Does the Enviromental Movement Need A New Strategy?

In this article, originally published in Omega, Justin McAffee reflects on the environmental movement one month from the 50th celebration of Earth Day.

To learn more about strategy, check out this chapter from the book “Deep Green Resistance.” Also learn about Decisive Ecological Warfare, the strategy based on Deep Green Resistance analysis.


By Justin McAffee/Omega

Next month is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. We’ve held celebrations every April since 1970 to honor environmental protections. What have we actually accomplished since then? I would be remiss if I didn’t honor all the hard work, passion, sacrifice and accomplishments of the people in the environmental movement up to this point. This isn’t about ego or arrogance. This is about assessment of strategy, and a pushback on the resistance to change strategy.

The Environmental Movement Needs A New Strategy.

One could argue that the best strategy still might wield these horrific results, but changing strategy would only make it worse. This reasoning would argue that if we stay the course, eventually we will turn the tide of public opinion and society will change.

The reality is that whatever has been protected is vastly outweighed by what is being destroyed. Oil production hasn’t peaked. President Obama presided over the largest increase in oil production in history and that pattern is not even hinting at being changed.

Whatever growth in alternative energies there are, they cannot keep up with growth in demand.

Ecosystems on land and in water are collapsing. We are amidst what scientists are calling the 6th Great Extinction, where plants and animal species are disappearing at 1,000 times the background rate of extinction. Just this year the Chinese Paddlefish, pictured above, disappeared forever. This goes beyond fossil fuel consumption, and goes into habitat destruction and overconsumption.

“Current rates of extinction are about 1000 times the background rate of extinction. These are higher than previously estimated and likely still underestimated. Future rates will depend on many factors and are poised to increase. Finally, although there has been rapid progress in developing protected areas, such efforts are not ecologically representative, nor do they optimally protect biodiversity.”
-Pimm, S. L., The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection, Science Magazine, May 2014

To use a cliché sports analogy if I may, there isn’t time left in the game for punting. We are losing badly. It’s the 4th Quarter. It’s time to go for it with everything we’ve got because the risk of losing is minimal… we are already losing so badly.

A Better Strategy For The Environmentalist.

I have many thoughts on this. I will write more, and btw there is already a ton written about this out there. What I want people to take away from this particular article is not a specific strategy, but a recognition that what we are doing now isn’t working. Let’s start by asking ourselves some questions.

At what point did the American colonists start wondering if getting along with King George III was not working? When did abolitionists start wondering if the American South was ever going to voluntarily hand over their slaves? When did the Irish decide that negotiating with the British to convince them they ought to voluntarily leave their country was a failed strategy? Or people in India? When did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr realize that lobbying the Birmingham city council or Alabama state government for desegregation was a fool’s errand?

The answer to all above is they never waited until there was a tipping point in public opinion. They didn’t sit around waiting for their lobbyists to turn the tide on government policy. Each of these scenarios required people thinking outside the box, and taking on strategies that weren’t popular or comfortable. They had to.

I would submit to you that having a planet that can sustain life is vastly more important than any of the aforementioned causes.

Yet most people in the environmental movement are resigned to old and failing strategies of lobbying, petitions and token holidays.  I work with people in these movements. They are doing hard, thankless jobs, and they do accomplish important victories. This isn’t in any way a slam on that vital work. It’s a call to expand our strategy and start thinking outside the box. It’s a call for urgency… for a 4th quarter strategy.

This is a pronouncement that the rich and powerful aren’t going to voluntarily give up the things making them rich and powerful, the things that are destroying the planet, so forget about trying to convince them. A planet where ecosystems can thrive is something to demand without any hesitation.

What Is The Goal of Environmentalism?

Ultimately, we must define our goal. In the previous movements mentioned, there were differences of goals, from expelling a foreign power to dismantling a domestic system of power or economics.  For too long, the environmental movement has had the goal of sustaining the power and economic systems of this country and the world, while negotiating concessions on environmental protections.

What if these very power and economic systems aren’t compatible with a world where ecosystems thrive? What if they are at the root of our demise? That would require a shift in goal to dismantling those systems. That’s the shift people in the environmental movement aren’t often willing to make, let alone acknowledge or even talk about. Partially this has to do with the fact that the non-profit industrial complex is mostly funded by those systems of power and economics.

That’s why I’m having this conversation today. It’s not a very comfortable conversation. This represents a dramatic paradigm shift for me personally in recent years. To speak openly about this isn’t easy, but I do it because I love this planet and the life living on it. They are worth the discomfort. I say these things because I know there is a far better way of living for humans and for the planet.

Perhaps the points in this article has raised more questions for you than it has answered. If so, it has served its purpose. If you want more answers, I will tell you what someone once told me: check out the works of authors like Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, Stephanie McMillan and Ward Churchill. This conversation is happening already. If you care about the environment, you owe it to yourself and to the planet to seriously consider these questions and engage in these discussions at the very least.

I promise that you won’t regret it. Now you must choose…


Justin McAffee is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He focuses his creative work on stopping civilization from destroying the planet, supporting decolonization and indigenous sovereignty in an effort to reconnect people with the Earth and their own indigeneity.

Justin currently is the publisher of Omega, focusing on topics related to protecting ecosystems and stopping the current economic and power structures from destroying them. In 2018, Justin made a short film with native runners working to stop a water pipeline from being built in rural eastern Nevada, called Great Basin Water Protectors.

Featured image: coal mine in Germany, by Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0

6 thoughts on “Does the Enviromental Movement Need A New Strategy?”

  1. Some of us have been saying this for decades, it’s why Earth First! was founded in 1980. Traditional indigenous people have been saying it forever.

    The ultimate root of the problem is the human attitude toward life. Many thousands of years ago — maybe from the beginning of humans 200,000 years ago — humans prioritized their intellect and ego, and manipulating the physical/natural world for their convenience. Humans should instead focus on empathy, wisdom, and expanding their consciousness, and should manipulate the physical/natural world as little as possible, just enough to survive. Humans’ only proper role on this planet is consciousness-expansion, and everything we do to the natural world beyond what’s needed for basic survival is very harmful to it. Many if not most traditional indigenous people understand this and are the most mentally and spiritually advanced people on the planet.

    Humans’ bad attitude toward life is the cause of agriculture, overconsumption, overpopulation, civilization, and industrial society, all of which cause their own great harms. The only logical conclusion to the facts presented in this column is that this is a war for the hearts and minds of humans. If we lose that war, the Earth and we lose the environmental war. Guerilla warfare and/or demonstrations and/or revolts/revolutions won’t fix this without a major change in human attitude toward life.

  2. The relevant difference between this crisis and those that McAffee compared it to is that we aren’t seeing its effects in real time.

    If 100 dead members of those vanishing species showed up on the doorsteps of our leaders every morning, we’d see immediate action. As many have said before, we need a Pearl Harbor moment to awaken the world to what’s happening. And one isn’t likely until it’s too late.

    So maybe we need to create a Pearl Harbor moment of protest. Greta Thunberg and her youth movement seem to understand the damage being done, but they haven’t yet connected the dots. They haven’t realized that green energy isn’t the answer, because the problem isn’t brown energy. The problem is ANY energy that’s artificially produced. To continue the analogy, we don’t need electric bicycles. We just need bicycles.

    The youth movement isn’t likely to go from Green New Deal to Deep Green thinking overnight. But maybe we’d get somewhere if they can be shown that the answer isn’t GREEN energy, but much, much LESS energy — that instead of finding spiffy new ways to meet the demand, we have to vastly reduce the demand. Maybe if they could be moved to make that connection, they’d switch from skipping school on Fridays to attacking industries on Fridays.

    Maybe 100 teen saboteurs per city could take the place of 100 dead animals on our leaders’ doorsteps.

    Just a thought.

  3. @Mark Behrend
    How about dead animals in their beds? Just a thought.

    The current extinction crisis alone should have everyone in the streets revolting and making major changes in their own behaviors & lifestyles also. The fact that it doesn’t shows the utter contempt, sometimes resulting from uncaring apathy, that the vast majority of humans have for the natural world and all that lives there. Too bad the extinction crisis doesn’t include humans at this time (it’s definitely coming), that would cause people to make the necessary major changes.

  4. To clarify what I said earlier, it’s SYMBOLIC violence by the environmental youth movement that would be a wake-up call for industry and government. Obviously, 1000 kids aren’t going to storm the gates of a Chevron refinery and shut it down. But a few kids could shut down a gas station very easily — superficially damaging all the pumps, for instance — and moving on to their next target before police arrived. Or shutting down the morning commute by simultaneously scattering caltrops along strategically located freeways.

    If our brain-dead “leadership” (the most powerful man in the world thinks windmill noise causes cancer, and that shooting up Lysol might immunize us against coronavirus — American exceptionalism at its best) acknowledges the problem of exponential growth at all, their “solution” is to say, “Don’t worry, human genius will think of something” — while they go on extracting, polluting, and profiting. They figure the next generation will find a profitable fix before the Grim Reaper arrives on his supersonic jet. They’d have a different thought if the next generation started shutting down air travel today.

    The business-as-usual community has to be reminded of the doomsday facts on a daily basis: CO2 emissions have quadrupled since 1950, to 36.5 billion metric tons a year. Population has tripled over the same period. 30% of all agricultural land lost in 40 years. A 40% global water shortage expected by 2030. Three billion people in unlivable heat by 2070. Half a billion starving by 2040. A forest the size of Belgium lost every year, while deserts expand by the size of Maine. Daily species loss in the hundreds. And all the result of an “economic miracle” based on perpetual growth in a finite environment.

    If everyone had to hear these facts over breakfast each morning — followed by “What are you going to do about it?” — it’s inconceivable that radical change wouldn’t occur.

  5. Does the Environmental Movement Need A New Strategy?

    Yes. That strategy must be:

    The complete collapse of the world-wide techno-industrial system.

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