Resistance: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Excerpts from Chapter 28 of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible

Has the time come for a massive wave of direct action resistance to accelerating rates of environmental degradation around the world—degradation that is only getting worse due to climate change? Is a new wave of direct action resistance emerging, one similar but more widespread than that sparked by Earth First!, the first avowedly “radical” environmental group?

tar sands protestPhoto by Elizabeth Brossa
It is not necessary to hold an anarchist or anti-civilization ideology to wonder if electoral politics, lobbying and educational efforts, or litigation-based strategies are enough.

The radical environmental movement, which was formed in the United States in 1980, controversially transformed environmental politics by engaging in and promoting civil disobedience and sabotage as environmentalist tactics. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when the most militant radical environmentalists adopted the Earth Liberation Front name, arson was increasingly deployed. The targets included gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, US Forest Service and timber company offices, resorts and commercial developments expanding into wildlife habitat, and universities and corporations engaged in research creating genetically modified organisms. Examples of such militant environmentalism can be found throughout the world, and they are increasingly fused with anarchist ideologies. Given this history, the question arises as to whether direct action resistance is becoming unambiguously revolutionary, or perhaps even purposefully violent.

People attending the Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet conference in Berkeley, California, in November 2011 might well have thought so. Some 500 people joined this conference, which called for a new “deep green resistance” movement in response to intensifying environmental decline and increasing social inequality. The format of the conference was a scripted dialogue, or what might be called political performance art, with the writer and activist Derrick Jensen posing questions to a series of environmental activists and writers, including, most prominently, the Man Booker Prize winner from India, Arundhati Roy.

The tone of the meeting was sober and its messages radical. Succinctly put, the speakers issued the following diagnoses: Electoral politics and lobbying, as well as educational and other reformist conversion strategies that give priority to increasing awareness and changing consciousness, have been ineffective. Such strategies do not work because for 10,000 years agricultures have been established and maintained by violence. This violence has foremost targeted foraging societies (and later indigenous and poor people), nonhuman organisms, and nature itself. Fossil-fueled industrial-agricultur-al civilizations are especially destructive and unsustainable. Popular and democratic movements have been overwhelmed by the increasingly sophisticated ways that elites justify and enforce their rule and promote materialism and the domination of nature.

In concert, the conference speakers offered radical prescriptions. They called for direct and aggressive resistance to plutocracy and environmental destruction. The immediate objective, several of them contended, should be to bring down industrial civilization—which, they claimed, has structural vulnerabilities. Specifically, they urged those gathered to form or support secret cells that would, as their first priority, sabotage the energy infrastructure of today’s dominant and destructive social and economic systems. It is also critical, they contended, that activists avoid pacifist ideologies and even carefully consider whether, and when, the time might be ripe to take up arms to overturn the system. After the most inflammatory of these statements, at least a third of the crowd rose in standing ovation.

It is not necessary to hold an anarchist or anti-civilization ideology to wonder if electoral politics, lobbying and educational efforts, or litigation-based strategies are enough. Indeed, one reason that many people in mainstream environmental organizations sympathize with these radicals is that they often share a despairing view of the current destructive trends and recognize that, despite their best efforts, they have been unable to slow or reverse them.

It is also not necessary to be willing to contemplate violent tactics when considering or engaging in resistance. Although definitions of resistance typically include underground organizations opposing an occupying or authoritarian power or regime, often with acts of sabotage or guerilla warfare, the term can also refer to nonviolent, extralegal opposition to a regime or its practices — even a regime that is considered politically legitimate, such as in democratic countries. Examples of such resistance include disruptive protest, civil disobedience, and noncompliance with government laws or with the dictates or operations of public or private institutions considered to be engaged in wrongdoing.

Anyone paying attention can easily identify both actions and negligent inaction on the part of public and private actors that are exacerbating exceptionally harmful environmental and social trends. Is it time, then, for resistance? Has it been effective or counterproductive? If effective or potentially so, which kinds are, under what circumstances, and by whom? What should the posture of mainstream environmental organizations be toward those who engage in resistance?

It is time to break the taboo against talking about this and to consider what lessons can be drawn from decades of experimentation with direct action resistance.


Assessing Resistance

protestor on tree Photo byElizabeth BrossaAs many radical activists have acknowledged in interviews, the more an action risks or intends to
hurt people, the more the media and public focus on the tactics rather than the
concerns that gave rise to the actions.

The radical critique of agricultural, industrial civilization cannot be easily dismissed. It is true that as agricultural societies spread around the world, cultural diversity has dramatically eroded. Agricultures have displaced, murdered, or assimilated foraging peoples, whether through superior numbers and force, through the diseases their lifestyles brought with them, or through processes of settler colonialism. The erosion of biological diversity has gone hand-in-hand with these processes, all of which intensified with the power of the fossil-fuel-driven industrial age.

Modern societies are unduly celebratory of their achievements when they have amnesia about what has been lost and by whom. With an understanding of the tragic aspects of this history and recognition that these very processes are ongoing, it is clear that dramatic actions to halt these processes and engage in restorative justice and healing where possible are morally obligatory.

This does not mean, however, that the revolutionary prescription of the Deep Green Resistance activists — attacking the energetic infrastructure of industrial civilization — is warranted. Indeed, the claim that this could cause the collapse of industrial civilization is fanciful. Natural disasters (including those intensified or worsened by human activities) demonstrate that as long as energy is available, large-scale societies will rebuild. Even if resisters were to disrupt the system significantly, not only would the system’s rulers rebuild, recent history has shown that they would increase their power to suppress resisting sectors.

Moreover, as many radical activists have acknowledged in interviews — even those who have supported sabotage — the more an action risks or intends to hurt people, the more the media and public focus on the tactics rather than the concerns that gave rise to the actions. This means that the most radical tactics tend to be counterproductive to the goal of increasing awareness and concern in the general public.

When accessing the effectiveness of resistance, it is also important to address how effective authorities will be at preventing and repressing it. The record so far does not lead easily to enthusiasm for the most radical of the tactics deployed thus far. Authorities use tactics that are violent or can be framed as such to justify to the public at large spying, infiltration, disruption, and even violence against these movements. Such repression typically succeeds in eviscerating the resistance, in part because as people are arrested and tried, some will cooperate with the prosecution in return for a reduced sentence.

More than half of those arrested did just that during what Federal authorities dubbed “operation backfire,” which led to the arrests and conviction of more than two dozen Earth Liberation Front saboteurs who had been involved in arson cases. One of the leaders, facing life in prison under post-9/11 terrorism laws, committed suicide shortly after his arrest, while several others became fugitives. The individuals convicted drew prison terms ranging from 6 to 22 years. The noncooperating activists, and those for whom terrorism enhancements had been added to the arson charges, drew the longest terms.

As if this were not devastating enough to the resistance, broader radical environmental campaigns that were not using such radical tactics ebbed dramatically in the wake of these arrests. This was because movement activists who were friends and allies of those arrested rallied to provide prison support, which then took their time and resources away from their campaigns. But it was also because the resistance community was divided over whether (and if so, how) to support the defendants who, to various degrees, cooperated with investigators. Given this history, it makes little sense to base strategy and tactics on such an unlikely possibility that communities of resistance will ever be able to mount a sustained campaign to bring down industrial civilization, even if that were a desirable objective.

The envisioned alternative to this objective — creating or, in the view of many activists, returning to small-scale, egalitarian, environmentally friendly lifestyles — would not be able to support the billions of people currently living on Earth, at least not at anything remotely like the levels of materialism that most people aspire to. So the most radical of the resistance prescriptions would quite naturally lead to strong and even violent counter-resistance.13

These ideologies, explicitly or implicitly, make unduly optimistic assumptions about our species, including about our capacity to maintain solidarity in the face of governmental suppression, as well as about the human capacity for cooperation and mutual aid. To expect such behavior to become the norm may be conceivable, and it may be exemplified by some small-scale societies, but it is not something to be expected universally, let alone during times of social stress intensified by increasing environmental scarcity.

So despite the accurate assessment about the ways agricultural and industrial societies have reduced biocultural diversity, there is little reason to think that the most radical resistance tactics would be able to precipitate or hasten the collapse of such societies. Nor is there much evidence that such tactics would contribute to more-pragmatic efforts to transform modern societies. In contrast, there is significant evidence that these sorts of tactics have been and are likely to remain counterproductive.


A Time for Resistance?

keystone xl protest in front of White House Photo by Josh Lopez/TarsandsactionArguably, such protests would be all the more effective if they were protracted and scrupulously
nonviolent, while also disrupting business as usual. Social disruption is often a prerequisite to
concessions by political elites.

People engaged in environmental causes around the world, including those who deploy resistance strategies, lose far more often than they win. But there are signs that direct action resistance is growing. Reports of desperate people resisting displacement from their lands and livelihoods for environmentally devastating projects justified under the rubrics of progress and development appear to be increasing in many regions, including in China, South America, Russia, and a variety of other sites. Increasingly, those resisting are threatening or even in a few cases resorting to violence, although such movements have generally been the object of far more violence than they have ever used against others.

It is by no means certain that these movements will succeed or even survive the repression by authorities that they all too typically face. This will depend in no small measure on whether strong, international alliances are established and whether repressive acts are publicized internationally. Done in a way that minimizes or prevents reactionary counter-resistance and that does not lead to widespread public revulsion, ecological resistance has played and can continue to play a valuable and important role in environ- mental protection and sustainability.

Indeed, direct action resistance can bring attention to issues in a way that electoral politics and lobbying cannot. It can inspire action and apply political pressure on corporate and governmental officials. Like a rowdy audience or angry coach riding a referee, it can affect the decisions that are made and even whether officials will enforce the law. More significant in the long term is that such resistance may even contribute to shifting the center of public debate more toward the positions of environmentalists.

That mainstream environmental organizations and actors are reticent to acknowledge the positive role of resistance is understandable. After all, they work within the system and by its rules, and it would seem hypocritical to work for laws, policies, and enforcement mechanisms while refusing to abide by society’s existing laws. Yet there are many examples of individuals and groups honored today for obeying the overwhelming majority of existing laws while protesting highly consequential and exceptionally harmful immoral laws. Martin Luther King, Jr., for one, claimed that disobeying unjust laws and facing the consequences for doing so actually expresses the highest regard for the importance and value of the law as an institution.

In August 2011, journalist and activist Bill McKibben and his group orchestrated a protest at the White House demanding action and leadership by the United States on climate change. The action led to 143 arrests that same day and over a thousand that month. Most prominent among those arrested was James Hansen, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. It was not Hansen’s first arrest, for he had become so alarmed about climate change and the government’s anemic response that he had decided the time for resistance had come. In 2013, more such protests are being organized.

But how much more powerful these protests would be if there were a march on Washington comparable to those during the civil rights era and involving thousands of arrests by individuals demanding action on climate change? And how much more powerful yet if similar marches took place in Brussels, Beijing, Brasília, London, Moscow, Cairo, Pretoria, and other centers of power around the planet? Of course, there have been some large demonstrations already, beginning most notably with the anti-globalization protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 and continuing at other such international meetings. But the complaints and demands in these cases were diluted, ultimately unspecific, and thus easier to ignore. Climate change protest could provide a unifying focus for forcing global changes toward sustainability. Indeed, as there are many precedents where “people power” has toppled regimes, the global nature of the threat posed by climate change certainly makes it feasible that social protest and unrest could force concerted action on the part of targeted governments and businesses.

Arguably, such protests would be all the more effective if they were protracted and scrupulously nonviolent, while also disrupting business as usual. Social disruption is often a prerequisite to concessions by political elites. Yet for such a dramatic, global movement of conscience to arise and gather strength, there would need to be leadership from the most powerful environmental organizations, alliance building by them and the world’s religious communities, and careful planning regarding the kind of public theater that would be the most effective. Given how high the stakes are, and how slow the global response has been, it is reasonable to ask whether the time has come for the most prominent and respected environmental organizations and individuals to add another dimension to their advocacy for environmental sanity: direct action resistance.

If there are regrets in the struggle for sustainability among those who know the facts and the stakes involved, it may well be akin to the musings of Henry David Thoreau. Toward the end of his life, after noting how out-of-step he was with the conventional wisdom of his day, he commented, “If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” That is a timely question for us all.



State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible, the latest edition of Worldwatch Insititute’s State of the World series, was released on April 16.

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