This is the moment when we have to decide: does a world exist outside ourselves and is that world worth fighting for? Another 200 species went extinct today. They were my kin. They were yours, too. If we know them as such, why aren’t we fighting to save them with everything we’ve got?
You will find an answer to that question amongst some very earnest people, people who know that industrial civilization is killing the planet and who may hold deep wells of grief and despair in their hearts. They will try to convince you that political resistance is neither possible nor advisable. They have coalesced around the ideas of permaculture, simple living, and Transition Towns. What follows are the main arguments that the authors of this book have heard repeatedly from the Permaculture Wing of the environmental movement.
“The human race is now in its adolescent phase. We have to grow up.”
If this is true, then current destruction is inevitable, a natural part of the “life cycle” of humans as a species. Some people even claim that human destruction is part of the earth’s life cycle. We could spend hours trying to puzzle out the psychological needs motivating people to create such a narrative, but does it matter? Some of them have morally collapsed from despair, and to quote Isak Dinesen, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” Others are too attached to their comfortable lives to want them disrupted even though they can intellectually admit to the destruction embodied in their computer chips and housing suburbs. The third group are simply cowards: if human destructiveness is natural and inevitable, then it can’t be fought and they don’t have to risk anything. But the current destruction is not a developmental stage. The idea is offensive and condescending to all the cultures that have come before. Were they the “children” that led inevitably to glorious us?
And there are plenty of examples of cultures that didn’t destroy the living communities in which they participated. It’s only a few that have gone psychopathic. There’s nothing inevitable about any human culture. In fact, this argument doesn’t even work on its own merits: faced with an abusive or psychopathic adolescent, the first order of the day is still to stop him. In any case, this argument is pathologically narcissistic: the world is being murdered so we can learn some lessons? Only in an utterly insane culture could such an idea be conceptualized, much less given voice.
“The only way to change things is to change people’s hearts and minds individually.”
This is liberalism condensed to one sentence, and we have covered it previously. Movements for social change must have a program of popular political education. Successful movements get very good at it. But the point isn’t to change people one at a time; it’s to create a movement that can alter or abolish the institutions that organize power.
“Our assaults on [fill in the blank: empire, industrial civilization, patriarchy] won’t work unless we change the culture of endless destruction and consumption. The question is really one of how to change culture.”
This is a neat liberal trick that elides the nature of power, which is both sadistic and systematic. Imagine if blacks in the segregated South decided that changing “the culture” of segregation or “the hearts and minds of whites” was a workable strategy; they’d still be sitting at the back of the bus. What they attacked instead were some key instances of segregation in public accommodations. The Montgomery bus boycott was brilliant because blacks had economic leverage, and it was that economic power that brought down segregation on the buses. While the frontline activists were risking their lives at lunch counter sit-ins and registering voters, other activists were rallying for laws that would outlaw segregation and shift the balance of power. Hence the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And guess what? The culture changed. So did hearts and minds. A whole generation of now middle-aged people have never had to drink from a “colored” water fountain. One of them is even president. In parallel is a generation of white people whose psychology of entitlement and institutionalized ability to dehumanize blacks has been curtailed. That’s because structural change toward justice affects hearts and minds and does it on a broad scale. That’s why liberalism, with its focus on individual consciousness, will never change the world.
Even if your passion is to do that “cultural” work, you need to be thinking in terms of institutional power and how our movement is going to attack it. And we all need to stand with the people willing to take the biggest risks. But we haven’t got a chance in hell without facing the facts. It is possible that the Prime Minister of Monsanto or the Crown Prince of Porn will have a spiritual epiphany, but is it probable? A one in a billion chance is not a solid base on which to build a political strategy.
“We can’t stop them.”
This is the Om of the alternative wing. There can be understandable personal reasons for believing in the invincibility of an oppressive system. And there are certainly reasons that those in power want us to see them as invincible. Abusive systems, from the most simple to the most sophisticated, from the familial to the social and political, work best when the victims and bystanders police themselves. And one of the best ways to get victims and bystanders to police themselves is for those victims and bystanders to internalize the notion that the abusers are invincible. Even better is to get the victims and bystanders to proselytize about the abusers’ “invincibility” to anyone who threatens to break up the stable abuser-victim-bystander triad.
But those who believe in the invincibility of perpetrators and their systems are wrong. Systems of power are created by humans and can be stopped by humans. The people in power are never supernatural or immortal, and they can be brought down. People with a lot fewer resources collectively than any single one of us in rich countries have fought back against systems of domination, and won. There is no reason we can’t do the same.
But resistance starts by believing in it, not by talking ourselves out if it. And certainly not by trying to talk others out of it.
History provides many examples of successful resistance. So do current events. Right now, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has disabled 30 percent of the oil industry’s production in Nigeria, and the industry is considering pulling out altogether. If we had one hundredth of their courage and commitment to their land and community, we could do the same thing here. We have vastly more resources at our disposal, and the best we can come up with is, what, compost piles? The world is being killed and environmentalists think that riding bikes is some sort of answer?
“Because we feel such a strong need to fight, is it better to fight battles that we chronically lose just to fight?”
Leaving aside the fact that the environmental movement has never fought militantly in the US, and taking “fight” to be the more general idea of resistance, this is a question worth asking. Why are environmentalists content to use the same strategies when they are clearly not working (for example, attempting to “change the culture” through discourse or example: that was tried once or twice or a million times by indigenous peoples)? Why not talk about what really needs to happen to save this planet? Burning fossil fuels has to stop. This is not negotiable. You cannot negotiate with physical reality. It’s real.
Next, the infrastructure is vulnerable, as any reasonably informed member of a resistance movement—or any competent military strategist or historian—could tell us. Why not do what needs doing? Why are we not even discussing a serious strategy to save this planet?
A real culture of resistance would see that activities like biological remediation, the creation of local food networks, and teaching people self-sufficiency skills are part of a larger struggle to actually save the planet. Those activities should not be at odds with political resistance; they should be nestled inside each other in mutually nourishing and encouraging ways. Instead, the lifestylists take every opportunity to shut down discussion about action, actively discouraging a resistance movement from forming.
“We need to question some basic assumptions about how the culture has taught us to fight. We need to think outside the cultural box.”
We agree. And three of those basic assumptions are that (a) resistance is futile; (b) the most meaningful resistance today is lifestyle change that can stand as an example; and (c) the physical structures that allow the psychopaths to run this culture are somehow immutable and cannot be physically dismantled.
Meanwhile, a very small group of half-starved, poverty-stricken people in Nigeria have brought the oil industry in that country to its knees. They remember what it is to love their land and their communities. Perhaps because they are not drowning in privilege, but in the toxic sludge of oil extraction. MEND has said to the oil industry: “It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it.” And they are actualizing that.
Andrea Dworkin once said, “I found that it is always better to fight than not to fight, always no matter what.”110 This is the last moment to feel that passion, to defend whatever you love as a form of grace. Far too many people on the left claim that resistance never works. Some combination of cynicism, despair, ignorance, and cowardice has taken hold and even taken root. Some of the claimants have a solid radical analysis of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, civilization. They understand that the planet is being killed, that all we hold dear is under assault.
And yet. Resistance—its possibility, its activation—is unthinkable. These people obstruct any attempt to conceptualize how resistance to industrial civilization or, indeed, any form of oppression, could be organized. There are historical reasons for this: the obstructors do not act alone. Behind them are the Adamites, the Ranters, the Romantics, the Bohemians, and the Wandervogel, and some borrowings from Buddhism, building a cultural framework that channels despair, alienation, and even analysis away from direct action and toward individual life. That life may be built on quiet contemplation and good works, on the outraging of mores and boundaries, or on poetic suffering, but it’s not built on confronting systems of power. Without a culture of resistance, alternative cultures and the antipolitical values they promote are all that the alienated and oppressed will find, and they aren’t enough. Trees need rain; resistance needs a culture.