‘Deep Green Resistance’ – How not to build a movement

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Eugene V. Debs: “It is not because these tactics involve the use of force that I am opposed to them, but because they do not….”

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Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, Derrick Jensen
Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet
Seven Stories Press, 2011

reviewed by Ian Angus

In its March-April issue, Canadian Dimension magazine featured a very positive review of Deep Green Resistance. The reviewer said it “made me a better strategist,” and endorsed author Derrick Jenson’s assertion that “this book is about winning.” 

In my view, the strategy and tactics advocated in this book are a path to certain defeat, so I submitted the following brief response, which CD editor Cy Gonick has kindly published in the May-June issue, available on newsstands now.

There is much to admire in Deep Green Resistance (DGR). The authors sincerely love the natural world. They write passionately about environmental destruction and the refusal of the powers that be to change course. Their criticism of the ineffectiveness of mainstream environmental organizations is powerful and convincing, as is their argument that radical greens must aim to “deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.”

But the book is mostly about strategy and tactics, and that is where it fails.

In his previous book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen wrote:

“I don’t think most people care, and I don’t think most people will ever care…. The mass of civilized people will never be on our side.”

That elitist, greener-than-thou attitude permeates Deep Green Resistance.

The authors write:

“The vast majority of the population will do nothing unless they are led, cajoled, or forced. … there will be no mass movement, not in time to save this planet, our home.”


“Humans aren’t going to do anything in time …[so] those of us who care about the future of the planet have to dismantle the industrial energy infrastructure as rapidly as possible.”

That elitist analysis leads to elitist strategy. Having written off most of humanity to as irredeemably apathetic or hostile to change, the enlightened ones of DGR propose to force change on the world through “Decisive Ecological Warfare” conducted by small groups.

“Well-organized underground militants would make coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world … actions against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries, perhaps using electromagnetic pulses ….”

If even partially successful, the social and economic chaos caused by such a campaign would be felt most severely by the poor and oppressed. DGR’s authors face that prospect with appalling equanimity:

“We’ll all have to deal with the social consequences as best we can. Besides, rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans — even if there is a die-off — because at least some people survive.”

Of course, Decisive Ecological Warfare is pure fantasy, a video-game vision of a heroic band saving the earth from evil-doers, enabling a handful of survivors to carry on as hunter-gatherers in a new Eden.

Missing from DGR’s scenarios is the outcome that history says is most likely – long before the underground groups achieve any significant size or ability to act, they are infiltrated by police spies and provocateurs and disrupted by arrests. Key activists are imprisoned for years; many more are isolated and demoralized.

Our rulers couldn’t ask for a more favourable result.

“We are,” DGR’s authors admit, “up against a system of vast power, global in scale, with no sympathetic population upon which to draw for either combatants or support.”

But instead of working to build an effective counter-power by educating and organizing the oppressed, they have somehow convinced themselves that the “system of vast power” is actually so vulnerable that it can be brought down by sabotage.

The socialist reply to such illusions was expressed a century ago by the great U.S. socialist leader Eugene V. Debs.

“It is not because these tactics involve the use of force that I am opposed to them, but because they do not…. The force that implies power is utterly lacking, and it can never be developed by such tactics.”

And, as István Mészáros wrote more recently,

“The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”



  • Dear Deep Doodoo Green activists; if you think the answer is killing off large sections of humanity to save the earth, I suggest you start with yourselves and be an example to us all

  • I read DGR recently and think the selected quotes misrepresent the authors, as well as the relationship they see between direct action and mass organizations. They spend several hundred pages outlining the relationships between above/under ground organizations, the role the different tactics play, and what makes up a culture of resistance which includes both mass organizations as well as direct action cells.

    It’s sad to see people dismiss it based on a review and caricature of it, as if it was put up as a strawman, and then act holier than thou.

    • Nestastubbs … If you think those quotes “misrepresent” the authors, please explain why they didn’t mean what they said. The sentences I quoted come from the parts of the book in which they set out their political philosophy — and its clear that the tactics they propose flow from their view that mass action is impossible.

      Yes, they spend much time talking about “the relationships between above/under ground organizations,” but the entire discussion is technical … how to keep secrets, how to gather materials, etc. For them the “above ground” is simply a support apparatus composed of people who don’t want to join the “direct action cells” which are the most important part of the movement, and which will launch their fantasy war.

      I do not question the sincerity dedication of the DGR writers. But the tactics they propose are self-defeating, and will make it much harder to build a movement that is really about winning.

  • Good review.  I haven’t read the book yet but I agree with the points made.  Mass movements have won all kinds of reforms that have improved the lives of ordinary people as CT points out.  What DGR is advocating is essentially terrorist tactics.  I know that word is terribly loaded since 9-11 but I’m referring here to the actual meaning of the word and not to what it has become.  Look at the historic examples of how terribly this has failed: Earth First and The Black Panthers are two that come to mind.  Look at the history of Cointelpro.  And the result of these tactics is not to win more people to the cause, in fact quite the opposite. 

    I’m not against using force but it has to be based on defending mass democratic organizations of the working class/environmental movement.  It has to be about empowering people to make the kind of changes that are needed.  Right now the real struggle is to build those kinds of organizations and that takes time.  I think we all feel the same sense of urgency.  I’m not surprised that this book is coming out now when Kyoto has failed and the Tar Sands project continues to expand.  But the urgency is not simply for power or the destruction of power.  It is for democratic power.

    I totally disagree with the DGR authors when they say that most people don’t care.  That is the part that I see as very much elitist.  Polls show repeatedly that the majority of people in Canada and around the world do care.  Just because they haven’t joined the movement doesn’t mean they don’t support it.  The environment is a vital concern to be sure but it is not the only one.  People are moving into resistance around a wide range of interconnected issues and this kind of strategy that DGR is promoting would completely sideline this very real movement.  What we need is to make the environment one of the central issues in this new movement and I think to some degree it already is.  The DGR is the logical conclusion of many years of a single issue environmentalist strategy.  By eschewing social justice struggles and treating the environmental struggle as if it predominated all others they have alienated incalculable numbers of people who might otherwise join.  Now they propose to treat the results of a bad strategy with an even more extreme version of it.

    I’m glad at least that they still haven’t completely severed themselves from the broader movement and see that it might have some relevance but they are talking about a dangerous strategy.  This is a strategy that threatens not only the people who directly participate in it but also the rest of us who are involved in the environmental movement.  Think about the results of 9-11.  Terrorists destroyed the symbols of US economic and military power. The result was the death of the anti-capitalist movement that had grown out of Seattle and was steadily gathering momentum.  I think the last thing we need now with so many fantastic movements arising all over the world is a return to the War on Terror.

    • “a return to the War on Terror”? When did that war end, exactly? Isn’t it still going on in Afghanistan, to name but one imperialist front?

      Deep Green Resistance is wrong for many of the reasons outlined in Ian’s review and the comments, but calling it “terrorist tactics” is simply hyperbole.

      Contrary to what the owners of capital would have you believe, not all anti-capitalist violence is terrorism. Terrorism consists of violent attacks on civilians. That’s not what DGR is advocating. 

      • Jeff, I think you have to consider the actual results of small bands of eco-warriors launching attacks on the world’s energy infrastructure.  The repercussions would mean many many lives lost after installations have been attacked due to the destruction of vital services like water purification to give just one example.  Take a look at what the destruction of power generators meant for the Iraqi people in 1991.  As the review points out:

        “If even partially successful, the social and economic chaos caused by
        such a campaign would be felt most severely by the poor and oppressed. DGR’s authors face that prospect with appalling equanimity:

        “We’ll all have to deal with the social consequences as
        best we can. Besides, rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans —
        even if there is a die-off — because at least some people survive.”

        I think the burden is on you to show how these tactics are not terrorist.  I agree that some acts of sabotage can be carried out without necessarily being terrorist and threatening human lives but that certainly isn’t the case with what DGR has proposed.  I think it is even quite naive to think that carrying out such attacks on the scale they are suggesting could be done without some people getting killed directly in the act.

        The whole strategy is profoundly anti-human and speaks to a very fundamental problem with the whole Deep Green or Deep Ecology perspective.  Human beings are part of the environment.  Most of the people that would die bear no responsibility for the destruction of the environment.  Most of them have been victims of it’s destruction precisely because they are intimately dependent on ecosystems for their survival, as we all are.

        As for the War on Terror, I’m referring to what it was at it’s peak, in the aftermath of 9-11.   I agree that some aspects of it are still ongoing, such as the war/occupation in Afghanistan, and that we need to keep resisting that but it’s also important to recognize that since the 2008 financial crisis and the Arab Spring the atmosphere has changed dramatically.  If some environmentalists actually act on what the DGR is proposing you can be sure that it will be used as an excuse to launch a war on all environmental activists, making a mass movement even harder to build.

  • All evidence, Phil?  Where do you think the 8-hour day came from?  Unions?  The welfare state?  Hugo Chavez?  Who ran the Highlander School, and with what effect on American society?

    The lack of perfection is not proof of impossibility.

  •  We’ve been waiting over 160 years for the masses to rise up against their oppressors.  And we are still waiting.

    So who’s the elitist, again?

    •  What about Russia 1917, Spain 1936; Greece Yugoslavia Korea China and Vietnam from 1945 on; Cuba 1959; Czechoslovakia 1968; Chile 1970; Portugal 1976; Nicaragua 1979; Grenada and Burkina Faso in the 1980s; South Africa 1994; Venezuela and Bolivia today. I probably missed a couple and got a couple of dates wrong. They didn’t all succeed, or go far enough, and certainly some that did were later corrupted and rolled back; but I can’t make any such list of popular revolutions for the kind of adventurism that DGR seems to advocate. Where and when has it worked on that scale, fundamental nationwide change?

      Lots of people think it’s all so urgent we don’t have time for mass movements, revolution, social change or whatever. But if you’re going to look for shortcuts, they have to actually work, or they are just a waste of time.

  • Dan, I disagree about the more privileged layers of society surviving.  Many parts of the world would breathe a sigh of releif and finally be able to grow their own food on their own lands.  I think it would be the privileged who would suffer first as they lost all the resources they have been taking from other lands.  Of course, this wouldn’t include the very few who are at the very top who likely own enough lands and a fortress to protect it with, but those are going to be the 1%.
    How can anyone inherit the earth if they are responsible for ecocide…eventually the life systems will crash, killing even those on top.  I don’t think any high-tech industry is possible in the long term, it is not a sustainable way of living, that doesn’t mean we can’t use tools, but eventually people have to stop taking more than they give back.  I don’t know of any high-tech that doesn’t require large mining projects, for example, and the resulting poisoned land and water.
    Are you saying resistance is futile?  It would be nice if industrial civilization choose to change into a sustainable society, but I don’t see it happening voluntarily.  I think resistance is necessary if we want the world to still be around for future generations.

    • I’m pretty sure Dan means that in the “mass die-off” that the DGR authors foresee the vast majority of the slain will be the “ignorant masses” (in their schema), not the capitalists. And whatever is left of civilization will very likely be ruled by the most powerful—who at that time will have created a sort of “fortress earth” that protects their wealth and power much more violently than today. see http://www.unep.org/dewa/Africa/publications/AEO-2/content/214.htm

    • I agree with Jamil, and I’m also disturbed by your implied contrast of resistance and sanity.  If there’s a lesson about the old topic of what is to be done, it has to be that the left must strive to show why and how resistance is sane.  One component of that, I’m convinced, is maximizing movement democracy and nonviolence.  Would I have fought back physically in El Salvador or South Africa circa 1979?  Probably.  But the real gains have come when the Gandhis and MLKs have managed to access deep targets without letting gestures become distractions.  There’s also little doubt that some percentage of of the kinds of pranks and attacks Jensen and his buddies flippantly promote (almost certainly without doing, btw) are also planned by the world’s CIAs, due to their obvious anti-left PR uses.

      As to people dying due to ecological changes, the only decent and smart left position is that we’re against it all, even for the rich.  Die offs (even beyond the one that’s always been happening since “modernity” arrived) on a planet with 7 billion of us are simply damned dangerous, nothing to mess with or welcome.

  • In short, DGR belittles the role of the masses. In the final analysis, their praxis to destroy industrial civilisation is not only traitorous to the working class, but the destruction of /all/ industrial civilisation, i.e. not just unsustainable parts, would inevitably lead to the mass starvation of the majority of the population. No doubt the more privileged layers of society would survive such desperate measures (if it even worked). The result being that the agents of capital responsible for upholding the ecocide in the first place inherit the Earth.It is incorrect to see industry in such black and white terms. I believe an environmentally sustainable and high-tech civilisation is possible. I don’t think we can be critical enough of DGR, they quite simply deserve to be exposed as reactionary eco-terrorists who are a liability to the enivironmental and ecosocialist movements.

  • I just finished reading the Deep Green Resistance book and found much hope in it, and lots of ideas.  It is filled with detailed examples of historical groups that succeeded.  I got the impression that that the authors are hoping many will join, and get ideas and support from reading this book, but have a backup plan for if there isn’t a mass movement.  Also, DGR is supportive of all other movements, like Derrick Jensen says “we need it all”.  I didn’t see any elitism in this book, only love for the land and all living beings.  I understood that DGR will work with all other existing or future movements, including a mass movement if that does happen.  I’m in agreement with the authors, I’m not sure we have time for a mass movement, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working on teaching others.  Why should we waste time, even if we disagree, criticizing a book that could help all environmental and social movements?  I’ve never read any book like this, it is a gift to all of us in my opinion.

    • If DGR assumes we can carry out such fundamental changes to society without building some kind of movement that unites the 99% against the 1% (broadly speaking), then I really doubt its worth for activists. Such a transformation to an ecological society is conceivable only *with* the people, its doomed if we imagine it can happen *against* the people, without their active engagement and involvement.