Changemaker Profile: Ben Pennings
Each issue of SHIFT magazine features a changemaker profile. Coming up are: The Communicator, The Builder, The Networker, The Investigator, and The Nurturer. This issue’s focus is on The Resistor.
First the name: how did you come up with the name Generation Alpha, and what does it mean?
I identified with the values rather than any ‘ism’. I’ve always been pretty anarchistic, questioned authority or perceived wisdom more than most. I got in trouble regularly at school and was kicked out of my good Christian home as a teenager. And I’m definitely a lover more than a fighter, to my detriment at times.
A few years back I saw an article saying Generation Z had finished and the new demographic to label and market to was going to be called Generation Alpha. Some expert in the article told me that Generation Alpha is likely to be the “most materially supplied generation ever”. It saddened me due to the complete denial that we are already living well beyond the limits of the planet, depleting its ‘resources’ at an alarming rate. The complete denial of climate change, that each prediction is being overtaken by reality.
I became determined to take the term Generation Alpha back, to align it with the honesty, courage, and action needed to restore ecosystems rather than grow economies. And my tattoo symbol fit the A for Alpha in the logo too! So now if you search Generation Alpha you get this large radical environmental Facebook page, linked to local groups around the world. You’ll also find Over Our Dead Bodies, a strategically radical campaign to help stop the largest coal-mining complex on the globe. Soon you’ll find a blog, more campaigns and maybe even a literary anthology.
What is Generation Alpha’s mission, and how do you plan to achieve it? What obstacles stand between you and a mission accomplished?
The ultimate aim is to become an identity of sorts. Re-identifying with nature, and identifying with ways of living that are within local land bases. I envision Generation Alpha working with others to both dismantle the current ego-system and embrace the ever-present eco-system. This requires radical action but also creating new stories, steeped in reality, history and place.
Our tag-line is “Honesty, Courage, Action”. We must be honest that our current system of living is inherently unsustainable, incredibly abusive. It can’t last, shouldn’t last and won’t last. We must have the courage to be honest, to share, to create, to resist. This courage must lead to action, forming communities of resistance and renewal.
To do this we need to share and connect, so we are able to live authentically within an abusive system of living. Share and connect with people who are passionate and playful, blatant and boisterous, caring and committed. Together we can create new ways of living, new ways of being; re-identifying with all of nature, all of ourselves. Finally, we need to enjoy it, enjoy each other, enjoy life.
The obstacles to achieving this are numerous and powerful. History reveals that people and institutions do not give up power voluntarily, and mostly use incredible violence to maintain it. The current level of surveillance and ‘security’ means new and creative strategies are needed to force those in power to stop the abuse.
The damage already caused is another obstacle. We may already be too late in avoiding catastrophic runaway climate change. We’re destroying ecosystems at an increasing rate, despite 50 years of an environment movement. People who care often despair. How can we not? How we deal with this despair is essential in empowering people towards effective action.
Convincing people to give up privilege is a huge challenge. The level of enculturation into this abusive system of living is extraordinary and very hard to escape, or even get some perspective on. People need to give up their unsustainable ‘creature comforts’, give up complex and detached ways of living.
Humans need to give up the delusion that we are superior to other beings, that somehow the laws of nature do not apply to us. We are just another top predator and will eventually die out if we destroy the ecosystems we rely on to live.
Overcoming all these obstacles will require courage. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” I tend to agree.
Direct action is one of those phrases we hear a lot, and I sense that it’s often misused – for example, referring to protesters with placards. How do you define direct action?
I see direct action as a radical tactic, going to the root of a problem. This requires activists and others to seriously and strategically challenge power. This can be done through legal and illegal means. But if legal means are working, they may not be legal for long!
Direct action has worked very well historically, but never in isolation. It needs to be supported by a wider movement, and complemented by other tactics. It requires courageous people, people whose love is strong enough to risk personal freedom and safety.
Direct action is more important than ever as time is short. However, those in power are supported by a high level of surveillance on citizens, and a very powerful ‘security’ apparatus. New tactics and strategies must be explored rather than movements relying on what has worked, or not worked, historically.
While most folks are leaving the future of ecological sustainability up to government policy, scientific and technological advances, and for some odd reason “the market”, Generation Alpha are taking matters into their own hands. Why this decision to get radical and pursue direct action? Why not leave it to “the experts”?
We are in an ecological crisis. There is no time for slow inter-generational change, slight changes in policy, or hoping the market will succeed where it has thus far failed miserably. Time has become a crucial factor in strategy, in human survival. Climate change is an obvious example but time is also crucial to protect biodiversity and halt the depletion of ‘resources’.
Technology thus far has enabled us to destroy ecosystems with increasing speed and violence. Also to strengthen the hold of the dominant culture over the planet. I’m sure technical knowledge and some technology will be very useful in transitioning to new ways of living. I’m equally sure, though, that any sustainable way of living will not include the level of complex technology we seem addicted to today. For a start, the minerals will just not be available anymore.
The ‘experts’ have failed dismally. I’m sorry to say this includes much of the environment movement, which has tinkered around the edges of the changes needed. This is due to being restricted within, or completely accepting, the dominant paradigm of human exceptionalism, human control. Trying to tame or control nature rather than live within land bases. Believing ourselves special, having a right to live outside the laws of nature.
Ecological sustainability is a radical concept. It has been co-opted to mean more sustainable, slightly less destructive. We must take it back.
Can you run us through some of the things you’re working on at the moment, and what made you choose to zero in on those particular issues?
Our current priority is Over Our Dead Bodies. We’re focussed on this campaign because preventing coal mining in the Galilee Basin would buy time. It would delay or maybe even avoid some crucial climate change tipping points. There is that much coal there. Mining and burning it is literally insane and I believe stopping it should be the biggest campaign priority of the environment movement globally. Not only because of the amount of coal there, but because it is a winnable campaign with time on our side. We urge people in the strongest possible terms to join us.
This year’s G20 is in Brisbane, Australia where I live. The local Generation Alpha group here is looking at coordinating an international ecological response. This is because the G20 is an important representation of the powerful institutions promoting and profiting from this abusive system of living. We must tell the truth about them, dissent, resist.
We’re yet to decide the focus for this response but an interesting option is ‘G20 Grief’. I envision this as an opportunity for people around the world to individually and collectively express their grief and despair about what G20 does, which is basically enable more efficient ways of turning a diminishing natural world into money. I believe this is an important step in people going beyond hope, letting go of safe piecemeal actions that do not seriously challenge power.
A web portal including a blog is also on the cards. We have a large Facebook page and I’d love at least 1 in 10 of the 40-odd thousand on it to engage with us on this different level. New stories need to be told, shared. Isolated and often disempowered people need to be given the opportunity to engage and work with similar folk, to know they are not alone in their thoughts, feelings and desires. Activists and potential activists need new inspiration, directions, strategies and opportunities.
I’d love the website to help facilitate some Generation Alpha anthologies over time. There are new stories, voices and ideas that need a platform. I can’t emphasise how much humankind needs them.
You’re obviously very driven. How do you fit being a full-time activist into your everyday life? As a family man, what are the pros and cons of the work you do?
I am driven. But I’m also determined not to be busy, not to be stressed. I take time out on my own, particularly away from the Internet. I’m in this for the long haul.
My wife and I have found ourselves with an unexpectedly large combined family. This presents challenges, particularly for an activist. Generation Alpha costs us a lot of money in both expenses and unearned wages. There is also police interest, thorough surveillance, and the threat of criminal and civil action against me. My wife is not long-suffering. But she is definitely long-understanding, loving, patient and many other wonderful qualities.
Running Generation Alpha and looking after our family is all I want to do. I avoid paid work but am the main homebody for our family, and caregiver to our three year-old. Despite the challenges and increased risks, I believe my presence at home and passion for what I do is great for our family. It certainly gives the older kids some interesting stories to tell at school!
Obviously being an activist isn’t for everyone. What other kinds of change-oriented action do you encourage people to take? Are there any actions you’d advise against because you think they’re just a waste of time?
I’m happy to say that I see the environment movement radicalising by the day. Not fast enough but it’s happening! People are coming to the conclusion or realisation that governments, gods, scientists and the market are not going to save us – that our whole dominant system of living must radically change.
There is a multitude of ways people can respond to this with effective change-making action – everything from infrastructure sabotage to making cups of tea. Nelson Mandela, for one, advocated both! A good start is to examine what you identify with, what you care about. Don’t be afraid to examine yourself in a deep and meaningful way, to ask what sort of issues and actions may suit your personality, skills, commitments and courage.
I promise there are others who think and feel like you, who have similar identities, passions and commitments. Find them. Don’t settle on the first group you find. Shop around if possible and see what fits. Give yourself to the group/cause the best you can, and be willing to receive. There is no formula except trust your instincts and intuition, and learn all you can from people you trust.
There are a lot of actions or groups that may be a waste of time but they change from campaign to campaign, region to region. Be as thorough as you can when strategizing, questioning each other about the short and long-term value of varied tactics. Are you asking powerful people or institutions to change out of the good of their hearts, or demanding they change, with consequences if they don’t? Are you trying to fix systemic problems with individual based solutions? Is the endpoint of your activism stopping destruction or just delaying it a bit? Experienced activists can add greatly to these questions and Generation Alpha is planning to offer our local groups strategy advisers to help this process.
The environment movement has thus far failed to enact any meaningful systemic change, failed to stop the abuse of life on earth increasing at an alarming rate. I’ve been part of this but am determined for it to change. Preaching to the choir is vital. The choir is large enough to enact systemic change. But it must sing better, louder, more forcefully. Then, in the words of D.H. Lawrence:
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up
like burnt paper.