Organizing with Nature in Mind
A butterfly will never evolve into a flower. This may seem obvious, but for many, it is not. We see it all the time in organizing. Something cannot be made out of nothing. Ideas disconnected from reality, properly voted on after thorough debate, fail to accomplish their goals in the real world. Some things become what they are supposed to be, and they won’t be bent to do what they never could do. We exist—as activists, organizers, humans—in nature. We are component parts of nonlinear systems that interact with one another in incredibly complicated ways.
Let's back way up. Industrial capitalism is a Rube Goldberg machine that moves individual carbon atoms from long gone oceans into new oceans. There are all sorts of subsystems of this machine, like education or war or entertainment, but the whole point of the machine is to move atoms from over there to over here.
Industrial capitalism resides inside of another set of systems. Millions of years ago, phytoplankton captured energy from the sun, died and settled in anoxic waters. Over geologic history, they became buried in shale and sandstone as the planet's core burned and shifted its crust. About a quarter century ago, with the invention of the steam engine, humans began converting fossil fuels into heat and motion, using that energy to extract and accumulate evermore stuff for ever fewer humans. And in millions of years, the capitalist Rube Goldberg machine will be gone. The carbon we labored to move will be back in shale and sandstone.
This is the meaningless of everything, and yet we care. We care because, despite attempts to live beyond our means at geological scale, we can never escape living at a human scale. We are humans, bound by our evolution. We exist within the order of organic and inorganic substances that came before us and we can reach no further than that material history.
I like to think of radical political tendencies as alleles in a gene pool. Each tendency is a variant form of a gene resulting in different arrangements of phenotypes. When the environment changes, some genes become better adapted to the change, and thus become more prominent, while others become less useful and fade away. This is how butterflies and flowers coevolved together. They transformed each other.
What shaped a species of butterfly was its circumstances and resources over evolutionary time. What shaped a socialist organizer was her circumstances and resources over her lifetime. They each have traits that come into or leave prominence as the world around them constantly changes. Life is an output, a product of history, of which it is also an input, a factor, in some future product of history.
Earth is a closed system in which matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Humans don't have a separate set of rules. We are a particular form of matter and energy at a particular time in history. This is where our limitations lie. No matter what we imagine, to change anything, we must be able to use what we have to get what we want.
In an ecological system, everything has a role to play. One species' trash is another species' treasure, so to speak. Outputs for one are inputs for another. The system tightens itself up to provide inputs and outputs at rates necessary for each component to use in its lifespan. Each system, however, happens at different scales. Some never leave a few square feet, others are global. Some live days, others hundreds of years.
So why does an organizer need to understand this?
"Meet them where they are" is the sort of cliche that organizers throw around but often fail to fully understand. It's a deceptively simple organizing axiom. It's all too often used to describe some sort of unsophistication of workers that centers leaders specifically, and a party program generally. The masses of people lack consciousness, and must be raised up!
More often than not, people already know what they need, or perhaps more precisely, what they don't have. An organizer must discover what is necessary, materially, to help people they organize with take their own steps. The best organizers don’t lead people, they figure out which traits, motivations and skills people already have and help them find environments where those abilities can be best utilized by a whole collective in service of a whole movement.
Transformative politics don’t seek to change people into something they are not, what they cannot become. Energy and matter must be put to work with what already exists. Transformation begins with individual people, which inform groups, who then transform the world around them. The planet is a meshwork of systems.
When organizers try to clone themselves and their own politics in the people they organize, they develop anti-patterns that make organizations incredibly brittle. Just like flowers would cease to exist without their pollinators, so too might political action focused only on one type of policy, or one type of strategy. The scales of actions and subsequent policies must match the capacities, abilities and the needs of the people calling for change. The point of organizing is not to develop a world full of organizers. The point of organizing is to reorganize the world’s systems with the matter and energy that actually exists.
Systems are intertwined in nonlinear ways. Macro level systems both develop from and create microsystems. What appears to be a new environmental movement from Sunrise with the Green New Deal, championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has deep roots in localized actions. Ojibwe women carried lessons learned like pollen from water board meetings in Minnesota to Standing Rock, and thousands of people carried pollen from Standing Rock into the rest of the world. Without these seemingly insignificant—and seemingly ineffective—moments, the Green New Deal might not be in the national spotlight. A storm must gather its power from somewhere. Sometimes a butterfly needs to flap its wings.