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Do We Need a Militant Movement to Save the Planet (and Ourselves)?

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Aric McBay call for new strategy to stave off environmental catastrophe.

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LK: I have a slightly different answer, which is that I don't think we're ever going to have a mass movement, and social change does not actually happen by mass movements, generally. Usually, there is only a small percentage of the population that will rise up and take on the power structure, and that is usually about 2 percent. So, I'm after the 2 percent. I want the people who understand that this is going to be a long, drawn-out and not particularly easy or fun kind of project, and what they are looking for is a strategy. They know that things are really bad, and the powerful are not going to give up willingly. So what I've tried to do is provide guidance about what that strategy might look like. Those are the people that I'm speaking to. I'm not speaking to mainstream America. I don't know how to talk to those people, and there is no point in me trying.

AM: I think one of the things we need to do to get people looking long-term is to build that culture of resistance and to build radical organizations that are capable of doing that, because the agenda of even the progressive kind of Left is really one that is still set by people who don't question the existence of capitalism, or who don't question the existence of these basic systems that are destroying the planet. Chris Hedges wrote a book called the Death of the Liberal Class, documenting the ways in which radical thought had been purged from the Left over the last almost 100 years.

TL: In the book you mention militant action. Can you explain what you mean by militant, so we're all on the same page? And why you see this as being the most effective way to work for change?

AM: Well, militant action for me means fighting; it doesn't have to mean physical fighting or fist fights, but it means actually fighting those systems of power. It could be in economic terms. There are militant strikes that have taken place for a long time, going back to the Wobblies and before. It is about force — that's the key idea here. It is about using force and not about using persuasion.

LK: I think one of the basic insights of radicalism is that oppression is not a misunderstanding. It doesn't end because someone has a personal epiphany or some kind of spiritual enlightenment. It happens when you take power away from the powerful and redistribute it to the dispossessed. With the militant thing, we're always told, "Oh, you're going to alienate people. You can't do this." It's not true, and the suffragists in Britain proved that. When you have somebody actually saying the truth and approaching the problem with some kind of program that matches the scale of the horrors of what is happening, people respond well.

AM: I think that that kind of pattern is something that shows up again and again in all kinds of social movements and anti-colonial movements. It showed up in Ireland, in South Africa. You saw these militant groups that really helped things take off in their areas, but because of this kind of radical purging on the Left, I think there is a misunderstanding of how social change actually happens. And I think that militancy is one of the key ways to build a movement that is going to work, whether or not that militancy is the endpoint that you're looking for.

I was reading about the anti-apartheid university sit-ins in the 1980s, and in one case, a group was having a lot of trouble getting people to come out to meetings and sign petitions. People were getting tired, and so they decided to do this sit-in at the university administration to risk getting arrested. But they worried, since no one is even showing up to our petition nights, how is this going to work? They decided to do it anyway. What they found was that they had a huge turnout. The original group got there, and then hundreds and hundreds of more people came, because they thought this was a tactic that might actually work. I think that most people who are sympathetic to environmental concerns or to concerns of social oppression are not taking action, because they know that the typical things that we're suppose to do on the Left — sign a petition or write to your member of parliament or Congressperson — they know that that is not going to work, and we're not going to have a movement that is going to take off until people are using tactics that have a chance of success.

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