Sunday, June 21, 2015

Deep Green Zombies Want Your Brains

If you watch zombie movies, you'd probably know that common scene where a character (often a main character) mistakes a zombie for a friend/family/rescuer and stands calmly next to them – until, too late, the undead is chewing on their brains and the hapless victim becomes undead too.

That's the thing about zombies. Superficially at least, they resemble humans in most respects.

Like zombies resemble humans, the politics of the group “Deep Green Resistance” resemble those of a radical green/left group in many ways. But I get the distinct impression that to find yourself alongside them in the green/left movement would be akin to standing next to a zombie. The following is a review of their manifesto, the book Deep Green Resistance (McBay, Keith & Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 2011). 

The group achieved some notoriety for adopting a series of anti-transgender policies from the “radical feminist” school that founder Lierre Keith espouses. Co-founder and co-author of the book, Aric McBay left the group and denounced their transphobic politics. Apparently another key member and central organiser also left over it.

But as bad as anti-trans bigotry is (and as glad as I am that McBay took a stand over it) there are other more central reasons why the DGR brand is rotten like zombies.

When the book came out I read reviews of it (see here and more positively, here) and thought it sounded like ultraleftists posing their own impatience as though it were a viable strategy. Indeed, that is probably good enough for a one-liner, but on (just now) reading the book (and with some more knowledge of the group's further trajectory), it is so much worse than impatience.


Proceeding from a litany of the horrific environmental disasters and damage that industrial capitalism is inflicting on us and the planet, the authors proceed to outline their aims, which are to “bring down civilisation”. No kidding, that's how they phrase it. And it's not a rhetorical flourish.

A lot of the book consists of explaining what they think is wrong with pretty much any other possible approach to the ecological crisis, sometimes in very hostile terms. But ending civilisation? As you get into it, Lierre Keith in her chapters talks about the need to reduce world population to a fraction of its current size so we can go back to some (only vaguely specified) stone-age society based on hunter-gatherer or horticultural practice that has us back as equal members of functioning ecological communities.

While Keith tries to paint population reduction in terms of voluntary birth control like one child per woman, which she says could see world population reduced to about a billion by 2110, she lets slip that it could happen much earlier – say, by 2050 – with extra mortality.

Extra mortality. Of course climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already causing extra mortality, but that's why most of us are acting to stop them, because we're opposed to suffering. For DGR's authors, it seems much more ambiguous whether they think this extra mortality is a good or bad thing.

But thinking about it some more, what does ending industrial civilisation mean? It means more mortality anyway. What do sufferers of asthma or diabetes do without industrial medicine? A lot more of them will die. Do you know anyone with a disease like that? Or someone with a serious physical disability? A pregnancy complication? What would ending industrial civilisation mean for them?

Back to year zero?

But DGR don't really care what you think anyway, because they think there's zero chance – yes, they say zero – of building a mass movement of people to save the planet in time to make a difference. So why worry about whether many people like your aims?

And they don't worry about that. They are clear that the aim is to build a current of people committed to radical (and, they strongly hint, various shades of violent) action to “bring down civilisation”.

I would like to point out that a radical revolution taking everyone back to pre-industrial farming practices has been tried before, at a national if not global scale. That was in Cambodia/Kampuchea, under the crazed cult of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. There was indeed extra mortality: it was genocide. Those who resisted, or merely disagreed, and many who went along (but couldn't be fed in their hare-brained “self sufficiency” scheme) died in numbers that stand out even against the imperial genocide of the US bombing campaign that came before.

Forced labour under the Khmer Rouge. (Source)

But as I was saying, you could read this book and find it an inspiring manifesto of resistance to industrial capitalist “civilisation” (and many have). Zombies look a lot like humans at a glance. That's one reason so many people get their brains eaten in zombie flicks.

In many parts, the authors profess their concern for the poor and downtrodden – poor peasant farmers, women, endangered species and so on. Perhaps the “anti-civilisation” rhetoric is overstated. That, too would fit with the assumption that a mass movement can't be built: “anti-civilisation” rhetoric is more or less designed to ensure that a mass movement can't be built. Then again, the inspirational quotes from guru Derek Jensen are pretty bluntly anti-civilisation, anti-technology. They proclaim their partisanship with the poor – those that will survive their revolution, anyway.

Mercenary history and pop psychology

The book is overly long, but contains lots of interesting tales from (mainly US) history. Unlike some of the far left, they aren't all taken from the history of the Trotskyist or anarchist or whatever narrow ideological current. They come from the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, or the revolutionary war of independence. That seems refreshingly broad, but it's an illusion. They don't want to build a broad movement.

The first few long chapters are from Lierre Keith, and boy are they long. And turgid. Yet there are enough touchstones for anyone generally familiar with radical ideology to give the appearance that this is in the radical left tradition. In fact, Keith identifies with the radical left repeatedly.

But the history is a sketch, anyway: parable as much as a reliable account. All history is the history of capitalist economic exploitation to Keith. Never mind that feudalism in Europe was one of the most profoundly un-mercantile forms of civilisation to exist (see historian Henri Pirenne for a good exposition of this).

But despite a wide range of historical illustrations, from interesting to banal to woefully misconstrued, there is a subtext to these sections. Keith's recipe is to inculcate dogma and reinforce authority to build a cult. There's a few simple ingredients in this recipe.

I mentioned the central dogma about “bringing down civilisation”. Keith's method of inculcating dogma is crude, but possibly effective. It rests on a simple trick: advance a proposition or fact or two that seem (and possibly are) reasonable and true; then follow on with the item of dogma, hoping it too will stick. 

Jensen does it in the introduction. "The Arabian peninsula used to be oak savannah... North Africa was heavily forested... this culture destroys landbases." A long bow to stretch, for anyone with an inkling of geological, or ecological, or just historical  analysis.

No cult without leaders and high priests

The next ingredient, reinforcing authority, involves a fairly typical heirarchy used by cultists. The guru (in this case, Derrick Jensen) is primarily represented by a “high priest” or principal follower – Keith, since McBay has left the group (she even compiled the Derrick Jensen Reader). Jensen provides handy little “Q&A” sessions at the end of each chapter, ostensibly to answer common questions he fields on speaking tours. It also recruits his pre-existing status (an author celebrated in some radical circles) as an authority for the book (and therefore in the group founded on the book).

Keith's role as chief interlocutor for the guru is something she is at pains to reinforce in her careful critique of possible deviations from the teachings.

In a long critique of “alternative culture” movements, like the 60s hippies and many more, Keith outlines a fairly crude representation of psychological/cognitive theory about the development of the adolescent brain, and uses this to assert that young people aren't able to make long term judgements of risk. They need a community with elders committed to raising them, to do that for them – and youth who can't or won't fit in must be identified and dealt with. Of course, the energy of youth, and their self-sacrifice, is mentioned in more positive terms; that's a resource she obviously wants to tap while she tells them what to do.

In the course of constructing an ideological cult or sect, it's important to keep firm barriers between one's own group and everyone else. Monty Python's Life of Brian got this fairly accurately. It's easy for potential allies to become the main enemy. The amount of time spent denouncing everyone else in the green and climate movement in Keith's essays is consistent with this, even as she decries “horizontal hostility” within groups.

In fact, this is more or less obvious in the name of the group/book. “Deep Green” immediately implies that everyone else is more or less “shallow green” by comparison. And they are denounced – roundly, if not with any serious substance.

Repeating lies about renewable energy

On the area that I'm probably most familiar with, renewable energy technology, Keith repeats a long list of lies, half-truths and red herrings that in many cases are the favoured propaganda of the fossil fuel and/or nuclear industry. For authority Keith mainly cites Australian fringe ecological writer Ted Trainer, who despite having written some interesting theory and philosophy about ecological living, is woefully uneducated on the topic of renewable energy.

In fact, despite some sharp criticism of other perceived weaknesses in Trainer's method, Keith reveals the real flaw in both her and Trainer's approach here. Both start from what they want to be true, their dogma (that industrial civilisation is unsustainable and can't continue) and look for facts that fit it. John Quiggin has I think got the essence of Trainer's (and DGR's) analysis nailed.

McBay's chapters of the book are a more straightforward survey of some of the ideas and methods of political groups in history that have used an underground/aboveground dual organising strategy. It's not necessarily something that is wrong in all circumstances. Who would condemn the resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe, or the ANC in apartheid South Africa? On the other hand, an underground group without a popular mandate and support looks more like the Weather Underground or Symbionese Liberation Army. Not such good role models. Ian Angus' review covered this territory pretty well.

But anyway, this presentation also made me wonder if DGR's leadership could be anything but undemocratic and unaccountable. The “security” rules of the group forbid members from engaging in, or discussing, the illegal activity of the shadow underground organisation that the book suggests is essential. Ostensibly to protect anyone engaging in illegal actions, this also means that the public group only exists as a publicist for the ideas and actions of the underground. So who makes the decisions? Presumably there is some kind of shadow command with Jensen and Keith maintaining control (and of course, plausible legal deniability of their involvement in any illegal organisation). Underground groups aren't easily organised democratically. So who runs the show? The underground or the above ground?

Or at least, they probably want their young acolytes to think there is some exciting underground. Who knows if they actually have organised any of it. Most recent accounts I've come across of their activities are of... wait for it... holding stalls at anarchist events. And getting thrown out for being dogmatically transphobic and, it appears, not really liking anarchists much anyway. 

All I've noticed of DGR lately is regular (and often factually incorrect) facebook memes. I don't know what else the group itself is really up to now (if anything). But they made a reputation as no-compromise radicals far exceeding what they deserved among some quarters, and their proposed method is a perennial temptation for some. Let's not indulge petty cults and egos like these. We have a world to win.


There could be more to say. The book does mount a sometimes very pleasing, if limited, critique of token liberal environmentalism. That's probably one of it's appeals to many. It's easy to criticise, as they say, which is what I've just done here. Finding the better way forward takes time, of course. I think radical coalition-building and mass grassroots movements are the way to go, but you'll just have to read more of my blog to find out about that.

I note that Aric McBay is now writing on apparently more tame, but I'd say more constructive matters (assuming it's the same Aric McBay).


  1. This blogger writes that DGR is "the politics of Green Despair" and gives one of the more tellingly bonkers quotes from Derrick Jensen:

    [quote] Premise Six: Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.

    Premise Seven: The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down—the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

    I would like to say that science is the worst, second worst, or third worst thing ever to happen to the planet, with monotheism and agriculture being the other two, but actually all three are different aspects of the same thing.

    – Derrick Jensen

  2. Another great review has been published by the Institute for Anarchist Studies. Among other things which I missed, they point out the endorsement of the Allied bombing of Nazi Germany as a model of how to attack infrastructure (and the working class that operates it); and this delicious analysis of the historically inaccurate reference to the desertification of North Africa, also mentioned in my review:

    "the Sahara’s desertification was caused not by civilization, but by alterations in the climate.[43] It occurred thousands of years before the dawn of the Roman Empire. Far from being collapsed by empire, the collapse of the Sahara actually “gave rise to the Pharaohs,” according to National Geographic.[44] This detail exposes a poetic irony—as we will show, the collapse that the authors of DGR envision and even seek to bring about, would only produce stronger conditions of oppression. "

    They have many other penetrating insights of this woeful book which you can read here:

  3. Maybe Jensen and company will learn, and adjust things as constructive criticism wafts their way. Maybe those critical of Jensen and company, along with others, will 'show them how its done', and maybe all join in in solidarity for a mutual cause-- saving the planet for people and other creatures to survive and thrive comfortably.
    Or maybe we just keep going along as we have for some time, and let 'the wind' sort everything out for us.


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