Other Writings, Elsewhere

December 27, 2016

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To say the times are tumultuous is as useless and empty as proclaiming one of Dante’s imagined circles of hell to be unpleasant, and my own life has been largely consumed by adventures this past year which reflect the worldly tumult, leaving few opportunities to publish here. Those few textual artifacts from most of 2016 that do exist are on other corners of the internet.

Breaking the Will to Evil: On Various Conceptualizations of Climate Direct Action” was written for the Climate Disobedience Center blog. Acknowledging the uniqueness of the climate crisis and the heterogeneous political orientations that are converging into a mass movement against it, this paper discusses frequent points of contention or confusion in climate DA organizing. (Some of these points  are familiar from any number of other political contexts, but again, let us acknowledge the uniqueness of the climate crisis). Topics include the ostensible symbolic vs. disruptive binary; the need to eschew simple thinking wherein past movement trajectories can be replicated in the current context; and the use of moral force against a physically overpowering adversary.

On Direct Action with Trump Around” was written a few days after the election and represents a few thoughts on exercising counter-power to that wielded by this uniquely dangerous moron. With the overarching theme of the radical opportunities presented by the complete alienation of so many people and so much of the institutional power structure from the demagogue-elect, this paper discusses implications for climate action, the need to integrate work explicitly opposing the criminal justice system into climate work, and some general thoughts on leveraging smaller-scale structures of power against the federal government.

Sometime not that recently—2015?—I wrote this piece called “The Logic of Failed Climate Policies vs. the Logic of Direct Action: Oregon As a Case Study.” Along with this article in the Earth First! Journal, it forms a very modest theoretical core for a much more ambitious program of articulating explicit greenhouse gas emissions reduction trajectories which can be coupled with direct action. Doing this research and writing, in a way that is useful to groups doing climate action, is a big part of what I imagine myself to be doing with my life right now. Originally I put this up on the Portland Rising Tide website, then on a blog I thought I was starting this summer, before fighting the fossil fuel industry got so exciting for awhile I didn’t have time to be on the internet. Now I’m abandoning the notion of that nascent blog and relocating all the writing I’m certain I don’t want to lose onto a server outside the United States, under the assumption that it won’t be well received in dystopia.

Finally, here is a PDF of a zine I made in 2013 which was never released online and received almost no print distribution whatsoever. It was a sprawling endeavor with a lot of varied content. There’s texts on maintaining sanity in a dying world, and on maintaining an experiential connection with said world, which runs onto the literary end of things. And some more academic work on the connection between the developmental environment associated with technologically-intensive civilization and our collective behavior; as well as a piece on the changes in African elephant behavior and social structure wrought by chronic hunting. Not ever doing anything with this zine seems highly probable, and it was enough work it certainly warrants a link at the end of a list of links to things I’ve written.

It’s worth mentioning I was publishing here at a brisk pace for awhile, but that was back during the months-long odyssey wherein I never slept and spent the vast majority of my time remembering awful things I’d forgotten about my childhood. However unpleasant, that phase produced an almost uncontrollable desire to write. Everything I’ve experienced since spring of 2016 has, in contrast, produced mostly weariness. Perhaps more academic endeavors await, perhaps not. In recent months I’ve watched Aztec dancers blockade pipeline construction and witnessed the ascent of fascism through a reality television star; the cumulative effect has been to inculcate a radical aversion to predicting the future.

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[This was originally published in Earth First! Journal Vol. 35 No. 1, Eostar/Spring 2015, under a pseudonym. The Journal is a heroic effort and print publications lend a sense of coherence to movements the internet absolutely does not. Perhaps you should consider purchasing a copy of their current issue, pictured below, or simply subscribing?]

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As the climate crisis worsens, and industrial capitalism appears to be in the final stages of guaranteeing a hostile earth for millennia to come—for our species and many others—clear distinctions have emerged between decentralized, grassroots, “radical” efforts to address this crisis and those of the more politically mainstream and better-funded nonprofits. To some extent these distinctions reflect how broad ideological divergences translate into specific tactical divergences, and have thus been mirrored in social and ecological struggles of the past. However, certain aspects of the current situation are unique. It is worth noting these unique differences and assessing their implications—and any unstated assumptions that may underlie them—in an effort to ensure we’re all making the very best use of our time during the earth’s Sixth Great Extinction.

Succinctly: environmental nonprofits pressure policymakers, while radical organizers more typically focus on directly confronting fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure projects.

There is no particular reason these efforts can’t be complementary, nor do the respective sectors truly adhere to any rigid binary: the grassroots also pressure public officials, and nonprofits do fight individual projects. For that matter, the distinction between “radical” and “mainstream” climate organizing is not always perfectly clear. But this broad characterization is true in a great number of cases.

A recent example of this was the People’s Climate March in New York City, where hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized by 350.org and others to demand action from world leaders gathered for UN climate talks—thinking that said leaders would act if they understood the magnitude of our current crisis, or at least how angry people are about it. The march was criticized by many grassroots organizers as a performance for an empty room, an expenditure of resources that would have been better spent in direct confrontations with the forces that are destroying our world—the assumption being that policymakers are already well apprised of the magnitude of our current crisis, and don’t particularly care.

At the root of this debate are fundamental and sometimes unspoken differences in values. Direct action is often seen as a form of struggle in which our right to a livable world is asserted, rather than requested of the existing political system, and thus is ultimately a venue for dismantling the prevailing institutions engaged in ecocide. The “professional” environmental sector, on the other hand, sees the acute physical and temporal parameters involved in the climate crisis and scrambles to find a mechanism as hastily as possible to address it, not fighting for broader, systematic change.

In a sense, everyone’s right. By appealing to the powers that be, the Big Greens have sold their souls to a system anyone possessing a shred of sense can see is inherently destructive. Likewise, with even fewer tangible achievements than the Big Greens, the more radical elements of this fight are poorly positioned to deflect the critique that they are dreamers.

This writing is not about these broad ideological, and subsequent tactical, differences per se. Rather it is about what is missing—what could occupy the spaces where these disjunctions currently exist.

Fierce resistance to fossil fuels is occurring throughout North America. Long-term blockades of pipelines and extraction projects by indigenous land defenders, such as the Unist’ot’en and Elsipogtog, have simultaneously thwarted violations of native sovereignty while keeping carbon in the ground. Utah Tar Sands Resistance is impeding the progress of tar sands and shale extraction on the Colorado Plateau. Rising Tide collectives in Oregon and Washington are blockading oil trains. The Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands is obstructing pipeline construction. Tar Sands Blockade and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance fought a pitched battle against the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, and Lakota land defenders have vowed death or prison before letting the northern section be constructed. The list goes on.

Not only does this work matter for its immediate effects, for any delay in the production of fossil fuels it causes, and for any financial or logistical difficulties it creates for climate killers, but also because it always contains the possibility, no matter how hopeless it might seem on any given day, of planting the seeds of some larger uprising—a resistance capable of shutting down the fossil fuel economy on its own. Furthermore, although not largely discussed, direct action also matters because it provides a context in which to articulate far more clear and effective policy demands than exist at present.

At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, some measure of unity and clarity on broad climate policy existed within the professional environmental sector, but essentially vanished somewhere around 2009 or 2010, with the defeat of federal cap and trade legislation and the deterioration of the UN talks in Copenhagen into an appalling display of small-minded, amoral pettiness. Since then, the Big Greens’ messaging has shifted from advocating specific actions on climate to advocating “action” in general.

However, even when they do articulate something specific enough to be reasonably described as a “plan,” the strategies “professional” environmentalists tend to favor are highly problematic on any number of levels. For instance, there are ways in which ostensible solutions reinforce systematic injustice and ecocide, such as cap and trade’s creation of a whole new commodity market to further enrich those who are already profiting from climate chaos. But their most fundamental drawback is their sheer ineffectiveness.

Where the political will exists for carbon taxes, cap and trade, renewable energy subsidies, and other darlings of the mainstream climate solutions paradigm, their capacity to actually reduce emissions appears speculative at best. Since Norway instituted its carbon tax in 1991, per capita emissions have risen by 15%. For all its agonizing economic minutia, California’s much-vaunted climate plan is terribly vague on how it will actually achieve its targets. Europe’s carbon trading scheme has been an overt disaster.

The direct action sector, however, has known all along that addressing climate change isn’t nearly as complicated as policymakers—generating page after page of unreadable documents describing “emissions limits per megawatt hour of electricity generated by new coal-fired EGUs,” or “flexible performance standards designed to accelerate the availability and diversity of low-carbon fuels”—have convinced themselves it is. It’s actually terribly simple.

The trick, you see, is to stop extracting, transporting, refining, and burning fossil fuels.

Really. There’s nothing more to it than that. What happens after that is of tremendous importance. There would be the potential, in the massive restructuring of society, to address many of our culture’s other insidious aspects. Let’s not forget that climate change is simply delivering, in a cohesive package and at a slightly accelerated timescale, the systemic ecological collapse, mass extinction, and unspeakable human suffering that industrial civilization has always been achieving through other means. But as far as fighting climate change itself, cutting it out with burning fossil fuels is all it would really take.

Policymakers systematically fail—or pretend to fail—to discern this simple fact. When they talk about fighting climate change they actually don’t; they talk instead about various ways in which society could adapt to a world without fossil fuels. The only climate policies with any reasonable certainty of effectiveness are not ones that attempt complicated and speculative manipulations of the economy, nor are they predicated upon technological and social adaptations to a post-carbon world. Effective policies are ones that directly keep fossil fuels in the ground. Anything else has a tremendous risk of not reducing emissions.

But “anything else” is all the current dialogue consists of: the promotion of new technologies, new energy sources, changes in the building code. And, by and large, professional environmentalists—the ones who, unlike the direct action sector, routinely discuss things like state, federal, and international policy—speak this same meaningless language. Because it occupies precisely the nexus where policy would actually matter—the sites of fossil fuel extraction and the infrastructure of transport and refinement—the direct action sector is uniquely poised to offer a powerful, clear framework for addressing the climate crisis.

This requires going beyond opposition to a particular mine, or pipeline, or export terminal, and beyond generalities about phasing out fossil fuels. It would involve articulating a vision that is broad enough to be comprehensive, but detailed enough to be actionable. It would be quantitative and would name names, identifying the rates at which fossil fuel extraction would be phased out in specific regions, specifying dates by which various power plants and other industrial infrastructure would be decommissioned. There would be charts. Maps, even.

Let’s say it together: Powder River Basin coal mining is to decline by 10% of its initial value per month for ten months; offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast will cease immediately; Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, California will be allowed to operate for eighteen months, with all profits being allocated to San Francisco Bay wetlands restoration to buffer the effects of rising seas, and distributed among Richmond’s low-income residents… If you’re thinking to yourself right now that it’s ludicrous to let Chevron keep poisoning Richmond eight months after Arch Coal ceases to despoil the grasslands of Wyoming, that’s great. Time to start working on your own framework. Try it—it’s fun!

And every time someone responds with a question about what will come next, we get to reinforce the central tenet that everyone from the UN to the Sierra Club pretends to miss—what comes next isn’t the point. The point is that the fossil fuel economy is inimical to life on earth and must be immediately decommissioned. It’s a simple, singular truth, whereas the paths our species can take after the age of carbon are infinite and complex.

In the past 50,000 years, humans have spread from Africa into the far reaches of the globe, navigating open oceans in canoes to populate remote islands, living in Siberia at the height of the last Ice Age, traversing the edges of glaciers to venture into the Americas, and innovating an incredible array of adaptations to changing landscapes along the way. We can certainly adapt to life without something we didn’t have—fossil fuels—until the last few centuries. But we can’t adapt to life with them. And refusing to acknowledge this truth until the details of our adaptations are worked out is like refusing to run form a burning house until you’ve rented a new one.

If one were to seek out a precedent for something of this nature—a formal, comprehensive policy far outside the bounds of politically acceptable discourse—one could do far worse than to examine the Earth First! wilderness proposals of the 1980s. Like ourselves, the Earth First! of yore had visions of a world fundamentally and truly free, a world where the dominating force of civilization had been abolished, a world consisting exclusively of wilderness. Unlike ourselves, however, the Earth First! of yore was also willing to advocate broad, but detailed, policies that were intermediate points between this wild and boundless vision and the nightmare we currently occupy. Through the 90s and into the 2000s, ecological direct action collectives, while fundamentally framing our struggle as one against the entire political and economic system which values profit over life, also advocated for actual pieces of legislation, like the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, the latter of which would have ended all commercial timber sales on National Forests.

Our anarchistically-inclined movement has increasingly come to avoid talking about anything broad enough to be construed as “policy.” We prefer instead to talk exclusively about local efforts to fight specific mines, pipelines, and rail terminals—efforts which we can overtly frame as assertions of people power against the dominant political and economic system.

Even if we regard policy as a potentially useful tool, admitting to ourselves that total revolution may not be directly around the corner, we avoid talking about it, considering it someone else’s job. But if it’s someone else’s job, they’re not doing it. The groups that center their efforts on policy changes are not actually advocating for meaningful ones. They don’t even seem to know the terms in which they could describe a meaningful policy. They’ve bought into the dialogue about solar panels and carbon taxes.

We don’t have to appeal to policymakers to affect them. Our broad, detailed vision doesn’t have to be a piece of legislation we’re trying to get introduced into Congress. It can simply be our plan, and we can announce that we’re going to fight like hell with people power to put it into place. By having something more comprehensive to voice than opposition to a specific project, or to fossil fuels in general, we have the opportunity to not just shift the dialogue, but to replace it altogether.

Think again of the Earth First! wilderness visions from back in the day. These were models of audacity, maps of giant reserved that outraged industry and embarrassed the “voices of reason” within the environmental movement. But they were also biological necessities. The reasonable debate over public lands management involved extinction for numerous species. Over the course of the years, increasingly “politically unrealistic” tracts of land received protections. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, when he signed his Executive Order prohibiting roads in the vast majority of the remaining National Forest roadless areas, the open season on old-growth and wildlands that was deemed a political inevitability in the 1980s was largely over.

These victories would have been far more difficult or impossible without the direct action movement. But we didn’t help win them by asking for them. We helped win them by declaring the laws that allowed for the destruction of living systems invalid, by declaring the destruction of public old-growth and wildlands to be over.

The fossil fuel resistance is doing a good job of framing our struggle as one in which we simply assert our right, and the right of all life, to continue to exist, rather than asking for this right from those who are robbing us of it. But we could be doing a lot better at the part where we actually have a clearly articulated, actionable alternative to the status quo.

This fight clearly will not be won by appealing to the existing political system on its own terms, by lobbying or convincing policymakers the crisis is dire. It will not be won by these “mass movements” everyone keeps talking about needing to build, if they don’t have anything to do other than march in New York every once in awhile. That mass movement already exists. Nor will it be won by isolated direct action collectives occasionally striking blows to the fossil fuel economy.

This fight looks dire from anywhere you look, no doubt, but the place it looks most hopeful is precisely the unoccupied territory between the Big Greens and ourselves. If we can cultivate a mass movement that is no longer asking for an end to global catastrophe, but forcing one—a mass movement engaged not in marches but in constant economic disruption—and if that economic disruption occurs in a framework that is clear, detailed, and broad—a framework that could translate into policy—we may possess a shred of hope yet.

If we loathe speaking in terms that sound similar to those of federal laws and international treaties, this approach might make some of us a little uncomfortable. But with shellfish crumbling, coral reefs dying, wolverine dens melting, and forests burning—with all of life at stake—we should be willing to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

This is a holy war if there ever was one. We should be willing to do virtually anything to win it.

 

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I am going to attempt to as concisely as possible address, if not the substance of the text, at least the very existence of a piece of writing called “A Field Guide to Straw Men: Sadie and Exile, Esoteric Fascism, and Olympia’s Little White Lies,” which addresses an ongoing controversy within Pacific Northwest subculture, which in part is devoted to an explicit critique of my own text “I Say Potato, You Say Dangerous Resurgence of Fascist Ideology.” This post comes at an extremely busy time for me and is being written in a single sitting with every effort at haste—anyone looking for a devastatingly literary assessment of the true meaning of Julius Evola or some such thing will be disappointed. This is solely an effort to suggest strategies for proceeding with future dialogue and interaction, within subculture generally and within sub-echelons of it.

For all my profound and experientially-justified cynicism about humans’ collective capacities, I remain deeply devoted to the notion that we must, in an age where existing strategies for resistance and indeed survival are so clearly outmoded, find new ways to fight. This inevitably implies developing better tools for interacting and organizing ourselves, and a subset of these tools should be methods for solving inter-clique hostilities such as this one. I want to constructively engage this dispute to do my part if at all possible to rescue it from a seemingly inevitable morass of pointless, interminable bickering. I think “Straw Men” exhibits poor judgment in favorably referencing violent intervention at underground music shows, and I don’t necessarily share all of its author’s conclusions, but I do think it makes a far more coherent argument about the situation, with vastly more sensitivity both to the idiosyncratic subcultural forces at play and the meaningful moral ramifications of the situation (e.g. describing the putative cultural and political impacts of a scene being vaguely allied with fascist tendencies, rather than speculating that said underground is going to morph into a politically mobilized fascist force, a speculation which strikes me as wildly implausible), than I had seen thus far from “the other side.”

For these reasons, I feel it is my responsibility to respond to this text. The central thesis of my writing on this subject in “I Say Potato” was that radical politics fails when it can no longer accommodate legitimately complex dialogue. I feel like the “Straw Men” piece constitutes precisely that—complex dialogue—and therefore provides some tentative foundation for me to hope that this whole affair could produce something other than incredibly painful nonsense.

I want to very briefly clarify one thing that is not actually directly related to the “Field Guide” text but which emerged in other writings and comments directed at me subsequent to my foray into the very murky waters of this dispute. It has been suggested that I personally adhere to European indigeneity as a basic aspect of my identity, and it seems worth stating that isn’t the case at all. I am emphatically disinterested in my ancestry because I personally consider all specimens of H. sapiens to have undergone the same cognitive revolution in evolutionary history, to all represent the same behavioral and psychological tendencies, and to all be fairly superficial (literally skin-deep) variants on the same essentially African species.

This disclaimer about my convictions complete, let me say that I am interested in finding ways in which the amorphous but definitely existent black metal/neofolk/experimental underground—or at least that echelon of it I know on the west coast of North America—can do something that feels more coherent and decisive to distance ourselves from neo-Nazism. I can justify this on any number of grounds, but the one that might appeal most to my friends and collaborators within this community is that it feels essential for this work to actually achieve its intended effect.

I’m one of those “art is a hammer” people, one of those people who has a fairly ardent desire to affect the world with symbols. For me the performance modes I engage are intended to explore the emerging mythology of the Anthropocene. This is serious work for me. It is work that is attempting to address the profound emotional challenges we encounter trying to meaningfully struggle in a world that provides overwhelming incentive to become paralyzed by despair. The cultural context and the lenses through which the work is viewed are meaningful, and it is absolutely not helpful to my project, nor to any of the cultural projects the vast majority of us are engaged in, to have them ambiguously contextualized within neo-fascism.

That said, it is also not helpful to any of our cultural projects if we allow them to be curtailed out of mere acquiescence to the assessments of others. I am not offering an assessment of the merit or lack thereof of the anarchist perspective set forth in “Straw Men,” and therefore want to be clear that I’m not stating this explicitly in relation to any particular individuals or projects within our loose-knit scene. I am however saying that I am sick of explaining that I’m not a Nazi every six months. I don’t have a truly specific formula for what this looks like—it would inevitably be an emergent, collective affair—but I think those of us who feel like their work would benefit from it should consider doing something to more decisively distance themselves from neo-fascism.

Thus far, we have essentially contented ourselves with disavowals of accusations. But while much of the attack on neofolk/black metal/whatever has been a paramount expression of precisely everything everyone finds alienating about anarchists, there does remain the ineluctable truth that an aura of obscure occult-fascist intrigue continues to pervade our underground. Both black metal and neofolk have origin stories involving overt racists like Varg Vikernes and Tony Wakeford (the latter having since disavowed racism, but the point being that he was simultaneously making seminal neofolk music and a far-right white nationalist). Here on the west coast, the trajectory into this subculture is very often through punk rock, with its attendant egalitarianism, and the political spectrum essentially goes from progressive to eco-anarchist. It is easy enough for those of us on the inside of this subculture to dismiss the accusation that the vague associations are anything greater than that because we happen to know it’s true. We can see it with our own eyes. We understand who we are and who we aren’t. It’s easy to feel a native contempt for this kind of scrutiny because it can seem horribly naive, and easier still when in many cases the critiques are, in fact, horribly naive.

But here’s what I will argue, that speaks directly to the heart of whether our art, good or bad, is just an aesthetic indulgence or a legitimate attempt to make an assertion about a mode of existence in the real world. If we want to continue to evolve this work, if we want to continue to explore reality through it, we must be able to maturely and sincerely grapple with complex topics that confront us. This may very well require a dialogue about how we—by “we” I mean myself and the vast majority of my friends within this underground, who have limits on the proximity we feel comfortable having to crazy nationalists and the like—collectively want to respond to situations in which ethical conflicts arise for us.

There has been at least one case in which I desperately wanted some mechanism for collective disavowal or negotiation to exist within our scene. This was the Stella Natura festival in 2013, at which Counter Currents Press—a distributor of wingnut racist ramblings—was allowed to table. This event honestly broke my heart, made me feel foolish for being publicly involved in this community, and made me feel frustrated with my friends for not reacting more strongly. There is nothing obscure or aesthetically beguiling in many of the titles this publisher produces. It is unambiguous dumb-white-guy-angry-about-the-economy racism (take this book called Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country, for instance, which discusses the vexing problems of white extinction and white genocide). If you are the sort of person who gains emotional release from laughing at this sort of thing, you might find the Counter Currents website tremendously entertaining—they sell a novel by “the Tom Clancy of the alternative Right.” The argument of “free expression” made by the event’s organizer is absurd in the context of a music festival—would such an argument have justified the presence of a pop punk or light jazz artist on stage? How can allowing this publisher to table not be interpreted as an endorsement of some form or another?

But we had no real process to talk about rejecting this development in some meaningful way. We could register our opinions on social media and choose to go or not to go. I registered my opinion on social media and didn’t go. But that isn’t enough for the work I personally am doing to exist in the proper context, to have the right meaning, and I’d argue this is true for many of us. This event touches me still, and everyone else. The recent association with an overtly racist publisher remains with our scene. It would be nice to articulate some framework which says, in effect: “We are not only willing to say that we are not Nazis, but to discuss what responsibilities we have to make the cultural space we are creating and operating in have less fuzzy borders with Nazism, and perhaps to specifically explore mechanisms for collectively addressing ethical objections that might arise for us in this scene.”

As I said before, I would argue that these responsibilities we have to make our cultural space have less fuzzy borders could be thought of, if you’re the kind of person who is staunch apolitical, in purely artistic and cultural terms. If our aesthetic has any substance, if it is actually saying something about the world and suggesting a way of living in it, then we cannot resort to the kind of nonchalant arguments that were used to defend Stella Natura, the argument that politics is incidental, and music and friendship are central. If our collective endeavor can truly be reduced to playing music and hanging out, we really have no need for the mythopoetic liner notes about how our music stands in opposition to the modern world or speaks from an eternal well or anything like that.

We either have to admit that our aesthetic extravagances—music projects devoted to the end of civilization, performance art in which we claim to be going on spirit journeys—are merely aesthetic extravagances, or we have to be willing to engage in complex discussions and cultural processes beyond the level of internet forum and music festival. Are we a cultural force that is exploring ways of maintaining contact with nature in the age of annihilating machines, exploring some primordial impulse or another, really? If so, we are certainly capable of the adult act of navigating a complex discussion about how we want to deal with things we object to or want to distance ourselves from. A meaningful cultural force doesn’t have to be explicitly political—we don’t have to all share a political position and quite clearly don’t—but it can’t be so avowedly apolitical that it doesn’t even register an opposition to something so elementally relevant as white supremacy. If we do this, whatever the ethical implications, from a cultural and artistic perspective we’re consigning ourselves to total irrelevance. We’re admitting that our cultural project doesn’t have much tangible relationship with the real world.

I thus state what I would like to see from “my” side of this debate, in the spirit of precisely the complex dialogue I lamented the lack of in “I Say Potato”; I’ll turn now to what I’d like to see of the “other” side of this debate. My hope is that in a few more permutations of dialogue, these sides will be less clearly delineated.

To the author of “Straw Men” and to Olympia anarchists in general who make statements to the effect that imminent violence against an ambiguously broad swath of undesirables is justified, I still find this kind of behavior antithetical to your stated values. I fail to see how a legitimate anarchist praxis could possibly place such a premium on violence at the expense of less coercive forms of cultural change. Fun as it is for all of us to posture—I’m no more immune to the thrills of a street fight and the emotional appeal of stating my psychological preparedness for such affairs than anyone else—these sort of statements make it infinitely, infinitely less likely that anyone would be receptive to suggestions you might have about how, specifically, people should consider changing their behavior, if you were to make them.

Which is precisely what is lacking from “Straw Men,” and what makes the threat of violence so unwarranted. The singular focus on making the case that Exile and Sadie are fascists, as the author carefully specifies the term to avoid confusion with more overtly political fascists, excludes any clear statement about what responsibilities the author feels lie with what individuals. If it were the case that one concluded the author was entirely correct, for instance, what obligations does that present one with? One individual is not the “scene”; one individual arguably cannot control who attends shows they attend—what actions must the individual take when they find themselves in a room with a fascist lest they brave the fists of an anti-fascist?

This is the central question that has not been addressed. “I Say Potato” has repeatedly been characterized as a defense of Exile’s blog Loyalty Is Mightier Than Fire specifically or the swastika generally. It is in fact neither of these things, but centrally focused on our obligation to engage in complex conversations in ways that are not completely idiotic. I would argue that “Straw Men”—and again this isn’t the same as a concession that the arguments of the piece are entirely valid—did a reasonable job of dealing with the central contention that Sadie and Exile are neo-fascists. It at least clearly designated what was meant and the piece tried to evaluate what the implications were in reasonable and sincere terms. But the apathetic, i-Phone gazing black metal scenesters the piece derides are left to their own devices in trying to figure out how to avoid the bizarre prospect of inter-subcultural gang wars, in which the kids in all black with the tree tattoos fight the kids in all black with the tree tattoos, should they happen to agree with every word of “Straw Men.”

But this is truly crucial. If your writing is intended at all to persuade people to change their behavior, shouldn’t one have the vaguest clue what it is you individually expect of people before you start threatening them with violence for not doing it? At least one person had their automobile windows broken for working at a bar frequented by Sadie and Exile. What isn’t clear to me, beyond this question of what it means to say they are fascists, is what exactly that individual was supposed to do to sufficiently distance herself from the situation from the perspective of the anarchists involved, and how she was supposed to know. I speculate that I’ll be physically assaulted in Olympia as a fascist sympathizer sometimes but I don’t know what—exactly—is expected of one to prove one isn’t. If one talks to but disagrees with a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one says hello to but otherwise doesn’t talk to a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one goes to a show where there is a possibility a fascist might be—think about the answer to this question carefully and remember how all the Nazi skinheads used to inexplicably love MDC, of all bands—is one a fascist sympathizer?

I’m guessing—and despite that I sometimes think I’ll be attacked, I truly am just guessing, because no one’s ever explicitly told me—that the thing being demanded by anarchists as a minimum ethical obligation of people like me in this situation is total social exclusion. I’m further guessing that there’s a perceived obligation to collectively enforce this exclusion by excluding anyone who does not exclude the initially guilty party, and so on, in a great eternal chain.

There are a thousand complex facets of this approach to regulating behavior via the threat of social exclusion that simply can’t be gone into in the time that I have. I want to very briefly address two. The first is that we essentially lack any coherent framework for evaluating what insidious behavior, or compromises with insidious forces, we consider it productive to antagonize within our immediate social worlds.

In this case, the claim is made that two people adhere to Third Position fascism, or some variant thereof. There’s a reasonably clear claim made about some of the reasons this might matter, and they don’t require fantastical indulgences in scenarios of experimental music becoming a politically ascendant force. Even if one is convinced all these arguments are perfectly valid, what is lacking at the moment is the clearly stated criteria by which people decided this particular issue was the one they get to beat up people who might otherwise be their friends over. At the moment, it has this really uncannily empty feeling to be told that some element of my life is an acquiescence to evil, because I would argue that most of my life is an acquiescence to evil.

This isn’t a rhetorical device. It’s not me being clever. It’s me being really sincere when I tell you that literally everywhere I look I see appalling cruelties and I have no idea how to grapple with any of them—despite spending a huge amount of my time trying—and so it’s not at all clear to me what ethical implications it has to be told that the music scene I’m in is impure. I routinely see injustices I do nothing about. The civilization I live in is entirely made out of them.

I am not making the claim that we are absolved of any obligation to consider our actions because we all allow evil to unfold before our very eyes every day. I’m making the claim that we need some kind of coherent framework to evaluate which kinds of evil it makes sense to pressure one another to confront. Maybe the analysis of some is as simple as claiming we should pick fights solely based on whether we think that we can win them.  Maybe others have more elaborate theories.

If you tell people who participate in the destruction of peoples and species every time they flip a light switch or go grocery shopping, and who in many cases grew weary with the grief of not feeling like they could do anything about it long ago, that they have an ethical obligation to change some aspect of their lives—the ideological implications of their participation in a music scene, for instance—you really should have some clear way of conveying why this matter uniquely warrants their attention over every other evil they could address.

I can honestly think of some—one could argue we have both more liability and more agency—but I have to say the actual boundaries of where obligation starts and ends are incredibly fuzzy to me. I participate in political struggles which feel desperately vital to me but I am not able to feel like people who don’t are eschewing an obligation. I somehow managed to stumble through a couple decades of veganism without ever ostracizing anyone for their diet, but it wasn’t because I don’t have strong feelings about industrial animal agriculture. If someone told me I should be doing more to make eating factory farmed animal products socially taboo I might feel like they have a point. If someone told me I should be doing more to make it clear that the world of west coast neofolk and black metal and whatever else is not subtly aligned with Nazism, I might also feel like they have a point. But inevitably the question arises of how the fuck I’m supposed to simultaneously hold all the disparate actions I could potentially be taking to combat evil in my hands, to evaluate them all and identify the ones that are somehow the most pressing.

David Graeber claims that anarchism excels precisely at being a practice rather than a grand theory, at producing thoughtful dialogue around fairly immediate matters of life and struggle, e.g. “How do we deal with the deflation that comes after a surge of political activity?” or “What unique challenges are presented by coming into a rural community from the city to organize?” In theory, then, the people who are presenting this critique should be inclined to evaluate this scenario, as it has unfolded thus far, as a means of scrutinizing their praxis. I think that if they do they will find that, whatever the merits of their points, they have thus far failed to really convey to the actual individuals who comprise the broad scene that is so relentlessly mocked in “Straw Man” any constructive suggestions for engaging with the situation.

For people notoriously prone to elaborate processes of self-examination, complete with a fairly specialized language and set of cultural conventions, anarchists in this situation have thus far offered no concrete models that I am aware of for collective or individual action other than total social exclusion. This seems remarkably one-dimensional and wooden coming from a scene that knows how to embed virtually anything in multiple layers of formal process.

My other really substantial issue with the total social exclusion model—and the layers of exclusions it must enforce to work—derives largely from my experiences growing up in a religious cult. The insight is essentially this: if it sounds good to you on paper for us all to collectively enforce moral standards through intense forms of social pressure, if this sounds like a more free world than the one we currently live in, my experience tells me that the real world version of this gets extremely dark extremely fast.

There’s no inherent, logical reason that we shouldn’t be able to collectively establish standards of behavior that we absolutely insist on, and scrutinize one another’s adherence to those standards, without becoming completely evil. But the empirical reality of such situations suggests that something profoundly vile often emerges in human psyches engaged in precisely this kind of work. I have been spooked to shit in my life by accountability processes and efforts and collective self-examination within activist settings because they have honestly reminded me of the crazed group processes which occurred with anguishing regularity through the interminable hours of my childhood, complete with the same high-stakes games of group punishment and social control of individuals. What I think when I think of the people who participated in these processes is not that they were particularly evil, but that these processes make people a little crazy.

To me, these are truly essential things lacking from the current dialogue which would be expected of “your side” to produce. A framework for evaluating how we prioritize claims about moral responsibilities in a world like this one, and process suggestions for addressing the claims that are publicly accessible (you are indicting an entire subculture, after all) so that you could at least claim you offered people a path to not becoming the target of your aggressions. That, with an explanation of why this isn’t going to get incredibly out of hand incredibly fast, or at least some kind of evaluation of the possibility. It’s extremely difficult to me to understand how doing otherwise would be anything but blindly and pointlessly coercive. In what anarchist framework is one operating if one chooses to threaten people before having even articulated to them what they think they ought to be doing differently?

It will forever dismay me that the writing I have thus far done about this subcultural dispute has garnered more actual attention, in terms of internet statistics, than I could ever hope to gain by familiarizing myself with fossil fuel industry minutia in order to write an assessment of strategies against ecological collapse. But it is also crucial to me to use these situations as a means of developing better protocols for communicating and interacting in the future. It would be my hope that this dispute, which seems so inexorably bound to continue unproductively and always across a single neat chasm, could miraculously, if not be resolved, break out of its predictable schematics, out of its petty tribalism, and help develop capacities for self-examination on both “sides.”

I continue to be somewhat confused by claims about neo-fascism within my subculture, and to have experiences which don’t feel like they correspond very well with characterizations made by others. For instance, in the last couple of years I’ve had a number of email exchanges with Exile that have traversed an astonishing breadth of intellectual territory, and these exchanges haven’t led me to identical conclusions as the author of “Straw Man.” I’d say he is someone who pushes my political buttons fairly often but who also I find myself curious about for precisely this reason, because I am not totally certain why this is so or what fundamental or superficial difference between us it reveals.

The copious swastikas on Loyalty Is Mightier than Fire exhibit a judgment I myself certainly wouldn’t make, but I also would be lying if I said I hadn’t been exposed to new perspectives on Bach and  mystical interpretations of nonviolence through my (remote and infrequent) acquaintance with Exile. I continue having difficulty mapping the terms others speak of this situation in onto the terms I experience it in, and I remain resolved to form my own thoughts from my own experience. Mostly, I haven’t wanted to address this immediate debate—does fascism or does fascism not lurk in the rainy heart of the Cascadian music underground?—because it felt inevitably repetitive. It seems like suggesting processes by which people who care about the situation, whatever their perspective, might constructively interact with it is more useful.

I’m far too cynical and wounded to seriously suggest we all try to have some great moment of reconciliation, but it’s worth asking ourselves what it would actually feel like if other people weren’t so frustrating. It is easy to feel like everyone but you and a few friends are assiduously working day and night to be as frustrating and idiotic as possible, and that makes it easy to approach situations with a sort of innate, a priori hostility. The consequence of this is that sometimes we may simply not bother to think about what other parties in a dialogue could do that we would not consider ridiculous. Dialogue can be a formality that justifies our hostilities, or it can be an honest exploration of what differences exist, what there is to learn from these differences, and what possible directions of travel the future presents.

Tar Pit #3

Read as PDF.

The notion of creating fundamental social change through sabotage—on scales ranging from the collapse of civilization to the comparatively modest abolition of government—is central to some anarchist and radical environmental discourse. This has been the case since radical environmentalism first articulated itself as a political phenomenon, but as climate change has emerged as an overarching agent of ecological havoc, the dialogue has necessarily shifted towards sabotage of the fossil fuel system. Because the global economic order is currently based on fossil fuels, this becomes a conversation not just about thwarting climate chaos, but about, in essence, destroying civilization in its current form.

However, there has been a relative lack of detailed, logistically-oriented analysis of the viability of this approach. Dialogue around sabotage is often vastly general, focusing on its ethical dimensions or on its alleged inherent, universal effectiveness or ineffectiveness.  The remaining discussion tends to be merely tactical, comprising instructions for making incendiary devices or disabling security cameras.

There appears to be a need for analysis which occupies the vast middle-ground between these two levels of detail. Having a theory that validates the use of sabotage as a general form of political action and knowing how to attach a battery cap to an igniter is an incomplete framework.

What is also required is a coherent, systemic analysis of the machinery which the eco-saboteur wishes to dismantle, and a sober calculation of whether these wishes are within her means. Let us assume for a moment that we have all gained the courage to strike the match: the night obscures our shapes and our hearts long for victory or death. Very well. What should we do? Who breaks what, where, and in what order? What are the anticipated effects?

This text is an attempt to introduce greater detail and methodological rigor into the dialogue around sabotage. It is written with the same ethical preoccupations—like defending nature and minimizing hierarchical relationships—as many other such texts, but it is based on literature on infrastructure vulnerability, terrorist threat modeling, and energy economics which is typically absent from the eco-anarchist oeuvre.

This professional literature is certainly not without its problematic aspects. The Western security analyst is a curious creature, after all: he has never known hunger but professionally claims to predict the behavior of those plagued by it. Energy security analysts and their ilk have a worldview to maintain, and some conclusions, whether or not they are founded, are inevitable in that worldview. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine that this large body of literature can tell us nothing.

More solidly than on the simulations of Defense Department mathematicians, this analysis rests on the three cases in recent history of political movements engaging in sustained sabotage of fossil fuel industry infrastructure: MEND in Nigeria, the post-US invasion insurgency in Iraq, and the combined efforts of FARC and the ELN in Columbia. These three campaigns of sabotage tell us a great deal about the scope of the impacts such efforts could have elsewhere.

The intention is not to advocate sabotage nor to dissuade anyone from it. Sabotage is an incredibly broad category of action which is arguably neither inherently good or bad, useful or useless. Its relevance and meaning is determined by its context and by the details of its application. That is precisely the point.

Finally, if the language sometimes seems sarcastic, please note this text is very much a product of self-critique and self-examination. The intention truly is constructive dialogue and not to cause offense. For some, fatalistic laughter is a means of preserving the ability to fight when there is every reason in the world to conclude their fight is hopeless.

First, We’ll Sneak into Saudi Arabia…

A starry-eyed eco-saboteur, dreaming of taking the single decisive action that triggers catastrophic industrial failures and culminates in  wolves howling from the tops of overturned cop cars, might find themselves eying Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil-processing center with particular interest. Somewhere in the seemingly endless pages of Phraeger Security International’s  Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century,  we read that a crippling attack on this one decisive industrial node would “easily double” the global price of oil. It is also here that the Earth First!-to-al-Qaeda pipeline first becomes conceivable, for we also read:

“al-Qaeda indeed launched an unsuccessful suicide car bomb attack against Abqaiq in February 2006. That attack against the world’s largest oil-processing plant immediately sent oil prices up by $2 per barrel and highlighted the sector’s vulnerability.” (1)

If we imagine a scenario in which sabotage has indeed doubled the price of oil, it could safely be said the broad strategic paradigm of the saboteur—of changing large-scale social behavior by making said behavior logistically or economically untenable—is in a position to be tested. If the general notion that sabotage can cripple industrial civilization is true, once the price of oil has been doubled, shouldn’t it start limping?

While it’s absurd to imagine that sabotage has no effect on economic activity, examining a graph of average oil prices over the years—or even the months—can be revealing. Geopolitical power contests and naked human greed seem perfectly capable, all on their own, of wreaking precisely the kind of large-scale economic tumult the saboteur is supposed to engender. In a sixth-month period of time in 1972, the price of oil quadrupled as OPEC punished the West for the Yom Kippur War with an embargo. A rapid quadrupling of price is very extreme, but a rapid doubling is merely unusual. It happened again when Iraq invaded Iran. After 9/11, it tripled, from around $30 to nearly $100 a barrel, then during the economic crisis a few years later it plummeted to around $50 and then rose to over $100.

There has also been a long-term higher price trend with oil. In 2010 dollars, the average U.S. price of a barrel of oil has been $20.53 since the mid-20th century. However, it has been much higher than that for the last decade. An economist from the Swiss National Bank tells us:

“The very long-term data and the post World War II data suggest a “normal” price far below the current price. However, the rise of OPEC, which replaced the Texas Railroad Commission as the monitor of spare production capacity, together with increased interest in oil futures as an asset class introduced changes that support prices far higher than the historical ‘norm.'” (2)

The fact that oil prices have fluctuated with such wild abandon (indeed, markets are one of the common datasets in chaos theory) over the years reveals to us that the intuitively-appealing strategy of forcing industries to collapse by making them unprofitable may actually be a very complex proposition. It seems clear there is no known magic number one must cost an industry in dollars to put it out of business forever.

The model of costing a business so much money it collapses, when carefully evaluated, makes far more sense if one is trying to destroy a single business among competitors than if one is trying to cripple an entire industry. This is particularly true if the industry happens to be one many other industries depend on, and if it happens to wield tremendous political power.

Nonviolent direct action campaigns have often found that industry and police respond to even solitary protests with enhanced security. In 2013, Pacific Northwest activists who attempted to halt a shipment of tar sands infrastructure to Alberta found that after a single blockade their moving target was accompanied by a vast convoy of law enforcement. As arrests, bitter cold, and Christmas drove the campaign to extinction, those who remained watched the surreal convoy of bright lights, massive equipment, and armed escorts make its way through the empty sagebrush of the high desert. The scene underscored the reality that government reflexively provides the fossil fuel industry the tremendous subsidy of police and military protection whenever it encounters opposition, thus making economic calculations extremely nebulous.

Interestingly, the massive expansion of the North American fossil fuel system currently underway is largely dependent on the price of oil remaining far above its historical average (i.e. staying where the saboteur is pushing). The industry has devised methods of extracting hydrocarbons from devastated earth beyond enumeration in recent years, but they tend to be financially and logistically intensive and to occur in places which are far from refineries and subject to significant transportation constraints. Many Canadian tar sands projects are experiencing declining investment as pipeline projects languish and profitability remains contingent on the uncertainty of high oil prices. (3) In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, landlocked and far from refineries, extraction is only profitable for as long as oil sells at over $80 perbarrel. (4)

Thus, sabotage—indeed, activism in general—has highly unpredictable effects when it influences the complex economics and logistics of the fossil fuel empire. In some scenarios, a general increase in oil prices can translate into projects like the tar sands—arguably even more devastating than other forms of oil extraction—remaining viable when otherwise they would have failed.

If North America has an equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq, it is Cushing, Oklahoma. Buying and selling of oil at this massive distribution hub, where multiple pipelines converge and tank farms belonging to an all-star cast of corporate evildoers have an 85 million barrel capacity, effectively sets the price for a type of oil called West Texas Intermediate, which in turn influences all domestic oil prices. Before the age of OPEC, when the Texas Railroad Commission still exercised production limits, Cushing was a crucial global determinant of oil prices.

Since one doesn’t have to evade the entire apparatus of repression available to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or compete with al-Qaeda for the job of sending Western civilization into havoc, Cushing would perhaps attract the attention of a saboteur before Abqaiq. Here we can set aside for the time being the uncertain economics of sending a price shock through fossil fuel markets, and ask how, exactly, one would attack massive, economically important infrastructure like that to be found in Saudi Arabia and Oklahoma.

As far as oil terminals are concerned, it is doubtful the ecological saboteur’s ideal method of attack would be to simply blow them up. The fleeting emotional gratification of seeing industrial infrastructure laid to waste would rapidly surrender to the horror of the resultant oil spill. If not explosives, what?

A vague but persistent sentiment pervades sabotage discussions that there are a few truly critical, vulnerable, irreparable links in the chain, the breaking of which requires only courage. Once decommissioned, the loss of these targets cascades throughout the industrial economy and sends it into havoc. If we are to take this vague sentiment and try to flesh it out in corporeal reality, Abqaiq and Cushing seem like logical places to look. But nothing about them has the appearance of ephemerality, nor that they contain crucial components which would be particularly difficult to replace. On the contrary, tank farms are exactly that: giant swaths of hulking concrete edifices filled with poison, just kind of sitting there.

There are some moving parts to oil distribution terminals: pumps, of course; quite often train tracks; sometimes massive arrays of heating coils to keep certain types of crude from solidifying; fleets of vehicles; monitoring equipment; lots of valves everywhere. If one wants to navigate the risk of post-9/11 criminal laws around trespassing at energy facilities, it’s very conceivable one could sneak into a distribution hub and break something—but not something that doesn’t already get replaced occasionally anyway; not something that would mysteriously cause a facility to grind to a halt.

Abqaiq was discussed because it is the place in the world sometimes described as most crucial to global “energy security,” and this in turn led us to Cushing, which competes in the literature for the title of the world’s biggest oil distribution hub. Essentially, the model we were operating in—without explicitly stating it—was one of identifying infrastructure of greatest economic importance and assessing its vulnerability. If we are to adopt a different approach—one perhaps less greedy for decisive victory by a single blow—we could begin assessing infrastructure simultaneously in terms of how important and how vulnerable it is.

This would land us very squarely within the rather bewildering and very frequently stupid terrain of energy terrorism threat modeling.

…and then We’ll Brush up on our Vector Calculus

Terrorist threat modeling is no less prone to specialized terminology than any other discipline. The first and most apparent fact about the literature, rather than that it contains the decisive key to destroying civilization, is that it is predictably in love with sounding technical. One must endure things like being told an author’s conclusions “should be obvious to anyone who has taken a course in discrete optimization.”

But the second fact—and this is absolutely crucial to understanding the literature as a whole—is that terrorism modelers seem to have an emotional need to portray their adversaries as profoundly capable, relentless geniuses with globe-spanning networks of technically sophisticated infrastructure at their disposal. Thus, the magnitude of economic vulnerabilities they posit is dependent on attacks of greater coordination and expertise than have arguably been undertaken by any resistance movement ever.

There’s a sense that they long for an enemy as sophisticated as they had in the Cold War, and are indulging a badly-needed fantasy that American military might is currently needed for something more than anonymously bombing Pakistani grandmothers and suppressing spontaneous and relatively ephemeral popular uprisings at home. And they  certainly aren’t above playing games to do it. They even call it “red teaming” when they pretend to be al-Qaeda or some other nefarious entity and try to figure out how to bring America crashing down. With the profound unconscious homoeroticism inherent in all organized male violence, a Defense Department training manual on infrastructure protection speaks favorably of the results of a “good red teaming session.”

Still, it is hard to imagine this literature can tell us nothing. The paradigm of collapsing civilization through underground action typically rests on the very general model of cascading systems failure, i.e. the notion that the industrial economy is so massively interdependent that attacks on fragile nodes (which are too common to be effectively secured) will cascade through the system, crashing it. For instance, Aric McBay’s “Decisive Ecological Warfare” expresses the idea that cleverly applied sabotage could completely disable the whole economy, describing a scenario in which “attacks would be as persistent as militants could manage. Fossil fuel availability would decline by 90%. Greenhouse gas emissions would plummet.” (5)

Numerous conceptual tools to model exactly this scenario have been developed by world governments and academics. It’s immaterial to discuss in any detail fault trees and embedded systems-of-systems here, but it can be useful to understand in a general sense how threat is modeled.

For the most part, whatever the mathematical paradigm, threat is assessed at a fairly local scale and with simplifications that no one can possibly pretend are immaterial. The kind of systems-level collapse that revolutionaries discuss is precisely the kind of hyper-complex phenomenon that is incredibly difficult to realistically model. The difficulty is one of integrating all the local and particular information with all the global and systems-level information. Calculations of the ease of making fertilizer bombs must be fed into calculations of the vulnerability of electric power substations to attack. These results must be fed into calculations of how the electrical grid responds to the loss of a power substation. This in turn must be fed into calculations of how every interdependent infrastructural system is affected and how they affect all others. In the end, there is simply too much information.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center tells us that this compartmentalization, along with a failure to model resilience under attack (rather than just susceptibility to it), are the two key deficiencies in current infrastructure vulnerability analysis. Moreover, the authors acknowledge that the embedded systems-of-systems which comprise critical infrastructure have fuzzy boundaries and such complex interactions that they defy the existing frameworks known as systems theory. (6) This is a mathematical way of the masters acknowledging they have no idea how their own tools really work, and that while they may have largely cornered the market on using violence, that’s not at all the same thing as “being in charge.”

Assessing the terrorist threat literature for the perfect model for destroying civilization sounds incredibly fun, but also incredibly quixotic. Maybe the best place to start would be the military’s Network-Centric Effects-based operations MOdel (NEMO), which assesses systems from the perspective of an attacker looking to attack with maximum interdependent effects (it is the military, after all). (7) But it’s probably far more useful to simply note that even among the most outrageously paranoid fantasies of terrorism experts, ones in which saboteurs simply end civilization are lacking.

There is no lack of paranoid fantasies. The Heritage Foundation’s 2010 Energy Game, a truly ridiculous exercise in conservative politics-infused game theory, is emblematic. The modelers simulated simultaneous, coordinated attacks which completely cripple an enormous array of globally valuable oil infrastructure. In the scenario, attackers disable US refineries where they are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana. They also render the Abqaiq oil facility inoperable. They completely shut down all marine traffic through the economically vital Strait of Malacca by attacking multiple tankers and then mining the Strait with detection-resistant polymer-coated mines. Just to be clear about their commitments, they send Cushing, Oklahoma up in flames, too. (8)

If you’ve ever had trouble getting a room full of people to agree on a banner hang, you should be very intimidated by this list of attacks. It is arguably far beyond the scope of anything even attempted by anyone. A paper summarizing the international Energy Infrastructure Attack Database describes no instances of anything remotely like this ever happening. (9) Nonetheless, while the Heritage Foundation’s modeled effects for this massive attack are considerable—oil selling at $250 a barrel and $325 billion in lost gross domestic product!—it’s a very far cry from a complete disabling of the industrial system. The analysis hits a particularly deflating note when it concludes the biggest political outcome of the attacks would be a strengthening of Iran’s geopolitical position. While this conclusion is of course entirely speculative, it illustrates how remote the prospect of total collapse is to most who study infrastructure vulnerability.

There are many forms of critical infrastructure other than fossil fuel infrastructure, of course. According to the US Army’s Critical Infrastructure Threats and Terrorism, there are eleven, although some sound distinctly like things ecological revolutionaries would have no interest in attacking: agriculture and food; water; public health; emergency services; government; private defense contractors; information and telelcommunications; transportation; banking and finance; chemicals and hazardous materials; and the postal service. (10)

It is not clear that any of these systems truly has an Achilles heel. Modeling of attacks on other types of infrastructure also fails to yield scenarios in which civilization collapses. For instance, powerline sabotage—a tactic quintessentially associated with ecological resistance—is mathematically optimized under a Naval Postgraduate School model called the Vulnerability of Electrical Grids Analyzer (VEGA). VEGA simulates power flow, then disruptions to that flow (attacks), and coupled with information about how long electrical system components take to replace, calculates the overall disruption to the grid.

In one permutation of VEGA, modelers attack a portion of the US power grid with approximately 5,000 buses, 500 generators, 3,000 loads, 5,000 lines, 1000 transformers, 500 substations, a total demand of 60 gigawatts (GW) and a total capacity of 70 GW. A hypothetical cadre of ten saboteurs carries out the most damaging attack the model can find, which happens to be on three particular substations and one particular line. Nonetheless, even this mathematically-optimized ten-person attack yields only an unmet demand of 2.8 GW system-wide—the affected grid continues to operate at 95% capacity. (11)

The modelers are big on math and overestimating their opponents, but not huge on creativity. Thus the literature is of little value to militants looking to think up creative new tactics. When the experts cease all modeling or formal analysis and simply write lists of conceivable attacks, they tend to be based on real incidents (only in some cases massively upscaled), resulting in a predictable litany of refinery bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and pipeline attacks. (12)

This tour of infrastructure threat modeling is not by any means intended to be comprehensive, or even particularly thorough. Hopefully, however, it suffices to provoke critical thought among social movement participants—to help us evaluate what assumptions we’re operating under and consider how explicitly we should try to develop our political strategies.

Ultimately, models are precisely that, and real-world instances of concerted efforts to cripple industrial systems through sabotage are worth taking far more seriously.

Or We Could Just Start Taking Hostages 

For decades, Marxist guerrillas have waged a fairly concerted war of sabotage against the Columbian energy system. In Iraq and Nigeria in the 2000’s, militants engaged in chronic, large-scale attacks against oil infrastructure. There have been other regions that saw relatively high concentrations of energy sabotage in recent years, but none on the scale of these three cases, and none with more pronounced effects. They thus serve as a dataset to examine the effects of asymmetrical warfare targeting energy systems, and specifically energy systems dependent on highly dispersed networks of infrastructure with relatively little redundancy (namely, oil pipelines).

Iraq certainly stands out as the most violent, the largest-scale, and often the most dramatic of these campaigns. From 2003-2007, frequently with the very explicit intention of disabling the ability of the country to export oil, militants attacked oil infrastructure more than 500 times. (13) 2006 alone saw almost 160 attacks. The scope of this assault on the fossil fuel industry is difficult to overstate. The Institute for Global Security Analysis provides an index of every incident, each one described in a few terse sentences. For instance, the entry for August 19, 2004, describes what they simply designate as “Attack #96”:

“attackers infiltrated the Basra headquarters of the Iraqi Southern Oil Company setting a fire that obliterated warehouses containing drilling equipment, among other items, spread to the firm’s offices, and cut electricity. “They came in droves, surrounded the building and looted it before setting it on fire,” said a company official. Firefighters arriving at the compound were shot at and fled.” (14)

After reading a few hundred of these, most people would find it hard to say that Iraqi insurgents didn’t make a very sincere effort to cripple the regional fossil fuel economy with sabotage. The vast majority of the attacks were pipeline bombings which did in fact shut down oil transport for a period of time—just not for nearly long enough, and the shutdowns didn’t cascade through the Iraqi system and crash it.

Iraqi oil production virtually ceased after the US invasion, but returned to the pre-invasion level of roughly 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2004. That year, as pipeline bombings proliferated, oil production never fell below 2 million bpd. For all of 2006, the year of greatest attack intensity, oil production in the country was at or above 1.6 million bpd. (15) This is a very significant reduction, especially because at the time of the invasion US planners stated their intention to double exports. It is not, however, crippling the whole system.

It is extremely difficult to imagine a more concerted and dedicated campaign of underground actions against fossil fuel infrastructure than what has already occurred in Iraq. It is crucially important to note that it was undertaken by people whose commitments to their cause very frequently superseded their desire to live. Imagining anti-fossil fuel activists from developed and privileged nations committing to this level of self-sacrifice, on this scale, is so truly absurd as to not be worth quipping about. Moreover, the insurgency took place in the context of a population sympathetic to acts of sabotage totally lacking from the landscape of the Global North.

Despite this, nothing that got broken couldn’t simply be replaced, and most of it rather expeditiously. The case of the Iraqi insurgency provides a great deal of evidence about the vulnerabilities of highly dispersed networks of infrastructure with relatively little redundancy. Namely, the intuitively appealing notion that they are easy to crash—because they can be attacked anywhere, and these attacks will cascade through the system—appears false.

In fact, the lesson would appear to be that such networks of highly dispersed infrastructure with fairly little redundancy are virtually impossible to secure, but also incredibly resilient to attack. If you break something, they will fix it. If you start breaking things over and over again, they will employ a cadre of specialists whose primary function is to fix what you break rapidly, as a calculated aspect of their operations.

Militants waged war on the oil industry in Nigeria at the same time Iraqi infrastructure was so frequently in flames. This campaign was very different from the Iraqi one in terms of its origins, social dimensions, and to some extent its modes of conflict. Oil industry attacks were primarily carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a movement mostly comprised of people of Ijaw ethnicity who have suffered directly and brutally under the oil industry. MEND’s campaign came roughly a decade after nonviolent oil industry resistance among the Ogoni was suppressed by the Nigerian government. Thus, the Nigerian campaign operated with a conception of the oil industry as inherently poisonous and destructive (but also with a desire for the wealth of oil corporations—politics is nothing if not complicated). (16)

If the Iraqi attack on oil was characterized by large explosions and unrestrained violence, MEND’s was more reserved in it terms of carnage but also more prone to improbable feats of heroism. Over 200 foreign petroleum workers were kidnapped, but most were released for ransom. MEND mastered the art of attacking offshore oil drilling platforms from the same high-speed boats they used to navigate rivers, providing for a few truly spectacular David and Goliath moments in which dirt-poor resistance fighters with few resources dealt significant blows to the hulking ocean fortresses of multinational corporations and made off with their personnel. (17) As in Iraq, pipeline bombings were the most common form of assault.

The Nigerian resistance, despite never reaching the same fever-pitch of raw attack frequency as occurred in Iraq, had a tremendous effect on the oil industry. Between 2006 and 2009, MEND reduced Nigerian oil output by roughly 30%. (18) Because multinational corporations had only the protection of the Nigerian government, their stated goal of driving said corporations out of the country seemed reasonably plausible. This point is illustrated by the writings of a breathless Western security analyst in 2008:

“Indeed, as I write attacks continue on almost a weekly basis as the price of oil climbs … What is the next step in this violent trend, and what will the next phase of violence look like? … as state and non-state actors cascade into this unfamiliar territory in a quest for rich mineral resources … they should examine the escalation of violence in Nigeria.” (19)

Such words are encouraging, but ultimately the oil industry was able to continue operations during the intensive phase of resistance. While MEND continues to exist and to actively plan for the end of multinational oil in Nigeria, offers of amnesty to MEND fighters, the jailing of a leader, and greater representation of Ijaw people in electoral politics has deprived the movement of momentum.

The campaigns in Iraq and Nigeria were both fairly ephemeral. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have waged a far more sustained war on the Columbian oil industry. Pipeline bombings began in 1986 and continue to the present. Patterns of activity have varied over the years. The early-2000’s witnessed a tremendous surge, with 177 attacks on the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline in 2001 alone, shutting it down for all but 99 days that year. (20) 2013 also saw a peak in activity, with a bombing campaign of renewed intensity and attacks on the camps of oilfield workers. (21)

Despite bombing the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline so many times it is colloquially known as “The Flute” (the Columbian government estimates more oil has spilled from it as a result of bombings than spilled in the Exxon-Valdez disaster), FARC and the ELN have not destroyed the Columbian oil industry. Curiously, in fact, while oil production declined as a result of sabotage in Iraq and Nigeria, it has risen in Columbia in precisely the window of time militants renewed the frequency of their actions. In 2010, there were 31 pipeline bombings and national oil output was 700,000 bpd. In 2013, there were 259 attacks and national oil output was over one million bpd. (22)

If it was inoperative for 264 days in 2001, then each of the 177 attacks on the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline that year resulted in an average shutdown of 1.5 days. This is one case in which it might be vaguely worth noting that model and reality appear to agree: the mathematically sophisticated paranoia of the Defense Department also fails to develop a pipeline attack scenario which disables a system for very long. (23) Pipelines appear easy to blow up but also relatively easy to fix.

Other campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure have likewise relied heavily on bombing pipelines. Of 8602 worldwide energy infrastructure attacks occurring between 1981 and 2011, over 80% are bombings. (24) Pipeline bombing, on account of the consequent oil spill, is a tactic ecological militants would be unlikely to adopt. Nonetheless, tactics by which civilization could hypothetically be sabotaged out of existence have simply never been articulated. It is certainly worth examining the real-world efforts of militants to destroy energy systems, both for the detail they provide about those types of campaigns specifically but also for their general lessons about industrial infrastructure.

Obviously, the failure of any of these movements to achieve decisive victory does not imply that decisive victory through similar means is impossible. This may or may not be the case. These failures merely illustrate that a war against industrial infrastructure is an extremely complicated proposition. To meaningfully consider such a thing is to examine the details of actual industrial systems, and to ask questions which have no obvious answer at the outset.

Fortunately, Our Enemies Are As Stupid As They Are Big

It is difficult to acknowledge that a favored aspect of one’s strategy for saving the world needs evaluation of any kind. It often progresses into an anxiety that all political action is essentially futile. If we are honest with ourselves, however, many of the strategic frameworks we favor seem largely to reflect emotional bias rather than to be remotely based on sober calculation of their efficacy.

People with an emotional attachment to industrial capitalism believe, in order to validate this attachment, that industrial capitalism will be responsive to their marches and their moral high ground. As if to make clear that effectiveness is a secondary concern, they are perfectly capable of citing a nonviolent movement like the one against the Vietnam war as an ideal model of political action, despite that this movement was an utter failure (while the decidedly violent campaign of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong was a stunning success). Likewise, however, those of us more inclined to outright confrontations with power have an emotional bias to believe such confrontations will be fruitful, and a seemingly equal ability to disregard contrary evidence.

The claim that industrial civilization can be crippled with sabotage, in an age when the acidifying ocean rises up to devour the burning earth, is morally significant. It is impossible to imagine that such a claim is not worth evaluating carefully, but also impossible to imagine that it can simply be considered valid without scrutiny. When we discover our previous notions were inaccurate or uncertain, it allows us to engage in a far more meaningful and informed analysis of what options are available to us.

If one thing makes itself clear from the security literature, it’s not that Western military power is weak, or that the industrial system it guards is fatally vulnerable—rather, it’s the unmitigated stupidity of power. While the prevailing political-economic order appears awfully hard to beat in a physical contest, it continues to blunder through the world with what can only be described as utter haplessness. Security paranoiacs consistently overestimate the ability of tiny cadres of technically sophisticated saboteurs, but they consistently underestimate, in almost unimaginably idiotic ways, the anger and power of masses who have decided there is nothing left to lose. Iraq is a rather obvious example.

Because collective action is utterly failing to halt ecological death, it is tempting to veer into a realm of thinking in which a dedicated elite initiates a decisive series of events. There is no reason not to consider under what conditions such a scenario could occur. However, there’s a real danger in essentially indulging a mutual fantasy with our oppressors, they needing to justify their apparatus of repression and us needing to feel like a far more powerful threat than we actually are.

The stupidity of power is worth thinking about very seriously. If being stronger than our enemies is not a viable praxis, it makes sense to consider being emphatically, programmatically smarter. Recall the admission by the European Joint Commission that nobody really understands the interrelationships of infrastructure. It begs the question of what advantages can be gained simply by understanding the global political-economic system better than those foolish enough to believe themselves in control.

The insights aren’t necessarily going to involve crippling everything with sabotage alone, but maybe they’ll tell us in what social movement contexts sabotage is most likely to be effective, or maybe they’ll help us understand how to push back against the criminal justice system enough so that someone burning a bulldozer doesn’t risk  decades in prison.

Just as likely, though, better insight into how the systems we are trying to affect work might simply compel us to do something new. As the ecological crisis progresses along an almost unbelievably dire trajectory, and existing frameworks for political action fail spectacularly to do anything about it, the incentive to try to dream up new ways to fight, new ways to achieve our ends, is considerable.

Meaningfully assessing our abilities and imagining legitimately new prospects for political action would be aided by more rigorous processes for evaluating our ideas. As is hopefully apparent, beyond a specific assessment of sabotage, this writing is intended to advocate for more methodical inquiry of movement strategy in general.

A few recent assessments of resistance efforts have attempted to quantify their effects, with decently illuminating results. A report on efforts against the tar sands and its associated infrastructure describes declining investments in new projects and estimates the lost fossil fuel revenues and averted carbon dioxide emissions. It helps us assess in clearer terms precisely what is to be gained by mobilizing massive public effort around a single fight which is supposed to be emblematic of a larger issue—and precisely what is to be lost. (25)

Likewise, the general resource conflict literature attempts to measure the effects of various forms of opposition to industrial activity in various contexts. For instance, an analysis of 50 worldwide resource extraction projects that met with significant opposition, primarily in the Global South, found significant correlations between certain conditions—like opposition beginning in the planning stages—and victory. (26)

More methodical inquiry of this sort could allow us to discuss strategies on a far more solid foundation than we currently do, where everyone essentially operates with their own idiosyncratic headful of vague intuitions about social change. We will not have  a perfectly scientific approach to resistance, but many of our assumptions could be far more intensively investigated.

Trying to understand the world better than the people breaking it is an important part of fighting them. Let’s remember that police departments have upper intelligence thresholds as a hiring criterion, and that those who tell the cops what to do take orders from an invisible man in the sky.

These do not sound like invincible enemies.

Citations:

  1. Ali Koknar. 2009. “The Epidemic of Energy Terrorism.” In Gal Luft and Anne Korin, eds. Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century. Praeger Security International.
  2. James Williams. 2013. “A History of Oil Supply Side and the Oil Price.” Swiss National Bank. SNBF.com
  3. Oil Change International and Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. 2014. Material Risks: How Public Accountability Is Slowing Down the Tar Sands. priceofoil.com
  4. Phil Davies. 2013. “Busting Bottlenecks in the Bakken.” FedGazette. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. minneapolisfed.org
  5. Aric McBay. 2011. “Decisive Ecological Warfare.” In Lierre Kieth, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen, eds. Deep Green Resistance. Seven Stories Press.
  6. Georgios Giannopoulos et al. 2012. Risk assessment methodologies for Critical Infrastructure Protection. Part I: State of the Art. European Commission Joint Research Committee Technical Research Notes.
  7.  Georgios Giannopoulos et al. ibid.
  8. Ariel Cohen et al. 2011. Coordinated Terrorist Attacks on Global Energy Infrastructure: Modeling the Risks. Heritage Foundation Special Report. reports.heritage.org
  9. Jennifer Giroux et al. 2013. “Research Note on the Energy Infrastructure Attack Database (EIAD).” Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 7 no. 6. terrorismanalysts.com
  10. US Army Training and Doctrine Command. 2006. Critical Infrastructure Threats and Terrorism. us.army.mil
  11. Gerald Brown et al. 2005. “Analyzing the Vulnerability of Critical Infrastructure to Attack and Planning Defenses.” Tutorials in Operations Research.  pubsonline.informs.org
  12. Freidrich Steinhäusler et al. 2008. “Security Risks to the Oil and Gas Industry: Terrorist Threats.” Strategic Insights vol. 7 no. 1. Center for Contemporary Conflict.
  13. Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten. 2008. Is There an Emboldenment Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq. http://people.rwj.harvard.edu/~riyengar/insurgency.pdf
  14. Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. 2008. “Attacks on Iraqi oil pipelines, oil installations, and oil personnel.” Iraq Pipeline Watch. iags.org
  15. Michael O’Hanlon and Ian Livingston. 2013. “Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and in Iraq.” Brookings Institute. brookings.edu
  16. Fidelis A.E. and Kimiebi Imomotimi. 2011. “Militant Oil Agitations in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and the Economy.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences vol. 1 no. 5. ijhssnet.com
  17. Austin Ekeinde. September 16, 2008. “Nigerian militants sabotage oil facilities.” Reuters UK. uk.reuters.com
  18. Fidelis A.E. and Kimiebi Imomotimi. ibid.
  19. Jennifer Giroux. 2008. “Turmoil in the Delta: Trends and Implications.” Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 2 no. 8. terrorismanalysts.com
  20. Ali Koknar. ibid.
  21. Andrew Wight. November 05, 2013. “ELN declares war on oil companies.” Columbia Reports. columbiareports.com
  22. US Energy Information Administration. 2015. 2015 Short-Term Energy Outlook in Brief.
    eia.gov
  23. Gerald Brown. ibid.
  24. Jennifer Giroux et al. “Research Note…”
  25. Oil Change International. ibid.
  26. Daniel Franks et al. 2014. “Conflict translates environmental and social risks into business costs.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 111 no. 21. pnas.org

 

 

Faunation (Science:ecology): The total animal life of a zone or area, the animal equivalent of vegetation. — Biology Online

Long ago, Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, and stressed that it occurred gradually. Since that time, a number of approaches have de-emphasized graduality and focused on rapid speciation. Punctuated equilibrium, developed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, is a theory which states that relatively brief periods of rapid evolutionary change occur periodically, interrupting longer periods of relative stasis. Evolutionary developmental biology studies how relatively small evolutionary changes in developmental genes can produce wholesale changes in a species (allowing, for instance, an appendage to be suddenly duplicated—a process seen in the serially repeated legs of animals like crayfish and spiders). Evolutionary changes involving developmental genes are thought to underlie many of the animal body plans which emerged with the Cambrian explosion ~540 million years ago and constitute most of the fundamental structural variation to be found within kingdom Animalia.

Periods of evolutionary innovation follow catastrophic extinctions. The diversification of mammals occurred in the ecological niches emptied by ill-starred dinosaurs. The advent of photosynthesis and the oxygenation of the earth’s atmosphere ~2.4 billion years ago was catastrophic for a massive proportion of the single-celled species that occupied the planet at the time. Change that is “catastrophic” from one perspective (e.g. the dinosaurs’, anaerobic life’s) is simply change, from a broader perspective, of a great enough magnitude to allow a new regime to be established.

evolution-gradualism-3

Punctuated equilibrium, as told by butterflies.

There is no particular shortage of extinction at the moment. A number of scientific papers have assessed current estimates of species death and concluded that the rate equals or exceeds that of the five previous events we call “mass extinctions” (events in which 75% or more of species die off). (1) But the planetary systems changes currently underway cannot be characterized solely in terms of diminished biodiversity.

In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen proposed that the geological epoch of the Holocene, in vogue since the last time glaciers retreated back to the poles, was over, and that in fact the human species had overtaken in significance all the other forces that shape the earth, inaugurating the Anthropocene (anthro=man). The geological committee which officially defines the geological stages took the matter under consideration. Subsequent debate (an article in Smithsonian magazine rather absurdly tells us that “Efforts to label the human age have ignited a debate between environmentalists and geologists”) was perhaps confused by scientists’ inability to come to terms with the fact that they had no existing conceptual tools to study the Anthropocene because nothing like it has ever happened. To simply describe it as an extinction (perhaps followed in some time by a period of evolutionary innovation), to describe it solely in terms of geological strata and shifts in climate and ecosystems, is to miss a great deal of the point. It is analogous to characterizing the evolution of dinosaurs solely in terms of changing distributions of biomass.

In order to develop some conceptual tools for studying the bewildering present moment, an interdisciplinary journal called The Anthropocene Review was founded in 2014, the pages of which evince a scope and profundity of hallucinatory vision which would shame Hieronymous Bosch or Arthur Rimbaud. Debates about dating the Anthropocene discuss humanity’s “techno-fossil record” and claim the best stratiagraphic evidence for the new epoch might be the global signal of radioactive fallout from detonation of the first atomic bomb. Serious discussion occurs of whether the rapidly-emerging “technosphere” is a system best understood as being embedded in, and fundamentally responsive to the dynamics of, social-biological systems, or if it is best conceptualized as an autonomous entity with its own logic. A paper called “The Anthropocene Biosphere” tells us life has experienced three truly fundamental stages: first, the long microbial stage; second, a stage where most everything intuitively associated with “life” (like fish and trees) happened; and third, whatever is happening now. “Whatever is happening now” is best characterized, they claim, by four things:

“1) global homogenisation of flora and fauna; (2) a single species (Homo sapiens) commandeering 25–40% of net primary production and also mining fossil net primary production (fossil fuels) to break through the photosynthetic energy barrier; (3) human-directed evolution of other species; and (4) increasing interaction of the biosphere with the technosphere (the global emergent system that includes humans, technological artefacts, and associated social and technological networks).” (2)

86fad446-c7a9-442e-9347-0c2d06f8060c_o

Anthropocene Lite.

 

Number three, the human-directed evolution of other species certainly refers to phenomena like domestication and genetic engineering, which, for all their inadvertent consequences are changes (often brought about at least somewhat intentionally) in species being directly exploited and interacted with by humans. Presumably, however, it also refers to the ways in which human modifications of ecosystems will, utterly inadvertently, drive future evolution of wild populations—and therefore begin to add complex dynamics to the very meaning of the term “wild.”

At the moment the most conspicuous evolutionary effect humans are having on wild animal populations are those associated with reduced genetic diversity. While large-bodied vertebrates have increased in abundance an order of magnitude in recent history, primarily in the form of humans and our domesticated species, wild vertebrate populations have globally declined by 30%. Roughly, this is 30% less genetic material to provide the raw material for evolutionary change.

In addition to threatening them with extinction, however, human activity is influencing wild populations in complex ways. Some of these effects are just as horribly dark as one would imagine. “The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation” documents the extreme deterioration of social structure in African elephants that has resulted from human hunting. The behavioral dynamics of young male elephants who have evaded bullets but been deprived essential aspects of their development are very reminiscent of those found in highly traumatized and perpetually fearful human populations, such as in prisons and ghettos. Aggression has significantly increased in overall magnitude and also lost its complex social context. New forms of aggression are being innovated. One national park in South Africa is experiencing an epidemic of young adult elephants raping rhinoceroses.

il_fullxfull.352628718_ag0c

0.00050253739% of the world’s threatened vertebrates.

It is tempting to think of the ecological crisis purely in terms of existence vs. nonexistence, extinction vs. persistence, but the ineluctable truth is that should elephants survive for an evolutionarily significant period of time, but continue to experience a new socio-ecology in which older females are not present to help raise young males, it will change what elephants are. The species with the complex cognitive abilities and rich emotional life necessary to pay visits to the bones of long-departed ancestors could, in some future Africa, be known for other rites, rites which depict the elephant’s departure from a web of relations in which it was previously embedded.

Other examples of the ways civilization has not simply driven populations to extinction but also changed life for them in complex ways are less heart-wrenching, and provide considerably less speculative foundations for discussing completely inadvertent human-influenced evolution. The coyote-wolf hybrids known as coywolves or Eastern coyotes are arguably the preeminent example. The very existence of coyote-wolf hybrids is thought to be a thoroughly unanticipated result of efforts to exterminate both species from large portions of North America. The war against wolves was effective while the war against coyotes turned out to be impossible; thus coyotes expanded their range into areas wolves had previously excluded them from and increased their numbers where wolves had suppressed them. Wolves found themselves members of a scattered and dying tribe while coyotes proliferated—mating occurred.

The hybrid animals have established themselves throughout eastern North America, developing remarkable evolutionary innovations in the less than 90 years of their existence. Most of these innovations are behavioral, and have allowed eastern coyotes to thrive, almost invisibly to the human occupants, in dense settlements. Radio telemetry studies which track the movements of these animals should look familiar to many people who have lived in a city without a house: they move long distances on railroad tracks and sleep, among other little pockets of anonymity, in the untouched center of the clover leaf structures created by freeway interchanges. (3) These are extremely non-trivial behavioral developments, which occurred in an evolutionarily brief window of time, the cognitive underpinnings of which are not known. These new behaviors conceivably resulted from some biological change which could have significant implications for future evolutionary events within the species.

Here is a familiar (and very true) narrative: civilization is advancing, wilderness retreating. As the wild dies, so too its inhabitants, until the earth becomes an entirely human-dominated place which, however hellish for us, simply does not allow for the existence of most other species. Here is the very strange dimension this narrative is taking on: as civilization advances, most species perish, but a small number with fortuitous pre-adaptations simply treat civilization as a new habitat, and their subsequent evolutionary pathways are forever influenced by this fact. Certainly, urban environments have long had their resident racoons and ravens, but these have been examples of resilience in the face of human activity, not evolution driven by it.

16.Cherry-Beach-coywolves-w-city-skyline

Earth First! and crust punk aesthetics involving wolves conquering the city were prescient.

Before the Cambrian, most animals were soft-bodied and lacked many anatomical and behavioral attributes familiar today. It was not just an explosion of new species but of entirely new forms and modes of existence: the ocean became a place of predation. As new species emerged, new predator-prey dynamics emerged. Armored bodies, bigger teeth, new sensory abilities, and adaptations for speed self-catalyzed more armor, teeth, sensory organs, and speediness—the so-called evolutionary arms race.

It is difficult not to conclude a similar process must be taking place now. Civilization is destroying habitat, but for some proportion of species it may also be creating incredibly complex new ones. Human activity may destroy most populations but also create tremendous evolutionary pressures for some which are successfully responded to. As with other mass extinctions, large ecological niches may be abandoned, which allow fundamentally new biological dynamics to emerge as they are filled by emerging species. A rapid speciation event might occur in an instance of punctuated equilibrium.

We are no doubt looking at a future with fewer life forms, but even in zones currently empty of most native organisms, some human works may be come to be largely dominated by non-humans. The eastern coyote tells us that cities may be far more lively places in the future than we assume.

If one species can develop evolutionarily significant behavioral adaptations to occupy the very heart of human civilization in <90 years, it’s inevitable to imagine that in a few hundred more, there might be an owl which is dependent on the noise from industrial operations to disorient its prey, and that prey might nest exclusively in some human-manufactured material that is commonly discarded. Migratory birds might start riding freight trains to avoid the exertion of the Pacific Flyway, and the decommissioning of the Roseville train yard might threaten these new species with extinction. An emerging rodent may at this very moment be taking the first behavioral steps towards burrowing exclusively in a particular type of scar in the earth created by a particular type of fossil fuel exploration. There’s already plenty of cases where animals exploit roadkill and other carnage created by humans—how long before one of them learns to interact with some lethal human activity so that it creates more scavenging opportunities? How long before this becomes a characteristic mode of foraging?

Clearly, the world is equally reach in strangeness as it is in horror.

CITATIONS:

  1. Take, for instance: Gerardo Ceballos et al. 2015. “Accelerated modern human-induced species loss: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances (1)5. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
  2. Mark Williams, et al. 2014. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review. http://ib.berkeley.edu/labs/barnosky/The%20Anthropocene%20Biosphere.pdf
  3. Public Broadcasting Corporation. 2014. Meet the Coywolf. http://www.pbs.org/video/2365159966/

 

On November 4, 2014, Oregon voters passed Measure 91, which simultaneously legalized the use of marijuana by persons 21 years of age and older and provided breathtaking aesthetic insights into a future of hyper-technological social control on a dead planet. Legal marijuana dispensaries lend themselves to some of the more overtly fetishistic and connoisseur-oriented consumer displays to be found in the world’s zones of privilege, just as developments like the tar sands and China’s unbreathable air intensify the overt misery and hopelessness associated with the world’s zones of sacrifice, helping signal even to viewers utterly bereft of a minimal sense of aesthetic subtlety that the particular movie we are living in is dystopian science fiction.

Bathed in fluorescent white light and the watchful gaze of countless surveillance cameras; consisting of minimally furnished rooms of polished wood floors, glass counters, chrome light fixtures, and black-trimmed white walls; offering, after checking your identity card and ushering you past lobbies into windowless interiors, arrays of hyper-specialized strains of marijuana engineered to produce highly specific alterations of the user’s subjective state (focused or euphoric, inspired or calm): Legal marijuana offers an enrichment of consumer privilege which seems badly needed in an era of ecological decline and hierarchical intensification.

There are, after all, tailings ponds around some bitumen mines in Canada which are so toxic that birds will die if they land in them, which must be surrounded by specially-engineered guns that emit frequencies inaudible to the human ear, which the birds find horribly painful, deterring them from landing. It is only natural, aesthetically, that a world whose sacrifice zones feature guns that shoot painful audio frequencies at birds from sludge mines also has zones of consumption in which the privileged get through their days by smoking euphoria-enhancing Death Star, a 25% THC cross between Sensi Star and Sour Diesel, before calming down with a CBD-rich strain like Cannatonic at night.

sst-farma-home-32

When the individual is calm, rested, and focused, all of society benefits.

At some point on our path to a nightmarish future in which no stretch of land or ocean is wilderness, no species exists which is not domesticated, and no human exists whose entire being is not incorporated into an identity-negating apparatus of control and injustice, we passed a few crucial aesthetic benchmarks which can tell us with considerable certainty precisely which totalitarian future we are careening so haplessly towards.

Clearly, we are not entering George Orwell’s 1984, nor Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The world is not becoming more like North Korea or the Soviet Union. Only in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are there globally politically powerful forces which centralize obedience through intense personal discipline and restraint (e.g. by placing restrictions on personal pleasures like sex and intoxication). These ideologies are clearly the quixotic opponents of a dominant trend, toward a global empire consisting of an intense material hierarchy, with massively suffering underclasses and a preponderance of prisons, borders, and ghettos, which is nonetheless less severe in the social control it exercises on its privileged citizens, allowing a wide range of personal expressions, consumer indulgences, and identities. In short, our particular dystopia looks a lot like The Hunger Games, with cities like Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York the wealthy districts where the disaffected-looking rich people with the idiosyncratic fashion and the weird hair watch poor people kill each other for amusement.

It is the dystopia in which a black man can be United States president while black men continue to be incarcerated at rising rates, the dystopia in which corporate executives go to Burning Man and health food is produced with prison labor. The austere socialism of China and the USSR didn’t simply acquiesce in a global power struggle to the economic and military might of capitalism: It also morally acquiesced to the naked human desire for the iPhone 6s with 3-D Touch and 14.65% THC Cantaloupe Haze. The stable form of empire, the one which is essentially becoming the global form of empire, is the one in which the apparatus of social control is used almost solely on the oppressed, while diversity and individuality are tolerated among the privileged.

Drug laws increasingly allow for the military repression of entire neighborhoods while politely deferring from passing judgement on the use of intoxicants by people with more money. A host of such laws and policies took effect in the 80s and 90s, such as the notoriously disproportionate penalties for possession of crack and powdered cocaine, and cannabis legalization continues the trend.

Race, sexuality, and gender are in and of themselves decreasing barriers to acceptance within the power structure, but the power structure is intensifying as capitalism achieves global ascendance and societies feel the reverberations of ecological change, requiring this demographically more fluid hierarchy to utilize increasingly violent forms of exclusion and control. Culture is becoming more tolerant and egalitarian while material society is becoming more restrictive and unequal. The black president presides over deployments of military force into neighborhoods whose black citizens are tired of being randomly killed by the police. City streets are renamed after Cesar Chavez in a country constructing a vast militarized wall on its border with Mexico. In the zones of privilege, it is increasingly acceptable to not believe in god, to fuck people of the same gender, and to smoke weed. In the zones of sacrifice, it is increasingly plausible the liberated-but-still-privileged of the world will drown you with their rising seas.

sst-the-hunger-games-captiol-tour

Rich people will look no more or less stupid in the future than they do today.

The search for a model of this globally ascendant new order outside the realm of young adult fiction could plausibly end up in the classical world. Empires like the Persian, Greek, and Roman embraced extraordinary cruelty and avarice while disavowing the obsession with demographic homogeneity and adherence to a universal creed which characterized Nazi Germany or medieval Christendom. The current tendencies of global capitalism are not without precedent.

In searching for an explanation for why contemporary global capitalism resembles classical civilization (at least in this one curious regard), two complementary explanatory approaches might be valuable. One is a primarily material and economic, focused on historically-specific developments, and one is more broadly cultural and biological.

Some of the most compelling material concerning the historically-specific is found in Christian Parenti’s book on the prison state Lockdown AmericaLockdown America documents two crucial stages of the current military build-up of American police and prisons. One stage emerges as a direct response to the social unrest of the 60s and 70s, and is part of a broader strategy of social control in which the poor/invisible are kept in inner cities while the affluent flee to the suburbs. The second stage emerges in the 80s and 90s when the American economy is no longer riding the post-WWII surge in manufacturing durable goods (like refrigerators and televisions) and is shifting to an emphasis on entertainment, finance, technology, and real estate. This shift is accompanied by a reawakened interest in urban cores, complete with massive investments in convention centers, arts and shopping districts, and other “revitalization” efforts.

Central to the ideology of urban revitalization has always been the removal of urban decay, a term which vaguely suggests that concrete might sometimes rot away from infectious agents, but which in fact refers to the unsightliness and lost economic opportunities which stem from human suffering. Perhaps, for some reason owing to the logic of cities no one bothered to consider at the outset, it was easier to keep people from the margins than from the center. The age in which American cities have restructured to facilitate more arts, culture, entertainment, and shopping—the age in which the interior of American cities have become theme parks for the privileged, playgrounds for sophisticated consumers altered by carbon-intensive indoor super-weed and fortified by smoothies featuring obscure rainforest superfoods—has also been an age of massively overfunded cops and proliferating cages. The cohort of technology professionals, consultants, and financial experts crucial to the economic success of the new inner city require endless stimulation, consumption, and recreational opportunity, ideally with minimal restrictions (born from archaic social conventions, after all) on the pursuit of personal pleasure. Police militarization, and the out-of-control prison state it has engendered, are necessary to keep the Apple Stores and arts districts of the American urban interior shining.

Inmates walk around an exercise yard at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino

The deals at Bed, Bath, and Beyond are, quite simply, too good for society to give everyone equal access to those deals.

This, however, might give the impression that the entire tangle of cultural, political, and economic forces which are shaping this reality—a restructured economy and a relaxation of cultural and legal prohibitions on individuality and pleasure—were engineered by some diabolical cabal capable of determining world events. It’s unlikely, and in fact, the people who advocate for borderless, unregulated capitalism historically have not have been the people who advocate for getting high, exploring polytheism, taking it up the ass, or any of the other behaviors which have fairly recently escaped their taboos. One cannot simply look at modern history as the ascendance of one ideology over another.

On the contrary, there have been consistent domains of victory and defeat. Examining the entangled cultural and political forces that shape complex societies, it would appear ideologies which emphasize equality and the acknowledgment of ecological limits have done far more to change the cultural landscape than the physical one, consistently losing battles that relate to actual corporeal realities, like the deregulation of global trade or the invasion of countries. Ideologies which emphasize hierarchy and ecosystems as human resources have consistently been associated with losing cultural battles, against everything from Satanic heavy metal to homosexuality to drug use in film, while succeeding in precisely those domains where egalitarian/ecological ideologies lose. After a certain number of battles concerning free expression and cultural standards are won while the same number of battles concerning carbon dioxide emissions and bombings are lost, it begins to appear a pattern is present which is worth scrutinizing intensely. It begins to appear both like people with egalitarian values are better at winning arguments about gratification than about restraint, and that they’re better at influencing cultural and symbolic realities than material ones.

Whatever the underlying explanatory framework, the ability of legal marijuana dispensaries to presage crucial aspects of the future compels an inevitable search for analogues. The only institution which illustrates our trajectory as clearly, in many crucial aesthetic, ecological, and economic respects, is Burning Man. The absurd cost of attending the festival, the outrageous expenditure of resources necessary for it to occur, and the fortuitous presence of gas masks and dust storms make it an obvious predictor of future manifestations of capitalism. But the two features that make Burning Man truly exemplary in this regard, the two features which most closely ally it with the emerging trajectory of global power, are its ephemerality and its indulgence.

The ephemerality simply stems from the fact that the world is growing so ecologically unpredictable that zones of privilege are increasingly likely to be physically temporary. Rich people will increasingly jetset to those portions of the globe not currently being devoured by apocalyptic flooding or hellish conflagrations, presumably with a vast physical infrastructure of portable Yoga studios and juice bars and an entire sub-society of service industry workers in tow.

Equally so, however, Burning Man exemplifies the future because privileged people stumbling from spectacle to spectacle on drugs, free to express every facet of their unique identity while the world burns, exemplify the future. This is particularly true as corporate executives become prominent figures at the event and $10,000 packages are offered with direct flights and private kitchens.

sst-burning man

We have depleted all living systems of the landscape we are currently occupying and will soon move on.

Somewhere in the lurid pages of Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict tells us about the aristocracy of native tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast sacrificing human slaves as a show of wealth and status during potlatch ceremonies. In a world where the powerful lock the powerless in cages and allow them to die of thirst on rooftops after floods, and in a world where the powerful are increasingly attracted to two-story tall pyrotechnic sculptures, it isn’t difficult at all to imagine particularly grisly future permutations of such rites, albeit this time carried out by people whose moods will be considerably enhanced by the liberal use of 18.81% THC Jedi Kush.

 

 

 

 

 

Anguish symmetry is a conceivable science. Here are its theoretical foundations.

First, let us examine this article from The Nation, “What I Discovered from Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters,” by Lydia Wilson. What Wilson discovered—in the sense that facts already plainly apparent to some can be still be “discovered” by others—is that the motivation for Jihad is predominantly the trauma of subjugation to Western power. She describes how the demographics of captured ISIS fighters in Iraq are extremely homogeneous: men in their late 20s,  who came of age under the American occupation, and were old enough to comprehend but too young to have any agency within the chaos that ensued. Wilson writes:

They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

Second, the documentary ISIS in Afghanistan, made by PBS. Perhaps because ISIS isn’t on as spectacularly bloody a rampage in Afghanistan as in Iraq and Syria, this documentary, in lieu of execution footage, delivers its requisite atrocities in the form of footage of ISIS’s schools. In addition to avenging their anguished childhoods, the men of ISIS also appear to be reproducing them in the minds and bodies of the next generation.

This tendency for trauma to propagate from one person to another, and to continue inexorably down through the generations, is a familiar one. It is the same tedious trudging journey misery, in one form or another, has been making down a series of bodies for millennia. Nothing in this constitutes a new science, certainly not one with so colorful a name as anguish symmetry.

sst-islamic-state-kids

In which the men who grew up under the American occupation of Iraq recreate essential aspects of the experience for the boys who did not

But third, let us consider this scientific paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence.” The details are fascinating, but all that is really important is that the authors found a linear correlation between the magnitude of childhood trauma a person experienced and a pattern of brain activity. To restate this in slightly more abstract terms: an experience of trauma was correlated to a spatial configuration with complex dynamics.

Fourth, it must be acknowledged that the extent to which trauma influences the coarse structure of global events is unknown. In practice it is immeasurable, but in principle it is quantifiable. Imagine a world which reproduces ours in most respects but differs in an essential few: People exist in the same numbers but somehow are not afflicted by their wounds. People possess the same general level of technology, but without overtly conflict-oriented tools like prisons and nuclear weapons. Don’t think about how it works—the implausibility of this scenario is immaterial.

In this world, the men of Iraq did not lose their fathers to the American invasion, the boys of Iraq are not losing their childhoods to despotic training camps, and so on. There are no existing hostilities between people. How long does it take for everything to turn back to normal? How long does it take for us to begin cutting each other’s heads off, beating up our children, and setting the rainforest on fire? Do we ever?

Man stands in front of a forest fire in Pelalawan, in the Indonesian province of Riau

Indonesia finally gets hip to the 21st century’s prevailing aesthetic themes, vanishing in a hellish conflagration.

Many would be tempted to read this as largely a rhetorical exercise, as a thought experiment clearly designed to lead one to the conclusion that were it not for all the existing hurt in the world, no more would be created. This is not at all the intention. Clearly, profound trauma is ubiquitous; clearly, it shapes behavior; clearly its effects are often unconscious. Thus it has properties that could allow it to be thought of and modeled like a virus or other propagating entity: something that is foreign to the system. If eradicated, it would not be relied upon to simply re-emerge.

Nonetheless, the actual state of the world indicates something deeper within human architecture must be at work—otherwise how would anguish come to occupy its monumental share of the human experience in the first place? Ultimately it seems that the ways trauma is transmitted between people is both highly contingent and highly fundamental.

It’s interesting to ask what happens if we run our implausible experiment, in which the world is reset without existing traumas, over and over again. And if each time, we could perhaps introduce some few different initial injuries—a reform school or a military invasion here, a few lashes of a whip there—and see how they form different patterns of subsequent propagation and reiteration, ultimately producing different patterns of global violence and destruction.

Fifth and finally, from these formative elements, we are ready to synthesize our new science by referencing an Ising model. Ising models were developed to model lattices of solid substances (e.g. crystals). The details are terribly interesting again, and again, mostly superfluous. Their essential aspect as far as anguish symmetry is concerned is that they consist of cells whose state influences the states of surrounding cells. Model parameters can be such that all cells end up the same, or cells occupy states at random. At some parameter values, there are remarkable developments, like the spontaneous emergence of fractal objects. Despite its simplicity, the Ising model can describe some facets of reality with great accuracy. To quote from Solé and Goodwin’s Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology:

“…disparate systems sharing some fundamental microscopic properties…will behave in the same way close to their respective critical points. This idea is called universality. Simple rules can generate very complex patterns of behavior, and the interactions among the different parts of a complex system—and not the detailed properties of their component parts—are the relevant part of the story.”

sst-ising model

An Ising model. Cells switch from black or white based on rules of interaction with adjacent cells. Black and white states could represent different orientations of a particle in a lattice, or equally plausibly represent the spread of an epidemic (infected/uninfected) or human settlements (occupied/unoccupied).

Ising models themselves probably don’t play any actual role in this putative new field, but they are invoked as theoretical justification for the very general conclusion that the activity patterns of (at least some) systems can be measured with adequate abstraction to allow comparison with (at least some) other systems, even when the components of said systems are neither similar nor necessarily even understood in great detail.

The brains of humans display patterns of activity measurable with technologies like electroencephalograms (EEGs), which are amenable to a whole suite of analytical techniques. The activity of human societies is likewise rigorously quantified by cadres of scientists in diverse fields, and  ecology generates tremendous amounts of data which is synthesized and analyzed by many means. Somewhere within the range of analytical techniques that exist for these disparate sources of information, a common ground could conceivably sought: a means of characterizing changes in one of these systems in terms of corresponding changes in another of these systems.

Here, then, is the essential insight of anguish symmetry: somewhere, a person is using violence despicably, and their experience of this violence is generating a pattern of brain activity. Somewhere, an international mining company is deciding to do something deplorable. Somewhere, many thousands of hectares of rainforest are burning. From this burning forest, many people are fleeing, and some of them, displaced and wounded, can perhaps be counted on in their struggle to someday use violence despicably. All these patterns of activity at different scales reciprocally inform and influence one another, and somewhere there might be an appropriate mathematical descriptor that allows us to see the essential structural universality of anguish, the essential configurations of pain that these different levels of reality transmit back and forth so freely.

As we enter a stage of truly catastrophic, truly systemic ecological breakdown, every sign indicates there will be great waves of traumatic change that reverberate through societies and individuals and be transmitted back into ecosystems, in an intensifying and cyclical fashion. It is tempting to imagine that the hidden structure universally underlying anguish is beautiful, and the revealing of it will bring a small measure of joy to the world.