August 2, 2012

Report from the East Coast Roadshow

The roadshow crew from left: Sam, Rachel, Cooper, Xander, and Val

Update: East Coast Roadshow videos available

Noam Chomsky gave the dedication at the opening of the Civic Media Center, a radical bookstore and community space in Gainesville Florida, and a signed photograph of the author smiled bemusedly from the wall as myself and four other members of Deep Green Resistance set up a table with our information and arranged chairs into rows. Most of the walls in the CMC are covered in bookshelves to the ceiling, filled with titles that make me wish that we had hours here to sit and read, instead of less than an hour to finish editing the presentation for our second stop on what we’ve been calling a Culture of Resistance Roadshow. We’ve been up late and awake early writing, editing, and discussing the minutiae of what we’ll be trying to get across, but we’re still feverishly tweaking the wording and checking our sources as the first of our talk’s attendees come in and greet us. Three of us will speak today, one for each of the three sections into which we’ve split our material. Behind the projection screen over our heads, a poster reads: “Until the lions have their historians, the tales will always glorify the hunter.” — African Proverb. Though we don’t yet know it, that proverb will become a slide in a later version of our talk — one among many additions and edits the presentation will go through in the next two weeks. In fact, we’ll learn so much from the discussions, questions, and experiences of each stop on the tour that no two presentations will be exactly alike. In each variation, the idea that proverb addresses is one that we wanted to challenge and talk about with others – who do the histories of our culture glorify, who do they erase, and what do the answers tell us about power and how to resist it?

Our first presentation two days earlier was at Florida Atlantic University’s Biscayne Bay campus in Miami. It was structured differently from the ones that would follow, because we shared time and discussion space with both the Miami-Dade Green Party and South Florida-based anti-capitalist group OneStruggle. Each group spoke for about twenty minutes. First, OneStruggle organizer and political cartoonist Stephanie McMillan lead us through her illustrated explanation of capitalism's contradictions. (Read Stephanie's great webcomic about the environmental emergency, Code Green.) She also explained that OneStruggle is focused on connecting capitalist exploitation with other, intersecting social justice struggles including the ecological crisis — a focus that DGR shares.

Next, a representative from the Green Party gave us a detailed rundown of some of the most critical threats to the area, with an emphasis on the risks imposed by the Turkey Point nuclear plant in nearby Homestead, Florida, which was fined $140,000 by federal regulators back in April of this year for failing to adequately protect employees from radiation exposure, not to mention the surrounding environment from contamination. Last, Sam and Xander from DGR spoke about our group's basic premise — that civilization is unsustainable by definition, and that it will continue to destroy more of our land and communities until we dismantle it. They also emphasized the need for decisive, coordinated direct action that can address the common roots of the overlapping problems that OneStruggle, the Green Party, and DGR are targeting. Topics addressed in the discussion that followed ranged from local, specific issues of destruction and exploitation, to the larger strategies and principles that guide each of the three groups.

In between Miami and Gainesville, we stopped by the Night Heron Activist Center in Lake Worth to help some great folks from Everglades EarthFirst! stuff, stamp, and seal the envelopes of the EarthFirst! Journal's latest fundraising mailout. Afterward, we all headed to nearby Jupiter to visit and swim in the Loxahatchee River. Myself and two others on the tour are Florida natives, and it was great to spend some quality time with Florida's prehistoric-looking ferns and pine scrub before heading North out of the sunshine state.

A fair portion of the discussion in Miami had focused on the details of how civilization destroys landbases, and on debate over whether reforming the civilized system is possible or desirable. With more than an hour to fill in Gainesville, we felt we could shed more light on the issue in a longer, more detailed presentation. In the introduction of our talk, we began by addressing the fundamental question: what is happening to the air, water, and land, and why? We didn't only want to try and answer that question, we also wanted to ask it of the community members who attended our talks. Different types of destruction, extraction, and oppression are occurring in every region we visited, and we wanted to hear about them from the people who are experiencing them directly. We were also interested in placing each local issue within the context of the global ecological crisis. For myself and others in DGR, learning the true definition of the word civilization was a major step toward identifying and understanding the destructive patterns of industrial culture.

Civilization is the phenomenon of people living in cities, more or less permanently, in large enough numbers to require the routine importation of resources. From this definition, we tried to explain the effects of civilization as a social system and arrangement of resources. When the land a group of people lives on cannot support them, the resources need to come from somewhere else. Sometimes those resources have to be stolen from other human communities, the way North America was taken through genocide and terrorism by civilized European cultures. Sometimes they have to be extracted from the surrounding biotic community - think industrial logging, fossil fuel extraction, industrial agriculture - at devastating cost to human and nonhuman life. The antagonism between capitalist, industrial civilization and the nature world is basic: infinite growth cannot be maintained on a finite planet.

In addition to talking about the physical, material implications of the civilized system, we also wanted to examine the myths of civilization. Certain ideas and narratives crop up again and again to justify the violence inflicted by the system. For instance, humans are separate from and above the rest of the natural world. Or, survival is dependent not upon cooperation with the land, its species, and other humans, but upon the domination and exploitation of them all. Dismantling the apparatus of civilization will also mean dismantling our unspoken adherence to the myths that the culture propagates.

Our second section asked: how do liberal and radical approaches to political change differ, and how likely are each of those approaches to help us dismantle civilization? We used historical and contemporary examples to illustrate some main distinctions between liberalism and radicalism. Greenwashed consumer choices and trendy, industry-approved lifestyle changes are the logical conclusion of liberalism's core tenet of individualism. Despite their ongoing failure to halt or even slow the murder of the planet, individual lifestyle changes are persisting within activist culture and even growing in popularity. Now, fifty years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, these lifestyle changes have posed no significant challenge to the environmental destruction she wrote about. The point is not to devalue the changes that we can each make to our lives.

In addition, liberalism is idealist in nature, which means that it identifies the locus of social change in changing people's minds instead of in changing physical reality. Radicalism values education as a necessary part of a resistance movement, but accepts that material reality shapes our experiences and therefore our ideas, not the other way around. The liberal approach also tends to emphasize an adherence to abstract principles, like dogmatic nonviolence, where a radical approach means a diversity of tactics and a practical focus on what can be effective within a particular context.

In this section, we also talked about what a culture of resistance means to us in DGR. A singular approach does not a culture make – we need everyone's ideas, talents, and dedication, using whatever means can be effective for halting the ecocide our planet is experiencing at the hands of our culture. However, differing tactics and approaches are most effective when they each fit into a larger strategy, and work toward a common goal. We also spoke about how systems of oppressive power like civilization, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism interlock to keep oppression and ecological destruction in place. They share common roots of domination, marginalization, and enforcement through violence, and if we want to effectively challenge any of these systems, we need to address them all.

Our third section focused on general strategic principles for resistance, and also on the specific strategy that DGR is working from, which is called Decisive Ecological Warfare or D.E.W. We examined the successes and failures of historical acts of resistance like the British Suffrage movement in order to discuss target selection and the nature of asymmetric conflicts like the one we find ourselves in today, where one side wields vastly more capacity for force than their opposition.

We went into a lot of detail in these sections during the Gainesville presentation, particularly with the first section's explanation of civilization's effects. We felt it was very important to address each of these topics in Gainesville, but attempting to address everything in our presentation meant that it ran a lot longer than we had hoped, and left too little time for discussion afterward with the group. We found that cramming too much information into a short time didn't make the concepts we were addressing any easier to convey. In fact, the attempt to preempt every possible question with a pre-written explanation seemed to make it even harder to get a productive discussion off the ground.

In the twenty four hours between Gainesville and our next talk in Atlanta, we reexamined the approach we'd taken to our presentation. We needed to pare down the information, focus on fewer, more fundamental concepts, and allow as much time for discussion as possible. Also, we felt that the physical set up of our last talk – seats for attendees in rows, facing us speaking at the front of the room – needed changing. We resolved to sit in a circle whenever possible, and also to focus on conscientious facilitation of discussion in order to avoid only a few voices dominating the conversation. That night and on the drive to Atlanta the next day, we considered and reconsidered each section that we had written, adding some minor points but cutting out and revising many more in order to allow more time for discussion as a group.

By the time we arrived at the Little Five Points Community Center in Atlanta, I felt better about our talk with the changes we had made. We didn't end up giving our presentation in Atlanta, however, because the film End:Civ by director Frank Lopez was being screened at the community center right before we were scheduled. Since that film addresses so many of the points we planned to cover, we decided it would avoid redundancy and be more productive to move straight into discussion. We arranged ourselves into a large circle with everyone in the room, and did go-around introductions as well as a short rundown of the topics we had planned to present on. We started out writing down the names of those who raised their hands to speak within the large group, and there were a lot of crucial topics brought up that needed to be discussed: the nature and role of technology within civilization, the relationship between aboveground and underground actions, what it means for land to have a carrying capacity of organisms. We also spent some time talking about the local resistance to the Vogtle nuclear plant.

The idea of carrying capacity ended up being a common focus of discussion during many of our tour stops. The idea that the planet can only support a certain number of organisms was challenged by some who attended our talks. In order to illustrate the concept, we talk about an experiment done in the sixties on St. Mathews Island. Twenty nine reindeer were introduced to the island, where there existed no natural reindeer predators. As a result, their population exploded to six thousand in a short time. The island's ecosystem could not support that many deer, and they quickly began to degrade the landscape by overfeeding. Eventually, there wasn't enough sustenance left to sustain their numbers, and the population underwent a crash die-off to less than fifty animals. This sequence of events is not unique to the deer population. The trajectory of their population graph is the same as it would be for any species that overshoots the carrying capacity of the land.

For me, learning about carrying capacity and overshoot added a lot of urgency to my critique of civilization. During our presentation, we placed the graph of the reindeer population from the experiment next to the human population graph – the curve is strikingly similar. Industrial agriculture, which essentially creates food out of fossil fuel with the use of petroleum-based fertilizer and mechanization, has allowed the human population to stave off the crash experienced by the reindeer and other species. We can delay the effects, but we cannot defy the limits of the natural systems we exist within.

Some who reacted to us with hostility at our presentations when we brought up carrying capacity seemed to interpret our analysis as a kind of misanthropic agenda to reduce the population by any means necessary, but it seems to me that such an interpretation misses the point. The civilization and the population it supports isn't going to crash because DGR says it will; it's going to crash because a finite planet cannot support an infinite number of organisms. The real question is, what will be left of natural systems when the artificial systems that support us can no longer do so?

After meeting a lot of wonderful activists in Atlanta, we headed to Asheville, North Carolina where we had a great time doing a talk at Firestorm. We spent some time in the city but were also excited to be able to camp for two nights out in the black mountains, right along the Blue Ridge parkway. I've lived in heavily developed areas all my life, and I've never before been able to appreciate how many stars are visible once you get away from the artificial lights of the city. Combined with the fireflies, the night sky near the South Toe river outside of Asheville took my breath away.

In the city, we stayed at a collective house with members of the Katuah EarthFirst chapter, and had a relaxing night browsing through their huge and amazing library. Some Katuah members explained the current problem of gentrification in the city, which is seeing an influx of corporate chains and a gradual removal of the local economy, as well as an oppressive police crackdown on communities of color and the homeless. We sat on the porch and watched the fireflies, playing guitar and singing songs about resistance.

After Asheville, we traveled east to Chapel Hill, also in NC, to speak at The Internationalist. The discussion here centered heavily on specific issues of strategy, particularly on the relationship between the aboveground and an underground segment of resistance. This great conversation carried over into the next morning, when members of the Croatan EarthFirst! Chapter made us an awesome breakfast before taking us hiking and swimming in the nearby Haw river.

We then headed to Knoxville, Tennessee to give a talk at the Birdhouse community center. A volunteer named Rachel who attended our talk showed me the community garden afterward, which is beautiful, and the food it produces is free to anyone who needs it. The strawberry she gave me from the garden was sweeter than any I've had from a grocery store. Before heading to DC, we stopped at the Wingnut anarchist collective in Richmond to do an interview with Weekly Sedition, a radio show on 97.3 Richmond Independent Radio.

We also got to visit the folks working with R.A.M.P.S. Campaign (Radical Action for Mountain People Survival) in West Virginia, who organize direct radical action against mountaintop removal coal extraction. We got to spend some time in the mountains with the fireflies, but we also went to see a mountaintop removal site. I had never seen one before, and the way the trees suddenly gave way to the barren dust of the extraction site was extremely disturbing. On a happier note, we also spent time swimming at one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, a lake surrounded by craggy cliffs. Val, Xander, and Cooper from DGR were even brave enough to leap into the water from the highest among them, about fifty feet. Sam and myself weren't quite as adventurous, but had fun jumping into the water from some of the smaller precipices.

By the time we arrived at our last talk, at Radical Space in Washington DC, the content of our presentation and the structure of our discussion had both changed quite a bit. At each stop, we learned more about how to convey our message, and more about what that message needed to contain. We narrowed down some of the more abstract, theoretical concepts we had started out talking about. While the philosophy behind our critique of civilization is compelling to some of us on the Roadshow, we found that it wasn't as accessible to talk about with others as concrete examples and local issues. Toward the end of the tour, we also began having a short discussion toward the middle of the talk as well as a longer one at the end, in order to address as many questions and comments as possible. Each stop brought us into contact with a very diverse group. We met a lot of environmental and social justice activists, but we also talked to many people who were less involved with activist culture. In some places, we spent a lot of time discussing the definition of civilization, and the reasons that this system is fundamentally unsustainable. In other places, like Chapel Hill, we felt like we were preaching to the choir on the issue of civilization, and spent much more time talking about a strategy for bringing it down. The diversity of viewpoints within our discussions sometimes made facilitation a challenge, but that diversity also made each stop a learning experience about what kind of issues each community is dealing with, and how different individuals are dealing with those issues.

We ended our trip by traveling to the Earth First! Round River Rendezvous in Pennsylvania, where we were more focused on learning and participating in discussion instead of leading them. DGR is a new group, and we're very aware that we need to be learning and cooperating with those who have vastly more experience with direct action than we do. We facilitated a workshop and discussion on strategy, where we talked about how to apply basic strategy and target selection to direct action. After we got through the workshop section, the discussion turned to DGR specifically, and the specific strategy that we are advocating. Since DGR is such a young group, it was a great opportunity to talk to the many activists at the rondy who had many years of experience on us. We also talked about the kind of relationship we'd like to build between DGR and other radical environmental groups like Earth First! After the rondy, two of our members were able to stay and participate in the blockade of an EQT well pad in the Moshannon State Forest.

Our East coast tour is over, but we'll be taking the knowledge and experience we've gained on it to other projects. A West coast tour begins on July 25th in Eugene, Oregon. This tour is intended to raise awareness and support for, the 3rd Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp in Unis’tot’en territory in the north of Unceded Occupied so-called British Columbia. In addition, several DGR members will be traveling up the west coast holding public events to build opposition to these genocidal and ecocidal pipelines and gather donations of food, blankets, money, and other supplies, and then attending the 3rd annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp August 6th-10th. Please donate to this project!

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