Archive for revolutionary environmentalism

A Fire in the Belly of the Beast: The Emergence of Revolutionary Environmentalism (part 2 of 3)

Posted in animal liberation with tags , , , , on January 18, 2010 by carmen4thepets

Please see:  Part 1 & Part 3

By Steven Best, PhD

At the turn of the decade in 1970, however, the future of the environmental movement seemed bright. Riding the crest of 1960s turmoil and protests that were beginning to wane, environmentalism became a mass concern and new political movement. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 drew 20 million people to the streets, lectures, and teach-ins throughout the nation, making it the largest expression of public support for any cause in amerikan history. In this “decade of environmentalism,” the u.s. Congress passed new laws such as the Clean Air Act, and in 1970 President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Some environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club (founded by John Muir in 1892) existed before the new movement, but grew in members, influence, and wealth like never before. The larger groups – known as the “Gang of Ten” — planted roots in Washington, DC, where they clamored for respectability and influence with politicians and polluters.

The movement’s insider/growth-oriented recipe for success, however, quickly turned into a formula for disaster.[1] Many battles were won in treating the symptoms of a worsening ecological crisis, but the war against its causes was lost, or rather never fought in the first place. Potentially a radical force and check on capitalist profit, accumulation, and growth dynamics, the US environmental movement was largely a white, male, middle-class affair, cut off from the populist forces and the street energy that helped spawn it. Co-opted and institutionalized, cozying up with government and industry, mindful of the “taboo against social intervention in the production system” (Commoner), defense of Mother Earth became just another bland, reformist, compromised-based, single-interest lobbying effort.

Increasingly, the Gang of Ten resembled the corporations they criticized and, in fact, evolved into corporations and self-interested money making machines. Within behemoths such as the Wilderness Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club, decision-making originated from professionals at the top who neither had nor sought citizen input from the grassroots level. The Gang of Ten hired accountants and MBAs over activists, they spent more time on mass mailing campaigns than actual advocacy, and their riches were squandered largely on sustaining bloated budgets and six-figure salaries rather than protecting the environment. They brokered compromise deals to win votes for legislation that was watered-down, constantly revised to strengthen corporate interests, and poorly enforced. They not only did not fund grassroots groups, they even worked against them at times, forming alliances instead with corporate exploiters. Perversely, Gang of Ten organizations often legitimated and profited from greenwashing campaigns that presented corporate enemies of the environment as benevolent stewards and beacons of progress. [2]

Radical Backlash and the Grassroots Revolution

As Gang of Ten type organizations emerging in the u.s. and Europe spread throughout the globe (the World Wildlife Fund, for instance, established bases in over one hundred countries), they created a bureaucratic organization paradigm that shaped the structure of Western environmentalism. Yet, while mainstream environmental machines churned away ineffectively, and the plundering of the Earth expanded in scope and pace, waves of new approaches using militant tactics and seeking radical change surged forward in the u.s., the u.k., and throughout the globe.

These groups were motivated by profound dissatisfaction with mainstream environmentalism that was corporate, careerist, compromising, and – a key issue for many — divorced from the complex of social-environmental issues affecting women, the poor, workers, and people of color. Adopting more confrontational tactics and radical politics, the new orientations repudiated reformist models that sought merely to manage a growing environmental crisis through diluted legislation, illusory technofixes, and market-based “solutions” for market-based problems. Realizing the futility of working through the political and legal structures of corporate-controlled states, many groups adopted direct action tactics whereby they confronted oppressors on their own high-pressure terms through actions ranging from blockades to sabotage. Direct action is not just a tactic, but rather a process whereby activists develop decentralized and egalitarian politics based on cells, affinity groups, consensus decision making models, and use civil disobedience and/or sabotage tactics to empower themselves against corporate-state structures and facilitate social change impossible to achieve through pre-approved political channels.

Throughout the 1970s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was absorbed in the struggle to defend itself from violent government attacks in order to preserve “Sovereignty, Land and Culture.” In 1971, Greenpeace was born as a new kind of direct action group protesting nuclear testing and protecting whales, but it condemned sabotage and degenerated into a Gang of Ten bureaucracy. In 1972, drawing on a host of spiritual sources including Native wisdom, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess formulated the biocentric “deep ecology” alternative to the anthropocentric “shallow ecology” of mainstream environmentalism, thereby promoting ecological and Earth-centered perspectives. The same year, Green Parties emerged in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, spread to the u.k. in 1973, surfaced in Germany by the end of the decade, and migrated thereafter to the u.s. and throughout the world. Broad-based and alliance-oriented, the international Green movement is organized around “core values” that include ecology, democracy, peace, feminism, respective for diversity, and social justice. In 1974, French writer Francoise d’ Eaubonne coined the term “ecofeminism” and the new framework was developed worldwide. As evident in groundbreaking analyses such as Carolyn Merchant’s book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980), ecofeminists demonstrated strong links between the oppression of women and the domination of nature, such that ecology and feminism supported and required one another.

Evicted from Greenpeace in 1975 for the “violent” act of throwing a sealer’s club into the sea, Canadian Paul Watson turned to confrontational and sabotage-oriented actions to defend sea animals from attack, eventually founding the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. From the direct action culture of hunt saboteurs in england, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) was born in 1976. Freeing animals from captivity, attacking with hammers and fire, the ALF became a transnational underground group that advocated nonviolence, as splinter groups such as the Animal Rights Militia and the Justice Department urged attacking exploiters themselves, not just their property.[3] Beginning in the mid-1970s, anti-nuclear and peace movements mushroomed in the u.s. and throughout Europe, especially in Germany, inspiring millions of people to embrace direct action and radical politics in the struggle for an ecological society. The u.s. Clamshell Alliance, for instance, formed in 1976 to stop the construction of nuclear reactors in the small town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. Despite thousands of members engaged in constant mass civil disobedience the Clamshell Alliance failed to prevent the completion of the Seabrook facility, but it was a key part of a larger movement that thwarted the development of nuclear power in the u.s. It was also an essential component of and contributor to an emerging “cultural revolution” that sought to change economic, political, and social structures in democratic and egalitarian directions, using direct action and anarchist-inspired tactics.[4]

Direct action tactics, grassroots movements, and radical politics continued to proliferate during the 1980s. The ALF migrated to the u.s. and throughout the world, as Earth First! emerged in 1980 and changed the face of environmental struggle with militant civil disobedience and monkeywrenching actions. Earth First! spread from the u.s. to Australia in the early 1980s, and to the u.k. and Europe at large beginning in 1990. In the u.k., Earth First! landed amidst a political culture already radicalized in the 1980s by the Green Anarchist movement and magazine, which helped to promote Earth First! ideas and actions. Both Green Anarchism and Earth First! embraced “anarcho-primitivist” philosophies that repudiated “civilization” (defined as a complex of structures of domination and alienation such as technology, division of labor, and domestication) and advocated a return to hunting and gathering society. Primitivism was becoming more influential in the u.s. as well, developed in its most radical form by John Zerzan. Beginning in 1986, Murray Bookchin launched a fierce assault on deep ecology, Earth First!, and primitivism. On the surface, Bookchin’s blend of anarchism and ecology seemed compatible with other anarchist philosophies, but his emphasis was social, not personal, rational not spiritual, and forward not backward looking. He thereby excoriated these approaches – not always accurately — as mystical, asocial, apolitical, irrational, and atavistic, wholly unsuited for his goal to build a revolutionary social movement that could abolish oppression and transcend a capitalist system rooted ”grow-or-die” imperatives.[5] Many activists understood the value of a social ecology orientation, but rejected Bookchin’s forced option of either social ecology or deep ecology. These people included Earth First! member Judi Bari, who worked in theory and practice to synthesize social ecology, deep ecology, and ecofeminism in a “revolutionary ecology” approach that was immensely influential in the u.k. during the 1990s.[6]

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the u.s. environmental movement broadened in scope and diversity with the proliferation of thousands of grass-roots environmental groups. These were organized by women, people of color, and community members to fight corporate pollution and exploitation. With no patrons, politicians, or corporate sponsors to answer to or offend, grassroots groups – such as spearheaded by Lois Gibbs to protest the 20,000 tons of chemical waste that sickened her community of Love Canal, New York — adopted a confrontational, no compromise approach and won battles the professionalized mainstream would or could not fight.[7] A critical part of the grassroots revolution was the “environmental justice” movement that engaged environment, race, and social justice issues as one complex. Building on a long and sordid u.s. tradition of racism and discrimination, corporations and polluters targeted the poor, disenfranchised, and people of color to produce and discard their lethal substances. Far from the trimmed lawns and picket fences of privileged white neighborhoods, corporations ensconced themselves near people of color, where they built landfills and manufacturing plants, dumped hazardous and nuclear waste, operated incinerators, spewed deadly chemicals, and turned neighborhoods into toxic hazards. To protect their communities from this environmental terrorism, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics organized and fought back, proving that marginalized did not mean powerless.[8]

Aftermath of state domestic terror attack on the black liberation group MOVE which killed 6 adults and 5 children.

An early expression of environmental justice was the Black revolutionary group, MOVE, founded in 1972 by John Africa and Donald Glassey, that railed against industrial pollution and related social and environmental problems to the exploitative dynamics of capitalism.[9] Cesar Chavez emerged as a key figure in the environmental justice movement. In 1962, Chavez organized grape pickers into the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farm Workers of America. Influenced by the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Chavez fasted and marched to bring public attention to the plight of farm workers and he led national boycotts against grape growers in California. Beginning in the 1980s, Chavez called attention to “the plague of pesticides on our land and our food,” such as was poisoning Americans and had a direct effect on farm workers in the form of high cancer rates and birth defects in their children. The u.s. environmental justice movement reached a high point in October 1991, when the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit convened. This conference proved that “it was possible to build a multi-issue, multiracial environmental movement around justice. Environmental activism was shown to be alive and well in African American, Latino American, Asian American, and Native American communities.”[10]

The 1990s in england was a key period when activists broke decisively with mainstream environmentalism. In a country with traditional bonds to a countryside increasingly threatened by development, activists undertook major anti-roads campaigns to protect what precious little wilderness existed, and the number of direct actions rose dramatically.[11] Breaking from the constraints of u.k. Earth First! in order to employ ALF-style sabotage tactics, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) appeared in the early 1990s, and spread like a brushfire throughout Ireland, Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Australia, the u.s., and elsewhere. In liberation of the Earth, the ELF burned down housing complexes under construction, torched SUVs and ski lodges, and ripped up biotech crops.

As ELF “elves” made their merry way across the u.s. and Europe, transnational corporations such as ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, ChevronTexaco, and Monsanto were advancing deep into the southern hemisphere and other areas ripe for “trade” and “development.” Their predatory advances were supported by new legal treaties and institutions, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and bolstered by corrupt client states and brutal military forces. The onslaught of hydroelectric dams, commercial foresting, road building, mining, and agribusiness threatened lands, communities, and livelihoods. Indigenous peoples formed new “ecological resistance movements” (Taylor) and fought back in every possible way. The Zapatistas, for instance, announced their presence to the world just after midnight on January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement became operative among Mexico, the US, and Canada, crafted as a new imperialist weapon to undermine workers, the environment, and the rights and autonomy of indigenous populations. A stellar example of the new revolutionary politics, one that is alliance-oriented, egalitarian, and global in outlook, the Zapatistas promoted feminist values, consensus decision-making, ecological principles, a respect for all life, and the support and/or use of armed struggle.

As dramatically evident in the 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” “anti-“ or “alter-globalization” groups throughout the world recognized their common interests and fates and formed unprecedented kinds of alliances.[12] The interests of workers, animals, and the environment alike were gravely threatened in a new world order where the WTO could override the laws of any nation state as “barriers to free trade.” Global capitalism was the common enemy recognized by world groups and peoples. Bridging national boundaries, North-South divisions, different political causes, and borders between activists of privilege and non-privileged communities, alter-globalization movements prefigured the future of revolutionary environmentalism as a global, anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist alliance politics, diverse in class, race, and gender composition.

Conceptualizing Revolutionary Environmentalism

“Enough is enough. Ya basta!’ Subcomandante Marcos after the first Chiapas Encuentro

In the last three decades, there has been growing awareness that environmentalism cannot succeed without social justice and social justice cannot be realized without environmentalism.[13] To be sure, defending forests and protecting whales are vital actions to take, for they protect evolutionary processes and ecological systems vital to the planet and all species and peoples within it. Yet at the same time, it is also critical to fight side-by-side with oppressed peoples in order to address all forms of environmental destruction and build a movement far greater in numbers and strength than possible with a single-issue focus. Such a holistic orientation can be seen in the international Green network, the u.s. environmental justice movement, Earth First! efforts (as initiated by Judi Bari) to join with timber workers, alter-globalization channels, Zapatista coalition building, and often in the communiqués and actions of ALF and ELF activists. Such a form of alliance politics is visible also in recent efforts to build bridges among animal, Earth, and Black liberationists and anti-imperialists (as evident in this book). These various dynamics are part and parcel of the emergence of global revolutionary environmentalism.

There are key similarities between what has been called “radical environmentalism” – which include social ecology, deep ecology, ecofeminism, Earth First!, and primitivism – and what we term “revolutionary environmentalism.”[14] Among other things, both approaches reject mainstream environmentalism, attack core ideologies and/or institutions that have caused the ecological crisis, often adopt spiritual outlooks and see nature as sacred, reject the binary opposition separating humans from nature, and in many cases support or adopt illegal tactics such as civil disobedience or monkeywrenching. However, a key distinguishing trait of revolutionary environmentalism is that it supports and/or employs illegal tactics ranging from property destruction for the purpose of economic sabotage to guerilla warfare and armed struggle, recognizing that violent methods of resistance are often appropriate against fascist regimes and right-wing dictatorships. Revolutionary environmentalism counters forces of oppression with equally potent forms of resistance, and uses militant tactics when they are justified, necessary, and effective. With the advance of the global capitalist juggernaut and increasing deterioration of the Earth’s ecological systems, ever more people may realize that no viable future will arise without large-scale social transformation, a process that requires abolishing global capitalism and imperialism, and would thereby embrace revolutionary environmentalism.[15]

As evident in the communiqués of the ALF and ELF, as well as in the views of Black liberationists, anarchists, and anti-imperialists, many activists are explicitly revolutionary in their rhetoric, analysis, vision, and political identities. Revolutionary environmentalists renounce reformist approaches that aim only to manage the symptoms of the global ecological crisis and never dare or think to probe its underlying dynamics and causes. Revolutionary environmentalists seek to end the destruction of nature and peoples, not merely to slow its pace, temper its effects, or plug holes in a dam set to burst. They don’t just aim to “manage” the catastrophic consequences of the project to dominate nature; they seek to abolish the very hierarchy whereby humans think and act as if they were separate from nature and thereby pursue the deluded goal of mastery and control. The objectives revolutionary environmentalists raise as necessary for a viable future cannot be realized within the present world system and require a rupture with it.

Revolutionary environmentalists recognize the need for fundamental changes on many levels, such as with human psychologies (informed by anthropocentric worldviews, values, and identities), interpersonal relations (mediated by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and elitism), social institutions (governed by authoritarian, plutocratic, and corrupt or pseudo-democratic forms), technologies (enforcing labor and exploitation imperatives and driven by fossil-fuels that cause pollution and global warming), and the prevailing economic system (an inherently destructive and unsustainable global capitalism driven by profit, production, and consumption imperatives). Revolutionary environmentalists see “separate” problems as related to the larger system of global capitalism and reject the reformist concept of “green capitalism” as a naïve oxymoron. They repudiate the logics of marketization, economic growth, and industrialization as inherently violent, exploitative, and destructive, and seek ecological, democratic, and egalitarian alternatives.

As the dynamics that brought about global warming, rainforest destruction, species extinction, and poisoning of communities are not reducible to any single factor or cause — be it agricultural society, the rise of states, anthropocentrism, speciesism, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, industrialism, technocracy, or capitalism – all radical groups and orientations that can effectively challenge the ideologies and institutions implicated in domination and ecological destruction have a relevant role to play in the global social-environmental struggle.

[1] For critiques of mainstream environmentalism, see Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement 1962-1992. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993; and Mark Dowie, Losing Ground. More recently, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus proclaimed the “death of Environmentalism,” arguing that it rests upon “unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts, and exhausted strategies” (see: Renouncing the mainstream’s single-issue approach, they call for broadening environmentalism into a multi-issue social movement. Many grassroots activists, however, found their vision far too narrow. For multiracial critiques of their analysis, see Ludovic Blain, “Ain’t I an Environmentalist?”; Oscar Aguilar, “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist,”
; and Michel Gelobter, “The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering Transformational Politics in the 21st Century” (

[2] For examples of greenwashing and “environmental” groups serving the cause of corporate propaganda, see Dowie, Losing Ground, pp. 53-59; and Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999.

[3] See Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. New York: Lantern Books, 2004.

[4] See Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Non-Violent Direct Action of the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

[5] By far and away, the harshest critic of deep ecology, Earth First!, and primitivism – reviled as being racist, misanthropic, mystical, irrational, and atavistic — is social ecologist Murray Bookchin (see, for example, Murray Bookchin, Re-Enchanting Humanity: A Defense of the Human Spirit Against Anti-Humanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism, and Primitivism. London: Cassell, 1995). Although Bookchin makes a number of important points against these movements, he often takes statements out of context and fails to account for the diversity and competing divisions within groups, such as existed in Earth First! between the “wilders” (e.g., Dave Foreman and Christopher Manes) and social-oriented “holies” (e.g., Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney). For critiques of Bookchin’s one-dimensional readings of deep ecology and Earth First!, see Bron Taylor, “Earth First! and Global Narratives of Popular Ecological Resistance,” Bron Taylor (ed.), Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); and “The Religion and Politics of Earth First!,” The Ecologist, 21 [66], November-December, 1991.

[6] Judi Bari, “Revolutionary Ecology: Biocentrism and Deep Ecology,”

[7] In her transformation from housewife to environmentalist, emblematic of the politicization of citizens at the grassroots level in the 1980s and 1990s, Gibbs organized her neighborhood against Hooker Chemical Company, created the Love Canal Homeowners Association, sparked President Carter’s approval of a paid evacuation for the 900 families stranded in Love Canal, and was a force behind the creation of the Superfund – all without membership in the Gang of Ten. In 1981 she created the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (, and subsequently won numerous honors.

[8] A good introduction to the environmental justice movement is Robert D. Bullard (ed.), Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice & Communities of Color. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994. In an interview with Earth First! Journal, Bullard clarifies the environmental justice position by emphasizing that it does not favor human environments over wilderness and other species, but rather includes those issues in a broader framework. As he puts it, “environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds” ( Also see Daniel Fisk (ed.), The Struggle for Ecological Democracy: Environmental Justice Movements in the United States (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), and Aaron Sachs, Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment (Worldwatch Institute Paper #127, December 1995). A helpful online resource for environmental justice can be found at: For critiques of the environmental movement as dominated by white, privileged interests and calls for a multiracial environmental movement, see Michel Gelobter, “The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering Transformational Politics in the 21st Century”; Ludovic Blain, “Ain’t I an Environmentalist?” (
); Adrienne Maree Brown, “Rainbow Warrior” (; Eliza Strikland, “The New Face of Environmentalism” (; and Ewuare Osayande, “Choking Back Black Liberation: Revisioning Environmentalism” (

[9] “MOVE’s work is to stop industry from poisoning the air, the water, the soil, and to put an end to the enslavement of life — people, animals, any form of life” (cited at MOVE’s subversive presence in Philadelphia ended dramatically when police dropped a bomb on their house, killing 6 adults and 5 children. While MOVE is widely recognized as a radical and innovative movement, many members of the feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) communities believe that MOVE founders adopted regressive views toward women and homosexuals based on a dogmatic, patriarchal, and homophobic interpretation of “natural law.”

[10] Robert D. Bullard, “Environmental Justice For All,” in Bullard (ed.),Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice & Communities of Color, p. 7.

[11] On the history of environmentalism in england, see Derek Wall, Green History: Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy, and Politics. London: Routledge, 2003. For more recent histories of sabotage and direct action tactics, see Wall’s earlier book, Earth First and the Anti-Roads Movement: Radical Environmentalism and Comparative Social Movements. London: Routledge, 1999; and also Benjamin SeelMatthew Paterson, and Brian Doherty (eds.), Direct Action in British Environmentalism. London: Routledge, 2000. For an excellent example of the broad sense of revolutionary environmentalism that we are articulating here – an uncompromising, anti-hierarchy, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist social-ecological movement in solidarity with all oppressed world peoples – see the u.k. journal, Do or Die: Voices from the Ecological Resistance.

[12] On the resistance movements against global capitalism, see Jeremy Brecher, Tim, Costello, and Brendan Smith, Globalization From Below: The Power of Solidarity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2000; and Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, “Resisting Globalization,” in G. Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Globalization. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006.

[13] For a thorough exploration of the social-environmental relationship from a radical anarchist perspective that builds on social ecology and offers concrete proposals for a revolutionary remaking of the world, see Takis Fotopolous, Towards An Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project (London/New York: Cassell/ Continuum, 1997), as well as essays in the journal Democracy and Nature (

[14] For significant works on “radical environmentalism,” see Christopher Manes, Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990; Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement. Chicago: The Noble Press, Inc., 1990; and Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search For a Livable World. New York: Routledge, 1992. Bron Taylor provides a useful overview of “Radical Environmentalism” and “Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. London: Thoemmes, 2005, and also available online at Another useful article, from an eco-socialist and revolutionary perspective, is John Bellamy Foster, “Organizing Ecological Revolution,” Monthly Review, Volume 7 Number 5, online at:

[15] It is critical to point out that contributors to this volume use different terms to talk about similar or the same things; thus, in addition to “revolutionary environmentalism,” one will also see references to “radical environmentalism,” “radical ecology,” or “revolutionary ecology.” It is natural that different people discussing new ecological resistance movements will use different terminology, and we did not attempt to impose our own discourse of “revolutionary environmentalism” on any of the authors, although some do use the term “revolutionary environmentalism.” While there is a general consensus in the need for a militant resistance movement and social transformation, we leave it to the reader to interpret and compare the different philosophical and political perspectives.


A Fire in the Belly of the Beast: The Emergence of Revolutionary Environmentalism (part 1 of 3)

Posted in animal liberation with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2010 by carmen4thepets

Editor’s Note:  Following is Part 1 of the Introduction to Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, edited by Steven Best and Anthony Nocella (2004). I encourage everyone to read each part carefully, understand the evolution of  “revolutionary environmentalism,” and the potential that alliance politics holds. Our planet is dying and reformation is not an option.  This essay will establish the relationship between the systems of domination that oppress different groups and the consequent destruction wrought on the environment.  But, far beyond theory, this book provides a working model of alliance politics and total liberation.  The activists in these pages represent diverse people — animal liberationists, earth liberationists, political prisoners, academics, feminists, black liberationists, native americans, primativists — all engaged in one aspect of the same social struggle.  None of us can win this war alone.  The essence of alliance politics and total liberation is captured in this quote from the following essay:  “A flank of militant groups and positions can drive a battering ram into the structures of power and domination and open a door to a new future.”

Please see: Part 2 & Part 3

By Steven Best, PhD

Barely out of the starting gates, on the heels of the bloody and genocidal century that preceded it, the 21st century already is a time of war, violence, environmental disasters, and terrorism against human populations, animals, and the Earth as a whole. This omnicidal assault on life is waged by powerful and greedy forces, above all, by transnational corporations, national and international banks, and G8 alliances that hire nation states as their cops, juntas, hit men, dictators, and loan sharks to extract natural resources, enforce regimes of total exploitation, and snuff out all resistance. These menacing forces are part of a coherent systemrooted in the global capitalist market and “representative democracy” currently in the final stages of the privatization and commodification of the natural and social worlds.

The net result of millennia of western culture, and roughly two hundred thousand years of the reign of Homo sapiens as a whole, is hideously visible in the current ecological crisis involving dynamics such as air and water pollution, acid rain, genetic crop pollution, chemical poisoning, species extinction, rainforest destruction, coral reef deterioration, disappearance of wetlands, desertification, and global warming.[1] This planetary crisis is caused by forces that include human overpopulation, hyperdevelopment, mass production, overconsumption, agribusiness, militarism, and a cancerous greed for power and profit that consumes, entraps, or kills everything in its path.

With the exception of a few sparkles of democracy, egalitarianism, and enlightenment, western cultural development is a dark stretch of hierarchy, domination, and destruction, all predicated on the pernicious ideologies and institutions of statism, classism, sexism, racism, speciesism, and anthropocentrism. Despite great works of philosophy, music, art, and architecture, regardless of brilliant advances in science and technology – much of which was built on the backs of the enslaved and exploited — the western world (which claims superiority over all other cultures) has created few social forms deserving the name “civilization.” Rather, it spirals headlong toward barbarism, self-destruction, and oblivion. Indeed, the very concept of “civilization” is problematic as the western world has defined it in antithesis to everything wild, non-domestic, animalic, primal, emotional, instinctual, and female, all forces to be subdued and conquered.

As the global temperatures climb, icecaps and glaciers melt, sea-levels rise, and forests fall, the short-lived human empire has begun to devour itself and implode like a collapsing white dwarf star. The Earth itself – the bulk of which has been domesticated, colonized, commodified, bred and cross-bred, genetically engineered, cloned, and transformed into forces of mass destruction — is refuting the myths and fallacies of Progress, Development, Science, Technology, the Free Market, and Neo-Liberalism, while demonstrating the inherent contradiction between capitalism and ecology.

This book is a rebel yell. It is a manifesto for a new social movement that we call “revolutionary environmentalism.” It stands in solidarity with all struggles outside the western world and northern hemispheres, but it calls for a revolution within. As the Earth Liberation Front once stated in a communiqué, “Welcome to the struggle of all species to be free. We are the burning rage of a dying planet.” Fed up with apathy, lies, and excuses; driven by passion and anger; moving through the night in black clothes and balaclavas; armed with the healing fire of resistance; the Earth Liberation Front is just one of many radical groups attacking exploiters and monkeywrenching nihilists who would trade in cultural and biological diversity for another mansion or yacht.[2] These guerilla warriors are joined by people of color protesting chemical poisoning of their communities, Chipko activists protecting forests in India, the Ogoni people fighting Shell Oil in Nigeria, and countless other indigenous peoples — from Central Africa and the Amazon Basin to the Canadian subarctic and the tropical forests of Asia and — fighting pollution, mining, deforestation, biopiracy, oil and gas drilling, agribusiness, and other forms of exploiting humans, animals, and the Earth.

Global in its vision, Igniting a Revolution nonetheless arises from the belly of the beast, from the “core” states that control their “satellites,” from the corporate command centers – above all, the u.s. — of the great imperialist powers.[3] This book is shaped by the era of “global terrorism,” the so-called “clash of civilizations,” struggles over dwindling natural resources, and the intensification of state repression against “eco-terrorism,” liberation movements, and dissent of any kind. Igniting a Revolution was conceived amidst the smoke and rubble of 9/11; it was written during the blasts of 3/11 (Madrid, 2004) and 7/7 (London, 2005), assembled throughout the u.s. terrorist war against Iraq and the encroaching fascism of phenomena such as the u.s.a. PATRIOT Act and u.k. “rules of unacceptable behaviors,” and finalized under the spectral shadow of ecological disintegration, biological meltdown, and impending global chaos.

Increasingly, calls for moderation, compromise, and the slow march through institutions can be seen as treacherous and grotesquely inadequate. With the planet in the throes of dramatic climate change, ecological destabilization, and the sixth great extinction crisis in its history (this one having human not natural causes), “reasonableness” and “moderation” seem to be entirely unreasonable and immoderate, as “extreme” and “radical” actions appear simply as necessary and appropriate. After decades of environmental struggles in the west, we are nevertheless “losing ground” in the battle to preserve species, ecosystems, wilderness, and human communities. Politics as usual just won’t cut it anymore.[4]

Origins of Western Environmentalism

“Environmentalism,” a term developed in the modern western world, is an articulated philosophical and political concern human beings have with the destructive impact of their societies and lifeways on their surroundings and the natural world that sustains them. Most improbable in societies that respect and live in harmony with nature, environmentalism is a symptom of a disease. It is a manifestation of a dualistic outlook whereby human beings see themselves as apart from nature, view it as mere resources for their use, and seek to bend it to their will. Ecological lifeways in harmony with nature are primal, but environmentalism is a modern development.[5]Environmentalism is a necessary step toward healing the pathologies of a destructive and domineering society, but some forms of environmentalism, as we will show, only treat the symptoms of disease while others seek to eliminate its cause.

There are many histories of environmentalism appropriate to various national, geographical, or cultural settings, such as may be found in Australia, Asia, england, Finland, Germany, or the u.s. Our brief narrative here only touches on a few points relevant to traditions in north Amerika and Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, but verges toward a broader international (though mostly western) narrative.[6] Ideas, tactics, groups, and movements often flow from one nation to another, such that by the 1990s western environmentalism – which is simultaneously a general name and multiple tendencies – becomes an international movement that connects with indigenous struggles in the southern hemispheres and expands on a planetary scale.[7]

While one can always find antecedents to any “beginning,” environmentalism emerged as a prominent new social concern in the u.k. and u.s. during the first half of the 19th century, largely in reaction to the social and environmental destruction wrought by capitalist industrialization processes. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in London, the urban setting became a grim, overcrowded, polluted, smog-choked, disease-ridden prisonhouse of squalor and ugliness. In his poem, “Jerusalem” (1804), William Blake decried the city’s “dark satanic mills,” and in novels such as Hard Times (1854) Charles Dickens vividly portrayed the hellish lives of the urban poor. In protest against encroaching industrialization, groups of English weavers known as Luddites took up their sledgehammers in 1811 and attacked the machines that mass produced inferior products, eliminated their jobs, and destroyed their communities. The state crushed the burgeoning social movement, handing out death sentences for sabotage, and industrialization rolled right along under the banner of Progress, Democracy, and Freedom.[8]

As various radials and social reformers organized against the destructive effects of industrialization on working classes in cities such as London and Manchester, a new sensibility emerged in the late 18th century, championed by Romantic poets, artists, and thinkers who were concerned with the impact of capitalism on the beloved countryside and forests of england. Within the belly of the industrial beast, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and others observed with alarm how both outer and inner worlds were threatened by mechanistic science, the technological onslaught, and the ruthless commodification of nature and human relations. Following the lead of Rousseau who declared everything natural free and good (before corrupted by society), they praised nature as the antithesis to all that was rotten in modern life, and extolled the beauty and divinity of the wild.

In the early 19th century, Romanticism spread from england to amerika where it took on similar form in the guise of “Transcendentalism.” Millennia after Native Americans lived with reverence for the Earth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir embraced a similar pantheistic outlook. They rejected the prevailing Puritan ideology that saw nature as evil and repulsive, as something to be conquered not contemplated, and they spoke rapturously of the divine spirit manifest in all things. They extolled mountains, rivers, and forests as sacred and essential to authentic life, unlike the existence corrupted by the teeming crowds, breathless pace, and gross commercial values of cities. They understood that the “temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism” (Muir), such as represented by railroad, lumber, mining, land, and farming interests, were rapidly colonizing the wild and exploiting the Earth. In their writings and speeches, Transcendentalists encouraged aesthetic and spiritual appreciation of nature, sparked public awareness about the widespread “war against wilderness” (Thoreau), and launched an American tradition of environmental legislation and protection.

The evolution of “environmentalism” in the u.s. provides an instructive case study of the complexities and politics of the discourse and movement. According to a standard narrative, amerikan environmentalism emerged in the 19th century when privileged white males such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and various conservationists became active in education and legislation efforts.[9] The story continues by relating how later figures, such as Aldo Leopold carried the baton of a budding new movement, emphasizes the importance of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1963), then finally brings the tale to a climax by describing the sea of white faces demonstrating in the streets on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Although we have certainly oversimplified, the basic outlines of this history have been told often, and it is important to note that this narrative leaves out two important facts. First, many of the founders and pioneers of amerikan environmentalism were classist, racist, and sexist, such that their spiritual attunement to nature did not free them from pernicious prejudices of the time.[10] Early environmentalists, prosperous white men, contrasted a “vigorous manliness” ethic in the pursuit of wilderness to the “effeminate” weakness” of city life. Romantics, primitivists, and anti-modernists, they celebrated the “savage virtues” that the man of leisure cultivates in the canyons and forests of wild amerika. Their emphasis on rugged individualism and solitary journeys into wilderness hardly encouraged social awareness or activism. During heady political times of slavery, civil war, and genocide against Native Americans, some naturalists, such as Muir, remained apolitical and even misanthropic. Thoreau, in contrast, participated in the Underground Railroad, protested against the Fugitive Slave Law, supported John Brown and his party, and encouraged tax resistance and civil disobedience in general. He thereby stands out as an early eco-radical, one with a holistic outlook that encompassed both wilderness and social justice issues, and who exerted a great influence on the politics of civil disobedience and direct action associated with radical environmentalism.

Amidst the struggles of oppressed groups and the Dickensian horrors of industrialization, the nineteenth century understanding of “environment” in the u.s. was that of a pristine wilderness, such as could be enjoyed exclusively by people of privilege and leisure. Unfortunately, this elitist and myopic definition discounted the urban environment that plagued working classes, and it set a regressive historical standard that has come under fire but still stands.

The nature/urban dualism was far less rigid in england, however, where many 19th century champions of wilderness protection and nature were also vigorous social reformers. William Blake deified wilderness but also repudiated slavery and championed racial and sexual equality. Octavia Hill (1838-1912) founded the National Trust, an influential nature preservation society, as she worked to improve housing and increase public spaces for the poor. Radical prophet, poet, pacifist, and labor activist Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) advocated vegetarianism, anti-vivisection, women’s liberation, and gay sexuality, as he organized campaigns against air pollution and echoed Thoreau’s call for the “simplification of life.” Similarly, Henry Salt (1851-1939) was a socialist, pacifist, and champion of social reform in schools, prisons, and other institutions. He was also a naturalist, vegetarian, proponent of animal rights, and early animal liberationist. In 1891, he formed the Humanitarian League, which set out to ban hunting as a sport. This organization was a forerunner of the League against Cruel Sports (founded in 1924), as well as modern hunt-saboteur groups from which emerged the Animal Liberation Front (see below).[11]

Clearly, the understanding of “revolutionary environmentalism” will vary according to one’s definition of “environment.” If the definition focuses on “wilderness” apart from cities, communities, and health issues, then it will exclude the plight and struggles of women, people of color, workers, children, and other victims of oppression who work, live, play and attend school in toxic surroundings that sicken, deform, and kill. If, however, the definition of revolutionary environmentalism is broadened to include environmental justice (see below) and indigenous struggles against corporate exploitation and imperialism — which bring to the table key issues of race and class — then the contributions of Native Americans, Black liberationists, Latino/as, non-western peoples, and others can be duly recognized and integrated into a broader and more powerful resistance movement.

One must look to the 19th century roots of modern environmentalism to understand why in the u.s. and elsewhere the environmental movement is still comprised predominantly of middle class or elite white people. Tragically, narrow definitions of the “environment” and ideologies such as elitism, racism, sexism, and misanthropy persisted throughout the 20th century and surfaced in movements such as deep ecology and Earth First! Such attitudes – while not endorsed by all deep ecologists or Earth First!ers and which by no means capture the complexity of their positions and politics — were not exactly welcome mats for women, workers, and people of color, who regardless were preoccupied with their own forms of oppression and survival needs.

A second problem with the standard historical narrative of amerikan environmentalism is that it leaves out the important roles played by oppressed and marginalized groups. Far before Rachel Carson, African-American abolitionists opposed the use of chemicals such as arsenic being used to grow crops. Women’s chapters in the Sierra Club and Audubon societies played a significant role in furthering the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Women were not only wilderness advocates but also urban environmentalists. These activists included the “sewer socialists” of the late 19th century who militated for better sanitation conditions in cities; Alice Hamilton (1869-1970), a pioneer of occupational health and safety; and Jane Addams (1860-1935), whose activism on behalf of women, children, workers, and people of color was inseparable from her push for better housing, working, and sanitation conditions.[12] Anticipating by six decades the environmental justice movements that emerged in the 1980s (see below), Grace Fryer and other “Radium girls” sickened from radium poisoning sued the company responsible and raised awareness about the dangers of this deadly substance.

Modern radical groups have roots in forgotten social histories, such as we see in today’s environmental justice movement. Similarly, well before the sabotage and monkeywrenching actions of the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Earth First!, Native nations, rebellious slaves, abolitionists, Luddites, suffragettes, and others damaged machinery, destroyed property, and set buildings ablaze. Contemporary direct action and civil disobedience tactics, moreover, have immediate roots in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and of course reach back to militants such as Gandhi, Thoreau, and Tolstoy. Thus, the modern environmental movement hardly emerged in a vacuum, nor did it evolve without deep imprints from intense struggles over class, race, and gender.

The Ferment of the 1960s

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1963), is often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement. It captured the attention of the nation with its vivid prose and dire warning of the systemic poisoning effects of newly invented pesticides, especially DDT. In an era that promoted “better living through chemicals,” DDT and other deadly substances were spread liberally across the land, from the suburban lawns of New Jersey to the agricultural fields of California where migrant workers toiled and had first hand knowledge of their deadly effects. Carson’s book prompted President John F. Kennedy to order the President’s Science Advisory Committee to examine her claims against pesticides, and, despite ferocious opposition from the chemical industries, her research was vindicated and DDT was eventually banned – although the use of countless other deadly chemicals thereafter increased and continued to poison soil, crops, animals, rivers, and human communities and bodies.

Exclusive focus on Carson’s great achievements tends to cloud the importance of other contemporaries. In the 1950s, for instance, Murray Bookchin wrote numerous articles and books on the poisoning of the environment and food supply by nuclear testing, pesticides and herbicides, and various additives and preservatives.[13] During the same period, he also merged anarchism and ecology in a new revolutionary framework he later called social ecology, which argued that all environmental problems are deep-rooted social problems and therefore demand far-reaching social solutions. Biologist Barry Commoner also protested against nuclear testing in the 1950s, warning of the dangers of radioactive fallout, and he helped bring about the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty. A national figure, Commoner wrote on a wide range of issues including pollution, the dangers of fossil fuels, and alternative technologies. His books, such as The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (1971), provided clear understandings of the “laws of ecology” and how modern society recklessly violated them. Populist and progressive, Commoner provided another early attempt to connect environmentalism to left-wing politics and broad social agendas.

Yet it is clear that the modern environmental movement did not arise because of Rachel Carson, or a few other key individuals (including David Brower). It emerged and sustained itself in the larger social context of the 1960s, as shaped by the struggles of the “new social movements” (radical students, countercultural youth, Black liberation, feminism, Chicano/Mexican-American, peace, anti-nuclear, and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual).[14] These movements, in turn, arose amidst the turmoil spawned by the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. During the 1960s, however, Blacks and a number of white radicals rejected environmentalism as a bourgeois concern, elitist and racist cause, reactionary primitivism, and even dangerous diversion from the hard-won focus on civil rights and the Vietnam War. The political mindset was dominated by humanist and anthropocentric concerns, and even “progressive” figures and groups were unprepared to embrace an emerging new ethic that challenged human species identity as the Lord and Master of the wild. As they began to take shape in the 1960s, environmental concerns were – and mostly remain – “enlightened anthropocentric” worries that if people do not better protect “their” environment, human existence will be gravely threatened.

[1] The claim that we currently are witnessing an advanced ecological “crisis,” upon which the argument for revolutionary struggle rests, means that there is an emergency situation in the ecology of the Earth as a whole that needs urgent attention. If we do not address ecological problems immediately and with radical measures that target causes not symptoms, severe, world-altering consequences will play out over a long-term period. Signs of major stress of the world’s eco-systems are everywhere, from denuded forests and depleted fisheries to vanishing wilderness and global climate change. As one indicator of massive disruption, the proportion of species human beings are driving to extinction “might easily reach 20 percent by 2022 and rise as high as 50 percent or more thereafter” (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life. New York: Knopf, 2002). Given the proliferating amount of solid, internationally assembled scientific data supporting the ecological crisis claim, it can no longer be dismissed as “alarmist”; the burden of proof, rather has shifted to those “skeptics,” “realists,” and “optimists” in radical denial of the crisis to prove why complacency is not blindness and insanity. Science itself is calling for radical change. For reliable data on the crisis, see the various reports, papers, and annual Vital Signs and State of the World publications by the Worldwatch Institute. On the impact of Homo sapiens over time, see “The Pleistocene-Holocene Event” at: On the serious environmental effects of agribusiness and global meat and dairy production/consumption systems (which include deforestation, desertification, water pollution, species extinction, resource waste, and global warming), see John Robbins, The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World. Berkeley CA: Conari Press, 2001. The environmental impact of militarism and war is another often overlooked, but critical factor, as militaries and warfare are major contributors to air pollution, ozone depletion, polluted rivers, contaminated soil, use of land mass, consumption of energy and resources, release of toxic, radioactive, and chemical waste, and of course the threat of nuclear holocaust. See Rosalie Bertell, Planet Earth: The Newest Weapon of War. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2001.

[2] See, for instance, how ExxonMobil has aggressively lobbied the Bush administration to block alternative energy approaches and maintain fossil fuels as the dominant energy source for the future, “The Hydrogen Hypocrites,”

[3] In solidarity with the language of resistance used by many Black liberationists and anti-imperialists, throughout this introduction we substitute “u.s.,” “Amerika,” “england,” and “u.k.” for “US,” “America,” “England,” and “UK,” and graffiti the names only of these two major imperialist powers.

[4] See Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995; and James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

[5] Whereas some indulge in mythologizing and romanticizing past cultures, it is a well-known fact that massive environmental destruction is not caused by modern western societies alone, but rather was characteristic of numerous earlier societies that hunted animals to extinction and laid waste to their surroundings to the extent their technologies allowed. See Jared Diamond, Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Viking, 2004; Charles L. Redman, Human Impact on Ancient Environments. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999; and Vernon Carter and Tom Dale, Topsoil and Civilization. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.

[6] Needless to say, in our limited space here, we cannot possibly discuss in detail key individuals, groups, and concepts important to the history of western environmentalism. We are tracing some of the streams that feed into the river of revolutionary environmentalism as we define it, and many other histories and perspectives are needed for a fuller picture. This focus means that we are more concerned with providing a broad sketch and conceptual framework rather than a critical assessment of every figure and development we mention.

[7] On the topic of global environmentalism, see Ramachandra Guha,Environmentalism: A Global History. Cartersville, GA:Longman, 1999. The differences between Northern and Southern forms of environmentalism is discussed by Ramachandra Guha, Juan Martinez-Alier, and Juan Martinez inVarieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan Publications, 1997.

[8] As they are so often misunderstood, it is important to emphasize that Luddites were not about mindless attacks on machinery or reactionary fears of “progress,” but rather rejection of a mechanistic approach to life, care for craftsmanship, and concern over threats to core values such as freedom and dignity. For an illuminating account of Luddites past and present, see Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 1995.

[9] For an example of a standard, single-focus narratives on the history of u.s. environmentalism, see Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. To read an alternative, far broader account that links environmental and social history by including the fight for safe working and living conditions and the struggles of women, labor, and others, see Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993. Marcy Darnovsky provides an excellent social history of environmentalism in her essay, “Stories Less Told: Histories of US Environmentalism,” Socialist Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October-December, 1992, pp. 11-54. Darnovsky notes that “Too sharp a a focus on wilderness blurs the environmental significance of everyday life … In limiting their scope as they do, the standard [environmental] histories contribute to still-widespread associations of the environment as a place separate from daily life and innocent of social relations” (28).

[10] See Dowie, Losing Ground.

[11] Salt’s book, Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress(1892), was pioneering both in its use of the term “rights” (in an english culture dominated by utilitarianism no less), and its holistic vision that presents human and animal rights as inseparable elements of moral progress. Salt also was a key influence on Gandhi, and thereby on subsequent history, in two key ways: his book, A Plea for Vegetarianism(1886), prompted Gandhi to return to vegetarianism (this time to honor ethical reasons not religious tradition) and thereby formulate a wider ethic of life; and he introduced Gandhi to the works of Thoreau, thus spreading the tradition of civil disobedience.

[12] On the early role of women in the emerging environmental movement, see Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. Madison: The University of Wisconsin, 1991.

[13] See, for instance, Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment. New York: Knopf, 1962 (published under the pseudonym of “Lewis Herber”).

[14] For a historical and critical analysis of new social movements, see Carl Boggs, Social Movements and Political Power: Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.