The radical environmental movement is largely white and well-assimilated into the noncommunity of the corporate-controlled, mass-media dominated, industrially produced culture of the contemporary United States and its colonies. Community has been destroyed to the point where we don’t know the names of the people living twenty feet from us and communication has been reduced to keystrokes of consonants. Those of us from that world are not even starting from scratch; we’re starting from negative. Hopefully, we can learn by example from comrades who come from more intact communities, from elders who remember a way of life organized around human needs instead of corporate profits, and from history. Necessity will have to reinvent us. Or, as Monique Wittig famously wrote, “Remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”108
Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that resistance always has to be created. Every movement is faced with the task of nurturing the will to fight in the people at large and in potential recruits especially. People need a mythic matrix that includes a narrative of courage in the face of power, loyalty to comrades and cause, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. They need the emotional support of a functioning community that believes in resistance. And they need an intellectual atmosphere that encourages analysis, discussion, and the development of political consciousness.
One example from history is the life and accomplishments of Maud Gonne. Born in 1865 to an Anglo-Irish family, she took up the Irish struggle for independence early in life. Her first activism was with the Irish National Land League, a group that agitated on behalf of tenant farmers. Such farmers didn’t own the land they worked, and in years of bad harvest, would be evicted for nonpayment of rent. Land ownership had been consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, causing widespread poverty and suffering—and, finally, resistance. Organized rent strikes led to what is known as the Land War.
The campaign to reduce rents and allow tenants to buy their land was ultimately successful, and it was won almost entirely by using nonviolent tactics. By 1914, the holdings of large landowners had been redistributed to small farmers. Many of these activists went on to fight for Irish independence. This was the context in which Gonne learned political activism. She was extremely active in Irish cultural activities. The period of the late nineteenth century was a cultural renaissance called the Gaelic Revival. Organizations like the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) sprang up to encourage Irish sports, literature, and, especially, the Gaelic language. Created in 1892, the National Literary Society was founded by Douglas Hyde and William Butler Yeats for the purpose of “de-Anglicizing the Irish people.” The cultural activities, always contextualized within a framework of occupation, worked their magic, helping to lay the groundwork both emotionally and politically for resistance. In the first decade of the twentieth century, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood rose to prominence in the Gaelic League and the GAA. All these forces resulted in the creation of Sinn Fein. Writes one historian, “The Nationalist movement of the early twentieth century was born out of the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth century.”109
Gonne played a prominent role in the Revival. She created Inghidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) for women and girls to pursue Irish language, drama, and literature. She was also an active member of the Celtic Literary Society and the National Players Movement. She founded L’Irlande Libre, a journal dedicated to the Irish struggle. She also found time to illustrate books of Celtic folklore.
But the cultural work was not an end in itself for Gonne or for the movement as a whole. Her husband, John MacBride, took part in the Easter Rising and was executed for it. Gonne did time in Holloway Prison and after her release, she worked tirelessly for political prisoners. Some of these men had been in jail ten years without a single visit from anyone. Gonne was arrested again for smuggling supplies into Mountjoy Prison. She went on a hunger strike for thirty-one days, which nearly killed her, but she and the other strikers won some basic rights for prisoners. When the Republic Courts of Justice were organized to supersede the British courts, Gonne was elected and served as a judge. She also helped with the Irish White Cross, providing material relief to families in need after the War of Independence. She was nicknamed the Irish Joan of Arc, and it’s not hard to see why.
The Irish struggle didn’t set its culture and its resistance against each other. Instead, the Irish understood that each was necessary for the other. Gonne’s life stands as an example of the entire continuum of cultural work to serious direct action.
Gonne also produced a son, Seán MacBride, whose CV is at least as impressive as hers. At the age of fifteen, he signed on with the Irish Volunteers, and fought in the Irish War of Independence. He was against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and was arrested a number of times by the Irish Free State. He was personal secretary to Eamon de Valera, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, and served as both director of intelligence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and chief of staff. As a lawyer, he defended many IRA political prisoners throughout his career. In 1948, he was appointed to a cabinet position in the government as Minister of External Affairs. He played a decisive role in the repeal of the External Relations Act and the Declaration of the Republic, in which Ireland declared its independence from the British Commonwealth. During his tenure as minister, the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted, and he was a driving force behind its signing. He was also the main reason that Ireland refrained from joining NATO. He was a cofounder of Amnesty International; he drafted the first constitution of Ghana and the constitution of the Organization of African Unity; served as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and was appointed chairman of UNESCO. He lobbied the International Court of Justice to declare nuclear weapons illegal. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. The judges said he had “mobilized the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.” He never stopped. If most of us achieved even one of these things, we could probably die content. By all accounts he remained humble to the end.
This is a culture of resistance that worked. It created profound material changes in the organization of power by producing activists of courage and stamina across generations. We can look at political struggles through history and find similar patterns of activity. The actionists that we remember were formed by their context, by a culture of resistance. That culture forms actionists’ characters around a core set of values like courage, loyalty, and a commitment to justice. It gives them the intellectual tools needed for political consciousness. It weaves them into a social network of comradeship and belonging. And it encourages them in their acts of resistance by providing money, supplies, lawyers, and prisoner support. As the struggle takes shape, the people in the aboveground take on the tasks of building alternative institutions, ranging from schools to militias, institutions that will be needed when the oppressive system is brought down.
The environmental movement has made a choice, a choice we’re asking each reader to reevaluate against industrial culture’s relentless assault on our planet. The collective decision to date has been to reject the possibility of a serious resistance movement. That conclusion has been fostered by many cultural forces, some of which, as we have seen, go back centuries. Religious movements, from both East and West, have long declared the world a place of suffering and corruption, with withdrawal and personal salvation as the corrective activities. Classical liberalism, with its individualism and idealism, has also been a continuous drain of confusion and obstruction. The contemporary alternative culture, with its roots in the Lebensreform, Wandervogel, and Bohemian movements, has for over a hundred years been pulled between poles of confronting power and breaking boundaries, of fighting for justice on the one hand and displays of adolescent intensity on the other.