Reviewed by Chuck Fager
In early August 2012, a large Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California was hit by an explosion and fire, disrupting production of as much as 240,000 barrels a day.
About two weeks later, at the huge Amuay refinery in Venezuela, an explosion and fire killed more than forty people and shut down the processing of over 600,000 barrels of oil a day.
Venezuelan officials claimed that the refinery was back in operation by early September, pumping out forty percent of the previous total, with more expected as repairs continue. In California, however, industry experts said it could be months before the Chevron refinery resumes full production. By early October, gasoline prices in California were breaking records, in many places topping $5 per gallon.
Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, then locked in a tight race for re-election, suggested that sabotage might be involved in the Amuas blast, and pointed at the U.S. Special Forces troops operating from neighboring Colombia as prime suspects.
Maybe. But I want to point at another candidate: the Oil Industry Destruction Team, not from the American Special forces, but from the Deep Green Resistance (DGR). To wit: “In this scenario, well-organized underground militants would make coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world. These would take whatever tactical form militants could muster actions against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries . . . .” (439)
Actually, I made up the “Oil Industry Destruction Team.” But not the Deep Green Resistance – or their desire to blow up the oil industry’s key installations. Further, while the DGR saboteurs would consider five dollar gasoline a modest success, it would only be a small step on their path. That’s because their larger objective, spelled out several times in these pages, is this: “We want, in no uncertain terms, to bring down civilization.” Or, as in the section on “Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy”: “Goal 1: To disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization; to thereby remove the ability of the powerful to exploit the marginalized and destroy the planet.”
In this “Decisive Ecological Warfare,” the energy infrastructure–oil, gas, coal– will provide a central set of targets. The plan is to mount enough attacks on enough critical points in the grid and associated networks that the whole network crumbles: “The overall thrust . . .would be to use selective attacks to accelerate collapse in a deliberate way, like shoving a rickety building.” (433)
But wait a second. What about all the people – scores of millions in the U.S. alone– who depend on this infrastructure for their very lives?
Good question. It is posed explicitly in the book: “If we dismantle civilization, won’t that kill millions of people in cities?” a reader asks, on page 422. “What about them?”
Ah, yes. Well, you see: they’re part of the problem. So they, and the farms that sustain them, have to go. In a target list of “All activities that destroy living communities must cease, forever,” coauthor Lierre Keith notes that: “It includes agriculture and it includes life in cities.” (194) Besides, it turns out all those urban dwellers are not actually innocent after all. Co-author Derrick Jensen pronounces the verdict: “No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and nonhumans the planet over.” (422)
Yet even though all urbanites are guilty, we shouldn’t think our authors are unmindful of the human cost of this sudden, forced collapse. We are assured that they agonize over the “wrenching ethical decisions” such attacks will raise: “If there are people between us and our targets, they are not soldiers. We can say [and they do say–CF] that civilization is a war against the living world, but that does not answer the moral dilemma of putting living beings at risk. I [co-author Lierre Keith] have no answer, only an emergency the size of land, sea and sky. . . . No one who does not feel the burden of the moral risks of serious action should be making these decisions. Extremism has its own addictive thrills; violence feeds masculinity too easily, and the human heart is quite capable of justifying atrocity. And I know that decisions have to be made, life and death decisions, the decisions of the desperate.” (497, 499)
So, for instance, if the Amuas explosion were the result of DGR sabotage, the perpetrators would have figured that the 40-plus people it killed were an acceptable cost in terms of “collateral damage.” And in the full-on campaign of “Decisive Ecological Warfare” as envisaged by these authors (425ff), the casualty toll would amount to 40 with several zeroes added. Several.
Oops– did I forget to mention that I picked up Deep Green Resistance on the book table of a strongly green-oriented Yearly Meeting this past summer? The thesis and authors were entirely new to me. But once open, I couldn’t shut the book; bought it and read it from cover to cover.
As a writer, I’m something of a fanatic about freedom of the press and freedom to read. So I would not propose banning books. Nevertheless, standing at the book table, turning the pages in something like a state of shock, I wondered how a Quaker bookstore manager would feel about helping disseminate the ideas and plans that Deep Green Resistance laid out.
I wondered because, to be strictly accurate, I had encountered many of the ideas in it before – not in a Quaker setting, but in my day job, witnessing for peace near a large U.S. military base which hosts many of the most secretive and ruthless killer units of our war machine. These units excel in exactly the skills, such as clandestine sabotage, that these authors recommend and say they are working to attract and, pardon the expression, refine in the service of destroying industrial civilization.
Having browsed at many book tables at many Quaker gatherings, I can’t recall seeing such a manifesto and textbook on one of them before. It is jarring to find, across from Woolman’s Journal, Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, and tracts extolling pacifism, a book which favorably referenced the Special Forces Guerrilla Warfare handbook, the Sabotage Manual of the pre-CIA OSS. It hails the IRA terror campaigns, along with the French Resistance and the Algerian rebels, as models of action on their intensely felt “concern,” and dispassionately analyzes the proper uses of assassination, and the necessity to “eliminate” (i.e., murder) informants, infiltrators, or those who leave the underground groups with critical identifying information.
In military terms, especially in the U.S. clandestine units, none of this is unusual; DGR’s authors have done this part of their homework well. For Quakers – well, not so much. (I hope.)
Yet if you look past the surface of Quaker history, there are analogues. Who else has read of Abraham Lincoln writing to Eliza Gurney in 1864, as the Civil War raged:
“Your people – the Friends – have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other.”
And it was so: many young male Friends chose the “horn” of joining the Union army, where they saw and took part in unspeakable violence.
Or what of the Quaker magistrates who ruled Rhode island in 1675, when an Indian terror war engulfed the colony, and most of eastern New England? How were they to uphold their peace testimony while discharging their official duties to protect the citizenry at large? In that case, they did two things: they passed the first Conscientious Objection law for their brethren of “tender conscience” as to bearing arms; then they went to war, joining the campaign which won the war and destroyed much of what was left of Indian culture in their region.
In both these cases (as later in World Wars One and Two), many Friends came to believe that an imminent emergency on their very doorstep required a response which included violence – not just the force of self-defense, but the organized violence of warfare.
So let me not retreat into naivete: dealing with actual wars up close has often been difficult for otherwise dedicated Friends. Thus the question becomes: are we in such an emergency situation now, with regard to the environment? And if so, is guerrilla war aimed at destroying civilization the proper and faithful response?
In DGR, the authors’ answers, of course, are Yes, and Hell, Yes! They make their case forcefully, in detail, and with a seemingly well-organized, coherent argument. I have to hand it to them: they take the tenor and content of much doomsday ecological rhetoric, and follow the logic out to the end, or at least, one end.
At points they almost had me nodding in agreement that it might indeed be better if nine-tenths of the world’s humans would hurry up and perish in the wake of these guerrilla/saviors’ intended infrastructure destruction, so the survivors could flourish quietly in the scattered, feminist-oriented, eldergoverned hunter-gatherer villages that they foresee in their place. (26) There they’ll follow the new religion that Lierre Keith says we must invent to replace the irredeemably sexist traditional faiths, especially the hopelessly misogynist Abrahamic religions. (160)
Almost nodding? Forgive me; that was an exaggeration for stylistic effect. Once I read through the entirety of their plans and saw where they were headed, my reaction was similar to others mentioned dismissively in passing: they were talking a “Pol Pot-styled genocide,” but on a much larger scale; which they acknowledged that “the authors of this book are often accused of suggesting.” (225)
The accusation has merit. If they could, these selfappointed world saviors are prepared to kill off 95 percent of humanity to impose their vision of how the remnant ought to live: they insist that “we face a decision, individually and as a resistance movement. Because a small number of people could directly target that [industrial] infrastructure; a few more, willing to persist, could potentially bring it down.” (110)
Co-author Aric McBay puts it this way: “A drop in the human population is inevitable, and fewer people will die if collapse happens sooner. . . . Therefore, those of us who care about the future of the planet have to dismantle the industrial energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible. We’ll all have to deal with the social consequences as best we can. Besides, rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans – even if there’s a partial die-off – because at least some people survive.” (439) And Lierre Keith gets coy: “The authors of this book have been accused of suggesting genocide: meanwhile, the genocide is happening now.” (502)
Does this make sense? Consider: life is a terminal condition; over time, the fatality rate is always one hundred percent. But if we’re all going to die eventually, does that make it okay for somebody to intentionally kill you, or me, or our children, now, to achieve some anticipated future benefit?
Such early, induced deaths do happen, of course; normally, we call them murders. When they happen on an industrial scale, it’s genocide. And urging the elimination of ninety to ninety-five percent of human life by intentional action qualifies as genocide squared in my book.
But, they promise, their genocide will be better than “ours,” that is, the planetary damage inflicted by the current system. And besides, remember that they promise to feel bad over the “wrenching ethical decisions” involved in carrying out their program. Indeed.
I had to get past the mind-boggling scale of this scheme, which wasn’t easy, before I could respond to the underlying chain of reasoning. Once I did, however, many features of it became familiar. So familiar, in fact, they were almost hackneyed. I’ve lived through similar arguments, and their calamitous consequences, at least twice in my adult life.
First of all, a key premise of their program is that nothing less will or can be “effective;” all else is mere talk or escapism. And to give them their due, they present often incisive critiques of many other approaches to the environmental damage of our present course. Yet the record of their violence-based approach is not subjected to the same scrutiny.
But it needs to be: Guerrilla insurgencies often fail, with great and pointless loss of life. And where others have initially succeeded (as, for instance, in Zimbabwe, Algeria or, dare I say it, Pol Pot’s Cambodia), they have often produced new regimes as destructive and repressive as (or worse than) anything that went before.
The authors’ response is that, no matter how flawed their plan might be, the present course is unimaginably worse, and its future bound to be even more destructive.
But here another question comes into view: in saying that, they are claiming to know the future, at least of the current trajectory. But do they?
In this case, one can be definite: no, they don’t. Nobody does, after all. And the limits of the authors’ prescience are shown by the fact that when they venture into actual prediction, they run smack into the Harold Camping problem. (Camping, one will recall, was the radio preacher who put up billboards nationwide announcing Judgment Day and the End of Time in May or October of 2011.) In DGR, they cite a confident prediction that by “2012″ there will be “an epidemic of permanent blackouts [that] spreads worldwide . . . .”(42)
Well, 2012 is more than three-quarters over as this is written, and while it has seen its share of natural disasters, Judgment Day has yet to arrive, and the lights are still going on in most places that have electricity. More unsettling, this year the U.S. appears to be on its way to producing more energy rather than less. So like preacher Camping, the DGR Endtimes scenario deserves to be taken with a grain of salt. Or maybe a shaker full. Further, not knowing the future undercuts their forecast in another way: in many areas of the world, population is dropping even without genocidal attacks; so there may be hope for a softer landing than they envision. Similarly, technology is advancing in many areas related to energy use. Is it really impossible, unthinkable that technology, which largely got us into our current environmental fix, might be able to help us figure out how to, at least, muddle through it? Sometimes I feel pessimistic too; but not always, and who can be sure?
Next, there is the problem of the vanguard. People, the authors declare, cannot be counted on to do the right thing, either in society generally, and certainly not regarding the planet. “The vast majority of the population will do nothing,” declares Keith, “unless they are led, cajoled, or forced.” (26) Only the latter option will now serve, they insist, and thus they are ready to shoulder the unwelcome burden of coercion. Not that the authors plan to blow up the refineries and power grid themselves, you understand; but they expect to inspire and attract those cadres who will actually “shove the rickety building” of industrial civilization, and the billions of us living in it, over the cliff.
Moreover, they are confident that, despite the inevitable and regrettable “collateral damage,” their violence will be different, and better than that of the status quo. Keith, a determined feminist, is particularly confident of this, insisting that “violence is a broad category of action; it can be wielded destructively or wisely. . . .We can build a resistance movement and a supporting culture in which atrocities are always unacceptable; in which penalties for committing them are swift and severe; in which violence is not glorified as a concept but instead understood as a specific set of actions that we may have to take up, but that we will also set down to return to our communities . . . .We need our combatants to be of impeccable character for our public image, for the efficacy of our underground cells, and for the new society we’re trying to build. . . . . Only people with a distaste for violence should be allowed to use it.” (83)
Well, good luck with that. After my decade of watching U.S. combat forces returning from the current wars, I’ve seen too many once-idealistic youths of good character reduced to a state in which suicides outnumber combat deaths, rapes and domestic violence are rampant, along with drug abuse and alcoholism. Reports from other war-torn countries reinforce these observations. (The technical phrase for this, if I recall correctly, is, “War is Hell.”) So count me as deeply skeptical about developing a new, civilized variety of deep green violence.
And when it comes to their scenario for “Decisive Ecological Warfare,” the forecasts, while well-informed at one level, follow a path that is all-too-familiar, and disastrous.
Consider the recent case of Iraq: we were confidently told that Saddam Hussein was as bad as Hitler or worse; that he certainly had WMDs and was ready to use them against us; that all nonviolent responses to his regime were hopeless or naive; that dissenters from the plan to remove him were uninformed, foolish, and/or terrorist sympathizers; that while there would be some unavoidable civilian casualties, these would be strictly minimized and the airstrikes surgical; that our troops would be greeted with cheers as liberators; and the good we would accomplish would far outweigh any harm done. Meanwhile, the war would be cheap, and quickly pay for itself.
How did it turn out? US officials and combat commanders didn’t know as much about Hussein or Iraq as they thought; they completely misjudged the internal balance of forces in the country, and unleashed terrible waves of internecine bloodletting (which continue, almost ten years later); the war produced millions of refugees; the planners grossly underestimated the war’s cost, both in blood and treasure; and grossly over-estimated the US forces’ ability to direct events. They lost control of the violence, and saw their idealistic pronouncements descend into the moral sewers of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and black site torture prisons. And after them all have come the killer drones.
The U.S. lost the Iraq war. Thirty-five years earlier, after a decade of fighting similar in many respects, it had likewise lost the Vietnam war. It will soon lose the Afghanistan war as well.
All of which brings a new and decidedly colder light to the bedrock issue of “effectiveness.” The authors insist that nothing less than an eco-war, spread across an area vastly larger than Iraq can “effectively” end human damage to the environment. They will end the damage with a new kind of feminist-informed, genteel violence, that will bring down civilization while somehow minimizing harm to the innocent. The short-term human cost, they inconsistently admit (but shrug off) will be huge; but the few survivors will thank these revolutionaries in the end.
How feasible is this plan to smash civilization with guerrilla strikes on infrastructure? Frankly, it looks to me like a steep mountain to climb. The world is a big place; there’s an awful lot of infrastructure, and it’s not all linked together. Much of it is also very resilient: large pieces have come back from major shocks.
The 9-11 attacks are a prime example here: yes, they do fit the small-scale covert model: a handful of fanatics did bring down the twin towers, killed more than 2000, and traumatized the nation. No question, that attack was a very big deal.
But look also at what it did NOT accomplish: 9-11 didn’t crash the U.S. economy (it took our own feral financiers to do that, several years later, and not with underwear bombs, but with paper and glowing computer screens, from plush corner offices). Nor did 9-11 crush the US military, or paralyze the government; even major league baseball was only interrupted for a week.
So: 9-11 was a historic terrorist trauma, yes; but it came nowhere near shoving the US over the edge of any abyss. It suggests that bringing down civilization, even just America’s flawed version of it, is a much bigger undertaking. A much bigger war. Is this really almost within the reach of “a small number of people,” and needing only “a few more, willing to persist” to “bring it down.” (110) Again, I doubt it.
Which raises one final query: what do the authors know of war, real war, beyond what they have read? There is no indication of direct experience among any of the three.
So let me be plain: DGR’s plan is fantasy. Dangerous fantasy. And folly. But a potentially seductive folly, particularly in certain credulous corners of our society. The authors appear to be aiming their thick volume squarely at younger readers, particularly those clustered around hippie enclaves and liberal college towns. In their recounting of how the “decisive” warfare will go down, they list as centers of resistance Asheville, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; Eugene, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Berkeley; Lawrence, Kansas; Northampton, Massachusetts; and Ithaca, new York: hip college towns all, with only one in the Ivy League. In midsummer of 2012, a DGR recruiting roadshow traveled north from Florida to Washington DC, stopping at several college towns and activist collectives, where they shared a summary of the book. The tour team was five young people, who faithfully called for the development of underground groups to bring down civilization, for our own good.
Can anything be salvaged from this DGR false gospel? Perhaps. To the extent that it contributes to the growth of what it calls “a culture of resistance” to environmental degradation, there could be some positive potential. Such “cultures of resistance” need not be part of mass death cults such as DGR envisions. Quakerism has, in time of persecution and war, sometimes performed similar functions. This history has not escaped our authors’ notice: they mention Quakers several times as examples of such a resistance culture.
The attention is flattering, but caution is called for. Environmental concern is widespread among Friends today; but I urge us to clearly distinguish this concern from the genocidal pretensions and rhetoric of the DGR approach. There are practical as well as religious reasons for this.: DGR’s dreams of “shoving the rickety building” of industrial civilization into collapse by sabotage and violence are not only unhinged, they are also a recipe for legal trouble, both for participants and their fellow travelers. Co-author Keith refers to the “Green Scare” (170), a series of federal indictments and trials of environmental underground activists in the western states for arson and other crimes involving animal farms, horticultural facilities, housing developments, cell phone towers and other targets. The authors expect more government crackdowns, and I believe they’re quite right to do so. But if Quakers are going to face persecution, let it not be for such a crackpot scheme.
Nevertheless, I predict this book will have a long shelf life, and a spreading influence. Parts of it could make a valuable study guide even for many who can see through and set aside the grandiose illusions of their planned eco-armageddon. This would include the preponderance of liberal Friends, who subscribe to one or another of the ecological transformation schemes described and challenged in its pages. The work of understanding this “deep green” version, sifting out what’s valuable in its critiques, and understanding its limits, already glimmering in the flames of the Chevron and Amuay refineries, will be a useful and enlightening exercise.
Maybe that’s why the book was on the yearly meeting’s book table.
*Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric Mcbay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen. Seven Stories Press, 560 pages