Last week’s letters by Chet Seligman and Richard Kirschman challenged my suggestion that nonviolent protest and civil disobedience may not be enough to reverse the tide of global devastation. Any talk of possible violence, hitting close to home, will make people uncomfortable, and I welcome the pushback. My goal is to engage this community on the urgency of climate change and ecosystem collapse—true global emergencies—and I see resistance to ecocide as self-defense. Is it unethical to protect our only planet, by whatever means, for our children and future generations?
The “twisted reasoning” of my last column brought to Mr. Kirschman’s mind the bombing of the power station in Olema in the late 60’s by the Symbionese Liberation Army in protest over the Vietnam War. I prefer such attacks on PG&E and its particular form of toxic violence to the secret violence by our government in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. His warning of “the horror and folly of allowing frustration to justify violence” overlooks the daily dose of violence inflicted on factory, office and agricultural workers, minorities, poor, enslaved and incarcerated people. I’m attempting to wake up more people to the systematic destruction that my generation of Americans, with our insatiable addiction to oil, has unwittingly unleashed.
Mr. Seligman asserts that climate change “is unstoppable because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and because billions of third-world people want western lifestyles.” In this statement I read both denial (it’s beyond help) and blame (directed at the victims.) I also read the belief that technology will save the day, if only people would invest more wisely.
Chet’s contributions on climate tipping points are compelling, and I agree that our actions should be undertaken “with a proper regard for science and by not allowing ourselves to be motivated by unwarranted fear.” I know my fears are warranted precisely because I follow what scientists are saying. We must not confuse energy with technology, or technology with science. While many have faith in the invincibility of technological progress, I don’t. We need a revolution in our thinking before all else.
I have never called for senseless violence or the abandonment of other means of struggle. Mine is a modest proposal that, while at the precipice of the world’s sixth mass extinction, we put all tools on the table. I don’t accept that sabotage as a possible tactic is beyond the pale. Militancy played a critical role at the Boston Tea Party; we are proud of that moment in American history when those “terrorists” destroyed property. Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize and was elected president of South Africa after 27 years of imprisonment for sabotage and militant resistance. Do we denounce him too?
Personally I wish I had some of Bradley Manning’s immense courage. Fearful of prison, I do not engage in underground actions. I’ve never been arrested for civil disobedience, but celebrate those who have. If we had millions of activists and protestors with an aligned goal and sustained commitment, our entire system could theoretically be brought down with nonviolence alone. But the numbers simply aren’t there. Justifying sabotage by attempting to disrupt the global industrial system, upon which billions of people depend, is not easy. But does it really matter whether the system eventually collapses from within, due mostly to rising energy costs, or whether it is pushed off the cliff with strategic attacks on the brittle foundation of pipelines, refineries, mines, ports and cables?
Like all abusers, our society systematically works to disrupt alternative ways of thinking and being. Indigenous cultures, as examples of sustainable living, have been trampled upon with a ruthless disregard for their humanity and wisdom. And, like other abusers, our global capitalist system has most of us dependent upon it for our survival. Our food, medicine, shelter, water, transportation and even our entertainment come from that system, which is killing off biodiversity. Nonviolence may be attractive and popular, and it clearly has its place, but we may need to fight back more strategically.
Here in the United States, the Keystone XL Pipeline is the environmental issue of the day, bringing together liberals, radicals, ranchers and indigenous peoples in protest. Former NASA chief James Hansen has said that the pipeline would be “game over” for the planet, accelerating climate disruption and devastation, yet it appears likely to be approved. If we’re left with the choice of either killing the pipeline or being killed by the pipeline, do we rule out force?
I’m not suggesting that anyone take actions with which they are uncomfortable; we should all fight as best we can, however we can. But as some people and groups choose property destruction, we might just withhold our culturally conditioned, knee-jerk responses of condemnation. When the alternative becomes “game over” for the planet, those who choose militant resistance to stop this pipeline will be morally justified and will have my support.