preferred by modern Quakers. This is the province of intellectuals, activists and letter writers. This method has the effect of making the people engaged in it feel as though they are making a difference, but in reality, campaigns based on words an ideas seldom result in real societal change.
  3. People power (I think Lakey called this non-violent resistance). This is activism taken to another level, and was the strategy invented by Ghandi and employed by King and the civil rights movement. It involves direct confrontation with institutions, to the point where meeting your demands makes more sense – in variety of ways – than maintaining the status quo.

Michael made it clear that the state of our ecological situation would not change without the use of “people power”. He reminded us of something George Orwell observed about institutions. Once an institution is created, it will expend most of its remaining energy perpetuating itself. This observation had a special poignancy that day, with the Yearly Meeting’s problems in the background.

“Some of this can be ascribed to the way we make decisions,” he said. “There are two ways we make decisions in groups: the triangle and the circle. In the triangle, power is consolidated at the top, and decisions flow downwards to the masses. In the circle, no one is at the top, and everyone is connected.”

I have been thinking about this distinction for a while in two contexts: theatrical and Quakerly. The conventional creative hierarchy in the theater is the triangle, with the director on top. I have chafed on this design in some instances, and sung its praises in others. Quaker groups utilize the circle most often. I have chafed on this design in some instances, and sung its praises in others. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote and submitted to Pendle Hill Publishing for consideration (it was rejected):

Hierarchical decision-making (“we’re doing it this way because I say so”) is clear, efficient and organized. One person speaks, many listen, and an idea is brought to life. Those listening feel little sense of responsibility for the decision. They are free to focus all their energy on their part of the task at hand. Think of football teams and armies. The quarterback, or general, “calls the play”. Everyone knows their role, and if the orders are delivered clearly and everyone is well-prepared, a stunning outcome can be had in a short time. The professional theatre favors this paradigm for one simple reason: money. This decision-making process saves money through efficiency. I would argue, in fact, that it is commercial forces which drive this paradigm generally. If we live in a world where the dollar is king, than we want bosses to make good decisions and deliver positive outcomes quickly.

An unavoidable feature of hierarchical decision making is that it concentrates power in one (or a few) people out of many. This is where many Quakers begin having trouble with it. Indeed, this is where Fox and his friends had trouble with it, engaged as they were in a movement with as many political implications as theological ones. The single preacher, minister or “professor” as Fox called him, had precisely this kind of power in the Anglican Church of the 17th century, and used it for oppressive purposes. This is the Achilles heal of hierarchical models: their tendency to invite the abuse of power, and to encourage oppression.

But is it the model that’s the problem, or the person in it? For years, I was thought of as an actor who had it out for directors. I wrote a book which opens with the story of a young actor being abused by dictatorial director. I have been prone to ask the uncomfortable question in rehearsal. But it was only after I realized what a great actor I became when working with an excellent director that I realized: it wasn’t the hierarchical model I was uncomfortable with, it was people who abused it. This decision making model works well – brilliantly in fact – when the person making the decisions is a gifted leader. Not everyone is. But I believe that those who are should be put in leadership positions where their gifts can be put to good use. Modern Quakers have an uneasy relationship with the concept of leadership. I believe we need to come in to right relationship with it, and remember that if not for visionary leaders, our Society would not exist.

Quakers have developed a corporate Spirit-led decision-making process held in worship. It is the religious version of the collective process some theatre groups use. In it, there is no one leader making decisions for the group. The group spends as much time as it needs to arrive at a decision together. I am blessed to have been present at extraordinary meetings for business, and Quaker committee meetings, in which this group discernment process worked beautifully. At the end, when the decision was reached, we all felt that we had been on a journey together. Each of us held responsibility for the decision reached, and were proud. We felt that we all knew each other a bit more deeply. We had been knit together by Something greater than any of our individual wishes, needs or desires. We took as long as we needed to come to a decision that we each owned equally, and while some of us may not have been jumping up and down about it, each one of us felt respected, honored, and heard.

 I have also been a part of collective decision making which has resembled a train wreck. Unlike the hierarchical model which is as robust and strong as the leader is, collective decision making is fragile. In it, minority positions have extraordinary power. If the Achilles heal of the hierarchical model is the abuse of the majority position, than the Achilles heal of the collective model is the abuse of the minority position. The Quaker collective discernment process relies on an implicit trust of the group, and an agreement that when the decision seems to be moving a particular direction, there is Something at work bigger than we are individually (the group itself? God maybe? Or the Inner Christ?). We resist it only in the most urgent instances. It falls apart completely when any one person in the room diverges from that agreement, does not believe in a Higher Power, or does not trust the group. When Quaker communities were made up of birthright Friends, raised in the holy ethos of our traditions, we acquired this trust and belief – and  a deep understanding of collective decision making –  through years of experience. Now, in an era in which most of us in monthly meetings are convinced Friends, that experience is lacking.

Interestingly, it is the same personal flaw which brings down both models: vanity. It is when a person feels more important – either through fear or pride –  than the principal or project at hand, that either a group becomes oppressed or collective decision making evaporates. In both models, it is a shared devotion to something greater than any one person which makes the process work. The victorious football team under the quarterback’s leadership, and the vibrant Quaker meeting under the guidance of the Spirit, both gather around a shared goal or vision and bend their efforts towards it.

Michael finished by doing something I love: he traced the etymology of “ecological”. Eco, it seems, comes from a Greek root which means . . . wait for it . . . home. And so economics is the practice of keeping your home in order, and ecology then, is the practice of keeping it clean. I thought of the quote I have chosen for White Pines Productions, from Emerson: A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence. 

I left feeling lifted by the knowledge that our Yearly Meeting is peopled with bright young leaders like Michael. As long as it is so, there is hope.