Five Days that Shook My World, Part One: The Making of a Critical Thinking Community
I spent five days in June at a most unusual gathering. Unusual, because unlike the many academic conferences, the workshops, the handful of “symposia” I’ve attended, this one seemed right on the mark, existentially and politically, for our moment.
Dubbed B.Y.O.B., for “Bring Your Own Brain,” and put on by a collective of students from Big Sky High School in Missoula, Montana who go by the hashtag #freeusfromclimatechaos (FUCC, in case you don’t get the biting but playful humor at the heart of their critique), this had been nine months in the making, assisted by their Spanish teacher, Jay Bostrom and a crew of adult allies from their school and mentors from the local activist community affinity group the ZooTown Zaps.
It was, in fact, a pretty credible incarnation of a North American, youth-led experiment with Zapatismo; recall that to the thousands of queries the Zapatistas have received from activists over the past twenty-three years about what they should be doing, the consistent answer has been: “Go and do what we do, but in your own way, in your own place of origin, your own home, your own community.”
Bonnie Long and Brianna Canning
Some of these students – and their teachers – had already made a trip to Chiapas, to see the Zapatista revolution first hand. A year ago, they had engaged in a Skyped event with indigenous activists from around the world. Last summer, based on those conversations, they decided that this year they would go to the root of the problem, and they arrived at … climate chaos. All of this would be unusual even for a college class in the United States.
This was their invitation to the world:
The adults have failed. Their heads are in the sand. Runaway climate change, the 6th extinction, global desertification, and the acidification of our oceans are the ecological consequences of their unquestioning obedience to the capitalist order. The social and economic consequence is a world where eight white men control more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion people. If you are a student, activist, environmentalist, teacher, or laborer not in disavowal of these truths we invite you to
BRING YOUR OWN BRAIN
A Symposium to Free Us From Climate Chaos
In her opening remarks on behalf of the group, Brianna Canning said:
It is a grave travesty that we are taught stupidity and conformity from the day we are born, and that independent and critical thinking is not a central part of our education as youth. Occasionally, a moment comes along in education where we as students discover a fissure in the wall of imposed ignorance, and as Chomsky said this is dangerous for our system, because when people start to think on their own “they’ll have ideas of their own instead of believing what they’re told.”
She went on to say:
If Naomi Klein says this changes everything, how convenient for adults now that you have had your fun. Passing your climate debt onto my generation of youth across the planet is the epitome of unfairness. We grew up with adults telling us to pick up after ourselves, and here we are, picking up after you.
Clearly you hear the anger and frustration in my generation’s voice, but it is not too late to take seriously the obligations you have to future generations. Are you willing to use all means necessary to prevent governments, rich capitalists, corporations, education systems, market logic, cultural capitalism, and privileged white liberal society, from carrying out business as usual? Will you own up to liberal sophistry, which is a pathological capacity for justifying and rationalizing a way to avoid your responsibilities?
So we draw the line in the sand here, today. Who is going to join us, and who is not? Our goal is not to divide, our goal is to be honest. Cross the line and walk with us as we seek real solutions to our problems, or don’t. Bring Your Own Brain.
That was a line I jumped across! I was only in their company by a happy circumstance. One of the scheduled speakers, John Holloway, the autonomous Marxist thinker who has studied and learned from the Zapatistas himself, had to pull out due to the logistics of Skyping in, and had nominated me to take his place. There is a sweet irony in this gesture from a dear friend: his 2002 book is titled Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today; mine, published three years later in utter ignorance of his own, was Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions. All it took was a little sense of the humor of this for us to become friends, and start a mutually engaging conversation of our own. In this case, as it turned out that I was not so far from Montana and free for the week, I travelled to the event in person.
There, I was treated to a rich succession of mostly Skyped-in talks, including conversations with Bill McKibben, Henry Giroux, Derek Jensen [his talk is here], George Monbiot [his talk is here], and, most eye-opening of all, Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist on the last day [hear her speak here].
The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries (2017)
In-person talks – all sterling – were delivered during the week by local folks: University of Montana climate scientist Steve Running, one of the authors of the ever more dire IPCC assessments of our predicament and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts [his talk is here]; Dave Jones, a ZooTown Zapatista who takes tourists fishing on the streams of the Bitterroot Valley and can quote Slavoj Zizek and Jacque Lacan with equal ease and to the pointedness; Will Genadek, another local mentor who introduced us to the key concept of “critical thinking communities.” I also had the pleasure of hearing and speaking with Leonard Higgins, one of the “Valveturners“ who shut down all five pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S. back in October 2016 [here is Leonard’s talk].
Students gathered in front of computer so speaker George Monbiot could see them in London. Spanish teacher Jay Bostrum at the computer.
When I had the opportunity to speak on the global climate justice movement, my passion, on the first afternoon, ninety minutes flew by without my noticing the time. Probably the most useful things I could show the students were several powerful videos by my friend and now colleague at UC Santa Barbara, Summer Gray, that she had made with DIY technology and which were stories narrated in a language that was both thoughtful and moving, simultaneously opening minds and moving emotions in ways that I could tell affected the students: one was about and by a group of students at UCSB who took a class with me called “Earth in Crisis” in the fall of 2013 and offered their “Message to the World.” Another was made in fifty minutes from start to finish by a group of first year students at UCSB, little older than the students of FUCC, offering an excellent introduction to the concept of “Climate Justice,” which I was teaching for the first time in the winter of 2014. A third was shot at the 2015 West Coast Ecosocialist Gathering at UCSB, and captured the hopes and expectations of radical climate activists going into the UN climate summit that saddled us with the “Paris Agreement,” that weak response by global leaders to our predicament.
The big takeaway from a week of multiple epiphanies and new friendships was the product of the students’ imaginations themselves. They are seeking to model and scale up a form of patient and profound knowledge-building they call “critical thinking communities” (CTCs), through a process which they describe on their website as follows:
This event is designed to spark critical thought. Free Us from Climate Chaos, the CTC organizing this symposium, has spent the last nine months studying climate change and capitalism. The question we keep returning to, and the fundamental theoretical divergence it suggests, will be offered as a challenge to all BYOB participants: Can we address climate change within an economic system that requires permanent growth? If not, what then shall we do? Why is it easier to imagine the end of life on earth than the end of capitalism?
The activists, environmentalists, and students who participate in BYOB will return to their home communities ready to discuss, debate, and THINK about capitalism and climate change at their root. Facilitators will teach you how to identify potential sympathizers in your area and create outreach that communicates this vital need for critical reflection. Experts will host workshops teaching the principles of critical thinking. You will meet and discuss with already existing CTC members how their groups function: the norms they set, how they make decisions, and how they set learning and action goals. And you will participate in an international CTC that includes our speakers. Together we will explore the revolutionary potential of a global network of affinity groups linked in order to catalyze real, meaningful action to prevent climate chaos.
As each of the fifteen or so young graduates makes their way to their next destination – for some it was new schools across the US from Reed College in Oregon to Bowdoin College in Maine, for others it was work in Missoula or travel to Spanish-speaking countries – they will take with them this idea that they have proven can work, and see what is possible wherever they are by taking on the challenge of organizing with their peers.
In such ways are the seeds of change planted, and the future being prepared, in a little, seemingly out-of-the-way corner of the United States.
I close with a prosaic “poem” I was prompted to offer at their open mic afterparty in a bicycle collective the night before our time together ended. I had written it on the back of an envelope that morning as an aid to a series of interviews I did with some of them.
The Coming Revolution
What would you like to say to your peers in the U.S.
and around the world?
What would you like to see in the world in 2050?
What gives you hope?
What’s one thing you’re going to do in the coming revolution?
Will it be fun?
Photo of John Foran’s BYOB tee-shirt.