Against Efficiency: How A More Efficient Economy Hurts the Planet, Part Two

Editor’s note: This is the second part of an edited transcript of a talk given at the 2017 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. Read Part One hereWatch the video here.

     by Erin Moberg, Ph.D., and Max Wilbert / Deep Green Resistance Eugene

A question that a lot of radical environmentalists ask ourselves is, “where is your threshold for resistance?” Particularly given the recent U.S. presidential election, people in so many communities with a lot at stake, with a lot to lose, and not a lot of choice, have been doing much of the harder and riskier work as front-line activists.

Latinos are taking action in courts, schools, and town halls. Women of color are taking action, black and brown people are taking action, and indigenous people are taking action. Since the U.S Presidential election it has been good to see other people with less to lose take steps, and sometimes leaps, out of the spaces of privilege they occupy in order to stand up and speak up against injustice–against violations of people of color, of women and girls, of Spanish-speakers, of immigrants, of undocumented people, and so many others.

In Eugene, Oregon, I’ve also seen many people new to activism come out to learn about direct action and community organizing, because they want to defend the land they love, but a lot of times don’t know how.

This gives me brief moments of hope and yet I’m still terrified, and still very certain that nothing short of a unified global movement of all kinds of people ready to resist and fight back, to protect the land they love, the air we breathe, the water we need, and all of the animals on the planet, will be enough to give us any say at all in how and when this culture collapses.

Some of the ramifications of environmental activists and movements dedicating themselves to promoting energy efficiency include strengthening the existing culture, i.e., industrial civilization, by correcting contradictions that stand out between ideals and practices, or policy and practices, within the dominant culture.

This also provides an unproductive outlet for activist revolutionary anger that only serves to pacify us and detract us from more materially impactful work that we could be doing as activists. Thinking about the global crises that we are currently facing, including deforestation, peak oil, water drawdown, soil loss, food crises, overfishing, desertification are often framed in the media and in popular and academic discourse as disparate or coincidental issues.

We know, however, that all of these crises are interrelated. These are some of the ways in which we can collectively characterize these crises:

  • They are progressive – they are rapid, but not instant, which can lead to what is called “shifting baseline syndrome.” That is, we get accustomed to a new norm, a new kind of way of living, and we lose sight of a previous issue like destruction of forests or water drawdown.
  • These crises are non-linear, runaway or self-sustaining, they have long lead and lag-times, which really impedes any kind of activism that’s focused on long-term solutions or long-term planning.
  • They have a deeply rooted momentum and they are industrially-driven, and they benefit the powerful, and cost the powerless.
  • They often yield temporary victories, but permanent losses, particularly losses to the planet.

The proposed solutions to these crises often make things worse, as in the case of energy efficiency measures. Here is quote by Aric McBay that really resonates with me. In the book “Deep Green Resistance” he writes:

Even though analysts who look at the big picture globally may use large amounts of data, they often refuse to ask deeper or more uncomfortable questions. The hasty enthusiasm for industrial biofuels is one manifestation of this. Biofuels have been embraced by some as a perfect ecological replacement for petroleum. The problems with this are many, but chief among them is the simple fact that growing plants for vehicle fuel takes land the planet simply can’t spare. Soy, palm, and sugar cane plantations for oil and ethanol are now driving the destruction of tropical rainforest in the Amazon and Southeast Asia…This so-called solution to the catastrophe of petroleum ends up being just as bad—if not worse—than petroleum.

Let’s look at some traits of ineffective solutions:

  • Ineffective solutions tend to reinforce existing power disparities. These solutions tend to be based on capitalism as a guiding principle and goal. Anything that has as its primary goal to increase productivity, to make more money, is necessarily going to be an ineffective solution when it comes to the health of the planet.
  • These solutions suppress autonomy or sustainability that impede profit. For example, suggestions of voluntary changes for corporations to undertake are not going to be carried out, because it doesn’t serve their best interest, which is to increase their profit, to make more money.
  • They rely on techno-fixes, or technological and political elites. For example, photovoltaic solar panels, which in the process of creating them uses more energy and causes further environmental harm.
  • They encourage consumption and increasing consumption and population growth.
  • They attempt to solve one problem without regard to the interconnected problems. “Solving” the energy crisis with corn-derived ethanol destroys more land and causes water drawdown, with a very low yield of ethanol.
  • They involve great delay and postpone action. A good example of this is the Paris Climate Accords. Every day, the gap between human population and the earth’s carrying capacity increases. The goals are set for 2025 or 2050–by the time we even get there, that gap will be exponentially greater.
  • They tend to focus on changing individual lifestyles, such as buying more efficient light bulbs. This consumer deception: if you buy more of the right things, you can save the planet.
  • They tend to be based on token, symbolic, or trivial actions. For example, an activist group acknowledges the problem of industrial civilization, but then the only action they take is to sign a petition, or to grow their own food. Those things might be great things for individuals for consciousness-raising, finding community, and expressing ourselves, but they are very disconnected from the material impact of civilization on the planet.
  • They tend to be focused on superficial or secondary causes, like overpopulation instead of over-consumption. For this particular point, it also tends to be a very racist approach in looking at how to save the planet, because the blame tends to be put on indigenous and brown and black communities who have the most to lose, and the least control over this system of empire.
  • Finally, these ineffective solutions tend to not be consonant with the severity of the problem, the window of time available to act, or the number of people expected to act.

Let’s talk a little bit about what effective solutions could look like. Effective solutions need to address root problems with global understanding. We need to acknowledge the interconnected aspect of all of these crises that are occurring around the planet.

Effective solutions involve a higher level of strategic rigor. But they also enable many different people to address the problem and ask themselves what they’re able to risk, what they can offer. Can you risk your body, can you risk your family, can you risk your job? Or not? It is necessary to locate our position on that spectrum and figure out how we can best use our skills to end the crisis.

Effective solutions are suitable to the scale of the problem, the lead time for action, and the number of people expected to act. If you know you need 25 people to pull off a blockade of a coal train and you don’t have 25 people, then plan a different action. Be realistic.

Effective solutions tend to involve immediate action and long-term action planning, make maximum use of available levers and fulcrums (planned to make as big of an impact as possible), playing to the strengths of the people involved, and targeting the weaknesses of the system.

Finally, they must work directly and indirectly to take down civilization, which is the overall goal. This leads to a discussion of another obstacle to effective solutions: the conflict between reformist and revolutionary perspectives.

Reformists, those who advocate for change through reform, tend to consider the existing system as functional but flawed, and believe it can be modified to address the issue at hand.

Reformists tend to be willing to employ legal and socio-politically sanctioned approaches to changing the system or addressing the problem, like legislations, petitions, grassroots organizing. Reformists also tend to focus on separate issues.

There are some limitations to this. A reformist focuses on correcting contradictions within the system, and thus redirects revolutionary anger to less materially-impactful solutions. On the other hand, both revolution and reform can have a place in the type of activism that leads to effective solutions.

Revolutionists consider the existing system to be the root of the problem, and believe that it must be dismantled and replaced. Revolutionists are willing to employ resistance strategies through whatever means are most effective. Rather than working within a particular legal framework, revolutionists are willing to employ strategies that may or may not be legal toward the goal of saving the planet.

Revolutionists see this system, this culture as the primary issue. We advocate that those working toward reform and those working toward revolution, or anywhere within that spectrum, identify points of overlap in their goals and strategies, in order to better work together.

This might look like activists who utilize legislative channels to prevent the shipment of fossil fuels through their municipality, while front-line activists block coal trains and offer direct action training for others to do those same actions.

August, 2016 Deep Green Resistance coal train blockade

What do we mean by fighting back? We mean thinking and feeling for ourselves, finding who and what we love, figuring out how to defend what we love, and using any means necessary and appropriate. This involves calling out the problem, in this case the dire circumstances caused by industrial civilization for life on the planet; identifying the goal, for example, depriving the rich and powerful of the ability to destroy the planet, and defending and rebuilding just and sustainable human communities within repaired and restored landbases.

In our communities and around the world, great people are doing great work in the name of saving the planet. More people are marching in protest than before, more people are writing letters, signing petitions, making calls, and organizing at the grassroots level. More people are seeing clearly, and more people are learning the language to speak about what they see.

And yet, more animals go extinct every day, and more areas of the earth become uninhabitable for so many animals, including humans. The salmon are dying, the forests are dying, the rivers are dying, the oceans are dying, and people are dying, all around the world, because of industrial civilization.

Since the last US presidential election, more people are speaking out about the climate crisis through social media, in town halls, in their homes, in neighborhoods and schools. And yet, the earth’s temperature rose again last year, and the Bramble Cays Melomys went extinct due to climate change last year. So did the San Cristobal Vermillion flycatcher.

San Cristobal Vermillion flycatcher

The Rabb’s Treefrog went extinct. And the Stephan’s Riffle Beetle. And the Tatum Cave Beetle. And the Barbados Racer Snake. And 13 more bird species went extinct. And the list goes on.

As environmental activists, we know what is at stake: all life on the planet. We know, too, that an environmental and cultural movement grounded in energy efficiency is, simply put, not enough, and often incites further planetary harm. I’d like to read a quote by one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Rebecca Solnit, a writer, feminist, philosopher and activist:

Our country is now headed by white supremacist nativist misogynist climate-denying nature-hating authoritarians who want to destroy whatever was ever democratic and generous-spirited in this country, meaning that it’s a good time to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, to keep your eyes on the prize, and to commit to the long term process of taking it all back. Because even after Trump topples, which could happen soon, remaking the stories and the structures is a long term project that matters. It is not ever going to finish, so you can pace yourself, celebrate milestones and victories, and get over any idea of arrival and going home. Most of the change will be incremental, and the lives of most great changemakers show us people who persisted for decades, whether or not the way forward looked clear, easy, or even possible.

This is also a remarkable moment in which many people you and I might have disagreed with in safer times are also horrified, are allies in some of the important work to be done, and worth reaching out to to find what we have in common. “The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere: to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.” This is an emergency. How will you emerge?

We will leave you with a brief analysis of a poem by Adrienne Rich, the poet, essayist, and radical feminist who died just a few years ago. This poem is called “North American Time” and it’s taken from a collection published in 1986, in which she argues for a kind of ethical imagination, that I think applies to our argument for moving beyond energy efficiency, towards the end of halting climate change and the destruction of the planet.

The poem begins as the speaker, a woman of color, reflects on her growing realization of having been systematically silenced and pacified by the culture of empire:

When my dreams showed signs

of becoming  

politically correct

no unruly images

escaping beyond border

when walking in the street I found my

themes cut out for me

knew what I would not report

for fear of enemies’ usage

then I began to wonder…

She goes on to describe the power and permanency of written words, and of the verbal privilege in being able to write, or to act, in a public, enduring way. In the third section, she challenges the reader to do the impossible: to imagine herself outside the context of history, of planetary life, of accountability.

try telling yourself

you are not accountable

to the life of your tribe

the breath of your planet

It doesn’t matter what you think.

Words are found responsible

all you can do is choose them

or choose

to remain silent. Or, you never had a choice,

which is why the words that do stand

are responsible

and this is verbal privilege.

Here and throughout the poem, Rich calls out the silent bystander, the privileged witness who sees and knows that great injustice is being perpetrated, and yet doesn’t speak, doesn’t act, doesn’t intervene. Central to this poem is Rich’s profound understanding that words, rather than thoughts, are ultimately found responsible. I think the same holds true for actions in the context of environmental activism.

Our actions will be what endure, not the thoughts we had, or the plans we made, or the feelings we had about the destruction of the planet. Also central to this poem is Rich’s compelling portrayal of the disjuncture between those who have a choice, the more privileged, and those who don’t.

As activists, we need to first understand our own relative privileges and then acknowledge that being male; being white; being an English-speaker; being a citizen; being wealthy, are not innate. They are a direct result of the culture of empire, of a culture grounded in institutionalized racism, misogyny, and omnicide.

The salmon, who have all but disappeared, didn’t have a choice. The Kalapuya, whose land we occupy here today, didn’t have a choice. The forests don’t have a choice, nor the bees, nor the rivers.

What choices do you all have? We encourage all of you to reflect on these words as a call to action, as a call to re-evaluate the words we use, and the stances we take, to assess whether or not they truly coincide with our deepest, most intimate hope for the future of ourselves, of the planet, and of this world.

We ask all of you to think long and hard about how you would like to emerge, and then we ask you to act, in a way that feels intentional and possible, and significant to you, and most importantly, for all life on this planet.

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