Encounters with Alterity

At the latest Earth First! gathering in the brisk and sunny hills of rural Cuffley, nearly a week of thought-provoking workshops, networking with truly inspiring people, and exquisite vegan meals, I had profound, moving experiences with alterity. Alterity typically denotes otherness, though particularly radical ‘otherness’, that which is so different to what one typically thinks of and experiences as to evoke a sense of wonder and admiration, in the best of cases! Alterity also can, unfortunately, because of its at times unsettling ‘otherness’ evoke violent revulsion and retaliation. But that is not the sense in which I employ the term. Below are two notable encounters that I had at the gathering which made me question my self deeply, and further reinforced my conviction that members of radical green groups truly are unique and embody precisely the characteristics that we should all strive towards if we’re to create a truly viable and resilient socio-ecological future.

The Spider in the Cider 

The riveting second day had drawn to a close and I was pretty psyched to try one of the ciders on sale at the camp’s makeshift bar, the minor proceeds being directed entirely towards funding the event and the Earth First! collective. I received my pint and was about to take the first sip when I noticed that an unfortunate spider had fallen in and appeared to have drowned. After searching for signs of life and concluding, somewhat thoughtlessly, that it was too late for the poor creature, I sought to remove him/her from the glass, at which point one of the activists intervened and determinedly attempted to revive him/her. The activist’s thoughtful efforts proved successful and the spider ultimately regained consciousness, at which point the activist remarked, ‘When that happens you simply have to remove the spider from the liquid and carefully dry him/her, and eventually they’ll come back to life.’ I felt ashamed, saddened by the fact that I hadn’t tried harder, for all that I believe and profess to adore all beings, for some reason I didn’t think to make more of an attempt to ensure that my conclusion was correct as this person had done. Yet in addition to the profoundest sense of relief that the spider would enjoy yet another day, it reminded me why I’ve chosen to make members of radical green groups my subjects of study, because they make that extra leap, they think and act in ways that are infinitely more sensitive and conscious of the wellbeing of others than the average person.

The Activist and the Grasshopper 

After the first workshop of the day, it was time for lunch when I spotted a space on the grass amongst some Earth First!ers whom I hadn’t become totally acquainted with yet, so I decided to join them. Amidst laughter and passing praise of yet another exquisite meal prepared by the gathering’s very hard-working volunteer cooks, we noticed that a stunning green and brown grasshopper had perched on the leg of one of the activists. Usually in such a situation, I’ve seen people either start in horror and frantically swat the poor creature away or simply remove it with a cold and passive indifference. Not in this instance, however. The activist matter-of-factly noted that as the grasshopper had chosen to rest on his leg, he wouldn’t move a muscle until the grasshopper decided to depart of his own volition, no matter the personal inconvenience caused to him. My response, on the other hand, would have been to gently coax the grasshopper onto my hand so as to move him to a safer location, but the activist responded in a wholly different manner. He deliberately went out of his way to ensure that he didn’t disturb the grasshopper in the slightest, and waited patiently until finally, the grasshopper hopped away.

These seemingly trivial encounters are in fact laden with the most profound significance. For one, they remind us that it is indeed possible (as these individuals exemplify) to think and act differently regarding our co-evolutionary kin, and in the context of the greatest socio-ecological crises we and the Earth have ever faced – anthropogenic climate change and the sixth mass extinction- these examples offer glimmers of how we not only can but ought to act towards the natural world and our animal kin. Mind you, the animals featured in the above examples are relatively miniature and non-consequential creatures who often don’t figure at all in people’s minds, or worse, as previously denoted, incite violent retaliation. Many would claim that they’re so unlike us humans, unlike mammals, so why concern ourselves with their fate? Yet despite such superficial differences, they share our DNA and are made of the same ‘star stuff’ as all of us earthlings are. We’ve stolen the world from them and pushed them to the ends of the earth, to the brink of existence in our insatiable desire to consume and expand virtually exponentially, driven blindly by the false ideology of human superiority. Theirs is a world and future extinguished prematurely, though not entirely. It’s about time we inconvenienced ourselves a little bit so that they can experience contentment and flourish in their own right. It’s the least we can do, given the circumstances.

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