Endgame Premises Archives: 6: Civilization is irredeemable

Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo
any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If
we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast major-
ity of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans
and nonhumans for a very long time.

Visit the global 6: Civilization is irredeemable archives for posts from all DGR sites.

Time is Short: Resistance Rewritten, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran August 8, 2013, in the Deep Green Resistance News Service.  We are republishing the entire Time is Short series, and welcome your comments.

By Lexy Garza and Rachel Ivey / Deep Green Resistance

Humans are storytelling creatures, and our current strategy as a movement is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.  We need to ask whether that story matches up with reality, and with the way social change has happened throughout history.

Resistance Rewritten part II

So here’s the story as it stands:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

We all know this narrative, we hear it http://localhost/chapters/ns/resistance/strategy/time-is-short-resistance-rewritten-part-ii/referenced all the time, and it resonates with a lot of people, but we need to examine it with a critical eye along with the historical narratives that are used to back it up. There are truths behind these ideas, but there is also the omission of truth, and we can decipher the interests of the historian by reading between the lines. Let’s take each piece of this narrative in turn to try and find out what’s been omitted and those interests that omission may be concealing.

So let’s start with the idea of “a shift in consciousness.”  The idea that we can educate society into a new and different state of consciousness has been popularized most recently by writers like David Korten, who bases his analysis on the idea:

“The term The Great Turning has come into widespread use to describe the awakening of a higher level of human consciousness and a human turn from an era of violence against people and nature to a new era of peace, justice and environmental restoration.”

Another way that this idea is often mentioned is in the form of the Hundredth Monkey myth. A primatologist named Lyall Watson wrote about a supposed phenomenon where monkeys on one island began teaching each other to wash sweet potatoes in the ocean before eating them. Myth has it that once the hundredth monkey learned to do it, monkeys on other islands who had no contact with the original potato washing monkeys spontaneously began washing potatoes, exhibiting a kind of tipping point or collective jump in consciousness. The existence of this phenomenon has been thoroughly debunked, and even Watson himself has admitted that he fabricated the myth using “very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.” This hasn’t stopped optimistic environmentalists from invoking the hundredth monkey phenomenon to defend the idea that through raising our collective consciousness, by getting through to that hundredth monkey, we’ll spark a great turning of humankind away from the behaviors that are killing the planet.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn’t pan out historically. Let’s take the example of resistance against the Nazi regime and the genocide it committed. And let’s look at some omitted historical information. In 1952, after the Nuremberg Trials, after all of the information about the atrocities of the holocaust had become common knowledge, still only 20% of German citizens thought that resistance was justifiable during wartime which, under the Nazis or any other empire, is all the time. And mind you, the question was not whether they personally would participate in the resistance; it was whether they thought any resistance by anyone was justifiable.

At the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, 80% of Southern whites still disapproved of giving legal rights to black people. So, raised awareness of the atrocities of the holocaust and of American slavery did not translate into an increased willingness to support resistance.  It was not a shift in consciousness that got the civil rights act passed – it was the hard and dangerous work of organizing, protesting, and putting pressure on the government not by changing its mind but by forcing its hand. [1]

This same unfortunate trend is true about current efforts to educate about climate change. A recent Yale study found that raised awareness about the facts of climate change is not the most powerful influence on someone’s attitude about the issue. Far more powerful on an individual’s attitude are the attitudes of their culture and their community. Right now, the culture we live in here in the US is dedicated to downplaying the risks and tamping down any kind of resistance. Our way of life depends on the very technologies that are causing climate change, and it’s difficult to make someone understand something if their salary, much less their entire way of life, depends on not understanding it. [2]

Pointing these things out is not intended to devalue education efforts. If we didn’t think education was important, we wouldn’t be writing this, and every social justice movement that’s had a serious impact has been very intentional about education. But it’s important to put education in perspective as just one tactic in our toolbox. If we’re looking to education and raising awareness as a strategy unto themselves as many seem to be, history tells us that we’re bound to be disappointed.

So who is served by the dominance of this narrative?  Those who are profiting from the destruction of the planet are the ones whose interests are served by this because the longer we wait for the mythical great turning, or the hundredth monkey, or the next level of consciousness, the more time we give this system to poison the air and water, gut the land, and chew up what little biodiversity we have left.

Ideas can be powerful, but only if they get people to act.  History tells us that more awareness often does not translate into more action.  Let’s take the focus off trying to change people’s ideas about the world, and start focusing on changing material circumstances.

Mass Movement

Part and parcel with the idea of a consciousness shift is the hope that such a shift will lead to a mass movement, and this idea is extremely prevalent among many environmentalists.

We have Bill McKibben saying things like, “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement. There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it.” – Bill McKibben

This is a very absolute statement, and it shows that folks like McKibben who have the most clout in the mainstream environmentalist crowd are telling us in no uncertain terms that building a mass movement is the only hope that we have to halt the destruction of the planet. I would hope that if he’s so sure about that, he has history and some evidence on his side to back it up.

And to be certain, there are examples throughout history of times when numbers mattered. Strikes, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – the key factor in some victories has been numbers.  But the omitted history here is that a mass movement is not the only thing that has ever worked.

One of the most successful movements against oil extraction to date has been MEND, which stands for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The area was being ravaged by Shell, and just a few hundred people took on both the Nigerian military and Shell’s private military. They’ve won popular support among the Niger Delta community, and more importantly, those few hundred people have managed to make significant reductions in the oil output from the region, which is something that mainstream environmental movement can’t boast by any stretch of the imagination.

The French Resistance to German occupation during WWII played a significant role in facilitating the Allies rapid advance through France, and active resisters to the Nazi occupation of France was composed of about one percent of the population. Supporters, judging by how many people were reading the underground newspaper, were as much as ten percent of the population, but the active resistance – those who were organizing strikes, gathering intelligence on the German military, sabotaging arms factories, attacks on the electrical grid, telecommunications, attacking German forces and also producing underground media about these activities – these folks were a very small segment of the population, about one percent, hardly a mass movement.

The Irish Republican Army, which fought the British occupation of Ireland, is a similar case with regard to the numbers.  At the peak of the IRA’s resistance, when they were the most active, they had 100,000 members, which was just over 2% of the population, only 15,000 of which were guerilla fighters.  And they had 700 years of resistance culture to draw on, while our modern environmental movement has been losing ground steadily in the fifty years since its birth.

This is not to say that broad popular support isn’t something we should hope for or something we should value, but we do need to call into question the idea, an idea that people like Bill McKibben seem to completely buy into, that a mass movement is the only scenario we can hope for.  The history of resistance tells us otherwise, it tells us that small groups of committed people can be and have been successful in resisting empire.

Who is served by the dominant mass movement narrative?  The people who are murdering the planet are served by this narrative. They are the victors, and they will continue to be the victors until we stop buying into their version of history and their vision of the future.  While we wait for a mass movement, they are capitalizing on our paralysis and our inaction.  And another 200 species went extinct today.

Dogmatic Pacifism

Recently we’ve seen the rise of the term eco-terrorist to define groups or individuals who use tactics involving force.  We’ve even seen recent legislation, like House Bills 2595 and 96 in Oregon, used to redefine tree sits and other nonviolent forest defense tactics as terrorism.  The FBI defines eco-terrorism as “”the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.”

When I hear the term eco-terrorism, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that my friend has on her car, which says “they only call it class warfare when we fight back.”  In this case, they only call it terrorism when people fight back.  US imperialism, police violence, and the eradication of 200 entire species every single day – to the FBI, these things don’t count as terrorism.  But the destruction of property, even if it harms no humans at all, gets condemned not only by the FBI, but by mainstream environmental organizations as well.

“The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment,” said Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club conservation director. “That type of criminal behavior does nothing to further the cause of promoting safe and livable communities.” I would like to hear Bruce Hamilton tell that to the living communities who are still alive today because of the use of forest defense tactics.  I think they would disagree.

A side note on the Sierra Club: Between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 MILLION in donations from Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking. Of course, the higher ups in the Club kept this from the members. At the time they ended their relationship with Chesapeake Energy in 2010, they turned their back on an additional $30 million in donations.  We have to ask if a corporation, which like all corporations is singularly capable of focusing on profits, would donate any money much less that much money to a group using tactics they felt would be remotely likely to put a dent in their revenue.

So people like Hamilton are not only condemning acts they calls violent, but they’re condemning criminal behavior in the name of the environment.  The problem with that is that the government, and the corporations that run it, THEY decide what is criminal and what isn’t, and they are increasingly criminalizing any action that has a chance of challenging their power or profits.

As activist Tim DeChristopher found out, something as nonviolent as bidding on land against oil companies is criminal.  As occupy protesters found out, occupying public space is criminal.

If activists accept the line between legality and criminality as a line that cannot be crossed, they accept the idea that activists should only take actions sanctioned by the very people whose power we should be challenging.  The state tends to criminalize, or classify as “violent,” any type of action that might work to challenge the status quo. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at the historical examples that are often used to back up this emphasis on the exclusive use of nonviolent tactics.

The fight against British occupation led by Gandhi is often the first and most prominent example used to promote exclusive nonviolence. Gandhi gained notoriety by leading large nonviolent protests like marches, pickets, strikes, and hunger strikes. He eventually was allowed to engage in negotiations with the occupying British who agreed to free imprisoned protesters from prison if Gandhi called off the protests.  Gandhi is sometimes portrayed as single handedly leading a nonviolent uprising and forcing the British to make concessions, but we have to ask – what is the omitted history here?

The truth is that the success of the movement against the British occupation was not solely the result of pacifist tactics; it was the result of a diversity of tactics.  While Gandhi was organizing, a socialist named Bhagat Singh became disillusioned with what he saw as the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of Gandhi’s tactics.  Singh went on to lead strikes and encourage militancy against the British occupation, and is considered one of the most influential revolutionary leaders in India, more revered by some in India than Gandhi.  The combination of economic tactics, peaceful and symbolic actions, cultural revival, and yes, militancy, had an effect together.  Most in the West, the activists that I’ve met that look to nonviolence as the primary guiding principle for their tactics have never heard of Bhagat Singh.

George Orwell had this to say on the topic of Gandhi: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.”

Another prominent proponent of nonviolence was Martin Luther King Jr. For a people terrorized by the violence of poverty, police violence, white supremacist terrorism, and other horrors, the power of King’s words and the importance of his work, his significance to the civil rights movement, cannot be overstated.  Other nonviolent groups and action like the freedom riders were very effective in demonstrating the reality of racist brutality.  However, the gains made by the movement during that time were not solely the result of nonviolent tactics.

The Black Panther party and other groups were advocating for self-defense tactics and militancy, and they were widely censured for it by more mainstream elements within the movement, much like militant environmental defense is being censured by the mainstream today.  A group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice was training black communities in armed self-defense tactics.

Again, in the case of the civil rights movement, it was not nonviolent tactics alone that produced the gains of that era; it was a diversity of tactics.

We already mentioned MEND, and MEND is not a nonviolent group.  They are an armed militia, and they use tactics from sabotage to kidnapping oil executives in order to defend their land and their people. The land is being utterly decimated by oil extraction.  The people live in poverty despite the Nigerian government making millions from the oil rich area.  The tactics MEND uses are a last resort.  Before MEND, the resistance in the Niger Delta was primarily nonviolent, and it was led by a man named Ken Saro-Wiwa.  Ken Saro-Wiwa and his group, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, never deviated from their commitment to nonviolence, even as Ogoni resistance leaders were being routinely murdered, both by oil company thugs and legally, through state execution.  In 1995, despite a massive human rights outcry from around the world, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed on false charges by the Nigerian government, along with eight other Ogoni resistance leaders.  As Orwell pointed out, the Nigerian government and the oil companies it serves can stand “moral force” until the cows come home, it has no effect.  But the physical force of MEND’s tactics was able to reduce oil output by one third between 2006 and 2008.

The movement for women’s suffrage is another movement often misremembered in the popular imagination as being won solely by nonviolent means.  In Britain, women started out with pickets, and lobbying, and letters to the editor. But when these tactics failed, some suffragists moved on to direct action, such as chaining themselves to the railings outside the prime minister’s home, and to actually going and casting ballots illegally, which got them arrested.  After a protest in 1910 turned into a near riot due to brutal police beatings of protesting women, the movement began to wage guerilla warfare, orchestrating systematic window smashing campaigns and arson attacks.  The slogan of this movement was “deeds, not words.” They were imprisoned and tortured for their efforts, but in 1918, they won the right to vote.  Again, this fight was won by a diversity of tactics.

So there’s a pattern here to which parts of history become mainstream, and which parts become marginalized and even forgotten.

Whose interests are served by omitting militancy from the historical record? It is in the interest of governments and corporations that we never seize the physical force to actually stop them.

However, plenty of people around the world ARE seizing that physical force, and they have been throughout history.  Instead of haggling with Monsanto over ineffective regulations of GMO crops, and the labeling of GMO products, Hungary decided to burn all of Monsanto’s GMO corn fields within their borders to protect the integrity of their other crops.  Another example of GMO resistance is that this past June in Southern Oregon, 40 Tons or 6,500 sugar beet GMO crops were destroyed by hand and the field burned over a three night period. There has been a complete media blackout of this in response, perhaps to avoid inspiring more folks from taking this type of action.

Fracking equipment was set ablaze around so called New Brunswick in Canada two weeks later. This is coming at a time of increased indigenous resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the region, after numerous direct actions, midnight seizures of drilling equipment, and a local man being struck by a contractor’s vehicle.

Another example of resistance through physical force is that instead of accepting the Brazilian government ignoring their voices and sentencing their way of life to be destroyed, hundreds of indigenous demonstrators occupied and began to manually dismantle Belo Monte Dam construction.

So let’s look again at the narrative we began with:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

I hope that we’ve been able to demonstrate that while there are underlying truths here, this narrative leaves out a lot of important information, and as a result, a strategy based on this narrative is not working.

Here’s a version of those ideas that incorporates some of the omitted information that we talk about today.

  • Education is vitally important, but we can’t expect raising awareness to galvanize most people into action, especially when action would threaten their privilege and entitlement.
  • Popular support is valuable, but resistance has often been carried out by small groups of determined people, not by mass movements.
  • Nonviolence can be a powerful tactic, but winning strategies are marked by a diversity of both peaceful and militant tactics.

What does this mean for our actions?  How can we incorporate this information into our strategy?

  • Vocally challenge these narratives
  • Support extra-legal resistance
  • Support political prisoners
  • Adhere to security culture

We tried really hard as we were writing this to not sugarcoat any of this.  When I’ve spoken frankly in the past about biodiversity collapse, catastrophic climate change, and the horror I feel in response to them, I’ve had some people say “tone it down.  Don’t be so doom and gloom, you’ve got to give the people hope.”  Let me say now for the record – fuck hope.  We don’t need it.  As one author put it, “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”  In other words, you only need hope in situations where you have no control, no power.  Those who do have power, who are using that power to murder the planet, have written a narrative that masks the power we could wield, that lies in order to make sure we never claim the tools to challenge their profits.

Every day that we abide by their rules and accept the narrative that serves their power is a day we waste.  But every day is also a new chance to rewrite that narrative, to change the story.  With a truer understanding of the past we can form a more effective strategy for the present.  With a more effective strategy in the present, we can reject a future on the dying planet they have us headed toward.

With everything, literally, at stake, it’s time to do what we can with what we have, and it’s time to claim the legacy of resistance that these and other examples of silenced history could teach us.


[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=kKv8PXwIiFkC&pg=PA237&lpg=PA237&dq=civil+rights+gallup+polling+1960&source=bl&ots=-TTg7n7EbO&sig=odTF9mCzMqJkuPH2xZoRYCDPYaI&hl=en&ei=HkLgS-WcFpKwNtWsmKsH&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CCAQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1981907

This is the second part of a two piece series on strategic resistance by Lexy Garza and Rachel Ivey. The first piece is available here: Resistance Rewritten, Part 1.