Max Wilbert of Deep Green Resistance Great Basin and Cameron Foley (no chapter affiliation) presented at the 2014 PIELC (Public Interest Environmental Law Conference) on “The False Solutions of Green Energy.” Together they debunk some of the myths of “green” energy. Wilbert details the earth destruction required to manufacture, install, and dispose of wind turbines and solar panels, showing their inherent unsustainability as they still rely on large-scale mining, global trade, and global exploitation. Foley discusses the problem of mainstream environmentalism fixating on the illusion of green energy as a techno-fix for the very real problems we face, dangerously diverting us from pursuing real solutions. Environmentalists are really faced with the question of whether we want to find slightly less harmful alternatives to business as usual, or if we want to stop causing harm altogether and even start healing the earth.
Wilbert concludes by describing the strengths and weaknesses of other approaches to addressing the environmental crises, from ecosocialism to permaculture to radical aboveground action such as nonviolent civil disobedience. He makes a strong case for the necessity of adding strategic underground attacks on critical infrastructure to our range of tactics, summarizing the Deep Green Resistance strategy of Decisive Ecological Warfare.
This presentation is an important antidote to the misinformation and misdirection spread by corporations, governments, and mainstream environmental groups. Watch below or read the text transcript, share with your environmentally minded friends, and visit the Deep Green Resistance Youtube Channel or Deep Green Resistance member appearances page to view and hear more DGR and general resistance video and audio:
[Cameron:] This is Max, and we’ve been doing environmental activism for at least five years now. Green energy is a topic that’s been really important to us, because in trying to find effective solutions, a really genuine response to the environmental crisis, green energy has come up as an obstacle. We’ve talked about it always on the side; we’ve never really come at it head-on so we thought for this year for PIELC it’s something we should do.
We’re probably going to talk for about 40 minutes, and then we’ll do a little Q & A and then we’ll call it a day. I’m going to pass it over to Max.
[Max:] Thanks everyone for coming. It’s an honor to be here again. Today we’re going to introduce you to some ideas that you’re probably familiar with already as environmentalists. But we might also be talking about some things that are surprising or even shocking to some of you.
First we’re going to introduce you to the world of industrial production. This is a world that’s completely hidden from most of us in our everyday lives. Almost no one understands how industrial production happens, but today we’re going to lift back that veil and try to examine what’s going on behind the scenes.
Do you all want me to stand up? [audience:] Yes, please. I don’t usually like to stand up, so I might be a little awkward, but…
Second, we’re going to take that information about industrial production and apply it to green technology. For the purposes of this talk I came up with a term for green technology which I thought somewhat appropriate, which is “the great green hope.” I think that describes the relationship many environmentalists have with green technology.
Thirdly, we’re going to talk about the implications of this focus on green technology. Very serious implications of people putting all their faith into this as a solution to the problems we face. Then if we have time, we might get around to talking about solutions, which is obviously a huge subject. Obviously we’re starting with False Solutions, so hopefully we’ll get around to some real solutions.
This is a highly simplified chart I put together to illustrate the process of producing something in an industrial manner. This is looking specifically at some sort of green technology like a solar panel or a hybrid vehicle. This is going to look a little bit different depending on what industry, specifically, you’re examining but for the purpose of this talk, we’re going to examine the materials required for a wind turbine.
This is a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine manufactured by General Electric. It’s one of the most commonly used wind turbine designs on the planet, and I think there are over 20,000 of these specific units installed around the world in use right now, today. The nacelle of the turbine is the portion up in the top here. That weighs 56 tons, while the tower weighs in at 71 tons and the blades at 36 tons. So we’re talking about a very large piece of equipment.
But, this particular model is pretty small by modern standards. There are turbines around today that can be three times taller and use eight times as much materials. But we’re going to use this particular wind turbine model as a gateway for our exploration today.
So…what are these materials? According to General Electric’s figures, one of these turbines is about 60 percent steel so it requires around 100 tons of this material; 35% of the weight of the generator is copper, which is about 15 tons in this specific model. This wind turbine also requires around 700 pounds of neodymium. Neodymium is a rare earth metal that’s used in many technologies, from hard drives to cell phones to these sorts of things.
So let’s focus on these three materials: steel, copper, and neodymium. You can’t have a wind turbine without these materials, or without replacements that are very similar. Not many people think about these materials. How boring is steel, right? These chairs might be made of steel. (They might be aluminum or something else. I don’t really know anything about chairs.)
But it’s all around us ― our cars are made of it, this building is made of it, there are girders in here that are made of steel. But we never think about it. Tonight we’re going to do a little basic education on steel and these other materials. Where do they come from? So let’s get into it.
This is where iron ore, which is the raw precursor to steel, comes from. This is the Carajás mine, which is the largest iron ore mine on the planet. It’s located in Northern Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. The environmental impacts of the mine, as you might guess from that picture, are enormous.
First and foremost, to reach the ore, they obviously have to clearcut the rainforest. They also clearcut more forest for waste piles, storage facilities, transportation facilities, roads, rail lines, etc. The statistics right now are that they cut down more than 4,000 square miles of rainforest around this mine every year. That’s an area bigger than Chicago. Another impact of this specific mine is that mercury contaminates 90% of the fish downstream of this area.
In addition to the environmental impacts, iron ore mines in the Amazon have displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people. They’ve decimated newly-contacted indigenous tribes through the spread of infectious diseases, and they’ve flooded these remote areas with thousands of workers, networks of roads, and all the associated impacts in terms of poaching, logging, economic and sexual exploitation, etc.
So…moving on…to copper. This is a copper mine, one of the largest copper mines in the world. I chose to show you this one because I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and this is about 10 miles from my house. This particular mine is called the Bingham Canyon Mine. It’s owned by Rio Tinto, and it’s the largest man made excavation in the world, visible from space with the naked eye.
To give you a sense of scale, I’d come up to about the hubcap on that truck [points to blown up picture of truck] and that’s the truck in the mine. [points to tiny image of truck actually in the mine]
Basically what you’re looking at here is a mountaintop removal mine. There are two mountains missing there. We’re used to hearing about mountaintop removal coal mining, but I don’t hear very much about mountaintop removal copper mining, and I think we need to be just as outraged.
The impacts of copper mining mirror that of steel production. It’s strip mining: we’re talking about land clearance, soil erosion, toxic tailings, air pollution from the vehicles and machinery, huge releases of dust, mercury and other heavy metal contamination, habitat loss, soil and groundwater contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, etc, etc.
From beginning to end it’s just a nightmare. And another example of how toxic it is…that’s Salt Lake Valley…the worst air quality in the United States. Worse than LA, worse than New York City. And the number one source of pollution in the valley is the copper mine.
On to neodymiium. Is this starting to look familiar? How long will it take us to see the pattern? This is the largest rare earth mine in the world. This supplies about 50 percent of the world demand for rare earths. It’s located in China. The problems with rare earth mining are exactly the same as the previous two: we’re talking about toxic tailings, massive pollution, water pollution, habitat destruction and in China, of course, you can add slavery. China supplies 95% of the rare earth minerals that are used in cell phones, hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, and other “advanced” technologies.
The reason I talk about slavery specifically is because a substantial portion of the Chinese workforce ― especially for these dirty jobs that are likely to result in cancer and other issues ― that workforce comes from Tibet. What happens there is the military forcibly disbands communities and sends them to these labor camps to dig coal mines, uranium mines, and rare earth mines like this. At this point, one fifth of the Tibetan population has died in mines like this. That’s 1.2 million people, and counting.
This is absolutely heartbreaking, this is a letter that a woman from Oregon found inside her plastic halloween decorations that she got from Kmart: “If you occasionally (sic) buy this product, please send this letter to the World Human Rights Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party will thank and remember you forever. This product produced by Unit 8, Department 2,” … some labor camp in China that I can’t pronounce, I’m sorry. The letter goes on to explain the grueling long hours they work, the verbal and physical abuse they face, the torture done to the inmates of these labor camps. So this is where the consumer goods of the west come from. Many of us know this already, but we don’t know that this is also where green technology comes from.
The story is the same throughout the entire process of refining these metals, fabricating them into the sheets, pipes, fixtures, magnets, and all the things needed to assemble these green technologies. It’s the same when the turbines are installed, which requires pouring thousands and thousands of pounds of concrete into huge foundations. It’s the same throughout the whole process: you’ve got heavy industry, habitat destruction, toxic chemicals, poisoned water, exploitation of the community, greenhouse gases, public health issues, etc.
Just between concrete and steel we’re talking about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally so these are massive industries. From beginning to end, the process that results in that… …requires environmental devastation on a huge scale. The story is the same, from electric cars to solar panels, and beyond.
This gets it about right: Signs of Insanity: Dig up nonrenewable metals, ship them around the world, transform them, call it “Green” and “Sustainable.” [audience chuckles] Pretty well said.
This is the critical point: There is no way to produce industrial technology without industrial devastation. Green technology requires global trade, global exploitation, global destruction of the land, the air, the water. You can’t do it any other way; it’s impossible.
And it just goes on and on. This is the new Ivanpah solar thermal power plant in California. I think it’s the largest solar installation in the world. This slide shows some of the habitat that was destroyed for this place. It’s habitat for the threatened Desert Tortoise. The solar company had to get a special permit to bulldoze this area and the reports say it’s likely they killed 3000 or more of these threatened Desert Tortoises. Most of them they didn’t even know because they probably just rolled them over with bulldozers and they were killed.
That’s just the destruction caused by the installation, of course. Solar panel production is now among the leading sources of hexafluoroethane, nitrogen triflouride, and sulfur hexaflouride, three extremely potent greenhouse gases which are used for cleaning plasma production equipment. As a greenhouse gas, hexaflouroethane is 12,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It’s 100% manufactured by humans, and it survives 10,000 years once released into the atmosphere. Nitrogen Triflouride is 17,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and Sulfur Hexaflouride is 25,000 times more powerful ― the most powerful known greenhouse gas. Just as an example, the atmospheric concentration of nitrogen triflouride in rising at 11% per year.
What about the other end of the process? What happens when these panels and these wind turbines and this green technology breaks? Or it’s done ― it doesn’t work anymore? This is e-waste. The Silicon Valley Toxics coalition releseed a report saying: “As the solar industry expands, little attention is being paid to the potential environmental and health costs of that rapid expansion. The most widely used solar PV panels have the potential to create a huge new source of electronic waste at the end of their useful lives. New solar PV technologies are increasing efficiency and lowering costs, but many of these use extremely toxic materials or mateials with unknown health and environmental risks including new nano materials and processes.”
It’s interesting how you see environmentalists really worried about these new technologies and these GMO crops and such, but when it comes to basically applying the same technologies to solar panels and green energy, they’re cheering along. My message is that we have been lied to. We are the victims of an extremely sophisticated public relations and advertising campaign that stretches from General Electric to the Department of Energy to the White House to the UN to The Sierra Club to Apple to Greenpeace, and beyond.
And that brings us back to where we started, with this wind turbine from General Electric. I’m sure you’ve all heard this term “greenwashing” before. This is General Electric’s corporate structure. How did we ever think that a technology promoted by a company like this, a $700 billion dollar corporation that is involved in everything from weapons production to nuclear power, a company with a dismal environmental record and a history of leaving behind superfund sites for the public to pay to clean up, or to never get cleaned up at all more likely ― how could we ever think this business would act in our best interest, in the best interest of the earth?
The lie we have been told hinges on this one big hope. It’s the hope that we can maintain the American Dream while we save the planet at the same time; it’s the hope that we won’t have to give anything up; it’s the hope that our lifestyle can continue without being threatened by little distractions like killing the planet, and it’s been bought into by the middle class, anxious to maintain the comforts and elagencies of modern life. It’s also been bought into by many of the poor, who have been told this story that the green energy revolution will also mean a revolution in living standards and a revitalization of community.
In response to that, I like this quote: “The most efficient way of rendering the poor harmless is to teach them to want to imitate the rich. That is the poison with which capitalism blinds.”
Meanwhile General Electric is walking away with a new $10 billion dollar contract. They know is’s not going to change the world. What it will change is their bottom line; businesses exist to make profit, not to make the world a better place. And at this point, most governments around the world simply serve as their corporate proxies in this never-ending revolving door from lobbyist to consultant to politician and back again ― all with a hefty salary, a comfortable retirement package, and a nice set of bonuses.
I’m more interested in this… [pictures of caribou, great grey owl, and a succulent] And this… And…this.
If we truly want a livable planet, we’re going to have to stop listening to these deceivers. We’re going to have to break the spell that’s been cast on us. That’s going to be hard, because we’re not only fighting those in power, but we’re also ftghting heir proxies, their pawns, these people who have been so deeply internalized into this longing for a green technotopia that they can’t see the contradictions inherent in that. We’re also going to have to start thinking for ourselves and confronting the systems of power that are destroying the planet, face to face.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news today, but there is no easy way out of this mess. Of course, that’s not to say there’s nothing to be done. I think there’s much we can do to save the planet, to fight for justice. I’m going to talk about that in a bit here, but I want to pass it off to Cameron for now, who’s gonna take a slightly different angle on the same issue.
[Cameron:] Thank you Max.
We’ve just heard from Max why green energy is not really a solution, and it’s not really so green. Now what I want to talk about is how green energy plays into environmental activism, and I hope to convince you that it should have little to no place in our activism. I also want to give you a few ways to talk about this issue to use in your own life, in discussions with other people.
Everything I’m saying should be seen through the lens of activism because that’s what interests me, and that’s what matters. Of course, what matters most is the material effects these technologies have which as we’ve just seen ― they’re harmful. They’re harmful to the earth, but I think they’re also harmful to environmental activism.
The first danger I see with green energy is the way that it takes the environmental crisis, in all of its complexity, and it reduces it to an issue of technology only. I made a really remarkable Paint rendition of this. [audience laughs] That’s what it looks like.
Of course technology is an issue; we need different technologies, but we need many other things as well: We need new stories, new institutions, new relationships with each other and with nonhumans. Many of you have experienced this, how environmentalism, at its core, leaves no stone unturned. It asks us to reexamine really everything in our lives ― the economic, the social, the spiritual, the psychological. But when the problem is reduced to one of technology only, all of those other questions are blotched out. They’re made invisible, and we don’t even think to ask them.
A friend of ours wrote something I think is great: “Often, we never question why we need new technologies and resources and we never think about what problems they purport to solve or conceal entirely.”
What green energy conceals is the depth of the problem. It’s not only technological: it’s stories, it’s our language, we could go on and on with this, and we *should* go on and on with this. It’s part of our work. In short, the problem is total, but green energy conceals this. This concealing, we could call it illusion: green energy responds to a real problem, a very real problem, but it responds in the wrong way, and in that, it itself becomes part of the problem.
So how does this happen? How does this play out? One of our friends tells a story of a meeting he went to with some other environmentalists, and they were saying “We need to ramp up solar, really fast.” He said “Have you thought about resource depletion? There’s not even enough silver to build the amount of solar panels you’re talking about.” One of them, who’s a pretty well-known organizer, responded: “Don’t worry about that, there’s more than enough silver, it’s just underneath China.”
So picture that: you have a major environmental organizer advocating large-scale mining to build solar panels. I heard some gasps; you see the problem. You can not destroy the world to save it. This is where green technologies take you: you start out on the right path – environmentalism – but you end up in the wrong place – extraction. This is why we call it an illusion.
Another example, as Max was talking about, the Ivanpah solar project, that’s the largest solar site in the world. It’s a solar thermal site, meaning that all these mirrors are aimed at this water tower. They concentrate the sun’s energy, which heats up the tower, the water boils, generates steam to run a turbine.
It not only heats up the tower; it also heats up the area surrounding it. So they’ve already found several dozen birds that have had their wings burned and singed and they’ve fallen to their death. There’s two ways to respond to that. You could say either “Well, this is to save humanity, so what are a few birds?” Or you could really open your heart and see that says something about this technology. Is that who we are? That’s not who we are.
Then we have someone from Greenpeace saying about this project: “The clean energy revolution is not only possible, it’s happening now. Take a moment to reflect on this news America: our movement is stronger than ever.” This project is owned by three corporations, one of them being Google. So I hope this is not our “movement.”
How has this happened? How have environmentalism and green technologies come to go hand in hand? It’s hard for people to think of one without thinking of the other. It’s very strange. It seems like it’s obvious, but if you think about it, environmentalism at its core challenges destruction, and yet green energy continues it, it depends on it. Environmentalism challenges industrialism, but green energy relies on it and continues it.
I think there are at least two reasons why these two opposites have come together, and they’ve been sold in one package. The first is: like any system of power, capitalism is good at taking any kind of threat taking that energy and turning it to its own uses. We’ve seen how corporations do greenwashing ― we all know that.
The second reason, which is more interesting to me, is that green energy offers an easy way out. If you believe in green energy, you get to both clear your conscience ― you can ‘live green” ―and you get to hold on to the industrial fantasy. You get all the comforts that come along with that.
As Max said, we’ve been lied to. And we have bought into that lie. And environmentalists continue to perpetuate that lie. And that’s how in this really creepy sort of way, some environmentalists have worsened the problems, by maintaining an illusion and not allowing people to see things as they really are.
When we talk about green energy we’re talking about more than just green energy. I see green energy ― so much is loaded into it ― I think of it as the last straw of the industrial fantasy. Everything we’ve been told since birth, about our relationship to the natural world, that we live above it and separated from it ― for many of us, that story has its last support in green energies.
Which is why there’s a point at which rational argument reaches its limit, that there’s no amount of information you could tell to someone to convince them that green energies are not sustainable. They’re going to continue believing it, because they have to believe it, because if they stop believing it, their whole understanding of this world, the industial civilized world, would collapse in on them. And that’s a very painful thing to go through, as I’m guessing many of you in this room know.
So green energy becomes a kind of defense, it’s a lie we tell ourselves to protect ourselves from the truth, the hard truth that this way of life is not sustainable, not here and there, at its core. And we can continue to tell ourselves that lie, and protect ourselves from that painful process, but think of everything that we lose, especially in terms of activism.
There’s a really great interview between Terry Tempest Williams and Tim DeChristopher. Tim DeChristopher is the man who bid on all the parcels of land at the auction; he had no intention of paying for them, and he ended up saving over 20,000 acres of land. She asks him, how did you get to this position where you could do something so creative, so risky?
He goes back several years, telling a story of how he was at a talk by a major climate scientist. She gave the story that it’s largely irreversible; there’s nothing we can do ― whether that’s true or not, that’s what she said. He went up to her afterwards to ask her about it, and she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation has failed yours.” And he tells Terry Tempest Williams:
“Once I realized there was no hope in any sort of normal future, there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future — I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back.” Later on he says, “My future was already lost.”
This is what interests me, what has to happen to someone that they become an environmentalist. It’s a lot of things, as you all know: it’s love, it’s relationships with the natural world, with other people, but for a lot of us, it’s about having that view of the world, of the industrial world, of oil and everything that goes with it ― it’s about having that shattered. There’s nothing nice about it – it’s painful, it’s difficult – but in its place you find something else: you find stronger relationships, real relationships, you find passion, and you find commitment to something larger than yourself.
And that transformation, that’s a really amazing thing. It’s something that should be protected and celebrated and guided and honored. What does green energy do? Green energy, as far as I’ve seen, and I’m guessing many of you have seen this, works to stunt and head off that transformation, it domesticates it. It takes all this passion, this energy and redirects it back into the very system that was being challenged.
As I showed, It makes a very complex situation into a false choice: either we have fossil fuels, or green energy. That’s not true, and we need to break out of that. And when we break out of that, then we can find something new. We can make something new and put that into practice. So that’s our challenge: how can we think and practice an environmentalism that doesn’t rely on green energy?
Some people here might say, “OK, of course it’s not perfect, but isn’t it better than the alternative, better than fossil fuels?” That still seems wrong to me. I think modern environmentalism has almost always relied on a strategy of moderation. It has said let’s find something less bad, let’s find something less destructive.
But there comes a point where we have to say ― where you have to decide ― Do I only want to slow destruction, or do I want to stop it? And it’s in making that choice, making that stand, and deciding “I, we, are not going to allow this.” That’s what a movement depends on, and it’s, I think, what life on this planet depends on.
I’m going to pass it back to Max, and give him the very difficult section of “What needs to be done.”
[Max:] Thanks Cameron. That’s just a nice picture of a bird that Cameron put in there, that we forgot to flip to. [audience laughter]
I completely agree with that assessment, and that is exactly the important question: Do we want to just slow down the destruction, or do we want to stop it? Here’s a headline from one of the most well-respected newspapers in the world, on that subject. [audience laughs] That’s one of my favorite headlines I’ve ever read. It’s amazing how sometimes the fake news is so much more true than the real news.
[audience member:] Can you read it out?
[Max:] Oh I’m sorry, it’s a headline from The Onion ― that’s why we’re laughing. It says: “Millions of barrels of oil safely reach port in major environmental catastrophe”
What Cameron said is right: we’ve gotten too comfortable in this mindset of finding a less harmful alternative. And honestly, when you’re starting from this god-awful baseline, it’s pretty darn easy to find something that’s slightly better. And usually that still means destruction for the planet.
If there’s one thing we want you to walk away from this talk with, it’s that green technology is not a solution. It reminds me of a quote from Malcolm X, and people like to quote these historical figures without really knowing history very well, so I just want to say that I think it’s really important to understand history, and to understand these figures and Malcolm X had a lot of various issues including misogyny and other things, but he was really smart in some ways.
I love this quote. He said: “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it out all the way, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing with this green technology.
This is sort of a summary of what we’ve been talking about. On the left we’ve got fossil fuels, on the right we’ve got green technologies. In terms of extraction: fossil fuels require large scale unsustainable extraction of metals and other resources. On the right: green technologies require large scale unsustainable extraction of metals and other resources. Just the same.
In terms of production: fossil fuels ― globalized industrial production process requiring energy intensive technologies. On the right under green technology: globalized industrial production process requiring energy intensive technologies.
Pollution: fossil fuels ― extreme pollution released from initial exploration through extraction and cossumption. Pollution is often visible at the site of consumption. Green technology is a little different here: extreme pollution released from initial exploration through extraction and disposal. Pollution often invisible at site of consumption.
In terms of human rights: fossil fuels contribute to resource conflicts, exploitation of labor, and human rights violations worldwide. On the right, green technology exactly the same: contributes to resource conflicts, exploitation of labor, and human rights violations.
In terms of democracy: fossil fuels ― the technology is largely controlled by multinational corporations, they require massive capital to get started, community scale implementation is largely impossible. On the right, exactly the same for green technologies.
These are just a few of the ways in which these are exactly the same. I think we need to start talking about stopping destruction. We need to start talking about winning. I don’t think people talk about winning very much. We’ve gotten so used to being in this running retreat that people fighting for justice have been in for so long.
So what’s to be done? What’s the solution, if we can’t count on green technology to save us? There are a lot of people out there talking about solutions, and a lot of approaches, a lot of people doing good work, but let’s just look at a few.
First up we’ve got the ecosocialists. They have a really great analysis of capitalism and labor. They’re doing some really wonderful work. I’m from Seattle, where they’re doing some great stuff getting into the political system trying to raise the minimum wage to something halfway livable.
But their program generally seems to be based on the idea that industrial production should continue, and as we’ve seen industrial production is a nightmare for the planet. We’ve seen this in many socialist contries as well, for example Bolivia where left-wing Evo Morales came into power through a coalition of the indigenous communities and the Marxists and the other left-wingers, and once he got into power there were huge conflicts because all the Marxists and the socialists were pro industrialism. They wanted to go in and get oil and gas from the rainforest, and the indigenous people were opposed to this. Some people might say this isn’t true ecosocialism. That’s sort of up to you to debate.
I do want to say that, as I go through these models of change, I have a lot of respect for a lot of people doing this work, so this is meant as a friendly disagreement.
Next up we’ve got permaculture. There is a lot of good to be said for this method. I know a few people in this audience who are friends of mine, who are really involved in that. It’s completely critical for resisters to build our own food networks, to build up our alternative institutions so we’re not completely reliant on industrial civilization to eat, and house ourselves, clothe ourselves, keep ourselves healthy, etc. It’s the only way we’re going to survive as this culture continues this headlong rush towards collapse. But the problem is that permaculture isn’t stopping any pipelines or strip mines, at least not by itself. It’s part of the solution, but it’s not enough.
Then we’ve got the mainstream environmental movement, which seems to be focused on reaching out to as broad a community as possible ― and as we all know, that’s code for reaching out to white, middle class people. These are the groups, largely, that are advocating for 100% renewable energy, and they’ve gotten so caught up in this idea that climate change is *the* issue, the one issue, that sometimes it seems they’ve forgotten about nature and the natural world.
I’m not saying there aren’t mainstream environmental groups that do great work, because of course there are, and there are a lot of good people involved in these organizations. One of my favorites is the Center for Biological Diversity: they sue the crap out of all kinds of places to protect species. That’s great. But these groups are operating within a very strict set of boundaries, which make it possible for them to have small victories here and there but never to make very much progress.
Next up: we’ve got radical environmentalists and land defenders. There is some really great work going on here. This slide is from the Unis’tot’en Camp in Canada, north of the border, way up ― How far is the drive past Vancouver, like 16 hours or something? Way up in central BC, out in the middle of nowhere.
The Unis’tot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation has set up a camp. They’ve reclaimed some of their traditional lands, that they never ceded in a treaty ― they still have legal title to this land ― and they’ve set up a camp in the path of a pipeline corridor. The oil and gas companies want to put in eight or nine pipelines to carry tar sands oil and fracked natural gas from the interior out to the coast for export.
They moved back onto their traditional territory, they’ve built cabins, they’ve built permaculture gardens, they hunt out there, and they’ve set up a sort of soft blockade across the road, where they refuse to allow in anyone from these oil and gas companies but they do allow you in if you’re coming out to hunt or fish or go camping or something like that.
For those who can’t see, this is a picture of them building a traditional pithouse, so this is their traditional construction technique. They blacken the timber to prevent insects from eating it and it rotting. I think Sam was there helping build this – last summer?
[Sam:] In the spring.
[Max:] These people are really brave, and are doing some wonderful, amazing work. Effective as well: we’re talking about a small community of people stopping a continental scale extraction project. This is the way we need to be thinking, strategically: looking for these bottlenecks where a small number of people can make a really big difference.
I have a lot of hope for the radical environmental movement. We’re seeing a lot of serious civil disobedience like this all over the place. But we’re also seeing the difficulties of this approach. In Texas for example, we all know about the Tar Sands Blockade and the amazing series of lockdowns and treesits and such that they did two years ago. They shut down construction of that pipeline for quite a while, but that pipeline’s in now. It’s in the ground; it’s completed. So they lost, despite all that energy and effort.
And of course they have to deal with the huge legal bill now, and all the consequences of that. So there are repercussions in terms of the material reality of organizing. In Michigan we see it too; just recently those three women were sentenced to all that jail time for their civil disobedience.
You expect this in non-violence, of course. That’s how it works: You do non-violence and they crack down on you. In order for it to work, you need to have numbers. You need to be able to sustain this. You need to have the resources, and the number of people to keep doing this again and again, to build momentum, to bring more people into the movement until you have eventual success.
I don’t know if we have those numbers. That’s the first tar sands mine in the US. That’s in Utah, a couple hours from where I live. I’ve been organizing with some local folks; this is a little road blockade we did. We’ve been trying to stop this mine. I think there’s a chance that we could stop it, using aboveground nonviolent tactics, traditional nonviolence.
The problem for me is that this mine is in an area that’s the largest oil producing region in Utah. There’s something like 22,000 oil and fracking wells in the basin that this mine is in, and those are already producing; this mine isn’t even producing yet. It’s taking the entire energy of the activist community in Utah and surrounding states, plus people coming in from outside, tons of money, tons of funds, tons of time, and we have a small chance of stopping the expansion of one project in an area that’s already producing huge amounts of oil.
We can’t even begin to think about trying to stop that fracking and that oil, because we have a lot to deal with. I don’t think that hoping for the future is enough. I’m not content to just rely on hope.
This map shows major fossil fuel expansions that are planned or ongoing right now, up to the year 2020. We’ve got giant projects like coal mining in Indonesia and Australia as well as western China, we’ve got oil extraction in Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, central Africa, we’ve got offshore drilling in Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico, the arctic, etc. I think that if we had the numbers and the resources, we could fight and stop all these projects using non-violence. It’s completely possible.
I have nothing but respect for anyone organizing in that way. But I honestly don’t see the numbers. Like I said, we barely have a chance at winning in this one small project in Utah, and it’s not even big enough to be listed on this map. So I don’t know if we have the numbers.
And then, of course, I think about the fact that 200 species went extinct today. Then I think again: “200 species went extinct today.” And then I just repeat that in my head, because I can’t wrap my mind around that and what that means. Two hundred entire species.
The only strategy that I see that could work is somewhat radical and direct, and what I’m talking about here is direct attacks on industrial infrastructure. This probably sounds extreme to some of you, and for good reason. But you should realize that sabotage is a time-tested and honorable method of political resistance.
This is what Mandela said when he was on trial in South Africa: “I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”
I work with an organization called Deep Green Resistance, and we actually have a strategy that lays out how small groups of organized and committed people could bring down the entire global industrial economy. The way they could do it is by targeting critical structural nodes.
That’s an important term to understand. When I say critical structural nodes, I am talking about the physical systems that allow the industrial economy to continue to function ― things like fossil fuel infrastructure, communication systems, electrical systems, refining, distribution, global finance, transportation, etc.
This is not a game, and it’s not a position that I take lightly. I take it not in the spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I take it because of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that we face after decades of fighting a running retreat that sometimes looks more like a rout.
As a resistance movement, we have to start thinking strategically and tactically. What are our goals? We need a livable planet, clean air, clean food, clean water. That’s the baseline. In order to have that we need to stop industrial logging, industrial fishing, industrial mining, industrial food production, dams, coal power plants, pipelines, refineries, the fossil fuel economy…the global economy as a whole. This is our only chance at survival.
There are a lot of good books out there to teach the basic lessons of strategy and tactics, organization, security procedures, and that go over the history of resistance movements struggles and how they’ve worked in the past. So we don’t have to figure all this stuff out from scratch. It’s been done before.
When I say that we want to bring down industrial civilization, that sounds like a huge job. There’s no denying that this is a massive system. Strategic sabotage is effective, however. This can be done. It’s been used in hundreds of historical conflicts, because it works. When I’ve presented the strategy to ex-special forces members who’ve trained in this sort of thing, they basically say “yeah, the strategy is sound, this could work.” This is a strategy that could actually win.
There have been a few rumblings lately that something might be brewing, that are sort of exciting to me. Last spring in central California, a transmission substation that feeds power to Silicon Valley was attacked in a “military-style raid” by unknown persons. The people who did this found an underground fiber-optic cable, they pulled up the manhole cover, they went in there and cut that to disable phone access and cell phones in the area, and then they fired 120 rounds from a hunting rifle into the substation, which shutt it down completely, and it took a month to repair it.
This has been called the most sophisticated attack on the grid in US history which on the one hand makes me very happy ― I’m glad about that ― and on the other hand I’m like “Really? This is the most sophisticated attack?”
[audience laughter] [Max:] (inaudible) … anything better than a hunting rifle? [more audience laughter, and applause]
One electrical worker stated that the grid is highly vulnerable to these sort of strikes, and some politicians and military officials have stated that “this looked like a trial run. Someone was testing the waters.” This is very heartening to me.
Another heartening group comes from thu Niger River Delta, an area that Royal-Dutch Shell has been taking oil from for more than 50 years. They’ve poisoned the air, the land, the water. The people are starving because there are no fish any more; the crops won’t grow because of the acid rain from all the natural gas they flare off.
There was a non-violent resistance here for decades. It was led by the famous poet Ken Saro-wiwa, widely respected as a human rights advocate and environmental advocate. After years of agitating in the community in protest, he and the other leaders of the resistance were rounded up by Shell and the military that they work with, and they were hung.
That was assisted by Shell’s private military force, which oil companies have, and also those mining companies that get the iron ore and the rare earth minerals and the copper ― they also have their private military forces.
The latest generation of resistance in the Niger River Delta is MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. They use direct attacks on infrastructure, so here’s an example of people using this strategy. They’ve managed to knock out one third of the fossil fuel industry.
I want us to think about that, because the number is abstract. Think about all the environmentalism that hes been done in this country, all the thousands of people at this conference. Wet haven’t even managed to slow the growth of fossil fuel emissions, let alone knock out 30% of it.
And here we’re talking about a few hundred people, a small group, highly trained individuals, focused, with goals, with strategy, with good target selection, knocking out one third of oil production in a matter of a few years. I think we could learn some lessons there. [audience applause]
I’m sure there are people in the audience who don’t agree with this, because it’s radical. I understand that. I think it’s necessary, and I think our backs are against the wall. I think this is a backup plan that we need because nothing else is working.
Even if you don’t agree, I think there’s a lot that can be done. This is from the DGR book; it’s a chart that’s in there. This is just a selection of different levers that people can apply their weight to, to try to change the world. But even if you really love your electricity and you want to keep industrial civilization around, and just sort of ignore the mountain top removal mining that that takes, and the slavery that that takes, I think you have to understand that this culture is not sustainable. We’re drawing down every resource.
This culture will not last. We might see the end of this way of life in a generation, who knows? If you’re concerned about collapse, and if you’re concerned about human rights, and if you don’t want to think about these more militant strategies, then I think you need to be doing the work of worrying about human rights, and building local food systems in your community, and building alternatives to this system. As we can see, it’s undeniable that it’s killing the planet.
There are many ways that this can be addressed, and if your personal morality doesn’t want you to be involved in anything that is more militant, then this is a way that you can contribute. I really think we need all that.
I’ve heard that in Los Angeles, when the power goes out, the police stations start getting phone calls, panicked phone calls from people who’ve never seen the stars before, and they’re not sure what they’re seeing up in the sky. That’s not the way it’s always been, obviously.
We’re animals, just like all the other animals around, and our natural state is to live in balance on this planet, in embedded communities, embedded in the land, living with all the other life forms around us. There’s so much evidence that this is the natural state of human beings. All you have to do is look at land-based cultures around the world, and you’ll have the evidence you need.
This is a saying from the people in Malaysia: “The land is sacred. It belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, the few who are living, and the multitudes of those yet to be born.”
It’s hard to imagine life without the modern luxuries we’re used to: the heated room, the lights. Sometimes it’s even harder to imagine life without the exploitation required for these things. As I said earlier, I live in Salt Lake City, and the winters are very cold there. It’s below freezing for a month or two months on end. It’s tough to imagine living without civilization there; it would be a hard life to live.
But then I remember that half the world population lives without electricity. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that it can be done. We don’t have to live in this modern, industrial way. I have friends who live in homes they built out of natural materials. One good friend of mine raises goats and chickens. [audience laughs at slide]
[Max:] That’s some baby goats of hers with the guard dog, who’s very noble looking in that picture. Great dog. I know people who cook with wood alone. This woman preserves her harvest, and lives off the land almost year-round. Another friend of mine is a member of the Ely-Shoshone. He hunts turkeys, deer, and elk with a bow and arrow. Another friend of mine keeps alive the herbal medicine traditions of her community that have been passed down for generations.
It’s even in my own family: one of my aunts weaves beautiful baskets from cedar bark and cattails and other materials. Another aunt of mine and my mother are both potters. That’s a tradition that’s 30,000 years old, sort of a fundamental human skill of survival.
If we’re willing to live in balance, Earth will provide what we need; earth will provide from abundant, beautiful life. These sorts of skills ― like basket weaving, herbal medicine, fire-making ― these in a way are technologies. They’re not like these green industrial technologies we’ve been talking about, but they’re very complex technologies. I’m sure if you’ve taken a pottery class or a basket-weaving class, you know these are complex. They’re not simple.
They’ve been passed down from generation to generation. The reason they’ve lasted so long is because they’re functional. They work. They work in the long term. And they don’t require the world to be killed.
Those are some baskets my aunt made. The techniques she uses here can be used to produce clothing, backpacks, bedding, storage baskets, hats, rain jackets, waterproof baskets, all sorts of other things. That’s probably like less than 10% of the things I could remember if I sat down for a while. There’s some amazing stuff out there about the basketry traditions of the Pacific Northwest, which is where my aunt lives.
Incidentally ― I was pretty shocked to learn this ― you can cook in these waterproof baskets by heating rocks in a fire, and then you put the rocks in the water in the waterproof basket, and it doesn’t burn through the bottom through some…mystery… [audience laughter] and you can boil water and cook food in there, and you don’t have to destroy a mountain to do so.
I don’t think that this more simple life is nasty, brutish, and short, as we have been led to believe. I want you all, if you can, to try to imagine living life in this sort of way. Imagine living life nestled inside a forest, or a grassland, or a wetland. Imagine life with no clocks, no cancer epidemic, no wage slavery, no drones, and global warming just some fading myth of the culture as the land soaks up all that toxic air.
I think this life is not only possible; I think it’s our only real option. I think it’s really just right around the corner. I don’t mean to glamorize the situation too much, because we’ve dug ourselves into a deep hole. Or more accurately, others have dug a deep hole, and we’re in it.
Modern medicine is pretty amazing in some situations. But when the choice is the end of the world, or the end of some of the things we like and rely on in this modern civilization, then I think that’s an easy choice. It’s a hard choice in many ways, but it’s an easy choice in the end.
I think life without gas heating would be really hard in Salt Lake, but it would be life. That’s more than can be said for modern civilization. The inevitable conclusion of civilization is barren fields, saline soils, silent clearcuts, enslaved and conquered peoples. So the question is: Which side are you on, and do you want something different?
We started this talk on the subject of green energy, and we ended it by talking about bringing down industrial civilization. So we’ve come a long way. [audience laughter]
[Max:] I don’t think we made any huge logical jumps there. It just goes to show that all these issues are highly interconnected. If you really start digging, it spiderwebs out.
It’s really hard to look at these things ― you know, we’re taught to look at green energy in this very linear, siloed way where we look at the point of consumption only, and we say “oh, this is sustainable. This is good. This is just. This is right.”
This was a talk about green energy, so that’s the mian point I want you all to take home. We have been sold this lie, and I think we need to stop believing what we’v been told about green technology. At this point, I think that’s our only chance.