Upping the Stakes
It's time to lead, follow, or get out of the way
by Derrick Jensen
ANOTHER 120 SPECIES went extinct today; they were my kin. I am not going to sit back and wait for every last piece of this living world to be dismembered. I’m going to fight like hell for those kin who remain—and I want everyone who cares to join me. Many are. But many are not. Some of those who are not are those who, for whatever reason, really don’t care. I worry about them. But I worry more about those who do care but have chosen not to fight. A fairly large subset of those who care but have chosen not to fight assert that lifestyle choice is the only possible response to the murder of the planet. They all carry the same essential message—and often use precisely the same words: Resistance isn’t possible. Resistance never works.
Meanwhile, another 120 species went extinct today. They were my kin.
There are understandable personal reasons for wanting to believe in the invincibility of an oppressive system. If you can convince yourself the system is invincible, there’s no reason to undertake the often arduous, sometimes dangerous, always necessary work of organizing, preparing to dismantle, and then actually dismantling this (or any) oppressive system. If you can convince yourself the system is invincible, you can, with fully salved conscience, make yourself and your own as comfortable as you can within the confines of the oppressive system while allowing this oppressive system to continue. There are certainly reasons that those in power want us to see them as invincible. Abusive systems, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, from the familial to the social and political and religious, work best when victims and bystanders police themselves. And one of the best ways to get victims and bystanders to police themselves is for them to internalize the notion that the abusers are invincible and then, even better, to get them to attempt to police anyone who threatens to break up the stable abuser/victim/bystander triad.
And meanwhile, another 120 species went extinct today.
But those who believe in the invincibility of perpetrators and their systems are wrong. Systems of power are created by humans and can be stopped by humans. Those in power are never supernatural or immortal, and they can be brought down. People with a lot fewer resources collectively than any single reader of Orion have fought back against systems of domination, and won. There’s no reason the rest of us can’t do the same. But resistance starts by believing in it, not by talking yourself out if it. And certainly not by trying to talk others out of it.
History provides many examples of successful resistance, as do current events. The Irish nationalists, the abolitionists, the suffragettes—I could fill the rest of this column with examples. Recently, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has, through attacks on oil pipelines and the kidnapping of oil workers, disabled as much as 40 percent of the oil industry’s output from Nigeria, and some oil companies have even considered pulling out of the region. If those of us who are the primary beneficiaries of this global system of exploitation had 1 percent of their courage and commitment to the land and community, we could be equally effective if not more so. We have vastly more resources at our disposal and the best we can come up with is, what, compost piles? The world is being killed and many environmentalists still think that riding bikes is some sort of answer?
Some people maintain that resistance cannot accomplish anything unless we first change the underlying culture; changing culture, then, is where the real work must lie. Setting aside the fact that sometimes people, organizations, and institutions are just wrong and need to be stopped—the Nazis come to mind, as does the KKK at its peak of power, the robber barons, and so on—the more important point is that resistance and working for cultural change are in no way mutually exclusive, but rather are deeply complementary, which makes the complaints of the lifestylists all the more nonsensical. I’m not trying to stop them from saving seeds or handmaking scythes; I’m merely saying that those activities are insufficient to stop this culture from killing the planet.
Yes, there absolutely needs to be the creation of a new culture with new values (or, really, tens of thousands of cultures, each emerging from its own landbase, including the re-emergence of extant indigenous cultures). But the people involved in that cultural creation must see themselves as part of a resistance movement that supports and encourages action against the forces that are dismembering our planet, or, at least, that doesn’t actively discourage organized resistance whenever the subject is raised. Otherwise that nice, new culture is simply a fantasy, unhooked from anything in the real, physical world, incapable of ever being effective, and, ultimately, a position of privilege. Maud Gonne, for instance, was intimately involved with the Gaelic Revival, promoting literature and language preservation. She also did prisoner support, worked with the Land League, and got arrested herself. She almost died on a hunger strike and won some basic rights for Irish prisoners in the process (and her son Seán MacBride eventually became chief of staff of the IRA, helped found Amnesty International, and in 1974 won the Nobel Peace Prize). It is insulting to her memory and to the memory of so many other brave people to state categorically that resistance doesn’t work. Of course it works. But people have to actually do it, and keep doing it for the long haul.
Why are even those who call themselves environmentalists not talking about what really needs to happen to save this planet? Burning fossil fuel, for example, has to stop. This isn’t negotiable. You cannot negotiate with physical reality. It doesn’t matter how or why this burning stops. It needs to stop. We need to stop it—need to stop doing it ourselves, and need to stop others, especially giant corporate others, from doing it too.
We need organized political resistance. Power needs to be named and then dismantled systematically. This requires joint action of whatever sort is deemed necessary. While the frontline actionists are taking apart systems of power and fighting to defend wild nature, the culture of resistance is providing loyalty and cooperation and material support, as well as building up alternate institutions—from means of bringing justice to economic systems to food supply chains to schools to new literary forms—that can take over as the system comes down. The template is not hard to understand. It will take its own culturally appropriate forms. The same actions have been undertaken by resistance movements everywhere—the Spanish anarchists, the American patriots. It’s not conceptually difficult.
But instead of supporting the necessity for action (and we’re not yet even talking about what forms that action should or could take), or at the very least not attempting to discourage action at every turn, so much of the environmental movement keeps insisting that only personal lifestyle change is possible. No other oppressed group in history has ever taken such a stand. Right now, a small group of half-starved, poverty-stricken people in Nigeria have brought the oil industry in that country to its knees. They remember what it is to love their land and their communities—perhaps because they are not drowning in privilege, but in the toxic sludge of oil extraction. Is that what it will take to get environmentalists in the U.S. to fight back?
MEND has said to the oil industry: “It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it.” There is more courage, integrity, intelligence, and pragmatism in that statement from MEND than in any statement I have ever read by any American environmentalist, including myself. We need to accept the fact that making this type of statement (and being prepared to act on it) might be necessary to preserve a living planet.
Some people may be willing to give up on life on this planet without resisting. I’m not one of them.