Yesterday an unusual story arose out of the usual static emanating from the news media. A middle-aged man stormed the Discovery Channel headquarters in Maryland, USA and took hostages. A standoff ensued between the man and police, ending when the police killed the man, Jason J. Lee. Not long after the situation was brought to a head, Lee’s manifesto came out. Evidently Lee held some very singular views regarding civilization, and demanded the Discovery Channel air programming elaborating his views.
Lee has already been stuck with the dismissive label of insanity by those who wield unseemly degrees of control over common discourse—the very capitalist media he targeted. Doubtless Lee was possessed of an unstable psychology. In the coming days the capitalist news media will thoroughly flesh out his psychological profile, and use this as an excuse to avoid examining his odd philosophy. Soon the news cycle will move on to some other events and Lee will leave the common consciousness as quickly as he appeared.
Before that happens, I have decided to seize the moment and compare the theory and actions of James Lee to those of Green Anarchism. Though clearly the work of a troubled, desperate and erratic mind, Lee’s manifesto raises many important points too often excluded in common discourse. His manifesto bears many similarities to Green Anarchist thought, yet is obviously uninformed by the rich theoretical tradition that has developed within the Green Anarchist milieu in the past few decades. In this essay I will attempt to demonstrate that, though Lee’s personal views do not appear to have been coherently processed in his own mind, that they are but one manifestation of a trend which is quickly growing in ranks. I call this trend the anti-civilization movement.
What is the Anti-civilization movement?
Broadly speaking we can say that as long as civilization has existed there have been those that have opposed it. So-called “primitive” societies have always resisted falling under the yoke of civilization from the forgotten tribes of Mesopotamia, to the native peoples of North America and Africa, to the least remaining primitive societies in deepest Amazonia and Papua New Guinea. civilization has destroyed the ancient, earth-based traditions of countless societies and replaced them with a monotonous, unsustainable and oppressive system. civilization has denuded the Earth of vast forests in its ever-increasing desire for more agricultural land and has enslaved humans, animals and plants in the process.
Slaves and primitives are not the only ones to have rebelled against civilization. The privileged classes of civilized societies have also had their rebels, including: Henry David Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, Ralph Borsodi and Sigmund Freud. Among Europeans of the era of colonization the trope of the “noble savage” became popular, due mostly to reports of the uncivilized ways of life of native Americans. The first hand accounts of the colonization of the United States are full of mentions of whites and blacks that willingly left civilized life to go live with the indians. Even today anthropologists and others feel the urge to “go native.”
As the anti-civilization tendency has built momentum in recent decades three distinct threads of anti-civilization thought have emerged. The first is that of Daniel Quinn, whose philosophy James Lee embraced. The second is the wilderness protection theory and practice of Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front and other similar groups and individuals. The third is that of the Green Anarchists. Each of these approach the problem of civilization in different ways.
Quinn is the least radical of the three tendencies. His proposals for overcoming civilization are vague and piecemeal. His non-fiction book Beyond Civilization outlines in the most detail his concept of the New Tribal Revolution. This Revolution would be brought about by “occupational tribalism,” something like a hybrid of small business and circus troupe. These tribes would be semi-self-sufficient, exchanging goods and services with one another.
An original concept, but it seems unlikely to truly challenge capitalism, let alone civilization. Quinn can be described as a reformist. The violent actions that took place at the Discovery Channel are surely not ones he would endorse. Curiously, Lee referred only specifically to a passage from Quinn’s novel My Ishmael:
One: The revolution won’t take place all at once. It’s not going to be any sort of coup d’etat like the French or Russian revolutions.
Two: It will be achieved incrementally, by people working off each other’s ideas. This is the great driving innovation of the Industrial Revolution.
Three: It will be led by no one. Like the Industrial Revolution, it will need no shepherd, no organizer, no spearhead, no pacesetter, no mastermind at the top; it will be too much for anyone to lead.
Four: It will not be the initiative of any political, governmental, or religious body — again, like the Industrial Revolution. Some will doubtless want to claim to be its supporters and protectors; there are always leaders ready to step forward once others have shown the way.
Five: It has no targeted end point. Why should it have an end point?
Six: It will proceed according to no plan. How on earth could there be a plan?
Seven: It will reward those who further the revolution with the coin of the revolution. In the Industrial Revolution, those who contributed much in the way of product wealth received much in the way of product wealth; in the New Tribal Revolution, those who contribute much in the way of support will receive much in the way of support.
The idea of building a resistance to civilization informed by the Industrial Revolution is paradoxical, but Quinn’s ideas may possibly have some merit. Lee’s desperate attempt to have these ideas disseminated failed utterly. He did not even include this quote in the text of his manifesto.
Besides the brief reference to Daniel Quinn’s work, the rest of the manifesto draws mostly from the familiar theoretical ground of human overpopulation. Lee makes several explicit references to the work of Thomas Malthus. Malthus, an 18th Century English clergyman is best remembered for his theory of human population growth. According to Malthus human population increases exponentially, while human food supply only grows incrementally. Thus, Malthus believed that inevitably humanity would be pressed into devastating wars over scarce food. Though such a catastrophe has not yet occurred, Malthusian population theory has not died out in popularity. It has had a consistent presence among ecological movements since at least the first Earth Day.
Anarchists have criticized the Malthusian population theory from its inception. It has frequently served those in power as a justification for authoritarian measures. Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren (the latter now an adviser in the Obama administration) both wrote on the subject beginning in the late seventies. Among other draconian measures they have recommended at various times are:forced sterilization and releasing birth control chemicals into drinking water. Forced sterilization is a practice familiar to native American women in the United States and women and men of various ethnicities in European dictatorships, including Nazi Germany. It is an authoritarian, sexist and racist practice that denies women their physical autonomy and family planning initiative. Garrett Hardin applied the Malthusian theory to economics and came up with the concept of the “tragedy of the commons,” a not-so-subtle defence of capitalism and privatization with an ecological veneer.
Overpopulation has become an issue of choice for many elite. Several “think tanks” have been formed in recent decades, including the Optimum Population Trust in the United Kingdom, which offer top-down “solutions” to overpopulation. Recently Bill Gates convened a small group of the ultra-wealthy to discuss their ideas for “solutions.” Though Green Anarchists do not usually deny that human overpopulation is a concern, we are explicit in our rejection of the authoritarian measures decided upon by the global ruling classes, usually most affecting the poorest and most exploited in Third World nations. Real, sustainable tactics to addressing this problem must come from educating women in their family planning options. In those instances where women are aware of the birth control options available to them, birth rate decreases dramatically. Other tactics, currently less thought out, would involve delegitimizing ideologies that promote unsustainable human population growth such as religions (especially Catholicism, Mormonism and Islam), nationalism and racism. Further, entrenched interests in many overdeveloped nations often use the spectre of rising population as justification for authoritarian anti-immigration efforts. Attempting to limit immigration to various nation-states neither addresses the problem, nor treats already living humans with dignity. Further, as anarchists we explicitly reject the State’s interfering in free human movement.
Unfortunately the first generation of Earth First!ers, most notably co-founder Dave Foreman, accepted many of these authoritarian “solutions” to the population issue. As the wilderness defence movement has developed, however, the influence of Green Anarchism has mitigated these xenophobic and misanthropic tendencies. James Lee has exhibited much in his manifesto in the way of misanthropy, referring frequently to babies as “filth,” and blaming immigrants for rising population in the United States. Needless to say the criticism applied to other eco-radicals by Green Anarchists applies also to Lee.
Green Anarchist Trajectories
James Lee’s actions were those of a deluded and hopeless soul. His plan was ill-conceived, though his target was deserving of the scorn he placed upon it. The capitalist media is a propaganda behemoth. The vast majority of television programming is decaying human minds throughout the world, and should be stopped by any means necessary. It would be wonderful if it could be replaced by edifying, intellectually stimulating programming, but this is a very unlikely occurrence in the near term.
Anarchism emphatically rejects reformism. Classical anarchism rejects the common notions that capitalism and the State can be reformed to be more humane and less oppressive. All efforts at reform have only made the oppression more subtle and sneaky, such as the illusion of choice offered by capitalism, whether in the form of competing products or hundreds of television channels. Green anarchism rejects the notion that civilization in its entirety can be gainfully reformed. Given civilization’s 6000+ year track record it is clear that it functions through intimidation, murder (whether mass wars or state murder, AKA “execution,” “capital punishment’), oppression of women and ethnic minorities, destruction of nature, homogenization of culture, psychological manipulation, and finally the industrial regimentation of all life.
The discussion of tactics in Green Anarchism has barely begun. Many favour tactics borrowed from Earth First!/ELF. Others have begun trying to mentally, spiritually and technically “rewild.” As the movement grows we will come up with a diversity of tactics for addressing the problem of civilization.
These tactics must, and will, be guided by the ever-evolving theoretical structure of Green Anarchism. A wealth of theoretical works are already present on the Internet and in local radical bookstores/infoshops. Two specific trajectories are already being explored and will doubtless be elaborated in the years to come. First, the Malthusian theory of population, already disreputable and highly theoretically suspect, appears ready to be replaced by better ideas about human population growth. Biological science has long accepted food supply as a major factor in the levels of animal populations, yet has almost never considered food supply in relation to human population. It appears as though the anthropocentric bias leading to such a blatant oversight is gradually being addressed. In other words, if current biology is correct, Malthusian population theory is exactly the reverse of how population really works. Thus the belief that increasing food supply will stave off starvation (as was done in the “Green Revolution” of the seventies) may actually compound future catastrophe.
The second trajectory, which will likely eclipse the first, is only beginning to take shape. Many anti-civilization thinkers, most famously Derrick Jensen, are beginning to question science itself. Heretofore most of those that oppose science have done so from a religious, and therefore uncritical, stance. As the unofficial ideology of the current globalizing civilization, science is often claimed to be the only legitimate method of knowledge. Yet, so much of the human experience does not fall under the objective, standardizable, repeatable conditions necessary for scientific enquiry. It is unclear at this early stage what critiques of science in the anti-civilization movement will look like, but they will certainly cause a bit of conceptual reorientation. Much of the ecological aspects of anti-civilization thought, concepts derived from ecological science, will need to be re-examined as these critiques develop.
Whatever the future holds, it is for us to decide. The 6000+ year crisis of civilization will ultimately be a blip in human and world history. What the Earth will be like for millions of years to come will depend, at least in part, on what we do now. Whether the future of life on this planet will be of regeneration or further decimation depends on whether we have a courage to end civilization once and for all.
An Autonomous Green Anarchist
2 September 2010