August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.
April 2, 2014 § 8 Comments
“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”
To criticize the status quo is to invite volley after volley of personal criticism back in your own direction. I am sure this has likely been the case for a very long time, and I believe this may be partly due to the way in which humans learn through pattern recognition, as well as how the architecture of the human brain physically lays neural pathways to build understanding. Thus when an idea too astray from the usual is presented to the human mind, there is a high chance of a negative reaction because the new pattern is far too asymmetric for the current set of neural pathways to incorporate. That, or the derogator is a bored and obtuse malcontent with nothing better to do than shit all over other people on the internet.
I often write about the exploitation inherent in the model of civilization itself, and how this organizing framework which is dominant on the planet now is entirely unsustainable and will necessarily collapse catastrophically. This is some level nine stuff. By this I mean that if you have not been initiated, if you haven’t read about this topic or all of the feeder topics that lead to this conclusion, it would likely seem extreme. Thorough understanding of an issue requires prerequisite knowledge. We get to where we are by having been where we were, even philosophically and intellectually. Because my topics of critique often surround the civilization paradigm, its parts, and alternatives, I often receive flak from people which either demonstrates that they do not fully understand the gravity of the issues, or which merely indicts me as complicit in civilization’s crimes. The former generally comes in the form of people arguing that technology will remedy all of the converging crises faced and created by civilization. The latter is far more frustrating, as it is usually some pathetic attempt at a “got’chya!” moment where someone tries to defeat my greater thesis by pointing out my use of a computer or some other trapping of civilization. “Hypocrite!” they cry.
The hypocrisy claim is everywhere you find people critiquing any facet of the status quo. Antiwar activists who protested the Iraq war were called hypocrites for using gasoline. Occupy Wall Street participants were called hypocrites for using Apple products. My friends in forest defense have been called hypocrites for using paper. As an anti-civ anarchist I have been called a hypocrite for everything from having moved into a house during the winter, to having gone to the hospital when after forty hours of labor at home with a midwife, my partner was physically exhausted and wanted access to drugs so she could sleep. Every time these criticisms are leveled, it becomes a major energy suck to explain exactly how nonsensical they are. I would like to here dedicate this essay to shredding the “hypocrisy” argument once and for all, so it can forever be linked to by activists and social critics of all platforms and stripes, who neither have the time nor energy to swat at the many zombie hordes who become agitated when new ideas are presented to them which run counter to the comfortable patterns that they are used to, and who then proceed to scream “hypocrite!” in place of an actual counter argument.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” Despite my anti-civ analysis, I am no misanthrope. Civilization is a system of organization, a power arrangement in which a small few control the many. Using their power, these few exploit the lands and beings around them so they can grow their power and comfort at the expense of others. Industrial civilization takes this paradigm full tilt and is wiping out habitat and species at a mortifying rate. Understanding this does not cause me to hate my species, but rather to be eager to help them understand why we must pursue new organizational methods. Still, the uphill battle of convincing fellow humans, especially those who are net beneficiaries of this destructive and exploitative set of arrangements, can be at times an infuriating engagement. Of course, this is not because I need people to immediately agree with me, but if they don’t, I do prefer they focus on challenging the content of my statements as opposed to nit picking the content of my life.
In “The Fall,” Albert Camus wrote, “Everyone insists on his innocence, at all costs, even if it means accusing the rest of the human race and heaven itself.” I believe that it may be this personal insistence on one’s innocence which leads people to quickly cry “hypocrite!” at those who critique the status quo. Because we are all mired in this paradigm, when it is critiqued, some individuals feel that the critique is of them individually, likely due to a personal identification with the system. Thus critiques become personal attacks against which they must defend themselves. “If the system is guilty, then I am guilty, and I’m not guilty!”
The need for personal innocence runs deeper. If a critique against an overarching paradigm such as a government, capitalism, or civilization itself seems irrefutable, this can invoke in some a certain need to then utilize this new information as part of their own personal ethos. The problem here, is that this will mean that person will feel compelled to act accordingly with this information, and the actions required may seem difficult, uncomfortable, or frightening. For instance, if you’re told that capitalism is exploitative because employers retain the surplus labor value generated by their employees, and you happen to be a business owner, this new understanding will mean one of two things: either you rearrange the operating model of your business to fairly compensate your employees for their labor, effectively making them cooperative partners, or you change nothing but must go through life recognizing that you profit off of the exploitation of others. Here, your internal need to perceive yourself as innocent, or at least to believe yourself a good person, will run counter with your open acknowledgement that you exploit people for a living. What to do then to keep the ego intact?
If the action required to fall in line with the new ethos created by accepting new information is too hard, too uncomfortable, or you just don’t want to do it, you must justify inaction. Justifying inaction will be achieved possibly by denying the veracity of the new information. Like most capitalists in this scenario, you could convince yourself that your entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit give you the right to take the surplus labor value generated by the people you employ indefinitely. Of course, the justifications are endless.
In some cases though, if the new information received cannot be deflected through argument or justification, and the need to preserve one’s picture of their innocence is too great, then calling into question the character or behavior of the information’s purveyor can also suffice. For instance, if an activist is working to halt fossil fuel extraction for the myriad reasons that such a halting would be beneficial, it can be difficult to disagree with this activist on a purely argumentative level. How could you? Deny climate change? Deny ozone killing trees? Deny the death and destruction from Alberta, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Niger Delta? On an argumentative level, you’d be wrong every time. However, you could call into question the activist’s use of fossil fuels, thereby deflecting the conversation, and basically insinuating that, as Camus also wrote in The Fall, “We are all in the soup together.” Because hey, if we’re all guilty, then none of us are guilty, am I right?
In the fall of 2012, I was in Texas working with the Tar Sands Blockade using direct action tactics to shut down construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On the side of a highway north of Nacogdoches, I sat with some friends as our comrades were perched on platforms fifty feet in the air with their support lines tied to heavy machinery, effectively making the machines unusable lest their operators not mind killing these young people. There were a surprising amount of supporters for rural east Texas, but of course, there were plenty of people who made sure we we aware of their disdain for us. One such person passed by, slowed down, and said “I bet you used a pick up truck to get that stuff out here.” In his mind, this was a real zinger. I replied, “Of course we did. Why wouldn’t we?”
There are a slew of reasons why this man’s comment contained zero validity as a critique of our action. For one, the gasoline we used did not come from that as of yet unfinished pipeline. Also, though I wouldn’t, I could claim to be against tar sands bitumen, but not conventional crude. But really the truth is that anti-extraction activists are making what economists would even defend as an intelligent bargain; using X amount of fossil fuels to prevent the extraction of a million times X. Of course I would use a tank of gasoline to prevent the daily extraction and transportation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen. Not only am I seeking a massive net gain for the ecology of the planet, I am also not using any more fossil fuels than I would have used had I gone to work that day anyway.
In the same vein, it is not hypocrisy to write a book about the ills of deforestation. Though it may be printed on paper, it has the potential to affect policy which will then lessen the total amount of deforestation. Not to mention, the loggers are going to log and the publishing company is going to publish. Using those resources to ultimately dismantle that destructive activity is actually the best use for them. So no, the person who posts on the internet about the ravages of mountain top removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas isn’t a hypocrite. They are cleverly utilizing the paradigm’s resources to expose its flaws to the light of scrutiny, in the hope that the consciences of people will be stirred to ultimately upend the paradigm itself. This is, in fact, the most ethical use of the resources generated by destructive industrial activity.
Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house is to be encouraged.
It feels ridiculous to even have to lay this out, but the “hypocrisy” barb is flung far too often and dismantled far too little. What’s worse, is that hypocrisy in this regard isn’t even being understood correctly. According to wikipedia:
“Hypocrisy is the state of falsely claiming to possess virtuous characteristics that one lacks. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of “hypocrisy” in Rambler No. 14:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
Thus, an alcoholic’s advocating temperance, for example, would not be considered an act of hypocrisy as long as the alcoholic made no pretense of sobriety.”
This being understood, we can unequivocally state that a forest defense activist who prints pamphlets about saving tracts of woodland is not a hypocrite, unless they also claim to never use any forest products. Sure, there is a reasonable expectation that people who see a social ill will do their best to avoid adding to that ill, but sometimes the requirements of society horseshoe people into activity even they do not appreciate because the alternative options are worse or non-existent. Of course, this is where detractors will still claim that if an activist wants to save the forests, that they should cease using anything made from trees because consumer demand is behind all economic activity. Ignoring the obvious benefits of the trade off between printing five hundred pamphlets to save five hundred acres of woodlands, I think further disemboweling of this notion about consumer choice activism is also necessary.
Derrick Jensen writes about how he got in an argument with a man who accused him of being just as responsible for deforestation as Weyerhaeuser because he used toilet paper:
“Here, once again, is the real story. Our self-assessed culpability for participating in the deathly system called civilization masks (and is a toxic mimic of) our infinitely greater sin. Sure, I use toilet paper. So what? That doesn’t make me as culpable as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and to think it does grants a great gift to those in power by getting the focus off them and onto us.
For what, then, are we culpable? Well, for something far greater than one person’s work as a technical writer and another’s as a busboy. Something far greater than my work writing books to be made of the pulped flesh of trees. Something far greater than using toilet paper or driving cars or living in homes made of formaldehyde-laden plywood. For all of those things we can be forgiven, because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated (those in power kill the great runs of salmon, and then we feel guilty when we buy food at the grocery store? How dumb is that?). But we cannot and will not be forgiven for not breaking down the system that creates these problems, for not driving deforesters out of forests, for not driving polluters away from land and water and air, for not driving moneylenders from the temple that is our only home. We are culpable because we allow those in power to continue to destroy the planet. Yes, I know we are more or less constantly enjoined to use only inclusive rhetoric, but when will we all realize that war has already been declared upon the natural world, and upon all of us, and that this war has been declared by those in power? We must stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us—myself definitely included— will ever be able to comprehend.”
“To be clear: I am not culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper. I am culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper and I do not keep up my end of the predator-prey bargain. If I consume the flesh of another I am responsible for the continuation of its community. If I use toilet paper, or any other wood or paper products, it is my responsibility to use any means necessary to ensure the continued health of natural forest communities. It is my responsibility to use any means necessary to stop industrial forestry.”
I believe it is dangerous to convince people that their only power is in their purchasing decisions, because this relegates people to being mere consumers, not active citizens, let alone autonomous beings who define their own struggles, explore a diversity of tactics, and experiment to find new and effective measures for countering power. It also reduces all of society to nothing but customer transactions. Doing so ignores the power people have to protest, blockade, persuade, legislate, and sometimes, to overthrow. Would advocates of consumer choice activism stand by the idea that American revolutionaries should merely have boycotted tea, stamps and British products? Would they advocate that these revolutionaries should have instead of smashing windows, burning buildings, and fighting back against the crown have instead started their own competing tea trading companies? How about American slavery? Was the real solution that abolitionists and free blacks should have started competing fiber plantations in the north, hoping to push slave produced cotton out of business? Should we brand Captain John Brown a hypocrite for not wearing fair trade worker owned flax linen pants when he raided Harper’s Ferry seeking weapons with which to start a slave revolt? Preposterous!
Fighting against a behemoth industry that is interwoven into the state apparatus and has insulated itself as a central pillar of day to day operations is not something easily done. For one to claim they know exactly how to win such a fight is audacious. When it comes to the extraction industries, there is a large buffer where no matter how much the public cuts their consumption, the state will offset their financial losses through subsidies and purchases. The US government will happily buy discount oil for the fifth armored division after a civilian boycott lowers the price. Because of this, all forms of resistance are welcome and necessary, and it should be understood that attacking such a monolithic industry requires people hammering away, figuratively and literally, on every possible front. If it takes two million barrels of oil to power the cars and trucks necessary to organize the ten thousand strong blockade that cripples the refinery complex at the Port of Houston, well hell, oil well spent.
Those who demand lifestyle purity of anyone who ever raises a critique of any facet of the status quo are creating a double bind paradigm of hypocrites and extremists so to establish two camps into which they can then package critics in order to isolate and ignore them. The hypocrite camp is obvious. By misdiagnosing via a false definition someone who is against civilization as a hypocrite because they use electricity to write their thoughts online, these detractors can in their own minds, suggest there is no reason to take the critique seriously. But suppose the anti-civ critic did achieve lifestyle purity. Suppose that they lived in a wigwam in the woods that they constructed themselves from branches and deer hides. Imagine that this person walked to the center of town every weekend in haggard clothing they had pulled from thrift store dumpsters and then this person stood on a bench to shout about the ills of industry and hierarchy. Is it likely that this person would be taken seriously? Of course not! They would be labeled an extremist. Passersby would write this person off as insane before listening to argument one. There is no middle ground in this double bind, and that is the point. Those who would cry from the wilderness about the death and the misery that civilization brings will forever be stripping more and more from their lives in a futile effort to gain recognition, to be valid in the eyes of those who called them hypocrites, until one day they are branded as lunatics, if they are not unheard and unseen, exactly as their detractors want them to be.
On this, we should remember too, that there are people who have achieved this lifestyle purity. They are the tribal peoples around the world who never have been drawn into the net of civilization. They are the global poor who do not benefit from the burning of coal or the sinking of copper mines. And their voices consistently go unheard. In fact, their voices are almost ubiquitously silenced. What do the defenders of the status quo say to the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã peoples who are fighting the construction of the Belo Monte dam which threatens their survival? What do the defenders of the status quo say to the animals and plants who have been nothing but victims in the story of human progress? There is no inconsistency in their lives. No iPhone to scoff at, no power tool, no window fan. What is the excuse for denying their right to live? What is the excuse for exterminating them and pretending it isn’t happening? Why is it OK to deny their pleas?
Analysis and critique precede action. Without first understanding a system and describing its flaws, it will never be repaired or replaced. To assert that one must excise themselves from a system prior to criticizing it is asinine, especially so when the system being criticized is a global power structure with tentacles in almost every geographical region. Such assertions if considered legitimate would render critique impossible. They are also so implausible as to essentially be nothing more than a dismissal of critique, a backhanded way of saying “Shut up!” To be sure, the horrors of the dominant culture always have required a silencing of those it would make victims, so such behaviors amongst the denizens of civilization should come as no surprise, but they have never been and will never be intellectually or academically valid.
If you are in a prison, eating the food from the cafeteria does not mean you accept being a prisoner. Likewise, if you are a prisoner and you detest the prison and the system that put you there with every fiber of your being, you are not a hypocrite for allowing the prison doctor to treat you. Navigating life in a system of dominance, violence, and control is difficult and miserable, and if you have any designs to resist, whether to organize others on the inside with you to demand improvement of conditions, or to dig a tunnel and to escape, staying well fed and healthy in the mean time will be necessary for your success. While you fight, while you resist, use what you must to survive, especially in light of the fact that not doing so will not bring down the walls around you.
With the ever worsening issue of climate change, on top of the issues of political rot, net energy decline, and economic sclerosis, there will be more and more critique and analysis of exactly how societies are breaking down and what people should do in response. With this will come wave after wave of nonsense rebuttal to muddy the waters. At least when the defense of the status quo defers to indicting the behavior of the critics themselves, we can likely presume that their critiques are probably accurate, or at least that the status quo defender has no legitimate argument. For if the detractor had a legitimate counter analysis, they would present it. Attacking the messenger is behavior of the beaten. If I say “we need to abolish fossil fuels because they cause too much ecological damage” and someone responds “but you use gas in your chainsaw,” they have not displayed that my statement is untrue. In fact, there is a tacit admission that what I am saying is true, they just want to drag me down into the muck as if I’m not already standing in it.
Yes, I am knee deep in the shit of global industrial capitalist civilization. Yes, circumstances have me dancing from rock to rock, doing my best to avoid participating in the destructive protocols of the dominant culture and obliging to where it makes strategic sense to do so. Most people understand this. Most people understand the nuance between having and living an ethic in a complex world which leaves little to our individual control. Those who would deny this reality in order to deny your point are a nuisance at most. Hell is not other people, just other people in the comments section on the internet.
March 8, 2014 § 13 Comments
My friend and I joke about techno-optimists. Both of us have wasted enough time on the internet reading the prognostications of self described technocrats, transhumanists, and even optimistic liberals who carry with them and promote a picture of the future that is near utopian in it’s advancements and its cleanliness. This optimism is shared widely by younger generations who cannot be bothered to understand the totality of the destruction wrought on the planet and its ecosystems over the last few hundred years. Advances in communications technology have people believing that anything is possible, and depending on their politics, their reasoning is essentially that either government, corporations, capitalists, or some combination of them is all that stands between us and a near workless future of global equality and abundance. A trip to the Apple Store and a copy of Popular Mechanics seemingly forms their understanding of not only what humans can do, but what they should do.
What is frustrating about these techno-topians is that for them, name dropping a technology is supposed to convince the rest of us that said technology has all of the prerequisite systems in place for its global implementation and that said technology can effortlessly be scaled up to replace current technologies. Further, the techno-optimist speaks as if technologies exist in an ecological vacuum where they can be designed, manufactured, deployed, utilized, upgraded, and ultimately dismantled when they are inevitably made irrelevant by new developments without damaging ecosystems and living communities. Arguing for the bright future society these technologies will grant us usually finds their acolytes rebuffing their potential flaws by name dropping another, then another, then another hypothetical invention or method, creating a fractal universe of innovations that are essentially non-existent today, but that we are supposed to have faith will rescue us from the crises that are meting deleterious effects right now.
Techno-optimists talk about Moore’s Law and the doubling of computing power that will lead to computers smarter than humans in mere decades. I’m not sure what these super smart computers are exactly supposed to provide for us. Bitcoins? 3-D porn? 42?
This is the rim of the rabbit hole. Computers are manufactured at great ecological and material cost. They are created with rare earth metals, plastics, copper, fresh water, slave labor in mines, near slave labor in factories, fossil fuel powered mining equipment, fossil fuels converted into materials, fossil fuel powered assembly lines, global shipping and distribution, and they are eventually obsolete which lands them in third world neighborhoods to be “recycled” by poor people who burn them to extract what of value they can. Of course, the techno-optimist is likely someone who lives in a wealthy nation, and it is likely that they primarily see the benefits of technology, not the drawbacks. They probably have never assembled an iPad or spent three days underground mining coltan by hand under the watchful eye of an AK-47 toting guard.
There are very real crises that are unfolding now. Solutions to these crises needed to be implemented years ago. In fact, crises like climate change, peak oil, deforestation, species die-off, top soil loss – all needed to be addressed decades and decades ago. Talking about them solves nothing. Chanting the words “Solar panels, wind turbines, hemp oil” over and over again does nothing to address the net energy decline of peak oil, especially as on the whole, industrial capitalism has clearly chosen to go full tilt with hydro-fracking for tight oil and gas and strip mining for tar sands bitumen and low return coal deposits. It is hard to join any optimism that refuses to look around and see that technology is not, right now, this moment, saving the day. Technology is being used to maintain the status quo as the train of industrial civilization hurtles towards a gorge.
Technology comes with costs. There are the ecological costs of the places destroyed so that raw materials can be extracted. There are ecological costs of energy acquisition necessary to power engines and electronics. There are ecological costs to discarding defunct and obsolete machines and products. There are human costs to communities displaced, sickened, and killed by extraction and technological implementation. There are human costs in the immiseration of labor forces which crawl into copper mines, work assembly lines, wither in cubicles, and work the fields picking vegetables to keep all of the above alive. There are energy costs, as no technology exists without energy. An electric car needs electricity flowing through an electric grid, and as it stands, that electricity is primarily created through the burning of hydrocarbons. Nuclear power should need no discussion as to its dangers, and all of the pie in the sky “renewables” are all dependent upon industrial processes and none are eternal.
James Kunstler wrote a book on the optimism of techno-fetishists who cannot seem to do the math on what a technological society begins to cost. In “Too Much Magic,” Kunstler tells an anecdote about a visit to the Google Campus where he gave a talk. After describing the “tricked out” offices laden with snacks and video games, he describes the question and answer session that followed his speech, in which the general statement from employees was summed up as, “Like, dude, we’ve got technology.” Kuntsler writes:
“This informed me of something pretty scary: The executives and programmers at Google didn’t know the difference between technology and energy. They assumed that these were interchangeable, that if you run out of one you just plug in the other, which is inconsistent with reality.”
Seeing the childishness of the office layout and employee dress and behavior, Kunstler comes to a realization about the type of playful creativity at the backbone of Google’s business model:
“The childlike thinking at Google was a logical extension of this corporate culture: the belief in magic, in this case the magic of high tech. A lot of the high-level employees I spoke to in the auditorium that day were people who had become millionaires before they had turned thirty (thanks to Google Stock), mainly by pushing pixels around a screen with a mouse, that is, by making computer magic. They had magically become rich by making magic. Naturally, then, they were true believers in tech magic, and also, by extension, believers that any problem facing the human race could be fixed by applying tech magic.”
The attitude Kunstler describes is permeating the masses in the west. It’s reasonable to assume that the advances in technology available to the general public in wealthier nations is partly to blame. Twenty-five years ago there was Nintendo, and now there is Playstation 4. Before either, kids played outside. Twenty-five years ago the cordless phone was a wonder, and now you can tweet your musings on a touch screen smart phone from pretty much anywhere. Yes, computer technology has advanced quickly and has been dispersed to wealthier masses. At the same time, Hollywood has applied this technology to story telling, creating visual spectacles which can make the imaginary seem very real. The problem with this, is that stories on the screen which themselves describe constant advancement in technology come to life in the minds of the audience members who come to believe they aren’t witnessing fiction, but a commercial for the world of tomorrow. Finally, life in the modern middle class west is in so many ways separated from the foundations of these advances. People who have access to yearly upgraded smart phones never see the regions of land deforested and strip mined to gain access to a mineral. They don’t live in the sacrifice zones where fossil fuel is refined so that a rocket can put a satellite into space. They are privy to almost none of the miserable labor that makes any of these technologies possible. That’s what makes technology oh so magical – because it appears out of nowhere. One day it just shows up at a Sprint store and then it’s yours! The witches brew of dead migratory birds, dead gorillas, dead forests, dead rivers, and dead people that made such magical technology possible is never seen or tasted.
This magical attitude is a byproduct of living in a nation that exports currency and forces the world to accept it at the barrel of a gun. In a nation where none of the “doing” happens, a mere hypothesis is just as good as a completely implemented and functioning process. It is impossible to have a productive conversation about the myriad costs of any one technology, let alone all technologies, with someone who thinks in plug-and-play fashion. Mention global declining net energy, and they will say “algae,” “hemp,” or “solar,” as if the problem isn’t complex and nuanced, but merely a lack of suggestions of things that we can burn. Mention declining stores of materials or the ecocide involved in getting at them, and they will say “asteroid mines” or “3-D printers,” as if just coming up with something conceptually is the first and last step towards making it a reality. Time after time I have tried to describe the depth of modern agriculture and its drawbacks; fossil fuel dependence, top soil depletion, chemical run off, destruction of bioregions, pollinator kill off, etc. and with near unanimity the response is a vague mix of the words “permaculture” and “cloning.” Of course, this is from people who have never gotten one potato to pop out of the dirt.
Last week in North Carolina the Dan River had thirty thousand tons of coal ash spilled into it when a pipe burst beneath a containment pond. In the last month there have been two massive leaks of toxic chemicals in rivers in West Virginia, one of which poisoned the water source for over three hundred thousand people. It was discovered just the other day that the Wanapum dam in Washington state has a sixty-five foot crack in it. Toss in recent incident after incident in which natural gas pipelines have exploded and oil pipelines have burst, and I cannot help but think about upkeep.
When people speak of the future and all of the things humans will be able to create, rarely do they consider all of the things humans have already created which need constant upkeep and maintenance in order to not fail critically. In his short film about hydraulic fracturing, Josh Fox details the necessity of concrete gas well casings to last indefinitely in order to prevent gas from seeping into groundwater. Fox goes on to document that these concrete well casings last on average for twenty years.
Many of us have owned a car, and we know that over time, the damn thing falls apart. Metal rusts, fluids leak, components fail, and in general entropy wreaks havoc until we realize that it makes more sense to scrap the vehicle than to try to repair it. Industrial civilization is our collective jalopy.
Speaking of cars, according to USA Today:
“An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as “structurally deficient” and 20,808 as “fracture critical.” Of those, 7,795 were both — a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse.”
And these are just the bridges. Transporting all of our techo-gadetry, let alone our food, will require roads. Roads require constant repair. Repairing roads requires petroleum powered vehicles and well fed crews. As it stands, the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 “report card” for the US gave the roads a “D.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers also graded the water mains. They are apparently in about the same crappy shape that the roads are, as they were also given a “D.” Every year there are 240,000 water main breaks, which comes to about six hundred and fifty or so per day. The power grid on which all of the “World of tomorrow” fantasy technology will clearly rely was given a “D+” by the ASCE.
Of course, we could all scratch out a living without highways, water mains, and electricity, but what becomes downright concerning is the breakdown of existing infrastructure that can be fatal. How are the US’s nuclear power plants holding up? According to an Associated Press investigation into the aging of US nuclear reactors:
“Federal regulators have been working closely with the US nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them. Time after time, officials at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards. Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident. Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.”
Add in the chemical weapons storage depots, the bio-warfare weapons depots, the thousands of chemical plants, fertilizer plants, oil wells, refineries, nuclear research facilities, nuclear warships and nuclear waste storage facilities, and it becomes hard to fathom how a point won’t come when a large portion of human effort won’t be dedicated to merely maintaining what civilization has built while attempting to mitigate disasters caused by aging and dilapidated infrastructure. All of this while trying to grow a civilization and its technological capacity as fish stocks disappear from the rapidly acidifying oceans and top soil blows away from drought parched and poorly managed fields.
To believe in the techno-topian future is to ignore the concept of diminishing returns. Physicist Geoffery West gives a Ted Talk in which he demonstrates that living organism operate on a sublinear, bounded growth pattern. What this means is that across the living kingdoms, the larger a being’s mass, the less energy per capita it requires to keep said being alive. Of course, every living being has its optimal size, and no living thing grows forever. West goes on to point out that human cities operate on similar principles, except that their growth is superlinear, and that as populations grow, there is an increase in per capita energy required to maintain these systems. He points out that this makes cities unsustainable without innovation, with the added caveat that the innovations that prevent collapse in cities must also be innovated upon at an ever increasing pace. The question, according to West, is whether or not people can keep up.
Geoffery West also points out in his presentation that the growth of a city not only requires exponentially larger energy inputs, but that it necessarily will have exponentially increased levels of crime, disease, and discontent. Does it then not stand to reason that human innovations which provide the basis for growth also inadvertently sow the seeds of their own destruction? Every new band-aid technology which buys time for industrial civilization is itself a chaotic butterfly flapping its wings. Hydraulic fracturing temporarily offset declines in oil production while also causing Earthquakes, poisoning groundwater, and adding to climate change. Genetically modifying food crops to resist herbicides has led to increased herbicide use which increased the toxicity of ecosystems while simultaneously causing weeds to adapt to these chemicals. Yesterday’s solution becomes today’s problems. Eventually, today’s solution will be tomorrow’s cataclysm.
Of course, standing on a stage with a headset microphone and speaking to a horde of technophiles, I’m sure the on the ground reality of West’s suppositions is lost. Innovation isn’t magic. The resources and supplies that make innovation possible are not limitless. Right now, global net energy is on the decline. New sources of energy from “tight oil” plays to solar panels do not add more energy than is lost as conventional petroleum fields reach and pass their production peaks. Nor are the inventions of humankind timeless. An innovation may bring temporary gains, but then like a nuclear power plant or a gas well, the innovations themselves require ever increasing amounts of upgrades and repairs. This ever quickening race up an ever steeper slope is not one industrial man can win. In the interim, a particular class of human runs this race while throwing larger and larger swaths of everyone else into the furnace of development. When the eventual breaking point is reached, not only will civilization lose its ability to innovate and grow, it will lose it’s ability to contain its slumbering killers.
November 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
For those unaware of my biases going into this piece, I would like to lay them bare. For one, I believe human industrial activity is destructive to life globally, through the addition of toxins to ecosystems and organisms, to deforestation, climate change, etc. I believe that unless human industrial activity is halted, the mass extinction that this activity has already set underway, will cause ecosystem collapse and likely human extinction as well.
I also believe that human political systems and economic systems have been designed to contain within them no “legal” means of dismantling them. This is to say for instance, that the U.S. government as it is laid out does not contain a legal and accessible path for the so-called citizens of the United States to unmake the U.S. government. The only power “citizens” of the United States have is to vote (so long as they have not been convicted of a felony, are not in prison, have a valid address, and are above the age of eighteen) for politicians and to ask these politicians to act in a certain manner. One cannot vote to end the U.S. government. One cannot vote to abolish the congress or the presidency, etc. This is the bind most people find themselves in around the globe. National governments are allied in purpose and practice with capitalist business enterprises which all seek to exploit the natural world and the labor of the masses for profit.
If the premises I laid out are true — that human industrial activity is destructive to life on Earth, and that this activity is supported and promoted by governments which cannot by any “legitimate” methods be unmade — then people who struggle against this system must break the law; that, or acquiesce to the fate laid out for them. My personal preference is the struggle, and this has been a topic of discussion lately in more and more mainstream circles. Even actor Matt Damon, reading a speech by deceased historian Howard Zinn on civil disobedience, recently aired this conclusion.
In radical anti-capitalist circles, the system at large which combines state and private wealth, force, and power is often referred to as “the machine.” It is an apropos description in that interworking human organizations are a technology of sorts, and that as in a machine, no one part is responsible for the machine’s total behavior, yet each part is necessary for it to function.
If the situation we find ourselves in which I described above is accurate, where then in this machine should those who resist it, strike? Which “gear” as it were, would be the most vulnerable to pressure, allowing those who would fight to save the living planet and human dignity even a remote chance at success?
Often, in conversation at various levels, the “consumer” is blamed for the ills of the world. It is the “consumer” who drives demand for petroleum products. It is the “consumer” who purchases sweat shop labor products from low wage paying big box retailers. This is the argument put forth by those who sit in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy, blaming those in the classes beneath them for “demanding” that corporations set out to drill new deep water wells in the ocean or blow up the mountaintops that sit above coal deposits.
It’s not surprising that those who are rewarded handsomely for sitting in a controlling position at a corporation that is responsible for massive ecological damage would shift the responsibility from themselves to those who ultimately buy their products. It’s more disheartening when those who are themselves a part of the underclasses of society accept this blame and hand it out horizontally.
What this myth of consumer responsibility actually accomplishes is not only to create a self-chastizing public that refuses to apportion responsibility to those who actively decided to engage in destructive practice, but it also generates a motive to seek products that are supposedly less harmful in their creation. This is the force behind “green capitalism.” With this mode of thinking in place, capitalism is safe to continue on it’s way, and the masses who are concerned with the continually growing pace at which ecosystems are destroyed will be convinced that the solution is not in resistance to capitalism, but is in fact on a store shelf waiting to be purchased. This is of course, ludicrous.
Capitalism has as it’s founding motivation, profit. Profit requires growth. As all production is sourced in the natural world, growth necessarily requires larger and larger swathes of the natural world be destroyed so they can be made into commodities to be sold for profit. It doesn’t matter at all if the cars coming off of assembly lines are hybrids, they still require vast mining operations to access the raw materials from which they are made, they still require energy drawn from fossil fuels to be assembled and distributed, they still require for construction a vast workforce fed by mono-crop petroleum based agriculture, and they still require a large quantity of purchasers who acquire the currency for said purchase through labor in the growth based paradigm.
The argument placing the bulk of the responsibility for the destruction of capitalist enterprise on the “consumer” (in quotes because I do not find it wise to condense people to beings whose sole function is to consume) is absurd for a multitude of other reasons. The most glaring, is that not purchasing a product will not necessarily make it disappear. Vegans and vegetarians could easily contest to the fact that their refusal to purchase meat hasn’t actually shut down a single slaughterhouse or feedlot. Their choice to abstain from purchasing product from an industry they despise may make them feel better, but it is not harming that industry. Also, certain industries are backed financially by the state. As airlines have found themselves less and less financially stable over the past decade, the U.S. government has stepped in to keep them afloat. The arms industry is another great example of this. Consumers do not buy depleted uranium munitions, fighter jets, or nuclear missiles, yet they exist in great numbers. The corporations that produce them reap billions and never once have to concern themselves with public perception. The same is true with petroleum companies who receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government. If a massive boycott were to commence against oil companies, the U.S. government would deem them “too big to fail,” and would step in and support them financially, as the U.S. government itself is dependent upon a petroleum driven military apparatus and economy.
Less obvious, is that the organization of society itself requires that people utilize certain products in order to survive, primarily, petroleum. Using the U.S. as a template, before petroleum the physical layout of towns and cities was far different than it is today. Mostly due to the age of oil, the creation of the highway system, and with the implementation of zoning concepts, people’s lives and the necessities of life became more and more spread out geographically. The homes were built in one place, the food was grown in another place, and the jobs where people could labor to acquire currency were in another place. A reliance on cars and semi-trucks (a reliance intentionally manufactured by for profit entities such as Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tire with the aid of government) has built in a requirement for people to depend on the internal combustion engine. Even living in an urban area, where one may predominantly ride a bicycle (ignoring for a moment where that bicycle came from) the food people eat is grown an average of fifteen-hundred miles away from them on petroleum dependent farms, and trucked about the country until it reaches their nearest grocery store. This is true for the clothing they wear, the water they drink, the medicines they take; it all comes from somewhere else and becomes accessible to them via a hydrocarbon. This was a system designed for maximum profit, and no “consumer” can un-design it. To abstain from it would mean death, or at least destitution. The destitute fall victim to the police.
Even if we pushed on our “consumer” and barked, “Go live in the woods if you want to stop the machine of industrial capitalism! Stop supporting it!” Where would they go? Capitalism has sliced and diced all the land and sold it to those with access to capital, or the state has taken it for their own, so they can slowly sell it to industry. There is no place one can legally, permanently settle without first acquiring capital, which requires participation in the system. Not to mention, the surface water is now all poisoned with agricultural run off, mercury from coal fired power plants, etc. so even attempting to live in national parks, hiding from the park staff becomes mostly untenable, and leaves one prey for the state.
It is extremely common for people who have come to recognize the many political, economic, and cultural calamities we face to believe solutions will come from the top of the social hierarchy. The status quo meme is that by pressuring those with political and economic power, the masses can influence the decisions made in governments and businesses for the better. While this may occasionally be true on small issues, these issues are usually symptomatic of the greater malaise of industrial capitalism, and thus they are band aid measures only. If we are talking about actually taking apart the power structures that are rapidly bringing us closer and closer to our demise (and simultaneously existing on a foundation of human misery) then appealing to those in power is pointless. If they had any conscience to appeal to, they likely wouldn’t be actively making unconscionable choices to begin with. Beyond that, even from within the system the system cannot be demolished. The President does not have the power to unmake the executive branch of government. The congress cannot — and would not — abolish capitalism. It’s silly to even pontificate on how the rich and powerful would decide that they should no longer be rich and powerful, let alone go through the process of making this delusion a reality.
So where does this leave us? If the individual’s lifestyle choices have no ability to dismantle industrial capitalism, and if even the people who hold high offices in either state or capital cannot (and absolutely would not) dismantle industrial capitalism, then are we to believe that there is absolutely no method by which this destructive system can be dismantled? That does not seem possible. Systems of human organization are constructs that exist in human minds only. These constructs are made to seem real by the violence perpetuated against those who violate the edicts of the system, but they are indisputably imaginary. We cannot accept that the systems humans invented are permanent and fixed and we are resigned to allow them to play out to their cataclysmic conclusions.
The police, I would like to offer, are one of (if not the) largest obstacles to dismantling the overarching systems of state, capital, and culture which we must remove and replace if we are to survive, and to survive with dignity. I suggest this because without the police the system of capital could not stand. As it exists now, the world is extremely stratified as far as wealth and access to resources are concerned. Obviously, the wealth gap between the west and the global poor is enormous to the point of being disgusting. Even within the west, the wealth gap is quite significant we all know. This wealth gap is maintained they will say, by law, and law is maintained by the force of police and the penal system. I may be belaboring this point, but for a very specific reason, namely that my stated premise at the outset of this essay is that there is no legal method of dismantling the political or economical systems. At the very bottom of our understanding we must embrace the conclusion that the law must be broken, and that the police are the primary hurdle to strategic law breaking.
During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, multiple attempts were made across the United States to occupy not only parks, but buildings. in other words, to move the struggle from public space (which was still met with violence) to “private property.” The most notable attempt to occupy “private property” was arguably Occupy Oakland’s attempt to occupy a vacant convention center with the intent to create a community center to house the homeless, among other goals. The police in Oakland, working on behalf of the local government in one regard, but working on behalf of the entire system of capitalism and “private property” in another, used swift and brutal violence to beat back would be occupiers.
It seems obvious to me that the point of fracture that must be exploited is at the level of the police. Look at any resistance movement, whether a direct resistance to the claims of the owner class, a resistance to the ecological destruction and genocide of fossil fuel extraction, or even the small and constant unarticulated resistance of life in poverty (whether squatting, stealing to survive, being evicted, selling drugs, breaking zoning laws to garden, etc.) and you will find in every instance, the police are called in to exert violence against the so called “perpetrators.” People have been throwing their bodies into the gears of the machine for generations. Whether striking coal miners and autoworkers in the early part of the twentieth century, or environmental activists who defend forests from the canopies or who set bulldozers on fire, the will to resist capitalism’s immiseration of themselves and their communities has always been and is still real and present.
What there isn’t, at least at this time, is a willingness to overwhelm the police with a greater violence than they mete out, at least not in the comfortable west. Perhaps at this time, this unwillingness to go on the attack against the police is wise. After all, the consequences of failure are severe. In time, the consequences of not going on the attack against the police may become more readily severe and thus change this attitude, but right now, other strategies to sap the police of their power should be employed.
It’s common parlance when speaking of revolution to reference the pillars of power – the ideological and social foundations which hold up any system of power – and how successful revolutions must knock out these supports. In a popular web video called “Revolution, an Instruction Manual,” that was recently released, these pillars are referenced:
“There are three stages of revolution. They are sequential, and they correlate directly with the three pillars of power. The first is the ideological revolution. This is where we undermine the belief systems which support their control, this is where we systematically erode at their illusion of legitimacy, their aura of power. We expose these criminals for the scoundrels that they are and we inspire discontent among those who the state depends on for its functioning. If you’re new to this, welcome to the party. It’s already in full swing, and guess what we’re winning. The powers that be have lost control of the dialogue, and they know it. The second phase is of the revolution is strategic non-compliance or more accurately defiance. This can take many forms, and multiple approaches can be used at the same time. The goal of strategic non-compliance is to interrupt the chain of obedience for as long as possible as many times as possible, to publicize that interruption on as large a scale as possible, to document the police and or military brutality that follows and to distribute that footage far and wide. The purpose of this is to damage the ruling party’s image, because power is all about image. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
There have been many instances in history where leaders have been overthrown. There have been very few, if any, in which a total revolution has occurred. Rulers and politicians have been ousted, new constitutions written, but almost all political revolutions have left some form of capitalism in their wakes, including the communist revolutions which never dissolved their states, and ultimately turned to state capitalism. It should be stated though, that in the instances where governments have been toppled, it has often been the case that the police and security forces have eventually capitulated to the will of the masses, in essence, ceasing to fight them and either fighting alongside them, or stepping aside altogether. This was the case in East Germany before the collapse of Soviet Communism and it was the case in Egypt before the ouster of Mubarak. It should be noted that in the latter case, anti-Mubarak demonstrators did burn police stations, free prisoners, and take the weaponry abandoned there.
According to Mohamed Gamal Bashir, who participated in the revolution:
“Let’s not forget what happened in the days between 25 January and 28 January, this glossed over part of history,” he says. “There were constant clashes in Omraneya for example, and there were people in Talbiya trying to get to the Foreign Ministry. The fighting continued long after the political elite were tear-gassed out of the square on 25 January.” Bashir speaks of the “harafish,” whom he defines as youth with no prospects who often skirt the edge of the law. He claims that their actions led to the revolution’s success. He says that they burnt police stations in their neighborhoods in response to decades of oppression by police against the poor. “The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations and from the collapse of the Interior Ministry. That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible, and every police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years.”
Delegitimizing the police sounds like a monumental task, especially in countries of privilege and propaganda such as the US. In the US, Hollywood has carried water, so to speak, for the police for the better part of a century. TV shows and films have consistently presented the police as selfless heroes, who even when they break the law only ever do so for the greater good of the innocent. Reality television shows such as “C.O.P.S.” present a narrative of law breakers never getting away from the police, which not only adds to the mystification of the role of police, but makes law breaking seem impossible to get away with. Media outlets, pundit talk shows and the like, always present police and law as sacrosanct and unquestionable, shouting down anyone who suggests that police are violent or unnecessary. Even in cases of blatant abuse and brutality, media outlets run straight faced and supposedly “level-headed” statements about investigations into said abuse, asking the public for patience while the facts of the case are brought to light. Usually, after such statements in which police higher ups defend actions of brutality as “justified,” the case is swept from public view and the offending officer is returned to station.
Again, confronting the police then in the US and similar states not only means confronting their truncheons, but confronting their image. Cop watching is an amazing tool in this regard, as more and more people post to the internet videos of police acting out violently. But this is not enough. It’s not enough to witness abuse of power if it is not contextualized. The media, doing the work of the social hierarchy, will always blanket the police and their actions no matter how egregious under the context which preserves the system. Derrick Jensen describes this very well in EndGame with his fourth premise:
“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”
The long and short of this premise is, “Cop hits you, he gets away with it. You hit cop, you do time.” There may be no immediate way to eliminate the legal consequences of defending oneself against a police officer, but the social context which surrounds this premise can change with concerted effort.
We must also acknowledge that it is not enough to decry the police for perceived misuses of their power, because this allows the police as an institution to remain valid in the eyes of the public. Police in general must be delegitimized. The very idea that a small group of primarily white males can use violence against anyone else, and that no one is allowed to defend themselves against this violence must be shown for the grotesque perversion that it is. Unfortunately, the status quo perception of society requires police to maintain it, so delegitimizing the police as an institution often first requires delegitimizing society itself. This is a difficult Mobius strip of reasoning to have to impart. Humans left free to associate and organize as they please do not require police to maintain their social structures unless these social structures create social strata of “haves” and “have nots.” I think it’s reasonable to assert that no person will voluntarily arrange themselves as a “have not,” and would instead leave a social organism that would make them “lesser” than others, ultimately meaning such social organisms would not exist, or would not exist for very long. Er go, truly liberated societies axiomatically are societies which do not need police and could not have them. Societies that require police to maintain themselves are not free societies, and are thus bound by violence.
This point is succinctly made by Earth First! Journal editor Panagioti in his essay, “The Ecology of a Police State.”
He starts off by stating, “Imagine being an environmental activist in a world where police can get away with killing young people for vandalizing a fast food joint; where a government’s local law enforcers are collaborating with giant energy corporations to stifle opposition; where a sheriff demands funding for a program urging neighbors to snitch on anyone who says they hate said government. Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination, does it? In case you weren’t inspired to click the embedded links above, they reference recent stories of these things occurring in the US. In light of this reality, it’s crystal clear that global ecology will never be stabilized as long as the police have anything to do with it.”
Further into his essay Panagioti references practical methods and attempts at weakening local police forces:
“I know, many of you are nauseous just reading the words “vote” and “election,” but I’m not saying you shouldn’t be sick to your stomach. I’m saying suck it up and learn what’s going on around you. If you avoided every bathroom that smelled like shit, you’d be in a lot of pain and doing possible damage to your excretory system. Likewise, if you ignore what your enemies are doing because its unsavory to your senses… maybe you’re more of a liberal yuppie than you realized. So hold your nose and try going to some City or County Commission meetings for starters. If you live in the New England area, local budgets might actually be something people are already organizing around. If you live anywhere else, it will probably be you and a few other Libertarian Party wingnuts in the crowd. Try and make friends with them, even if they’re drooling on themselves or foaming at the mouth. Chances are they can explain to you in simple terms how the budget works and who the players are. Oh, and try to look half-way decent. Most of these things are televised, and, for better or worse, its likely that someone will approach you in a local bar and say they saw you on the TV.”
What this boils down to is finding ways to make the police less effective. Whether through sticker and wheat paste campaigns using humor as the Otpor! movement in Serbia did, or through local referendums concerning police budgets, or sabotaging police equipment, the time to whittle away at police power is in between flare ups of massive social anger and action, so when it is crucial, police are weaker in the streets, and fewer and further between in the rural areas where devastating infrastructure usually is built.
Which tactic is best employed at which time is a decision to be made by individuals, the larger take away here being that the police and the penal system are the thin blue line between the will to move beyond capitalism, and the ability to do so. While frightening, is there any other conclusion when one recognizes the need for disobedience? When it becomes an accepted reality that laws must be broken for our continued survival, is it not cognitive dissonance to think attacking the law enforcement structure is unnecessary?
We won’t shop our way to a livable planet. We won’t vote our way to a livable planet. We won’t garden our way to a livable planet. We will not maintain a livable planet hiding in our homes, waiting for those with power and wealth to make it so. We will not survive if we are obedient to those who run the machine. To be sure, even outright attacking the industries that kill the living planet may not be enough. There is no reason to hope, only a roll of the dice that is heavily weighted against us. But we have allies. Hurricanes and droughts and wildfires and all of the other natural forces of destruction will grow in frequency as human civilization further destabilizes the climate. We can let the juggernaut of calamity bowl over us, primarily the least among us, or we can act strategically to save habitat, to save life, and maybe, just maybe, have something make it to the other side of the bottleneck.