Now, contrast the colonial revolutionary movement to the current strategy proposed by many of the leaders of the radical environmental movement. There is much to learn from these people, some of whom are also kind and caring individuals, and all of whom are courageous in their insistence on telling the truth to a public virulent with ignorance. We agree on basic values of justice, compassion, and sustainability, on the horrors wrought by human entitlement, and on the fact that both a reduction of human population and the end of industrial civilization are inevitable.
Where we disagree is on the idea of resistance. Daniel Quinn, for instance, explains in a very accessible way why civilization is unsustainable and based on exploitation. He is very clear that we humans are in for a very ugly time in the next few decades, and for the 200 species we are driving extinct every day there is no time left. The main strategy he proposes, however, is withdrawal, which he calls “walking away.” To where? Well, there’s no actual place that he has in mind, but rather a state of mind. This would be like the Massachusetts patriots deciding they could have freedom in their heads while actual freedom from unjust taxation, corrupt courts, nondemocratic government, billeted soldiers, press gangs, and economic exploitation weren’t important or even achievable. The people of colonial America withdrew, but their withdrawal went well beyond a reframing of their intellectual and emotional loyalties. They engaged in acts of direct confrontation with power, to withdraw from the economic and political institutions that created their subordination. In the end, their withdrawal was so successful that it resulted in a war, though some historians argue that independence could have been won with the continued nonviolent techniques used to such great effect in Massachusetts.45
Quinn is worth quoting because his viewpoint is widely reflected across much of the left:
Because revolution in our culture has always represented an attack on hierarchy, it has always meant upheaval—literally a heaving up from below. But upheaval has no role to play in moving beyond civilization. If the plane is in trouble, you don’t shoot the pilot, you grab a parachute and jump. To overthrow the hierarchy is pointless; we just want to leave it behind.46
The metaphor of a plane in trouble is a bad fit to the situation the planet is facing. A more apt comparison would be a maniac with his finger two inches and closing above the red button. Would anyone really argue that “walking away” would be the order of the day?
To reframe the airplane image to the current crisis, the planet has to be included. Yet Quinn writes the planet out of the equation:
When we talk about saving the world, what world are we talking about? Not the globe itself, obviously. But also not the biological world—the world of life. The world of life, strangely enough, is not in danger (though thousands and perhaps even millions of species are). Even at our worst and most destructive, we would be unable to render this planet lifeless. At present it’s estimated that as many as two hundred species a day are becoming extinct, thanks to us. If we continue to kill off our neighbors at this rate, there will inevitably come a day when one of those two hundred species is our own.… Saving the world can only mean one thing: saving the world as a human habitat.47
First, humans can render this planet lifeless. A nuclear war could do it. So could the “methane burp” released by the melting of the Arctic tundra; our planet could soon be too hot to support life.
But second, and more importantly, why aren’t those 200 species a day worth fighting for? From the tiny snails building their perfect homes of logarithmic spirals to the great bears majestic with maternal rage, why don’t the lives of these creatures provoke a ferocious tenderness of protection and solidarity? Why are they only valued as human “habitat”?
I have heard variations on this position repeated everywhere: we can’t kill the planet; species loss is regrettable but inevitable; the best we can do is learn about permaculture so that me and mine might have some food when the crash arrives. I find this position morally reprehensible at a level that can’t be argued, only mourned. Surely somewhere in the human heart empathy, loyalty, and love are still alive. What is the meaning otherwise of that heart—or is a pump for oxygen all we have left of ourselves?
Pretend instead that Quinn’s plane is stocked with nuclear weapons—enough to kill every living creature on the planet—and the pilot intends to use them. Killing the pilot then becomes the urgent moral necessity of this thought experiment.
We have examples from recent events. The people on board the fourth plane in the September 11 attacks realized that the plane was intended as a weapon. They were dead anyway; their duty became to bring that plane down before it could be used to hurt anyone else. That is the situation we are in, on a massive scale, and life on Earth is at stake, 200 species at a time. Parachuting out to save only ourselves should not be the goal of a political movement worth the name, even if there were a safe place to which parachuting was possible.
Quinn’s only other strategy is education about the nature of civilization: “Teach a hundred people what you’ve learned here and urge each of them to teach a hundred.”48 As we have already seen, this is a deeply liberal understanding of social change. Certainly radicals believe in the strategic necessity of education, but that education is toward a goal of transforming material conditions of socially sanctioned subordination to material conditions of justice. This book, for instance, is an attempt at education, but it’s ultimately a call for direct confrontations with power. Quinn continues, “I know that nothing changes unless people’s minds change first. You can’t change a society by passing new laws—unless people see the necessity for new laws.”49 This statement is ignorant to the point of being bizarre. From the Thirteenth Amendment, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to antistalking, antirape, and sexual harassment laws, to the Clean Water Act, laws have profoundly changed society by forcing people to change their behavior, and providing for consequences when they don’t. Further, leaving laws out of the picture entirely, Georg Elser nearly stopped World War II all by himself. He did this neither by educating nor by changing laws, but by attempting to assassinate Hitler. He tried to change material conditions, not hearts and minds, and very nearly saved tens of millions of lives.
A related concept is the “lifeboat” idea, proposed by Richard Heinberg. Heinberg has probably done more than anyone to raise awareness about peak oil and resource depletion. His work is cogent, compelling, and compassionate. Where we differ is on the necessity of resistance. He proposes the “lifeboat” as an option for action, which he defines as “the path of community solidarity and preservation.”50 This would include learning basic survival skills for food production and other necessities; preserving scientific, historic, and cultural knowledge; and (re)developing social norms for democratic decision making. These tasks are all necessary, and indeed make up a large part of our concept of a culture of resistance, as well as a great deal of our hope for the best-case scenarios. But as with Quinn, it’s not enough. These activities have to be linked to both theoretical and public defense of resistance, and material support for actionists. To return to colonial Massachusetts as an example, the farmers already had basic survival skills, were inheritors of the knowledge of their time, and had strong local democracies in place. None of this alone stopped the British from subjugating them. That required resistance. But Heinberg doesn’t believe that resistance to industrial culture is possible or advisable. He writes, “Efforts to try to bring industrialism to ruin prematurely seem to be pointless and wrongheaded; ruin will come soon enough on its own. Better to invest time and effort in personal and community preparedness.”51 I don’t know why he thinks saving our relations—our parents and grandparents of plants and mycorrhizae, our cousins and siblings of birds and beasts—is pointless or wrongheaded. What indeed, in the whole history of human endeavor, could have more value than saving life itself? And ruin has already come to the Western black rhino and the Carolina parakeet. How many others have joined them in the forever of extinction since you started reading this book?
We can also contrast this fatalistic attitude with that of members of the German resistance to Hitler. After the Allied invasion of France, members of the resistance considered whether to call off their attempts to stop the Nazis; the war was lost, and the regime would be destroyed in any case. Yet they decided to risk their lives, and hundreds were tortured for their actions. They took those risks because, as Henning von Tresckow said, “Every day, we [the Germans] are assassinating nearly 16,000 additional victims.” This is not so much math as a grim moral equation, and the resistance chose to try and save those lives.
Note well what von Tresckow also said, “How will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?” Future history will judge us just as surely, if anything that could be called a future survives our lack of courage against this criminal culture.
I will be the first to admit that we are up against a system of vast power, global in scale, with no sympathetic population upon which to draw for either combatants or support. Still, if illiterate farmers armed only with pitchforks could face off against the most powerful empire that had ever existed—and win—surely we can aim higher than a goal of simply creating really great gardens.