Earth First?

After arriving at a drag queen house show, I make my way through crowds of pretty young people with beers and spliffs in their hands searching for familiar faces. The house is a notorious communal house where I have met with friends before and besides looking for kicks of stimulation I keep my ears open for leads. Sure enough, one of those familiar faces pops up in the middle of a rolling conversation of radical politics with words like “guerrilla gardens”, “anarchists”, “worker’s unions”, “ecology”, and “capitalism” flowing freely. There will be something to learn here, something to latch onto. Inserting myself in the conversation is done with ease at a party where such behavior is welcome and bodies are mixing like the drinks falling down our throats.

Being in attendance at ’actions’, making the effort to show up to an event billed as a great protest for some righteous cause has an effect that cannot be summarized by whether or not capitalism dies the morning after. There are faces to remember, there is information to collect, there is a milieu to become acquainted with, and a comfortability that comes with it sparking more genuine and less reserved conversations. A general sense becomes shared: something is terribly wrong and we are here to devise a plan. Even if opinions differ greatly from one to the next, this much has been made clear to me by schmoozing with so-called activists: assembling into a greater, more powerful body is a necessary step in the process of social change. The body that assembles in a particular time and place may disperse, fail to achieve its stated goals, or become a mere routine as predictable as the bureaucratic regime that it opposes; but it is in those sites full of charged up bodies who share you’re rage at the state of social affairs, along with its “external” effects on the environment at large, where a conversation can steer you onto a new path increasing the possibilities for projects that would have been inconceivable in isolation. A meet-up spot yes, but in the setting of a heightened feeling of power amongst a sea of others. A fluid mass of which you are only a part that at once puts you on the edge of your senses and expands your capabilities in the face of a terrible threat in both the short and long term.

Ever collecting points of intersection, one has crossed my attention that is too juicy to let drift away. That familiar face from the party indeed does have a lead: a connection pointing towards a future convergence.

Or, in short, I heared about a film screening.

A recent slice of history is documented in the film titled “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” and I learned some eye-opening things about radical politics from very close by my own region. After finishing the documentary I was surprised at how little I knew about Earth First! when much of the action came not only within my short lifetime but was exposed in the national media. With its current attention at a hush, I can understand the need for this documentary as it details the story of a grassroots organization that was building momentum when it became the target of a ruthless campaign by the Oakland Police Department and the FBI.

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Earth First! is a movement that engages in direct action against corporations who threaten life on earth. They are quick to point out on their website that it is not an organization but a non-hierarchical body of people with a shared goal: protecting “Mother Earth” at all costs. The stated claim about Earth First! is that it is a principle of “Biocentrism” around which individuals (explicitly in contrast to members) gather to stop particular practices that usually amount to slowing down loggers, their trucks, and equipment before they cut down trees. This is an instance of bottom-up politics organized not by any individual with any authority but by a common commitment bringing people together for specific events. Simply put, Earth First is a belief, or a set of beliefs, that are simultaneously a tool for pragmatically implementing those beliefs: “It is a belief in biocentrism, that life of the Earth comes first, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action.”.

They boast on their website: “Our front-line, direct action approach to protecting wilderness gets results.” and direct action does indeed get the goods. But is this really only a belief with a will to act brought along with it? It is possible to unpack Biocentrism as well as an ethical commitment to the Earth but this is not my aim. The bigger question lies between the belief and the action: are the actions that Earth First!ers perform faithful to the belief in protecting the life of the Earth? Does the belief too quickly translate into action without acknowledging all of the other beliefs that it carries in tow? Getting excessively reflective can stifle the ethical energy or moral courage by inducing doubt – I know this much (get it?). Given that one understands the stakes of the rapidly collapsing ecosystem planet-wide, the question is more about where and how one’s energy is being directed by the tactics and principles that go along with affiliating oneself with Earth First! But this is just to wet the curiosity. Before tackling these big questions we should look into the story of Earth First! in my own bioregion with special attention paid to their victories, near-misses, and resistance from powerful enemies.

The documentary focuses on the movement to stop logging companies from clear-cutting redwood forests in Northern California, Oregon and Cascadia in general. Roadblocks, tree-sits, confrontations with tractors all are captured on film as we see human bodies standing directly in the way of logging machinery. Initially, the group based its efforts on linking up with the timber workers and together putting a stop to the over-cutting or clear-cutting of forests that completely transformed ecosystems. It seems that the timber companies once logged sustainably (if that is possible) but then after CEO Charles Hurwitz “took over Pacific Lumber Company, raiding the company’s pension plan, selling off its assets, and doubling the logging[sic] in the forest so he could pay back his junk bonds debt.” (take a great big note on that one and file it away for later). Certain tactical rifts began to divide the Earth First!ers as tree-spikers and monkeywrenchers filled trees with spikes that would destroy logging machinery in acts of sabotage. This “ecotage” wasn’t a new practice but ran counter to the method that Bari and crew were going for: joining green activist together with workers to stop managers and bosses from eliminating the old-growth Redwoods. This could have been an exciting development had it gone through, establishing a shining example of how to effectively challenge corporate overproduction with an alliance of righteous activist and worker.

Trees-spiking caused some nasty injuries to timber workers and the alliance was never solidified. The ’hippy’ stereotype took over worker sentiment of the Earth First!ers, only now with the addition of the ’eco-terrorist’ label. Still the group pressed on with protests and blockades that were picking up momentum thanks to a media campaign. And it was working. Judi Bari’s voice was articulate, passionate, and concretely situated in the task at hand; a major example how effective civil disobedience could be when focused in the right direction. With songs and dance that brought a flavor of country and mountain music, she and her ecological comrades sent out a potent message of wilderness preservation. A festive culture of resistance was sprouting up that would be mimicked in the anti-globalization protests through the Occupy movement and other protests today. Nationally televised news stations were reporting on recent developments in the movement and other states beyond the west coast had joined in with conservation actions of there own. The movement would culminate in a mass rally and civil disobedience display where over a thousand people would get arrested in blocking the access to the headwaters forest. This was dubbed ’The Redwood Summer’ and should sound eerily familiar.

But right before the big demonstration in 1990, Judi Bari’s car was blown up by a bomb in Oakland. She was sent to the hospital and upon gaining consciousness arrested as the only suspect for her own car explosion. The Oakland police department figured that she was transporting a bomb to be used for ecological sabotage when she had vocally denounced even tree tampering to harm logging equipment, much less blowing it up. It was a brazen move to simultaneously smear her name as a terrorist and send a chilling message to the movement as a whole: stir-up the populace and we will come down on you, hard. Her pelvis was shattered. She and her friends homes were raided by the FBI. Troves of evidence were ignored and false claims stated before national reporters that even a glance at the images and video of the bombing’s aftermath would have discredited. The affair is detailed by Bari here. The most shocking part of this affair though is the FBI’s holding of a “Bomb School” open to all police officers and attended by Oakland Police Officers. Together they conducting pipe-bomb tests on ordinary cars in a logging site near Eureka, California just a few weeks before the Judi Bari incident. Upon approaching the wreckage in Oakland, with video-recorder in hand, a police man jokingly says something like “…here we go, here’s the final result…”

The case is still I unsolved today. In 2011, the FBI tried to destroy the evidence but was blocked by a California judge. The police and the FBI refuse to take up the case though and the evidence remains buried on a shelf somewhere. Bari gave a testimonial for a lawsuit she filed against the FBI and OPD in which she recounted the entire storyline of her involvement in Earth First! and the bombing incident; the defense asked her no questions. She won over 4 million dollars for her friends and family, but died of cancer before seeing any of it.

With tactics like these deployed against protesters and activists concerned about the negative impact on the environment (or, say, the erosion of any control over who our country bombs, our private security, or who gets to be bailed out with public funds) it’s a wonder that these organizations remain so steadfast in their routines of operation. After clearly being the target of a bombing for getting too big, how do these individuals stay calm and carry on instead of opting for escalation? The motto of Earth First! Reads: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!”, yet there is no more urgent of a time in which to take this seriously, and that means above all critically and with a strategic mind-set. We are constantly reminded by climate scientists that we have but a few years before we do irreversible damage to the Earth and turn a majority of it into an infertile desert. Billions will die. Most species will go extinct. This seems like a perfectly reasonable justification for taking the next step when confronted with an enemy that terrorizes and slanders you. But hold on a minute, what would that look like?

While the health of the Earth most definitely ought to be held consciously in mind in our efforts to change society, there is a disconnect that ecological activists groups ignore when they organize their rallies, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience. The Earth doesn’t speak our language, it could be said. If the Earth’s greater biosystem unleashes certain positive feedback loops then it will be a disaster for every life-form on it including people and their civilizations. And yet, when that old question “what is to be done?” comes up, the options resemble previous campaigns from recent history like the Civil Rights Movement or some form of slight modification to consumer products under the banner of “sustainability” or “green capitalism”. The current mode of we commonly settle into is to protest and make demands that our legislators will turn into laws that, piece by piece, will chip away at the culprits of CO2 emissions until they are gone and a green transition will take place. The rallies can increase in size and we can feel a bit more comfortable in gazing upon how many other people share our commitment, or we can hold onto some inkling of hope by thinking that in assembly our voices are being heard by our representatives. We can cry in outrage, we can form a giant marching mass, and we can pander ever more to those with power, but the Earth doesn’t care. The Earth is heating up and all that matters is ending the release of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere.

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This impasse we are at and the futility of current methods is not a big secret. But what people can’t seem to see yet is that preventing this collapse will require far more than well tread civil disobedience – at least of the kind that generally comes to mind in light of the phrase. The kind of action that would lead to stopping global warming would utterly disfigure the face of civilization. The energy used to move big metal objects through concrete freeways (and the energy required to pull that metal out of the ground and transport that concrete to a construction site in the first place) comes almost entirely from fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources are just simply inadequate to fill the void in the absence of the black liquid fire. See this film on the crisis of civilization and this clear explanation of our energy-fueled, debt-based growth society.

Mass rallies and blockades have an empowering effect. Stepping out of our everyday social roles as (possibly unemployed) workers, family members, or what have you and stepping into the streets strengthens bonds and increases possibilities moving forward. But where are we going? One-time actions seem hardly capable of bringing about the deep structural change that would halt Carbon emissions when people must rely on their cars to get to work, heavy machinery and pesticides are needed to grow our food, and maritime shipping and trucking transport it across the globe. Even if an ugly juggernaut of a pipeline is stopped from being built, the economy that we’ve grown so accustomed to demands amounts of energy that continually rein in on the future health of the Earth. Is putting the Earth first really what would bring about a reorganization of our social infrastructure so as to end this bleak scenario?

Stopping ourselves from carrying out this suicidal quest to dominate the Earth is by all means the end-game for our generation. How that is achieved is not necessarily by heeding the call to act Right Now and with the greatest sense of urgency in Our Great Mother’s defense. Stopping global warming will instead require that we as a civilization look in the mirror and never cease asking the question: “how do we stop ourselves?”

When ways of life conflict within a common place that we cannot escape from, inter-societal conflicts have always arose. With such limited time and a stubborn behemoth of a nation towering over the rest and doing some effective blockading of its own (the US has stifled all international climate resolutions), how can we with good conscience settle for local targets when large systems of power dwarf the actions of any company in particular?

*

Wen Stevenson penned an article in the Nation which began with our current battles around the Keystone XL pipeline before moving on to compare it with the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau popularized the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ in his 1846 essay of the same name. In his lifetime, Thoreau spent a little time in jail for not paying a poll tax, helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and, most radically of all, defended John Brown after his raid on Harper’s Ferry with a company of armed white and black men. With a polarized country shaken by the mounting tension over the question of slavery and a man having taken up arms for a righteous cause, Thoreau rushed to his defense. He gave a speech in front of a large audience just days after the bloody battle and used his renown to argue for the sanity and justness of John Brown. This was a radical author, who built a house by a secluded pond to “live deliberately” and free from the trappings of American industrial life, standing behind his dead friend who took up arms for a principle.

After citing America’s most radical author of the 19th century, Stephenson then suddenly turns on him writing “Fortunately, Thoreau – with his explicit endorsement of violence – didn’t get the last word on civil disobedience.” He continues:

“And yet today we face a human crisis as extreme in its way as the one faced by Thoreau. What is the “sane” – and appropriately radical – response to the urgent human crisis of global warming? Is anyone willing to say, “This people must cease to extract fossil fuels, and to unjustly rob today’s children and future generations of a livable planet, whatever the cost”?
It sounds crazy. But just as Thoreau and other radical abolitionists were willing to push the boundaries, so climate activists must be willing to say and do “crazy” and “radical” things – like put their bodies in the way of coal shipments, or demand that universities divest from fossil fuel companies – not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s morally imperative. When the truly sane courses of action – putting a heavy price on carbon, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, massively scaling up clean energy, urgently seeking the necessary global commitments – lie outside the limits of political “realism” and “reasonable” debate, it’s time to ask who has the firmer grip on reality and reason.”

For Stephenson, “radical” action finds its home in human blockades and divestment campaigns and ring of the craziness of a zealous moralist. Yet it is somehow redeemed in a political environment of stagnancy. His radicals operate outside the limits of rational debate and straddle the lines of sanity – all under the umbrella of non-violence.

There is a curious double move going on here. On the one hand, taking radical and passionate action outside of mainstream politics is becoming more acceptable and is granted a more realistic, reasonable quality. On the other hand, its teeth are completely knocked out of it. After going through the extreme dangers of global warming and then the actions of one of countries most beloved literary figures (the kind that sometimes give you hope for a future with the promise of America not wholly intoxicated with greed and conquest still in it), the reader is lead to believe that blockading and divestment are a radical panacea for our climate ills.

Stephenson picked the right topic and the perfect figure to demonstrate the kind of radical action that would actually help transform society “whatever the cost”, but what is lacking is not the moral fanaticism (this country has got that in spades). What is lacking is the courage to challenge the obedience inherent in ‘non-violent civil disobedience’. The risks that go along with the type of disobedience that we see from McKibbon’s climate rallies (“I got arrested at the White House! Take my picture!”) do not exemplify the moral courage to match the situation of our biosphere. A case can be made for the bravery of the blockaders of the Keystone XL, with a victory perhaps propelling the movement into a bigger stage. But without the structural change to the energy and monetary growth demands of the US led global economy, these actions will remain reformist. The last word in the piece is “revolutionaries”, but there is nothing revolutionary about non-violent civil disobedience devoid of the will to follow in John Brown’s footsteps.

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Such a revolutionary movement could potentially be built from the ground up and sustained by local victories. Such actions give us the opportunity to solidify friendships and make new ones that will bolster the drive to a cooler planet. But make no mistake, this kind of sustained movement growth hasn’t been anywhere in sight since Occupy. And like all social movements, a conservationist campaign will confront the strong arm of the powers that be if it actually gets big enough to make the necessary changes to capitalist production.

*

Back at the ‘Who Bombed Judi Bari?’ film screening, I kick back in a big round chair and pass the time before it starts by opening up the book I’m reading and cracking a beer. The book is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘What Is Philosophy?’ and by pure coincidence I’m on a chapter called ‘Geophilosophy’. An older woman, veteran of activism no doubt, notes the author and after I ask if she’s read in any she says: “I don’t read any of that postmodern stuff.” I’m not surprised by this reaction, just disappointed in her. Not wanting to kill my buzz, I just dig right back into it.

I’ll end with some quotes from the chapter:

“Thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object, nor a revolving of one around the other. Rather, thinking takes place in the relationship between territory and the earth.”

“The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace while using one or another of them to deterritorialize territory.”

“In imperial states deterritorialization takes place through transcendence: it tends to develop vertically from on high, according to a celestial component of the earth. The territory has become desert earth, but a celestial Stranger arrives to reestablish the territory or reterritorialize the earth.”

“As concept and as event, revolution is self-referential or enjoys a self-positing that enables it to be apprehended in an immanent enthusiasm without anything in states of affairs or lived experience being able to tone it down, not even the disappointments of reason. Revolution is absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people.”

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