23 January 2012 ~ 9 Comments

Review: Deep Green Resistance

Plan to Win has been asking around for recommended reading for campaigners, community organisers, and other activists. What books have you learnt from, been challenged by, found inspiring – and what would you recommend to others?

Here Louise Matthiesson reviews Deep Green Resistance – Strategy to save the planet by Lierre Kieth, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen. Readers may find this book controversial – please chime in with your own impressions. Stay tuned for more reviews, and feel free to contribute your own, long or short!


“Those who come after, who inherit whatever’s left of the world once this culture has been stopped are going to judge us by the health of the landbase, by what we leave behind. They’re not going to care how we lived our lives. They’re not going to care how hard we tried. They’re not going to care whether we were nice people….They’re going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.”

Ever get the feeling that our actions as activists – no matter how positive – pale into insignificance compared to the problems we face? That we’re fiddling as Rome burns? Rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic, etc?

Well according to the authors of Deep Green Resistance you’re not just having a bad day, you are completely right. Instead of heeding the advice of well-meaning friends to “look on the bright side” you should trust that dark feeling and take a long had look at just how fucked up this civilisation is, then respond accordingly.

This is not a book for the novice environmentalist or the general public. It is targeted squarely at committed activists who are questioning mainstream environmentalism. In a nutshell the authors argue that “industrial civilisation is killing the planet”, it will never voluntarily reform and there is never going to be a mass democratic uprising to overthrow the system. Instead they put their hope in well-organised radical small groups of activists undertaking what they call ‘decisive ecological warfare’ (though the term is defined broadly and doesn’t necessarily entail violence). They draw extensively on the history and strategies of militant resistance movements worldwide, from the French resistance in WW2 to the IRA, indigenous groups and the modern-day Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. These examples remind us that most fights for truth and justice involve substantial, painful, personal sacrifice, and that is also what Deep Green Resistance asks of us.

I enjoyed this book not because I think we should all go out and buy guns to defend wild nature, but because reading it felt like a blast of harsh truth, and that was disturbing but invigorating. As activists we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to tone it down, don’t upset people, and be ‘realistic’. Deep Green Resistance is a liberating antidote to all that. It reassures you that you are not over-reacting when you imagine bleak scenarios for the future, nor are you mad for thinking the whole basis of our civilisation is insane. Then it offers tools, advice and paths of action commensurate to the dire situation we find ourselves in.

“Decisive ecological warfare has only one goal at the heart of its strategy: to disrupt and dismantle industrial civilisation and thereby remove the ability of the powerful to exploit the powerless and to destroy the planet.”

Deep Green Resistance is a call to arms – literally – and it would be easy to focus on the fact that it accepts violence against property and even people as a legitimate tactic that may sometimes be necessary to fight destructive companies and infrastructure. This is indeed heretical, but even if you reject any use of violence this book has much else to offer. It is clear the authors wrestle with the moral dilemmas their approach entails, and they include many cautions against macho warmongering or misguided violent outbursts.

A strength of Deep Green Resistance is that despite its hard-core message, the authors are surprisingly ecumenical, emphasising the need for a plurality of tactics and embracing different viewpoints. For example, they praise many of the teachings of Gene Sharp, a leader of the non-violence movement. Nonetheless, they do take a whack at small ‘l’ liberals and anyone who thinks sustainability is the answer. More controversially, the book rejects vegetarianism and mocks the idea of a smooth transition to renewable energy.

Deep Green Resistance is also very practical, offering specific advice and direction for creating effective above and below ground organisations. The distinction between above ground (public, open, nonviolent) and below ground groups (secret, closed, may use violence) is a useful one that has deep ramifications for group structure and strategy. Chapters like “target selection” and “security” go further than your average activist how-to manual.

On the downside, the authors could have done with a more rigorous editor. In places it is over-long and self-indulgent, and shortening the heavy tome would have made it attractive to more readers. However, it is easy to dip in and out of the chapters that most interest you.

Aric McBay, Lierre Kieth and Derrick Jensen don’t have all the answers, and some of their arguments are flawed, but all kudos to them for having the courage to rip down the comforting illusions we rely on to function normally in an utterly messed up world. You will probably find much to disagree with in Deep Green Resistance but read it to be challenged and re-think your own values and priorities.

Deep Green Resistance has already spawned related groups and websites in North America and Australia.

About the reviewer

Louise Matthiesson currently lives by the beach in the northern rivers region of NSW. Louise has participated in campaigns over land-clearing, old-growth logging, dams, and climate change. She has also worked as a journalist and science-communicator.

9 Responses to “Review: Deep Green Resistance”

  1. Anthony 23 January 2012 at 9:08 am Permalink

    Hi there – thanks for the review. Two minor points. I wouldn’t describe Gene Sharp as “a leader of the nonviolence movement’ by any stretch. An influential academic is perhaps more accurate. It was an interesting point though as Derrick Jenson, in previous writings, has demonstrated very little understanding of strategic nonviolence and has been outright antagonistic to it – seemingly deliberately misrepresented it very many times. I’m assuming the other two authors have more understanding.

    Secondly, just to draw a link, the existence of books such as this is one of the key reasons we have Ferguson and the security intelligence agencies on our backs – http://plantowin.net.au/2012/01/spy-vs-activist/#comment-575 Be of no doubt that copies of this book will be on many an ASIO operatives desk and no doubt Martin Ferguson has been shown key extracts. No blame on part of the authors – but it simply provides a key pretext for amping up surveillance and will be influencing how they assess and respond to the climate movement.

    • Louise Matthiesson 23 January 2012 at 11:06 am Permalink

      Hi Anthony, thanks for the correction – my mistake. Most of the book is written by McBay and Kieth, Jensen just chimes in occassionally so that probably explains it. On your second point, I agree, and I did think of that when writing the review, but if we let that kind of surveillance stop us from reading new ideas, then that’s a small victory for Ferguson and his kind. Louise

  2. Ben C 23 January 2012 at 1:25 pm Permalink

    “(…) “industrial civilisation is killing the planet”, it will never voluntarily reform and there is never going to be a mass democratic uprising to overthrow the system. Instead they put their hope in well-organised radical small groups of activists undertaking what they call ‘decisive ecological warfare’ ”

    Perhaps if I read the book it will indeed turn out to be more nuanced and interesting as Louise suggests, but descriptions like this really don’t give me confidence. The problem is not that too many people believe there will be a mass democratic uprising; if more people were organising for that we wouldn’t be in the situation we are.

    People who present their own impatience as a political argument are annoying. If an impatient shortcut doesn’t work in normal times, why should we assume it’s going to work now that we’re feeling a bit more desperate? It’s great to stop and recognise just how big the problem is and how inadequate many of our efforts are, but you can get that just by reading the lastest climate science.

    Having rhetoric about warfare also means that if anyone wants to smear activists with provocateur actions (like the time a bridge was blown up in Tassie and a shonky “Earth First” banner left at the scene) it’s that much easier.

  3. Xander 23 January 2012 at 5:26 pm Permalink

    “…but if we let that kind of surveillance stop us from reading new ideas, then that’s a small victory for Ferguson and his kind.”

    And if we let surveillance of this kind prevent us from organizing a concerted political resistance, that is one huge victory for Ferguson and his kind. In fact, I’d say that’s total victory for agents of the state. Too bad that also means death for the planet. If we let our fear paralyze us, let it back us into a corner of inaction and paranoia, we effectively erase any chance at taking down this murderous culture that will, at the rate it’s going, leave future generations cursing the days when there ancestors stood by as the air, water, and soil were denuded beyond repair. If there are future generations to curse anything, that is.

    There is a movement growing based on this book. We are focused on using nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic in this war against the living world-one of many tactics available to us. No more symbolic actions, piecemeal, reactive, and sad. It’s time to listen to that little voice telling you that groovy demonstrations and one-day shut-downs will never be enough to stop the industrial Goliath. Pick up the sling and stone, learn more about the Deep Green Resistance aboveground movement:


  4. Holly Hammond 23 January 2012 at 10:16 pm Permalink

    Thanks everyone for your comments here. It’s drawing out some important differences to discuss. Ben’s comments in defense of organising for mass uprising and not ‘impatience as a political argument’ particularly resonate for me.

    What I’ve read about Deep Green Resistance reminds me of what I’ve heard about the Weather Underground and the frustrations those folks felt with the SDS, their urgency to take action to disrupt the system, and their espousal of small cells of activists engaging in ‘warfare’. Some of their other rhetoric sounds the same too eg ‘murderous culture’. It’s a useful case study to consider. Rather than catalysing a broader movement, Weather Underground became increasingly isolated and run down.

    But I do really appreciate the sentiment behind the first quote in Louise’s review ‘Those who come after…’ A lot of navel gazing seems to go on amongst environmentalists, a lot of guilt and hair-shirt wearing, a preoccupation with the details of how we live our lives. Not that some of this isn’t beneficial, but I get frustrated with the lack of focus on creating outcomes, actual change in the world. I think a bunch of this is hopelessness – not actually thinking it’s possible to win, but trying to live a worthy life in spite of this. So this stark rhetoric is refreshing!

    I also don’t have a lot of time for arguments about how books like DGR bring heat on activists. We need to be able to debate all options. If someone proposing violence means that groups engage with nonviolence more rigorously, and profess this publicly, then that’s all for the good. The state and corporations increase their surveillance when activists threaten their interests – certainly talking about blowing things up will get their attention (see Gary Foley and black power in the 70s) but so will interfering with their profits and otherwise business as usual, and we can do that effectively without violence or property damage. It was nonviolent action which sparked the NOSIC monitoring and I’m sure much more surveillance besides.

  5. Anthony 30 January 2012 at 10:43 am Permalink

    Hi all, just to clarify never did I, nor would I, imply that we should “let that kind of surveillance stop us from reading new ideas” – far from it.

    Good security culture means thorough assessment and being as aware as possible of any pretexts and motivations of security forces. Changes in threat levels are often preceded by public and private activist statements / publications / pronouncements etc. DGR will be influencing how they assess and respond to the climate movement. That’s simply why I drew the link.


    • Holly Hammond 30 January 2012 at 12:08 pm Permalink

      Hi Anthony
      Thanks for clarifying, and sorry if I misconstrued your position. I wholeheartedly agree that activists need to be mindful of the motivations of security forces.

  6. Holly Hammond 1 March 2012 at 4:45 pm Permalink

    I’ve been revisiting Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan and thought his characterisation of the ‘negative rebel’ would be relevant here. Here’s a snippet from ‘Doing Democracy’ (2001, pg 37):

    ‘Negative rebels make bad revolutionaries. Despite their radical ideology and bravado, negative rebels usually act out of deep feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and desperation. Because they see the powerholders and system as all-powerful and themselves as relatively powerless, negative rebels have little hope of achieving success. Consequently, they propose rebellious tactics out of deep personal and political frustration and anger… Many negative rebels act on the sense that “We have to do something; it doesn’t matter what.” As a result, many of their activities violate guidelines for achieving movement success, eg:
    * Negative rebels alienate the public.
    * Negative rebels reduce movement legitimacy and power.
    * Negative rebels cause movement burnout, dropout and dissipation.
    * Negative rebels legitimate fascistic tactics.
    * Negative rebels provide an excuse for police to be violent and for legislation to pass laws contravening basic civil rights of protest.’

    For more context check out the four roles of activists and eight stages of social movements outlined in Doing Democracy.

  7. Cedric Beidatsch 3 April 2012 at 12:23 am Permalink

    The core argument of DGR is quite simply this: we are in the middle of the sixth extinction event, and this is human generated and caused. Our civilisation is rendering 200 species per day extinct. That’s a holocaust. There is a holocaust occurring in our lifetime; what are we going to do about it? the analaogy is Europe 1943; traditional activism did not stop the death camp trains, and won’t stop the drumroll of species extinction. Not before it is probably too late anyway. So; what are each of us going to do about it? I have a heap of theoretical disagreements with the book; but so what. Focussing on those is a red herring; it substitues intellectual wank for hard headed practical thinking. It encourages horizontal hostility (as the authors’ call it) among the oppositional forces, rather than vertical hostility against the strucutre that is destroying the planet and any residual civil society. Against the bulldozer of capitalism. The great merit of DGR is that asks the hard questions. And pushes the readers not to dodge them but think about them. As to surveillance and repression, well they answer that. Guess what – it is going to happen anyway. Anyone who has been on threads like this, been involved in organising and agitation, well we are all on a list anyway, and when the time suits them will have our doors kicked in. All one has to do is look at what happened in Perth during the CHOGM circus last year, when people were actually prohibited from enetering the city. Read the book – lots and lots of unpalatable facts and squirm inducing arguments. The best kind of book.

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