Why has environmental activism been ineffective?

by Liam Campbell

Humanity has a long history of environmental activism, likely extending far beyond the reaches of recorded history. It’s easy to imagine warring tribes of indigenous peoples struggling against exploitative and excessively greedy neighbours. Competing tribes probably used violence to prevent each other from overconsuming fisheries, harvestable plants, and driving game to extinction. These actions maintained equilibrium within the broader ecosystem and allowed the indigenous humans to survive indefinitely. Fulfilling these obligations to nature would not have been easy; people would have experienced more frequent hunger, higher rates of mortality, and for frequent incidents of violence. Most of these cultures had warrior classes whose obligations often included ritualised violence against competing groups, though rarely did conflict escalate into total war.

Ecological exploitation became problematic when one group became excessively powerful, often through some form of conquest. Once they grew large enough to establish cities they invariably began to strip the surrounding regions of natural resources, always reaching farther and farther afield until the reach of the city turned into an empire, and until the empire grew too large to be managed and collapsed under its own weight. The development of increasingly efficient forms of communication, and eventually the discovery of fossil fuel, allowed empires to grow in scale until they spanned across large sections of the world. It seemed inevitable that one of these empires would eventually encompass the entire planet.

Humanity will never reach the point of developing a unified, global empire because the ecological cost of such a system strips a planet of its living systems at astonishing speed. The empire of industrialisation has infested most of Earth’s ecosystems, even poisoning the deepest regions of the oceans with plastic excrement. We are witnessing a metastatic culture rushing toward annihilation, as all cancers do, by devouring the few functioning organs of nature on this crippled planet. Each human is a cell in this system and most of us have been infected by the toxic culture of industrialism. Some humans resist these urges, our instincts and intellect tell us that our actions are wrong and will lead to annihilation, but our minds have been conditioned by industrial culture to inhibit effective resistance. After centuries of trial and error, structures have developed to prevent effective opposition to dominant cultures: people are divided by social fictions, communities are fractured into suburbs, children are indoctrinated in schools, workers are oppressed by debt and subsistence wages, and political systems have been designed to preoccupy people with the illusion of control.

Having been brought up outside the borders of civilisation, I sometimes find it perplexing that people restrict themselves to the theatre of resistance, despite failing consistently to achieve any meaningful victory. Protesters continue to wave signs, perform street theatre, and organise public forums, while patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Meanwhile, their quality of life consistently diminishes, their ecosystems continue to collapse, and their social bonds fracture. Occassionally, the masses are fed a small victory on a minor issue and they revel in their glorious victory, ignoring the fact that they’ve simultaneously accrued a long list of devastating losses. When they become frustrated they blame the professional scapegoats in government, who rotate frequently, while largely ignoring the real forces of power which dominate their world (corporations and industry).

One of the greatest fallacies that imprisons these people is the perception that the only way to effect change is to mobilise large masses of people, either for the purposes of voting or rebellion. In this way, the individual gives up most of their personal obligation to the larger crowd; they say “why should I do more than wave a sign or stage an act of symbolic resistance when the masses won’t even go that far?” Each individual waits to take meaningful action until everyone else takes meaningful action, and so they are all paralysed. Paradoxically, when someone does take meaningful action they are often scorned by the mainstream protesters. Why? Because by taking legitimate action they have highlighted the inadequacy of their comrades, and forced them to confront their own cowardice; the psychological pain of facing such a personal failing is generally too great and instead those people resort to mental gymnastics to condemn the action as extreme or counterproductive. Frequently, the less courageous members of rebellions hide behind a wall of pseudo moralism, claiming that anything outside of pacifism is profoundly wrong — meanwhile they often continue to participate in, and benefit from, the dominant culture’s economy, which itself perpetuates extreme violence.

In reality, effective acts of revolution against a dominant culture begin with individuals who refuse to wait for the crowd. One courageous person decides to take action regardless of the odds, they find a few others who have made a similar decision, and they begin. Invariably, they are initially condemned by mainstream protesters, but they persist anyway. Their commitment is to live and succeed, or fail and die. In order to reach this stage, conditions must become dire enough for survival in the dominant culture to be equal to or worse than death for the potential revolutionaries.  Additionally, there must be a viable path toward a future which is so worthwhile that revolutionaries will endure significant suffering in the interim.

Once an adequate cadre of life-or-death revolutionaries has formed, support networks of less committed people form around them to provide material and social support. So long as the revolutionaries are strategically effective, their support base grows over time and eventually collapses or subsumes the dominant culture. This critical tipping point cannot be achieved until the general public loses faith in the dominant culture’s capacity to provide for their needs. So long as the average person believes that the status quo is preferable to the uncertainty of change, they will vehemently oppose any efforts to collapse the structures of the dominant culture. It is worth noting that humans are intensely afraid of unknown and they will generally endure great suffering before preferring an uncertain outcome; this is why most large revolutions have involved spiral theory, a strategic approach adopted by some revolutionary movements in which violent acts are undertaken against state targets with the intention of provoking an indiscriminate repressive response against an associated social group that is relatively uninvolved with the action itself. This repressive response is sought for its ability to radicalise a population that is currently apolitical or unsupportive of violent revolution. Spiral theory played a significant role in revolutions in Ireland, Cuba, Russia, China, North America, and many other countries throughout various periods of history.

After a cadre has formed, the next most essential step is to form support networks between less committed individuals. Their most essential role is to build wider public support, because the cadre generally operates underground and cannot defend their own actions in public settings. These support networks are they key mechanism behind expanding broader acceptance of revolutionary actions and increasing the size of the cadre.

Contemporary climate movements have been crippled because the dominant culture, which perpetuates climate collapse and ecological destruction, has been able to provide for the basic needs of the majority of the public. This allows them to frame effective direct action as extremist and as a threat to the basic needs of the public, which elicits strong opposition to effective activism. Moreover, climate activism has been ineffective because any truly successful outcomes would involve diminishing the quality of life of the majority of people (at least of those residing in the dominant culture). Peoples’ short-term awareness and their aversion to temporary suffering is greater than their reaction to long-term risk, and so they will continue to oppose meaningful action against climate collapse until their basic needs can no longer be met by industrialism.

The only way to escape this cycle is to convince the public that their political systems cannot meet their basic needs, and that those governmental structures pose an existential and near-term threat. So long as the public has faith in the processes of government to save them, they will continue to perpetuate industrial scale ecological destruction, either through their active participation or through their opposition to revolutionary actions. Therefore, it is essential that revolutionaries and their supporters prioritise the erosion of public faith in government while simultaneously inciting legitimate dread about existential and near-term threats.

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