Travis Nichols on Greenpeace’s New Reggie Watts Campaign
Droughts, superstorms, floods, resource wars, and a hellacious buffet of other climate disasters.
Have you noticed that we’re currently dying miserably?
It’s hard not to feel like our fossil-fuel-loving corporate overlords are winning the battle for the future handily. It’s also hard not to feel like joining the march, signing the petition, or waving the banner isn’t going to do anything to stop our slide toward the inevitable dystopian nightmare sponsored by the Koch Brothers and Exxon.
I think this is especially true for artists, writers, and musicians—people who spend their time interrogating language, visual patterns, and sounds. It can be hard to coordinate when your brain is full of chaos. And it often feels like “the movement” values the work of artists, writers, and musicians in the exact same way corporations value it—as a resource to be mined.
This is depressing.
But we’re not going to win if we keep playing on the corporate overlords’ gameboard. Which is why I love these Reggie Watts videos:
The environmental movement is currently in a curious moment. Climate activists are doing massive work every day to hold the effects of climate change at bay and those responsible accountable—and yet it still feels that corporations like Shell, Duke Energy, and Amazon are making everything worse. I think we make it too easy on them when we only play by the established rules of activism—when we keep “serious” work in a box far away from our “playful” work. Obviously, direct actions take courage, and we desperately need them (in Ferguson right now, for example), but we need to know what else we can do, too. Corporations have had forty-plus years of practice handling activist tactics and they have seasoned response teams who know what to do when they rear their gnarly heads. Corporate PR disinforms and proceeds as planned.
So what freaks them out in a way that short circuits their defenses?
Separating work from play leads to an echo chamber of wonkery and choir-preaching. Of course, wonkery and choir-preaching have their place, but sometimes we need the fake German and rhythmic prairie dogs, too. This is what Greenpeace in the old days used to call a “Mind Bomb,” something that short-circuits our received wisdom and gets us to see a problem in a new way. Because, to be honest, our corporate overlords win if we keep the discourse as it is. Luckily, the internet was made for Mind Bombs. And Reggie Watts is a Human Mind Bomb.
The Internet was also made to use massive amounts of energy. If the Internet were a country, it would rank 6th on the list of biggest electricity users, right there between Germany and Russia. Forward-looking companies like Apple and Facebook see this and are working on powering their data centers with renewable energy. Companies like Amazon, though, are stuck in the past, and continue to power their significant corner of the internet with polluting energy sources like coal. That isn’t just a problem when you’re buying up all the Robert Duncan first editions on Amazon.com and abebooks.com. Amazon’s Amazon Web Services division also hosts major internet players like Netflix or Pinterest.
Anyone who follows Amazon knows it’s making a reputation for itself as a bully. As long as Amazon refuses to update to renewable energy, its dominance of our online world is dangerous for the planet. Unlike their peers at Apple, Google or Facebook, Amazon is growing its electricity footprint with no regard for what it’s doing to the environment.
It’s not hard to draw a parallel to other areas where Amazon’s dominance has been similarly harmful. It’s wielded its weight to ill effect with Hachette (or, worse, small presses). This is why so many authors and activists refuse to buy anything on Amazon. But simply quitting or boycotting Amazon isn’t going to be enough, since Amazon isn’t going to go broke betting on everyone else’s need for ease and speed (at least not tomorrow). Amazon is a fact of life, but we can make them a positive fact if the humans who traffic the sites they power demand they do so responsibly, with clean energy. But how are we going to get their attention?
The thing corporations never have on their side is true creativity. I mean, they have visual directors and they hire creative teams to promote their new products and they have that one guy in the glasses, but they essentially don’t have the juice. Why? Because there’s no percentage in the juice. But here’s a secret:
(You have the juice).
If you believe the value of a book is beyond what you can sell it for, and the value of the earth is beyond what you can extract from it, then you have what corporations can never have.
We need whatever your version of a looped falsetto jam is to win this, but more than that we need your way of being in the world—interrogating, slowly processing, flipping around, blurring, and scribbling—if we’re going to beat the percentage. Corporations have no duende. So please click and share these videos, and please don’t believe anyone who tells you that you aren’t helping by doing it or by adding your duende juice to the mix. Because we need the coordination and the chaos if we’re going to die less miserably (or, even, possibly, live happily).
A few weeks ago, I was on the road with two environmental activists, hardcore people who had spent most of their adult lives risking their bodies and their freedom for causes they believed in by, for example, climbing heavily policed areas to hang banners from super high places. Scary shit that I have never done, and probably never will do. Not only because of the heights involved but my innate fight or flight response tends to default to “freeze”—which is not good when death is on the line.
Death was not on the line here (praise Jesus) but the logistics of our trip were screwy, and we were in an unfamiliar place so there was lots to do, as well as lots to take in. One night in the hotel, I sat propped up in bed writing in a notebook about what we had seen that day. I process experience and thoughts better longhand, putting pen to paper, scribbling, crossing out, and sometimes drawing sketches of the landscape if I need to.
Typing on my laptop just feels like work, and, even worse, the results of me typing on a laptop usually read like work. So there I was with a notebook in my lap, chewing on a pen, staring into space, trying to make sense of what I had seen and heard that day. One of my companions looked up from his computer where he had been typing furiously with a determined grimace. This dude is action, even when typing out an email. He saw my notebook and my vacant stare, and he frowned. He gestured toward me with the back of his hand and said, “When you get done journaling—or whatever—can you actually help us coordinate?”
Ouch. It felt as if I had been caught giggling along with Caillou or talking Esperanto to my thumbs or writing a poem. Could there be anything less activist-y than writing a poem? Activism makes news, and as William Carlos Williams famously said, “it is difficult to get the news from poems.“ Yet,” famously also Dr. Williams went on, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He works for Greenpeace USA.