I recently attended another sustainability conference at a local university. The experts sat in a half-circle facing their audience in rank-and-file foldable chairs. I, like most of the audience, hoped to hear a brilliant solution to the ongoing destruction of the living world. The amount of experience and knowledge assembled in the experts’ panel was formidable. There was an organic farmer, a local politician, a Christian minister, an executive director of an environmental NGO, a scientist, a green engineer, and a young indigenous woman representing the Native Students Union. My expectations were high.
The typical conversation topics were covered. “Is climate change real?” “What does ‘being green’ mean to you?” “What is sustainability?” I was prepared to sit through these questions patiently as the answers from the experts represented an introduction to Environmentalism 101 because I knew the pay-off question was coming.
Finally, the question we all came to hear answered was asked, “So, what do we do to stop this environmental catastrophe?” People took long draws from their coffee cups, cocked their heads forward, and scooted to the edge of their seats waiting for the words that would blow their minds and blow pipelines back to the hell they come from and cause. We wanted to find some enlightenment, some direction each one of us could take to stem the tide of destruction.
The organic farmer answered first. “If you care about the environment,” he said, “Never, ever go into a supermarket.” I looked around at the audience to make sure I heard that correctly. Was he suggesting that we could stop the destruction of the world by not shopping at the supermarket? I noticed the young indigenous woman glaring at the organic farmer and knew I must not be completely crazy for disagreeing with the man. I settled myself down. I wasn’t going to let one insane answer ruin the conference for me.
The next answer came from the minister. “We need to recognize the connectedness of all living beings.” I waited for more and I started to get impatient. Yes, I understood. We are all connected. But, how is a spiritual process occurring exclusively in my own heart going to affect anything in the real world?
Then, it was the scientist’s turn to answer. When they handed him the microphone he paused for effect looking down the long ridge of his nose and over his glasses. His gaze was so intent and his pause so long that I felt we were finally going to be shown the way to environmental redemption. But, instead of answering the question, the scientist asked, “How many of you voted in the last election?”
“Voting!?” I thought. “His answer to the destruction of natural communities and the ongoing genocide of colonized peoples is…voting?”
My head sank into my hands. My throat tightened in that mysterious spasm between wanting to burst into tears and wanting to burst into maniacal laughter. By the time I regained my composure enough to listen, I found the young indigenous woman berating the organic farmer for thinking the people most vulnerable to environmental disaster – the world’s poor – could afford to feed themselves on the wares of organic farmers. She then, thankfully, turned on the scientist for claiming that anyone should consent to rule by an illegitimate, imperial government through the act of voting in that government’s elections.
We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by voting. We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by shopping. We are not going to stop the destruction of the world by opening our hearts to the reality of our connection to everything. We are going to stop the destruction of the world by stopping the destruction of the world.
You read that correctly. It’s a simple idea, but it’s true. Stopping the destruction means literally stopping the physical forces that are destroying the planet. This is not something we can wish away, pray away, write away, or vote away. Chainsaws need gas or electricity to run. Take away the gas and electricity and they cannot cut down trees. Mining companies need bridges and roads to access mines. Block the bridges and the roads and they cannot mine. Governments need soldiers to drive indigenous peoples from their lands to access resources. Stop the soldiers and keep land bases in the hands of peoples who know how to live truly sustainably as evidenced by their existence on specific land bases for thousands of years.
Another way to think about this is to envision the typical, mainstream approach to political action. Say you’ve realized that fossil fuels are a problem. Say you’ve realized that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is one of the most pressing problems facing the world today. Say you’ve realized that stopping pipelines carrying fossil fuels to be burned in communities around the world is essential for the survival of life on this planet. What can you do to stop these pipelines?
Well, you can do your best to wade through the rhetoric spat at you by political candidates to find who might espouse the most responsible stance towards pipelines and cast an informed vote. Of course, your candidate might lose the election. Or, your candidate might win and then decide that jobs are more important than breathable air. Never mind the fact that voting turns your voice, your body, yourself into simply a vote cast – one number in thousands. Meanwhile, corporations are preparing their right-of-ways for their pipelines. They’re buying up land, clear-cutting it, and surveying it for the cheapest route.
Maybe your vote didn’t work out like you wanted it to so you circulate a petition. Worded with your most vitriolic political language, you gather thousands of signatures and send it to your elected representative hoping that he or she even sees it – much less reads it. While you’re doing this, more of the forests on the proposed pipeline routes are clear-cut. Hundreds of thousands of trees, millions of birds, and countless insects lose their lives.
After several months trying to get through to your elected representative, you decide to escalate your tactics. It’s time to take this issue to the courts. First, you have to find an attorney willing to take your case. Then, you have to raise the requisite retainer. Once you find a suitable attorney, you begin work on your arguments. The research begins to cost more and more money as your argument gets more and more complex. Finally, you get the case in front of a judge and start the years-long process of litigation. In the end, of course, you’ll be relying on the skills of your attorney and the wisdom of the judge to decide in your favor and stop the pipelines.
In the end, the judge congratulates you and your attorney for making such a valiant effort while apologizing that the law is unfortunately squarely on the side of the oil corporations. You lose in court and have exhausted all political and legal means to stop the pipelines. What can you do?
You can deprive the ability of the government, of politicians, of lawyers, and judges from making the wrong decision. You can make it physically impossible to build the pipelines. The goal is not to vote for the right candidate. The goal is not to buy the most eco-friendly soap. The goal is not to put thousands of names on a nasty letter to your politician. The goal is to stop the pipelines.
Yet another way to look at this is to analyze any of your proposed actions for whether or not they depend on someone else to stop the problem. When you place your hopes in voting to stop environmental destruction, you’re depending on politicians to do the stopping. Do we need to talk about politicians and their environmental record? When you place your hopes in a petition to stop social injustice, you’re depending, again, on politicians to do the stopping. When you depend on the courts to make the right rulings, you’re depending on judges to do the stopping. Maybe the courts have a slightly better environmental record than their counterparts in the executive branches of government, but with a livable planet at stake, are we willing to place our survival in the hands of judges?
This brings me to the main point. The survival of life on earth is being threatened. Every day that passes brings us closer and closer to the black precipice of utter destruction. While scientists are arguing over the planet’s capacity to support human life in terms of years or decades, we simply cannot wait around for someone else to stop the destruction. We wouldn’t write letters to a known serial killer asking him to stop murdering; we’d just go and stop him. Why aren’t we doing the same thing for the planet?
Lately, I’ve been receiving messages from readers of this Do-It-Yourself Resistance series asking me for specific advice on how to engage in resistance. I hesitate before writing back because, truthfully, I’m not very smart, I’m not very experienced, and I’m not very wise. Sometimes, I get lucky and write an essay someone likes, but I’m really just writing from the heart trusting that honesty is helpful. On top of this, I only know what’s going on in a few small corners of the world. It’s hard to tell someone in New York City, for example, how to resist because I do not know the land and it’s fight for survival in New York City.
This essay represents my attempt to fashion a common-sense analysis for thinking about where to direct your precious time, money, and body in the fight to save the world. If it’s not clear already, I am radical. I hate that the term ‘radical’ has come to represent extremism in popular circles and I’ve heard it asked, “Is it so radical to desire clean drinking water?” Angela Davis, the great civil rights activist, pointed out that radical “simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” The major dictionaries back her up.
“That’s great, Will,” you might be saying, “but do I have to become a radical to engage in effective resistance?” Well, yes and no. You may not be cut out for the sort of front line direct action that at least some of us must be willing to do to stop the murder of the planet. You must, however, learn to grasp the environmental problems at their roots. You must develop an analysis that lets you see where the pressure points in this ecocidal system exist. Most importantly, you must direct your resources at those pressure points. If you cannot occupy the front lines, make sure the front lines are well supplied and well supported. If you feel inclined to vote, vote, but please don’t let voting be the only thing you do. Please don’t restrict your activities to those already sanctioned by the State. They are sanctioned because they are ultimately no threat to the status quo.
If you sink your shovel through the decaying bones, rotting flesh, and pooling blood that fertilizes the soil growing this abomination we call civilization, your shovel will strike the physical processes – the roots – allowing the murder to continue. If you want to be an effective resistor direct all your energies at stopping those physical processes. Grasp the roots and yank them out.