by Aric McBay
And here yet another temptation asserts itself. Why not wait until our cause becomes vivid and urgent enough, and our side numerous enough, to vote our opponents out of office? Why not be patient? My own answer is that while we are being patient, more mountains, forests, and streams, more people’s homes and lives, will be destroyed in the Appalachian coal fields. Are 400,000 acres of devastated land, and 1,200 miles of obliterated streams not enough? This needs to be stopped. It does not need to be “regulated.” As both federal and state governments have amply shown, you cannot regulate an abomination. You have got to stop it.
—Wendell Berry, author and farmer
We got further smashing windows than we ever got letting them smash our heads.
—Christabel Pankhurst, suffragist
What is at stake? Whippoorwills, the female so loyal to her young she won’t leave her nest unless stepped on, the male piping his mating song of pure liturgy. They are 97 percent gone from their eastern range.
What is at stake? Mycorrhizal fungi, feeding their chosen plant companions and helping to create soil, with miles of filament in a teaspoon of earth. Bluefin tuna, warm-blooded and shimmering with speed. The eldritch beauty of amanita mushrooms. The mission blue butterfly, a fairy creature if there ever was one. A hundred miles of river turned silver with fish. A thousand autumn wings urging home. A million tiny radicles anchoring into earth, each with a dream of leaves, a lace of miracles, each thread both fierce and fragile, holding the others in place.
If you love this planet, it’s time to put away the distractions that have no potential to stop this destruction: lifestyle adjustments, consumer choices, moral purity. And it’s time to put away the diversion of hope, the last, useless weapon of the desperate.
We have better weapons. If you love this planet, it’s time to put them all on the table and make some decisions.
What do we want? We want global warming to stop. We want to end the globalized exploitation of the poor. We want to stop the planet from being devoured alive. And we want the planet to recover and rejuvenate.
We want, in no uncertain terms, to bring down civilization.
As Derrick succinctly wrote in Endgame, “Bringing down civilization means depriving the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and it means depriving the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.” It means thoroughly destroying the political, social, physical, and technological infrastructure that not only permits the rich to steal and the powerful to destroy, but rewards them for doing so.
The strategies and tactics we choose must be part of a grander strategy. This is not the same as movement-building; taking down civilization does not require a majority or a single coherent movement. A grand strategy is necessarily diverse and decentralized, and will include many kinds of actionists. If those in power seek Full-Spectrum Dominance, then we need Full-Spectrum Resistance.1
Effective action often requires a high degree of risk or personal sacrifice, so the absence of a plausible grand strategy discourages many genuinely radical people from acting. Why should I take risks with my own safety for symbolic or useless acts? One purpose of this book is to identify plausible strategies for winning.
If we want to win, we must learn the lessons of history. Let’s take a closer look at what has made past resistance movements effective. Are there general criteria to judge effectiveness? Can we tell whether tactics or strategies from historical examples will work for us? Is there a general model—a kind of catalog or taxonomy of action—from which resistance groups can pick and choose?
The answer to each of these questions is yes.
To learn from historical groups we need four specific types of information: their goals, strategies, tactics, and organization.
Goals can tell us what a certain movement aimed to accomplish and whether it was ultimately successful on its own terms. Did they do what they said they wanted to?
Strategies and tactics are two different things. Strategies are long-term, large-scale plans to reach goals. Historian Liddell Hart called military strategy “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”2 The Allied bombing of German infrastructure during WWII is an example of one successful strategy. Others include the civil rights boycotts of prosegregation businesses and suffragist strategies of petitioning and pressuring political candidates directly and indirectly through acts that included property destruction and arson.
Tactics, on the other hand, are short-term, smaller-scale actions; they are particular acts which put strategies into effect. If the strategy is systematic bombing, the tactic might be an Allied bombing flight to target a particular factory. The civil rights boycott strategy employed tactics such as pickets and protests at particular stores. The suffragists met their strategic goal by planning small-scale arson attacks on particular buildings. Successful tactics are tailored to fit particular situations, and they match the people and resources available.
Organization is the way in which a group composes itself to carry out acts of resistance. Resistance movements can vary in size from atomized individuals to large, centrally run bureaucracies, and how a group organizes itself determines what strategies and tactics it is capable of undertaking. Is the group centralized or decentralized? Does it have rank and hierarchy or is it explicitly anarchist in nature? Is the group heavily organized with codes of conduct and policies or is it an improvisational “ad hocracy?” Who is a member, and how are members recruited? And so on.
We’ve all seen biological taxonomies, which categorize living organisms by kingdom and phylum down to genus and species. Though there are tens of millions of living species of vastly different shapes, sizes, and habitats, we can use a taxonomy to quickly zero in on a tiny group.
When we seek effective strategies and tactics, we have to sort through millions of past and potential actions, most of which are either historical failures or dead ends. We can save ourselves a lot of time and a lot of anguish with a quick and dirty resistance taxonomy. By looking over whole branches of action at once we can quickly judge which tactics are actually appropriate and effective for saving the planet (and for many specific kinds of social and ecological justice activism). A taxonomy of action can also suggest tactics we might otherwise overlook.
Broadly speaking, we can divide all of our tactics and projects either into acts of omission or acts of commission. Of course, sometimes these categories overlap. A protest can be a means to lobby a government, a way of raising public awareness, a targeted tactic of economic disruption, or all three, depending on the intent and organization. And sometimes one tactic can support another; an act of omission like a labor strike is much more likely to be effective when combined with propagandizing and protest.
In a moment we’ll do a quick tour of our taxonomic options for resistance. But first, a warning. Learning the lessons of history will offer us many gifts, but these gifts aren’t free. They come with a burden. Yes, the stories of those who fight back are full of courage, brilliance, and drama. And yes, we can find insight and inspiration in both their triumphs and their tragedies. But the burden of history is this: there is no easy way out.
In Star Trek, every problem can be solved in the final scene by reversing the polarity of the deflector array. But that isn’t reality, and that isn’t our future. Every resistance victory has been won by blood and tears, with anguish and sacrifice. Our burden is the knowledge that there are only so many ways to resist, that these ways have already been invented, and they all involve profound and dangerous struggle. When resisters win, it is because they fight harder than they thought possible.
And this is the second part of our burden. Once we learn the stories of those who fight back—once we really learn them, once we cry over them, once we inscribe them in our hearts, once we carry them in our bodies like a war veteran carries aching shrapnel—we have no choice but to fight back ourselves. Only by doing that can we hope to live up to their example. People have fought back under the most adverse and awful conditions imaginable; those people are our kin in the struggle for justice and for a livable future. And we find those people—our courageous kin—not just in history, but now. We find them among not just humans, but all those who fight back.
We must fight back because if we don’t we will die. This is certainly true in the physical sense, but it is also true on another level. Once you really know the self-sacrifice and tirelessness and bravery that our kin have shown in the darkest times, you must either act or die as a person. We must fight back not only to win, but to show that we are both alive and worthy of that life.