He got the nick-name when he chained himself to a riverbed boulder in a plea to save the Stanislaus River and its ecosystem from threat of being damaged by the raising of a local dam’s water line. 40 years on, Mark Dubois offers the wisdom learned from his time on the river.
Since that bold demonstration in 1979, Dubois has taken part in lobbying efforts to shift the World Bank’s extraction practices, co-directed Earth Day on multiple occasions, co-founded International Rivers Network and currently assists his wife, Clare Dubois, as she runs TreeSisters, an organization that has planted millions of trees with a mission to help slow the effects of climate change. He is also an expert river guide. Throughout the decades, the lessons Dubois learned from the river have served as a compass when navigating other forms of activism.
One of the most powerful lessons the river gave me was how when I first started I was trying to harness the river as if it were subject to my power and in the process I broke several oars. Within a year I learned that I didn’t need to break oars. I could learn how to dance with the powerful currents by tapping into my own intuitive knowing and in submitting to the natural flow I could see the through-line much more clearly. Similarly, in trying to walk the state capital without anger toward the legislators who were stuck in the mental muck of being governed by corporate interests above collective needs, I was aware that entering the old ‘fight’ paradigm in my approach would be akin to breaking oars.
The very word “protest” suggests a clash and in trying to deconstruct Dubois’s take on conscious activism, one must remove the word from their vocabulary almost entirely. In a world where there is so much injustice, raging against the machine seems almost holy and it’s difficult to grasp any other way of creating change. But change is needed. So how does one impact the world without resorting to even the mildest form of aggression? According to Dubois, it is an individual effort.
Until we learn our individual sacredness, the miracle of our even being alive, we won’t understand the sacredness of each other and of this planet that we live on. In Silicon Valley, when Google or Apple would offer free classes as perks, the meditation classes were really crowded, which is fascinating because those people who are going faster and faster and who feel very connected through the technologies they are creating are aware that there is some disconnect. They see the value in slowing down and really listening to their inner being. Once we learn to connect with ourselves we can truly start to connect with what is around us.
This “slowing down” Dubois refers to sounds counterintuitive in a world where everything is rushed and while there is an urgency to stop pending climate disaster, it is man’s speed that is at the core of all past and present human crises. War. Colonialism. Industrialization. Consumerism. Mankind has been governed by power and convenience since the beginning of recorded history, creating a constant race for dominance. And often the quiet ones, the life-givers, have been disregarded. Women. Indigenous communities (who spent millennia cultivating their lives and lands in congruence with natural eco-systems). Earth. When women cried, few listened. When indigenous people screamed, they were silenced.
Now the earth is tired and we continue to exhaust her and the only way to hear her is to slow down enough to understand what she is saying. If the earth is dying because we are stripping her resources, she is telling us to be conscious consumers. But we’ll only hear her if we get quiet. This seems to be the point Dubois is making. We can smash an oar against toxic-consumerism by marching the streets in protest, and this is a proven method for spreading important ideas and creating safety in solidarity, but it is only the surface of the full solution. When Dubois chained himself to the riverbed it made national headlines. It made way for dialogue and played a valuable role in spreading a message, but what Dubois has learned is that the core of creating change is in the recognition of self as part of the whole. When marching the streets (or chaining oneself to a riverbed) we must recognize the interconnectedness between self and others. We must remember the reason we are doing it and not get caught in the power struggle. Instead of seeing opponents, we must see the through-line and hope that we’ll save some people along the way, otherwise we are caught in what Dubois refers to as the ‘old paradigm’.
We’ve inherited a fractured world and we are learning to put it back together and we are alive at a time when we are collectively addressing the old ‘rape and pillage’ paradigm in exchange for a new restorative paradigm. There is an international scale that rates river difficulty. A class 1 is easy. A class 6 is death. We don’t realize we’re in a class 5. All of life’s fate is on the line and yet we are in denial. And we haven’t yet matured our human focus enough to start collectively looking for the through-line. We are just learning to walk in this new way and we happen to be alive during this juncture and for those of us with our eyes open, it’s an incredible thing to witness. But again I stress that we must choose to focus on the through-line, not the obstacles, because we can’t afford the distraction.
It’s high time we slow down and listen.
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Photo courtesy of Mark Dubois.