Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet

Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet

by Derrick Jensen

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The annual conference Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet features environmental thinkers and activists who are willing to ask the hardest questions about the seriousness of the planet’s situation, and this book presents an impassioned critique of the dominant culture from every angle. Speakers from the conference are featured


The annual conference Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet features environmental thinkers and activists who are willing to ask the hardest questions about the seriousness of the planet’s situation, and this book presents an impassioned critique of the dominant culture from every angle. Speakers from the conference are featured in this volume and include William Catton, who explains ecological overshoot; Thomas Linzey, who gives a fiery call for community sovereignty; Jane Caputi, who exposes patriarchy's mythic dismemberment of the goddess; Aric McBay, who discusses historically effective resistance strategies; and Stephanie McMillan, who takes down capitalism. One by one, they build an unassailable case that the rich should be deprived of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. These speakers offer their ideas on what can be done to build a real resistance movement: one that includes all levels of direct action that can actually match the scale of the problem. Also included are the speakers Derrick Jensen, Arundhati Roy, Rikki Ott, Gail Dines, Waziyatawin, Lierre Keith, and Nora Barrows-Friedman.

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"The voices here assert that it's past time for massive direct action to take down the rich and powerful." —Proto View

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PM Press
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Flashpoint Press Series
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Earth at Risk

Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet

By Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith

PM Press

Copyright © 2013 Derrick Jensen Lierre Keith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-819-7


Introduction by Derrick Jensen

"This collection of discussions is about the shift in strategy and tactics that has to happen if we want to build an effective resistance. It is about putting our bodies and our lives between the industrial system and life on the planet. It is about fighting back."

The dominant culture is killing the planet. It is long past time that those of us who care about life on earth begin to take the actions necessary to stop civilization from destroying every living being.

By now we all know the statistics and trends: 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, 97 percent of native forests have been destroyed, as have 98 percent of native grasslands. There is ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. Amphibian populations are collapsing, migratory songbird populations are collapsing, mollusk populations are collapsing, fish populations are collapsing, and so on. Have you noticed that you don't have to clean your windshield nearly as often as you used to? Even insect populations are collapsing. Two hundred species are driven extinct each and every day.

This culture destroys landbases. That's what it does. Iraq used to have cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touched the ground. One of the first written myths of this culture is about Gilgamesh deforesting the hills and valleys of Iraq to build a great city. The Arabian Peninsula used to be oak savannah. The Near East was heavily forested. We've all heard of the cedars of Lebanon. Greece was heavily forested. North Africa was heavily forested. This culture destroys landbases, and it won't stop doing so because we ask nicely. We don't live in a democracy. Think about it: do governments better serve corporations or living beings? Do judicial systems hold CEOs accountable for their destructive, often murderous acts?

Here are a couple of riddles that aren't very funny. Question: What do you get when you cross a long drug habit, a quick temper, and a gun? Answer: Two life terms for murder, earliest release date 2026. Question: What do you get when you cross two nation states, a large corporation, forty tons of poison, and at least eight thousand dead human beings? Answer: Retirement with full pay and benefits. That's what happened to Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide, which caused the mass murder at Bhopal.

Here's another way to say this: What do you call someone who conspires to put poison in the subways of Tokyo? You call him a terrorist and you put him in prison for life. What do you call someone who conspires to put poison in the groundwater of the United States? You call him Dick Cheney. Or oil and gas man, or fracker. Do the rich face the same judicial system as you or I? Does life on earth have as much standing in a court as does a corporation? We all know the answers to those questions. And we know in our bones, if not always our heads, that this culture won't undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.

If you care about life on the planet and if you believe the culture won't voluntarily cease to destroy it, how does that belief affect your methods of resistance? Most of us don't know because most of us don't talk about it.

At the Earth at Risk conferences of 2011 and 2012, leading environmental activists and thinkers gathered to talk about it. This collection of discussions from those days is about the shift in strategy and tactics that has to happen if we want to build an effective resistance. It is about putting our bodies and our lives between the industrial system and life on the planet. It is about fighting back.

* * *

Those who inherit whatever is left of the world once this culture has been stopped, whether through peak oil, economic collapse, ecological collapse, or the efforts of brave women and men resisting in alliance with the natural world, are going to judge us by the health of the landbase, by what we leave behind. They're not going to care how you or I lived our lives, how hard we tried, or whether we were nice people. They're not going to care whether we were violent or nonviolent. They're not going to care whether we grieve the murder of the planet. They're not going to care whether we were enlightened or not enlightened.

They're not going to care what sort of excuses we had to not act. I'm too stressed to think about it. It's too big and scary. I'm too busy. Those in power will kill me if I act against them. If I fight back, I run the risk of becoming like they are. But I recycled. You can substitute any of a thousand other excuses we've all heard too many times.

Those who come after us are not going to care how simply we lived. They're not going to care how pure we were in thought or action. They're not going to care whether we voted Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, or not at all. They're not going to care if we wrote really big books. They're not going to care whether we had compassion for the CEOs and politicians running the deathly economy. They're going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.

Every new study reveals that global warming is happening far more quickly than was previously anticipated. Scientists are now suggesting the real possibility of billions of human beings being killed off by what some are calling a "climate Holocaust." A recently released study suggests an increase in temperature of 16 degrees Celsius, or about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, by the year 2100. We're not talking about this culture killing the planet sometime in the far distant future. This is the future that children born today will see and suffer in their lifetimes. Is this culture worth more than the lives of your own children?

In The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton explored how it was that men who had taken the Hippocratic oath could lend their skills to prisons where inmates were worked to death or killed in assembly lines. He found that many of the doctors honestly cared for their charges and did everything within their power, which meant pathetically little, to make life better for the inmates. If an inmate got sick, they might give the inmate an aspirin to lick. They might put the inmate to bed for a day or two, but not for too long, or the inmate might be selected for murder. They might kill patients with contagious diseases to keep the diseases from spreading. All this made sense within the confines of Auschwitz. The doctors did everything they could to help the inmates, except for the most important thing of all: they never questioned the existence of Auschwitz itself. They never questioned working the inmates to death. They never questioned starving them to death. They never questioned imprisoning them. They never questioned torturing them. They never questioned poisoning them. They never questioned the existence of a culture that would lead to those atrocities. They never questioned the logic that leads inevitably to the electrified fences, the gas chambers, the bullets in the brain.

We as environmentalists do the same. We fight as hard as we can to protect the places we love using the tools of the system the best we can. Yet we don't do the most important thing of all: we don't question the existence of the whole death culture. We don't question the existence of an economic and social system that is working the world to death, starving it to death, imprisoning it, torturing it. We never question the logic that leads inevitably to clearcuts, murdered oceans, loss of topsoil, dammed rivers, and poisoned aquifers. And we certainly don't stop these horrors.

What do all the mainstream so-called solutions to global warming have in common? They take industrial capitalism as a given, and they operate on the assumption that the natural world must conform to industrial capitalism. That's literally insane in terms of being out of touch with physical reality, because without physical reality — without a real world — you don't have any economic system whatsoever. Any solution to global warming, any solution to any of these problems, has to take the real, physical world as a given, and understand that it is the social system that must conform to the real world.

I once asked an intelligent seven-year-old, "So what will it take to stop global warming, caused in great measure by the burning of oil and gas?" the seven-year-old answered, "Stop burning oil and gas!" And I said, "You are smarter than any environmentalist I've ever met." If you ask any reasonably intelligent thirty-five-year-old who works for a green, high -tech consulting corporation, you're going to receive an answer that actually helps the corporation more than the real physical world.

When most people in this culture ask, "How can we stop global warming?" they aren't really asking what they pretend they're asking. They're asking instead, "How can we stop global warming without stopping the burning of oil and gas, without stopping the industrial infrastructure, without stopping the whole omnicidal system?" You can't. Or when people ask, "How can we save the salmon?" The answer is actually pretty straightforward: remove dams, stop industrial logging, stop industrial fishing, stop the murder of the oceans, stop global warming. But of course, what they're really asking is, "How can we save salmon without removing dams, without stopping industrial logging, without stopping industrial fishing, without stopping the murder of the oceans, without stopping global warming?" The answer: you can't.

Here's another way to look at this. What would we do if space aliens had invaded this planet and they were vacuuming the oceans and cutting down native forests and putting dams on every river and changing the climate and putting dioxin and dozens of other carcinogens into every mother's breastmilk and into the flesh of your children, lover, mother, father, brother, sister, friends, and into your own flesh? If space aliens were doing all this, would you resist? If there existed a resistance movement, would you join it? If not, why not? How much worse would the damage have to get before you stopped those killing the planet, killing those you love, killing you?

Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are already gone. What is your threshold for resistance? Ninety-one percent? Ninetytwo? Ninety -three? Ninety-four? Would you wait until they killed off ninety-five percent? Ninety-six? Ninety-seven? Ninety-eight? Ninety-nine percent? How about one hundred percent? Would you fight back then?

* * *

People routinely approach me to tell me how their hope and despair have merged into one. Many have done everything they can to protect the places they love — everything, that is, except the most important thing of all: to bring down the culture itself. Now they want to go on the offensive. They want to stop this culture in its tracks, but they don't know how. The voices in this book take a step toward creating a culture of resistance, toward creating the conditions for salmon to be able to return, for songbirds to be able to return, for amphibians to be able to return.

Fighting back means first and foremost thinking and feeling for ourselves, finding who and what we love, and figuring out how best to defend our beloved, using the means that are appropriate and necessary. We must deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. We must defend and rebuild just and sustainable human communities nestled inside repaired and restored landbases. This is a vast undertaking, but it can be done. Industrial civilization can be stopped.

We need to take direct actions against strategic infrastructure, and we need to build direct democracies based on human and nonhuman rights and sustainable material cultures. The different branches of resistance movements must work in tandem — the aboveground and belowground, the militants and the nonviolent, the frontline activists and the cultural workers. We need it all.

Finally, we need courage. The word courage comes from the same root as coeur, the French word for "heart." We need all the courage of which the human heart is capable, forged into both weapon and shield to defend what is left of this planet.

The lifeblood of courage is, of course, love. So while these discussions from the Earth at Risk conferences are about fighting back, in the end they are really about love. The songbirds and the salmon need our love because they are disappearing, slipping into that longest night of extinction. It is up to us to build a resistance from whatever comes to hand: whispers and prayers, history and dreams, and our bravest words and actions. It will often seem impossible, but we'll have to do it anyway. With love as our first cause, how can we fail?


William Catton Jr.

"Can we change humanity's aspirations to make them less habitat-destructive, without ourselves becoming misanthropic in the process? We need a sense of modesty."

Derrick Jensen: William R. Catton has written one of the twentieth century's most important books: Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. William, do present economic troubles have important ecological implications that earlier hard times perhaps would not have had?

William Catton Jr.: I think that the problem with the economic view of the recession is epitomized by a statement by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He said that we are committing "intergenerational larceny." That's a good term: intergenerational larceny. We're stealing from future generations. Unfortunately, he was thinking simply in monetary terms, saying, "We've got to get the deficit down," and so on. If people would start thinking in terms of an ecological deficit, instead of just a monetary deficit, we'd be a lot closer to understanding what our real predicament is. We are committing intergenerational larceny in terms of what we're doing to the planet.

Take, for example, the Deepwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Most people did not really focus on the real problem there, which is that this resource that we say that we "need" is becoming so elusive that we have to go a whole mile down under the water, then drill another mile into the ground underneath that water, in order to access it. That has consequences. People in the oil industry have always been aware of oil gushers. When you strike a gusher, the pressure of the gas in the ground pushes the oil out. We should have expected that drilling underwater would be no different. We should have predicted that we'd have a gusher there in the Gulf of Mexico.

What we've got to learn from this is that the human species really has no right to punch holes in the bottom of the ocean. Oil "production" is a bad term. It should be "extraction." Humans didn't produce oil. Nature produced it. Millions of years ago, it was deposited safely underground where we couldn't reach it. Well, now we learned how to reach it, and that's why we're in trouble.

It is a fact of life that every organism and population must use the environment in three ways. Any organism has to use the environment as a source of sustenance, as a space in which it does its various activities, and as a disposal site, because we all produce something, in the process of living, that we want to get rid of. Now, in an overloaded world, this becomes a sad fact — sad as in S-A-D, which stands for Source, Activity, Disposal. I'm glad I was born in an English-speaking country, because that acronym doesn't work in other languages. Why is the fact that we all use the environment in three ways a sad fact in an overloaded world? Because it's impossible any longer to segregate each of those uses from the other two. We're in trouble because the three different uses increasingly interfere with each other.

Derrick: This question seems embarrassing, really, but given public discourse, I think it needs to be asked. Does a finite earth necessarily have ecological limits? What would you say are the most essential ecological ideas people need to know in order to understand present or future circumstances?

William: A finite earth necessarily does have ecological limits. People should open their minds and think, how is it that we can expect to go on increasing our numbers on a finite planet forever? If we are not worried at all about overdoing whatever we do, this implies that we think that it could go on forever.

For any kind of use of any particular environment, by any species, there is a rate or amount of such use that can be exceeded only by reducing the subsequent suitability of that environment for that use. If you stay below that level, then use can go on and on and on and on. But, if you exceed that level, you begin to destroy that habitat upon which you are dependent. This is true for all species. There can be too many of any particular species but, ecologically speaking, the interactions between the different species have tended to keep each other in some kind of balance. That is, until, Homo sapiens came along and learned ways of evading those natural restraints.

We need a good definition of carrying capacity. I began by defining it as simply the maximum sustainable load, but let's get a little more explicit. For ranchers and range managers, carrying capacity has been a familiar term for several generations. It is the maximum population of a given species that a particular environment can support indefinitely. You can exceed carrying capacity temporarily, but not permanently. What does "indefinitely" refer to there? It means the maximum load that can be supported without habitat damage. If you exceed the carrying capacity, you begin damaging the habitat.

Now, we humans are a very special species. We're special in the sense that we're the only species that could get together like this and talk, and by exchanging facts and insights achieve knowledge collectively that we might never discover individually. We're the only species that has extensive technology outside our own bodies. Darwin was fascinated by the fact that the different species of birds on the different Galapagos Islands had different shaped beaks for using different resources on the different islands. Well, their "technology" was part of their bodies. Humans have exosomatic technology, so it's as if humans are not just one species, but many species, depending on their equipment and how they are organized to use it. So, in the case of humans, carrying capacity is the maximum human population, equipped with a given assortment of technology and a given pattern of organization, that a particular environment can support indefinitely, without habitat damage. Since human habits vary among different human societies, a given environment will have different carrying capacities for different populations.


Excerpted from Earth at Risk by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith. Copyright © 2013 Derrick Jensen Lierre Keith. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Derrick Jensen is hailed as the philosopher poet of the ecological movement and is the acclaimed author of Endgame, How Shall I Live My Life?A Language Older Than Words, and Songs of the Dead, among many other books. He lives in Crescent City, California. Lierre Keith is a radical feminist activist, the author of The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, and a coauthor of Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. She lives in Arcata, California.

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