Derrick Jensen: Democracy of Destruction

When the will of the people spells demise for the planet

By Derrick Jensen / Deep Green Resistance

The United States is not a democracy. It is more accurate to say we live in a plutocracy — a government of, by, and for the wealthy — or more accurate still, a kleptocracy — a government that has as its primary organizing principle theft, from the poor, from the land, from the future. Yet somehow we still often publicly speak and act as though we do live in a democracy.

But there exists a deeper problem than us not living in a democracy, an even deeper problem than our inability to acknowledge that we don’t live in a democracy, which is that there’s a very real way in which we do live in a democracy. And the implications of this are very bad news for the planet. The reason has to do not so much with how we are governed as with what we want, and what we do. If it’s true that, as someone said long ago, by their fruits ye shall know them, it quickly becomes clear that, to use my mother’s phrase, the majority of people in this country don’t give two hoots in a rain barrel about the health of the planet. Some examples should make this clear.

Let’s start with tigers. Not real tigers, not flesh-and-blood tigers, not tigers who are being driven extinct in the wild. But rather the Louisiana State University Tigers football team, currently ranked number one in the country. Last January, when LSU played Alabama for the college football championship, more than 78,000 people attended. The median ticket price was $1,565, and some seats were reported to have gone for as much as $10,000. The region was so excited about this football game that a number of schools closed in celebration. And of course the television audience was well over 24 million people. It was the second most watched program in cable television history.

All of which leads me to conclude that more people in this country care about the Tigers football team than living, breathing tigers. Obviously, you could make the same argument about the Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and on and on.


Siberian tigers

Now don’t get me wrong: I like sports. But ultimately what we’re talking about here is a game. Do you think we could have gotten schools to close or 70,000 people to gather to help clean up Louisiana’s beaches from the Gulf oil spill (and do it week after week, as they do for LSU football games, for New Orleans Saints football games — as they do almost daily in every city across the country for football, baseball, basketball, and on and on)? Or hell, do you think we could get schools to close or more than 70,000 people to gather week after week to try to do something about that same region’s Cancer Alley?

Another example: For one brief night a couple of years ago the northern California county where I live — Del Norte — became a vibrant and shining example of participatory democracy in action. But it wasn’t saving the redwoods or the die-off of amphibians or dam removal that got people to turn out en masse. It was a particularly controversial domesticated plant. You probably know that through popular vote the state of California legalized cannabis for medicinal use, and now the number of allowable plants is determined county by county. So when the Del Norte County supervisors were considering dropping that number from ninety-nine to six, people flooded the public input meeting and prevented it from happening. This is how participatory democracy is supposed to work: public “representatives” are supposed to carry out the will of The People, and those who try to do otherwise get voted out of office.

The point here is not whether marijuana should be legal, any more than it is whether Alabama beats LSU. The point is that I wish people cared as much about salmon as they do about marijuana, or football. But they don’t. If people collectively had to make a choice between living rivers and electricity from dams (and recreation on reservoirs, and the value of some people’s vacation homes), we can guess what they’d choose. In fact, we know what they already chose. The answer is evident in the 2 million dams in this country; in the 60,000 dams over thirteen feet tall; in the 70,000 dams over six and a half feet tall; and in collapsing mollusk populations, collapsing fish populations, and dying rivers and flood plains. If people collectively had to choose between iPods and mountain gorillas, we know which they would (and do) choose. If they collectively had to choose between laptops in their laps and human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we know that answer too.

You could say I’m comparing apples and oranges, but I’m really just talking about people’s priorities in action. By their fruits ye shall know them.

But it gets worse, because most people won’t acknowledge even to themselves that they’re making these choices. Any choices made long enough over time (on personal and especially social scales) stop feeling like choices and start feeling like economic imperatives or political inevitabilities or just the way things are. Too many people argue — or rather don’t argue but just blithely assume — that we don’t have to choose between living rivers and dams, that we don’t have to choose between a living planet and the industrial economy. But I’m not talking about wishful thinking here. I’m talking about reality, where, as Bill McKibben so frequently and eloquently points out, you can’t argue with physics. Millions of dams and hundreds of thousands of ruined rivers and streams later, we should all know this. Just as we should know that burning carbon-based substances releases carbon into the air; and just as we should know that items that require mined materials — iPods, laptops, windmills, solar photovoltaic cells, electrical grids, and on and on — require mines, which means they destroy landbases.

The notion that we needn’t choose, that we can have the “comforts or elegancies,” as one antebellum proslavery philosopher put it, of this way of life without the consequences of it, that we can have the goodies of empire (for us) without the horrors of empire (for the victims), that we can have an industrial economy without killing the planet is completely counterfactual. This notion can only be put forward by those who are either beneficiaries of, or identify with the beneficiaries of, these choices, which is to say those who do not primarily care for or identify with victims of these choices. This notion can only be put forward by those who have made themselves — consciously or not — oblivious to the suffering and indeed the actual existence of these victims. Which brings us back to how we really do live in a democracy. This failure of imagination — this failure to care — is one of the things that keep our incredibly destructive brand of democracy functioning. Without question, most people in this culture prefer their “comforts or elegancies” to a living planet, and so theft and rape and pillage are allowed to rule the day.

Upton Sinclair famously said that it’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it. I’d say here that it’s hard to make people care about something they receive tangible benefits from not caring about. This destructive democracy we share is a democracy where most people vote — through their actions and inactions, through their enacted passions, through what they care and don’t care about — with and for entitlements. Which is why, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should go ahead and call it a kleptocracy. It is a democracy of, by, and for those who benefit from the wholescale destruction of the planet.

Derrick Jensen is the author of more than twenty books on the dominant culture and the environmental crisis. His latest book is The Myth of Human Supremacy.

Originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion. Published online for the first time here.

Time is Short: Resistance Rewritten, Part II

Time is Short: Resistance Rewritten, Part II

By Lexy Garza and Rachel / Deep Green Resistance

Humans are storytelling creatures, and our current strategy as a movement is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.  We need to ask whether that story matches up with reality, and with the way social change has happened throughout history.

So here’s the story as it stands:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

We all know this narrative, we hear it referenced all the time, and it resonates with a lot of people, but we need to examine it with a critical eye along with the historical narratives that are used to back it up. There are truths behind these ideas, but there is also the omission of truth, and we can decipher the interests of the historian by reading between the lines. Let’s take each piece of this narrative in turn to try and find out what’s been omitted and those interests that omission may be concealing.

So let’s start with the idea of “a shift in consciousness.”  The idea that we can educate society into a new and different state of consciousness has been popularized most recently by writers like David Korten, who bases his analysis on the idea:

“The term The Great Turning has come into widespread use to describe the awakening of a higher level of human consciousness and a human turn from an era of violence against people and nature to a new era of peace, justice and environmental restoration.”

Another way that this idea is often mentioned is in the form of the Hundredth Monkey myth. A primatologist named Lyall Watson wrote about a supposed phenomenon where monkeys on one island began teaching each other to wash sweet potatoes in the ocean before eating them. Myth has it that once the hundredth monkey learned to do it, monkeys on other islands who had no contact with the original potato washing monkeys spontaneously began washing potatoes, exhibiting a kind of tipping point or collective jump in consciousness. The existence of this phenomenon has been thoroughly debunked, and even Watson himself has admitted that he fabricated the myth using “very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.” This hasn’t stopped optimistic environmentalists from invoking the hundredth monkey phenomenon to defend the idea that through raising our collective consciousness, by getting through to that hundredth monkey, we’ll spark a great turning of humankind away from the behaviors that are killing the planet.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn’t pan out historically. Let’s take the example of resistance against the Nazi regime and the genocide it committed. And let’s look at some omitted historical information. In 1952, after the Nuremberg Trials, after all of the information about the atrocities of the holocaust had become common knowledge, still only 20% of German citizens thought that resistance was justifiable during wartime which, under the Nazis or any other empire, is all the time. And mind you, the question was not whether they personally would participate in the resistance; it was whether they thought any resistance by anyone was justifiable.

At the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, 80% of Southern whites still disapproved of giving legal rights to black people. So, raised awareness of the atrocities of the holocaust and of American slavery did not translate into an increased willingness to support resistance.  It was not a shift in consciousness that got the civil rights act passed – it was the hard and dangerous work of organizing, protesting, and putting pressure on the government not by changing its mind but by forcing its hand. [1]

This same unfortunate trend is true about current efforts to educate about climate change. A recent Yale study found that raised awareness about the facts of climate change is not the most powerful influence on someone’s attitude about the issue. Far more powerful on an individual’s attitude are the attitudes of their culture and their community. Right now, the culture we live in here in the US is dedicated to downplaying the risks and tamping down any kind of resistance. Our way of life depends on the very technologies that are causing climate change, and it’s difficult to make someone understand something if their salary, much less their entire way of life, depends on not understanding it. [2]

Pointing these things out is not intended to devalue education efforts. If we didn’t think education was important, we wouldn’t be writing this, and every social justice movement that’s had a serious impact has been very intentional about education. But it’s important to put education in perspective as just one tactic in our toolbox. If we’re looking to education and raising awareness as a strategy unto themselves as many seem to be, history tells us that we’re bound to be disappointed.

So who is served by the dominance of this narrative?  Those who are profiting from the destruction of the planet are the ones whose interests are served by this because the longer we wait for the mythical great turning, or the hundredth monkey, or the next level of consciousness, the more time we give this system to poison the air and water, gut the land, and chew up what little biodiversity we have left.

Ideas can be powerful, but only if they get people to act.  History tells us that more awareness often does not translate into more action.  Let’s take the focus off trying to change people’s ideas about the world, and start focusing on changing material circumstances.

Mass Movement

Part and parcel with the idea of a consciousness shift is the hope that such a shift will lead to a mass movement, and this idea is extremely prevalent among many environmentalists.

We have Bill McKibben saying things like, “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement. There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it.” – Bill McKibben

This is a very absolute statement, and it shows that folks like McKibben who have the most clout in the mainstream environmentalist crowd are telling us in no uncertain terms that building a mass movement is the only hope that we have to halt the destruction of the planet. I would hope that if he’s so sure about that, he has history and some evidence on his side to back it up.

And to be certain, there are examples throughout history of times when numbers mattered. Strikes, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – the key factor in some victories has been numbers.  But the omitted history here is that a mass movement is not the only thing that has ever worked.

One of the most successful movements against oil extraction to date has been MEND, which stands for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The area was being ravaged by Shell, and just a few hundred people took on both the Nigerian military and Shell’s private military. They’ve won popular support among the Niger Delta community, and more importantly, those few hundred people have managed to make significant reductions in the oil output from the region, which is something that mainstream environmental movement can’t boast by any stretch of the imagination.

The French Resistance to German occupation during WWII played a significant role in facilitating the Allies’ rapid advance through France, and active resisters to the Nazi occupation of France was composed of about one percent of the population. Supporters, judging by how many people were reading the underground newspaper, were as much as ten percent of the population, but the active resistance – those who were organizing strikes, gathering intelligence on the German military, sabotaging arms factories, attacks on the electrical grid, telecommunications, attacking German forces and also producing underground media about these activities – these folks were a very small segment of the population, about one percent, hardly a mass movement.

The Irish Republican Army, which fought the British occupation of Ireland, is a similar case with regard to the numbers.  At the peak of the IRA’s resistance, when they were the most active, they had 100,000 members, which was just over 2% of the population, only 15,000 of which were guerilla fighters.  And they had 700 years of resistance culture to draw on, while our modern environmental movement has been losing ground steadily in the fifty years since its birth.

This is not to say that broad popular support isn’t something we should hope for or something we should value, but we do need to call into question the idea, an idea that people like Bill McKibben seem to completely buy into, that a mass movement is the only scenario we can hope for.  The history of resistance tells us otherwise, it tells us that small groups of committed people can be and have been successful in resisting empire.

Who is served by the dominant mass movement narrative?  The people who are murdering the planet are served by this narrative. They are the victors, and they will continue to be the victors until we stop buying into their version of history and their vision of the future.  While we wait for a mass movement, they are capitalizing on our paralysis and our inaction.  And another 200 species went extinct today.

Dogmatic Pacifism

Recently we’ve seen the rise of the term eco-terrorist to define groups or individuals who use tactics involving force.  We’ve even seen recent legislation, like House Bills 2595 and 96 in Oregon, used to redefine tree sits and other nonviolent forest defense tactics as terrorism.  The FBI defines eco-terrorism as “”the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.”

When I hear the term eco-terrorism, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that my friend has on her car, which says “they only call it class warfare when we fight back.”  In this case, they only call it terrorism when people fight back.  US imperialism, police violence, and the eradication of 200 entire species every single day – to the FBI, these things don’t count as terrorism.  But the destruction of property, even if it harms no humans at all, gets condemned not only by the FBI, but by mainstream environmental organizations as well.

“The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment,” said Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club conservation director. “That type of criminal behavior does nothing to further the cause of promoting safe and livable communities.” I would like to hear Bruce Hamilton tell that to the living communities who are still alive today because of the use of forest defense tactics.  I think they would disagree.

A side note on the Sierra Club: Between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 MILLION in donations from Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking. Of course, the higher ups in the Club kept this from the members. At the time they ended their relationship with Chesapeake Energy in 2010, they turned their back on an additional $30 million in donations.  We have to ask if a corporation, which like all corporations is singularly capable of focusing on profits, would donate any money much less that much money to a group using tactics they felt would be remotely likely to put a dent in their revenue.

So people like Hamilton are not only condemning acts they calls violent, but they’re condemning criminal behavior in the name of the environment.  The problem with that is that the government, and the corporations that run it, THEY decide what is criminal and what isn’t, and they are increasingly criminalizing any action that has a chance of challenging their power or profits.

As activist Tim DeChristopher found out, something as nonviolent as bidding on land against oil companies is criminal.  As occupy protesters found out, occupying public space is criminal.

If activists accept the line between legality and criminality as a line that cannot be crossed, they accept the idea that activists should only take actions sanctioned by the very people whose power we should be challenging.  The state tends to criminalize, or classify as “violent,” any type of action that might work to challenge the status quo. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at the historical examples that are often used to back up this emphasis on the exclusive use of nonviolent tactics.

The fight against British occupation led by Gandhi is often the first and most prominent example used to promote exclusive nonviolence. Gandhi gained notoriety by leading large nonviolent protests like marches, pickets, strikes, and hunger strikes. He eventually was allowed to engage in negotiations with the occupying British who agreed to free imprisoned protesters from prison if Gandhi called off the protests.  Gandhi is sometimes portrayed as single handedly leading a nonviolent uprising and forcing the British to make concessions, but we have to ask – what is the omitted history here?

The truth is that the success of the movement against the British occupation was not solely the result of pacifist tactics; it was the result of a diversity of tactics.  While Gandhi was organizing, a socialist named Bhagat Singh became disillusioned with what he saw as the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of Gandhi’s tactics.  Singh went on to lead strikes and encourage militancy against the British occupation, and is considered one of the most influential revolutionary leaders in India, more revered by some in India than Gandhi.  The combination of economic tactics, peaceful and symbolic actions, cultural revival, and yes, militancy, had an effect together.  Most in the West, the activists that I’ve met that look to nonviolence as the primary guiding principle for their tactics have never heard of Bhagat Singh.

George Orwell had this to say on the topic of Gandhi: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.”

Another prominent proponent of nonviolence was Martin Luther King Jr. For a people terrorized by the violence of poverty, police violence, white supremacist terrorism, and other horrors, the power of King’s words and the importance of his work, his significance to the civil rights movement, cannot be overstated.  Other nonviolent groups and action like the freedom riders were very effective in demonstrating the reality of racist brutality.  However, the gains made by the movement during that time were not solely the result of nonviolent tactics.

The Black Panther party and other groups were advocating for self-defense tactics and militancy, and they were widely censured for it by more mainstream elements within the movement, much like militant environmental defense is being censured by the mainstream today.  A group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice was training black communities in armed self-defense tactics.

Again, in the case of the civil rights movement, it was not nonviolent tactics alone that produced the gains of that era; it was a diversity of tactics.

We already mentioned MEND, and MEND is not a nonviolent group.  They are an armed militia, and they use tactics from sabotage to kidnapping oil executives in order to defend their land and their people. The land is being utterly decimated by oil extraction.  The people live in poverty despite the Nigerian government making millions from the oil rich area.  The tactics MEND uses are a last resort.  Before MEND, the resistance in the Niger Delta was primarily nonviolent, and it was led by a man named Ken Saro-Wiwa.  Ken Saro-Wiwa and his group, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, never deviated from their commitment to nonviolence, even as Ogoni resistance leaders were being routinely murdered, both by oil company thugs and legally, through state execution.  In 1995, despite a massive human rights outcry from around the world, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed on false charges by the Nigerian government, along with eight other Ogoni resistance leaders.  As Orwell pointed out, the Nigerian government and the oil companies it serves can stand “moral force” until the cows come home, it has no effect.  But the physical force of MEND’s tactics was able to reduce oil output by one third between 2006 and 2008.

The movement for women’s suffrage is another movement often misremembered in the popular imagination as being won solely by nonviolent means.  In Britain, women started out with pickets, and lobbying, and letters to the editor. But when these tactics failed, some suffragists moved on to direct action, such as chaining themselves to the railings outside the prime minister’s home, and to actually going and casting ballots illegally, which got them arrested.  After a protest in 1910 turned into a near riot due to brutal police beatings of protesting women, the movement began to wage guerilla warfare, orchestrating systematic window smashing campaigns and arson attacks.  The slogan of this movement was “deeds, not words.” They were imprisoned and tortured for their efforts, but in 1918, they won the right to vote.  Again, this fight was won by a diversity of tactics.

So there’s a pattern here to which parts of history become mainstream, and which parts become marginalized and even forgotten.

Whose interests are served by omitting militancy from the historical record? It is in the interest of governments and corporations that we never seize the physical force to actually stop them.

However, plenty of people around the world ARE seizing that physical force, and they have been throughout history.  Instead of haggling with Monsanto over ineffective regulations of GMO crops, and the labeling of GMO products, Hungary decided to burn all of Monsanto’s GMO corn fields within their borders to protect the integrity of their other crops.  Another example of GMO resistance is that this past June in Southern Oregon, 40 Tons or 6,500 sugar beet GMO crops were destroyed by hand and the field burned over a three night period. There has been a complete media blackout of this in response, perhaps to avoid inspiring more folks to take this type of action.

Fracking equipment was set ablaze around so called New Brunswick in Canada two weeks later. This is coming at a time of increased indigenous resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the region, after numerous direct actions, midnight seizures of drilling equipment, and a local man being struck by a contractor’s vehicle.

Another example of resistance through physical force is that instead of accepting the Brazilian government ignoring their voices and sentencing their way of life to be destroyed, hundreds of indigenous demonstrators occupied and began to manually dismantle Belo Monte Dam construction.

So let’s look again at the narrative we began with:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

I hope that we’ve been able to demonstrate that while there are underlying truths here, this narrative leaves out a lot of important information, and as a result, a strategy based on this narrative is not working.

Here’s a version of those ideas that incorporates some of the omitted information that we talk about today.

  • Education is vitally important, but we can’t expect raising awareness to galvanize most people into action, especially when action would threaten their privilege and entitlement.
  • Popular support is valuable, but resistance has often been carried out by small groups of determined people, not by mass movements.
  • Nonviolence can be a powerful tactic, but winning strategies are marked by a diversity of both peaceful and militant tactics.

What does this mean for our actions?  How can we incorporate this information into our strategy?

  • Vocally challenge these narratives
  • Support extra-legal resistance
  • Support political prisoners
  • Adhere to security culture

We tried really hard as we were writing this to not sugarcoat any of this.  When I’ve spoken frankly in the past about biodiversity collapse, catastrophic climate change, and the horror I feel in response to them, I’ve had some people say “tone it down.  Don’t be so doom and gloom, you’ve got to give the people hope.”  Let me say now for the record – fuck hope.  We don’t need it.  As one author put it, “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”  In other words, you only need hope in situations where you have no control, no power.  Those who do have power, who are using that power to murder the planet, have written a narrative that masks the power we could wield, that lies in order to make sure we never claim the tools to challenge their profits.

Every day that we abide by their rules and accept the narrative that serves their power is a day we waste.  But every day is also a new chance to rewrite that narrative, to change the story.  With a truer understanding of the past we can form a more effective strategy for the present.  With a more effective strategy in the present, we can reject a future on the dying planet they have us headed toward.

With everything, literally, at stake, it’s time to do what we can with what we have, and it’s time to claim the legacy of resistance that these and other examples of silenced history could teach us.




This is the second part of a two piece series on strategic resistance by Lexy Garza and Rachel. The first piece is available here:

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a 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

Time is Short: No Time for Attrition

Time is Short: No Time for Attrition

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’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 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.
2. “Earth Liberation Front”.
3. “World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, EIA warms”.

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

Tars Sands Blockade working to physically stop Keystone XL pipeline construction

Tars Sands Blockade working to physically stop Keystone XL pipeline construction

By Will Wooten / Waging Nonviolence

One year after more than 1,200 people were arrested in front of the White House during two weeks of sit-ins against the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, a coalition of Texas landowners and activists will attempt to physically halt its construction. Led by veteran climate justice organizers, participants ranging from environmentalists to Tea Partiers are preparing to lock arms for a sustained nonviolent civil disobedience campaign, beginning perhaps as early as this week.

The impetus for such action, which is being called the Tar Sands Blockade, goes back much further than last summer, however. In 2008 and 2009, small landowners along the pipeline’s route in rural Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska started noticing survey stakes with orange tape marked “KXL.” They soon found out that TransCanada — the company building the pipeline — had eminent domain power over their property and that if they didn’t sign a contract allowing TransCanada to build, they would be taken to court.

Many landowners, feeling pushed into an impossible situation, signed the contracts. Some began organizing, doing community outreach to explain what was happening and building conservative support on the ground. Organizations such as Nacogdoches Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines evolved out of conversations between landowners — first focusing around eminent domain, but then, when they learned that tar sands oil would be pumped through the pipeline, discussion started to include environmental impacts, such as toxic diluted bitumen and climate change.

By August 2011, the climate movement in the United States started to focus in on the Keystone XL with Tar Sands Action, a civil disobedience campaign led by Bill McKibben and members of The 1,253 arrests in front of the White House helped raise the issue to a national level by stressing that President Obama could stop the pipeline by rejecting its permit to cross the U.S.–Canada border.

Weeks later, the Occupy movement emerged. While environmental issues were not at the forefront, many Occupy encampments passed resolutions opposing Keystone XL and took part in Tar Sands Action’s next rally in Washington, D.C., when, on November 6, 12,000 people encircled the White House. Days later President Obama denied the permit and, for the moment, Keystone XL was thought dead.

TransCanada then changed tactics and decided to split the pipeline into segments so that it could get a head start on construction while making inside deals in Washington to secure the necessary permit for crossing the border. In a sign of goodwill to the fossil fuel industry, President Obama went to Cushing, Oklahoma, and declared that he would “expedite” the permitting process for the Gulf Coast segment from Cushing to Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. While that ability was technically outside of his reach, it was a hint to the agencies responsible for such decisions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Army Corps of Engineers then granted the three permits TransCanada needed to start construction — despite the absence of an environmental review.

The southern segment of the Keystone XL will be built in three different sections, simultaneously, with the goal of transporting tar sands oil currently stored in Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where it then can be shipped around the world. When Texas activists such as myself learned that this was happening despite the Tar Sands Action victory, we decided to form Tar Sands Blockade.

While landowners began organizing along the pipeline route in early 2012, climate justice activists with Rising Tide North Texas were looking for ways to bring wider attention to the pipeline’s impending construction. Many of us had been active Occupiers during the encampments and were disappointed with the movement’s inability to make the connection between economic justice and the climate. So we made a stronger effort to engage people on the community level.

As a result, Tar Sands Blockade is being informed by a variety of voices — from self-identified Tea Party members, flying Gadsden flags at the front of their long driveways, to Occupiers who slept at encampments across the country.

Several organizers with Tar Sands Blockade also participated in and organized for Tar Sands Action, including veteran climate justice activists from around the country. This diverse coalition has agreed on one simple call to action: The Keystone XL should not be built in Texas, and nonviolent direct action is required to stop it.

Other means of addressing the grievances of landowners and meeting the challenge of climate change have thus far failed. As Bill McKibben’s recent article “Global Warming’s Terrible New Math” made clear, the world has years, not decades, to confront the fossil fuel industry head on. Nonviolent direct action offers the best chance of victory, not just for the Tar Sands Blockade but for other fossil fuel extraction movements, such as those opposing fracking, mountaintop removal and coal exports — all of which have been active in what’s being called a Climate Summer of Solidarity.

That solidarity will take on greater meaning in a matter of days when construction on the pipeline is expected to begin and landowners will be bringing ice to the encampments to help alleviate the extreme Texas heat, as well as thanking everyone for defending the home they’ve built over decades. Activists will respond by holding the blockade for as long as possible, through the summer and likely into the fall. This could be an important moment for the entire climate movement, setting the stage for future actions and alliances — not to mention giving new meaning to the words “Don’t mess with Texas.”

From Waging Nonviolence:

Activists in Texas organizing blockade against Keystone XL pipeline

Activists in Texas organizing blockade against Keystone XL pipeline

By Candice Bernd / TruthOut

The deadline for the review of TransCanada’s permits for the Gulf Coast portion of the Keystone XL pipeline was Monday, June 25, 2012. At the Texas Army Corp of Engineers Galveston office and without any finalization of review, those permits will be automatically granted to the corporation – thanks to President Obama’s announcement that he would expedite the southern leg of the pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma, back in March.

That’s why Texas climate justice activists, including myself, are officially announcing the Tar Sands Blockade, an epic action that we have been organizing since the beginning of the year. We’re mostly associated with Rising Tide North Texas, and we’re 100 percent prepared to use nonviolent, direct action to block the pipeline’s construction to protect our home.

Bring it, TransCanada

The Tar Sands Blockade will be coordinating nonviolent, direct actions along the pipeline route to stop this zombie pipeline once and for all. We are working with national allies as well as local communities to coordinate a road show that will travel throughout Texas and Oklahoma as well as a regional training effort for activists interested in getting involved in the blockade movement against the Keystone XL.

“Our action is giving a new meaning to ‘Don’t Mess with Texas,'” said Tar Sands Blockade Collective member Benjamin Kessler. Kessler is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The permits for the pipeline’s construction are being automatically granted under the Nationwide Permit 12 protocol, or NWP 12.  The permits do not need an environmental impact statement to accompany them, according to this process. That very fact alone endangers more than 631 streams and wetlands that the pipeline will cross in our state. Not only that, but the entire Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which supplies drinking water for ten to 12 million homes across 60 counties in East Texas, along the pipeline’s path, is threatened with contamination.

The Keystone XL remains key to the expansion of the Alberta tar sands and leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called the pipeline “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.” According to Hansen, if the carbon stored in the tar sands is released into the atmosphere, it would mean “game over for the climate.” founder Bill McKibben has worked hard to get Hansen’s message out to the public and to lawmakers in Washington. After more than 1,200 were arrested during the onset of the Tar Sands Action last fall, another 12,000 turned out to surround the White House to tell President Obama that the Keystone XL is not in the nation’s best interest.

McKibben was elated to hear that the Tar Sands Blockade is continuing to foster the spirit of resistance against the pipeline in the South with the use of nonviolent, direct action.

“Let’s be clear what the drama is here: human bodies and spirits up against the unlimited cash and political influence of the fossil fuel industry. We all should be grateful for this peaceful witness,” McKibben said.

Landowners living along the pipeline’s path say they have been intimidated by TransCanada to sign away the rights to their land, and it’s not just landowners that will lose. The pipeline is expected to destroy indigenous archeological and historical sites – including grave sites – in Oklahoma and Texas.

Read more from TruthOut: