Deep Green Resistance: A Book Review
May 19, 2013
Since this review of the book Deep Green Resistance was written, some things have changed: Deep Green Resistance has affirmed their transphobia as their official policy, Earth First! has distanced themselves from DGR, and Aric McBay has left Deep Green Resistance. However, even as DGR seems to crumble due to its anti-trans views, there has still been relatively little discussion of the other problematic aspects of DGR.
Over the summer of 2011, Deep Green Resistance – which bills itself as “an analysis, a strategy, and a movement” – started to gain attention in anarchist circles. This isn’t very surprising, as one of it’s primary theorists is Derrick Jensen – who despite not being an anarchist – has contributed to various anarchist publications such as the now defunct Green Anarchy. In addition, Deep Green Resistance argues in favor of dismantling civilization and advocates for immediately taking the steps necessary to do so – which is sadly an all-too-rare perspective.
The response to Deep Green Resistance in anarchist circles was overwhelmingly negative (see for example “Critique of Deep Green Resistance: Authority and Civilization,” “Down Graded Resistance: A Critique of DGR,” and “A Response to Deep Green Resistance”). Various authors immediately criticized Deep Green Resistance for its organizational structure—its centralization, its requirements that members sign a “code of conduct,” and its advocacy of what essentially amounts to a guerrilla warfare strategy (advocating for the development of an underground that will attack industrial infrastructure) and movement (while also supporting a separate above-ground movement that is explicitly non-violent and that can seemingly involve almost any strategy). Others criticized the “cult of personality” that the organization has built up around Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay. People have rightly pointed out co-author Lierre Keith’s disgusting transphobia (who is also the author of the anti-vegan rant The Vegetarian Myth) and Derrick Jensen’s decision to consult the FBI over Internet threats. Furthermore, Deep Green Resistance was a frequent topic of discussion on John Zerzan’s Anarchy Radiowhere it was roundly criticized and dissected. All of this criticism came before the book Deep Green Resistance which outlines the theoretical and strategic thinking behind the effort was even out.
For anarchists, it seemed pretty clear that Deep Green Resistance was a non-starter and should be rejected. Aside from the criticisms cited above, a friend pointed out that it was like a “green” version of Bob Avakian and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) – that seemed to sum it up pretty well. At the same time, there didn’t seem to be a lot of activity in the Deep Green Resistance world: there weren’t many chapters forming and it seemed eclipsed by the Occupy phenomenon within the left milieu (Deep Green Resistance associates itself with the left). An “open letter” sent by Deep Green Resistance to the Occupy movement proposing a potential path of action for Occupy didn’t seem to have much influence (although measuring its impact is admittedly difficult).
Consequently, I sort of forgot about Deep Green Resistance. That was until the Earth First! Journal published a lengthy insert from the book Deep Green Resistance in its Brigid 2012 issue. Regardless of criticisms that can be made about Earth First! – for example that it tends not to go far enough into a critique of civilization – Earth First! has an association with the anarchist/anti-authoritarian space. It was surprising that they would republish a strategy that had been so roundly and substantively criticized and that was at odds with many of the values that Earth First! tries to embody, mainly anti-authoritarianism, autonomy, and a commitment to decentralization.
Although a lot has been said about Deep Green Resistance as a group, there hasn’t been as much said about the book. I decided to brave its five-hundred pages – to hopefully spare others the trouble and to contribute to the ongoing critique of Deep Green Resistance. As anarchists, it’s important that we reject this type of authoritarian nonsense and expose it for what it is when it encroaches into our spaces.
The Problem is Civilization – and that’s about all Deep Green Resistance Gets Right
The least controversial part of Deep Green Resistance is its assertion that the problem we are facing is civilization itself. In the first two chapters, Lierre Keith and Aric McBay argue convincingly that we are in the midst of a major ecological crisis that will not cease until civilization is dismantled. Keith points out that if every one in the United States did everything Al Gore is suggesting, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21% (22). They persuasively argue that personal consumption choices are not enough to change the culture as industrial uses of fossil fuel and other resources are so immense. Instead, they argue that the crises arise from the “social and political organization we call civilization (33).” For those familiar with Derrick Jensen’s previous writings on civilization or the anti-civilization anarchist milieu, this is pretty basic stuff: civilization arises from cities, is relatively young in terms of history (only a few thousand years), is dependent on a division of labor, and requires a complex hierarchy to administer (33-34). McBay also articulates that large-scale agriculture is necessary to support civilization (34). However, the authors spend relatively little time on the origins of civilization and pre-civilized people and instead focus more on the ecological devastation on which modern life is based. These sections could have been stronger and developed a deeper critique; for example, there is no discussion of domestication, a key concept in anti-civilization writing. But as a starting point, at least Deep Green Resistance seems to be coming from the right place.
As would be expected, Deep Green Resistance pretty quickly goes awry. Perhaps it sets itself up for an impossible task: developing “the strategy” to take down civilization. That’s no easy task – and it certainly isn’t one that just three people could tackle. But that’s what Deep Green Resistance sets out to do. The Deep Green Resistance movement is “trying to stop the burning of fossil fuels” and to “disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization” (499). The authors declare that the culture is insane and that there is unlikely to be a “mass movement” against civilization and that as such smaller groups must start taking the initiative immediately (287). It recognizes the necessity of political struggle, the need for multi-level resistance (above-ground and underground / violent and non-violent), that the planet and human culture must be repaired, and that militant resistance is essential (477-483). Throughout the book, the authors explore a variety of historical resistance movements and strategies – even running for office (482) – before presenting their “Decisive Ecological Warfare” strategy.
The problem is that before the reader gets to the strategy, Deep Green Resistance presents a staggering 425 pages of analysis, history, and discussion. Rather than present a convincing case for their strategy, they succeed only in making it clear that nobody should take them seriously.
A Cult of Personality? Advocating for Hierarchy?
Some of the initial criticisms of the Deep Green Resistance movement that I encountered focused on the fact that the movement seemed to be setting itself up as a cult of personality. The authors of Deep Green Resistance have dreamed up a strategy – and are looking for able and willing adherents to put it into practice. Moreover, they speak repeatedly on the subject and have a considerable element of power. Perhaps the most absurd example of this was the Deep Green Resistance “Dinner with Derrick” contest where you could buy raffle tickets to win Derrick Jensen related stuff including one of his t-shirts (!?!) and even a dinner. On the organization’s website, one of the recommended initial action steps is to arrange local media appearances for Derrick Jensen, Lierre Kieth, and Aric McBay. There is definitely an element which props up the three as leaders—the three will do weekend workshops “to learn practical, effective strategy and tactics, get a more in-depth analysis of the problems we face, and explore hypothetical resistance scenarios” (for a fee, of course). When reading the book and the movement’s website, one definitely gets the sense that the authors have come up with the strategy and are the leaders: in many ways, everyone else is just shock troops. It also doesn’t help that Derrick Jensen’s only parts in Deep Green Resistance are in answering questions at the end of several of the chapters, making it seem as if he is some sort of prophet that must be consulted from time-to-time to share his ever-so-deep insights.
Throughout the book, the authors advocate for strong leadership in a resistance movement. They are strongly critical of consensus and forms of non-hierarchical organizing. The following quote from Lierre Keith is indicative of Deep Green Resistance on leadership:
“Radical groups have their own particular pitfalls. The first is in dealing with hierarchy, both conceptually and practically. The rejection of authority is another hallmark of adolescence, and this knee-jerk reactivity filters into many political groups. All hierarchy is a tool of The Man, the patriarchy, the Nazis. This approach leads to an insistence on consensus at any cost and often a constant metadiscussion of group power dynamics. It also unleashes “critiques” of anyone who achieves public acclaim or leadership status. These critiques are usually nothing more than jealousy camouflaged by political righteousness. (137)”
This is obviously dismissive of very real issues that come up in resistance movements, whether they be hierarchical or not. Moreover, equating the rejection of hierarchy with “adolescence” is just age-ist. Sadly, this seems to be a recurrent theme, with Keith later writing:
“The first priority of their movement [the Women’s Political and Social Union, a suffragette group] was loyalty, both to their cause and to those who were leading. Therein lies one of the major problems with modern radical groups. We tend to destroy our leaders with criticism, often personal and vicious. The antihierarchical stance of radicals leads to an adolescent reaction against anyone who rises to a public position.” (171)
Keith goes on to dismiss criticism of leaders – once again framing the discussion in terms of age:
“Writer after writer gets accused of “selling out,” although not a single one can even make a living–let alone a killing–as a writer. This charge is also leveled at dedicated people who run small presses, bookstores, and, indeed, anyone with the temerity to actually get something done. It’s a combination of petty jealousy and “rooster battling.” Though the same attack-the-leader default is occasionally present in women’s groups, the demands of masculinity make this way more of an issue for men. We must call it what it is when we see it happening. If the offenders refuse to stop, they should be shunned until their behavior improves. Attacking our leaders is painful and destructive to both individuals and movements. The younger members can’t be expected to be able to identify and take a stand against this behavior; they don’t have the life experience, and they’re naturally inclined to be “combatants” at that stage of life. It is up to the middle-aged and older members to set the tone and behavioral expectations, to guide the community norms. People decades too old for this particular behavior publicly engage in it with glee.” (171-172)
Later in the book, Aric McBay explains how participatory forms of decision making are common amongst leftists, but that they might not be the best choice in all circumstances (307), going on to state:
“The more authoritarian methods of decision making–the hierarchies of businesses or the military–are common for a reason: they get things done. Hierarchies may permit abuses of power. but they are very effective at getting certain tasks accomplished. And if we want to be effective as resisters, we have to decide what we want to get done, and pick a decision-making process suited to that job.” (307)
McBay writes that “a hierarchy can be scaled to any size” (308) and that “the key lesson is that certain kinds of resistance – like armed resistance – only work when there is a hierarchy in place. (308).” And because Deep Green Resistance is advocating for what essentially amounts to a guerrilla warfare strategy, it is arguing in favor of hierarchy. For McBay, in an underground group, even majority-rule voting – hardly the hallmark of egalitarian decision-making – is too much: it’s too slow and people might not know enough to vote meaningfully (309).
At another point, McBay cites the U.S. Army’s field manual to argue for a “Unity of Command” arguing that anarchists fail to understand “a millennia of strategic advice” that says participatory decision-making is not sufficient for “serious action” (347).
However, it isn’t just in underground clandestine actions for which leaders are necessary, Keith writes:
“Of course, small-scale and aboveground groups should be democratic whenever possible, but that does not change the fact that leaders must emerge nor does it change the fact that underground groups engaged in coordinated or paramilitary activities require hierarchy. (175)”
Indeed, much of the book contains apologies for and outright advocacy of leaders. Keith writes of the “reality of leadership” (175) and urges people to be respectful when leading those who choose to be led. It’s full of talk of “cadres,” “leaders,” and “combatants.”
They do acknowledge that leaders have been attacked because they are correctly identified as crucial to the organization (420, 175). This isn’t really talked about in relation to the structures Deep Green Resistance is advocating, but the historical examples – by their own admission – of resistance groups having their leaders targeted are many. McBay writes that underground leaders are less identifiable and says that above-ground leaders are more easily replaceable if targeted – but they never really engage the topic of repression (420).
For the authors, “real movements require leaders (174)”:
“…a wholesale rejection of leadership means a movement will be stuck at a level of ineffective small groups. It may feel radical but it will change nothing.” (175)
The same could be said for Deep Green Resistance’s advocacy of leadership. Talk of the expediency of hierarchy, the necessity of military command structures, etc. probably sounds pretty “radical,” “revolutionary,” and/or “serious” but in the absence the organized resistance they envision, it just seems utterly ridiculous. Instead, all their talk of hierarchy and leadership is designed to justify their advocacy of authoritarian organizing structures. They never really engage with critiques of hierarchy – which are numerous – and instead dismiss them out-of-hand as either juvenile or ineffective.
Horizontal Hostility: It’s Not Okay for Others, but it Works well for Us
In Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith spends considerable time talking about the futility of “horizontal hostility.” They define the concept as:
“Horizontal hostility, a phrase coined by Florynce Kennedy in 1970’s describes the destruction that happens when oppressed groups fight amongst themselves instead of fighting back against the powerful (84).”
Keith writes that resistance groups are often plagued by this and that they spend more time attacking each other than they do the enemy. Reading the parts on “horizontal hostility,” it seems quite dismissive of people’s very real feelings, experiences, and differences. There is little discussion of why people might have disagreements – for example over strategy or because of abusive power dynamics – instead “horizontal hostility” is talked about in terms of gossiping:
“…if it feels like junior high school by another name, that’s because it is. It can reach a feeding frenzy of ugly gossip and character assassination. In more militant groups, it may take the form of paranoid accusations. In the worst instances of the groups that encourage macho posturing, it ends with men shooting each other. (138)”
I don’t know what Kieth is referencing about people shooting each other, but there is no footnote. Indeed, the topic as a whole is generally written from the assumption that all criticism is bad and equates it with what people often term “infighting” rather than acknowledging substantive reasons for discussion between different perspectives and people. For example, if someone is opposed only to “industrial civilization” and I am opposed to “civilization” as a whole, we have a substantive disagreement. Similarly, who hasn’t participated in (or at the very least heard of) a group or project in which terrible power dynamics have existed along any number of different lines (race, gender, class, experience, etc)? It’s a frequent problem. By writing these things off as “horizontal hostility” it seems the authors seem to want to dismiss substantive disagreement under the guise of some kind of “unity” – it’s just an updated version of the leftist “united front” argument.
Later, they talk about how “people who are especially good at doing these things [“good work” and “long-term commitment”] of their own initiative” are often targeted for criticism (319) and that is unacceptable. This is consistent with Deep Green Resistance’s overall advocacy of infallible leaders and their general praise for those with experience.
At one point, they write:
“It’s easier to attack resistance strategists in a burst of horizontal hostility than it is to get things together and attack those in power. (346)”
So does this mean that legitimate criticisms of Deep Green Resistance and its strategy are “horizontal hostility”? It certainly seems that way. If we’re going to take on civilization, we must have a debate about the best ways to do so – on both a tactical and theoretical level. But the Deep Green Resistance folks don’t want to have this debate and they have “zero tolerance for horizontal hostility” (389). If people raise criticisms, they should simply be removed:
“People like this should be politely told to cut it out. If they can’t or won’t stop, either kick them out of the group or start a different one. (319)”
For someone who is so critical of “horizontal hostility,” the chapters written by Lierre Keith – especially early on in the book – have a consistently off-putting tone. Keith’s writing is full of little jabs and digs at people and groups she doesn’t like, and the list is long: “anarchist vegan squatters” (118), “anarchist rewilders” (128), “lesbian seperatists” (128), “vegans” (167), shoplifters (126), and more. She reserves particular scorn for the vegans, whom she describes as “ideological fanatics” (157). While none of these things are radical or will accomplish anything in and of themselves, the scorn at which they are rejected is unduly harsh—especially when presented in a book that claims to be so critical of “horizontal hostility.”
Perhaps most troubling though, is how dismissive she is of “youth.” The book is full of language invoking “adults,” “experience,” and “grown-ups.” In the opening pages, Lierre Keith writes: “It’s to you grown-ups, the grieving and the raging, that we address this book (26).” It comes a page after Keith writes “To confront the truth as adults, not as faux children, requires an adult fortitude and courage, grounded in our adult responsibilities to the world (25).”
This tone carries on throughout the book with Keith praising “Adult values of discernment, responsibility” that come from being “mature adults” and rejecting the “Adolescent values of youth movement (127).” This kind of language underlies Keith’s discussion of a “culture of resistance” and is central to Deep Green Resistance’s criticism of many “alternative cultures.” For Keith, these cultures (for example, the hippies of the 1960s) were in most cases dominated by youth – which to Keith makes them inherently bad. Keith criticizes the particulars of these alternative cultures, but also argues – quite seriously – that they turned out how they did because youth lack the brain development that adults have. Keith places the roots of contemporary “alternative culture” in various youth counter-cultures and states that “the alternative culture as we know it is largely a product of the adolescent brain (131).” For Keith, this is problematic because the “adolescent brain” isn’t as developed as the adult brain. This is a lengthy discussion about the size of various parts of the brain, how youth tend to be more emotional, and are unable to judge time as well as adults (131-135). Keith argues that the youthful brain is focused on the self, which explains the alternative culture’s focus on the self (134). This continues on for some pages with frequent references to the limitations of the adolescent brain. At one point, Keith writes of the 1960s movements: “There was no long-term plan because the actionists didn’t yet have the brains that could think long-term; while the rejection of authority and everyone over thirty meant they allowed no guidance from people who could have provided it. (188)”
This is just one of the many, many things that make it hard to take Deep Green Resistance seriously.
What Deep Green Resistance Explores and what it Misses
In many ways, Deep Green Resistance seems to be a step back in time. It advocates the kind of guerrilla movements that seemed to fall out of vogue among leftists back some time in the last century.
For a book that focuses on the environment and resistance to ecological devastation, I was surprised to see that there was little to no discussion of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ELF caused millions of dollars of property damage and in some cases directly targeted the infrastructure that was necessary to destroy the Earth. Yet, the ELF only gets a short mention in Deep Green Resistance. In a paragraph, Aric McBay dismisses the group for having “limited decisive success so far” because “its targets have had low criticality and high recuperability,” arguing that ELF activity tends to be ultimately symbolic in nature (418). At another point, the ELF is criticized for its restraint (462). These are certainly fair criticisms to be made of the Earth Liberation Front, but for a book that advocates an underground aimed at destroying industrial infrastructure, it’s puzzling why so little attention was given to a recent example of the actions they are advocating. Is it because the Earth Liberation Front was too decentralized for the authors’ liking? Sadly, we never find out.
It was similarly surprising to find no mention of Earth First! and its work over the past few decades, as they certainly seem relevant as Earth First! has in many ways been the type of movement that Deep Green Resistance seems to be advocating for: it has taken direct action using a diverse array of tactics, has to some degree built a “culture of resistance,” and has had a stance that is largely supportive of underground actions (and accepts the need for such actions). Similarly, there was no discussion of the animal liberation movement and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) despite the fact that one could draw out valuable lessons about the relationship between above-ground and underground work, security culture, support for a diversity of tactics, etc. Other forms of militant action – such as the anarchist use of black blocs – are dismissed because the participants just want to “fight” and not be effective (263-264).
Instead of those various efforts, Deep Green Resistance spends a considerable amount of time looking at guerrilla movements and military resistance. A favorite is the Weather Underground, of whom Aric McBay writes: “We keep coming back to them and criticizing them not because their actions were necessarily wrong, but because they were on the right track in so many ways. (367)” At other points, the authors of Deep Green Resistance heap on the praise for the Weather Underground’s “earnest desire” (371) to do something. Despite criticizing the group’s strategy (or lack thereof), McBay praises the organizational forms of the Weather Underground (“The internal organization of the Weather Underground as a clandestine group was highly developed and effective, for example (367)”), despite explaining the pervasive sexism and psychologically harsh environments that characterized many Weather Underground cells (76-77). How could the internal organization be effective with the rampant sexism the authors describe early in the book? Many histories of the Weather Underground point to a profoundly undemocratic culture within the Weather Underground, rife with hierarchies, power-plays, and all manner of nasty behavior. Deep Green Resistance never really comes to terms with this contradiction, nor do they engage with the Weather Underground’s Marxist-Leninist politics.
Because the group essentially is advocating a military strategy, it spends considerable time exploring the anti-Nazi resistance in the occupied countries during World War II and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Other examples that are particularly relevant to the discussion of ecological warfare are the actions of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) which has had success in lessening fossil fuel extraction by engaging in military tactics. The discussion of MEND is unfortunately limited and doesn’t really do all that much to bolster the conclusions of Deep Green Resistance.
“The Strategy:” Decisive Ecological Warfare
By the time I got to this section, I was quite tired of the book. I had enough of its interpretations of history, its calls for leadership, and the reasoning behind many of its conclusions. Consequently, it was hard to take the “Decisive Ecological Warfare” strategy seriously.
In this chapter – the core of Deep Green Resistance – Aric McBay lays out three model scenarios for the future of the Earth: one in which there is no resistance (as would be expected, this prediction is grim), one with limited resistance (things are a bit better, but the future is still questionable), and one in which militants undertake all-out attacks on infrastructure. Instead of pinning their hopes on one of the later two scenarios, Aric McBay argues for a strategy of “Decisive Ecological Warfare” that would combine them. It’s goal is to “disrupt and dismantle industrial civilization” while at the same time rebuilding “just, sustainable, and autonomous human communities” as part of an approach “…involving large numbers of people in many different organizations, both aboveground and underground” (442). The strategy involves a number of different tactics including building up aboveground groups and education (447), sabotage and building support for disruptive underground actions (450), beginning to disrupt industrial systems (454), and ultimately engaging in actions that will decisively dismantle civilized infrastructure (456). McBay argues that “resistance to civilization is inherently decentralized” and that it depends on the widespread circulation of the overall strategy rather than through one single hierarchical organization with a military-like command structures (460). Still, it mentions that some cells would be coordinated and that they may have some form of “command structure” (461). The chapter than transfers into a discussion of how the strategy could work and evaluates it from a perspective of a hypothetical historian from the future. It also includes a short analysis of the success of a wide-range of “resistance” movements from the Spanish anarchists of the early 1900s to the anti-occupation Iraqi insurgency (469-472). “Decisive Ecological Warfare” concludes by highlighting its advantages: that it could be implemented quickly, doesn’t rely on a mass movement, the tactics are simple and easy to implement, and that it ultimately would cause limited human suffering (473-474).
Parts of the argument might sound reasonable depending on the context in which they are presented. For example, if it arose out of some kind of broad-based resistance – rather than being the work of three people – it would sound a lot better. Instead, its a strategy that is looking for adherents and one that is seemingly not open to criticism. There’s no evidence that this strategy has any real backing and indeed its theoretical basis provided in the preceding few hundred pages is weak. As shown above, it relies on questionable assertions, advocacy for authoritarian structures, and a limited reading of history. Sadly, the “Decisive Ecological Warfare” strategy is designed to stand alone – so when it is presented without its background as it was in the Earth First! Journal – it may seem more appealing than it should.
Overall, Deep Green Resistance is a deeply disturbing book. It props up the worst kind of leftist hierarchies and yearns for the days gone by of guerrilla movements. It’s an idea that seems to be without any real takers, literally the product of three people who think they have the one true answer for all our woes.
Whatever might be redeemable about the book – for example its limited critique of civilization – is easily muted by the fact that the argument has been presented better elsewhere, both in terms of detail and without the authoritarianism and Lierre Kieth’s transphobia. Moreover, there is simply no real basis to take what the authors are saying all that seriously. There seems to be no real experience underlying what they write—instead it’s based on problematic readings of history and glorification hierarchy. Instead of presenting something new – as the book promises – it advocates for the same old organizational structures and doesn’t engage with recent and relevant history (for example, the Earth Liberation Front and Earth First!) and just seems out of touch.
If anything, we can only hope that Deep Green Resistance will make more apparent the need for anarchist forms of anti-civilization resistance, because it’s clear that the left – no matter how radical it casts itself – will always put forth a non-solution.
Deep Green Resistance: A Book Review was published on May 19, 2013