Image by Jim Wilson / The New York Times

Carl Nussbaum: Notes on Resistance

By Carl Nussbaum / Deep Green Resistance Orlando

We are in the middle of the largest mass extinction in 65 million years—an extinction that many scientists have argued is the fault of human activity over the last 10,000 years. Around 200 species go extinct each day. 90% of the world’s large fish populations have been decimated by industrial fishing and other industrial activity (This includes cod, halibut, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and others). According to a report issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (An association consisting of around 1,000 organizations and “thousands of participating scientists”), “One in four mammal species, one in eight bird species and one in three amphibian species” are currently threatened with extinction. The majority of coral reefs are dying. The International Energy Agency has said that if fossil fuel infrastructure is not changed, that is, reduced, within 5 years, the earth will be “locked in” to irreversible climate change. Every major life system on this planet is in decline—there is not a single academic peer-reviewed article that says otherwise.

These are serious facts that demand serious responses. However, instead of serious responses, the majority of the left (and I say “left” here because although these issues are relevant to anyone who cares about the continuation of life on the planet, the left is where the bulk of environmental discourse is coming from) has offered up solutions and responses that in no way match the size or the scope of the problem we’re facing. We’ve been told that in order to mitigate environmental damage we must change our diet, our cars, our minds, and of course, our light bulbs. Though, it has occurred to a number of us that these solutions (and similar others) are not only ineffective; they’re downright irresponsible as “ends” meant to address the destruction of the planet. To place the blame squarely on the individual and then expect the individual to be the source and ends of social transformation is to completely ignore the role of power and particular unjust and brutal arrangements of power (Not only that, but the sum of these actions if—and this is a big “if”—everyone undertakes them, is still nowhere near the kind of reduction needed to halt the destruction of the earth). Critique aside, what would the grounds, philosophically, look like of a movement that could take into account the workings of power and hold as its ends a livable planet and just social relations?

By the sheer magnitude of the problem—that is, overcoming the structures and institutions who seem hell-bent on destroying the planet—an acceptance of predetermined or a priori boundaries, whether moral, legal, ethical, religious, etc., is undeniably a privileging of the dead over the living, of the ideal over the real. Predetermined principles and boundaries for action as well as the structure that they’re situated in and emit from, assume that we take their being and continuance as primary and given, and that we take what is to be changed (or the object of change) as a kind of dependent variable. In this case, the dependent variable treated by the proponents of civilization as well as mainstream environmentalists is the biosphere. This is implicit in action and stated ideological aims. Author Derrick Jensen has pointed this out and notes that this sort of thinking—that which, at any cost, seeks to save civilization—is “entirely backwards.” Instead, he argues, “We need to do whatever it takes to save life on the planet.”

Submitting action to, say, a moral or ethical category—a purely metaphysical category to be sure—betrays the material thing that gave rise and meaning to the ethic or moral. What we ought to be doing is an entire reconfiguring—consulting the meaningful thing in the world (humans, nonhumans, a landbase, etc.) and then tailoring an ethos, i.e., action, to fit. It is the material grounds that make possible (and impart meaning), in the first and last instance, any ideal, metaphysical principle.

But what we see on the left (and the right for that matter) is an obsession over one’s own personal moral purity—of “action” that, in every way possible, fits into a moral/ethical framework, magically relieving the individual of any moral burden and, more importantly, guilt. The tendency of activists to focus almost solely on the individual as the basic unit of social change is, traditionally, within political theory, the hallmark of liberalism (this is not, to note, meant to name the political Left or Right). At its fundamental level, the liberal understands change as emitting from the individual “where the idea,” activist Cameron Murphey explains, “is that social change happens step by step, person by person…and in this way society is seen as some fluid collection of individuals where the sum of these individuals still equals its parts.” Essentially, this thinking, from its subjectivist (and ultimately narcissistic) roots, leads to conceiving of the means of change, in total, Murphey explains, as “an idealistic process—meaning that it happens in the mind.” The problem here is what instigated the Marxist critical tradition—the “tyranny of ideas,” the neglect of material circumstance in favor of the more gentle fantasy of ideas. Granted, there certainly does need to be a change regarding individual consciousness, moving away from the dominant ideology and so forth, but it is not to be taken as a primary end.

Yet it is taken as a primary end in the liberal tradition. Theodore Adorno’s insight regarding constitutive, i.e., bourgeois, subjectivity is relevant here: The liberal, supposing that simply and solely changing one’s mind or attitude constitutes, correlatively, the necessary (and only necessary) change in the world, forgets the objective circumstances that constituted the problem (as well as the subject) in the first place. As Marx had argued that the point of philosophy is to change reality, the liberal argues that we must change ourselves. Thus, goes the liberal argument, that if enough people can make this inner change, then it will inevitably change external circumstances.

Internal/external philosophical problems aside; I think it’s much more useful to consider if such a tactic, solely considered, has ever worked in struggles for liberation. The answer, historically, is a resounding “No.” To illustrate, author and activist Lierre Keith parallels the history of colonialism and indigenous people with the ideals of the contemporary “alternativist” environmental ideology (The idea that by living differently, i.e., “green,” people will naturally be attracted to adopt a different way of life.). She explains that if this liberal model of “personal example-as-political strategy,” was indeed an effective method at creating change (and not just a feel-good, religious-like purism), then those who encounter communities that seem to embody the ideal most, i.e., those living sustainably and in ostensible harmony with the earth, will likely want to adopt such a way of living. The go-to example, indeed the often-cited inspiration for such an ideal, is, for the most part, indigenous cultures. But, as Keith explains, in the history of colonizers and invaders into indigenous lands “the face-to-face example of an egalitarian sustainable culture has never once changed the invaders. It has never once brought on an epiphany amongst the invaders.” She adds, “The dominant culture will not change because it sees the non-violent values that we embody and it will not change because it beholds our beautiful free-range compost pile.”  When it has been employed, moral example and persuasion has worked in converting a few, but it has never been enough to convince those in power to renounce the privileges and benefits that come with such power.  The difference is between liberal ideal and material reality. Again, to stress: changing oneself is necessary, but it is not the ends of change.

The focus, considering what’s at stake, must extend beyond the illusion of the isolated subject, beyond the notion of a singular self and an identity that is based on what one consumes. We are reminded of Gandhi’s famous line—the dogma of contemporary liberals—to “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” This notion becomes problematic if one does change one’s consciousness, yet the objective material reality still stays the same. That is, if I have resolved to approach the world with a kind of responsible, ecological consciousness yet, en masse, the world continues to be destroyed, my response betrays the purpose of my resolve in the first place. On the other hand, we could argue that a truly “responsible, ecological consciousness” is, indeed, one that looks beyond personal change and into the shared material world.

The internal logic of current political and economic structures requires that they cede nothing that would invite their own collapse; in plain terms, the State and major economic entities will not, voluntarily, stop destroying the planet. They must, instead, be stopped. This means creating and implementing a formidable revolutionary praxis with strategies and tactics that are faithful to the end goal of a living planet. It means asking what kinds of responses are appropriate given our situation. A philosophy of resistance to the dominant ideology, if its guiding principle is the ensuring of a livable planet (livable for both humans and non-humans), isn’t concerned, necessarily, with moralism, idealist ethics or the like, but is, instead, pragmatically concerned with the creation or bringing about of conditions such that the planet’s destruction by those who could otherwise not engage in such destruction is rendered impossible. The agency of those destroying is the primary difference from other more “natural” mass extinctions. And it is the fact of agency in all of this that affords the possibility of active resistance—of naming power and overcoming that power.

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