“Now What?”

30 Jun

I frequently ask the question, “Now what?” especially when it comes to racial justice, climate change, and other GIANT issues that activists bring up. If there is something small and reasonable I can do, I’ll do it. But frequently the call to action is either “Be afraid,” “Be ashamed,” or “Be aware.”

One of my readers asked that same question of me – I brought up the history of Juneteenth and the problem of trying to love our country at the same time being aware of its sins. A lot of people have trouble with this. We prefer to think in terms of dichotomies; black-white, good-bad, right-wrong. But real life doesn’t work that way. Real life has contradictions, injustice, trade-offs… and that’s uncomfortable.

Let’s talk about climate change. No, there is too much, let me talk about water pollution instead. Let’s say you’re a paper mill in Eastern Oregon. You produce waste product which is most conveniently dumped into the Columbia River. The EPA regulates the amount of waste you can dump into the river, but if you fish salmon out of that river, that may be putting too much toxic chemicals into the fish… which means it’s unsafe to eat.

Okay, at this point, you have to ask yourself, “Why not eat chicken?” That’s one option. But let’s say, you’re one of the multiple native tribes that live in that area for which a) salmon is part of your culture and b) we’re rather poor and need an cheaper protein source. Many of your tribal members AND neighbors also need the work that the paper mill provides. “Now what?”

The answer is “get involved.” To which I would answer, “I’ve got a life, I don’t have time, I don’t want to dedicate my life to this. I just want cleaner fish.” That’s why protests tend to be filled with young people. (I’m still not sure who sits outside courthouses waiting for rulings.) But there’s a variety of levels of involvement – if you’re not willing to march, write letters to the company, to your legislatures. Sure, they’ll mostly be ignored, but sheer numbers will get attention even to the most jaded folks. Reach out to the media. Jump on social media. Trust me, you don’t need to spend more than 15 minutes a week doing this. Anyone can slice off that amount of time.

For example, during the COVID shutdown, I wrote my legislators every week calling to end the shutdown. I knew they weren’t reading it, but someone in their office might be ticking my name next to a box. Trust me, when it was the only issue anyone was talking about, politicians want to know. If you repeat the message enough, people will hear. You don’t have to be angry about it, you don’t have to be impolite, you just have to be consistent.

Now here comes the hard part; be willing to compromise. As Americans, our finest asset is holding two contradictory opinions at the same time. (Don’t believe me? Polls say that many people who are pro-life are also pro-death penalty.) So let’s apply that to other parts of our life. We want clean water AND paper mills. Can we dump the waste water into containment pool? Can the state share the cost for a better filtering system? Can we make the paper company look good by supporting an environmental initiative?

In the end, remember – you are not powerless. You also don’t have infinite time. Be willing to provide as little as you can and embrace ambiguity. No… it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker (maybe two bumper stickers), and it sucks as a call to action. But it has the advantage of being honest – and nowadays – that’s the most powerful element of all.

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