The Faith of a Green Anarchist

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The faith of a green anarchist is faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. As the winter solstice is the longest night of the year—the light’s longest absence—it could be understood as one of our High Holy days when this faith is most severely tested and hope may be restored. It is, and must be, an article of faith that the sun will once again rise and that the light will return to nourish us; that, as John Muir wrote, “this is still the morning of creation”.

Many will object and insist that we know the sun will rise and that therefore no faith is required. But that claim relies on the validity of what is likely a false binary between faith and knowledge. It is also a claim to know the future. It is human arrogance. That the sun has, in fact, risen quite consistently in the past provides merely the grounds for confidence, not certainty. It suggests merely that our faith is not of the blind variety.

To push the point a bit further, one might stack up a mountain of books, assemble a stadium of experts, and compile all that we seem to know about gravity, planetary motion, the life cycle of a star, and the rotation of the earth but he or she will nonetheless fall short of certainty. There will remain a gap that knowledge cannot bridge; to get to the other side one can only leap.

The unstated assumption originally pointed out by David Hume is that the law-like regularity of past events will continue uninterrupted into the future. There is no—non-question begging—evidence available to justify that assumption. We do not and cannot know that the future will resemble the past in the ways that would be relevant to this inquiry.

Green anarchist faith may therefore be grounded not in what we know but in an awareness of and sensitivity to our animal limitations; limitations that are not temporary obstacles that we might one day overcome but that are inherent to being corporeal beings. The human mind has access to some aspects of reality but by no means to the whole of reality. David Abram explains:

“Each creature—two-leggeds included—has only a restricted access to the mystery of the real. As a human I may have compiled a great mass of data about the ways of the world, yet in a practical, visceral sense…an earthworm knows far more about the life of the soil than I do, as a swallow knows far more about the wind. To be human is to have very limited access to what is.” [emphasis added] [1]

Furthermore, human language does not and cannot perfectly map or mirror the world. All language use is necessarily imperfect, incomplete, and distorted. With every move, language leaks truth like a worn out bucket and introduces error. The impact of this on our overall knowledge of the world is vast given how much of our beliefs are filtered through language and dependent on the testimony of others.

So our projections and forecasts are always uncertain. To suggest otherwise is to reduce reality to a simple machine—perhaps civilization’s favorite metaphor—where each event follows the next as a matter of course, where the ending is predetermined and wholly predictable, where we have access to the whole of its operations. But if reality must be likened to a machine it is of the black box variety where we have nothing but observed inputs and outputs and very little beyond speculation as to its internal churning. We may at times be able to predict the output but, in ways both better and worse, are regularly mistaken and surprised.

Given the number of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic visions currently in circulation, the fact that we are often mistaken should be understood as a source of hope and encouragement. There are more variables at play than we can possibly be aware of and so our nightmare visions may not come to pass. To give up hope and abandon resistance is to treat humanity as an all-knowing deity rather than as an animal operating with limited knowledge and finite senses.

During this time of year, every day is shorter than the last; darkness claims an ever increasing portion of our existence. The trajectory can be discouraging; we may come to feel estranged from the sun. The winter solstice is the point when that changes; when darkness yields to light and the days gradually grow longer. In this way it is holy.

I have faith that the sun will return and we will again be well.

[1] Abram, David. 2010. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage, p. 217

Here Comes the Sun

“For the most part, we who live at the end of the twentieth century no longer celebrate these ancient festivals. Or, if we do, we observe them in unrecognizable forms…these are often highly commercialized affairs. Gone is the sense of participation in the cyclic interaction of the Earth and the heavens. Now we seem to be interested only in our human business. We rarely look up at the night sky, and we tend to observe a sunrise or sunset with only casual interest.”     -Richard Heinberg, Celebrate the Solstice, p. 6

I am an atheist. Yet I am acutely aware of certain things that organized religion has, at times, done well: creating community for its adherents, fostering enduring traditions, and even encouraging good works. I’ll assume that the harm caused by religion need not be addressed or cataloged.

That said, I find myself without much in the way of tradition and the holidays I have thus far tended to celebrate have not necessarily been very meaningful; they do not necessarily reflect my values, or focus my attention on what matters to me. They have been enjoyable in that they often afford time with family, a break from work, and, of course, delicious food but there is an arbitrariness about them that detracts from their significance.

An atheist on Christmas, a vegan (or really anyone who opposes genocide) on Thanksgiving, and an anarchist on the Fourth of July must all feel at least somewhat out of place.

This is why for the first time I will be genuinely celebrating the Winter Solstice and staking claim to a holiday that resonates with me. I am not so much observing a holiday as I am asserting a holiday. I am, of course, not creating this holiday as it has been celebrated since ancient times in a multitude of creative ways.

The Winter Solstice represents the point in the year when days start getting longer rather than shorter; the point when the presence of the sun stops shrinking and begins asserting itself again. This is worth celebrating. To celebrate the Solstice is to acknowledge that the change in season matters in ways that go beyond fashion and to acknowledge that our days are not simply a series of 24 hour intervals that can be carved up in whatever manner we (or more often others) wish to carve them. Our days are not interchangeable parts.

In Celebrate the Solstice, Richard Heinberg explains: “We have gradually but decisively cut ourselves off from many of the cycles of the cosmos and of the biosphere and substituted arbitrary, economically determined temporal patterns. We have overridden the natural daily rhythms of light and dark with the artificial illumination of cities; the rhythm of the seasons with greenhouses and supermarkets, jet travel and central heating.” (p. 22).

When we make it through the longest night of the year to find the sun shining in the morning, our faith in what the Earth may provide us with is confirmed.

Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain Project has said of the Solstice that: “Much of winter’s harshness and hunger may lie ahead, but we know that the world is headed towards comfort and fruitfulness again.”

If we are to remake our culture in such a way so that it respects the “more-than-human-world” (to borrow David Abram’s rich phrase) and embodies the values that we hope to see flourish then we must set about the work (or is it play?) of creating and perhaps, more often than not, re-discovering the holidays, festivals, traditions, and dare I say ritual, that matters to us. As an atheist one might suspect that I have no need for such things (“childish things”?) and yet I am growing to see them as increasingly important.

For people such as me who are used to going through the motions of prefab holidays, the business of rewriting the calendar should be both challenging and exciting. It is a creative endeavor without formulaic answers.

For the Solstice this year, I plan to stay up through the night spending time with someone I love as together we wait to greet the sun and feel cold night air give way to the warmth of sunrise. To acknowledge our kinship with our fellow animals who are also currently experiencing long cold nights, we will leave offerings of food for them to find. We may stay warm with a fire and read words that focus our attention on the significance of the time and place we are in.

This is not activism in any conventional sense. It is instead part of the process of falling in love with Earth and the many beings who, along with ourselves, comprise Earth.