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

Featured image: animals steal the place of the Wretched of the Earth bloc at the People’s Climate March of Justice and Jobs. By Dominique Z Barron.

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

via 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, the second to fifth principles here and the sixth to the tenth here.

  1. Adjust offensive and defensive operations according to the relative vulnerabilities of protagonists

There are two basic postures taken in conflicts, offensive and defensive. Ackerman and Kruegler explain that the intent of a nonviolent campaign determines if it’s offensive or defensive. If a strike is intended to cripple a country and topple a government, then it is offensive. If the strike is intended to solidify a community and protect valuable resources, then it is defensive.

The mainstream environmental movement fails on this principle. Due to the scale of the issue, it has always been on the defensive.  It comes up against industrial civilisation’s need to consume resources to continue functioning. The movement has limited numbers of people and self-limits itself on strategies and tactics. It is more on the defensive each day, and the scale and speed of destruction increases.

  1. Sustain continuity between sanctions, mechanisms, and objectives

This is based on Gene Sharp’s four mechanisms of change: conversion, accommodation, coercion and disintegration.

  • Conversion results in the opponent being convinced of the merits of the campaign.
  • Accommodation takes place when an opponent decides that a settlement is preferable to continued conflict.
  • The opponent is coerced when they no longer have the ability to fight.
  • Disintegration is an extreme form of coercion when the opponent ceases to exist as a political entity.

The mainstream environmental movement conforms to this principle. It varying strategies focus on conversion and accommodation of governments and it has maintained this approach. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be successful to meet the movement’s overall aim of a liveable planet in the medium term. Governments have clearly shown that environmental issues are not a serious concern compared to maintaining power, control and the continuation of capitalism. Any attempts so far at coercion have failed, due to limitations of the movement.

How did the environmental movement fair, based on the twelve principles? The three principles the environmental movement conformed to are securing access to critical material resources, maintaining nonviolent discipline, and sustaining continuity between sanctions, mechanisms, and objectives. The principles that the environmental movement partially met are expanding the repertoire of actions and attacking the opponent’s strategy for consolidating control.

The four it failed to meet are: formulating functional objectives; developing organisation strength; assessing events and options in light of levels of strategic decision making; and adjusting offensive and defensive operations according to the relative vulnerabilities of protagonists.

The principles that I judged were not applicable were cultivating external assistance; muting the impact of the opponents’ violent weapons; and alienating opponents from expected bases of support.

Overall the environmental movement seems capable of conducting a broad range of nonviolent actions and accessing material resources. Where it is weak is in recognising the need for, and developing, organisation strength, and operating strategically as a movement to achieve the overall goals and objectives.

As well as the issues listed above, there are other criticisms of the environmental movement. First, too much reliance on scientists who don’t understand politics and aren’t trusted. Second, the environmental movement has formulated its campaign in purely negative terms, focusing on looming global catastrophes. Third, the current denial that there were any concerns in the 1970’s and 1980’s about an imminent ice age. Fourth, the rise in the movement of a culture of intolerance, where dissent is demonised and asking questions about strategy and tactics is seen as disloyal. A fifth is the desire to be on the inside – those in the movement looking for support primarily from the affluent liberal class so framing messages and picking issues to appeal to a narrow section of the community instead of trying to build a broad base of support.

As well as these criticisms leveled at the mainstream environmental movement, there have also been some recent incidents that show racist and imperialist mentality in the movement. The December 2015 People’s Climate March for Justice and Jobs in London was meant to be led by a bloc made up of Indigenous people and people descended from communities from the Global South, called the Wretched of the Earth. But on the day of the march the march organisers tried to dilute this group’s message and make it palatable; banners made by indigenous people were covered up or removed; the place of indigenous, black and brown people was stolen and given away to people dressed as animals; and the march organisers twice called the police on this group. Read details here, here and here. There were similar issues with the People’s Climate March in Sydney that year.

Another incident was in September 2016 at a training camp at standing rock as part of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests. A camp participant reported that outside white nonviolent trainers were attempting to teach protestors how to “de-escalate”; pulling young men (warriors) aside and chastising them for their anger; and telling them not to wear bandanas over their faces but to proudly be identified.

So there are issues around the environmental movement’s strategy, tactics, co-oping by corporate environmental organisations and racist and imperialist attitudes. For the movement to have any chance of success, it needs to start thinking more radically about what is needed to get results, rather than what those in the movement are comfortable with. We also need to show solidarity to those communities on the frontline of climate change. I do not believe it’s helpful to frame what’s happening to our world as an environmental or climate crisis. Industrial civilisation and capitalism are at war with life on earth – all life – and life needs a resistance movement with that analysis to respond.

Deep Green Resistance is advocating the use of force in defense of the living world. We believe that nonviolent direct action is an important tactic in our resistance, but it’s not the only tactic. Our movement must be clear on what we’re trying to achieve and what is possible with the limited time and resources available. Once we are clear on this, it will inform which tactics to employ.

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


  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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2 thoughts on “Protective Use of Force: Nonviolence and the Environmental Movement, Part Five”

  1. Much of what you say is true, however it is difficult to rouse the “revolution” cry in most of these 1st world for many reasons and I am no expert but I do have brain and am a free thinking individual. I think that many people live with an inner paradox recognizing that without some imminent and dramatic changes that our world will not survive another 100-200 years at best however they also inwardly acknowledge that the raping and pillaging of our natural resources for profit gives them the comforts of life they cherish so much, there xbox, there starbucks and tim hortons, there calvin kline and nike. Most people (I think) are inwardly unwilling to accept the dramatic change of lifestyle that would be necessary to halt the plodding death march to destruction that we have been on since the dawn of the agricultural and industrial revolution. In short we have become soft and in some sense inwardly cherish the benefits this system brings precisely because it is exactly this that separates us from the poor of the world. Look at the protest in Ukraine in 2013/14 it was successful simply because the were willing to do WHATEVER it took, even if that meant dying. There were at least 50 people killed by the police and more than 300 wounded, beaten with iron clubs and eventually the police fired sniper rounds many times targeting key leaders in the protest and already’s injured individuals and STILL did not adopt violence as a principal. Finally fed up they stood on the steps of parliament and fed up declared that if the president yanukovych did not resign by 10 am the next morning they would take up arms and do “whatever was necessary even if that meant fight to the death”. Unfortunately it is difficult to arouse this passion within much of the first world simply because for the exquisite comfort we are accustomed too. I am just a man and these are just my humble opinions and anyone is welcome to adapt and elaborate on them as they think necessary but in my mind there will only be change, real lasting change when A) the current capitalist paradigm is overthrown and a new system adopted that is focused on sustainability rather than profit. B) We are willing to go “ALL THE WAY” even if that means death. I wrote in my journal and this will sound cliche but it is the extent of my passion ” I would do anything, I mean ANYTHING if I could know that fighting now would guarentee a better, free, sustainable earth for my children and grandchildren…. even if this means I must give my life”

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