Once icons of radical environmentalism, the views they now promote lead to a self-defeating mix of scapegoating, isolation and nihilist adventurism.
Brian Tokar is an activist and author, a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, and an active board member of 350Vermont as well as the Institute for Social Ecology, where he served as Director from 2008–2015. H is books include Toward Climate Justice (New Compass Press, 2014) and, Climate Justice and Community Renewal (Routledge, forthcoming).
In this article he replies to interviews with John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen that were published in The Platypus Review earlier this month.
by Brian Tokar
I approached Platypus’ recent interviews with John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen with much interest. I was especially curious to see if either had modified their views in any way given the recent appropriation of nihilistic environmental rhetoric by various white nationalists and self-proclaimed eco-fascists, including last year’s mass shooters in El Paso and New Zealand. It appears, however, that their basic positions have not changed at all.
Zerzan and Jensen became icons of radical environmentalism during the post-Seattle/WTO era, and both still apparently believe that human civilization is inherently at odds with personal self-realization and the protection of natural biodiversity. Today, with both the climate crisis and our response to right wing nationalism demanding rising levels of human solidarity and identification with marginalized people, such perspectives appear even more self-defeating than they were 20–30 years ago.
Both interviews reflect a mythologized and disturbingly linear view of human cultural evolution, elevate acts of individual rebellion over the development of popular social movements, largely dismiss the experiences of the victims of contemporary capitalism, and both writers still appear to view their own perspectives as the only truly radical alternative to status-quo environmentalism.
The opening part of Zerzan’s interview references his important early writings on the nature of work under capitalism, which helped invigorate an increasingly self-aware post-sixties rebellion against the capitalist workplace. He helped contextualize a rising anti-authoritarian response to Marxist glorifications of the workplace as the primary locus of class struggle, a response that led to an impressive outpouring of literary, cultural and political expressions, most notably in the emerging high-tech workplaces of that era.
However Zerzan never fully embraced the historical critiques of technology and its social matrix (a term from Murray Bookchin’s work) that were emerging at the same time. Historians of technology like Langdon Winner and David Noble offered a considerably more nuanced view of the course of technological developments that advanced managerial control over the workplace, from agrarian times to the rise of technology-based industries in the early 20th century.
Zerzan’s interview suggests that the social movements of the 1980s — against imperialist war, widening habitat destruction, and environmental racism, to cite a few examples — largely passed him by. Instead, he began a course of research and writing that helped spark the emergence of a popular “neoprimitivism” that captured the imaginations of many young anarchists during the Seattle era and beyond. Zerzan’s work drew upon many of the same path-breaking anthropologists whose work had been utilized by the pioneering social ecologist Murray Bookchin — scholars like Stanley Diamond, Paul Radin and Marshall Sahlins.
But while Bookchin and his colleagues advanced the view that egalitarian social structures among preliterate peoples suggested the potential for a more profound social freedom that could enlarge the scope of human possibilities, Zerzan had a rather different interpretation. He and his followers largely opted for nostalgia, arguing that the emergence of civilization and “symbolic culture” was a kind of evolutionary tipping point that led to widespread domination, warfare, ideologies of control, and a dramatic curtailing of human possibilities. Rather than theorizing a dialectical tension between the historical legacies of domination and freedom, as Bookchin had in his 1982 magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom, Zerzan’s recourse was to look backward, reject civilization, and urge young radicals to withdraw into communities of like-minded individuals to try to attack “the machine.”
So in the late 1990s we had the “black bloc,” the Earth Liberation Front, and other similar circles of often self-isolating militants, tendencies that expressed some admirable qualities but ultimately proved more successful at enabling authorities to rationalize heightened repression than developing movements to bring down the system.
Since the 1980s, we have seen a couple of generations of radical anthropologists advance an increasingly complex view of human evolution and human potentialities. Feminist anthropologists have shattered essentialist views of traditional gender roles, citing examples of cultures that radically defy all the usual assumptions. Two recent review articles by David Wengrow and David Graeber challenge all conventional notions of a linear human history, especially the widespread environmentalist view (dating back to Rousseau and more recently popularized through the novels of Daniel Quinn, who is cited in Jensen’s interview) that the emergence of agriculture and cities was singularly linked to alienation from non-human nature and the rise of social domination.
Wengrow and Graeber cite archeological evidence for highly stratified societies among some Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, patterns of seasonal fluidity between dispersed hunting bands and highly organized settlements, and radically egalitarian and economically redistributive lifeways among some early agriculturalists. If we consider the latest evidence, it appears that the potential for domination and freedom, for oppression and liberation, exists in nearly every era of human history.
Another significant clash between Zerzan’s outlook and that of social ecology is around the question of democracy. Zerzan equates democracy solely with the “massified” and highly manipulated forms of representative democracy that exist today in most countries, ignoring the parallel legacy of revolutionary direct democracy that traces its earliest historical roots to the ancient Athenian polis, which first clashed with the modern nation state during the Paris Commune of 1871 and now appears resurgent, from the horizontalist response to Argentina’s financial crisis in the early 2000s, to Occupy Wall Street and recent radical municipalist movements from Barcelona to Jackson, Mississippi and beyond.
It’s not about empowering “leftist politicians,” as Zerzan suggests, but rather a movement from below that aims to replace top-down statecraft with a more genuine grassroots politics where local diversity flourishes and chains of solidarity unite communities in bottom-up confederations that reject provincialism, racism and the legacies of colonialism.
To fully actualize such an agenda may take generations, but what Zerzan offers instead appears to be largely rhetorical, and also self-contradictory. We “can’t smash the state,” but we can “get rid of industrial society.” We need “regulation and coordination,” but reject democratic governance and need to “go back to the stone age.” He rejects DSA, where a recently formed Libertarian Socialist Caucus is actively challenging the organization’s tendency to narrowly focus on electoral politics and reforming the Democratic Party, but embraces the Brexiteers’ far narrower vision of “local control” — a trajectory that has taken Paul Kingsnorth of the UK-based Dark Mountain Project from a thoughtful, literary-minded approach to questioning civilization toward an open embrace of ethnic nationalism.
All this inherently contradictory rhetoric is steering those drawn to it in some highly disturbing directions, as we will see.
If anything, Derek Jensen’s approach is even more subjective, more rhetorical, and more of a dead end. He shares Zerzan’s simplistic, linear understanding of human history and an idealized view of small bands of militant activists pushing beyond the limits of civilization. His work has reached a substantially larger popular audience than Zerzan’s, and for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s Jensen was by far the most popular writer on the anarchist/anti-authoritarian scene, a popularity that only began to wane when he embraced his partner Lierre Keith’s essentialist diatribes against transgender people and their increasing visibility in radical activist circles.
Jensen extrapolates his personal history of childhood abuse toward a view that all organized society is inherently abusive, and has traveled across the country and beyond arguing that a collapse of civilization represents the only hope for preserving biodiversity and liberating humanity.
Jensen shares the view of many leading proponents of deep ecology that an undifferentiated humanity is to blame for environmental abuses and that the ideology of capitalism is merely an extension of human nature. For several prominent deep ecologists in the 1980s–90s, this led to a perverse and fundamentally racist cheerleading for famine and AIDS as vehicles for population control, and support for the militarization of national borders to protect “American wilderness.” Well-funded anti-immigrant political operatives in the early 2000s made several unsuccessful attempts to take over the national board of the Sierra Club, and today’s more overt ecofascists have made immigration control their proverbial line in the sand — with encouragement from several prominent deep ecologists.
For Jensen, rape culture, racism and other horrors are not the product of particular institutional arrangements and class dynamics, but simply products of human “stupidity” and “selfishness.” Abusive behavior is a given, and “industrialization” is the vehicle for spreading our civilization’s stupidity worldwide. Not only is the social matrix underlying technological development out of the picture, but also the specific history of capitalist industrialism, boosted by the expanding use of fossil fuels from the mid-19th century to the present.
While scholars such as Andreas Malm and the members of the UK’s Corner House research group have carefully dissected the origins of these phenomena and the ways particular interests have exploited fossil-driven technologies to advance social control, Jensen simply blames us all. Yes, cities have become centers of resource extraction under capitalism, but they are also the places where per capita energy consumption is declining the most rapidly — especially outside of the wealthiest enclaves. Visionary architects and planners are exploring ways to make cities and neighborhoods more self-reliant and the expansion of urban agriculture is a worldwide phenomenon, mainly constrained by inflated land values and limited access to capital for those whose innovations will not help the rich keep accumulating more wealth. Following many deep ecologists, Jensen uses the language of “overshoot” and “carrying capacity” in a highly mechanistic way that blames victims more than perpetrators.
Typical of his voluminous writings, with their vast scope of unstated assumptions and selective research, Jensen here appears incapable of seeing beyond his personal biases. The founder and first director of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, had a utilitarian outlook on resource use, so for Jensen he must have been a leftist. In reality, Pinchot was a scion of Phillips Exeter and Yale, and a conservationist firmly in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. He pushed for more systematic and scientific management of (recently stolen) U.S. public lands at a time when unregulated exploitation by timber and railroad interests was the norm. In ethical terms he indeed fell far short of his sometime-nemesis, the Sierra Club founder John Muir, but he also helped advance the science of forestry in ways that both accommodated and constrained corporate interests. Pinchot helped expand public ownership of forest lands at a time when Congress was pushing for privatization, and he later joined Roosevelt in founding the Progressive Party. A decade later, he was elected governor of Pennsylvania as a staunch supporter of Prohibition and a fiscal conservative.
Jensen is surely correct that there are authoritarian currents on the left as well as the right, but that is something that both anarchists and independent Marxists challenged throughout the 20th century, not a recent phenomenon that Jensen simply failed to predict. And while positioning himself as an advocate for “organizing,” Jensen continues to be dismissive of the actual social movements through which many people have been drawn to his work. He views current environmental campaigns as too focused on a bland “sustainability” (which they frequently are, especially in the movement’s most conventional institutional forms) and the 1990s-early 2000s antiglobalization/global justice movement as not having accomplished anything.
In reality, opposition to the WTO and other global trade agreements helped radicalize an entire generation of critically-minded activists and also significantly constrained what once looked like an irreversible march toward corporate tyranny. While capitalist abuses continue on an ever-massive scale, the institutional means for sustaining those abuses and isolating them from public scrutiny and opposition are far less consolidated than the trajectory of the late nineties would have enabled. The WTO, IMF and other global financial institutions hold far less sway than they once did, and global elites may be more divided than at any time in recent memory, a factor that has always created openings for movements to develop further.
Popular resistance to expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure is at an all-time high, with hundreds of projects cancelled in recent years in the U.S. alone. The conscious linking of resistance and renewal, of what the French global justice campaigner Maxime Combes has described as blockadia and alternatiba has also helped reduce the hegemony of fossil fuel interests within the world of global finance. Is it happening fast enough to fend off the threat of global climate catastrophe and sustain the living ecosystems Jensen wishes us to identify more closely with? It’s hard to tell, and the answer could be no, but the alternative Jensen offers is a fantasy at best, and a recipe for the collective suicide and increased infiltration of dissenting forces at worst.
What Jensen refers to euphemistically in his interview as “decisive attacks on infrastructure” is described in considerable detail in the 2011 book, Deep Green Resistance, which he coauthored with Lierre Keith and Aric McBay. It is a work of adolescent fantasy disguised as political strategy, whereby a secretive alliance of underground cells and above-ground organizers simultaneously sabotages current infrastructure and prepares for a post-civilization future. Guided by a highly selective and thoroughly misleading discussion of the history of past militant movements, “DGR,” as it’s become known, will – in these authors’ view – simultaneously blow up power lines and bridges, create popular assemblies, grow organic gardens and run for political office. As far as I can tell, its main accomplishment in the 2010s was to make it easier for authorities to entrap naïve young militants in various ill-fated schemes to sabotage public infrastructure. When the Earth First! Journal (soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary) published a supplement featuring DGR a few years ago, the ‘next steps’ section mainly featured a list of Facebook pages.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the last 150 years of anti-authoritarian political theory and praxis is the inseparability of ends and means, something Jensen demonstrates a flagrant disregard for. He fantasizes about policy measures he’d implement “if I was made dictator” (by whom??) and insists he ‘doesn’t really care’ how we accomplish goals such as enhancing wild salmon populations. But history shows that liberatory ends can only be achieved by liberatory means. Most likely that means a diverse and widely transparent movement-of-movements that aims to overturn the tyranny of capital, advances genuine democratization, and creates new economic and political structures that value cooperation over competition and the integrity of living ecosystems and diverse human cultures over the narrow interests of current elites.
An understanding of the inseparability of means and ends — and of the ties that bind ecodefense to human liberation — is also necessary to firmly distance our movements from the tide of racism and overt ecofascism that has surfaced in recent years. In a recent book chapter, social ecologist Blair Taylor cites numerous ‘alt-right’ commentators and organizers who have sought to embed ecological themes in their resolutely white supremacist discourse.
The Pacific Northwest of the U.S., along with several northern European countries, is a center for this kind of activity, and ‘green anarchist’ themes, including those advanced by Zerzan and Jensen, are reported to be very popular within this milieu. Zerzan affirms his affinity for the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, who was celebrated in a 2013 Orion magazine essay by Paul Kingsnorth and has also become an iconic figure in some of the most violent white supremacist circles. Although he has criticized white nationalist tendencies among some of his readers, Zerzan has published several books through an outfit called Feral House that markets heavily to skinheads and conspiracists, and carries at least a few overtly Nazi titles.
Taylor cites the cases of three self-identified “green anarchists” who have turned toward an explicitly fascist ideology while in prison, and similar cases have been discussed in the pages of the Earth First! Journal. He concludes that “Green and primitivist anarchism have proven compatible with the ecofascist right because they share significant philosophical and political terrain, including ecological antimodernism, civilizational decline narratives, blood and soil sympathies, and hostility towards the left.”
Of course there is a long history of right wing currents in ecological thought, starting with the coinage of the word “ecology” by the 19th century German naturalist Ernst Haeckel, whose retrograde racialist views were adopted by prominent Nazi ideologues. Early Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer sought to reinterpret evolutionary theory as a rationale for capitalism, a tendency that was challenged by radical geographers like Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus. In the 1950s, pioneering forest ecologists in the U.S. adopted methods of land management that had their origins in World War II military strategies. Historian and social ecologist Peter Staudenmaier has documented a vast web of connections linking ecological and fascist ideas throughout the 20th century, as well as specific links between recent ecofascist tendencies and their mid-20th century antecedents.
Today’s global crises — economic, ecological and social — have ushered in horrific waves of authoritarian populism and white supremacism, driven by a politics of bigotry, scapegoating and ethnic nationalism. In response, movements for liberation need to be exceptionally clear that we embrace principles of solidarity, mutualism, anti-racism, and a profound commitment to climate justice. There is no room in such a movement for scapegoating, isolationism or nihilism, and it is truly unfortunate that two of the most articulate and widely quoted voices of militant resistance to the status quo have not yet accepted that fundamental lesson.
 D. Graeber and D. Wengrow. “How to change the course of human history.” Accessed March 2, 2018. <https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history/>.; D. Wengrow and D. Graeber, “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21, no. 3 (2015): 597-619.
 P. Kingsnorth, “The lie of the land: does environmentalism have a future in the age of Trump?” The Guardian, March 18, 2017.
 Blockadia, a term coined by the Texas-based Tar Sands Blockade in the early 2010s and popularized by Naomi Klein, represents the proliferation of spaces of resistance to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and other extractive industries. Alternatiba is a French Basque word that was adopted as the name of a bicycle tour to highlight alternative-building projects throughout France during the lead-up to the 2015 Paris climate conference. Combes proposed linking the two in a unified grassroots response to the anticipated failings of Paris. See Combes, Maxime. “Towards Paris2015, Challenges and Perspectives. Blockadia and Alternatiba, the Two Pillars of Climate Justice.” France attac. Accessed December 20, 2014. https://france.attac.org/IMG/pdf/Towards_Paris2015-climate%20justice.pdf.
 B. Taylor, “Alt-right ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States,” in The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication, ed.B. Forchtner (London: Routledge, 2019), 286.
 J. Biehl and P. Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (San Francisco: AK Press, 1995) revised and expanded, 2011.