Branding Revolution

I’ve seen a lot of discussion in mainstream media about Russell Brand’s book Revolution. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on the contents, but there seems to be some contention about his underlying motives for writing it and whether or not his advocating a revolutionary politics is hypocritical. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him hypocritical, but I would suggest that there are better way for him to take part in the kind of revolution he’s advocating.

Brand is a celebrity worth – according to Google – approximately $15 million. His book no doubt brings him a little more income, though it’s probably nothing compared to being in a movie, for example. So the problem is not that he’s profiting directly from the book and that profiting is not itself revolutionary. When I write a book, unless we are by then living in a socialist utopia, I would hope to make some money from it simply because I have to feed myself. Obviously that’s not Brand’s concern, but it seems unreasonable to condemn him for earning money from the book.

The problem I see is with the celebrity aspect of it. There is something to be said for a popular figure drawing attention to revolutionary ideals. However, Brand has essentially branded himself (forgive the pun) as a revolutionary hero – whether he intended to or not. As a result, his revolutionary zeal risks becoming part of a cult of personality that is decidedly anti-revolutionary. It’s possible this isn’t his desire or intention – it’s possible that it is (and if he then profits from this revolutionary Brand, then he would, in fact, be a hypocrite). Either way, though, this compromises the revolutionary value of the book (assuming it actually has any to begin with) and his persona because it draws attention away from those who are actually doing the work. The revolution becomes about Brand and not about substantive change.

This is why revolutionaries and activists – or really anyone fighting for a more just and sustainable society – need to have a degree of reflexivity and humility in their practice. Sometimes – and particularly for those who are wealthy and/or famous – the best way to contribute to a cause is to avoid putting oneself on the front line advocating for change. Sometimes it’s best just to get out of the way. That doesn’t mean don’t contribute and just live the bourgeois lifestyle your wealth and fame provide. It means think of other ways to contribute that don’t involve drawing attention to yourself. Support those who are doing the real fighting on the ground and in the streets. Give them the microphone and let them speak for themselves. Give them money so that they can keep fighting without having to worry about paying the rent or putting food on the table. Those are the kinds of actions that privileged classes (but also anyone) can do that won’t simply undermine everything those people are fighting for.

Why am I doing this?

Why do I keep working on environmental problems when there are issues like Ferguson, the Ebola outbreak, unmitigated global inequality, and so many others? Why, when people are being gunned down in the streets or dying needlessly of disease, am I busy dabbling around with nutrients and computer models? One answer – the most direct one – is that I am locked in. I’ve spent the last few years preparing for this topic, I’ve gotten NSF funding, and I can’t simply drop it now. And so, maybe any argument I make will only be justification to myself and others for why I continue to do what I’m doing. Am I wasting my time? Are the people working on those social issues – the people standing up against bullets in guns – doing the real work? Maybe.

I don’t know many people who would disagree that environmental issues are a major concern. Climate change threatens our very existence on this planet. Deforestation and pollution threaten the existences of many ecosystems, species, and cultures. But when I go to a meeting of the Upward Anthropology Research Community, we never talk about those problems. Instead we talk about state violence, race and gender discrimination, economic disparity, and other problems like that. I do see my work as a kind of upward anthropology, but it just doesn’t ring as meaningfully as the work that others are doing. I’m trying to get scientists, policy makers, environmental managers, and stakeholders to work together more effectively. I am not confronting bullets and tanks nor even the everyday violences that women, LGBTQ people, and people of color face on a daily basis. And yet I go on.

I go on in part because I am locked in. But I also go on because I firmly believe that environmental issues are as important as all of those others, and if we turn away from them now in order to fight these obviously more immediate and pressing concerns, we might find ourselves in a worse situation than ever before. I may not be standing up against literal bullets, but as I explained it to a friend in discussing this very issue, environmental destruction is a bullet in a gun pointed at all of our heads. Here’s the catch, though, we are not all equally put at risk by that bullet. Some people will be affected by these problems more than others, and faster than others: indigenous people, people who depend on the land, poor people, minorities, women – not to mention the many plants and animals with whom we share this world. As a result, the destruction of the environment is deeply entangled with the forces of structural oppression. It is by means of the disproportionate benefits and harms of a degraded environment that many people are forced into conditions of slavery, poverty, and marginalization.

In fact, it could be argued that the ability to determine one’s own environment – both socially and ecologically – is the basic condition of privilege. Those in power may at times use bullets to keep people under control, but bullets are only the manifest image of a much deeper and pervasive violence. It’s not that the bullets don’t matter, but that they wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t for an already established inequality that the bullets can only reinforce in times of upheaval. That inequality rests on a number of factors, but one major factor is the alienation of the people from their environments. People who have the capacity to determine their environments have power, and it is only by taking this power away that bullets become meaningful.

So I continue my work with that in mind. The question is what is the ecological basis for the violences mentioned above? And how, in the technoscientific world in which we live, do we make it possible for people to determine their environments? My research is a part of the answer to that question, I hope.