Chapter 8 (Part 2)

Chapter Eight – Real Activism (Part 2)

Who Are Our Leaders?

Bill McKibben wrote a book called The End of Nature. It was interesting, quite enlightening in places, then right at the very end he put out an appeal for civilization to be preserved at all costs. At least that’s what I remember him saying – I didn’t go back to the book again out of disgust. He also wrote a book called Hope: Human and Wild. There is a theme developing here, especially when I bring out the spectre of Bill’s biggest project to date, an organisation known as 350.org. We met them earlier. 350.org run campaigns based on symbolic action, and one of their most publicised has been Moving Planet, the website for which suggests 10 ways to plan some kind of completely legal (e.g. “Organize…Permits for your route”) symbolic event. Of particular interest amongst an almost wholly predictable list was this:

6. Invite your leaders

If you want to make sure your leaders hear your demands, make sure you invite them out to your event! It’s important to email an invitation, and call a few days later to follow up – do it early so their schedules haven’t filled up. A few ideas for engaging your leader as a part of your event are a) asking them to speak in front of the crowd about their plans on climate change (so they have to say what they are or aren’t doing publicly), or b) ask them to sign a pledge to take on your demands. This can work especially well for candidates who are seeking election who may promise things now that you can hold them accountable to later.1

This included a picture of people holding hands, presumably with their leaders. Now I don’t spot any irony here, not even any quotes around the word “leaders”, so I can only assume that McKibben and his 350.org crew are being completely genuine here, i.e. they, contrary to the obvious absurdity of the ideas, really think that (a) hierarchy in society is an acceptable thing and (b) the people at the top of this hierarchy actually give a stuff what ordinary people think, as opposed to the needs of the industrial economy.

There’s little point me going over old ground here – I have covered hierarchy at length in Chapter 6, and I would assume that you are already highly sceptical, if not outright damning, of any organisation, individual or concept that gives de facto hierarchy the time of day. One thing we haven’t covered, though, are the means by which the environmental and social movements that claim to speak for us and the rest of life are being manipulated to maintain the very same agenda as the industrial system at large. It all lies in the use of that word “leader”, and the idea that appealing to or even holding hands with the powers that be does anything but make the problem worse.


Conspiracy Theories

There doesn’t seem to be an obvious place to put this, but as this section is about our “leaders” and the problem has yet to be addressed, then this would seem to be the best time to talk about conspiracy theories. First, definitions: a conspiracy is something that has been arranged between two or more parties without the knowledge of any other party – it’s as simple as that. A conspiracy theory is thus anything that addresses a possible, as yet unproven, conspiracy. A conspiracy theorist is someone who specialises in conspiracy theories. All nice and simple so far. Now, a Conspiracy Theory (note the initial caps) is any conspiracy theory that is clearly bonkers; the capitals idea is mine, and it’s the only way I can distinguish between a valid conspiracy theory (“The government are recording everything we do on the Internet”, “Rail closures are the direct result of motor industry lobbying”) and a bonkers Conspiracy Theory (“My skin complaint is called Morgellons and comes from Chemtrails”, “Global Warming is just a way of getting us to buy more technology”). The vast majority of things I address in this book are neither; they are just facts, easily gleaned from research or logical analysis.

Conspiracy Theories are a big problem because, like most (other) messages put out to keep us living in a particular way, they stop us seeing what is really going on. Why would it matter which religion controls the world’s money markets if you knew that the world’s money markets exist to control you, regardless of who controlled them? Why would it matter whether President X was a reptile if you knew that, regardless of species, the US President was just a figurehead for the all-destructive industrial system? Some very clever people indeed have become addicted to Conspiracy Theories and, indeed, some people who talk about Conspiracy Theories also speak a lot of sense – watch any video by David Ike, for instance, and you will see quite a lot of sense, followed by a lot of lizards. These people could be excellent Underminers, as could the people they are influencing, so we have to do what we can to show up Conspiracy Theories as nonsense. Chapter 6 should be helpful as this is just another Veil of Ignorance in operation, so if you are game for an intense battle of minds then this could be one battle that results in a lot of freed minds, ready themselves to battle against an even bigger target.


There is no doubt that the vast majority of the supporters of large NGOs have little problem with corporations giving their favourite organisations money. We know this because, almost without exception, the mainstream NGOs proudly display lists of their sponsors – if they were worried about the presence of such names as BP, Cargill and Rio Tinto then they would not appear on the websites of these organisations. These people are not stupid.

So, we need to find something that will both hurt the public image of the NGOs and hurt their bottom line. Some NGOs, such as the Nature Conservancy and WWF are so heavily funded by corporations and corporate-funds that a drop-off in supporter giving will have little impact on their turnover so, in a sad way, the bigger the NGO the harder they are to hurt. But don’t be fooled into thinking that smaller NGOs should be left alone. Just because an organisation is relatively small doesn’t mean they are not influential, in fact some of the smallest groups that can be very effective in changing the behaviour of people on the ground are also some of most easily corrupted. The environmental movement is complex, but in terms of how it is organised, it can be broken largely into three types, which helps the undermining process greatly:

1) Small community / non-hierarchical organisations and groups almost entirely self funded and usually based around a single issue such as an unwanted development. These are not a valid target for undermining unless there is strong evidence that they are being influenced in some way to work contrary to our best interests.

2) Organisations that are largely supporter-funded, though often having ties to businesses and special interest groups. Sometimes they can be very large, such as Greenpeace, but are generally smaller than the third type. Their importance lies in their ability to influence grass-roots environmentalism including quite radical groups and individuals (an assumption is made that they can be “turned” mainstream with effort), and as such are a severe impediment to the success of genuine community-based groups. Also included in this are “astroturfs” that purport to be people-centric but are owned and fully-funded by corporate or political interests.

3) Organisations that are largely corporate and/or foundation funded, usually with close ties to special interest groups and governments. Their income often runs into the tens or even hundreds of millions of Dollars and they generally operate at a continental or global scale with considerable influence on the political agenda. Given that they are heavily influenced by vested interests, such as energy companies or biotech firms, they provide a useful channel for these vested interests to influence public policy on a grand scale – in effect acting as a laundry service for dirty ideas.

So, for this section, we need to break the targets up into two camps: first, the organisations that depend heavily on their supporters for funding and then the corporate-fed behemoths. One task will be assigned to each, although there is inevitably going to be cross-over between the two.

Task 4: Exposing Corporate Ties

Something like 10 years ago I joined an organisation which I thought would be able to make a real difference; the Woodland Trust had been, and certainly for a considerable time after I joined, have been true stalwarts in the essential job of protecting, managing and replanting the native woodland of the UK. Their work on climate related phenology has been second to none; they have been responsible for bringing doomed woodlands back from the brink of destruction, and have re-established woodlands where once they had been. They have involved thousands of children in educational and practical work…the list goes on.

Then, a couple of years ago, they started ramping up the process of attracting corporate sponsors. It’s not as though money was particularly tight – between 2001 and 2006 their total income steadily rose from just under £16 million to nearly £22 million, with no sign of any financial worries; but for whatever reason, perhaps because certain trustees deemed it “the right thing to do”, they started attempting to attract corporate funding in earnest. At the time of writing, the Woodland Trust has corporate partnerships with organisations as grossly inappropriate as Calor Gas, BP, Ronseal (Thompson), Tesco, Georgia Pacific and the UK Ministry of Defence. When Disney had a woodland named after them by the Woodland Trust my anger broke.

Remember what I said about personal motivation being a key factor in choosing what to undermine? Disney is one of those firms that encompasses everything that is bad about the industrial consumer society. They have a long and tarnished record of making partnerships with organisations to gain influence over the education and other activities of children, and they have plenty of their own irons in the fire: they own Hyperion Books for Children, ClubPenguin, an “education” company called Disney Educational Products, and an online parenting forum called Raising Kids! I felt I had no choice but to resign and write about it. I then went about seeing how far I could push the Woodland Trust. As a “responsible” NGO, did they have a limit as to what they would ignore if funding was at stake?

Posing as a major logging company with a poor environmental record, I made and recorded a phone call to the Corporate Partnerships team asking whether “we” could sponsor a large area of woodland with a substantial amount of money. The conversation was very positive, so I switched into confessional mode:

Me: I don’t want to beat about the bush here – no pun intended – we’re doing this because we want to appear to be a good company.

Woodland Trust: Yes.

Me: It is PR, I’ll have to be perfectly honest with you.

WT: Yes, yes. That’s fine, we’re set up for that. You want promotion, we have people that can help, so yeah. What can I do for you now? Can I send you some information or do you want to go away and discuss…

Me: We would go away and discuss this; we’re contacting a large number of charitable organisations in the environmental area as part of the portfolio. Some of them have been agreeable, some of them have been less agreeable, but it’s horses for courses really.

WT: Yes. Well, is there anything else that I can help with?2

I blethered on for a bit about locations and questions about the Woodland Trust, but essentially the confession was in the bag. Clearly they would stop at nothing to get the money. This recording went online, followed up with a letter to their Chief Executive. The next year (2010) their corporate funding both absolutely and as a percentage of total income went down for the first time.3 I suspect this is due to a change in policy, which is one outcome that is worth pursuing – after all, if an organisation has less corporate funding it is, and its supporters are less likely to be influenced by corporations and maybe even do some good.

The bigger game, though, is to hit hard those NGOs and Campaign Groups that are clearly practising nothing but symbolism and letting vested interests keep them that way. Earth Day is an event that has remained largely unchanged since its institutional founding in 1970, via the United Nations; it is little more than an observational period when we are supposed to think about what the planet means to us. Earth Day groups have sprung up all over the place as local focus points and it seems that the event is getting bigger all the time. This would be a good thing if Earth Day wasn’t such a mainstream and commercially polluted event.

That’s not to say it has to be. Earth Day could be something that genuinely connects people with what it means to be human. The Earth Day Network purports to be an umbrella group, but in reality is a large American NGO mainly focussed on delivering its own programmes based on “green economics” and other lies. Earth Day Groups, on the other hand, are very much at the grass roots of mainstream environmentalism and are far easier to take to task over their ties to the industrial and political systems. A quick tour of web sites shows a huge range of affiliations and sponsors ranging from small local businesses to major corporations, individual politicians to government offices and campaigns, local radio stations to media conglomerates – the contradictions are easy to spot, yet so long as there is support and money coming in it seems that almost anything is acceptable. To my mind that is immoral and should be undermined even if you don’t believe the group in question should be. The same applies to all sorts of other local campaign groups who take money from sources that run contrary to the apparent aims of their campaign. They are aiding and abetting the very active and entirely self-serving public relations efforts of whomever they are enlisting the support of. In this situation it is very easy to tar the group accepting the endorsement / money with the same brush as the supporter. Literally “tar” them if the supporter is involved in oil – no environmental group wants to be seen as reeking of pollutants in the public eye, even if in private they are happy to take money from the hand that harms.

And you could do that straight off if you are feeling totally pissed off with a particular group or network of groups. Alternatively you could gently advise the group(s) that their associations are not appropriate and you would very much like to see them change. If that doesn’t do the trick then you could give them fair warning that you are about to expose a particularly nasty practice of their supporter (or supporters) to a very wide audience. You don’t even have to be able to do this, the threat could be enough. In the first instance (“Nice” Underminer) you would probably be taking the view that the group has some promise as a force for good – maybe they are a community-based group that wants to reconnect people with their landbase – and so give them some positive support in addition to the helpful advice. In the second instance (“Nasty” Underminer) it will probably have gone beyond that stage; there is still the chance of showing them the error of their ways, but if they reject your advice in favour of funding from bad places, then you can take the Undermining route…that is, unless it is just one or two people taking the “any funding / support is good” line. That is an opportunity for selective pruning; and, yes, this will start to get personal and, yes, it might start to feel uncomfortable, but it can easily be justified if you feel the benefits of the group continuing outweigh the singling out of individuals for undermining. Just don’t get too personal; things have a habit of biting back if you aren’t careful.

If you simply want to go down the exposure route, or have exhausted all other avenues and have no other option, then you will already have read more than enough here to know what to do, which seems like a good point to move onto bigger fish – the ones that really give environmentalism a bad name.

Task 5: Hitting the Big Boys

When I say “Big Boys” (the gender is accurate in most cases) I am talking about the kinds of organisations that are indistinguishable from multinational corporations. In fact they are multinational corporations in some cases. The names might not slip off the tongue so easily because while these organisations often have a public face it is their work in the background, influencing government policy and advising the business world how to finesse their brutal activities, that is more significant. Among the organisations that have less than the best interests of humanity at heart are the aforementioned Earth Day Network along with WWF, Sierra Club, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Nature Conservancy, The Climate Group, Earthwatch Institute and, biggest of them all, Conservation International. So let’s take a quick look at how they behave, with an extract from Johann Hari’s brilliant 2010 exposé “The Wrong Kind of Green”:

Environmental groups used to be funded largely by their members and wealthy individual supporters. They had only one goal: to prevent environmental destruction. Their funds were small, but they played a crucial role in saving vast tracts of wilderness and in pushing into law strict rules forbidding air and water pollution. But Jay Hair – president of the National Wildlife Federation from 1981 to 1995 – was dissatisfied. He identified a huge new source of revenue: the worst polluters.

Hair found that the big oil and gas companies were happy to give money to conservation groups. Yes, they were destroying many of the world’s pristine places. Yes, by the late 1980s it had become clear that they were dramatically destabilizing the climate – the very basis of life itself. But for Hair, that didn’t make them the enemy; he said they sincerely wanted to right their wrongs and pay to preserve the environment. He began to suck millions from them, and in return his organization and others, like The Nature Conservancy (TNC), gave them awards for “environmental stewardship.”

Companies like Shell and British Petroleum (BP) were delighted. They saw it as valuable “reputation insurance”: every time they were criticized for their massive emissions of warming gases, or for being involved in the killing of dissidents who wanted oil funds to go to the local population, or an oil spill that had caused irreparable damage, they wheeled out their shiny green awards, purchased with “charitable” donations, to ward off the prospect of government regulation. At first, this behavior scandalized the environmental community. Hair was vehemently condemned as a sellout and a charlatan. But slowly, the other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups swelled – so they, too, started to take the checks.

Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work for Conservation International in 2006. She told me, “About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organization’s media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country…. But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organization, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren’t supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were ‘helping’ us, and that was it.”

She soon began to see – as she explains in her whistleblowing book Green Inc. – how this behavior has pervaded almost all the mainstream green organizations. They take money, and in turn they offer praise, even when the money comes from the companies causing environmental devastation. To take just one example, when it was revealed that many of IKEA’s dining room sets were made from trees ripped from endangered forests, the World Wildlife Fund leapt to the company’s defense, saying – wrongly – that IKEA “can never guarantee” this won’t happen. Is it a coincidence that WWF is a “marketing partner” with IKEA, and takes cash from the company?

Likewise, the Sierra Club was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox bleach, who said that if the Club endorsed their new range of “green” household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The Club’s Corporate Accountability Committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest – but took it anyway. Executive director Carl Pope defended the move in an e-mail to members, in which he claimed that the organization had carried out a serious analysis of the cleaners to see if they were “truly superior.” But it hadn’t. The Club’s Toxics Committee co-chair, Jessica Frohman, said, “We never approved the product line.” Beyond asking a few questions, the committee had done nothing to confirm that the product line was greener than its competitors’ or good for the environment in any way.

The green groups defend their behavior by saying they are improving the behavior of the corporations. But as these stories show, the pressure often flows the other way: the addiction to corporate cash has changed the green groups at their core. As MacDonald says, “Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.”

It has taken two decades for this corrupting relationship to become the norm among the big green organizations. Imagine this happening in any other sphere, and it becomes clear how surreal it is. It is as though Amnesty International’s human rights reports came sponsored by a coalition of the Burmese junta, Dick Cheney and Robert Mugabe. For environmental groups to take funding from the very people who are destroying the environment is preposterous – yet it is now taken for granted.4

Industrial Civilization needs a healthy economy to exist, and so do environmental NGOs – not just to provide a source of funding, but to ensure their corporate hierarchy and power base thrives. The Big Boys rely on it, and that makes them culpable. It makes them enemies of the very environment they pretend to care for. It is clear that without a “healthy” economy there can be no monolithic NGOs working the corporate and political world to grease their wheels; but all the while there is a globalised, industrial economy then these organisations will continue on their duplicitous, dangerous course, making ordinary people feel the world is in good hands. This must end.

When we talk about “Hitting the Big Boys”, we need to be working on a fairly grand scale, and there may be risks given how powerful the corporate interests are. You will not only be undermining major NGOs, you will also be undermining the credibility of the corporations that work with those organisations. It would be nice to single out one NGO (that term seems pretty incongruous but let’s stick with it) for an example but it’s sometimes better to imagine something with all of the main characteristics of all of them. We’ll try to use this concept for the following activities.

* * *

The powerful grip, both directly and by proxy, these groups have on public opinion allows us to do a bit of reverse psychology, similar to one of the Black Friday ideas. All of these groups to a greater or lesser extent encourage public participation – the amalgam we are using has a network of supporters across the world that are requested to lobby politicians or encourage companies to change their activities in a very polite and mainstream manner. You might have noticed that a number of activities described in this book go way beyond what most of the big NGOs are willing to do; but that doesn’t mean these actions cannot be carried out “on behalf of” such groups. We are talking about the kinds of things they would not condone themselves but would probably require the participation of large numbers of people, such as a mass locking of shopping malls or other facilities, the blocking of television or radio signals during advertising breaks, or sending provocative letters to hundreds of newspaper editors. The more closely the targets are to the NGO’s corporate friends the better. How does threatening a barricade of a few storage depots belonging to an oil company that works with the NGO “carrying out” the barricade sound?

If you can leave a relevant and obvious “signature” in the course of your action, such as branded stickers, headed paper or a digital image, then two advantages come into play: first, you are less likely to be found out (it won’t incriminate the organisation as there won’t be sufficient evidence, though they sure as hell deserve it!) and, second, it will force them to admit they would never do such a thing, thus undermining their own credentials as activists. The risk of this type of undermining depends on the action being carried out, but is really only limited by your own imagination.

Now, let’s consider a scathing, but accurate image:

When I redesigned the Conservation International logo I was looking to do something that fulfilled a number of criteria:

1. The redesigned logo had to make a simple, effective and easily understandable point to the extent that even the target could not question it.

2. There had to be enough truth contained such that it would be considered “fair use” under copyright law.

3. It had to look good – both professional and eye-catching (notice the falling monkey and half-sawn tree).

While pleased with the final result – produced, may I add, not with Photoshop but a much cheaper and less well-known software package – there was still the need to get it out into the public domain. And here’s the challenge: although I placed it on various web sites, including my own and (for a short while) Wikipedia, it has not become common currency. Conservation International is not yet known as Corporation International. I don’t have anything like all the answers, but I do know that such a logo – and there is no reason you shouldn’t design one yourself – would play a big part in undermining the Earth-friendly public image of a major NGO.

I mentioned Wikipedia just now, and that’s because there is little doubt that this online encyclopaedia has become the de facto source of generic knowledge over the last few years; to such an extent that its own integrity is very, very carefully protected. I’m not one of those people who generally looks at Wikipedia and thinks, “That’s completely wrong, it must be changed!” Part of the reason is that as a media form, wikis are supposed to be self-regulating, and the more people involved in the wiki – in general – the better the self-regulation. Ok, there are some wikis, like the infamous Conservapedia, that have such a bulk of prejudiced users that any attempt to correct information is doomed to failure (that said, it would be fun to try…) but in the main, a good wiki, like Wikipedia is going to end up about as balanced as it’s possible to be in the context of Industrial Civilization. You can’t really expect it to go against the tenets of the industrial system, but you can make it more objective. I like to call this “Wikicorrecting”.

As an example, I stumbled across an article (presumably) posted by an employee of either IBM or one of their PR firms. The article in question was promoting the virtues of IBM’s Green Computing, and was a blatant advert. Simply by marking the article with the appropriate “Speedy Deletion” tag – in this case {{db-promo}} – the article was deleted by an administrator, never to be seen again. One bit of greenwash consigned to the virtual dustbin. Of course, there is more to Undermining than just correcting obvious bias: what about exposing the real truth behind the corporate system? Yes, you can do it on Wikipedia, but you need to tread lightly:

It is easy for a person to vandalize Wikipedia. Since anyone can edit any page, the possibility is always there. The vandal might add profanity or inappropriate images to a page, might erase all the content of a page, etc.

However, there are tools that make it easy for the community to find and remove vandalism. There are also other tools available on Wikipedia to help corral users who are persistently destructive. For example:

• It is easy for anyone who sees vandalism to revert pages back to a pre-vandalism state.

• It is easy for any user to alert the rest of the Wikipedia community to vandalism that is in progress.

• It is possible for an admin to block or ban users (or IP addresses) who are persistently destructive.

• It is possible for an admin to protect a page temporarily to keep people from changing it.

• It is possible for an admin to delete an inappropriate page.

Tools like these make it easy for members of the community to quickly eliminate vandalism and prevent vandals from coming back.5

It’s no good just steaming in with a rant as, certainly in the case of higher-profile pages, the changes will be undone. Stick to the following rules and you should be alright:

1. Make sure the changes you make are evidence-based, referenced and written properly. Anything that suggests vandalism will be reverted. You have to justify inclusion of new information, and removal of someone else’s, so you might need to refer to “reinstating balance” or suchlike in your notes.

2. Make subtle textual changes that alter the meaning of entries, undermining any positive image the company or organisation may benefit from. Always mark changes as “This is a minor edit”, and explain it is for clarity. Avoid obvious trigger words like “pollution” or “destructive”, even if it sacrifices clarity. Subtle changes will always last longer.

3. Make changes to unwatched entries. From the point of view of an Underminer, the most useful Wikipedia page by far is “Most Watched Pages” (with “Pages with the Most Revisions” probably in second place6) as it indicates those entries you cannot “vandalise” (a.k.a. make more accurate) without comeback. Also, look for the last edit date: if it is more than a year ago then you should be able to get away with more nefarious changes, even blatant hacking without the change being reverted.

In all cases, you should make changes either anonymously (for minor edits) or under a disposable alias, as you don’t want to start getting a bad name for changing things – seriously the automated “bots” are very smart indeed.

Finally, and making an assumption that despite the Veil of Ignorance people would actually be pretty disgusted if they found out that a major “environmental” NGO was corrupt from top-to-toe, it’s time to go for the big corruption exposé. In March 2010, Christopher Booker, never a friend of the environmental mainstream – but, ironically, a friend of those who wish to undermine the environmental mainstream – reported in the Daily Telegraph on the amount of money WWF were likely to receive from the implementation of the REDD scheme. Essentially a scheme that on the surface would protect forests was actually going to be a cash cow for the savvy investor, and especially corporations that had no intention of actually reducing their emissions if they could buy “offsets”.

If the world’s largest, richest environmental campaigning group, the WWF – formerly the World Wildlife Fund – announced that it was playing a leading role in a scheme to preserve an area of the Amazon rainforest twice the size of Switzerland, many people might applaud, thinking this was just the kind of cause the WWF was set up to promote. Amazonia has long been near the top of the list of the world’s environmental concerns, not just because it includes easily the largest and most bio-diverse area of rainforest on the planet, but because its billions of trees contain the world’s largest land-based store of CO2 – so any serious threat to the forest can be portrayed as a major contributor to global warming.

If it then emerged, however, that a hidden agenda of the scheme to preserve this chunk of the forest was to allow the WWF and its partners to share the selling of carbon credits worth $60 billion, to enable firms in the industrial world to carry on emitting CO2 just as before, more than a few eyebrows might be raised. The idea is that credits representing the CO2 locked into this particular area of jungle – so remote that it is not under any threat – should be sold on the international market, allowing thousands of companies in the developed world to buy their way out of having to restrict their carbon emissions. The net effect would simply be to make the WWF and its partners much richer while making no contribution to lowering overall CO2 emissions.7

The attack on REDD was well underway before this, spearheaded by the campaigning group REDD-Monitor among others, but it is the big news stories that take something as fascinating as this from rumour and low-key exposure to widespread public awareness. The bad press has continued: despite the media reach of WWF and the United Nations Environment Programme (big supporters of REDD), the stories keep coming, with help from some outstanding journalism. REDD is now (as of early 2012) being reported as carbon offsetting in the form of owning the “non destruction rights” to a piece of land that – now get this – belongs to someone else. So REDD is not only a way of profiteering from something that should be done regardless (not destroying rainforests), but also something that is taking away the land rights of indigenous people in the name of “sustainability”.

At the time of writing, REDD is foundering on the dry land of exposure; after more than 3 years there is still no sign of it getting underway, dealing WWF a killer blow to their money-making plans. And, trust me, there are so many more examples of disgraceful, destructive corruption within the NGOs waiting to be revealed to a world very much sceptical of the motives of the environmental movement. It turns out that the very scepticism generated by the corporate media and the political mainstream may play a major part in undermining the mainstream environmental movement – and that will leave the way open for real change to take place.

What Activism Looks Like

This could easily be entitled, “What Change Looks Like”. If you have read up to here then you already have a fair idea of what change looks like in a broad sense, especially the scary stuff in Chapter 7, so how does this directly link to activism? It actually comes from a question posed by a representative of a mainstream environmental organisation, which I endeavoured to answer. It was October 2010, and a horribly self-congratulatory email came to me which made great capital of not much at all:

Dear Friends,

I don’t quite believe it.

I’ve been double-checking our numbers, and it’s beginning to look like we might shoot past the total of events from last year’s International Day of Climate Action. As I type this message, the counter is at 5203 events.

You might remember that there were 5248 events in 181 countries last year, and you can watch the compilation video from that day for a reminder of just how beautiful it was. And how massive it was: CNN said that it was “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” I was worried we couldn’t top that for the Global Work Party on 10/10/10–in part because “experts” kept saying people were too discouraged after the failure of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen.

But it’s looking like “experts” were wrong, and this movement is more energized than ever. When we see our leaders failing, we want to show them how it’s done…

Apart from being one of quite a few people who expected nothing from the Copenhagen talks (except politicians talking about how to make more money), I couldn’t work out what it was that the author didn’t quite believe. Nothing had been achieved. I wrote back:

Well, that’s nice xxx. And what has xxx achieved so far – and what is it likely to achieve? I’m talking real change not number of events, banners, signatures, petitions, participants…whatever – I’m talking real change.

Please enlighten me.

Keith

As is normally the case, I didn’t get a response from the author – they are usually far too important to be involved in something as trivial as answering questions that don’t get them big media coverage. I did get some response, though:

Keith,

What does real change look like to you?

Thanks.

Which I thought was a really good question. And it’s one I’ve already answered in the section on symbolic action. But that leaves the equally good question, “What does real activism look like to you?” Ok, I could just say that it looks like undermining, or point to the fact that real activism is simply that which leads to change, but there is more here – it is about how activism actually presents itself to the ordinary person. In other words, if someone wants to move from being an ineffective activist to an effective activist, how do they make that move? This is an important point because it’s not just a case of rehashing the arguments in Part One about what makes an Underminer. If someone is already what they consider to be an activist, and then realises they are not doing anything worthwhile, how can they be steered in the right direction without scaring them away?

Tricky. It’s all scary when you think about it.

Task 6: Holding Hands with Activists

Back in August 2009 I found myself a little confused, not for the first time admittedly. I had just come back from a wonderful direct action and environmental information camp in the English Lake District, replete with thoughts of constructive anarchy and a future that we have to make our own, and found the news full of London Climate Camp 2009 which was assembling at the scene of the 14th century Peasant’s Revolt, Blackheath in south-east London. Wat Tyler would have approved of the location, but I wondered if he would have approved of the motivation?

I spoke to a fair number of people at the direct action camp who were intending to go to London Climate Camp, most of whom I would consider to be anarchists8 and most of whom were pretty excited about going. This made me feel better about Climate Camp than I had in the past: they had no intention of watering down their ideas. But this was sorely tempered with the fact that many people who had attended Climate Camp the summer before were certainly not radical, and spoke at length about the need to engage politicians and work to help corporations become greener.

Various national radio stations featured interviews from Climate Camp attendees, one of whom called himself “Oscar” (actually it may well have been his real name). Oscar found himself in the apparently uncomfortable position of having to defend actions that would potentially affect people’s “legal right to work” (a presenter’s words, not his). Unfortunately, rather than take the magnificent opportunity to decry the entire industrial capitalist machinery that is progressively destroying every aspect of the global ecosystem in the pursuit of profit — and which most of the people who are “legally” working are playing a very active part in — he proceeded to apologise to those people who would be affected, and then stumbled into a description of why climate change is a serious issue.

It would be unfair of me to single out Oscar, after all he was probably one of many people put forward for interview, but his words were deeply resonant of the environmental mainstream, not any radical form of environmental activism. I don’t say this as an unqualified armchair observer: I have taken part in many actions on behalf of groups like Greenpeace, Campaign Against Climate Change and Friends of the Earth, and seen f-all result from them, even the ones that appeared to be fairly radical at the time.

I took it upon myself to get to Climate Camp and take a brief look around the site and also took one my daughters with me for the experience. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this all before – the stands, the leaflets, the video diaries, the endless lists of pre-arranged talks and workshops. There was certainly potential and some signs of more radical elements; but the overall sense was one of appeasing as many people as possible within, and without the camp. I left with two feelings in my head (my daughter left with some leaflets), which at the time just applied to London Climate Camp, but have subsequently turned out to apply to many other gatherings, including the burgeoning Occupy Movement and its many camps which started to spring up in 2011.

It seems that at best, they are places for people to meet, discuss the things that are upsetting and angering them and, for a good few of them, become radicalised against Industrial Civilization, understanding that nothing in the industrial system should be trusted nor accepted as a way forwards.

At worst, though, they reinforce the mainstream belief that it is possible to create change through existing means — political lobbying and campaigning, symbolic direct action (such as banner drops and office invasions) and so on — and so ensure that those people who might have become radicalised remain deeply entrenched in a “softly softly” mindset.

The Occupy camps and other such events that are on the edges of the mainstream have a much looser set of aims than more conventional activist gatherings, if they have any firm aims at all. Partly due to this they also have potentially a far wider scope for action. How such gatherings pan out is down to a complex mix of goals, the people involved and the environment in which they operate. There is also another factor, and that is whether someone is prepared to guide such events in a more radical, yet completely rational direction. In many ways these gatherings are crucibles for change9: it just requires the right catalyst to start that change off. I have no doubt that some of the people attending these kinds of gatherings will already be radicals and anarchists, and they may help guide more mainstream activists towards actions that are more effective in undermining the industrial system, but we have to be careful with this assumption – there is a big gap between those who are ready and willing to create change, and those who are ready to listen (we have to disregard those who are not even ready to listen). Holding hands is a good analogy for the approach needed.

Going right back to Chapter 1 and the article I quoted by Paul Joseph Watson is instructive, as he sees anti-civilization ideas as terrorism, as do most politicians and corporate leaders. From experience I have found a great many environmental and social activists to have the same feelings, or at least feel such ideas to be unworkable or unnecessary. What needs to happen in order to (a) build up the number of potential Underminers and (b) help undermine the mainstream mindset, is to create a situation where people decide Industrial Civilization is a bad thing on their own terms. By that I am referring to a very important persuasive device – remember when you were younger (or maybe this still happens to you) and someone older than you, say a parent, told you how to do something better than the way you were doing it. As a young, rebellious cove, I bet you would have objected to this – told them where to get off, maybe, or at least to let you do things your own way. Then, later on, maybe after a day or two, you needed to do the same thing and, lo! and behold, you did it the way you had been told to, thinking – and here’s the key – it was your own idea.

Can the idea of Industrial Civilization being a terrible thing take this course?

Yes, because you are not trying to brainwash anyone – that is hard, and immoral. Neither are you planting unwanted ideas in peoples’ heads Inception-style, though that would be a cracking skill to have. Instead, we are simply creating a logical conclusion, leaving no doubt in the recipient’s mind that what they previously believed was wrong, and what they now believe is obviously true, to the extent that it is their own belief. If it means buying a few cups of coffee, doing an extra round of dishwashing, helping erect the odd banner even if it might go a bit against your symbolic antipathy; all these things can bring people round to thinking that maybe you, with your undermining ideas, aren’t some kind of freak after all. Maybe buying cups of coffee might be disingenuous, but it’s not the same as getting them drunk or doping them – this is about acts of kindness that, even if not entirely altruistic, are being done for the right reasons. So get involved, be a friend, and show people who have potential how they can go a little bit further in the right direction and why it makes perfect sense to. If you have to then give this chapter to them, and by the time they get to this point they might well want to do the same thing to someone else.

Doing The Right Thing: An Example

Tar sands are a very bad thing. For anyone who doesn’t know what tar sands are, take a look at some aerial shots of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Go north a little, to a place called Tar Island, and zoom in. These are small. The potential for tar sands exploitation is vast, and will rapidly turn from potential into reality as the thirst for oil increases while the availability of “conventional” oil keeps reducing. Tar sands destroy habitats, pollute groundwater, use up nearly as much energy as they generate, and are a source of immense pride for the democratically elected Canadian government. Ker-ching! as they like to say wherever exploitation is justified on the basis of keeping the economy afloat.

The Underminer inside you already has nearly enough information to work out what may destabilise and possibly ruin the tar sands industry. Mainstream activists have their own ideas:

(Ottawa) – On September 26, hundreds of people from across North America gathered on Parliament Hill for a rally followed by a mass civil disobedience sit-in. Participants responded to a call to action for a large peaceful protest where many risked arrest to tell the Harper government they don’t support his reckless agenda and urge him to turn away from the tar sands and build a green energy future that promotes climate justice, respects Indigenous rights and prioritizes the health of our environment and communities.

“It is morally justifiable to risk arrest if you see and witness a crime occurring or about to occur. We are saying the tar sands industry is unlawful. We need to stop it before the damage is done. It’s worth getting arrested to send that warning out to the rest of Canada,” said Louisette Lante, a housewife from Waterloo.

More than 200 people risked arrest on Parliament Hill in the largest climate-related civil disobedience action in Canadian history…The action (sic) began at 10 a.m. with a solidarity rally in front of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill featuring a number of speeches from prominent individuals from environmental organizations and Indigenous communities directly impacted by the tar sands. Following the speeches, waves of participants separated from the solidarity rally and chose to risk arrest by participating in a peaceful sit-in near the front doors to Centre Block.10

This is not an isolated example; it is completely typical of what is trumped as “civil disobedience”, in other words civilized people doing what they consider to be challenging things in the name of what they consider to be right. The obvious problem here is the mindset: it is civilized, and therefore cannot tolerate anything that undermines civilization (the invitation includes the phrase “Tar sands mining… send[s] us in the exact opposite direction that we, as a civilization, must go to ensure global survival.”) Not only is such an approach a complete waste of time, it is a dangerous distraction for those who actually want to do something significant.

What were you thinking before the words “Mainstream activists have their own ideas”?

Exactly. Go to the root of the problem. Tar sands provides an interesting conundrum in that as oil becomes less available and the price of it goes up then the viability of expensively extracted and processed sand oil, and other “unconventional” types, improves. But it’s not really a hard puzzle. If the global appetite for oil is reduced by changing peoples’ consumption habits then oil prices go down and tar sands become unworkable, because there isn’t the need to invest heavily in alternative sources. If the global economy collapses then the same thing, essentially, happens, except in a more dramatic way. So we have two routes for killing off the tar sands industry.

However, the former isn’t going to happen without the global economy collapsing or at least dramatically contracting. The only way, as we have seen, for such a vast empire as the oil industry to be harmed is for there to simply be less money to spend. Civilization is not, to paraphrase Derrick Jensen, going to undergo a spontaneous change in favour of survival – it is hell-bent on its current suicidal trajectory. The system that allows and encourages oil products to be purchased on a massive scale, and thus permits its extraction and processing into those products thrives on a “healthy” economy. In short, the only way to kill off the tar sands industry is to cut off its money supply.

So what practical routes are there for stopping the money supply? Well, just as one barricade cannot close more than the shopping mall it is barricading, one hiatus in money supply can only stop tar sands being extracted or processed where that particular bit of money is needed. There are all sorts of industrial workarounds possible if the money is only stopped in one place: so if, for instance, a supplier of mining equipment is shut down, then another supplier will be sought out. That’s just a mirror of how capitalism works. If, however, there was something that a particularly key oil sands producer could only get from one place, and that thing was critical to the beginning or long-term continuation of an operation, then this would be a reasonable target for activism.

Reality check: very few such targets exist.

Maybe if the industry targeted were dependent on rare minerals such as tantalum (mobile communications devices) or neodymium (high powered generator magnets) then a massive spike in the price of these minerals, perhaps from a failure of supply, could be beneficial – thus creating, in effect, a shortage of money for the dependent industry. But this doesn’t seem to apply to tar sands, so again we are left with racking our brains to find a practical thing to apply our efforts to…at least from the point of view of a conventional activist.

The fact is the tar sands industry will continue to be a reality all the time there is money available that can be used to exploit the tar sands. Demand will continue all the time oil is used on an industrial scale and it won’t stop until there is no way of generating that demand. Furthermore, if you want to stop the tar sands in isolation, and you still consider yourself a citizen of an industrial nation then you are effectively condoning that oil coming from somewhere else: the Peruvian Amazon perhaps? What about the newly available Arctic sea bed? Maybe the pristine Antarctic ice shelf?

Let’s face it, if you want to stop the tar sands then you had better get off oil altogether.

Building Real Movement

How do you build a movement that can create real change – a movement of Underminers? The first rule has to be that you cannot build a movement at all. Movements have to happen as and when they are needed. There are very good reasons for this, many of which have already been covered in the essay by Anonymous in Chapter 5. In essence, if something is worth doing and people are ready to do it then it will be done. Conversely, if something does not have enough credibility, or it does not have sufficient resources to make it happen then it will not be done. This reflects the idea of the “hive mind” – that of a collective activity that happens not because people were persuaded to do so, but because it was what people were already thinking. Removing the Veil of Ignorance is fundamental to allowing this experience to occur.

Another good reason for successful movements not being intentional is that, although this might imply nothing more than a high degree of planning, it actually also implies many of the things that ensure failure: aims that are too rigid to adapt to changing situations; a predetermined hierarchy with the “founder members” given more power; an unwillingness to drop something and start all over again; a tendency towards growth and even empire-building by taking over other groups / movements. That is not to say that all movements that are not “organic” (for want of a better term) are bound to fail, but they can almost without exception be described as mainstream. We see this most vividly in the example of Greenpeace, which began as a radical, effective, and spontaneous happening, and then turned into a top-down, inflexible organisation that only works when its members decide to thrown away the in-house rule book.11

The second rule of “building” a movement is related to scale. No successful movement has ever operated on a global scale, at least if you judge success as having caused a fundamental change. The “Arab Spring” uprisings mentioned earlier are usually portrayed as being the result of a large-scale movement desirous of political change across North Africa and the Middle East. In reality, setting aside the possibility of Western initiation, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were local events that were inspired by other events, but very much in their own make-up. This localisation effect can be observed throughout the history of popular uprising and social change in the context of, for instance, the Luddites in Victorian Britain, the racial equality movements in 1960s USA, and the anti-slavery / abolitionist movements spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. Notably, none of these movements can be said to have been completely successful in any sense of the word for industrial oppression, racial inequality and
capital slavery are all very much part of civilized life in the 21st century; however, without local, usually spontaneous disruption that antagonised and undermined the systems being fought against, then change would have stopped before it started.

Al-Qaeda is not an “international terrorist network”, as described by countless mainstream media organisations and government-sanctioned reports. If al-Qaeda is anything then it is a series of activities based upon an ideology. The success of al-Qaeda, if it is possible to judge success given that we may never know what the precise aims are, is predicated on its lack of formal structure: in a way it is irrelevant that any such thing as al-Qaeda exists or not, for it is the mindset adopted by innumerable cells and individuals, likely inspired by actions carried out by other cells and individuals, that defines al-Qaeda above all else. Yet, most likely because governments have to impose a sense of fear upon civilized people to maintain power, we have retained the idea of al-Qaeda as a global organisation to be feared, and countered using vast amounts of expensive technology and the lives of those who feel they are fighting for freedom. Regardless of what you may feel about the actions carried out by, on behalf of or perhaps in order to counter positive views of it, as a movement, al-Qaeda both succeeds and fails. Its successes12 are because it doesn’t operate as a global network, rather as a disparate scattering of people working for a single, if many pronged purpose. Its failures are because it is seen as a global operation with a small number of powerful leaders, through which falsehood governments are able to restrict the freedoms of people even more than if such an impression did not exist.

So, with all that in mind, let’s build a movement from scratch.

Task 7: A New Movement

Just let it happen.


CLICK FOR CHAPTER 9 (PART 1)



References:

1 “How to plan your event”, http://moving-planet.org/plan (accessed January 2012).
2 You can hear the entire phone call at http://www.archive.org/details/WoodlandTrustAcceptDubiousCorporateSponsorship.
3 “Woodland Trust Report and Accounts 2010”, http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/statutory-accounts-2010.pdf (accessed January 2012).
4 Johann Hari, “The Wrong Kind of Green”, The Nation, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/article/wrong-kind-green (accessed January 2012).
5 “Vandalism and Edit Wars”, How Stuff Works, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/wiki3.htm (accessed January 2012).
6 Respectively at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Database_reports/Most-watched_pages and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Database_reports/Pages_with_the_most_revisions.
7 Christopher Booker, “WWF hopes to find $60 billion growing on trees”, Daily Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/7488629/WWF-hopes-to-find-60-billion-growing-on-trees.html (accessed January 2012).
8 “Anarchist” simply means “one who has no leaders”: any other definition must be taken with a big pinch of salt. There are lots of different anarchist sub-groups but any group that does not embrace the idea of there not being a de facto leadership structure cannot be regarded as anarchist, however fashionable it may be to use the term.
9 Much like the fashionable coffee houses of nineteenth century London, and almost certainly the back rooms of pubs now. Revolution can be fomented in all sorts of places.
10 “Hundreds gathered on Parliament Hill to say ‘No to Tar Sands’”, http://www.ottawaaction.ca/join-us%20/ (accessed February 2012).
11 Which is almost never, and which Greenpeace Inc., or whatever formal title a national group goes by, immediately disowns even – and maybe because – it is successful in a non-symbolic way.
12 Just because you don’t agree with something, or that something may directly impact upon you, does not mean it cannot be a success for someone else. One person’s “act of terrorism” is another person’s “victory for freedom”. I use the term “success” very much in that sense.


Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012

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