Folklore of Activism

Much of the popular resistance to environmentalism comes from the belief that it is a predominantly “white” issue, where those upper middle-class citizens are thought to be spending their time helping animals and plants when more pressing matters, such as social equality, poverty alleviation, and anti-war efforts could be supported instead. Furthermore, there is the perception that environmentalism is fundamentally opposed to business interests, so that loggers, energy companies, government agencies (like the forest service), and other resource management organizations see environmentalism as attempting to destroy these groups’ profits for the sake of what they consider to be insignificant and abstract concepts (preservation of the natural world, maintaining biodiversity, etc…). “Tree-hugger” can then be seen as an epithet directed at those who are perceived to be out of touch with the “real problems” of society, valuing the environment even over other people. However, these critiques are for the most part superficial, and revolutionary environmentalists see social problems as more often than not symptoms of the larger system of global capitalism, seeking to confront the imperialist logic of violent and destructive exploitation with an ecologically sound, democratic and egalitarian system that acknowledges environmental domination and ecological destruction as socially relevant.

Four tactics used by “monkeywrenchers” are the use of arson, tree spikes, tree sits, and generally putting oneself in potentially damaging situations so that physical harm or death might arise if environmentally destructive work is allowed to continue.

-Though arson can have an enormous visible and cultural impact, as in the burning down of a ski-resort in Vail, it seems largely ineffective as a method for permanently eliminating environmental degradation, since on the one hand many properties are insured (so that $12 million was immediately used to refinance the expansion on Vail) to ensure the completion of construction, and on the other, public condemnation will often occur in response to such frightening actions, seemingly destroying any credibility that more accepted environmental organizations who are associated with likeminded groups have attained. In this particular case, public perception became unfavorable to the movement’s values, the goal to halt expansion was not achieved, and the overall focus of the activists’ action may have been abandoned due to the pollution attributed to such a massive fire.

-Tree Spiking is a much more effective method of civil disobedience and potentially a very useful tactic in achieving activists’ aims, since spiking does not physically harm the tree and can cripple a company’s economic activity when machinery is destroyed as a result. However, as in the case of George Alexander who, in May 1987 was nearly decapitated when his sawblade was shattered by a tree-spike at the Cloverdale Louisiana-Pacific mill in northern California, public opinion turned against this sort of activism and began to consider spiking as a violent method potentially resulting in injuries, causing a rift in Earth First! where David Foreman and his supporters forced out an editor who did not want to publish pro-spiking content in the EF! journal, since they considered the “environmental crisis to be so grave that such risks were acceptable and necessary.” (Taylor, pg. 519 Earth First! and the ELF, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature) Even so, in terms of pure efficiency, it is not hard to imagine what an organized mass effort to spike as many trees as possible could achieve, as the threat of physical danger and property destruction might be enough to dissuade logging in its entirety.

-Tree-sitting is similar in its aims to prevent the logging of trees, though substitutes the potential harm done to the logger for that to the sitter. While still illegal for the most part as it is considered trespassing, this tactic of direct action is pretty hit or miss since it can either end in success, as with the Fall Creek campaign that eventually spared 96 acres of forest from chainsaws since the first tree-sit made by “Free” Luers, or it can end in tragedy or surrender, with police extractors ultimately removing sitters with pepper spray and continuing to cut down trees even after. In terms of the impact on public opinion however, Tree sits are for the most part harmless and do little to promote violence against the surrounding community, even allowing some tree-sitters the title of celebrity at times, for example Julia Butterfly Hill, whose 2 year tree sit in a Redwood tree catapulted her to international fame when she and other activists raised enough money to spare the tree and a 200-foot butter zone around it (though some activists considered it an unacceptable compromise). Still, while non-violent and able to cause much trouble for authorities and companies seeking to make money, tree-sitting as a defensive tactic may not be nearly as effective long term as a well organized offensive ecotage campaign designed to dismantle the actual tools of destruction.

-Willingly putting oneself in the way of physical harm, as when many activists and environmentalists opposed the logging communities in Northern California in a series of events called Redwood Summer, sitting in front of bulldozers and chaining themselves to trees, or lifting themselves into makeshift sleeping areas designed to collapse if tampered with as in other campaigns, is another efficient way to publicly oppose anti-environmental practices. Human barricades can demonstrate to the public how completely committed activists are to a particular ideal, without threatening violence to others, or destroying property. Even so, there is still the fact that such actions are seen as a means to an end, the ends being the strategic impediment to destructive work engineered by companies looking to profit at the expense of nature. Thus, those communities dependent upon timber money (or any other harmful industry) and the state that protects these interests will likely oppose such direct action techniques in any form.

As most businesses operate specifically to profit through the processing of resources into products to be consumed, any of these particular tactics, if coordinated effectively, can be used to tamper with business expenses and operating costs. Moreover, direct action might stall environmental destruction long enough for injunctions to be won so that ecosystems can be legally protected. Yet a particular concern should be that none of these endeavors attack the underlying motivation behind the actions environmental activists oppose, namely the profit motive at the heart of industrial civilization. So then, organized mass boycotts and general strikes may eventually prove to be the most efficient means to combat environmental destruction, calling to mind the “Green Bans” in Australia instigated at the request of and in support of residents’ groups. The political and economic power of organized labor groups and unions, conducted for conservation purposes, can thus provide the means by which green syndicalism prevents inappropriate industry, uniting multiple groups and coalitions in their opposition to publicly-condemned projects. Perhaps these green bans can provide the means by which to “monkey-wrench” the capitalist system itself, with organized labor injecting green principles into the global marketplace in the hopes of restructuring it from the grassroots level.

Green anarchism is essentially anarchist thought applied to the radical environmental movement, often incorporating primalism and anarcho-primitivism as methods to overthrow, or at least reorient, civilization in ways that promote the vitality of the global environment. Essentially, anarchism is the maximum dispersal of democracy, decentralizing political, economic, and military force while uniting a free association of autonomous communities in a mutually self-reliant and self-sufficient federated system. Whereas a centralized government mobilizes people and resources to exploit into profitable commodities (often violently repressing dissidents in the process), green anarchists attempt to subvert this dominant paradigm, rehabilitating the world by resisting civilization’s power relations in its various forms. Instead of idealizing profit and hierarchy at the expense of freedom and nature, green anarchy can be then be seen as an alternative system to one that consumes and poisons the natural world that society depends on for its own existence.

Primarily interested in resisting what has become the mainstream technological development of civilization and its increasing mechanization, green anarchy can provide criticism of an ideology willing to use state violence as a means of control. Agriculture and domestication are critiqued as contributing to the stratification of civilization and the domination of the living world, and money is understood to command the labor, service, and lives of others in destructive and counterintuitive ways, so that a decentralized, equally distributed and fairly shared power system may provide a remedy for a society plagued with “nature-deficit disorder” in its stead. Green anarchism might therefore be seen to revitalize civilization in ways that are more harmonious to the life-processes and in keeping with our basic nature, often observing in early primitive cultures models for how humans should subsist so humans can identify new ways of living on Earth in the face of environmental (and social) collapse.

For Abram, a return to our natural animal senses is needed to reconnect with the more-than-human world. Though the sensory world is considered by modern day society to be uncertain and illusory in light of rational and abstract thinking, these senses are, as Abram writes, “our most immediate access” to the natural world. (Returning to Our Animal Senses, pg. 211) When we perceive the encompassing ecosystem to be actively engaged with ourselves, we are able to align with that ecology, allowing our conceptualizations of how best to live to be informed by direct experience of the surrounding world. This can effectively eliminate the alienation that underpins our separation from nature, providing us with the opportunity to understand nature as a subject unto itself rather than merely an object to be utilized for personal gratification. This assumption of active agency allows inherent value to be ascertained in all other beings, ensuring connection and full participation within the complex web of dynamic relations we are embedded in, a process available to anyone with the patience to recognize and more completely understand our greater selves.

Eco-magic may be one particular method by which to restore the natural connection we have forgotten in our day-to-day lives. Magical skill is rooted in the awareness of energy fields and the natural order of the biotic community, with its application resting in the conscious manipulation of these fields. This connection manifests as a sort of “place-making,” uniting a group to contemplate and understand the sacredness of the animate world while dissolving the perceptual habits of a destructive culture. As ecological devastation is brought by perceptual obliviousness and the inability to become aware of reality as it exists outside of assumed social boundaries, heightened receptivity and communication with the living landscape can maintain a balanced interrelationship as well as channel the power to alleviate cultural ills.

Radical Environmentalists consider environmental degradation to be based primarily upon a spiritual crisis, perpetuated by a western worldview that defends imperialist values and justifies the domination of nature. Paganism is held to be essentially the antithesis of this worldview, holding nature to be sacred in and of itself, often times including pantheistic and animistic elements—that all nature is alive and sacred or that the world is filled with non-human intelligences, thought to be capable of communicating with humans. As opposed to those systems of belief that are anthropocentric and hierarchical, pagans affirm the importance of the world itself as well as its intrinsic value (rather than simply its monetary value).

Since radical environmentalists believe that the only way to save the planet’s life support system from collapse is to find a way to live that doesn’t commit violence against the various ecosystems, they propose that society reconsider its exploitation of nature, and achieve a harmonious balance that benefits all species instead. Therefore, both pagans and radical environmentalist groups and individuals are in essence biocentrists as their spirituality mandates the resistance to cultural affronts on natural spaces, and often these groups will embrace concepts such as the Gaia Theory in their efforts to defend nature as worthy of respect and reverent care. For them, the immense devotion to a particular sacred place or threatened ecosystem underlies their eco-activism, encouraging direct experience of biodiversity to motivate respectful action toward the world. In this way, the definition of “self” can be expanded to include all of nature, helping to articulate a new vision of the world through a system of ethics that undermines a destructive techno-based civilization based on a centralized hierarchy of control.

Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, especially for the purposes of coercion. Eco-terrorism is the use of terror when applied to ideologically driven causes that concern the environment. The label is accurate because like terrorism, eco-terrorism seeks to do damage illegally to persons or property and is more often than not oriented towards a larger audience in a symbolic event designed to bring attention to a particular cause. Both forms are therefore methods by which sub-national groups are able to attack “legitimate” endeavors (as determined by the state), whereby property damage, intimidation, and the perceived threat to life are justified in order to eliminate the overarching enemy, whether it be capitalism, industrial civilization, or the general desecration of sacred entities or places by corporate entities, for instance the destruction of an eco-system or its member species for purely profit-driven motives.

Eco-terrorism as a method to defend and prevent industrial encroachment has had mixed responses. As it often glorifies property destruction, there can be little argument that ecoterrorism is a criminal enterprise, and so it should come as no surprise that such actions would warrant police and federal condemnation, and the justification at a state level for apprehending individuals who engage in such behavior. Even so, the groups themselves most likely take great pride in being labeled as terrorists, attributing such a definition to the corruption of state power that, in their opinion, aids companies in the exploitation and cruel mismanagement of ecosystems and their many animal inhabitants. For them, “terrorist” and “freedom-fighter” are interchangeable terms, dependent only on which side of the war the viewer identifies with.

Even so, acts such as those done by groups like the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts, i.e. ecotage, property destruction, and the rescuing of animals from experimental tests, are often done regardless of public sentiment, with affinity groups maintaining a sense of moral superiority. However, their crimes are not without conservative backlash, with law enforcement redefining crimes motivated by animal and earth liberation ideologies so that repercussions often carry a far more serious sentence than the act otherwise would (evident in Jeffery “Free” Luers’ sentencing to 22 years for burning several cars). Still, each case of eco-terror should likely be judged for its effectiveness on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Paul Watson, an animal rights and environmental activist, has often been labeled a terrorist by authorities in his direct action approach in which he has destroyed enemy ships and continues to impede whaling operations, while enjoying celebrity status with his own television series and has been credited with preventing nations and companies from achieving their target quotas. Moreover, a well publicized media campaign can have the effect of inspiring like-minded groups who continue to propagate such actions elsewhere, as when environmental groups destroyed whaling boats in Portugal and Spain shortly after Watson’s campaign exposed to a greater degree the controversial practice of whaling.

Violence is often attributed to acts of destruction perpetrated against property and life, yet might be expanded to include the overall tension inherent in the contradistinction between oppressor and resistor ideologies. For instance, radical environmentalists might consider the structural violence of a dominating capitalist system to be on par with the property destruction done to a company thought to be invading a natural landscape. While many in the environmental movement believe violence should be a term limited to attacks that destroy human, animal, or plant life, others, including radical environmentalists, have no contention with labeling the fire-bombing of property as “violent,” even embracing such violence as necessary to protect nature. In this respect, monkeywrenching might indeed be seen to be violent by those dealing with such attacks, and at the same time might be seen as nonviolent by those who take great measures to ensure no one is harmed by such actions. In either case, the nature and meaning of “violence” is constructed on an individual basis, even as the state’s definition may be the only one holding merit in the eyes of the law.
Derrick Jensen, environmental activist and author of the book Endgame, is a strong proponent of the “overthrow of civilization,” making the case that the voluntary social transformation is a naïve and unfounded hope, necessitating a shift in strategy and tactics. He writes “the current political, economic and social systems have shown themselves to not only be consistently unresponsive, but irredeemably detrimental to human and nonhuman needs.” (Igniting a Revolution, pg. 286) As the world is being destroyed primarily due to an unsustainable civilization whose increasing importation of resources to growing numbers of cities perpetuates the destruction of natural habitats and species, Jensen sees resistance to what is comparable to an ecological holocaust as a necessary endeavor, pontificating on how best to overcome those barriers that inhibit direct action. As such, he is most likely a strong advocate of ecotage and resistance efforts, as well as a possible proponent of anarcho-primitivism since he considers that a sustainable culture would be more or less informed by hunter-gatherer values.

Edward Abbey similarly considers the role of humans to be primarily focused towards resisting forces of natural destruction, seeing wilderness places as conveying spiritual truth bordering on sacredness, so that through wilderness inspired epiphanies, one’s sense of self can be shown to be embedded in all reality, affirming the intrinsic value of all natural entities. He promotes sabotage and illegal direct action in defense of ecosystems, fueling ecological resistance by romanticizing anarchist themes in his writings. He is a huge influence on monkey-wrenching and green anarchism, and is considered to be the godfather of radical environmentalism and eco-defense.

John Seed heavily impacted the Deep Ecology movement, an ecological philosophy that recognizes the intrinsic value of non-human beings aside from their usefulness to humans, co-founding the Council of All Beings and promoting “re-earthing processes.” He campaigned successful to save rainforests in Australia and is the director of the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia, and has no doubt been a primary influence to the call for biocentric worldviews for groups like Earth First! and the ELF, as well as perhaps inspiring developments in eco-psychology as well, in which consciousness and ecology are unified so that culture might fully embrace nature.

Gary Snyder is an environmental poet influenced by Deep Ecology, who believes that humans need to adjust to long time-scales in order to better realize the consequences of their actions, while examining the human-nature divide. He helped to develop a theory of neo-tribalism which states that humans have evolved to live in tribal societies (as opposed to mass society), where naturally forming social networks will constitute modern day “tribes.” He wrote a book of poetry called “Turtle Island” which synthesized indigenous and colonizer cultures by translating the indigenous name for the North American continent into the colonizer language. Moreover, Snyder considers that both pantheism and animism as religious belief systems are both more prevalent than monotheism, advocating a conceptual shift to naturalism as a guiding social principle, a point that resonated deeply with Dave Foreman and the EF! movement (though Snyder would later condemn their seemingly violent tendencies).

Environmental Racism is a critical part of the environmental justice movement, which understands environment, race, and social justice to be intersecting issues of a larger complex, arguing that the right to clean air, water, and food is deserved by everybody, regardless of ethnicity or income level. Corporations and polluters will often target the poor, disenfranchised, or minority populations so they can dispose of toxins, pollutants, and other harmful products in communities either too unorganized or without the resources and capabilities necessary to defend themselves. One particular organization that fought these practices was MOVE, which in the 1970s sought to end industrial pollution in poor minority communities, understanding the related social and environmental problems to be conditioned upon the exploitive nature of capitalism.

Another particular example of environmental racism might be the new Seneca biomass plant in Eugene that activists say will release too much pollution and carbon dioxide, yet which the EPA has excused for three years from conforming to the Clean Air Act rule until it can decide whether “greenhouse gas emissions from large production facilities burning wood waste should be regulated in the same way that emissions from fossil fuel-burning facilities—such as coal-burning power plants—are,” even though they release the same amount of carbon dioxide. The waiver has been granted since that calculation “doesn’t take into account the fact that trees regrow and in the process reabsorb carbon.” http://www.registerguard.com/csp/cms/sites/web/updates/25766884-46/biomass-clean-environmental-wood-act.csp The plant would be located in a high-minority (Latino), low-income (26.7% poverty level) residential neighborhood, and is opposed by the Coalition Against Environmental Racism as well as the Oregon Toxins Alliance, who already contend that the residents of West Eugene live in close proximity to heavy industrial and Super Fund Sites already. http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:esPTyQAW3wUJ:www.oregontoxics.org/AQ/Seneca/EnviroJustice_WEugene_OTA_8-4-09.pdf+eugene+biomass+environmental+racism&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESi4FG7pcNxKy0uYHRQNJCU9yhSw9hWhI2LDqKR1Ez_rnFwD2D550HX7cII9bR19LPTl-4qwDgaEh1KR4IxPCvHjW53XmVZBRC5eH2xo85GrPPyo2Z31onvbBj2cNJgSIW9QN6V4&sig=AHIEtbQaebDA9zZsdrnnuInK7W4GV-zLFQ

In “A New American Environmentalism,” Speth writes that the first step in building a green economy is identifying the destructive elements in the current global system, seeing the continual limitless growth of the economy functioning within a limited resource base (Earth) to be of utmost concern. 4 specific strategies that Hawken and the Lovins’ propose in “A Declaration of Sustainability” and “Natural Capitalism” are 1) taking back the corporate charter, 2) throwing out and replacing the entire tax system 3) the assumption that human welfare is best served by improving the quality and flow of desired services delivered, rather than by merely increasing the total dollar flow, and 4) that economic and environmental sustainability depends on redressing global inequities of income and material well-being.

-Taking back the Corporate Charter is not only important, it is vital for any hope humanity has of surviving what is predicted to amount to a social and environmental collapse. As corporations exist as extensions of private citizen interests, it will become crucial to redefine their purpose as not merely to enrich individuals at the expense of the surrounding communities and ecologies, but rather to ensure that each corporate entity contributes to the welfare of the entirety of civilization. Rather than processing the earth into consumable products whose planned obsolescence ensures perpetual production, consumption, and resource depletion, businesses are going to have to recognize the unsustainable character of the marketplace at present and alter their perception of how to ensure their continual success. Whether this means companies will be forced to provide services instead of products, or that corporations will need to constantly expand their market territory so that after they equip customers with necessary goods they can move on to produce something else worthwhile, the corporate charter will need to be reconceived so that exploitation of workers and nature is not an assumed premise and corporations become forces for “good” rather than destructive purposes. This can easily be achieved by BDS movements (boycott, divestment, sanctions) as well as general strikes initiated by empowered unions and labor federations that assert their autonomy.

-Throwing out and replacing the entire tax system is certainly necessary, as the current system “encourages waste, discourages conservation, and rewards consumption.” (Hawken pg. 396) Much of the earth’s exploitation can be attributed to wage-slavery (so it has been argued by many) evident in the insanity humanity seems subject to as it continues to engage in harmful industrial practices despite all credible science pointing to the unsustainable nature of such economic activity. Abolishing the wage-system in its entirety, as the working class has for at least a century aimed to do, would immediately equalize the income discrepancy between rich and poor, providing a mechanism by which to restore the natural landscape: as destructive practices are no longer engaged in due to the fact that there is no one to pay workers to do them, industry can better reflect the sustainable marketplace necessary to ensure prosperity and environmentally friendly practices. No longer would government need to tax its population in order to redistribute capital to private projects, since a classless society would likely collaborate and embark upon social projects without needing to locate and capture streams of revenue. Rather, organizations and corporations would be self-directed, their directives decreasing the burden on the state by ensuring their business benefits all. Taxes could be bypassed altogether in a moneyless society since each individual’s own work would circumvent the need for financial charges to support the role of government, as these enforced contributions would essentially be rendered unnecessary by workers executing directives in the absence of the state.

-The assumption that human welfare is best served by improving the quality and flow of desired services delivered, rather than by merely increasing the total dollar flow is indicative of the above premises. As businesses no longer choose to liquidate the natural capital they control to maximize their income (for example, forests and oil reserves), instead working towards the increased living standards for everyone, society will flourish as the short-term, personal accumulation of wealth is exchanged for the general interdependency of a vibrant community empowered to provide its community members access to their needs and desires. No longer will the land, air, and water be polluted because it is more profitable for businesses to pay for clean up rather than prevention. Rather, destructive practices will give way to restorative public services, with individuals attaining wealth through healthy relations with a productive society.

-That economic and environmental sustainability depends on redressing global inequities of income and material well-being may be the one issue I disagree with in terms of whether it is absolutely necessary. In my opinion, redressing inequalities would simply be a nicety, a wonderful possibility that has served as an ideal to strive for in centuries past, perhaps millennia. I have no doubt that if industrial capitalism took it upon itself to utilize the forces it controls to restore the living landscape so that the global citizenry could continue its propagation, it could. Yet that citizenry would still be enslaved in a global system where political and economic elites would control every mode of production, so that the general populace would still be impoverished, and the very poor would die off and be replaced by new wage-slaves. Indeed, this would maintain the centralized hierarchical system of oppression enforced by violence that has been condemned and critiqued over the course of history. While redressing inequalities may not be necessary for the sustainability of economic and environmental systems, it is certainly desired, even demanded. As such, it will be up to those who are oppressed and those who empathize with them to declare their independence from an unrepresentative governing body, reasserting their own natural rights to the Earth and commons, first by dissent, then force if need be.

While each of these strategies are certainly possible, none are assured, and it will more likely than not take a concerted effort from the best and brightest individuals in their own particular spheres of influence to administer such radical shifts in values. Global resistance to the threat of human extinction relies on coordinated decentralization, local renewal, and systematic dismantling of that which contributes to our own demise. Regardless of any social value attempting to propound what is the “correct” course of action, it is the land-base that must be protected above all else in order to ensure the continuity of biodiversity, humanity included. While fears of eco-fascism may abound due to such determinations, elevating the rights of the natural world and its various member species (at a minimum level) to the same standard that we regard human profit would be one small step in the right direction.

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