Time is Short: Nonviolence Can Work, But Not for Us

By now we should all be familiar with what’s at stake. The horrific statistics—200 species driven extinct daily, every child born with hundreds of toxic chemicals already in their bodies, every living system on the planet in decline—haunt us as we go about our work in a world that refuses to hear, listen, or act on them. After decades of traditional organizing and activist work, we’re beginning to come to terms with the need for a dramatic shift in strategy and tactics, and indeed in how we conceptualize the task before us.

It is not enough any longer (if it ever was) to build a reformist social movement, one more faction among many attempting to fix the failings within our society. With industrial civilization literally tearing apart the biosphere and skinning the planet alive, we can afford no other goal than to build a resistance movement capable of—and determined to succeed in—bringing down industrial civilization, by any means necessary.

We know this will require decisive underground action to be successful, and starting all but from scratch, this begins with promoting the need for militant resistance; trying to garner acceptance and normalization of the fact that without militant resistance—including sabotage and direct attacks on key nodes of industrial infrastructure—there is little, if any, hope that earth will survive much longer.

However, the pervasive ideology of the dominant culture leaves most of its members unwilling to even consider dialogue on the topic of militant resistance, much less adopting it as a strategy. One manifestation of this is the all-too-widely held belief that nonviolent resistance is more always more effective than violent resistance.

The most common explanation provided to justify this idea is that violent movements alienate potential supporters, while nonviolent movements are more likely to mobilize “the masses” around a cause, and that without mass participation and support, there can be no social or political change.

For example, several years ago two university professors conducted a statistical comparison of violent and nonviolent social movements in the 20th century, with the goal of determining the relative effectiveness of violent and nonviolent strategies. The survey was limited to anti-occupation & anti-colonial movements, as well as those that sought regime change or the end of an oppressive government. In 2011, the findings were published in a book called Why Civil Resistance Works. The authors concluded that, based on their data, nonviolent movements are statistically twice as effective as violent ones, and they explained this as being due to the propensity of nonviolent movements to elicit greater participation from the general population.

An underlying premise—unstated by those who espouse this line of reasoning—is that without popular support and engagement, movements cannot achieve their aims. While it is certainly the case that mass movements can be effective in creating social change, that is by no means always the case. The simple (and perhaps unfortunate) truth is that some causes will never enjoy popular support, regardless of what strategies or tactics they use. In a deeply, fundamentally misogynistic and racist culture, a culture that has as its foundation the slow dismemberment of the living world, the support and enthusiasm of the majority is by no means a signifier that a cause is a worthwhile one. And a lack of that popular support doesn’t mean a cause or movement isn’t righteous.

We would do well to remember that the majority of Germans didn’t support any resistance against the Nazis, and even a decade after the war ended and the atrocities of the Nazi genocide were well known, most Germans still opposed even the idea of a theoretical resistance to Nazi rule.

Similarly, a movement to dismantle civilization will never enjoy the support or participation of a mass movement. Far too many people are completely dependent upon it, or too attached to the material privilege and prosperity it affords them for their allegiance, or simply unable to question the only way of life they ever known, or all of the above. The truth is that any effort to stop civilization will always be a minority, not only without popular support, but likely directly opposed by the majority of the dominant culture. This is a sobering fact that, while perhaps difficult to come to terms with, we need to accept and build our strategy around. Rather than starting from the abstract position of “nonviolence works” and building a strategy for our movement from there, we should start with the material realities of our situation—the time, resources, and numbers of participants available to us.

This is why framing the whole discussion within a ‘violent/nonviolent’ dichotomy is problematic. When we reduce the complexities of entire movements and strategies down to the simple categories of ‘violent’ and ‘nonviolent,’ we relegate all discussion about strategy to theoretical and conceptual realms, glossing almost entirely over the nuances and dynamics of particular struggles. And it’s these details that determine what strategies will be effective. If we want to decide on an effective strategy, we need to first examine closely and critically our situation, and determine from there what will be most effective.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we won’t ever have the numbers of participants required for strategies of popular nonviolence. It doesn’t matter how effective nonviolent strategies and movements may be in other situations; we’re not in those situations and without the necessary numbers, nonviolent strategies hold no promise for us. We need to halt industrial civilization in its tracks, and that position isn’t one that can muster a mass movement.

Which brings us back to the need for decisive underground action. Unlike nonviolent strategy, which is dependent upon mobilize huge numbers of participants, a strategy of militant attacks on key nodes of industrial infrastructures—a strategy of decisive ecological warfare—doesn’t require mass participation or support. Coordinated and repeated attacks against systemic weak points or bottle necks can cause systems disruption and cascading systems failure, resulting in the collapse of industrial activity and civilization—which must be our goal if we profess any love for life on this planet.

Given that industrial infrastructure is the foundational pillar of support for the function and existence of industrial civilization, and that these infrastructure networks are sprawling, fragile, and poorly protected; coordinated sabotage presents the best strategy and hope for a movement to bring down civilization.

Recognizing the need for underground action and the key role it must play if we’re to be successful as a movement doesn’t mean disavowing all nonviolent action. We need bio-diverse movements and cultures of resistance, and for some objectives nonviolent strategies are appropriate and smart and should be pursued. But we also need to recognize the limitations of various strategies, and especially the limitations of our own situation.

To reiterate, we will only ever be a small movement; we’ll never enjoy the support and participation required by mass nonviolent campaigns. The unfortunate truth is that most folks won’t ever willingly challenge the basis of their own way of life, much less organize to confront power and dismantle that way of life.

We also don’t have much time: according to conservative estimates, we have five years to stop the development and construction of fossil fuel infrastructure before being locked into catastrophic runaway climate change.

Those limitations—the lack of numbers and the short time available, combined with the fragility and vulnerability of the physical infrastructures of planetary murder—are what should point us away from mass nonviolence and towards a strategy of strategic sabotage. Coming to terms with and acting upon that reality isn’t always easy, but the sooner we’re able to let go of our misinformed and misguided dreams of a mass movement, the sooner we can start the real work of building a serious resistance movement.

2 thoughts on “Time is Short: Nonviolence Can Work, But Not for Us

  1. Geoff

    I completely agree that not enough is being done fast enough to avert environmental and humanitarian catastrophes, but I take issue with a couple of the assertions in the piece.
    Firstly, statements such as “there is little, if any, hope that earth will survive much longer” are complete nonsense and are a discredit the movement. Human activity may well cause it’s own extinction along with many other species but it will not destroy the Earth. The planet will survive and whatever life remains on it will evolve to refill any vacant niches that remain. that’s how nature works. Of course it would be a great tragedy if human’s let it reach that point and I agree that it is best avoided.
    Secondly, the “cherry picking” of moments in history to support the views expressed could equally be used to argue exactly the opposite. Once more this brings into question the credibility of the writer(s) evidence and opinions.
    Having said that I wholeheartedly support those who undertake non-violent direct action when such actions do not harm other humans, wildlife or environment. Once the line is crossed into violence, it can spiral out of control as the means to justify the ends accelerates if the desired results are not achieved. Not only that but the authorities are just waiting for any excuse to discredit the entire environmental/social justice movement and will use such actions to justify even more draconian measures to subdue the people. I don’t have all the answers but I don’t think violence will help.

    1. DGR Colorado Plateau Post author

      Thanks for the feedback. To respond: I’m not the author of this article, and I do agree that the line about the earth not surviving much longer might be phrased better. But I think saying that the extermination of all complex life, not including the microbes and other resilient life forms, isn’t technically the earth not surviving is splitting hairs. It certainly will make no difference to humans, or most of the rest of complex life. As for cherry picking examples, any writing is based on making certain arguments predicated on certain examples. World War II was, on the one hand, “won” with violence; yet it’s also convincing to argue that no one really “wins” a war. There’s merit to both points of view.
      If you read the book Deep Green Resistance you’ll see that the authors clearly would prefer a non-violent confrontation with the dominant culture, a position I think most people in the DGR movement would agree with. Yet there is little to no sign of such a movement emerging, not in time. As aboveground activists we’ve agreed to limit our actions to non-violent civil disobedience, but even in cases where this stands a chance of winning–such as Utah’s tar sands mine, which has only a few easily bottlenecked access roads, it hasn’t worked–and there aren’t enough on the ground activists to make it work.
      In another Time is Short article http://dgrnewsservice.org/2014/11/06/time-is-short-the-effectiveness-of-sabotage/, Norris Thomlinson writes: “More confrontational public direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience are familiar to most activists, from historical examples of women’s suffrage and civil rights movements to modern fights like the tar sands blockade and the Unis’tot’en Camp. However, the crucial underground role of directly attacking critical infrastructure, though it sounds exciting in theory, has little grounding in our daily experience or even in the history we’ve learned.

      “This is probably a deliberate omission from our history books, as sabotage is a highly effective tactic for small groups, outnumbered and outsupplied by opposing forces. In any situation of asymmetric warfare, sabotage plays an important role. This is precisely why the DEW strategy depends on one or more underground resistance groups carrying out unpredictable attacks on infrastructure to cause cascading systems failures.”
      The point we’re trying to make isn’t that one tactic is inherently better than another, but that many different approaches are necessary considering the political and social conditions we face. We believe it’s a mistake to discard tactics simply out of reflex, or philosophical stance.
      As for discrediting the entire environmental and social justice movement, the authorities have no need to do this because they’re overwhelmingly winning. If effective, these movements will never be popular anyway, certainly not among those who benefit from injustice and exploitation. No doubt the bombing of train tracks by the French resistance to the Nazi occupation was unpopular among Germans, yet the perspective of time has turned these actions into universally esteemed heroics. That may never happen with an effective movement to save the planet, but if human survival and the ultimate goal of just, sustainable, egalitarian human societies is eventually achieved, that hardly matters.


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