Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Activists

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 09, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 9, 2008.

Responding to Dave Pollard, A Paean to Activists.

There is a parallel between your argument here and that of an individual who, faced with his own mortality, decides there is no point working toward a better life.

Civilization will collapse, sooner or later, either of the illnesses that currently afflict us or of some unknown future disaster. But it does not follow from this that civilization is not worth enhancing, improving, saving.

Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that "human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism." (quote from Wikipedia).

The denial of death may be a fool's errand, in the long run. But it is also the only thing that gives meaning to hope and happiness, love and adventure. The very act of 'living in the moment' is the only rational response to a death that is, ultimately, irrational.

When we seek to improve ourselves, to enhance our moments of happiness, to stay healthy and build a more secure future, we are doing this not in spite of the ultimate failure of all our endeavours, but rather, because of it. We rage against death, not because such rage will ever be effective, but because to acquiesce is to die immediately.

Like the other activists who work - nay, who devote their lives - to the preservation, enhancement and growth of civilization, I do it because it is the only rational response in the face of the mortal threats it faces very day.

I was born at the dawn of the space age, in the shadow of nuclear holocaust, within short living memory of a horrible world war, in an age of global conflict. The seeds of our self-destruction were intermingled with the seeds of our immortality.

As did most members of my generation, the post-baby boom generation, we saw in this grounds for cynicism and concern. This particularly given the reaction of our immediate predecessors, the narcissist inward-looking self-serving materialism and hedonism of the baby boomers.

But rather than retreat into a generational fetal position, as they did, members of m generation began to organize and to create something new. It is no coincidence that the baby boom generation gave us presidents Clinton and Bush, while the post baby boom generation gives us Obama.

Activism isn't about guarantees of success. It isn't bout knowing that, in the long run, your work will lead to a better future. Activism is about being alive, about there actually *being* a civilization to which we all belong, and about that civilization being worthy of a life, being worthy of a future.

Even were we to think that the current ills afflicting our society are terminal, we continue the struggle. For, of course, a great many of us do not, for we do not see the death of the current state of civilization as death, just change. And even those who feel we cannot survive continue to build a legacy, to build an achievement worthy of literature and song.

It is as though we activists believe that it is not enough merely to live well, it is also important - perhaps most important - to die well. To go out swinging, with our heads held high, believing to the last breath that there is something worth living for, something worth fighting for, that so long as there is a breath in our body the dream lives on and can be carried forward.

When faced with the immanent extinction of humanity, I ask, is there anything of civilization worth saving? Is there anything of civilization worth preserving? Be it an idea or an artifact or a culture or a practice, I say then, dedicate yourself to *that*, and civilization, whether it lives or dies, will be worthy of your efforts.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 19, 2024 5:30 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.