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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.

Environmental groups are trying to build a critical mass around issues like global warming to inspire public action and encourage legislators to get their heads out of the sand. The Sierra Club is working to block new coal burning power plants, a new coalition is organizing actions against a tar sands pipeline, and folks in West Virginia are sitting in trees in an attempt to halt destructive strip mining. It's great work, but what if it's not enough? What if it's too little, too late? What if we never get enough mass for it to ever reach that critical point?

A new book called Deep Green Resistance, by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen, says that we likely won't have enough people interested in saving the planet before we run out of time. So, they're calling for a change in strategy. You may know Jensen from his many books, including Endgame. McBay is the author of Peak Oil Survival: Preparing for Life After Gridcrash, and Keith is the author of The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. The three longtime activists have teamed up to offer a more radical approach to our environmental crisis.

They use words like "militant" and "resistance" a lot. And they critique the Left a lot. And they review the semantics of "violence." "I would urge the following distinctions," writes Keith, "the violence of hierarchy vs. the violence of self-defense, violence against actual people vs. violence against property, and the violence as self-actualization vs. the violence of political resistance."

And if you're firmly in the nonviolence-is-the-answer camp, don't get scared off (yet), because there is a ton of crucial information in this book. And just because they mention violence doesn't mean it's the best policy. You may not want to sign up to lead their underground army, but you should hear them out. Because the planet is being destroyed. Each day 200 species go extinct, Jensen writes in the preface. And if you can't wrap your head around that number, how about "90 percent of the large fish in the ocean are gone, there is ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans, 97 percent of native forests are destroyed, 98 percent of native grasslands are destroyed ..." and Jensen continues with the bad news from there.

In a couple of decades, we may be looking at the end of life as we know it on this planet. "What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair?" asks Keith in the first chapter. It's not just global warming but a confluence of catastrophes that cannot be blamed on Republicans or climate deniers or rich people with their personal jets, but on all of us, together. The culprit is industrial civilization, say the writers. "This culture destroys landbases. That's what it does," writes Jensen. "And it won't stop because we ask it nicely."

And so how do we save the world (and along with it ourselves)? Well, naturally we take down industrial civilization, they say. Yeah, no small feat. Especially when so many of us actually live quite comfortably in this civilization — roofs over our heads, running water, flushing toilets, access to medical care, decent food to eat, cars to drive, electronics to play with, vacations to take. And, of course, the most powerful people live in a penthouse, far above relative standards of comfort and have zero desire to pack up and move out.

So this taking down of civilization will not be easy, of course. But according to Jensen, Keith and McBay, it is necessary because no other response out there even comes close to matching the scale of the problem we face. And we can no longer afford to simply make personal changes to bike more and eat local. And we can no longer afford to be grieved by polluted rivers or angered by short-sighted politicians without doing everything we can to stop it. So what do we do? Their 500-plus page book attempts to map out a strategy for their vision and also provide a critique of historical resistance movements — what works, what doesn't work.

In a phone call with all three authors, I asked them more about whether or not they are advocating for militant action, what is involved in creating a culture of resistance, and what a post-industrial world would look like?

Tara Lohan: The book focuses on achieving a culture of resistance. What do you mean by that?

Lierre Keith: Right now on the Left what we have is an alternative culture, and I would say that is kind of a subculture where you can withdraw from the mainstream and hang out with people who think pretty much like you do and have a whole lot of alternative institutions, but none of your actions and none of your institutions pose a threat to the power structure. You can have a nice life that way and certainly keep your sanity by hanging out with people who agree with you. I think this is a place where a lot of political movements go to die. There are obvious reasons people do this — it is scary to fight back. It feels overwhelming, and I think most people just want comfort. But in the end, we are going to have to dismantle the power structure that is destroying the planet.

So what we have right now is the alternative culture, but what we need is a culture of resistance — we need a culture that is self-consciously oppositional to things like corporate power, capitalism, industrialization and ultimately civilization, because that is the arrangement of power on this planet right now.

Derrick Jensen: In addition, so much of the so-called opposition to the destruction is what I would really term a loyal opposition instead of a real resistance. A couple of ways to look at it — one of them is that what do all the so-called solutions to global warming have in common that are presented in the mainstream in the United States? What they all have in common is, they all take industrial capitalism as a given.

A really great example of this is, back in 1997, I interviewed members of MRTA, a rebel group who had taken over the Japanese ambassador's house in Peru. I was excited to write an article about it. I sent an email to a leading progressive magazine, saying that I was talking to this guy, and I got a call from the editor within a half hour, saying "Hey, this is great. We're really excited about it. What's the article going to be like?" I said it will be about what their demands are for Peru. What they wanted was very simple — to grow and distribute their own food. They already knew how to do that — they just wanted to be allowed to do it. I was talking about that, and she was very excited, and I said, "Also, the core of this is that to really stop empire, you can't just have people in the margins fighting empire, but we have to fight empire at home — we have to breakdown capitalism at its core." Hello? Hello? The response went from enthusiasm to "I need to talk to my editorial board." So I got an email a half hour later, saying "Thanks, but no thanks." There is all this really great talk about how it's important to resist some place else, but when one actually talks about resistance here in the United States, then stone-cold silence.

TL: What you're talking about is the end of life as we know it. This is the only civilization that we've known. In your minds, what does a post-industrial civilization look like? Where does food come from, energy?

Aric McBay: If we are talking about a post-industrial society, then I think we have to draw on the examples of traditional, indigenous societies, so I think the answer will look very different, depending on where you live and what your landbase is. So, if I'm here on an island in the St. Lawrence River, where I am now, then my answer to that question will be very different than if I live where Lierre and Derrick are on the coast of California, or if I live in the Amazon rainforest. I think one of the problems with industrial society in general is that it tries to come up with some answer that it can impose everywhere on the planet, and that just doesn't work. But in general, I think that the kind of society we would envision is based on democratic, small communities that can obtain their food locally and use energy that the land around them can provide.

The future that we want isn't going to come about automatically or accidentally. People have to think about where this culture is leading us and what we have to do to get a livable future. If we continue on with business as usual, which is the drawdown of freshwater supplies, the destruction of soil, the burning of every fossil fuel source that can be dug or ground out of the planet, then the endpoint is something that looks like what is happening in the Horn of Africa right now. I mean, that's what happens when colonialism reaches its endpoint and the soil and water are destroyed. That is the kind of future that is going to happen if we don't take action and effective resistance.

Global warming is not the sort of thing where you can delay action and say, "OK, when it gets bad, we'll stop burning fossil fuels," because the planet's climate just doesn't work that way. If we pass certain tipping points that we're already passing, then global warming will become irreversible even if we stop burning fossil fuels. Tipping points like methane being melted and released from the floor of the Arctic ocean, which is already happening now. Or the Amazon rainforest, which produces its own climate, drying out and turning into a desert. There have been prolonged droughts already there. We are really on the edge of when we can take action and still be effective. Of course, that is the business as usual scenario but there are other scenarios where people take action and disrupt the system that is exploiting the poor globally and destroying the planet. And then we have a chance to build the kind of communities that not only will be sustainable but will meet the basic human needs that so many people aren't having met right now.

LK: The grasslands are 98 percent gone, and the prairies of the world are 99 percent gone, and they've been destroyed for agriculture. So, if we can repair those perennial polycultures, especially the grasslands, and return them to the prairies, they would be with their full community members. In this country, that would be the bison. Those are the animals that need to be here. If we could do that over 75 percent of the world's trashed-out rangelands, it would take about 15 years, but we could sequester all of the carbon that's been released since the beginning of the industrial age. That's a tremendous amount of carbon, but that's how good prairies are at building topsoil. The basic building block of soil is carbon. This is not hopeful. There is a lot of hope, though, in terms of learning to participate once more with the planet as members of those biotic communities, but it means we have to stop destroying and remember what our place really is in that cycle of life.

TL: I hear a lot of talk about sustainable agriculture. In your view, is there any kind of agriculture that is sustainable?

LK: No, and I'm going to quote both Toby Hemenway, the permaculture guy, and Richard Manning, who is a wonderful scholar of prairies.Both use the same sentence, which is: Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.

TL: So then we would be going back to a hunting/gathering system for food?

LK: You could have hunter/gatherer, you can have horticulturism, you could have pastoralism. In some way those are all variations on a theme. It's based on perennial polycultures. But the moment that you clear away those biotic communities, you destroy those perennial plants. Then, you are talking about agriculture, and that is inherently destructive.

DJ: The important thing to remember through all of this is that the land is primary. Indigenous people in California and certainly elsewhere have changed their landscape, but they did so with the recognition that they're going to be in that place for the next 500 years. If you are planning on living in place for the next 500 years, you're going to make radical land-use decisions. I can't imagine anyone who would plan on living in place for 500 years who would allow mountaintop removal or agriculture, for that matter, or who would allow rivers to be poisoned or dammed. We have to recognize that life is based on the land and that one can't allow the land to be destroyed, because if the land is destroyed, then you're destroyed.

TL: The foresight that people seem to have today is about the length of an election cycle. How can we get folks to take a longer view?

DJ: So many indigenous people have said to me, the first thing we need to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. Another way to look at this is to say, "What is it that you want?" If what you are wanting is the results of an extractive economy, then you're facing an insoluble problem, because you can't have the financial benefits of empire without empire. So one of the reasons we lose so often is that I think a lot of us are not very clear about what we want. So the first thing is for people to be clear on what they want. I want to live in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before.

A lof of environmentalists want to protect a piece of ground but do not question why the land is being destroyed. If they do, that leads to the question of why is land in general being destroyed, and then that leads to the question of why do you have an economy where more land always needs to be destroyed. But different questions will also lead you to the same direction. If you ask why do men rape women, and you keep asking that question, it is going to lead you to the foundation of the patriarchy. If you ask about racism, what are the roots of it, keep asking the question. You end up going back to some fundamental problem.

The whole point is that people increasingly recognize that we don't live in a democracy and that the government actually serves corporations instead of human beings. I ask people all the time — does the U.S. government better serve individual human beings or corporations? Nobody ever says individual people, nobody. When I go talk to a local computer store owner, I don't talk about salmon, because he doesn't care. What I talk about is Walmart, because he now has to get a second job in addition to his computer store. And this is true — he now has to get a second job as a guard at prison because Walmart can sell computers cheaper than he can buy them. So Walmart has essentially driven him out of business. We can find those wedges. We don't just have to get people thinking long-term. The first thing I think we have to do is to find a way — that they already hate the system, and use that as an entree to begin talking.

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.

DJ: I wrote an essay a couple of years ago about how when I go to some event like Bioneers or Greenfest that I'm supposed to end up feeling all rejuvenated and inspired, but the truth is that when I've been to those, I've always ended up feeling discouraged, defeated and lied to. And the reason is because there were all these people talking about all these so-called solutions, but I was the only person there who gave a presentation that included power or psychopathology, and how can you possibly talk about social change without talking about the understanding that those in power have and what power means?

When we talk about militants, everyone talks about violence, but one of the baselines we have to talk about that people don't acknowledge is that empire is based on violence in the first place, and there is tremendous violence going on right now. We can't talk about any sort of militant resistance without acknowledging that brown people the world over are being bombed to serve empire.

There is violence not just of direct bombs but the violence of dispossession in order to take land to be used for cash crops exports. Remember what the rebel group in Peru wanted — they wanted the people of Peru to grow their own food. They already knew how to do it. They only need to be allowed to do so. What that means is that they were not being allowed to have food self-sufficiency, which happens the world over. Right now farmers are being driven off their land in India, because the water is being stolen for Coca-Cola. I have a friend that used to be married to someone from Bangladesh. Even 20 years ago, his mother would say to him to get some lunch, and he would go get some fish from the river. Now people in the entire village cannot fish because the river is so polluted that they have to buy their fish from Iceland. That is the process of being forced into the wage economy.

If we want to talk about violence, let's talk the 20 million to 1 ratio of human attacks on sharks to shark attacks on humans. Let's talk about the Mekong River catfish that is going to be extricated by dams. Part of the problem is that violence that is higher on the hierarchy we don't see at all, or if we do see it, it is fully rationalized. That is something that needs to be brought to any conversation. There is tremendous violence being forced down the hierarchy, but the fact that we don't notice a lot of it is because we're in a position of privilege.

LK: I would just add to that, if you live in one of the rich nations, you live behind a military barricade, and the only reason that you don't know that every single thing you buy is based on violence is because of that military barricade. So we can turn away in complete denial to the real cost of every single piece of food we eat and everything we buy — the cell phones, the ipods, the cars, whatever. There are a whole bunch of dead people and dead bioregions behind everything that we buy. And it is that military barricade that keeps us safe and keeps us in a complete land of dreams. But it is all based on violence. All we are saying is that we want to stop the violence. We don't want to make violence.

My friend Gail Dines has a lot of students that work at places like Old Navy and the Gap, and they regularly find, when they're unpacking the jeans and the T-shirts, little notes stuffed into the pockets that say "Please help us." This is from the factory workers in China or Taiwan or wherever.

TL: You are talking about wanting to stop the violence, but you're also talking about violence as a tool — violence against property and against people. In what ways do you think they're useful and in what scenarios?

AM: Well, I think that in the book we don't really talk about violence against people too much except to critique it and discuss the issues around that. In terms of property destruction, the main physical expression of this system has to do with infrastructure. Everything in this society — from the tar sands and the mountaintop removal to military expeditions and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan — it's all about fossil fuel energy, cheap energy. That cheap energy allows a small group of people to project power and dominance in a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

And so, if we want to stop that system, if we want to stop the planet from being baked alive, one of the most important things that needs to be done is to actually physically disrupt those systems, and that infrastructure is very vulnerable. One of the things that resistance movements need to think about is about leverage, is about how much change you can make with how many people you have, because resistance movements are inherently outnumbered. And so they really need to look for the place with the most leverage. So far, the Left in North America has focused on areas where they have the least leverage — things like ethical consumerism.

DJ: I will add that infrastructure destruction has long been part of every military strategy as well — attempting to destroy one's enemy's capacity to wage war is central to any strategy. And, really, what we're talking about in this case is attempting to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war on the poor and on the planet.

LK: Political change happens because it is forced upon the powerful, and the question that comes much later is, are you going to use violence to exert that force or something else? But you have to acknowledge that this is always a question of force. It does not happen by personal ephipany or persuasion or rational argument but by power. And usually what you're up against is a pretty sociopathic kind of system. I think about the French labor strikes that happened last October, where, in about three weeks, they had shut down the entire French economy simply by blockading the oil depots. No one got hurt. Yhey used human bodies and burning tires and trucks, and they blockaded the oil depots and the refineries. They stopped the basic energy from coming into the country, so that in three weeks, it was pretty much grinding to a halt. Given a realistic assessment of what we do have, the only strategy that matches the scale of the problem in the time frame that we have left to us, which is maybe 50 years, is direct attacks on infrastructure, so that's the strategy we are proposing. If you can show me a million people who are willing to blockade oil depots day after day and willing to block roads into West Virginia to stop mountaintop removal day after day after day, we can talk about using nonviolence, because I think it's a very elegant political technique.

But I don't see the numbers. You're asking the most privileged people on the planet to give up that privilege, and I don't think that is going to happen. In other countries, yes. In other countries, if their neck is being stepped on by the boot of power, yes, they know what is at stake, and you may be able to get enough numbers for a nonviolent resistance,. But in this country, I don't have a lot of hope for it.

TL: Derrick, you wrote that all the people associated with the Gulf Spill should be executed. That's going a little beyond property destruction.

DJ: If I were to write that now, I would take out the word "all" and put in the word "many." A couple of jokes I used to tell that aren't that funny: What do you get when you cross a long drug habit, a quick temper and a gun? The answer is two life terms for murder, earliest release date 2026. On the other hand, what do you get when you cross two nation states, a large corporation, three tons of poison and 8,000 dead human beings? The answer is, retirement with full pay and benefits.

Years ago, I was doing a benefit for a group trying to keep a toxic waste dump out of their community in Mexico. It was a poor Hispanic community. Many of the people who were blockading were being arrested by their neighbors, so the cops would protect distant economic interests over the health of their community. So we started having this conversation about what would happen if the police actually enforced cancer-free zones. Or the police actually enforced rape-free zones. What if the police enforced monopoly-free zones? And we all laughed, because we knew that was never going to happen. And then we thought, what if we had community police forces that were actually set up to enforce rape-free zones, toxic-free zones, that would not allow corporations to come in and poison our homes. And what would it look like to have a community defense force that is allowed to do that? Well, what that looks like is revolution. My point is that if those in power are not going to protect us from the Tony Haywards, then we in our communities need to protect ourselves from the Tony Haywards and the corporations they wield as tools.

TL : So what is your strategy for ending industrial civilization?

AM: I think the strategy is two-pronged. On one hand, we need to build up egalitarian communities, movements for democracy, local self-sufficiency, a lot of the things that progressives are trying to do right now, things like the Transition Town movements. But then, at the same time, we actually need to have another prong, and their job is to break things down, to break down the structures that are destroying the planet. You can't just have one. You can't just have people building their own alternative communities. You know, I live on an organic farm, we grow most of our own food, and we build soil with perennial polycultures and all of that sort of thing, but if we don't stop runaway global warming, then none of this is going to work. We just had several weeks without rain, and that is without severe climate change. The grass was all yellow, and the cows were very thirsty. So we can't just have one side of the prong, because the communities that we're trying to build won't survive.

And the two prongs need to undertake things very differently if you are talking about building democratic communities. And then, that is something that people do above ground, by building networks, building coalitions. On the other hand, if you are talking about disrupting or destroying systems that are killing the planet and people, then that is something that is traditionally done by the underground wing of the movement, by clandestine groups. Especially now with the amount of surveillance in our everyday lives, people who want to take direct action against systems of power have to do so secretly. That is the smaller part in terms of numbers but an essential part of the strategy.

DJ: I know that every prediction about global warming is that they underestimate it on the previous one, and I know that those in power are looking with what can only be described as lust at the melting of the Arctic ice caps. They are not looking with horror. They are not looking with shame. They are not looking with sorrow. They are not looking to change things. They are looking with lust at the access to resources. Anyone who thinks that they are going to stop before every living being on this planet has been killed is not paying any attention.

Every cell in my body wants there to be a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living, but I'm not going to base the future of the planet on that anymore than I am going to base it on unicorns jumping over the moon and farting pixie dust. It is just not going to happen. Those in power are insatiable. They are insane. They care more for increasing power and making money than life on the planet. I can't bear to live in a world being murdered, and I can't understand how anyone who even remotely considers themselves a living being can not oppose this with every bit of energy that they have, through whatever means are necessary to save life on the planet. I don't understand why it is even controversial to talk about dismantling industrial civilization when it has shown itself for 6,000 years to be destroying the planet and to be systemically committing genocide. I mean this is not even a new idea.

LK: Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato all talked about how the world is being destroyed by agriculture — the soil was washing down the hills into rivers and killing the rivers. This is as old as civilization because that's what civilization is. We are not the first people to realize this. We talk about the oceans — two-thirds of all animal breaths are made possible by the plankton that the oceans produce, and the plankton populations are collapsing now, because the oceans are dying. If the oceans go down, we go down with them. There will not be life on land if the plankton go. This is what we are facing now, and it does require a solution that is commensurate with the problem. So all of this withdrawal into your own backyard garden is not in any way going to address the fact that the plankton are collapsing, and that is why we need a resistance, not a withdrawal. Personal solutions aren't political solutions, and it is only through political solutions that we can take apart the political institutions that are actually murdering our planet.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
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