Time is Short: Systems Disruption and Strategic Militancy

Image by George Osodi / AP

The industrial machine dismantling the planet is incredibly vast, made as it is of the activity of hundreds of millions—billions—of people. Chainsaws and feller-bunchers topple forests, dams and canals drain wetlands and kill rivers, excavators tear apart mountains, dragnets scrape the ocean(s) sterile, the prairies plowed and paved over, and everything everywhere poisoned as we erase the genetic code of nature.

As civilization pushes the planet towards complete biotic collapse—speeding at the murderous pace of two hundred species a day—resistance becomes a mandate. Having seen the depressing failure of traditional & legal courses of action at slowing, never mind stopping, this death march, we are left with militant underground resistance as our only real hope for success.

While such resistance has been gaining speed worldwide in recent decades, much of the underground action taken thus far in defense of earth (at least in industrialized countries) has not been aimed or designed to cripple or stop industrial civilization. Actions have largely been defensive and reactive, with strikes against targets that—while primary causes of ecocide—aren’t critical to the larger function of industrialism or civilization.

While the courage of anyone who puts themselves on the line, risking their life and freedom in defense life, is undeniable and praiseworthy, we need more than piecemeal resistance: we need to prevent the function of industrial civilization. We don’t need to strike at the most obvious targets; we need to disable the critical support systems, to crumble the foundation of industrial civilization.

Because for all its awful horror, and despite its gargantuan sprawl, it is incredibly fragile. It is dependent on several very brittle systems (specifically electricity and oil) to sustain itself on even a daily level. These systems underlie all other industrial activity, at one level or another, and without their undisrupted operation, nothing else could function.

By disrupting these systems, that machine of industrial civilization can be brought to a screeching (and with preservation, irreversible) halt. By striking at critical nodes within the systems that sustain and enable industrial civilization, a serious militant resistance movement could seriously disrupt these systems. With some coordination, it could collapse them entirely, leveling the foundation of the oppressive & murderous social structure itself.

This process of strategically selecting and attacking targets and coordinating strikes to sabotage entire global systems is known as ‘systems disruption’. The idea is to leverage the structure and dynamics of the system against itself; identifying and attacking structural weak points, nodes that are critical to functionality, specific bottlenecks in the industrial process without which the larger system cannot function. Striking at these points yields the maximum impact of any attack on a system, and by coordinating attacks to strike at multiple, interconnected and interdependent nodes, a small force can disrupt or disable entire industrial superstructures, such as a national electric grid or international oil extraction/transportation/refining/distribution system.

Done correctly, this process is similar to that of explosive demolition, wherein massive, multi-story buildings are brought tumbling down in several seconds by carefully placed explosives. The idea is not to blow the building to dust, which would not only require countless explosives, but would also endanger everything around it. Instead, by analyzing the construction and structure of the building, workers identify specific locations at which to place explosives, and carefully time the blasts to collapse the structure in on itself.

Continuing the metaphor, by strategically selecting appropriate nodes in the system, success can be achieved with the minimal resources necessary. Consider the amount of explosives necessary to blast apart a building entirely versus the amount needed to destroy key foundational supports. The same is true of dismantling the superstructure of civilization as compared to disabling the key support systems that prop it up: refined liquid fossil fuels for transportation and electricity to power industrial activity. By allowing a small force with limited resources to topple disproportionately large and complex systems through precise attacks, systems disruption is a perfect offensive doctrine for asymmetric forces, and must be part of any smart anti-civilization underground resistance.

Also, in the same way that a proper building demolition collapses the structure in on itself without damaging anything around it, by attacking properly selected nodes, an underground resistance could collapse civilization in on itself, minimizing damage done to the planet (and oppressed humans). Rather than a protracted bloody struggle of attrition (whose success would be dubious), coordinated and decisive systems disruption would effectively pull the plug on.

The doctrine of systems disruption has been used around the world in countless conflicts for the very simple (and very compelling) reason that it is incredibly effective.

In the Niger Delta, militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta used effective systems disruption to cripple the oil industry. By coordinating strikes against specific pipelines, pumping stations, and oil platforms, the resisters in the Delta shut down 40 percent of oil output, and in one series of attacks, this margin was increased to 80 percent of production.

Using the same doctrine, resistance forces in Iraq limited oil production by 70 percent. By carefully selecting vulnerable and vitally important nodes within the oil infrastructure system, a small force has been able to disable a national oil production system.

It’s time earth defense movements adopted similar convictions of strategic rigor. The electrical and oil systems are not only crucial to the hourly function of civilization; they are incredibly vulnerable to systems disruption. Both of these systems are designed for efficiency, a design constraint that yields configurations that are ripe for coordinated disruption.

For example, one report estimated that a loss of only 10-20 electrical substations could shut down 60 percent of power distribution, potentially for weeks.

These systems are very inflexible, and if struck with the right force in the right place, they would cease to function entirely. Often, these systemic fulcrums aren’t the places or nodes we might expect. In general, these bottlenecks—whose disruption or disabling yields the maximum impact on the rest of the system—fall into one or more of several categories: they are highly connected or cluster-connection nodes; they are high-load nodes, meaning they experience a lot of traffic, relative to other nodes in the system; or are sources of systemic flow, such as a power plant.

In systems as complex as those that sustain industrial civilization, there won’t be a single keystone piece of infrastructure the disabling of which would collapse the whole system. Rather, there will be a number of such bottlenecks. Striking any of them would be beneficial, but coordinating decisive attacks against multiple such nodes will have an exponential effect, and can cause cascading failures within the system.

These sort of strategic attacks—those that coordinate strikes against weak points and manipulate system dynamics to turn small attacks into large events, disrupting and disabling key industrial systems—are what give those standing against planetary murder the best chance of success. All smart strategic planning starts from the basis of what people, resources, and time is available, and then formulates a strategy within those constraints.

As a movement, radical earth-defense doesn’t have the resources or the numbers of people necessary to engage in open battles with those in power, nor the time to wait for civilization to collapse on its own. By operating along principles of asymmetric struggle, and using coordinated attacks against bottlenecks, an underground resistance could destroy civilization’s ability to function. In no uncertain terms, a relatively small number of people, placing the charges in just the right spots, could bring down civilization, just like a ten-story office building.

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at timeisshort@riseup.net.

Categories: Essays, Resistance, Time is Short, Underground

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23 Comments on “Time is Short: Systems Disruption and Strategic Militancy”

  1. October 24, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    Great post, Alex. It’s a shame Ted K. didn’t think along these lines.

  2. turtlebeans
    October 24, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    There is some good theory here. I was wondering how you might deal with situations that could become worse ecological disasters after turning the power off like nuclear power plants. Fukushima comes to mind. I think we need to make sure that pulling the plug doesn’t do more damage than good.

  3. October 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    @turtlebeans
    that’s a good point. I think that’s the work that those of us working aboveground need to be focused on. In that sense, an underground works to bring down the destructive systems (what’s destroying the planet now), and an aboveground creates the alternative institutions to ensure that what follows civilization coming down is a just and sustainable world.

    On another note, compared to the destruction of life by civilization, catastrophic nuclear disasters are nothing. As an example, the Chernobyl disaster wrecked havoc when it occurred, but since then, the city has become a success story; birds, deer, and plants have all returned to take over the abandoned city, despite the initially apocalyptic predictions of scientists. There are even fungi living inside the nuclear reactors that literally eat the gamma radiation. Obviously, the living world is incredibly resilient. This also shows us that the day-to-day operation of civilization is more destructive and harmful than a nuclear disaster.

    That’s not to dismiss these concerns, which are entirely valid and need to be addressed; simply another perspective on the issue.

  4. Irwin Hill
    October 24, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    A variation on turtlebeans concern: How do you make sure that you don’t kill large numbers of innocents when you turn off the power? If there were a lot of collateral damage, those harmed by the dismantling of the grid or other structures might turn against the resistance. So while doing massive damage might be possible, controlling the consequences could be fast more difficult and critical.

    • October 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

      While some might blame resistance for consequences, there may be many others won to our side. This is a good reason to be sure of targets, and to make sure damage is permanent. The consequences are unforseeable, but we know what damage is happening now.

  5. turtlebeans
    October 24, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Functioning nuclear power plants may have fail safes that would shut them down automatically assuring that a power failure wouldn’t be catastrophic. This probably wouldn’t be too hard to find out I doubt it’s a secret. Fukushima is another story because it’s still in meltdown and some experts have predicted that if another earthquake or tsunami strikes before they get it secured and the fuel rods relocated there could be a fire and catastrophic fallout that could affect the west coast of North America. But like you say Chernobyl is coming back just fine.

    The earth suffers collateral damage every day from various problems like starvation and disease and war so I don’t know how much the body count would increase after the lights go out it might be the same and eventually go down. I guarantee you some people will fight to keep technology working but this is covered in the book so I’m not going to reiterate it. Plus we’re not just measuring damage only from a human perspective but but looking at the earth as a whole system which will ultimately benefit from a smaller human foot print.

  6. Brett Stokes (Adelaide Australia)
    October 25, 2012 at 5:54 am #

    “Chernobyl is coming back just fine.” is a speculation which is very dubious IMHO.

    Consider the GE Mark1 BWRs, six of which are at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, with dozens more worldwide including in the USA.

    The GE Mark1 BWRs have ECSS design faults and will all go off like Fukushima (or worse) if power is disrupted for more than a few days.

    These faults are well documented (since 1967) and the sequence of failures in March 2011 at Fukushima are IMHO now well understood, including the farcical lack of batteries to open a valve to allow the ECSS to operate for more than a few hours.

    IMHO In My Honest (and well informed) Opinion
    BWR Boiling Water Reactor
    ECSS Emergency Core Cooling System
    GE = GE/Hitachi

    • turtlebeans
      October 25, 2012 at 7:45 am #

      Thanks Brett for a little bit of technical information about the state of nuclear power in this world. I havn’t done much research in this area yet but you have confirmed some of my suspicions if your statements indeed turn out to be true. It might be that that the first order of business might be to seize control of the power plants and force the staff to shut them down. Just speculating. These guys could do it http://youtu.be/t3mhlJ8OZRA

  7. turtlebeans
    October 25, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    The situation here is very precarious, I think there are earthquakes every day in the Pacific rim.

    http://fukushima-diary.com/2012/10/m5-6-hit-miyagi-scale-4-in-the-coastal-area-of-fukushima/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+FukushimaDiary+%28Fukushima+Diary%29

  8. muna
    October 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    The internet is where it’s at. Shut the internet down on which everything now depends. And the Pentagon sees this as greatest strategic threat.

    • general E. feral
      February 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

      soooo how do you guys make a living?

  9. GB
    March 18, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    @Irwin: no civilized person is innocent.
    @dgrindiana: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ted-kaczynski-hit-where-it-hurts

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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