More info: http://endciv.com
Derrick Jensen official site: http://www.derrickjensen.org
More info on the in-progress “End:Civ” at submedia. The film is based on the work and thought of anti-civilization author/activist Derrick Jensen, who was interviewed at length by Jay Babcock in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006). That interview is available online, here. (We have very, very few copies of Arthur No. 23 in stock. They are available for $100 each at the Arthur store, here.)
May 6 — Henry David Thoreau
Celebrant of uncomplicated natural life, the future primitive.
MAY 6, 2009 HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
*Feast of the Fiery Flying Roll.
ALSO ON MAY 6 IN HISTORY…
1626 — Dutchman Peter Minuit purchases Manhattan Island from natives.
1812 — Black emancipationist Martin Robinson Delany born, Virginia.
1856 — Psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud born, Vienna, Austria.
1861 — Bengali writer, educator, Rabindranath Tagore born, Calcutta, India.
1862 — Back-to-the-land advocate Henry David Thoreau dies, Concord, Mass.
1915 — Filmmaker Orson Welles born, Kenosha, Wisconsin.
1919 — Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum dies, Hollywood, California.
1935 — WPA established in FDR’s New Deal; State as make-work employer.
1937 — Zeppelin Hindenburg explodes over Lakehurst, New Jersey.
1970 — Yuchiro Miura of Japan skis down Mount Everest.
1992 — Film actress, recluse Marlene Dietrich dies, Paris, France.
Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective
by Matt Rasmussen
from Orion Magazine – January/Feb 2007
Radical environmentalists are caught between their love of the Earth, trespass of the law and the U.S. government’s war on terror
PEOPLE LIKE TO THINK of the courtroom as a crucible of justice, but to me it’s always seemed a diluter of passions. The atmosphere is restrained, so respectful and genteel it’s easy to forget that people’s lives hang in the balance. The system has a way of straining out emotion. It is designed to objectify, to control the soaring passions that created the need for the courtroom in the first place. The perpetrators and the victims pour their passions into the settling ponds of the attorneys, and the attorneys, in turn, pour the diluted stuff into the deep vessel of the judge, and, by extension, into the even deeper water of The System.
If you sat in the gallery of a federal courtroom in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, last summer and watched as six young men and women entered guilty pleas in a string of environmentally motivated arsons—crimes that the federal government describes as the most egregious environmental terrorism in the nation’s history—you might have wondered where the passion had gone. One by one, in a windowless chamber, the defendants answered perfunctory questions posed by Judge Ann Aiken, who sat Oz-like in the highest chair. One by one, they listened to descriptions of the crimes they were accused of committing. One by one, they accepted the government’s offer of plea bargains, and one by one, they said the word.
Kevin Tubbs, thirty-seven, an animal rights activist who migrated to Eugene from Nebraska, mumbled the word and shook his head. Kendall Tankersley, twenty-nine, who holds a degree in molecular biology, choked it out through a gathering sob. Stanislas Meyerhoff, twenty-nine, who wants to study auto mechanics, said it with an odd sort of let’s-get-this-over-with politeness. They addressed Judge Aiken as “your honor” and “ma’am.”
In the gallery, reporters scribbled. Federal prosecutors with American flag pins affixed to somber blue suits looked on dispassionately. Sentencing dates were set, and the prosecutors, seeking lengthy terms, asked the judge to employ guidelines issued under counter-terrorism laws when considering how much time each should serve.
The crimes to which the six confessed included seventeen attacks, all but one of them arson or attempted arson. The actions took place in five western states between 1996 and 2001. No one was injured. Sport utility vehicles were burned at a Eugene car dealership. So was a meat-packing plant in Redmond, Oregon. Other targets included federal facilities in Wyoming and California and Oregon, where wild horses and burros were let loose and buildings burned down. And in the most notorious action, a spectacular nighttime blaze high in the Rockies destroyed several structures at the Vail ski area. Many of the attacks were followed by communiqués issued under the banner of the Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy, leaderless offshoot of the group Earth First!, and by its sister group, the Animal Liberation Front.
Prosecutors say those who did the crimes took extraordinary means to conceal their involvement. They met in secret gatherings they called “book club” meetings, discussing details such as computer security, target surveillance, and lock-picking. They required that each attendee describe actions they took to avoid detection while traveling to the meeting sites. They used nicknames and code words. They called their criminal actions “camping trips,” and dubbed the timing devices they attached to incendiary bombs “hamburgers.”
“Terrorism is terrorism—no matter the motive,” FBI director Robert Mueller said in January 2006, after the Bush administration announced indictments in an investigation it calls Operation Backfire. “The FBI is committed to protecting Americans from all crime and all terrorism, including acts of domestic terrorism on behalf of animal rights or the environment.”
Many were appalled. How could anyone possibly use that singularly loaded word to describe these acts? Where is the moral equivalence between burning an SUV in the dead of night (and doing as much as you can, given the nature of the business at hand, to see that no one gets hurt) and ramming a 767 into a skyscraper? When Eugene’s daily newspaper, the Register-Guard, used the word eco-terrorism to describe the investigation, at least one reader took its editors to task, writing that the paper “appears to confuse arson occurring within the context of a nonviolent campaign with terrorism.” The paper opted for the softer-sounding eco-sabotage thereafter.
Chelsea Dawn Gerlach is twenty-nine now. Under the terms of her plea bargain, she’ll likely spend ten years in prison—assuming she cooperates with government prosecutors as they continue their investigation. If she had been found guilty at trial of all the government had accused her of, she could have been given a life sentence. (Federal prosecutors are seeking life sentences for the majority of those indicted in the Operation Backfire investigation, yet, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the average sentence for arsonists in 2003 was just around seven years.) Along with Meyerhoff, Gerlach is an alum of South Eugene High, a school with a sterling reputation in the heart of Eugene’s liberal, affluent south side. In fact, all six of those who entered guilty pleas had close ties to Eugene, as did four others who awaited trial at the time of this writing and three more who had fled the country.
By the time she was in her early twenties, Gerlach had come to believe that Western culture was having a ruinous effect on the global environment, that the Earth faced environmental catastrophe. She felt compelled to do something about it. At some point, passion and frustration drove her over the boundary of her country’s laws. Playing by the rules, it seemed, was doing no damn good. At some point, according to the details of her plea bargain, she found herself at the base of Vail Mountain, watching flames light the night sky, awaiting the return of another ELF operative, Bill Rodgers, who had set the fires. Two days later, she found herself at the Denver Public Library, composing a claim of responsibility on a computer that couldn’t be traced to her. The message said ELF took the action “on behalf of the lynx,” whose habitat would be harmed by an expansion at Vail. “For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion,” Gerlach wrote.
Skiers did not stop coming to Vail. The arson attack sparked a wildfire of popular condemnation that was directed toward those responsible and, by unfair association, toward more mainstream environmentalists who had also been fighting the expansion. Ultimately, Vail’s owners got $12 million from their insurers and the expansion whistled through.
Last summer, in that Eugene courtroom, Gerlach reached her day of reckoning with the system. She, too, said the word. “Guilty.” Then she asked the judge if she could read a statement. Gerlach, who has straight black hair and a round, welcoming face, gathered herself and took a deep breath. The words tumbled out in a rush:
“These acts were motivated by a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment and the escalating inequities within society. But I realized years ago this was not an effective or appropriate way to effect positive change. I now know that it is better to act from love than from anger, better to create than destroy, and better to plant gardens than to burn down buildings.”
Gerlach admitted to participating in nine of the seventeen attacks described in the government’s indictment. In addition to the Vail arson, she served as a lookout as other operatives put incendiary devices next to a meat-packing plant in Eugene; she tried to burn down a Eugene Police Department substation; she participated in an ELF arson that did more than $1 million in damage at an Oregon tree farm that grew genetically modified poplar trees; she helped topple an electrical transmission tower in the sagebrush-and-juniper country east of Bend. And on Christmas night in 1999, she sat in a van that she and her friends had named “Betty” and served as lookout as others placed buckets of diesel fuel next to a Boise Cascade office in Monmouth, Oregon. The buckets ignited and destroyed an eight-thousand-square-foot building, doing $1 million in damage. Then Gerlach sent out an ELF communiqué: “Let this be a lesson to all greedy multinational corporations who don’t respect ecosystems. The elves are watching.”
THE FIRST TIME I CAME TO EUGENE I wondered what all the fuss was about. I knew its reputation well—a university town, a hotbed of liberal activism, home to Ken Kesey and other ’60s holdouts. But when I drove through the arterials and back streets on the north side of the city I realized that much of Eugene is just plain old suburbia—ranch homes, tidy lawns, and conservative values.
After a decade of living and working in Eugene, I know this about the place: It’s a slice of America, profoundly divided along fault lines of politics, values, and culture. On the south side of the Willamette River, which bisects the city, you’ll find the liberal Eugene of renown, full of University of Oregon faculty and tie-dyed hippies who attend the freewheeling Oregon Country Fair each July. Conservative Eugene is on the north side of the river, full of satellite dishes and American flags and folks who favor the traditional charms of the Lane County Fair in August.
There are divisions within the divisions, just as there are in America at large. There are monied fiscal conservatives and working-class Bush supporters. There are affluent liberals who vote Democrat and there are the more disheveled activists who have no patience for the compromises made by mainstream liberals. Those who committed the ELF arsons, and their supporters, come from this latter milieu.
If there is a physical heart of the radical environmental movement in Eugene, it is a leafy precinct of old wooden houses just west of downtown, known as the Whiteaker neighborhood. An outsider—someone from, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or St. Petersburg, Florida, or Provo, Utah, or from any of a thousand bastions of conventional American culture, including many corners of Eugene—might fixate on a curbside cardboard box offering “free stuff,” or a do-your-own-thing piece of art in a front yard, a dreadlocked couple strolling hand in hand, a FUCK BUSH sign, a flash of tattooed flesh, a braless woman, a pair of ratty Carhartt cutoffs, a pierced tongue, eyebrow, nose, belly button, or neck, and feel a skosh uncomfortable.
Whiteaker rose to national prominence in 1999, after perhaps a couple dozen of its residents—young adults who described themselves as anarchists—helped foment the lawlessness at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. Suddenly “the Eugene anarchists” were a cause célèbre. Reporters from the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and other major outlets descended on Eugene, their editors demanding analysis pieces explaining what the hell had happened in Seattle. In Eugene, there was a good deal of uneasy eye-rolling. Local civic leaders reacted with a mix of revulsion and denial to the notion that their city was Anarchy Central. The consensus was that the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.
No one knows how many anarchists there really are in Whiteaker; they don’t keep membership rolls. At least some of those who donned black garb in Seattle were kids doing what kids the world over often do: immerse themselves in an adrenaline-charged cause that’s greater than oneself. Not all of Eugene’s anarchists are callow youths, though. Some are genuine, steadfastly committed, and deep-thinking.
Eugene’s brand of anarchy is “green anarchy.” Unlike old-style industrialist anarchists, green anarchists are primarily concerned with the effects of civilization on the global environment. They are more radical in their thought than, say, Marxists are. They would certainly agree that capital accumulates in a fashion that creates a wealthy elite at the expense of the exploited masses, but their critique goes far beyond that. Their central precept is not that civilization needs to be reconstructed, but rather that it needs to be overthrown in its entirety and never replaced. Things started to go wrong, they contend, when humans first domesticated plants and animals.
The nexus between the green anarchists, the Earth Liberation Front, and those ensnared in the government’s investigation is not perfect. Several of the defendants don’t claim to be advocates of the green anarchy movement now, if they ever were. And some of them, it seems, had not thought through the intellectual justifications of their actions in a formal sense—perhaps they just felt in their gut that things like SUVs and animal slaughterhouses and plantations that grow genetically modified trees were wrong. Whatever their motivations, their actions and rhetoric match up quite well with the principles of the green anarchist philosophy.
If they are in need of intellectual mentorship, Eugene’s green anarchists have a resource close at hand. John Zerzan is in his sixties, a graduate of Stanford and San Francisco State University and one of the foremost anticivilization thinkers in the world. In the ’60s he was a Marxist and a Maoist and a Vietnam protester and a devotee of the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic scene. He now believes that Paleolithic humans and the few remaining primitive cultures provide the best models for how humans should subsist. His books include Elements of Refusal, Future Primitive, and Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. He is an editor of Green Anarchy, which calls itself “an anticivilization journal of theory and action.” He was a confidant of Theodore Kaczynski during the Unabomber trial.
On a sunny afternoon last summer, I sat down with Zerzan on his shady back deck. His house is small and tidy, a wooden bungalow that sits near a busy one-way just south of the Whiteaker neighborhood. I asked him if he thought too much had been made of the Eugene anarchists after the WTO riots.
“60 Minutes was here. You can’t say that would have happened just because we have a good idea,” he said. Then he switched to the recent indictments. “All of the people who have been arrested in this thing used to live here in Eugene. There was a lot happening here, and that whole neighborhood [Whiteaker] was the key part. Now it’s quieter.”
I had never before spoken with Zerzan, although I knew that he lived in Eugene; around town, he’s taken for granted in the way that minor celebrities who live in small cities often are. He has a salt-and-pepper beard, straight bangs, and a quiet, almost patrician demeanor that I found disarming. He seems younger than his age.
I asked him if he thought the arsons outlined in the government’s indictment had done any good. He pointed out that most of the actions were followed by anonymous communiqués explaining precisely why the actions were taken. The combination of action and explanation can be quite powerful, he said.
Zerzan clearly struggles with the question of violence. Of Kaczynski, he said he found him “lacking in the basic kind of human connection that most people have.” He hopes that the anticivilization movement will prevail without great bloodshed, although he quickly adds “my anarchist friends mainly laugh at me for being too hopeful.” Humans, he believes, may very well forge a new way of living on Earth, or, rather, return to old ways of living on Earth, before utter environmental collapse imposes a Malthusian end.
“You can’t make the revolution happen by promising people less,” he said. Then he swept his hand out in front of him, taking in his house, the sound of cars and trucks hurtling past, the hum of the city, of human civilization. “You can’t say all of this is more. This is becoming more sterile and cold and fucked up by the minute.”
DOWN AT SAM BOND’S GARAGE, in the heart of Whiteaker, organic beer is served up in old jam jars. Tots in hemp smocks frolic on the wooden floor. A black t-shirt hangs on a wall sporting a skull and crossbones on the front and “Whiteaker” in pirate scrawl beneath.
It’s a Sunday night in June, and the place is filling up fast. There’s a disco ball hanging from old wooden rafters in the eatery’s barnlike interior space. Two large ceiling fans beat the air, but a thermometer on the wall reports eighty-three degrees nonetheless. The usual customers, the ones who just came by for beers or a bite to eat or to chat with friends, seem a bit bewildered by the gathering crowd. A middle-aged man shoulders up to the bar to settle his tab and a young woman inquires if he’s here for the rally. When the man asks what rally, she says, “It’s for Free Luers. He got twenty-three years for burning up three SUVs.” Soon the hall is full, a standing-room-only crowd of perhaps two hundred.
Jeffrey “Free” Luers is a skinny kid from suburban Los Angeles who is serving his fifth year in prison. In 2000, when he was twenty-one, Luers and an accomplice were arrested for setting fire to three SUVs in the middle of the night at a car lot near the University of Oregon (a separate action from those included in the Operation Backfire indictment). A Eugene judge sentenced Luers, who refused all of the government’s plea bargain offers, to nearly twenty-three years in prison. The authorities say they made an example of Luers to forestall further crimes; activists say they made a martyr of him. Luers remains unrepentant. In a recent message to his supporters, he said, “I got careless, I got sloppy. I slipped up. I got caught.”
I find a seat at the bar and order an ale. An acquaintance recognizes me and squeezes over to say hello. He points to a man sitting at a table in the center of the hall. Amid the young tattooed-and-pierced set and the older pony-tailed-and-sandaled set, this man is conspicuous. He looks as if he just walked in from an engineering convention. He has a conservative haircut, wears chino slacks, and keeps his reading glasses tucked in his left shirt-pocket. He’s perhaps in his late sixties, and sits next to his tastefully dressed, bespectacled wife.
“That’s Luers’s dad,” my friend says, and then pauses. “Just think—he’ll probably never see his son out of prison again.”
The elder Luers, whose name is John, shuffles up to a small stage at one end of the room. He leans on a cane as he walks. Rallies for his son have been held annually for the past few years, and Luers notes that this is one of forty-three around the world on this day. “The crowds just keep getting bigger,” John Luers says. “We are so grateful for the support you have shown our son.”
I introduce myself later and ask if he speaks with writers and he says politely but firmly, “No we don’t.”
There are other speakers. Jeffrey Luers may be the poster child of the government’s crackdown on so-called environmental terrorists, but this night most are preoccupied with the recent arrests. This crowd refers to the government’s Operation Backfire investigation as The Green Scare, seeing it as an all-out effort to discourage environmental activism and dissent. Many have been interrogated by FBI agents, and many believe their phones are tapped.
One of the organizers of the rally speaks up and says “we know what real terrorism is” to loud applause. Misha Dunlap of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a Eugene nonprofit that has lent assistance to Luers and to the more recent defendants, gives an update. Then anticivilization author and thinker Derrick Jensen takes the stage. He asks any FBI agents in the audience to please raise their hands. When no one does, he shrugs and says, “Worth a try.” Then he says, “What you’re doing is wrong and I plan on seeing you brought to justice.” More applause and a few boisterous hoots. Jensen speaks for more than an hour about environmental holocaust and resistance, and the audience is rapt.
When someone mentions the name Jake Ferguson, the room erupts in a chorus of hisses. Ferguson, a former Whiteaker insider, is the government’s primary informant in the Operation Backfire case. He has not been charged in any of the crimes, but has admitted to being a key operative in many of them. He agreed to wear hidden recording devices when speaking with fellow activists, and now his name is anathema in Whiteaker—a stop sign just a few blocks from Sam Bond’s has been defaced to read STOP JAKE.
Ferguson may bear the epithet “snitch,” but many radical activists consider the six who have accepted plea bargains to be snitches too. Still, there is an unmistakable aroma of violence in the green anarchists’ attitude toward Ferguson. A typical posting on the Portland Independent Media Center website, which has served as a clearinghouse among activists for information and commentary on the Operation Backfire case, described Ferguson as “the worst type of scum on earth.” Another writer added, “jake admitted being a snitch to people in the community after the story broke. why he can still talk is a good question.” (It’s worth noting, though, that Ferguson had suffered no physical harm at the time of this writing, at least not to my knowledge. The talk may be streetwise and tough, but the vast majority of Eugene’s radical activists would never intentionally harm another person or animal.)
I leave Sam Bond’s before the music starts—a hip-hop duo is on the bill. Outside, the night air is cool. It feels good to be out of that space, not just because of the stiffling heat, but because of the intensity in the room.
I find my car and drive through the quiet streets of Whiteaker. Downtown is empty except for a trio of homeless youths hanging out on a corner by the city library. The curtains are drawn in most of the homes in my own south side neighborhood. The crowd at Sam Bond’s may be ready for the revolution, but the rest of the world just seems to want a good night’s sleep.
THE OPERATION BACKFIRE INDICTMENT is sixty-five pages long and identifies the first building the Eugene arsonists burned down as the Oakridge Ranger Station, just up the road from Eugene. On the night of October 30, 1996, a motorist saw the flames and called 911. When firefighters drove into the parking lot, nails stuck in the tires of their trucks. The building was too far gone to save. By morning, it was a pile of cinders.
The Oakridge arson was one of the first subjects I wrote about after returning to my native Northwest. I had just left a job as a newspaper reporter on the East Coast, and had taken another job, editing a small magazine that covers National Forest issues. Nothing like this had ever happened in Oregon. People were shocked.
Within the region and throughout the federal government the presumption was immediate. This was the work of environmental extremists. Two nights earlier, someone had torched a Forest Service pickup truck at a ranger station seventy miles to the north, and had left graffiti including “Forest Rapers” and “Earth Liberation Front.” They had also scrawled the letter A with an extended crossbar—the symbol of the anarchist movement. No one claimed responsibility for the Oakridge fire, but many people assumed both acts were done by the same people.
Dan Glickman, President Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, who oversaw the Forest Service, told reporters then that he had “absolutely no tolerance for individuals or groups that engage in terrorism.” Jack Ward Thomas, who was chief of the Forest Service, said, “This is what people do who do not understand how to operate in a democracy.”
But to me, and to many in the mainstream environmental community, these assumptions made no sense. At the time of the arson, environmentalists had just scored a major victory in the steep forestlands just a few miles away from Oakridge.
In the early 1990s, the Forest Service had proposed a salvage-logging project on the slopes bordering nearby Warner Creek. The area had burned in 1991, leaving behind a patchwork of both blackened wood and healthy trees. When a Eugene judge ruled the Forest Service’s plan legal under the notorious Salvage Logging Rider in 1995, protesters sprang into action. They built barricades, dug trenches, and fashioned makeshift structures to keep logging equipment out. Then, in the summer of 1996, after activists had maintained the blockade for nearly a year, the Clinton administration ordered the Forest Service to shelve its plans to log Warner Creek (and more than 150 other controversial sales around the West).
So why would an environmentalist of any stripe decide, just months later, to burn down the Oakridge Ranger Station?
Aboveground activists did all they could to distance themselves from the act. The Oregon Natural Resources Council, fearing a public relations disaster, offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who provided information leading to the conviction of those responsible.
Years passed with no arrests. There were rumors that the fire had been an inside job, the work of a disgruntled employee. The Forest Service built another ranger station, a fetching structure with two stories and broad eaves, in exactly the same spot where the other had stood.
Then, last summer, Kevin Tubbs, one of the six who accepted the government’s plea bargain offer, owned up to the deed.
At the Warner Creek blockade, Tubbs, curly-haired and deeply committed to the cause, had kept vigil atop a structure built from logs; if anyone tried to move the thing, he said, it would collapse and send him falling down the steep mountainside to his death. In Eugene’s federal courtroom, wearing standard-issue Lane County Jail garb, with close-cropped hair, and looking a little middle-aged, he admitted to this:
On the night of the arson, he drove two fellow activists, Ferguson and Josephine Sunshine Overaker, east from Eugene to the vicinity of the Oakridge Ranger Station and dropped his passengers off. According to the account read in court by U.S. assistant attorney Stephen Peifer, Ferguson and Overaker placed incendiary devices around the ranger station. They threw nails onto the parking lot to slow down emergency responders and then the three drove back toward Eugene. They took back roads to avoid detection. They paused at a covered bridge near the town of Lowell and tossed the gloves they had used while committing the crime into the dark waters of a reservoir. The incendiary devices worked as intended and the ranger station was destroyed.
Despite Tubbs’s confession, Timothy Ingalsbee, one of the leaders of the Warner Creek effort, still has trouble accepting the notion that environmentalists burned down the ranger station. Tall and lanky and gentle of manner, Ingalsbee holds a doctorate in environmental sociology from the University of Oregon. After the Warner Creek battle, he had wanted to work with the Forest Service to establish the site as a permanent wildfire research station within the National Forest system. “What the fire did was to destroy that opportunity,” he said.
“I had excellent professional relationships with the Oakridge Forest Service staff, and after the fire that ended.”
Mainstream environmentalists reacted with the same sense of puzzlement and disgust to the majority of the attacks described in the Operation Backfire investigation. And while many on the left are critical of the aggressiveness with which the federal government has pursued the case—viewing the millions spent as evidence of the Bush administration’s overzealousness in its war on terror and a convenient distraction from the failings of the administration to counter real terrorists—virtually no one in the environmental community believes the attacks have done anything but harm.
“It’s bad for our cause all around. It stinks,” Rocky Smith told High Country News in the days after the Vail attack. Smith, a Colorado environmentalist, had worked tirelessly to fight the Vail expansion through legal means. “There are lots of reasons to hate Vail,” he said, “but not enough to justify arson.”
SO, WHY? Those who are directly involved in the cases—those who are under indictment or who have accepted plea bargains—won’t talk about motives. Most of those who are closest to them won’t say anything either. Government prosecutors have indicated that there may be more indictments, and many activists are afraid to talk openly about the actions and those who allegedly committed them.
It’s hard, though, to escape the conclusion that the main motivation of the Eugene arsonists was sincere, passionate conviction.
“I believe these arsons were a result of total frustration,” one Whiteaker activist who knows several of the defendants told me over coffee. “It’s just very painful to witness, so clearly, the rape of the planet.”
Consider the story of Bill Rodgers. He was forty at the time of his arrest, making him the oldest of those indicted in the Operation Backfire investigation. Authorities describe him as a ringleader in the group of arsonists—they say he served as a sort of mentor to Gerlach, for one. Police arrested him last December at the modest bookstore and community center he ran in Prescott, Arizona. Two weeks after his arrest, he put a plastic bag over his head and suffocated himself.
In a farewell letter, he wrote, “Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia. I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild. I am just the most recent casualty in that war. But tonight I have made a jail break—I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins.”
Here’s what activists like Rodgers believe: They believe we face a crisis of mass extinction, caused by civilization. They believe the atmosphere is being spoiled, the climate pitching on the verge of ruinous change, because of civilization. They believe our bodies are being poisoned and so are our spirits, by civilization.
They’ve considered the state of the planet and they’ve decided against some hopeful half-critique. They’ve looked all the way down into the pit and, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that the whole damn thing is undeniably, irretrievably messed up. The government is wrong, mainstream culture is wrong, the tokenist sellout environmental community is wrong, civilization itself is wrong.
The green anarchists are historical determinists, as are Marxists and Christian fundamentalists. Their worldview is based on more, though, than extrapolations of weighty political treatises or divinations of holy texts. It is based on the work of scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Jared Diamond and respected, peer-reviewed biologists and climatologists and ecologists the world over whose work suggests that human activity is having a calamitous effect on the Earth’s natural systems.
Globalization. Capitalism. Greed. Civilization. Call it what you will. It will end, the green anarchists insist, whether by means of environmental collapse, violent revolution, or the collective enlightening of human consciousness.
“We are now witnessing the final days of Western Civilization,” declared a recent posting on the Portland Independent Media Center website. “As this civilization decays around us—as the wars spread and the natural disasters increase in frequency—and as those trapped by western culture slowly break from their cognitive dissonance and open their hearts and minds, a new reality will begin to reveal itself. Our task is to let this transformation take its course, and to speed it along where we can.”
History is littered with historical determinists who were convinced the revolution was just around the corner. A few were right, most were wrong. And history is full of social upheavals in which true believers decided the cause was so great that they would step beyond the boundaries of law. Some have been vindicated by history, some scorned.
When I consider the ELF arsonists, I find myself thinking of the militant nineteenth-century abolitionist John Brown. So appalled was Brown by the institution of slavery that he tried to spark a revolution. He thought all that was needed was a firm nudge and the whole South would erupt in a slave rebellion. He was wrong, and was caught. His actions enraged the southern populace, and the system against which he struggled prosecuted him, convicted him, and hanged him.
At the time he was viewed as a crazed visionary whose quixotic strivings had changed nothing. But as the forces of abolition gained strength—as the real revolution unfolded—he became something much more potent. He became a symbol. Over the course of decades, what was first considered lunacy and extremism came to be regarded as courage and righteousness.
Years from now, when we have a clearer understanding of the full damage we have done to the Earth, is it possible the ELF arsonists will be remembered in similar fashion?
Matt Rasmussen, a former newspaper reporter and editor of Forest Magazine, now runs Tin Man Press. He lives in Eugene Oregon.
The New New Age
The movement pulls away from the mainstream and gets apocalyptic
By: JAMES PARKER
“In the United States,” wrote novelist and poet Jim Harrison in 1976, “it is a curious habit of ours to wait for the future when it has happened already.” Thirty years on, how much deeper is that swoon of postponement, and how much more pressing the crisis. In weather systems, in belief systems, the planet condenses with rage; the blandest recital of the facts can shake the air like a Yeatsian prophecy. Faces averted, we peck out text messages. At the political level the most complex issues are debated in the style of barking dogs, while at the counter of your local Starbucks a man is placing an order as nuanced and sophisticated as a 17th-century sonnet. And on the street the Hummers roll, driven by small, blond college girls, as if America had invaded itself.
But if the future won’t stop happening, neither will the past. Because here’s both the good news and the bad: the ’60s never ended. That decade’s chaotic drive toward collective rebirth — stalled, dissipated, betrayed, backlashed, and broken down — was not (it turns out) the endpoint, but the augury. “The Sixties,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin), by phone from New York City, “were an attempted voyage of initiation on a mass-cultural level, but at that point it couldn’t be completed. The maps weren’t there, there were no guides, and a lot of people kind of lost it.” Pinchbeck, a thirtysomething former journalist who has transformed himself — with the help of mind-ripping pharmaceuticals and organic hallucinogens like iboga and ayahuasca — into a multi-disciplinary critic of the “design problems” in Western civilization, is standing by for the next stage. “There’s some kind of process of assimilation that required those currents which came out so powerfully in the ’60s then to go underground and become subliminal,” he says. “But they’ve had a major effect on people in the West, whether through access to indigenous shamanism or in the extraordinary growth of yoga, and in a way they’ve been preparing the container so that if we were to go through another kind of initiatory level, there would be people ready to hold it together.”
Shamanism? Yoga? Welcome to the New New Age — the just-in-time resurgence of the holistic, anti-materialist worldview, garbed in esoterica, brandishing its own style of drugs and music. And brace yourself for a major paradigm shift: at the vanguard of the armies of transformation is … Sting! “Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012,” he blurbs on the book jacket, “is a dazzling kaleidoscopic journey through the quixotic hinterlands of consciousness.” Yes indeed, someone got his message in a bottle. “I became friends with Sting after my last book [Breaking Open the Head],” says Pinchbeck. “He got in touch with me and I actually stayed with him in his house in Italy.
“He’s had contact with indigenous shamanism, and he’s aware of the importance of the material. He’s kind of like an elder statesman, and he’s been giving me a lot of support.”
The sins of the old New Age, of course, are still with us: Celtic muzak, little polished rune-rocks, bumper stickers that say THE GODDESS IS ALIVE AND MAGIC IS IN THE AIR! Seeking balm for the psychic wounds they had sustained in the ’60s, ex-hippies opted en masse for a sort of consoling and watered-down paganism: ancient energies were domesticated, to the point where almost anyone could have a print from the Mahbarata on their kitchen wall, or an Odinist living downstairs. “The original New Age was a little bit on the flimsy side,” says Pinchbeck. “Channelling, UFOs … all that stuff was kind of floating out there. What I’m trying to do with the new book is to show that it’s possible for someone with a rational modern intellect to go through this material in a reasonable way, and to integrate Western philosophy with this shamanic/psychedelic worldview.”
What most viscerally separates the New New Agers from the old is their crisp and eager apprehension of imminent system crash — what our inheritors, stumping for food in the poisoned mud flats, may well call The Great Unraveling. Take, for example, the words of eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, in a recent interview. Asked if he truly wants civilization as we know it to fall, Jensen responds: “If civilization had come down 200 years ago, the people who live here would still be able to support themselves. But if it comes down in another 30 years, 50 years, 60 years … So even from the purely selfish human perspective, yeah, it would be good for civilization to end. The sooner this civilization goes, the better, because there’ll be MORE LEFT.”
Jensen gave this interview to Arthur magazine, a lavishly appointed free bimonthly out of LA whose columnists include Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Since October 2002, Arthur’s editing/publishing team of Jay Babcock and Laris Kreslins has been busy streaming the revelations and imperatives of the New New Age into pop culture, where the kids can get at it. Arthur, called “the American counterculture’s answer to the New Yorker” by the London Guardian, has become the place where the ideas meet the music; where Jensen’s freefall apocalyptics can sit with total aptness beside a piece on nouveau hippie swooners Brightblack Morninglight. The same issue begins with a column about mint tea and ends with a list of “sensitive weapons” (e.g., shotgun shells taped to the end of a BB-gun barrel) for use when the grid collapses and Devendra Banhart fans are called upon to defend their homes and woolly hats.
Arthur has saturated itself in the ’60s, via features on the Weather Underground, the MC5, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, and also in the post-psychedelic slant of the music coverage. But there’s nothing regressive here. From the freaky folkers to the acid rockers, Arthur bands have their eyes on the advancing historical horizon: the same rumble of tribal disturbance is heard beneath the dragon-groan of SunnO))) and the fey, brilliant stylings of harpist/singer Joanna Newsom. A tastemaker and an advocate, Babcock has probably done more to promote and consolidate this intangible consensus than anybody else. He calls it “naturalismo.” [That’s a term coined by Devendra Banhart, actually. -JB]
Daniel Pinchbeck used to write for Arthur, as (full disclosure) did I. I stopped because I could no longer afford to write for free; he — rather more nobly — was fired, after submitting a post-Katrina column in which various apocalyptic scenarios of military clampdown were hypothesized.
Babcock smelled “Art Bell–style” paranoia (referring to the conspiracy-mongering host of radio’s Coast to Coast AM), and wouldn’t print it; Pinchbeck recoiled, hurt. “I think Jay’s aiming more at the mainstream,” he says. “He wants his magazine to be the new Rolling Stone.”
What is beyond dispute is Babcock’s commitment to reaching “every generation of bohemian currently living.” “When we run a piece about the MC5,” he says by phone from LA, “it’s not just to educate the youth or to remind ourselves of something. It’s also to say to the original people: your work wasn’t forgotten, and maybe you should pay attention to the kids who are interested in what you did. I think they’re going to start to come back, the ones that went back to the land and just disconnected from contemporary culture for the last twenty years — and they’re gonna find that they have more in common with these kids in their teens and twenties than they do with their fellow retirees at this point. And I don’t even KNOW where that could lead.”
Babcock’s most recent and widely-broadcast prank was an interview showdown with Sully Erna, over the use of Godsmack music in Army-recruitment ads. Unimpressed with his own generation’s efforts at protest, he is trusting to demographics to get the job done: “By 2010 we’ll have a youth bubble, a huge population under 25. And they’ll be stronger, more willing to take risks, to cope with transformation — even to demand it. Who will be their leaders? What kind of culture are they going to inherit? So that’s part of what we’re doing — to try and preserve, elevate, incubate if you like, these ideas.”
The imminent crisis, the next initiatory level — Pinchbeck’s “prepared containers” and Babcock’s wised-up and transformation-ready youngsters. What the New New Agers all agree on is that change is not over there, but here: vast, cruelly accelerated, streaming with possibility. “I’m trying to define this transformative process,” says Pinchbeck, “but it’s already under way.” “Right now,” says Babcock, “we’re like the Beatniks of the Fifties — a little isolated, a little dispersed, driven a little crazy by the culture.
“But different, too. Because unlike the Beats, we have the benefit of knowing that the hippies are coming.”
Green is the new Red…the 1950s had their vast Communist conspiracy, Congressional hearings, blacklists, and red-baiting. Today, we have “Eco-Terrorists…” secret databases, Congressional hearings, indictments, grand juries, raids, surveillance, arrests, convictions, and potential life sentences.
On December 7th, 2005 federal and local law enforcement began the largest roundup of alleged environmental and animal liberation activists in American history. Over the next several months, the number of arrests, indictments, and subpoenas would mount in what the government called “Operation Backfire” and what activists would eventually term THE GREEN SCARE.
In the so-called “War Against Terrorism”…
…the terrorists aren’t the ones behind bars.
Join acclaimed activist and author, Derrick Jensen, for a night of dialogue, debate, controversy, and an exploration of the nature of injustice in a so-called civilized world.
$10 sliding scale donation at the door
(generosity greatly appreciated)
No one turned away for lack of funds.
All proceeds to benefit non-cooperating victims of the Green Scare
* Government agents subject to a $975 surcharge*
Friday, July 28th… San Diego
At the UC San Diego campus, La Jolla, Calif., 92093
(Building 161 on the UCSD campus map)
Off I-5 / La Jolla Village Dr. / Gilman Dr.
Venue: (858) 534-2311
For map, please visit: http://checafe.ucsd.edu/map.html
Saturday, July 29th… Los Angeles
3706 N. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, Calif., 90065
(Near Figueroa St. & W. Avenue 37 off the 110 Freeway)
For additional info:
Info [at] EcoPrisoners [dot] org
From Arthur 23/July 2006.
One day in 1987 Derrick Jensen was browsing the public library when he came across a book that changed everything.
“The Natural Alien by Neil Evernden exploded my worldview,” says Jensen, on the phone from his home on the Northern California coast not far from the Oregon border. “There’s a great line in there where Evernden makes an impassioned defense of some creature and somebody says, Well what good is it? And Evernden says the only response you can give is, Well what good are you? Not to make them feel bad but to show them that if you judge something solely by its utility to you, you ignore most of its being.
“It was the first book I ever read that talked about the basic stupidity of the utilitarian worldview.”
In his new book Endgame, Jensen argues that civilization—the utilitarian worldview put into practice—is not only stupid, it’s terminal. All forms of human civilization have historically worked to steadily exhaust the planet’s non-renewable resources, he says; therefore, no amount of technological ingenuity, no amount of political reform, no amount of Al Gore documentaries or carpool lanes or farmers’ markets or solar credits or biodiesel vehicles or Daryl Hannah in a tree will ever adequately replace what civilization has consumed in order to sustain itself, much less invert its fundamental imperative to use up the planet.
These are tough, hard-to-swallow ideas, the kind that we’ve heard in recent decades via controversial figures like Ted Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber), University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and anarcho-primitivist theorist John Zerzan. But there’s a reason Jensen has gained a sizable following through his books, talks and interviews. What he brings to the table is a passionate directness, a command of the facts, and most of all, an ability to make a personal, poignant appeal not just for action, but for a mercy killing. He’s clearly a guy who won’t just let it go because he can’t let it go; he’s stayed up all night, doing some serious heavy lifting on all the inconvenient truths—the hopeless doomsday statistics, the possibility of imminent system crash—that the rest of us try to forget as we stumble to bed.
Of course he could’ve saved himself some of the trouble; at 900-plus pages, Endgame is far too long and rambling to be the definitive anarcho-primitivist text that its title and scope suggest. Still, it’s packed with provocative ideas that can explode your worldview, and so, in late April, I talked with Derrick about the ideas in Endgame that had provoked the most discussion around the Arthur office.
ARTHUR: Why does civilization need to be brought down now?
DERRICK JENSEN: A few years ago, I began to feel pretty apocalyptic but I didn’t want to use that word because it’s so loaded. And then a friend, George Draffan, said, ‘So Derrick, what’s it gonna take for you to finally use that word? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word. Will it take global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of 200 species per day? 400? 600? Will it take the death of the salmon?’ And I thought about that. Salmon were once so thick around here that you couldn’t see the bottom of the river. You could hear the runs coming from miles before you’d see them. People were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear they’d capsize. And now, when I go out to Mill Creek, I start crying because I see two salmon spawning.
This civilization is killing the planet. They say that one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. I’m gonna lay out a pattern here and let’s see if we can recognize it in less than 6,000 years. When you think of the hills and plains of Iraq, do you normally think of cedar forests so thick the sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how it was before. The first written myth of this culture is that of Gilgamesh deforesting that area to make cities. Plato complained that deforestation was drying up springs and destroying the water quality in Greece. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Phoenician and Egyptian navies. We can go north and ask, Where are the lions who were in Greece? Where are the indigenous of Europe? They’ve been massacred, or assimilated—in any case, genocide was perpetrated against them by definition because they’re no longer there.
If you start asking questions, the questions just keep moving back and back and back. This is a pattern that’s been going on for a long, long time. This culture has been unsustainable from the beginning. On a finite planet, you would think that we would think about that. You can’t exploit a planet and live on it too. At this stage, since there are no new frontiers to exploit, the planet’s falling apart.
So you genuinely believe the planet is nearing death?
Well, what measure do you want to use to determine the planet’s health? The climate is changing. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. Phytoplankton populations are collapsing. Each summer a dead zone covers 8000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. Another blankets Chesapeake Bay. Another the Baltic Sea. Altogether, there are almost 150 dead zones, places where the water contains too little oxygen to sustain life. This number has doubled each decade since the 1960s. The cause? Industrial agriculture. Seabird populations are collapsing off the UK. American chestnuts are gone. The cod are effectively gone. Passenger pigeons used to fly in flocks so large they darkened the sky for days at a time. Same with Eskimo curlews. They’re gone. And do you know why there are no penguins in the northern hemisphere? Because they were eradicated. The great auk. Prior to the arrival of this culture they were present in unimaginable numbers. One of the early French explorers commented that you could fill every ship in France with them and it wouldn’t make a dent. The last one was killed in the nineteenth century.The grizzly bears that are on the California state flag, they’re essentially gone. I mean, somebody could certainly say, There’s still a tree standing, obviously things are okay. But that’s obviously an insane position. Nonetheless people keep taking it. That’s why I keep saying, Give me a threshold. At what point will you finally say that the oceans are getting hammered. If it’s not 90% of the large fish gone, is it 93%? 95?% 100%? How acidified does it have to get? What percent of the coral reefs have to die before we admit there’s a problem, and more importantly, do something about it? Give me a threshold.
We can choose whatever measure we want, and we find that stuff is falling apart. That shouldn’t surprise us. It’s just like any other relationship. If you have a girlfriend, do you believe you can sort of mercilessly exploit her and beat the hell out of her and cut her up and then expect for her to be able to maintain a relationship? Of course, given the rates of domestic violence, there are a lot of men who believe this too.
Why is it bad that certain species go extinct? Is it because all species have an inherent value and right to existence, or is it because they are useful to the ecosystem, and it’s their utility that we’re losing?
Well, it’s all of those. First, obviously salmon and sturgeon and smelt and migratory songbirds, they all… It’s simply WRONG to exterminate them. They are beautiful and wonderful beings on their own. The purpose of salmon is to be salmon. The purpose of forests is to be forests. That’s really critical. Second, forests suffer tremendously without the existence of salmon. Salmon provide a tremendous influx of nutrients into the forest. They put on about 95 percent of their weight in the ocean, and carry this weight into the forest and die. When the salmon come in, it’s time for a feast. In the Pacific Northwest, 66 different vertebrates eat salmon. Between industrial fishing, dams, industrial forestry, and the other ways the civilized torment and destroy salmon, and rivers in the Northwest starve: they only receive about six percent of the nutrients they did a century ago. Natural communities can only undergo so much stress. After that they collapse.
And yet civilization keeps chugging along, despite the deforestation and extinctions. People seem to believe that everything will work out via new technology or the system balancing itself out, even if they don’t know exactly how.
There’s something called carrying capacity, which is the number of any given species that a certain area can support permanently. Certainly populations can overshoot carrying capacity—you can have an island that can support a thousand deer forever but if you put 10,000 deer on it they’re gonna eat too much vegetation, they’re gonna cause erosion, they’re gonna permanently reduce carrying capacity. You can temporarily exceed carrying capacity, which is clearly what’s happening here.
There’s a machine image that Paul Ehrlich or somebody was using about how you have this airplane and you have rivets popping off the airplane. You keep saying I’m not worried about it. Well, eventually enough rivets are gonna come off that the wing’s gonna fall off and the plane is going to go down.
This way of thinking, that if we just ignore the problems, things are going to be okay, is really really easy, and it’s one of the things the Nazis used to great effect. At every step of the way, it was in the Jews’ rational self-interest not to resist. Because they kept pretending that things couldn’t get worse. So, would you rather get an ID card, or resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower, or resist and possibly get killed? At every step of the way they could talk themselves into not resisting. Zygmund Baumann has this great line, this is a direct quote, that “rational people will quietly meekly go into gas chambers if only you allow them to believe they’re bathrooms.” It’s the same thing. Rational people will go quietly and meekly to the end of the world if you’ll only allow them to believe that the salmon don’t matter.
So your argument is that the sooner civilization falls, the better—not just for animals and plants, but for humans.
If someone had brought down civilization, whatever that means, 200 years ago, people who live in the eastern US could still eat passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. People in the West, in the Northwest, could still eat salmon. I live on Tolowa land. The Tolowa Indians lived where I live now for at least 12,500 years if you believe the myths of science. If you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they’ve lived here since the beginning of time. When this culture arrived here a couple hundred years ago, the area was, as was true of so much of this continent, just ridiculously fecund. The indigenous peoples could have lived here essentially forever, so far as we know—12,500 years is long enough for me to call it ‘sustainable.’ If civilization had come down 200 years ago, the people who live here would still be able to support themselves. But if it comes down in another 30 years, 50 years, 60 years, a hundred years, 10 years, whatever, the people who live here —who live in this place right here—won’t be able to eat salmon. At some point the current system is going to crash, and there are going to be people sitting along the banks of the Columbia, which will be glowing from the radiation at Hanford, and they will be saying, “I’m starving to death because you didn’t remove the dams that were killing salmon. God damn you.”
So, even from the purely selfish human perspective, yeah, it would be good for civilization to end. The sooner this civilization goes the better, because there’ll be more left.
Can you honestly tell Joe and Jane Sixpack that they’d be better off if this civilization were suddenly gone?
My audience is generally people who recognize that the system is really messing things up, and I want to push them harder, as some people have pushed me harder. That said, I guess it depends on how “Joe Sixpack” defines himself. I used to have this habit of asking people if they liked their jobs. About 90% say no. Most people work jobs they don’t love to buy stuff they don’t want to live lives that are pretty unhappy, etc etc. This culture is killing the planet, and it isn’t even making most of us happy. Also, I often ask people at my talks, How many of you have had someone you love die of cancer? Usually about 70-80% say yes. The air in Los Angeles is so toxic that children born there inhale more carcinogenic pollutants in the first two weeks of their lives than the EPA (which routinely understates risks so as not to impede economic production) considers safe for a lifetime. In San Francisco it takes about three weeks.
Of course cancer is a disease of civilization, made far worse by the toxification of our entire environment. I have Crohn’s disease, which is a disease of civilization. I know people who have MS, which is a disease of civilization. My mom has diabetes. That’s another part of my argument against civilization: it’s toxifying our own bodies. There’s dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. It’s not just salmon. It’s all of us.
Yes, but couldn’t you say the same civilization gives us medicine and modern, miracle-working health care? Don’t civilized peoples, on balance, come out ahead of pre-industrial hunter-gatherer societies?
I have a bunch of responses. The first is that modern medicine—available to the rich, not the global poor—is horribly ironic, in that industrial health care is one of the most toxic industries on earth. It produces PVC medical devices to treat someone’s cancer, then puts them in the hospital incinerator to send back out and give someone else cancer. Or uses mercury in thermometers in the hospital, then send that up the incinerator to be deposited in fish and to eventually give more children—human and nonhuman—brain damage. Where does this make sense? Modern industrial medicine cures the cancer of some rich American who became sick because of the toxification of the total environment, and these processes lead to even more toxification, causing yet more poor people—and nonhumans—to die. The real wonder of modern medicine is that the poor buy into this at all.
There’s also some sleight-of-hand there. Part of that is there’s a really high infant mortality among wild humans, as there is among a lot of wild creatures. If you make it to 4-5 years old in the wild, you make it a long way. Read Health and the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen, a forensic archaeologist.
Thirdly, people who think bringing down civilization would bring mass misery are ignoring that this is what’s already happening! It’s just that most of us don’t see it. There are people dying right now, starving to death in India, now, because of the global economy. Seventy-eight percent of the countries reporting child malnutrition export food. During the much-publicized famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s, that country exported green beans to Europe. During the infamous potato famine, Ireland exported grain to England (and part of the reason the potato blight took hold in the first place was that the Irish were pushed to the poorest land). The famines come a lot of the time because a) people have been dispossessed, b) the land they were on is now used for cash crops for export and c), the water’s been stolen for semiconductor plants or aluminum smelters or whatever. The current system is already enslaving them and exploiting them. Several years ago I asked Anuradha Mittal, former executive director of Food First, if the people of India be better off if the world economy disappeared tomorrow. She laughed and said, Of course. One of the examples she gave is there are former granaries in India that now export dog food and tulips to Europe. These are people who are dying right now.
Water is a great example of the world economy killing people. People say the world’s running out of water? The thing is, 90% of the planet’s drinkable water is used for agriculture and industry. People are dying of thirst in India right now because the groundwater is being used to make Coca-Cola. This whole lifestyle is based on exploitation.
So what I’m really talking about when I’m talking about bringing down civilization is depriving the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and depriving the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. I don’t think there’s many people who would not be behind that. Then everything else is just tactics, you know? The question becomes one of targeting.
In Endgame, you talk about specific actions that can be taken by individuals or small groups that could bring civilization down immediately. You discuss E-bombs: devices that destroy electronics, cause no harm to humans and, according to the September 2001 issue of Popular Mechanics, can be built for $400. Are you really advocating the use of these weapons?
Before we go there, I have to say that my emphasis is not on technologies or on particular tactics or actions. My point is that we need to recognize that this way of life is killing life on the planet, and we need to stop it. After that it’s kind of like the old line by JFK about those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Let’s stop this by the most peaceful means possible. But in the end let’s stop this, because there is nothing worse than planetary murder. Nothing.
We also need to recognize that those in power are not going to give up their stranglehold because we ask nicely. They won’t stop exploiting the poor and deforesting because we circulate an online petition. We need to recognize that. And we need to recognize that Harriet Tubman carried a gun. Now that she’s long dead she can be a hero, but if she were alive now she’s be wanted for theft (“stealing” slaves) and terrorism. Geronimo had a gun. Tecumseh had a gun.
I’m not saying that people should willy-nilly pick up guns or that everyone should go drop E-bombs everywhere. I’m saying we need to have our seriousness called into question. What do we want? Do we want smaller clearcuts, kinder clearcuts, fewer clearcuts? Do we want the Giants to win the World Series and oh, by the way, it would be nice if we still have a world? Do we want to keep our cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet? More to the point, do we want to allow others to keep their cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet, which of course includes at the expense of poor humans? Even more to the point, do we want to allow those in power to perpetuate this system at the expense of the poor and life on the planet.
Bringing down civilization is not a monolithic act. It’s a billion different acts done by a billion different people. First, it’s recognizing that this culture is killing the planet. Next it’s realizing we can do something to stop it. Next it’s finding what you love. And next, it’s determining to act to defend your beloved. Everything after that is tactics.
And every different action has a different morality. It would be outrageously immoral to set off an E-bomb at a hospital. But on the other hand I think it’s almost impossible to make a moral case against taking out cell phone towers, which kill between five and 50 million migratory songbirds every year. If one cares about migratory songbirds—or if you care about not having the jerk at the next table yammer on about his latest financial conquest while you’re trying to eat, or if you care about the EMF waves which might or might not be dangerous—then it’s impossible to make a moral case against taking out those towers.
If E-bombs are so easy to make, why hasn’t one been detonated since Popular Mechanics put them on their cover?
I have no idea. That’s a good question. Except of course they have been detonated: by the US military, which tests and produces them.
I wonder that about a lot of things. Years ago—and before I say this I have to make absolutely clear that in no way am I even in the slightest advocating this—I was talking to a genetic engineer who said it’s really a piece of cake to make genetically modified diseases—all you really needed was three graduate students and a $100,000 laboratory, which is no big deal. He was stunned that it hadn’t happened yet. Once again, both of us are opposed to this, and were surprised no one has done it yet.
Another important thing to say about taking down civilization is that even before we get to the E-bomb stage there is a lot of other work to be done. And a lot of this work is not tremendously dramatic. A guy at one of my talks said, “I wanna go to China and take out a dam but I can’t do that ’cause it’ll kill villagers below.” Of course that comment ignores the villages destroyed by the erection of the dams. I responded, “Look before we even talk about this, of the two million dams in the United States, probably three-quarters of a million of them are tiny, illegal, not serving any economic function, and the only reason they’re standing is because of inertia. Nobody’s bothered to take them out. If you want to take out a dam, go take out one of these. Not even the cops will care.” The point is that we can get all excited about doing underground illegal stuff, but there’s a tremendous amount of entirely legal work we’re not doing.
The whole reform vs revolution question is bullshit. I used to teach creative writing at Pelican Bay, which is a Supermax security prison. I fully recognized that every time I walked in to that prison that I was participating in the biggest, most racist gulag on the planet. You can’t get much more reformist than teaching creative writing there. But at the same time many of my students said that the only thing that was keeping them sane was our classes. So in that moment any sort of belief I had in reform vs revolution question just fell apart, because once again: we need it all. That’s one of the great things about everything being so fucked up, that no matter where you look there’s great work to be done. If your call, if where your heart leads you is to work for battered woman’s shelters, wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful. If it calls you to write for Arthur and to push a perspective that is anti-authoritarian or whatever: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. If it pushes you to do a timber sales appeal: wonderful also. We need it all.
But your book is about bringing down civilization—it’s not about filing timber sales appeals.
True, but I don’t exclude that by any means. I talk about the military strategy of hammer and anvil, a strategy used by Lee at the battle of Chancellorsville, where you keep a large part of your army back as an anvil, as a defensive force, and you send the rest of your army around to act as a hammer, an offensive force. Defensive work is incredibly important because if we all wait for the great glorious revolution, there’s not going to be anything worth saving left anyway. But at the same time if all we do is this defensive work, this culture is gonna just keep grinding away at everything, and there’ll be nothing left then either.
It’s like any revolution. The Black Panthers said this, the Zapatistas said this: 95% of any revolution is non-violent. A lot of it is education. A lot of it is this other stuff. And yes, of course the situation is desperately urgent, and yeah, dramatic stuff needs to be done. But I don’t even see, for the most part, people doing the less dramatic stuff. That’s what I find the most horrifying.
Having said this, that’s not an attack on most people because I understand… I’ve got friends who have two kids and are working jobs that they and their partner are making seven bucks an hour and they’re trying to raise two kids: “What, you actually want me to do something for the fairy shrimp in addition? Are you out of your mind?” I’m not judging my friends or other people for that but I also know that a tremendous amount of time is wasted watching television. I’m not saying anything against downtime either. I like to play online poker or whatever. I’m not saying that we need to spend every waking moment pushing and pushing. But we need to start doing the work. And we need to start doing it soon.
I kind of make fun of ‘fair trade’ but I gotta tell you, I think ‘fair trade’ is way better than ‘slave trade.’ But the problem I have is that’s not sufficient. Timber sales appeals aren’t sufficient. Working at battered women’s shelters isn’t sufficient. That’s really the whole point: what we’re doing isn’t sufficient.
You’re just talking about re-prioritizing.
Thank you! End of interview, you know? Every cell in my body wants for us to have a voluntary transformation to a sustainable way of living, where we would voluntarily have a softer landing, where we would recognize that we’ve overshot carrying capacity, that our way of living, which is based on the use of nonrenewable resources, won’t last. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
If your concern is for the well-being of the humans who will be alive during and immediately after the crash, then what you need to do is start preparing people for the crash. Because it’s gonna come anyway. And if you don’t believe it’s gonna come, then we really honestly have nothing to say to each other. We can talk about what do you think about JD Drew for the Dodgers this year. What the hell’s wrong with the Angels? But if you do believe that a) there’s going to be a crash and b) it’s going to be messy and c) the current economic system is dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, which means the longer it takes, the worse things are going to be, what that means is what you need to do is to start finding out what local plants can be used for antibiotics. What are local water purification systems you’ll be able to use. How are you going to build shelters. How will you pull up parking lots to make gardens. Learning self-defense and forming committees to deal with the additional violence that might (or might not) break out. Getting to know your neighbors, both human and nonhuman. How’s that for a start?
In the end, I think the primary measure by which we will be judged by those who come after will be the health of the landbase. Everything else builds from there. The people who come after aren’t going to give a shit as to whether we voted Democrat, Republican, Green, anarchist, or none of the above. They’re not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit about whether we signed or didn’t sign online petitions. They’re not going to give a shit about how hard we tried. It’s no good to live in a groovy eco-socialist utopia with free love if the planet is toxified. Those who come after are going to care about whether they can breathe the air, whether they can drink the water, whether the land can support them. Everything else comes from that. This seems so obvious I’m embarrassed to have to say it, but this culture is so insane it needs to be said. And it needs to be lived.
(From Arthur 23/July 2006..)