Within the radical environmental movement, it is widely acknowledged and rightly accepted that we have little time left before the earth is driven into catastrophic and runaway biotic collapse. We know that civilization is predicated on the slow dismemberment of the planet’s life support systems—a dismemberment that is increasing in speed as more efficient and devastating technologies are developed. We know that for a healthy, living world to survive, industrial civilization cannot.
It is also acknowledged (although perhaps less widely) that we are incredibly outnumbered and outgunned, so to speak. People aren’t exactly lining up around the block to join the movement, and when was the last time any of our campaigns weren’t starved for funds? We don’t have many people or resources at our disposal, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that isn’t changing anytime soon.
Due to these limitations, which should be glaringly (if dishearteningly) obvious to anyone involved with radical organizations or movements, we need to take extra care in devising how we chose to allocate the energy and resources we do have. With so much at stake and so little time to muster decisive action, we cannot afford to put time and effort into strategies and actions that are ineffective.
Additionally, in devising our strategies and tactics, we need to accommodate those personnel and resource limitations: a strategy that requires more people or more resources (or both) than are actually available to us is a recipe for quick failure. As obvious as this should be, these sorts of strategic considerations seem to be mysteriously absent from the radical movement*.
Of course, simply because these conversations aren’t happening doesn’t mean that there isn’t an unspoken strategy, a framework within which we operate by default. While this may not be articulated explicitly, our actions form a collective strategic template.
By and large, the strategy of the environmental movement is one of attrition, a slow battle with the goal of wearing down the institutions & forces of environmental degradation until they cease to function. Whether by default or perceived lack of alternatives, this has been accepted as an unquestioned strategy for the overwhelming majority of those of us in the environmental movement. This is a mistake which could cost us the planet if not revisited and corrected.
A strategy of attrition is one in which you wear down an opponent’s resources, personnel, and will to fight to the point of collapse. As a strategy, it intends one of two outcomes: through the continual depletion of the aforementioned resources, the enemy suffers unacceptable losses and surrenders or capitulates out of hopelessness; or, the enemy is worn down over time to the point that it is incapable of function and operation.
One classic example of attrition and exhaustion strategy being implemented is that of Ulysses Grant’s campaign against the Confederacy in the later part of the American Civil War. Grant attacked and pushed the Confederate army continuously, despite horrific losses, with the theory that the greater manpower and resources of the Union would overwhelm the Confederacy—which would prove correct.
In the context of the modern environmental movement, this strategy looks only slightly different.
Again, there is no articulated grand strategy within the environmental movement—whether we’re talking about the entire spectrum or just the radical side of things, there is no defined plan for success. However, our work, campaigns, initiatives and actions fit rather snugly into the box of attrition strategy: we focus on one atrocity at a time—one timber sale, one power plant, one pipeline, one copper mine—doing our best to eliminate one threat at a time. These targets aren’t selected based on their criticality or importance to the function of civilization or industrialism, but are selected by what might be best described as reactionary opportunism.
And that makes sense: remember we’re vastly outweighed in every way imaginable by those in power, and time is quickly running out. With 200 species going extinct every day, the sense of urgency that drives us to try and win any victory we can is understandable and compelling.
Unfortunately, this mix of passion and earnestness has led the environmental movement into a strategic netherworld. If our goal is to stop the destruction of the planet, we would do well to turn a critical eye toward the systems that are responsible for that destruction, identify the lynchpins within them, and organize to disable and destroy them.
Instead, we wander blindly in every which direction, striking out wildly, hoping that enough of our glancing blows find a target to wear the systems down to the point of collapse. But this strategy fails to account for the power & resource imbalance between “us” and “them”, as well as the time frame for action.
To address the first shortcoming: those in power—those who benefit from and drive industrial extraction & production—have near limitless resources at their disposal to pursue their sadistic goals, whereas things look decidedly different for those of us who fight for life. Every day, millions—billions—of humans go to work within the industrial economy, and in doing so, wage war against the planet. Those of us on the other side of the war don’t have—and can’t compete with—that kind of loyalty or support. China is still building one new coal-fired power plant every week, and worldwide, coal plants are being erected “left and right”1.
How many coal plants did we shut down this week? The week prior?
For a strategy of attrition to be viable or effective, we need to be disrupting, dismantling or retiring industrial infrastructure as quickly or quicker than it can be constructed and repaired. At this point, we’re lucky if we can stop new projects, new developments, new strip mines, timber-harvest-plans, oil & gas fields, etc., much less drawdown those already in operation.
This is true across the whole spectrum of activism and the environmental movement. On the more liberal side of things for example, take Bill McKibben and 350.org’s newest campaign, an initiative to get universities, cites, and churches/synagogues/mosques to divest from fossil fuel companies. The idea is essentially to slowly bleed money away from the fossil fuel industry, modeled after the divestment campaigns of the anti-apartheid movement. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry isn’t exactly hurting for investors, and it certainly isn’t reliant upon money from university endowment funds for its survival. Equally problematic, industrial civilization requires fossil fuels to function, and hence these companies already have the support and subsidies of governments around the world—do we think they’ll suddenly abandon their undying support for these companies? And besides, a slow drain on their stock prices must be balanced against the record profits being made in the industry: do we really think that this outweighs the capital available to the industry?
The same is true of many of the most radical actions taken in defense of earth, such as that of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Their first (and arguably primary) goal was/is “To cause maximum economic damage to a given entity that is profiting off the destruction of the natural environment.”2 That’s great, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with causing maximum economic damage to those that profit from the degradation of the earth, in and of itself. But what is the realistic extent of “maximum economic damage”, and what is the capacity of those entities to absorb it? For example, although the ELF claims to have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, every year companies lose more than that due to employees playing fantasy football at work. Absurdities of industrial capitalism aside, the point should be clear; the capacity of our movement to effect significant change through compounded economic damage is severely outweighed by the damage the system does to itself, and also by its ability to absorb that damage.
All of which is to say that 200 species went extinct today, and there hasn’t been a single peer-reviewed study put out in the last 30 years that showed a living system not in decline: for us to be satisfied with slightly diminished industry profits or anything less than a complete end to the death machine of industrial civilization is unconscionable.
None of this is to say that 350.org or the ELF aren’t worthwhile organizations who’ve done good things. This is not a critique of those groups in particular, because countless other organizations share the same strategic flaws; it’s a critique of the movement as a whole that continues to produces the same strategic inadequacies.
And then there’s the second problem presented by an attrition model: time. Attrition affects the greatest damage over a long period of time. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time. As previously mentioned, 200 species vanish into the endless night of extinction every day; 90 percent of large ocean fish are gone, the old growth forests are gone, the prairies and grasslands are gone, the wetlands and riparian areas are gone, the clean freshwater is gone. Every year, the predictions put out by climatologists and modelers are more severe, and every year they say the previous year’s predictions were underestimates. The Energy Information Administration says we have five years to stop the proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure if we are to avoid runaway climate change (and some say this is overly optimistic)3. If we had decades or centuries in which to slowly erode and turn the tide against industrialism, then perhaps we could consider a strategy of attrition. But we don’t have that time.
To reiterate, this isn’t a strategic model that holds any real hope for the earth.
Smart strategic planning starts with an honest assessment of the time, people, and resources available to our cause, and moves forward within those constraints. We don’t have much time at all; the priority at this point is to bring down civilization as quickly as possible. We don’t have many people either, and can’t realistically expect many to join us; the rewards and distractions—the bread and roses—provided in exchange for loyalty to the established systems of power mean we will always be few and that we will never persuade the majority. Finally, our resources are also incredibly limited, and hence we need to focus on using them in ways that accrue the greatest lasting impact.
Given these limitations, it should be clear that a strategy of attrition is more than unwise; it’s fatal for both us and the rest of the planet. Working within the framework created by the available time, people and resources, and with the goal of physically dismantling the key infrastructure of civilization, the strategy with the greatest chance of success is one of targeted militant strikes against key industrial bottlenecks. As opposed to the slow grind of attrition, this would be a quick series of attacks at decisive locations; rather than waiting for the building to be eroded away by wind and rain, collapse the structural supports of the building itself; we would opt instead for a strategy of decisive ecological warefare.
Many of us put all the energy and passion we have into our work, and dedicate our lives to the struggle. But that won’t be enough. We’re up against a globalized death machine that is skinning the planet alive and cooking the remains; we will never be successful if we put our efforts into trying to dent their profit margins. Burning SUVs and vandalizing billboards have an important role to play in developing a serious culture of resistance (as does organizing students), but we can’t afford to pretend those sorts actions are meaningful or threatening blows to the industrial superstructure.
Time is short. If we’re to be effective, we need to move beyond half thought-out strategies of attrition that try to compete with the resources of those in power. We need to devise strategies that use the resources available to decisively disable and dismantle the infrastructures that enable their destruction and power.
*This isn’t to say that there is no strategic thinking, planning, or action at all; many organizations are very smart and savvy in undertaking specific actions and campaigns. The issue isn’t a lack of strategy in particular situations or campaigns, but comprehensively of the entire environmental movement as a whole.
1. “China & India Are Building 4 New Coal Power Plants—Every Week. http://www.thegwpf.org/china-india-building-4-coal-power-plants-week/
2. “Earth Liberation Front”. http://www.earthliberationfront.tk/
3. “World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, EIA warms”. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/09/fossil-fuel-infrastructure-climate-change
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.