The Edward Snowden affair has become the event of our moment in history. I do not remember living through a single political saga that was so much of a spectacle — in terms of diplomatic sparring and the comedy of errors from governments, publics and media in the “Where is he?” wild goose chase — that it could well have come out of a Hollywood movie. I've seen people from normally politically apathetic youth in India to ordinary people in Austria talking about Snowden, and I, too, have contributed to this hullabaloo.
Some have pointed out that with the focus on Snowden, his asylum-seeking from the shadows, the U.S.'s search and the waltz of the international community around all of this, nothing substantial will happen in regard to the actual information he brought us about the National Security Agency and the PRISM surveillance program. That is a valid concern.
However, I have another concern — the spectaclization of Snowden as a hero or a traitor, as the lone individual on the TV screens who may just have changed the world, runs the risk of painting an illusory picture of how mass change works. Drastic upheavals do not occur because of the actions of solo Supermen in the spotlight. Of course, what Snowden has done is extremely important. But he isn't the only one who has been up to important things in the world, and to believe that only the larger-than-life is relevant can make us ignore both relevant actions being taken right around us that aren't making international headlines, and our potential as non-mass-recognized heroes to take such actions.
This Monday, protesters involved with the environmental group Croatan Earth First! (the Croatan chapter being the N.C. chapter among the larger nationwide Earth First! movement network) blockaded and shut down an industrial manufacturing facility owned by Momentive in Morganton, N.C., halting the delivery of fracking proppants. In this strong action they took against the fracking industry, 10 activists were arrested, with their bail set to an outrageous $23,000.
The N.C. Legislature has approved plans to begin fracking operations beginning March 2015, as a part of thebipartisan suicidaldrive devoted to continuing our society's fossil-fuel and natural-gas dependencies. Though touted as “clean carbon” by its industry proponents and their political allies, fracking is known to cause extreme water contamination, and research has also shown that even if its carbon dioxide output is better compared to other energy sources, the methane it releases could speed climate change faster than CO2 emissions.
Environmental struggles worldwide are as important, if not more important, than resisting totalitarian surveillance. The actions of these protesters may not have put themselves in as much long-term harm as Edward Snowden. However, the fight they are fighting is as much an affront to oppressive power structures as the PRISM leaks, even if the leaks, because of a single man taking on a single powerful state entity (along with, of course an entire industry), have gained more attention.
Movements that do not and cannot be trigged by the heroic actions of lone individuals stand the risk of being overlooked when only such solitary acts of dissent are talked about. And the environmental movement is one such struggle, a gargantuan struggle made up of tremendously devoted people working collectively at grassroots levels. The effect of the cult of the individual isn't just that the Earth First! activists and thousands like them aren't given their due regard — that is secondary — it also causes the disregard of the movements themselves in the public eye.
This, given the stakes of many such struggles — especially the environmental one — could be extremely costly. Hopefully, public pressure in the wake of the PRISM leaks will lead to a serious questioning of state power and action beyond that. Also, hopefully, the many other important political movements going on in the U.S.A. and around the world will not be ignored while dramatizing and obsessing over individuals, no matter how praiseworthy their actions. They didn't do it for themselves, they did it for the world — a much more worthy object of focus than any one person.