Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of a presentation given at the 2016 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference by DGR’s Dillon Thomson and Jonah Mix on the failure of the contemporary environmental movement to meaningfully stop the destruction of the planet. Using examples from past and current resistance movements, Mix and Thomson chart a more serious, strategic path forward that takes into account the urgency of the ecological crises we face. Part 2 can be found here, and a video of the presentation can be found here.
For the past several thousand years, this beautiful planet has been the site of a dysfunctional relationship between civilization, the way of life characterized by the emergence and growth of cities, and the more-than-human communities that it exploits. For the vast majority of our time on earth, humans fit into the logic of whatever land base we happened to inhabit. We watched and listened, we felt, and we communicated with the land to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. This created the conditions for our long-term survival.
Living examples of this older way of life still exist. Small-scale subsistence cultures have lived in place for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Among these are the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Kawahiva of the Brazilian Amazon, the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Columbia, and the people of the Nilgiri Hills in India. To this day, subsistence culture is the only time-tested mode of human sustainability on this planet. It is also the way of life that is being destroyed the fastest by civilization.
Civilization, which began just over ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent, marks the beginning of a fundamentally different way of relating to the planet. The human element began to impose its own logic over the logic of the land. Before, human culture had been an extension of an ecosystem. Now we see our culture as separate from nature, a value system opposed to the principles and the workings of nature.
Ever since the emergence of civilization, life on earth has suffered. That’s how we know that the relationship is dysfunctional. Every living system on the planet is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Not a single peer-reviewed scientific article published in the last thirty years contradicts this statement. You shall know a tree by its fruit, and by its fruit, industrial civilization stands condemned. Or at least it should.
The fruits of civilization are the drawdown of living systems and natural vitality. We must analyze the values and behaviors that have oriented this culture against the planet.
Why should civilization stand condemned? First of all, it commits the cardinal sin: it does not benefit the land on which it is based. All beings and communities must benefit the land where they live in order to survive long-term. That is basic ecology. You have to give back as much or more than you take. Civilization is like a bad houseguest. It takes far more than its fair share and what it gives back is toxic and inedible. It values production over life. To civilization, the needs of the economic system outweigh the needs of the natural world.
The natural world can thrive without an industrial economy, but no human economy can exist without a healthy natural world. It’s embarrassing that this point must be made, but if you look at our culture’s behavior or listen to the talking heads on the radio or TV, you can quickly see we value our economic system above all else.
Our way of life requires widespread violence. This culture would quickly collapse without astounding violence against the earth, non-human communities, and members of our own species. How many people are aware that there are over 27 million human slaves today? The industrial supply chain enslaves more people today than any other period in human history.
You find slavery alive and well in the cotton in your shirt, the tantalum in your cellphone, and the beans in your cup of coffee. It is in the mines, the fields, and the raw materials processing that we don’t have to see because of our position in the supply chain. We are at the end, the “capital C” Consumers.
Professor Kevin Bales arrived at that 27 million number, which he calls the most conservative estimate for the number of slaves in the world today. It accounts for people who are forced into slavery at gunpoint and kept there by threat of direct violence to them or their families. It does not include millions more wage slaves, sweatshop laborers, and people coerced into slave-like conditions through economic hardship, usually at the hands of predatory multinational corporations.
Our culture’s stories say that humans have the right to control and abuse the natural world. This is an issue of entitlement. Our culture feels that we are entitled to rip the tops off mountains, extract bauxite, turn it into aluminum, and make beer cans. Our culture thinks it is okay to torture animals in vivisection labs in order to make shampoo. Our culture thinks that we can exempt ourselves from the natural cycles of life and death. It believes in infinite growth on a finite planet. Our culture behaves as if it can destroy the planet and live on it too.
Violence is part of our culture and has been from the very beginning. It is part of the fabric of civilization and the fabric of our economy. Why? In part, this is due to the economic reward. Violence feeds the bottom line of business.
I have been calling the relationship between civilization and the planet dysfunctional, but it is more like a one-sided war. This goes far beyond disrespect. The behavior of this culture constitutes a form of hatred that is akin to hatred of one’s own flesh. Those who suffer the consequences of civilization are our kin, our family. How can a culture commit atrocity after atrocity against the earth and not hold a deep hatred of the natural world at its core?
In The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen writes, “Hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like economics, it feels like religion, it feels like tradition.” This is hatred of our larger earth-body, our larger self, and our sense of self based upon this hatred is no more sustainable than our economy. The cultural stories that we inherit do not tell us that our flesh is continuous with the flesh of the world. Our stories don’t tell us that we are kin with the oak tree, the jaguar, and the soil.
Though scientists understand that everything is connected on a molecular level, most of their research is pressed into the service of extractive industry. Science’s stories have not led to a mutually beneficial relationship with the land. Most of the stories we receive are stories of separation. We can go back to Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes created an artificial division between mind and matter that persists today.
The stories we inherit are stories of human supremacy. They tell us that we are superior to all other life forms and that we have the right to act accordingly.
We are animals among animals. The beings and communities that we are pushing to extinction are not inferior. They are not resources and they do not exist for our use and exploitation. This is a message to the animal in all of you: this is war. Civilization has been at war with the earth for 12,000 years. This is a call to those who want to fight back strategically against civilization – and win.
The environmental movement was created to deal with the dysfunctional relationship between civilization and the natural world. It can be traced back to different starting points. Many people say that the contemporary environmental movement in the West has its roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th century. The conservation movement came in the 19th century. In the 20th century came Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, described in A Sand County Almanac. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought even greater visibility to the environmental movement.
Though it’s been more than fifty years since 1962, every living system on the planet is in decline. This decline is accelerating. Why? Many environmental groups have done good work here and there, but by and large, the environmental movement has remained a defensive movement. Our losses are permanent and our victories are often defensive and temporary. We may save a patch of forest for a few years or decades – until it gets cut down. We may save a river or watershed – until they are poisoned.
Rosa Durando lives in Florida, where she is a member of the Palm Beach Audubon Society, the County Land Use Advisory Board, the Citizens Task Force on Zoning, and the countywide Council on Beaches and Shores. She has been a full-time environmentalist worker-watchdog for the past ten years. She says, “Sometimes I feel like a total failure. Other times I tell myself I’ve done well by getting concessions. I don’t think any environmentalists are really successful. The other side is too powerful and too rich. The best we can hope for are safeguards to avoid total destruction next year.”
Durando is one of the honest few among us who speak about the uphill battle of land defense work. The one point I disagree with is that the best we can hope for is to avoid total destruction next year. DGR thinks that there is another path forward to stop the destruction entirely.
Strategies in war include both defense and offense. Defense is anything that prevents an opposing force from gaining territory, power, or resources. Maybe a developer wants to clear-cut one hundred acres of old-growth forest. You take him to court and fight to save half the land. That defensive action is valuable and good; we need everyone working as hard as they can to do things like that. In the end, though, the developer still gets fifty acres. The best possible outcome of a defensive action is that things stay the same. You cannot win a war through defense alone. This is where offensive action comes in.
Offensive action directly takes territory, resources, or power from the opposition. 99% of what industrial civilization does is offensive. It dams rivers and strip-mines mountains. It rounds up African Americans and throws them in jail. It rapes women and commits genocide. Every time the system acts it gains power, territory, or resources. With few exceptions, the system doesn’t act defensively. Without serious opposition, it doesn’t have to.
On the flipside, the environmental movement is too busy fighting defensive battles to focus on offensive gains. The contemporary environmental movement cannot conceive of an offensive campaign against ecocide. This isn’t a recipe for victory. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, one of my heroes, said, “When developers win a battle, it’s in concrete. When environmentalists with a battle, it’s only for thirty days.”
This quote captures the heart of the matter. The developers fight offensive battles. They are gaining territory and holding onto it. Environmentalists fight defensive battles. At best we are delaying their forward march. To be clear, we are not doing this because we are stupid, lazy, or unwilling to take risks. We’re doing it because we are up against a massive system with guns, bombs, and jails. It controls the nightly news, talk radio, schools, and everything else that prevents the environmental movement from doing more than slowing it down.
Most of us don’t have anything but a few bucks, some picket signs, our bodies, and a love for the living planet. There are strategies that not only address that inequality but also leverage it in an offensive and effective approach. One of my favorite quotations is from Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
Malcolm X was speaking about the wound that white America and white people had inflicted on Africans, but his words also describe our violence against the earth. Slowing this violence isn’t progress; even stopping it isn’t progress. Progress would be healing the wound that the blow made. Our enemy is industrial civilization. It’s not capitalism, corporations, or even fossil fuels. These things must be done away with, but they are all expressions of a deeper problem. To end the destruction of the living world, we have to end industrial civilization itself.
Like every system, industrial civilization has two components: its structure and its values. “Structure” describes the real-world, material things that make up a system. “Values” describes the ideology invented to defend that system.
The structure of industrial civilization is clear. It includes the energy grid, extraction infrastructure, communications infrastructure, financial systems, and technology industry. All of these components work toward one of three goals: accessing resources, extracting resources, or processing resources to make them usable for industrial civilization. Everything from clear-cuts and strip-mines to police violence, genocide, and rape is about the control of resources.
Our resistance has to focus on stopping the control, extraction, and processing of resources by industrial civilization. At the center of these processes is the energy grid. Without the energy grid, you can’t spin the drills that kill mountains, run the computers that decide where the murdered mountains go, or keep the lights on in the buildings that take the murdered mountains and turn them into our cell phone batteries. Without power provided by an energy grid, industrial civilization has nothing.
Next is the extraction infrastructure, the part of the system that seizes resources. “Resources” refers to bodies, bones, and blood, living and breathing creatures – the living planet. Extraction infrastructure seizes them and grinds them up. Mining, logging, fracking, refining, and wind and solar energy are all are part of this infrastructure. Extraction infrastructure is organized by communications infrastructure, which includes phone lines, cell towers, and the internet.
Extraction and communications rely on the financial system that keeps capital flowing so that multinational corporations can invest in extraction processes. The technology industry makes extraction more efficient. The systems that enable industrial civilization are interconnected and codependent. The energy grid needs the technology industry, which needs communications. Extraction needs the energy grid and financial systems. Each system depends on the others.
In looking at this structural complexity, it is important to remember that it makes up only one component of industrial civilization. Civilization also relies on values, ideology, and stories to justify its actions. At the core of these stories is the value that industrial civilization prizes above all else: growth.
Endless expansion requires three conditions: hierarchy, stability, and efficiency. Hierarchy is the ranking of lives and communities. Industrial civilization needs hierarchy because a free and egalitarian social system would make endless expansion impossible. White supremacy, patriarchy, and human supremacy are myths central to industrial civilization because they justify the exploitation of Africans, indigenous people, Latinas and Latinos, women, and the more-than-human world.
Stability ensures a steady baseline upon which a system can expand. To cultivate stability, industrial civilization encourages comfort and ignorance. When people have refrigerated food and five hundred channels on TV, we don’t see the destruction around us – or care about it. That doesn’t mean that everyone inside industrial civilization is comfortable or ignorant. Largely, the people who are comfortable and ignorant are those at the top. Those at the bottom – the non-human world, people of color, and women – are largely aware of the violence that the system perpetrates in their lives. To stymie resistance, then, the system works to control all avenues for education and confrontation.
Finally, efficiency enables more expansion. The myth of consumerism teaches that as people buy more, the markets grow, production increases, and more production equals more growth.
The progress myth teaches that human beings arose in a state of primitivism, stupidity, and weakness – and that we are moving toward a grander design. We achieve that grander design by destroying the world around us.
Human beings aren’t moving toward a grander design any more than pigs, centipedes, or whales are moving toward a grander design. No one talks about the day when pigs or centipedes will seize control of the planet and make it better for pigs or centipedes. We like to believe the progress myth because without it, you can’t justify the destruction of the earth. This is where our culture’s love of science comes in. Advanced science is necessary to make superconductors, defoliants, and everything else that kills the planet.
Effective resistance to a system requires that you reject its values and attack its structures. It can never take place on the system’s terms. It can never leave the structure of the system in place. If there is one single flaw holding the modern environmental movement back, it’s our inability to stand firm against more than one aspect of the system at a time.
For example, I used to live in Bellingham, Washington. Bellingham is a major site of controversy over coal trains. Extraction infrastructure murders mountains across the country, packs them into trains, and carries them to the ports in Bellingham. From there they are shipped up to Vancouver and across the ocean to China to keep the lights on in factories where children sew our shoes. Smart, brave people fought back against the coal trains. But what would it talk to attack the entire extraction infrastructure?
Let’s say you defend the structure and retain the values. You call up the company that owns the port and say, “Hey, I only want union labor to unload the coal.” They probably wouldn’t listen to you, but let’s say you succeed. Unions are great, but you haven’t attacked the structure. The coal is still flowing. More importantly, you haven’t rejected the system’s values because you’ve adopted as a given that human beings have the right to ship coal at all.
Let’s say you want to attack the structure. You call up your congressperson or representative and demand that they replace coal trains with wind farms and solar panels. Again, they probably wouldn’t listen, but with enough pressure, you might slow down coal exports – and that’s great. You’ve made a hit against the structure – on the assumption that wind farms, solar panels, or electricity are justified. The system can pat you on the back and promise not to rely on coal so heavily. Then it can strip-mine a mountain, dam a river, kill just as many living creatures, and sell you a “renewable” product. The system took a hit, but with its values untouched, it recovered quickly.
If you want to reject the values of the system, you could sell your car, move into a smaller house, grow your own food, or sew your own clothes. You could condemn the entire system of industrial civilization. You could drop out and be very vocal about it – and that’s great. Even if you’ve rejected the values, though, the coal trains keep rolling. The structure remains intact.
How could one strike at coal trains in a way that rejects the concept of coal trains, wind farms, solar panels, or electricity itself? How could one do damage not only to the structure but also to the ideology that justifies it? You could take a blowtorch, crowbar, or some dynamite and destroy the rail line. Suddenly the coal trains aren’t going anywhere. More importantly, the system can’t recover on its own terms.
Remember, industrial civilization values expansion, comfort, hierarchy, and efficiency. If you condemn coal trains because they’re wasteful and solar is more efficient, or because coal trains are noisy and solar is quiet, or because coal trains clog up transportation and solar power eliminates congestion, that’s great. The system wants efficiency. It wants comfort, so it will happily replace coal trains with something more efficient, quieter, less disruptive, and still fundamentally destructive to the earth.
But if you strike against coal trains because the very idea of a living planet is incompatible with electricity, coal trains, wind farms, or anything else that destroys the earth, you’ve given the system an ultimatum that it can’t easily escape. This is all hypothetical; I’m not telling you to blow up or destroy anything. The point isn’t that successful resistance requires bombs, it’s that it requires a hard stance against the system in its entirety. The values of industrial civilization and the values of a healthy culture that is capable of living in communion with the earth are incompatible. By pushing that contradiction instead of capitulating to the system’s values, we can strengthen our cause.