Towards a Revolutionary Ecology » An Interview with Max Wilbert

An interview with a comrade from the Deep Green Resistance organization, co-author (with Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen) of the forthcoming book, Bright Green Lies.

Nicolas Casaux: The latest fad, in the public sphere of mainstream ecology in French speaking Quebec, is this “pact for the transition.” To me it stands for much of mainstream ecology. It is a plea for shorter showers (as Derrick Jensen would call it), based on a naïve belief in the possibility for industrial civilization to become “green”, notably through “sustainable development”, and also a naïve belief in that our leaders, and the State, can and will someday save us all. What do you think?

Max Wilbert: It’s bullshit, like all the mainstream solutions.

In the 1960’s, capitalism was threatened by rising people’s movements and revolution was in the air. One of the main ways that capitalism adapted was by creating the non-profit system to absorb and defuse resistance. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, 350.org, WWF, and The Nature Conservancy (as well as countless others) all operate with multi-million or billion dollar budgets. That funding comes from foundations; in other words, from the rich via their money laundering schemes. They channel movements towards so-called “solutions” which are really distractions. Sure, in some cases their “solutions” may partially address the issues, but they are being promoted because they are profitable.

This is why we see a massive groundswell movement pushing for “100% renewable energy.” Renewables are extremely profitable. But there is little to no evidence that they actually decrease carbon emissions. Look at overall emissions trends over the past decade. As “renewables” rise, so do overall emissions. That’s because you can’t extricate energy production from growth and the capitalist model. More energy is profitable, and feeds into the growth of the economy (along with population growth, new markets opening up, loans, and other means capitalism uses to grow).

These movements aren’t really grassroots. They’ve been created and funded by massive investments—billions of dollars—worth of grants and foundation funding. That propaganda has convinced millions of people around the world that renewable energy and “green technology” will save the day. And there is absolutely zero evidence that is the case, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. So even when a particular group seems grassroots, their ideology has been created and shaped by these massively funded  “Astroturf” organizations.

That’s also why we see such a big focus on personal lifestyle choices. Sure, we should all strive to make moral choices. But “buy or don’t buy” is simply the capitalist model. There is zero threat to the status quo when that is your only weapon. These organizations ask individuals to reduce, but never question empire itself. They never interrogate (let alone threaten) the actual systems of power that are killing the planet. Instead they focus on their silly parochial changes. And I say that as someone who eats as ecologically as possible, drives little, lives in a small cabin in the woods, hunts and forages my own food, etc.

NC: What would you propose to those interested in stopping the current environmental destruction, instead of this pact?

MW: This pact does note that personal changes are insufficient to solve the ecological crisis. That’s good, and it’s a step in the right direction. But they nonetheless put their faith in existing governments and institutions by demanding that they “adopt laws and actions compliant with our climate commitments.” There is no evidence that these institutions will ever live up to the agreements, which are themselves terribly inadequate.

We’re currently on course for more than 4º C of global warming by 2100, and much more after 2100, at the very least. In other words, we’re tracking well beyond the worst case scenarios of the IPCC. Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris—these have done nothing to slow or reverse these trends. There’s a very real chance this culture could kill more than 90% of all species on this planet, including our own. In fact, we’re well on our way. More than 200 species are driven extinct every day.

Destruction and GHG emissions are built into the structure of modern empire. This society functions by converting the living world into dead commodities. Global warming is merely a symptom of this process. If we want to have a chance in hell of saving the planet, we need to stop focusing on global warming. We need to stop asking governments to save us. We need to stop relying on capitalist, technological solutions. And we need to realize how deadly serious this situation is. We are well along the path towards global fascism, total war, ubiquitous surveillance, normalized patriarchy and racism, a permanent refugee crisis, water and food shortages, and ecological collapse.

We need to build legitimate movements to dismantle global capitalism. All work is useful towards this end. However, I see no way this goal will be achieved without force. The best methods I have come across for achieving this rely on dedicated cadre forming small, highly mobile and trained strike forces. These forces should target key nodes of global industrial infrastructure (shipping, communication, finance, energy, etc.) and destroy them, with the goal of inciting “cascading systems failure.” The interconnected global economy is vulnerable to this type of attack because of how interdependent it is. If the right targets are chosen and effectively attacked, the entire thing could come crashing down.

Obviously this isn’t a magic bullet that will fix every problem. But with ecological collapse now well underway, it is time for desperate measures. This strategy will create the time and space necessary to begin addressing other issues and build sustainable, just societies in the ashes of this corrupt, brutal global empire.

NC: You write that “the agreements” that are presented in this pact “are themselves terribly inadequate”, would you care to elaborate?

Well, this pact is referring specifically to agreements like what came out of Paris.  And the deal that came out of Paris was bullshit. It wasn’t actually sufficient to limit warming to 2º C, let alone 1.5º C. All the worst-case scenarios are playing out. We recently passed the “carbon budget” deadline for 1.5º C laid out by the IPCC. And that’s not even to consider the inherent conservatism of science. I’ve written about this in the past, and it’s a critical topic that’s often missed. A meta-review of climate science in 2010 found that “new scientific findings are… twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.” It’s likely that things are even worse than we think.

After Paris a group of top climate scientists said that Paris would only create “false hope.” And we’ve seen that play out. But the Paris accord isn’t even being followed. There are no nations that are meeting their commitments. We’ve seen this across the board. This isn’t an isolated case. Each international climate treaty has failed in the same two fundamental ways. First, the goals are inadequate to prevent disaster. Second, the goals haven’t been met.

It’s because these conferences aren’t actually meant to solve the problem. They’re largely a political theater meant to built political support for massive subsidies to corporations building wind turbines, solar panels, electric grids, hydroelectric dams, electric cars, etc. These gatherings a massive international events, akin to WTO conventions, at which NGOs, corporations, and politicians can mingle and make deals.

NC: If I was a mainstream environmentalist, I wouldn’t understand why “wind turbines, solar panels, electric grids, hydroelectric dams, electric cars, etc.” are not a good thing, and I would respond that if the goals are inadequate, then we should ask our leaders, our governments, to set adequate goals. Why are “wind turbines, etc.” not a good thing, and what would adequate goals look like?

MW: To understand this, we have to understand how the global economy works. It runs on energy. The more energy is available, the more growth is enabled. For thousands of years, the total amount of energy consumed by global civilization has increased gradually. It jumped massively when coal, oil, and gas were adopted. But even early civilizations burned more and more wood, and harnessed more and more hydropower for mills and so on.

Solar panels, wind turbines, and other forms of “renewable energy” can be accurately seen as a response to peak oil. All the easily exploited oil, coal, and gas has already been burnt. (Unfortunately for all life, there is still a lot left—it’s just very expensive and dangerous to extract). This means that to expand total energy production, new methods are needed. And that’s why we see “unconventional” oil such as tar sands, oil shale, fracking, arctic drilling, and so on.

It’s also why we see this massive boom in solar and wind. Proponents of these technologies like to trumpet headlines about costs for solar electricity, for example, falling lower than coal in some areas. And because of this, corporations are going all-in. We now see “renewable” energy powering Apple’s data centers, Intel’s factories, Ford production lines, and Wal-Mart stores. Hell, even the US Military is investing heavily in “green energy” for bases and outposts.

People like Bill McKibben and Mark Z. Jacobson look at this as a major success. But the fact is, the boom in solar and wind hasn’t caused emissions to decline. If you look at a few localized areas, you are seeing emissions declines. But most of this comes down to fraudulent accounting, and the key fact that it’s somewhat useless to look at local or even regional emissions in a globalized, interconnected economy. What they hell does it matter if emissions decline in Germany, when they import all their solar panels from China (the #1 polluter now, globally, due to their status as a production center for the rich nations and a rising superpower in their own right) and export millions of brand new cars around the world?

Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. That’s the key element. We can look at these localized claims of emissions declines as mostly being a form of “carbon laundering,” whereby mostly rich nations are able to claim they’re saving the world while continuing to profit off the backs of the economic colonies. Just like they imported slaves in the past, now they export carbon emissions. It’s all part of the theater and power politics of global empire.

This has been quantified by a sociologist named Richard York, who has shown that bringing online new “green” energy doesn’t actually displace the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, when you add a new wind energy installation, you don’t turn off a coal plant of equivalent size. In practice, the new energy is simply added on top. And that’s where it all comes back to growth. This is a massive growth opportunity for the capitalists. Businesses are practically drooling over the prospect of massive public subsidies for these “sorely needed” renewable energy projects, not to mention electric cars and so on.

So the bottom line is that green energy doesn’t work. Period. Green technology doesn’t work. People can talk about future scenarios all they like, but it’s not working right now.

But people continue to believe in these lies, and that’s because of the propaganda. Look at any mainstream ecology or even liberal news source. They all promote green technology like a religious savior. It’s because they can’t imagine questioning empire itself. The idea of ending this way of life is obscene to them. More accurately, it’s literally unthinkable.

But to look for rationality in all this is silly. My friend Derrick Jensen often says that the dominant culture has “death urge, an urge to destroy all life.” The author Richard Powell explained it in a different way, writing that “the motive behind all of this “deregulation” is not primarily economic. Any reasonable accounting reveals that the sum of these measures carries external costs far greater than the hoped-for benefits. (Did you know that the number-one killer in the world is pollution? And that doesn’t even include premature deaths from climate change.) The push to remove all environmental safety strikes me as mostly psychological. It’s driven by a will to total dominance, underwritten by the hierarchy of values that George Lakoff calls “stern paternalism,” putting men above women, whites above minorities, Americans above all other countries, and humans above all other living things.”

But I would add, just because it’s psychological doesn’t mean it’s not real. The world today is being run by people who believe in money as a god. They’re insane, but they have vast power, and they’re using that power in the real world. That’s the physical manifestation of their violent, corrupt ideology.

NC: So when you write “the idea of ending this way of life is obscene to them”, you mean that they don’t want to give up the modern industrialized way of life? Because in the end that’s the only way out, right? Giving up the modern, industrialized, high-tech way of life, and going back to —or inventing new forms of— small scale and low-tech living? Because, I don’t know about the US, but in France, and in Europe in general, we have this ecosocialist movement, who thinks it’s possible to have both degrowth AND a kind of green industrialism, to develop renewables AND to remove or give up on fossil fuels, to abolish or drastically diminish the use of the individual car and promote public transportation, to choose electrical rail transport instead of trucks, and so on, in short to rationalize the industrial mess, democratically, and to make it green/sustainable. What do you think about that?

MW: I sympathize with the degrowth socialists. I agree with many of them, especially the revolutionary ecosocialists, on a lot of issues. And I enjoy engaging in dialogue with them. I do think that it is physically possible to implement a degrowth model in which the vast majority of consumption is ended. Of course, there is zero political will for that, which is why degrowth must be a revolutionary struggle. Reform and electoral politics will never lead to deliberate degrowth.

But it’s a mistake to think that further development of “renewables” is possible with a degrowth model. Renewables are, without exception, fully dependent on fossil fuels. Take wind turbines, for example. The blades are made of plastics from oil. The steel in wind turbines is made with massive quantities of coke, which is a form of coal. Steel is one of the most toxic industries on the planet, and it’s essential for wind and many of the other “green” technologies. Wind turbines are lubricated with oil. Each turbine requires hundreds of gallons. In fact, Exxon Mobil has a whole wind turbine lubricant division. Turbines are transported into place on fossil fuels-powered trucks, lifted upright by cranes running on diesel, and bolted into foundations made of concrete (a highly energy intensive material) dug by diesel-powered machinery. We could go on and on.

It’s the same with solar. Where does the silicon mining happen? It happens with massive dump trucks which guzzle gallons of diesel per minute. And most solar panels are made in China, so they’re shipped across the ocean on massive vessels. The 100 largest ocean ships pollute more than all the cars in the world.

That’s not even to go into the water issues, pollution, labor exploitation, economic issues. A solar panel production factory is a $100 million facility. In other words, there is no way to make this technology community-scale. You need a globalized economy and massive capital investment to create these “renewables.” And this all runs on oil.

Degrowth socialists should take a more realistic perspective on these issues. The reality is, the planet has limits. The history of industrialism shows those limits. Steel production is not sustainable. Neither is the production of any of the other raw materials that are essential for green technologies. These aren’t simply claims I’m making. This is the physical reality.

A high-tech, ecological, post-capitalist society is a fantasy. We need to recognize what is sustainable, and what isn’t. Factories are not sustainable, whether they are producing hummers or electric buses. Electricity production is not sustainable. I organized an event years ago with Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemum Wintu. She grew up with no electricity on Indian land, and she reminded us that “electricity is a convenience. We can live without electricity, but we can’t live without clean water.” I’ve studied the issue and see no way to produce electricity, in the long haul, that doesn’t poison water and destroy the land.

Scientists and techno-priests can talk all they want about green energy and a renewable future, but whenever you analyze the full life-cycle of the technologies, they look like the same old planet-destroying bullshit. So I don’t see technology providing a way out. The best-case scenario I see is that people dismantle capitalism forcefully, via revolution. At the same time, we need to engage in relentless education to teach people the reality of ecological limits and our tasks for the future.

Mass society has some inherent characteristics that make it challenging, if not impossible, to be sustainable or egalitarian. It’s too easy to outsource destruction. Out of sight, out of mind. Look at sweatshop labor, mining, and so on. And it’s too easy for elites to take over the political process. That’s been the history of the last 8,000 years right there. It’s the history of empire.

If we want an egalitarian society, it needs to be in the form of local, autonomous communities. I think the democratic confederalism experiment in northern Syria is an interesting project in this regard. Confederations allow communities to collaborate, trade, work to protect one another from predatory and expansionist groups, and so on. But they preserve the local autonomy and decision-making power that’s essential for sustainability.

We need to replace global society and nation-states with thousands of hyper-localized communities, living with the boundaries of the natural world. These post-capitalist societies aren’t likely to shun electricity and other modern conveniences entirely. We don’t have to throw away every advancement of science and technology from the last 10,000 years. But it’s more likely these societies would jury-rig small-scale electric generation from the scraps of empire than that they’ll have full-fledged solar panel production factories. Long-term, industrial technology is going to disappear.

NC: We have, in France, a growing current, which called itself collapsologie (collapsology). It’s essentially composed of people who have understood that the collapse of industrial civilization is guaranteed, but are mainly concerned by building more resilience (emotional and material), for them and their communities, or elaborating national politics for going through the collapse of industrial civilization, but not fighting against empire, but not fighting for the living. What do you make of that?

MW: It’s a morally bankrupt position. The only way to justify not fighting empire is if you identify with the system. I’ve long been told that we need to decolonize ourselves, and a big part of that is breaking our psychological affiliation with empire and all its components: modern conveniences, culture, food systems, etc. Once we step outside of fear that these systems support our lives, it’s incredibly easy to see that these systems are destroying the planet.

Then, we need to go a step further—and this is the step that most people forget. We need to make our allegiance to the living planet. We need to identify with the greater-than-human world. This can be done at multiple levels. At the basic level, of course, is the physical understanding that we’re dependent on clean water, clean air, clear soil, etc. These are created and maintained by the biotic community, the community of life.

But having only a physical understanding is dangerous, because it can lead to a utilitarianism. We see this reflected in the environmental sciences in ideas like “ecosystem services,” where you try to quantify and put a dollar value on clean water. But the thing is, as soon as you attach a dollar value, that can be used against you, because if the economic value of the industry is greater than the value you’ve found for the water, your argument is moot. By using that capitalist, utilitarian language and argumentation, you’re granting one of their fundamental premises: that the economic factor is the most important.

We need to go to a deeper, spiritual level. Animism is the belief in spirits of the land, a belief that the land itself—mountains, rivers, clouds, storms, and so on—is alive. Some form of this belief system is shared amongst the vast majority of indigenous peoples worldwide. And it’s not a mystery why. I would argue that this is an adaptive trait. To survive in the long term, to live on the land without destroying it, human beings need a narrative that teaches us respect.

I think you can get to a similar mindset in many different ways. For me, it doesn’t really matter if we look at the world as collections of atoms self-organizing into beings, communities, landscapes, with billions of complex chemical reactions supporting the whole, or if we look at it as a world animated by spirits. The sense of awe is immense either way.

We are living in a world of astounding beauty and wonder. I love the world. I love my friends and my human community. I love the oak trees outside my window. I love the meadow beyond them. I love the deer, the wild turkeys, the voles, the spring flowers. I love the seasonal creek that flows nearby. I love the great evergreen forests in the mountains. I love the coastline, and the beings who live there. These aren’t abstract feelings. These are real communities who I have a relationship with.

And they’re being murdered. Within my region you have logging, mining, spraying of pesticides, road building, housing “development,” and worse. This is the economic system of empire, laying waste to this area slowly but surely, just as it does elsewhere. And this is in the US, the heart of empire. It’s much worse elsewhere, on the frontiers and in the economic colonies. And then there are the existential threats of global warming, nuclear annihilation, toxification, and so on.

It’s not that death itself is a problem. I am a hunter, I harvest plants, I take life, but I do so with respect and ensure the community as a whole is healthy. This isn’t comparable to what empire does. Again, civilization is a culture with a death urge, an urge to destroy life. When we see this, and we love the world, not fighting back is unthinkable.

When I hear people who recognize collapse, but who don’t want to fight empire, I feel pity and anger. They must have no love for the living world. But they’re not necessarily a lost cause. Some people can learn to change their beliefs, change their minds, and most importantly to change their actions. But once they are indoctrinated into a certain worldview, most people don’t change.

I agree with these people that we need to build individual and collective resilience. But not simply for the sake of survival, which is ultimately selfish. We need to do it to have a strong foundation for our resistance. We need revolutionary change, not lifeboat survivalism.

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