Chapter Three – Who Are The Underminers?
Some people take great strides in their lives, always looking forward to the challenges ahead; some people look down and discover they are treading on nothing but illusions. This is a chapter about both of these kinds of people. The first kind are those we are taught we should aspire to be: the kind that want to excel at school, eagerly take career guidance and strive to gather whatever qualifications are necessary to ease themselves into a job; the kind that take their work home, if not in their hands, in their heads, and for whom life follows a career path; the kind that retire when they are told to. The Veil of Ignorance is working overtime to keep these people from looking down.
The second kind are those we are never told to be: the kind that might stand up in a classroom then stop halfway through their prepared speech, distracted by an internal twitch; the kind that abandon a railway journey halfway to work, then stand on the rain-washed platform in shock; the kind that see the future as a gift, and the past as a series of lessons.
Which kind of person you are might not be clear even to yourself, although if you did think, “What’s the big deal?” in response to reading about the Tools of Disconnection then – and I’m sorry to have to break it to you this way – you may not be ready for what is to come. But all is not lost, because inside every single one of us is an Underminer; a free human being fighting to return their kin and their community to a connected state once more.
Read on and you may find undermining is something you are ready for, without having even realised it.
Undermining in Context
I want to spend a few moments discussing how undermining fits into the bigger picture of retaining a properly functioning global ecosystem, and thus helping to ensure the human species endures for the foreseeable future. The first thing to say is, as I believe I have made clear, the continuation of the human race is incompatible with Industrial Civilization remaining on the Earth. For sure there may be the odd civilization popping up here and there, but even the Roman Empire was little threat to the global ecosystem – whereas Industrial Civilization is taking the ecosystem down, and taking humanity with it.
Second, it’s important to understand that civilization itself is not going to be hanging around for a great deal longer, regardless of how much we go about freeing peoples’ minds so they might assist with the dismantling process. Peak Oil isn’t just around the corner, it is back there in the tail-lights, and we’re driving over the cliff. As it becomes more difficult to maintain supplies of cheap and plentiful fossil energy the engine of industry will start to sputter; before long entire chains of infrastructure will conk out. Before that even, the industrial food system will become something of an anachronism – it will no longer be possible to produce food on an epic industrial scale; and the food that is produced will price most people out of the market. Cities that rely on the importation of energy and food will feel like besieged monoliths of a burnt-out age. The suburbs will have to become immobile food producers or its inhabitants will starve. The systems of global finance, mass communications, travel and even political power will operate along narrower and narrower pathways until the traffic, and the reach of that power, becomes little more than a symbolic activity.
All of that will happen: but we will go down with it, because we will still be devoted to the industrial system we so depend upon for everything we currently hold dear. We will not let this culture go, and we will die to defend it…literally.
Alternatively, we could undermine the Tools of Disconnection, and let the empty shell of Industrial Civilization collapse under the weight of its own failed infrastructure. The illustration below gives one example of how this process could work, albeit in a simplified way.
The three large boxes are only representations of different aspects of creating a viable future: as Derrick Jensen has said on countless occasions with reference to the work of activists, carers, artists, thinkers, writers, home-makers, community builders and everyone else in the milieu of a functioning society, “We need it all.” But for the purposes of building some kind of guiding model for undermining, the three boxes will do.
This is where things have to start. We cannot assume there is any momentum for real change, and I think that is a fair assumption based on the previous chapters and the complete lack of genuine progress towards a de-industrialised, non-destructive future made since the beginning of the modern environmental movement. So, to highlight the obvious major task, Undermining is the key in enabling the change to take place, and that is predominantly what this book is about. Fitting around, and complementing the undermining process are three things that have to happen, regardless of any undermining that is taking place.
Educating with Real Knowledge is about taking charge of how knowledge is used in society, and what knowledge is considered relevant moving forwards. I outlined some of these key things, or skills, in the final chapter of Time’s Up! The emphasis on the practical application of this knowledge cannot be made strongly enough. Authors such as Ran Prieur and Sharon Astyk take this to levels I will not attempt to duplicate here.
Building Communities is both a practical and a psychological process. There are elements of community building in many of the chapters later in this book, as strengthening community is undoubtedly one of the key ways the industrial system can be undermined, as well as reducing the physical damage to the natural environment. I strongly recommend the works of Alastair McIntosh as primers in this area.
Propagating the Message is the effective communication of the information necessary to start off and maintain momentum in effecting change. Whatever medium is used – but, as we have seen, some media are less subject to interference than others – we have to remain “on message”, as hackneyed and overused a phrase this may be. Change the message too much and the impact of any work carried out so far could be fatally wounded, even if these changes may seem to be well-meaning and accommodating at the time.
Personal Impact Reduction
This aspect of the model contains six things that taken together can change both the physical impact of an individual (and, by extension, the family and the community in which that individual lives) and the psychological make-up of everyone who makes a serious effort to perform such changes. The six items are not exhaustive in any sense, but represent the kinds of changes we will all have to make – at least in the short and medium term – in order to take the pressure off the already damaged ecosystem and, as we will see later, clog up the wheels of the industrial machine. As the large arrow indicates, such change cannot happen on a significant scale without the Enabling process above. Again, I have written about this at length in my first book1, but in just six sentences:
Find better ways to Use Things: Reduce, repair, reuse, in that order, with the emphasis being on the absolute reduction of the number, volume and complexity of the things you are looking to acquire.
Find better ways to Travel: Transport is a major contributor to environmental degradation and the break-up of communities so, following up on the three-Rs, reduce the distance and the frequency of all journeys, along with the energy intensity of the methods used to travel.
Find better ways to Eat: Not wanting to simplify this complex issue too much, employ a combination of reducing the trophic level of what you eat (stay low on the food chain), reducing dependence on the industrial agricultural and food processing system, and using food production methods close to those in nature.
Find better ways to Live at Home: Your home is also a major cause of environmental degradation both directly (energy and land use) and indirectly (construction materials) so both of these areas need to be tackled, but without simply transferring the impact from direct to indirect, e.g. using a solar panel to produce the same amount of electricity as always.
Find better ways to Work: This will be addressed at length later on, but as a starter, consider that working in the industrial machine makes you a party to both disconnection and perpetuating the power of the system.
Have Fewer Children: Or, more specifically, have fewer high-consumption children; the impact of population is a combination of absolute numbers and the way those children, and subsequently adults, live. This may not be as critical a factor in the longer term.
Aside from the direct effects of carrying through these changes, there is also the small matter of preparing for what is to come later; as Carolyn Baker writes in Sacred Demise:
In my opinion, collapse will become psychologically intolerable for those who have no inkling of it, who are emotionally tethered to possessions, status, careers, and lifestyles that provide identity and security.
By refusing to follow the strictures of the industrial world in terms of consumption, travel, lifestyle, career etc., you are already on your way to coping better with whatever is likely to happen in the future.
Weakening Industrial Civilization
Both of the previous areas feed into the weakening of the industrial system, and thus the creation of a longer term positive outcome for humanity and the wider global environment. The four items in this area are fairly loose, but their positions in the box (upper and lower halves) reflect the more likely knock-on effects of, respectively, Enabling Change and Personal Impact Reduction. There is a feedback loop in effect here, although for simplicity I have not included it on the diagram. With Industrial Civilization being weakened, the impact of Enabling Change becomes more pronounced, and thus the amount of Personal Impact Reduction can be increased, both leading to a further more rapid weakening of Industrial Civilization. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of undermining as a method of creating radical change should consider this carefully.
This is a powerful feedback effect; one that has the potential to kick in very rapidly indeed.
At this point you might begin to feel a little wary of taking part in the undermining process: after all, how comfortable do you feel committing to something that spells the end of the way of life you have not only become accustomed to, but dependent upon? So here’s the conundrum: you can have a few decades of pretending everything is going to be fine, trying to ignore the destruction being wrought on the planet and the people that fuel the industrial system, and living in a way that feels comfortable to you; or you can accept that things are going to change anyway, but the sooner the system is dismantled, the better the chances of a long-term future for the human race. Just to add to this, the rate and impact of change is controllable to a certain extent because as the industrial system becomes weaker, and the aforementioned Peak Oil (and peaks in other energy sources such as natural gas, coal, uranium and – tragically – large rivers) kicks in, globalization will become a thing of the past. Industrial Civilization won’t so much contract as break into discrete parts, some more self-sufficient than others, but all weakened to such an extent that reassembly cannot possibly take place. Thus, your efforts in undermining the system will resolve down to the part of the system you exist within – or, if you are smart, just keeping a watchful eye on and a helping hand in, while edging further and further away from it.
I can’t find a better person to describe this situation than Tim Bennett, writer and director of what I consider to be the most important movie ever made:
We can wait for the train to crash on its own and hope that it doesn’t kill us, and everything else. But with the children grown, perhaps we can come together and decide to dismantle, joyfully and with conscious intent, the rusty and dangerous old swing-set of a culture that no longer serves us.
This may seem an impossible task. But if the alternative is extinction, then we have nothing to lose.
We humans once knew how to live on this planet. A few still do. And that’s the good news. It can be done. We can do way, way better than Empire.
I do not know if I will survive the crash of industrial civilization or the impacts of the climate change that that civilization has unleashed. I do know this: I have a choice about how I meet it. I have a choice. We have a choice.
I can meet it with a burger in my hand, a French fry in my mouth, and a cold drink spilling onto my jeans. Or I can meet it with consciousness, integrity, and the sense of purpose that is my birthright. I can meet it on the far side of initiation, a mature and related member of the community of life, standing tall, doing my best to protect and serve this Earth that I love.
This is the course I’ve chosen.2
The Mainstream Is Dead, Long Live The Mainstream
We need a cure for cancer: it’s your job to find it. What will you do?
Convention would suggest a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and excision to be the best course of action, depending on the nature and progress of the disease. This costs money, so you campaign for more funding to provide medicines, machines and reduced surgical waiting lists. The treatment often works, but the cancers keep coming.
So what of the cure?
You need to ensure money is put into research for better treatments, and the possibility of a vaccine against virus-borne cancers; you also want to provide extensive information about how to avoid carcinogens and reduce your chances of developing cancer, through lifestyle changes. But the cancers keep coming. Think out of the box! You start looking beyond the comfort zone that most cancer charities confine themselves to: you find evidence that the cause of many cancers is in the air, the water and the soil – carcinogens expelled by industrial processes responsible for the production and disposal of the goods and services the same people suffering from the cancers avidly consume. You work to close down the worst of the factories, plants, incinerators and industrial farms. Victory in the courts! New rules are drawn up; the worst offenders are told to change.
But what of the cure?
What of the cure? Surely your job is done – others continue the fight, but you have done well to drill down to the heart of the problem; further than the mainstream campaigners ever thought of going. Did anyone consider shutting down the reason for these toxic processes ever existing in the first place?
Civilization has rampant cancer; cases are increasing even as death rates reduce – the sense is of a battle that has no end or, as The Onion put it so drolly: “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent”3. Well, of course people will die, but in the case of cancers the solution is so blindingly obvious that only a fool would deny the cure4. The problem is that there are an awful lot of fools around, some of whom we call our allies; some of whom we have learnt to implicitly trust; some of whom are even called “radical”.
For a few years, between my personal environmental enlightenment5 and the moment it became clear that the whole of civilization was the problem, I thoroughly enjoyed, and admired the work of a huge range of writers, professional journalists and bloggers. All but a very tiny number, including some of those many consider true radicals, are no longer on my reading list. Know your enemy by all means, however these people aren’t really the “enemy” as such; they are essentially in a region of environmental thought that should be considered as mainstream. The vast majority are by no means malicious, and very many of them genuinely want to make a positive difference – but in hindsight it should have been obvious all along that these people were never going to create change. They were, and are, stuck in a paradigm that considers any answer lying outside of the civilized world as at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.
Here is a quotation from an otherwise excellent book about the industry of climate change denial that illustrates this point perfectly:
The people who want to continue burning coal, selling oil, and mining tar sands have been equally effective. They have told us that their resources are the only ones that will run our economies affordably, and they have ridiculed environmentalists as agenda-driven loonies – “chicken littles” who scream nervously about a sky that is getting oppressively heavy. Sometimes, the most aggressive people in environmental organizations have contributed to that image. Sometimes in moments of frustration or desperation, they have chained themselves to trees or smashed their ships into whaling vessels, adding to the image of environmentalists as inherently radical.
That tide is turning. Go to any event featuring Al Gore or David Suzuki today and you will see a crowd much bigger and much less apologetic than what you might have seen ten years ago. There is a gathering community of leaders – people like General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Virgin brand owner Sir Richard Branson, and Interface Global CEO Ray Anderson – who have come to understand the problem and who are refusing to let the lie linger longer.
But they need your help.6
Too right they do! Without your support of these people then others might see through the lies and rhetoric that make up the continuing case for Industrial Civilization in whatever shade of green they wish to paint over it today. I need to justify my cynicism here because even though we are well into the third chapter it would be unfair to assume you see things in the same way, so I am going to perform a sort of exegesis of the above passage to give you an idea of why it is so very, very wrong.
“the only ones that will run our economies affordably”
This statement frames the mindset from which the author is writing. Framing is vital to understand if you are reading anything that claims to argue a case for “action”, for it defines the boundaries outside which the argument will not go, regardless of the genuine merits of anything lying outside of these boundaries. Mirroring “The Big Lie” from Chapter 2, we see the presumption that we have a vital economy and we have to keep it running, efficiently if we can. From this point alone we have to take everything that follows with a bucket of salt.
“the most aggressive people in environmental organizations”
Now he plays the “aggression” card, asking the reader to take his side on what is acceptable and what is not. The phrase that immediately follows this divisive statement is always going to be coloured with negativity.
“Sometimes in moments of frustration or desperation, they have chained themselves to trees or smashed their ships into whaling vessels, adding to the image of environmentalists as inherently radical.”
This is a richly revealing sentence. First is the implication that anyone who chains themselves to trees or has “smashed” their ships into whaling vessels has reached a state of frustration, even desperation. Perish the thought that such actions are premeditated and planned in such a way as to be far more effective than any symbolic action. Second is the distaste with which the author views any environmentalist who is doing something that is radical. We can’t have radical environmentalists, can we?
“Go to any event featuring Al Gore or David Suzuki”
I said I wouldn’t mention him again, so moving onto David Suzuki, it is useful to note he is a good friend of the author, and happens to receive funding for his Foundation from Hoggan and Associates, the author’s company. This might not be a problem if David Suzuki does not positively align himself with the types of businesses and their “solutions” mentioned in the next sentence, but he does.
“There is a gathering community of leaders – people like General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Virgin brand owner Sir Richard Branson, and Interface Global CEO Ray Anderson – who have come to understand the problem and who are refusing to let the lie linger longer.”
Now we reach the foot of the ethical slope. The author has decried the radicals, praised the mainstream environmentalists, and now positively licks the feet of the heads of industry: people he refers to as “leaders”. These are people we must look up to, our business leaders; just like the political “leaders” mentioned later on in the book who we must demand action of. Pay no heed to the destructive profit motive that defines every single corporation that has ever existed, and thus drives every person who sits atop these establishments: these people are models of good practice, dammit!
“they need your help.”
Now, I don’t want you to assume I’m pouring all my ire onto James Hoggan; for a start there is plenty more ire to go round, and he just happens to have written a best-seller that was deeply flawed and, in its own way, dangerous. What I can say about Mr Hoggan, though, is he is not an Underminer.
Leaving The Cave
A few years ago I operated in the same bubble that was filled with the people I looked up to – those authors, journalists and bloggers that seemed at the time to hold the answers to questions I hadn’t even worked out yet. They had the answers, so I thought they must also be asking all the right questions. But no one asked the question, “How can we rid the world of Industrial Civilization?” Had I seen that question in print then I might have thought of Timothy McVeigh, al-Qaeda or Shining Path: perpetrators of the seemingly unthinkable, and nothing I would dare associate myself with.
Now that question sounds perfectly rational; certainly not the kind of question that would be asked by someone who in the last years of his professional IT career had his finger, often literally, on the button and who could have taken down significant chunks of the global financial infrastructure with ease. Ridding the world of Industrial Civilization while also trying to make large financial data centres resilient isn’t exactly compatible, and chance took a welcome turn allowing me to extricate myself from this uncomfortable situation.
On sunny days in the last few months before we moved to southern Scotland I would walk the suburban streets of Essex and imagine how it felt for people inside the walls of the houses in the culs-de-sac, blissfully unaware of the loss to come; certain that happiness was a night in front of the television, a trip to the shopping mall, or a week on a package holiday. In a peculiar way I envy them; really envy them.
“I wish I didn’t know about any of this. I wish I was like everybody else in the world, and tomorrow it would just be over; there wouldn’t be any time to be sorry…”
(David Lightman, War Games)
But as an Underminer loss is something that has to be accepted – losses of the superficial, the mainstream Culture of Maximum Harm, and also a heap of things most of us (me included) would rather we could hang onto. It’s a bit like one of those moral conundrums that doesn’t have a right answer: do you push the fat guy off a bridge to save a group of Boy Scouts, or whoever was foolish enough to wander onto the railway line without looking out for the approaching express train, or do you let the Scouts get squished?
Go back a few pages and you can start to spot a pattern here. We can argue until we are blue in the face as to whether it is morally right to push the fat guy off the bridge and onto the handle that operates the points lever, in a particularly gruesome re-run of a Lemony Snicket puzzle, so the directionally-deficient Scout troop doesn’t get turned into bouillon with woggle croutons; but in the end the answer lies much lower down the decision tree.
Feel free to set up a fence or signpost the rail network into mercy; that’s the Health and Safety response, and it’s also the response of a world where no one learns any lessons except which lines not to cross and which orders to obey.
Shout to them! They might hear you in time, they might not.
Jump off the bridge yourself.
Everything’s so last minute isn’t it? In a way it has to be: the chaos isn’t coming any slower; the oil isn’t being put on hold until the next big idea; the methane bubbles from the melting permafrost aren’t taking a short holiday while we all think of a way of refreezing the tundra. But we can still be proactive here…and look down.
The psychology of the Underminer is something different from the way the “experts” tell us human beings should behave. The conventional models of human response are based on the civilized world and, yes, there are common strands in all cultures but, for instance, when a death occurs in a tribal culture that has, like all animals, accepted death as part of life then denial is not part of the equation. Neither is bargaining – for how can you bargain with the inevitable? When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross posited her model for bereavement, it was always going to a be a model for how the civilized human deals with death; it took no account of the way all humans deal with death, for not only are we all slightly different in our approach to everything – not just bereavement – we, as de facto civilized humans, are freaks. Homo Sapiens civilis never evolved. Civilized humans have been created in the image of the machine: we don’t behave as normal human beings any more.
To be an Underminer is to take back our innate humanity and stop grieving for the loss of what we have to lose. To be an Underminer is to celebrate what we can do, and what we have to gain from our actions.
Wildness springs from the freeing of our instincts and desires, from the spontaneous expression of our passions. Each of us has experienced the process of domestication, and this experience can give us the knowledge we need to undermine civilization and transform our lives. Our distrust of our own experience is probably what keeps us from rebelling as freely and actively as we’d like. We’re afraid of fucking up, we’re afraid of our own ignorance.
In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery?8
You cast off the chains, look into the light, walk to the mouth of the cave and RIP THE HEADS OFF THE FUCKING PUPPETS!
That feels good, doesn’t it?
You don’t have to jump off the bridge into the path of the train. Sure, there will always be martyrs – sometimes martyrdom is a deeply noble and selfless thing to do, and may be the only thing to do when the chips are down and the people and the world you love is at risk. But martyrs are also selfish. They are making a personal statement. The Underminer is quiet, nibbling away at the cables, making webs in the loft space, drilling holes at the base of the edifice while no one is looking; cutting off the signals, tangling up “progress”, weakening authority…and occasionally ripping the heads off puppets because it feels good.
We all need a release every so often.
CLICK FOR CHAPTER 4
1 To avoid accusations of self-promotion, I must emphasise that all of my writing is available free of charge online (see, for instance, www.amatterofscale.com and www.theearthblog.org); I just want to avoid repeating myself too much in this book.
2 Screenplay extract from “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” courtesy of T.S.Bennett, http://www.whatawaytogomovie.com.
3 The Onion, “World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent”, http://www.theonion.com/articles/world-death-rate-holding-steady-at-100-percent,1670/ (accessed February 2011).
4 A. Rosalie David & Michael R. Zimmerman, “Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?”, Nature Reviews Cancer 10, 728-733 (October 2010). Of this paper, the lead author states: “In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle… The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease. We can make very clear statements on the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of data.” (http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=6243 : accessed February 2011)
5 An apt term considering the Western Enlightenment period was both a concerted effort to unchain society from the strictures of the mediaeval church, and proclaim civilization as the philosophical and artistic saviour of humanity.
6 James Hoggan (with Richard Littlemore), “Climate Cover-Up. The Crusade to Deny Global Warming”, Greystone Books, 2009.
7 Feral Faun, “Feral Revolution” in John Zerzan (ed.), “Against Civilization”, Feral House, 2005.
Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012