Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

Go see Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous hero, if you need reminding about how important a single human being’s act of courageous resistance can be.

Granted, Edward Snowden had his finger on the pulse of information far beyond the ken of most of us ordinary folks. But we can all relate to the ethical questions he faced, which the movie details so well.

To whit: At what point is it more important to listen to your own internal moral compass, even when it means going against “public opinion,” company policy or—in Snowden’s case—the entire power elite of the U.S. military industrial complex?

We live in a time when this is a question will come up with increasing urgency for more and more of us. Our age is one of unprecedented access to information, as “Snowden” shows in horrifyingly graphic detail. And once we know something—say, how a pipeline leak can foul and destroy an entire river ecosystem, or how a radiation leak can play havoc with ocean systems for years, or how deforestation leads to mud slides, or how climate change is already changing coast lines and destroying planetary weather balance—once we know all this, and so much more, what do we do with our newfound knowledge?

what-i-forgot-cover-draft-new-smThis question became increasingly central for me as I worked on my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, over the past several years. It was waking up to climate change that sparked my journey of looking back at my half-century on the planet, trying to understand how I had allowed myself to forget the connection to the natural world that had been so central to me as a child.

What I discovered was that as a young adult, I made some choices that led me to go with the predominant flow of American culture. Like Snowden, I was seduced by the possibility of attaining the American dream—my version of it being the husband, children, home, career. I put myself in the traces and began to focus on pulling that cart, and I found it took everything I had.

Not until the dream disintegrated along with my marriage did I pick my head up and look around me, instinctively seeking solace in the natural world but finding that things had changed a great deal since I was a dreamy child following the chickadees through the hemlock forest, or lying full-length on a high maple branch to feel the wind swaying through the tree.

While I had been focused on raising my family, trying to hold my marriage together and striving for success in my career, things had been going very badly for the chickadees, the hemlocks and the maples. Government policies and corporate greed, unleashed by the shortsightedness of millions of compliant citizens like me, had led us to the brink of a global catastrophe of biblical proportions.

There we sit now, on that brink. Did you notice the news, buried beneath all the election cycle noise, that the climate has now passed 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, far beyond the 350 ppm that gave the scrappiest of the climate change warrior-organizations its name?

This means we are on track to melt, folks. The polar ice caps and the permafrost on land will thaw, releasing ancient methane; the oceans will warm, throwing off the food chains and the weather; insects and bacteria will do very well, but many if not most of the larger species will rather quickly go the way of the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.

Including, dare I say it, homo sapiens. Future historians, if there are any, should rename our species homo ignoramus—the stupid ones who knew how they could save themselves and the ecosystem that sustained them, but let it all go to hell.

We have come to a time, as the Deep Green Resistance eco-warriors recognized several years ago, when it will be necessary to think for ourselves and stand up for what we believe in, just like Ed Snowden did.


This is dangerous business, as Snowden knew. He is lucky to be living freely in Moscow rather than locked up as a traitor like fellow information resistance fighter Chelsea Manning. The fossil fuel lords and their military henchmen take mutiny very seriously, as the brave water protectors at Standing Rock know well.

But there comes a time when you have to listen to your gut, even if it goes against your upbringing and socialization. You have to do what you think is right.

Of course, in a black and white view of morality, what’s right for you may be totally wrong for me. How do we reconcile the disparate moral compasses of a jihadist suicide bomber or an American bomber pilot or a tar sands bulldozer operator or a pipeline resistance activist?

Each of us has to make up our own minds, fully cognizant of the implications of our actions, the bigger backdrops against which each of our little lives play out. That is why I continue to believe that there is no more important role these days than that of an awake, aware, independently minded educator.

We need teachers at every level of education who are dedicated to developing the capacity of young people to understand and analyze complex information, to weigh and debate different points of view, to use empathy as a pathway to decision-making, and to be open to shifting their views as their understanding increases.


Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both thoroughly indoctrinated by the military, but were still able to think for themselves and sacrifice their snug insider positions in service to the greater good. If they can do it, any of us can.

No need for spectacular defections or heroics. All that’s needed is a steady ongoing commitment to sifting through the barrage of information coming at us all the time, and pointing our internal compass at DO NO HARM or even better DO GOOD.

If you want to call me a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder, so be it. I can live with that.


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  1. A very powerful message that many will fully accord with.

  2. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  October 3, 2016

    I hope so, Paul!


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