Protective Use of Force: Nonviolence and the Environmental Movement, Part Four

This is the nineteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

    by Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

In this run of five posts, I am assessing the environmental movement using the twelve principles of strategic nonviolence conflict as described by Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler. [1] The principles are designed to address the major factors that contribute to the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. Read more about the principles in the introductory post here. Read how the environmental movement relates to the first principle here  and the second to fifth principles here.

  1. Attack the opponent’s strategy for consolidating control

This principle relates to Gene Sharp’s idea of undermining a regime’s sources of power (see post 6).

The mainstream environmental movement partially meets this principle. There are a small number of campaigns and groups that attempt to increase the economic costs of extractive industries, through occupation, blocking and sabotage. But with limited numbers of people willing to do this, the impact is minimum.

Fossil fuel divestment campaigns rely on businesses and institutions acting against their reason for being – concentrating wealth. So any company divesting from fossil fuels is going to be so small or marginal it won’t make any difference.  Companies are legally obliged to maximise profits for their shareholders. Ninety companies are responsible for two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the start of industrial revolution. Coal companies have to produce coal. Oil companies have to produce oil. No matter how much we divest, if there is still demand for these things then they will continue to be extracted. The global economy cannot function without them. Ultimately, the divestment campaigns will only change the ownership of some shares from public institutions to private one.

Power and control over the population is maintained by a lack of access to land, which requires most of us to work jobs we don’t want to do, wasting our time and energy so we can afford food, shelter and heating. It’s hard work to make any money in the capitalist system, even for those who do have land, and it requires the use of industrial equipment, with the negative impacts this has on the land.

The most significant strategy for the state to maintain power and control is its willingness to use violence. Western governments pretend that they run democracies with police forces that are there to serve the public and use legitimate violence (see post 3). The mainstream environmental movement has completely failed to even identify this as a problem, let alone start thinking about how to tackle it.

  1. Mute the impact of the opponents’ violent weapons

Ackerman and Kruegler suggest a several options here: get out of harm’s way, confuse and fraternise with opponents, disable the weapons, prepare people for the worst effects of violence, and reduce the strategic importance of what may be lost to violence.

This principle is not really applicable in industrialised countries, because so far direct violence against environmental activists has been limited, in an attempt to continue the pretence of democracy.  Activists have taken to filming the police at protests and demonstrations, to capture when the police step over the line. Violence against environmental activists is a serious problem in less-industralised countries.

  1. Alienate opponents from expected bases of support

This principle relates to Gene Sharp’s idea of “Political Jiu-Jitsu,” where violent states exposes what it is capable of and will to do to maintain its power and control (see post 6). For many of those following the conflict but sitting on the sidelines, this may result in them joining the fight against the state.

Governments in industrialised countries have learned that if their repression is too harsh, it radicalises people to a cause. So they now use little or no violence if possible and instead use much more subtle methods to control dissent. Therefore this principle is not applicable, but with repression on the gradual increase, that may soon change.

  1. Maintain nonviolent discipline

Ackerman and Kruegler argue that maintaining nonviolent discipline is not arbitrary or a moralistic choice, but instead is strategically advantageous. Although, they add that it’s not possible or desirable to morally, politically or strategically rule the use of force out. They recommend avoiding sabotage and demolition, while admitting nonviolent sabotage might be acceptable, if only to be done to prevent greater harms, with no harm to humans.

The mainstream environmental movement does conform to this principle. Nonviolence ideology is very strong across the movement and in most groups. When talking to mainstream environmentalists about the need to use force to defend ourselves and the planet, I generally get the “it won’t be successful as the state is too powerful” argument. Others say that the state uses violence so we shouldn’t, morally.  Another argument I hear is concerned that using force may result in the state using heavy repression, which could hurt of kill the movement, people involved or their family and friends.

There are also a number of brave individuals outside the mainstream environmental movement that use sabotage to stop the destruction taking place.

  1. Assess events and options in light of levels of strategic decision making

Ackerman and Kruegler identify five levels of strategic decision making: policy, operational planning, strategy, tactics and logistics.

  • Policy is similar to “grand strategy” – what and how shall we fight, how will we know if we’ve won or lost, what costs are willing to bear and inflict to meet our objective.
  • Operation planning lays out how success is expected to occur – what nonviolent methods to use, and a vision of the steps necessary to reach a desired outcome.
  • Strategy determines how a group will deploy its human and material assets – it adjusts constantly as things change.
  • Tactics inform individual encounters or confrontations with opponents.
  • Logistics refer to the whole range of tasks the support the strategy and tactic – including finances, resources, and necessary materials.

The mainstream environmental movement fails at the principle. Due to its broadness it has multiple “grand strategies” that include raising awareness, education, market-based responses such as carbon trading, living in alternative ways outside the system, and divestment campaigns. There is no coherent operational planning across the movement. Some groups and campaigns do follow the practice of developing strategies and tactics but most do not, and are instead reacting to the onslaught of this culture on the living world.

Many say that environmentalists need to frame the cause in a way that engages people. I believe the environmental movement has tried that in a number of ways. Taking fracking as an example: the poisoning of groundwater has motivated a large number of people to protest, but not enough to result in a mass movement.

So how is our movement going to convince a sufficient number of people that the global capitalist economy and industrial society need to end?

This is the nineteenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

Endnotes

  1. Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler lay out twelve principle of strategic nonviolent conflict in their book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century

 

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