Accidental Activist

Guilty as Charged

What makes a good citizen? How can I go to my grave confident in the knowledge that whatever happens to this little green and blue ball we're spinning on, I'm not guilty?

By Ben Bull
Published May 05, 2006

Guilt is a terrible thing. I should know; I'm racked with it permanently, even when I'm innocent (which is most of the time, of course). However, it seems to me that these days, the more I learn - about the environment, world hunger, the spread of disease, the democratic process, all that fun stuff - the more guilt I feel.

But why should that be? What do I have to feel guilty about? Am I not a good citizen? Do I not dump all my crap in the Blue Box every week? Don't I keep my driving down to a minimum and send my cheque to the United Way every month?

Of course I do! But yet, it still seems that whatever I do, it's never enough.

Take a few weeks ago, for instance. I was feeling quite chuffed after persuading the missus to cut back on her pre-packed goods purchases, and I was all warm and smug after emailing a couple of local newspaper columnists with my thoughts on the latest developments in the downtown.

What a great citizen I am, I thought. This planet is lucky to have me.

But then Wendy Mesley popped up on the telly, harping on about carcinogens in the atmosphere and our food.

"Why do we allow this to happen?" she asked, looking directly into the camera - at me. Bloody Hell, I thought. What have I done now?

I blame the Information Age, of course (or whatever we're calling it now). Before 24 hour news, email, and the Internet, it was relatively easy to stay ignorant - and innocent. I knew my planet was doing OK because nobody told me any different.

Sure, we had wars and yeah, there was the threat of nukes, oil price hikes and world recessions, and absolutely, I was a lot younger back then. But I certainly don't recall my Dad stomping around yelling, "The world is going to pot! I have to call my councillor!" and "Who do these politicians think they are?" like I do now.

They were happier times all around.

I suppose I could blame my newfound curiosities too - my awakening as a political shit disturber - and the fact that I'm not getting any younger. But that's not my point. My central question is this: What makes a good citizen? How can I go to my grave confident in the knowledge that whatever happens to this little green and blue ball we're spinning on, I'm not guilty?

As usual, I have a theory. It's not particularly well thought out, but hey; I don't see anyone else putting one out there so allow me to espouse mine.

First, let's deal with this 'guilt' thing.

I first got the idea that being a good citizen was all about not being guilty - doing no harm, treading lightly, whatever you want to call it - when the Arch-Deacon of Do-Gooders Sir Bob Geldof hopped up on stage to collect an award for Live Aid some years ago.

In his acceptance speech, Geldof made the surprise declaration, "When all of this is over, at least I can look back and say, 'not guilty'."

What a crass comment, I thought. Aren't we supposed to try and heal the world as well as stop it from hurting itself?

This idea of guilt came up again last week. I was having an argument with a vegetarian friend of mine who was trying to persuade me that he was a "good citizen".

"I don't eat meat," said Phil, who claims that numerous chemicals and pollutants go into the processing of meat. "I ride my bike, I pick up litter, I recycle, I vote - I'm a bloody good friend to this planet."

"But are you 'not guilty?''' I asked him.

"I am definitely 'not guilty,'" he replied.

I disagreed. If you ask me, Phil and Bob have both got it wrong.

Here's my theory: I believe there are three things we must do to earn the moniker, "friend of the planet:"

1) Don't Be Ignorant

It's not always easy, but we all have a responsibility to seek out the truth, especially as it pertains to issues we care deeply about. We can't know everything, of course, and we are all subject to misinformation and misdirection, but the fact that we may sometimes feel overwhelmed is no excuse for shutting ourselves away and being ignorant.

I believe that every one of us should question what we see and what we hear and seek to understand our world a little better. Ideologies, Talk Radio, Fox News - all Bad! Open Mindedness, Inquisitiveness, Lively debate - Good!

2) Do No Harm

The idea of "treading lightly" on the planet and "not being guilty" is steadily being ingrained into our culture. Whether it be Bob Geldof, my mate Phil or the Kyoto Climate Accord, the responsibility we all have to leave our planet in the same shit state we found it appears to be increasingly well understood (so no need for me to harp on about it here).

3) Take Action

Now here's where I think many of us fall short. How many of us truly appreciate the power we posses? How many of us understands just what kind of an impact we can make on ourselves, our communities and the world?

Here in North America, all we seem to do is whine about our roads, our taxes, our politicians, and our lot. We don't do anything because we feel powerless, but we're not. A starving kid in Africa is powerless. A political prisoner in China or Iran is powerless. Here in North America we have a tremendous capacity to affect change and exert our will.

The truth is that it is we the people who have the power. In a democracy the only thing that creates effective change is the will of the people. What do politicians ever do? Politicians respond to the will of the people - that's how a democracy works.

Yeah, yeah we have lobbyists and corruption and all the rest, and yes, some people are created more equal than others, but hey - nothing is perfect. If we sit around and refuse to exercise the power and influence that we have simply because we don't like the system, then we are all to blame for the state of the world around us.

Democracy works - eventually - but it does work. I'm not talking about voting once every few years, either. Democracy is about much more than that. Call your councillor, write a letter, go to a meeting, support a cause but most of all take action. As a citizen of this plant it is your duty to Do Something to make the world a better place.

I'm certain there are hard times ahead for this planet. Hysterical Peak Oil theorists talk about mass starvation and global wars. Wide eyed environmentalists talk about catastrophic climate changes before the turn of the next century.

Hamilton Mayor Larry Di Ianni thinks everything will be just fine. But that doesn't mean we can all sit idly by. Whatever happens the one thing we can do - and the only thing we must do - is be a friend to this planet.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By adrian (registered) | Posted May 16, 2006 at 22:01:32

Another highly enjoyable article. I feel guilty too. Is writing about it enough?

I think that's another part of the problem: writing articles, letters to the editor and MPs, voting, all that stuff is great, but it still seems like not very much, compared to say, burning huge piles of tires in the middle of the road.

Note that I am not recommending anyone take the Red Hill Creek expressway into their own hands, once it finally gets built.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2006 at 09:58:22

Hi Adrian,

Yeah I know, it's kind of glib to just state 'Take Action' without getting into some specifics. I hope one of the RTH writers (probably not me...) will cover the topic of 'How to Affect Change' in an upcoming issue (over to you Ry...)

There are many ways to Take Action - from Direct Action, such as you suggest, to Passive Action - Protest and so on. There are books that expand on this topic all over the place... Sorry I can't be more informative!

I think the nature of activism is slowly changing - evolving. Whether it's the rise of 'free media' or a growing disillusionment with governments, I think that people are beginning to realize that they can't simply sit back and expect their elected leaders to do the right thing on their behalf, and act on their best interests.

I believe that activist groups that are able to consolidate around clear objectives and use a focused approach to fulfilling those objectives have the most chance of success.

There are many tools that we can use - most of them are already there, just waiting to be used. Take the everday actitivies at City Hall. Lawyers regularly speak on behalf of their developer clients at council meetings. Yet nobody else turns up. As a result Councilors often only get the developer representatives side of the story. The citizen next door doesn't have the time or the knowledge to prepare and deliver a well thought out presentation of counter arguments. However, we have seen on many occasions that when citizens DO speak up in this forum, councilors WILL listen. The democratic framework (another word I hate - sorry) is in place - and yes it has problems, but it's there non-the-less - all we have to do is learn how to use it, and start using it!

During the formation of a now defunct Downtown Advocates group last year, I proposed that the best way for them to promote their downtown friendly agenda, was for them to identify all the motions that might affect the core, and simply speak to council about them. I still think that by using the democratic tools we have in place is one of the best ways for us to affect change. Another way is even more obvious - build relationships. Just as Ryan and Trev and Jason and probably yourself are doing - getting to know some of the players in our political scene enables us to gain a better understanding of what their perspectives are, and where common ground can be found.

Ultimately people respond to only two things - consequences and rewards. Whatever we do to try and affect change it always comes down to: what's in it for me?



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