Tar Sands Resistance as Cosmic Warfare

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Self-Reliance

The conditions for life are complex and precise; yet humans are systematically altering those conditions so as to potentially jeopardize the health of the biosphere as a whole. This deterioration of life-support systems is pushing us towards (if not past) a global tipping point, changing the very nature of the planet. Whereas the root cause has been identified as “human population growth and how many resources each one of us uses,” there is growing consensus that global leadership and cooperation is needed to sustain the wellbeing of the planet. (Sanders 2012)

Still, the challenge to fundamentally transform the social system is hardly on track to avoid these projected trends. Fossil fuel production is at an all-time high and energy demand is projected to grow 53% by 2035. (Ausick 2011) Recent reports estimate the carbon economy and its climate changing effect is currently responsible for the deaths of five million people per year and will increase to exceed 100 million deaths by 2030, disproportionately falling upon the poorest countries. (DARA 2012) Even as the International Energy Agency warns that the world will “‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change” if the energy infrastructure is not rapidly changed in the next four years, pipeline projects continue to be built across North America to deliver fossil fuels to overseas markets. (Harvey 2011) These pipelines not only pose immediate threats to the ecosystems they cut across but risk destabilizing the climate entirely. 

Among such projects, the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, tapping into the Athabasca Oil Sands in Canada and stretching more than 1,700 miles underground across six states and 2,000 U.S. waterways (including the Oglalla Aquifer, a primary source for farmland irrigation water, and the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer which provides drinking water for 10 million Texans), has been called by leading environmentalists a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” spelling out what would essentially mean “game over” for the climate movement. (McGowan 2011)

More and more, these projects are met with increasing resistance: action camps of the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suet’en Nation are defending traditional lands from billion dollar corporations and the Canadian government by blockading construction of the Pacific Trails Pipeline at various points. Similarly, the tar sands blockades in the United States have mobilized tree-sits, lockdowns, banner drops, celebrity arrests, and outspoken criticism, pointing out these projects would contribute to global warming and risk the release of millions of gallons of crude oil into surrounding ecosystems.

Potentially carrying 830,000 barrels per day to users, the Keystone XL provides a major flashpoint between those seeking to limit global warming by stopping carbon emissions, and those looking to further expand the market for oil sands crude. (Luther et al. 2012) These conflicts demonstrate fierce opposition to a last ditch effort for extreme exploitation of the planet’s resources to the detriment of human and non-human communities—perceived as the potential genocide of the global poor and biocide of the living planet, directed at the behest of global capital. Says one blockader, living in the Tar Sands Blockade tree village that protects an entire grove directly in the path of the Keystone XL Pipeline, “if our actions here are inspiring to enough people and/or the right people, then enough force and/or tactical breakthroughs will be generated, legally or illegally or both, to force the bad guys to back down.” (Anonymous 2012)

This passage articulates the clash of worldviews, where ruling ideas governing public sentiments are challenged in a very tangible way. Seeking to change the root causes of environmental harm, the logic of radical earth defense in turn offers alternative and oppositional frameworks to guide and condition how we treat the natural world.

“They work at the ideational and affective level of human experience and activity. Ultimately, it is the masses, through public consciousness raising, that will ensure long-term solutions to environmental destruction by demanding changes in economic practices.” (Kamieniecki 1995, pg. 331)

By shifting the dynamics of harm to stop ecological abuse and reverse degradation, these movements contradict the law and established norms of a larger social segment, bringing to mainstream consciousness an understanding that the prevailing social order is not only unsustainable, but immoral as well.

Feral Jihadis

Radical environmental groups and their allies hold a deep commitment to the earth community and the professed sanctity of life itself. This reverence is rooted in a belief that the biosphere is “interdependent, intrinsically valuable, and sacred,” (Taylor 2010, pg. 102) motivating a transformative politics respectful of the earth. But while aspirations for a social order grounded in an earth-based civic religion can structure new beliefs and behaviors, such outlooks may provide spiritual mandates for more militant forms of resistance, especially if such acts are interpreted as effective means to undo environmental degradation

Positioning themselves against global industrial processes, ecological resistance movements target the material forces contributing to the deterioration of nature’s material conditions; and historically in increasingly hostile ways. Besides sustaining blockades of logging roads and pipelines, radical environmental activists have also engaged in tree spiking, power line sabotage, arson, intimidation, and general strikes to defend life as a sacred force against the onslaught of civilization. This moral commitment to land-defense is prevalent in militant eco-resistance campaigns. By “slowing the pace of extraction, empowering others to resist environmental destruction, and publicly exposing and ridiculing environmentally irresponsible industries and the government that supports them,” activists cost extractive industries millions of dollars, cutting into profit margins and forcing them to reconsider their damaging effects. (Smith 2008)

Yet by all indicators, the environmental protection movement is in a worse position today than ever before. Its inefficacy has in turn provoked an escalation of tactics and strategies described in anti-civilization literature as mobilizing underground networks for asymmetric actions and sabotage to disrupt industrial systems and dismantle industrial infrastructure. Targeting the essential processes that keep civilization functioning, “Decisive Ecological Warfare” is considered imperative to facilitate social collapse and thereby ease the pressure and encourage people to dissociate from industrial capitalism voluntarily:

“Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, the more life will remain afterwards to support both humans and non-humans.” (Jensen 2011, pg. 424)

The strategic militancy of ecological resistance is no longer aimed at merely carrying out defensive actions against industrial assaults; instead, weak points, critical nodes and bottlenecks are identified and targeted to disrupt and destroy the key foundational support necessary for civilization to function. Here, civilization as a totality is described as the technological mechanism by which the powerful are able to exploit the marginalized and destroy the planet.


Drawing inspiration from militant movements like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and the Iraqi insurgency, earth defense movements are encouraged to adopt “similar convictions of strategic rigor,” and coordinate “decisive attacks against multiple such nodes [that] will have an exponential effect, and can cause cascading failures within the system.” (Budd 2012) This shift to predominantly guerrilla tactics stems from the necessity of attacking a monolithic technologically advanced social structure through smaller, underground and decentralized forces so as to achieve success.

Signifying the loss of state-legitimacy and ultimately the initiation of (or at least calls for) a world-wide insurrectionary ecology, activists engaging in such forms of resistance have been reclassified as “terrorists” by the federal government, since their tactics incite mass fear and discomfort for those who are dependent upon and invested in civilization’s basic services (electricity, industry…). However, for these activists, those same services are considered expressive of the logic of “domestication” that provides the origin of modern domination in the first place, and thereby justify their removal altogether.

Such attacks are done in complete disregard for the laws of the state too, for if it can be determined that the state should not exist in the first place, then its laws hold no power whatsoever and perhaps even constitute corrupt boundaries to be emphatically transgressed. Ted Kaczynski writes on the role of morality and violence in anti-civilization discourse,

“It is necessary for the function of modern industrial society that people should cooperate in a rigid, machine-like way, obeying rules, following orders and schedules, carrying out prescribed procedures. Consequently the system requires, above all, human docility and social order. Of all human behaviors, violence is the one most disruptive of social order, hence the one most dangerous to the system.” (Kaczynski 2008, pg. 242)

Seen here, the logic of ecological resistance has fashioned a rationale seeking nothing less than the complete removal of what is determined to be oppressive, exploitative, immoral, and unsustainable—namely, civilization itself. The full range of revolutionary activities are thusly considered to be legitimate methods contributing to effective earth-defense, even to the point where extinguishing human life becomes a reasonable endeavor, as when Kaczynski murdered or attempted to murder several captains of industry, including a timber industry lobbyist, the president of United Airlines, a university geneticist, and engineering and computer science professors, among others. Like others today, Kaczynski (a.k.a. the Unabomber) asserts that the consequences of industrial society have been a disaster for the human race, robbing humans of their very nature and inevitably enslaving those enmeshed and involved in its processes, and therefore justifies engaging in the violent, militant actions considered to be tactical warfare.

Analyzing the Cult of the Green Dragon 

The environmental movement has, through its rhetoric and methods, produced a degree of reactionary backlash. “Resisting the Green Dragon” (RGD), a group self-identifying as a “biblical response to one of the greatest deceptions of our day,” sees in environmentalism a false global religion that has infiltrated popular culture to target the youth, threaten the sanctity of life, and devastate the world’s poor. Citing “green programs” that point to population control, abortion, global government, and euthanasia as necessary solutions to climate change and overpopulation, groups like RGD contest ecological resistance, seeing it to be an existential threat. Similarly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has repeatedly labeled “eco-terrorist” groups the most dangerous domestic terror group, with harsh sentences for crimes that amount to property destruction (30+ years at times) specifically imposed as a result of this label. But does such eco-resistance warrant the fear it has instilled in Christian, government, and more moderate circles?

There is no doubt that ecological resistance movements share key characteristics with the religious violence carried out by terrorist networks around the world. Seen as waging a defensive “just war” to protect the planet, radical environmentalists demonize perceived enemies, just as groups like al-Qaeda, abortion clinic bombers, or any other movement seeking to kill in the name of a holy ideal. Ecological activists waging cultural war against the dominant power system approach cosmic significance (at least for themselves) by identifying their violence as part of a spiritualized struggle. The quest for an environmentally conscientious social system in which nature is privileged thereby offers a course for “righteous rule,” in which violence is conceived of as a sacred duty—where actions classified as “eco-terrorism” refer to those symbolic actions on the battlefield of ideas that are assumed to uphold a divine order. These environmental activists are, in a sense, warring against the very separation dividing civilization from nature in the first place.  For them, there is no difference between the sacred and profane, because the very nature of every day life is revered.

This access to the holy is absent in the de-animated worldview of a secularized culture whose lack of awareness tends towards destruction and a kind of domestic abuse. The struggle to end the duality between green spirituality and a secular state creates the religious meaning necessary for violence to be used symbolically to reassert a primal order in a chaotic milieu in which the crumbling value-systems of modernity are challenged and replaced. Acts like the Tar Sands Blockade become public performances or spectacles, symbolically empowering a largely marginalized movement to raise consciousness and reclaim its potency. This process parallels the logic of religious violence exactly:

“The syndrome begins with the perception that the public world has gone awry, and the suspicion that behind this social confusion lies a great spiritual and moral conflict, a cosmic battle between the forces of order and chaos, good and evil. Such a conflict is understandably violent, and this violence is often felt by the victimized activist as powerlessness, either individually or in association with others…The government—already delegitimized—is perceived to be in league with the forces of chaos and evil.” (Juergensmeyer 2001, pg. 228)

The religious violence of green spirituality becomes a countercultural force undermining the hegemony of the dominant order: the task of humans is no longer destructive because it is to so love the earth as to spiritualize it, consequently reconciling spirit and matter. By applying this intention, ecological resistance movements and individuals are empowered to operationalize the unmediated spiritual authority of nature to dissolve the relations of domestication through symbolic expressions that assume divine justification. The conflict is dramatized as cosmic war so that actions like the Tar Sands Blockade become a performance act of sacred transformation aimed to implode civilization’s capacity for ecocide.

Looking Forward: The Sacrifice of Civilization?

The initial construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has induced a counterattack threatening to collapse the very system itself. A fundamental antagonism is present in which globalized power has encountered resistance. Given the evidence, it seems likely that the desecration and violation of the earth will continue to justify violent, militant acts, perhaps hinting at a course for reconciliation.

“Only by addressing environmental degradation at its varied roots will we reduce environmental decline. Only thus will halt the threat it poses to human livelihoods, the insult it represents to the deeply held moral duties that many individuals feel toward non-human nature; only then will we eliminate environmental-related violence.” (Taylor 1998, pg. 26)

As ecological resistance identifies the potential breakdown of social order to be rooted in a worldview structured upon nature’s exploit for material wealth, it necessarily orients itself to disrupt the stability of the dominant order.  This exposes a crisis by which a form of ritualized murder is employed to transfer the collective guilt and thereby resolve the community conflict, with civilization fulfilling the role of surrogate victim.

Activists materially challenging the processes that underpin civilization engage in a form of generative violence against civilization. Amounting to a form of “ego-death” needed for collective transformation, the sacrifice of civilization provides a symbolizing event sanctifying the violence needed for cosmic reconciliation. The violence inherent in this ritual murder merges civilization with the larger culture in a process of martyrdom, a symbolic exorcism able to heal separation and restore balance.

Resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline and other fossil fuel projects can be seen as performance theatre symbolically empowering individuals who put their bodies directly in confrontation with a demonized enemy. Motivated by a deep conviction that nature is sacred, actions are designed to destroy the prevailing disorder and end the moral collapse characterizing civilization to impose what is considered a more enlightened and spiritually advanced mode of social organization in harmony with a spiritualized earth.



Anonymous Blockader. (2012) “Long Walk to Freedom.” In Earth First Newswire. Retrieved 11/1/12 from https://earthfirstnews.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/long-walk-to-freedom/#more-11059

Ausick, Paul. (2011) “Global Energy Demand Will Grow by 53% by 2035. In the 24/7 Wall St. Morning Newsletter. Retrieved 11/3/12 from http://247wallst.com/2011/09/19/global-energy-demand-will-grow-by-53-by-2035/

Budd, Alex (2012) “Time is Short: Systems Disruption and Strategic Militancy.” DGR News Service. Retrieved 11/1/12 from http://dgrnewsservice.org/2012/10/24/time-is-short-systems-disruption-and-strategic-militancy/

DARA. (2012) “Findings and Observations.” Retrieved 11/1/12 from http://daraint.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/CVM2ndEd-Findings.pdf more can be found in “A guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet http://daraint.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/CVM_RELEASE_FINAL_ENGLISH.pdf

Harvey, Fiona. (2011) “World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns.” In The Guardian. Retrieved 11/2/12 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/09/fossil-fuel-infrastructure-climate-change

Jensen, Derrick. (2011) “Tactics and Targets.” In Deep Green Resistance. Eds. McBay, Aric, Keith, Lierre and Derrick Jensen. Seven Stories Press. New York: NY

Juergensmeyer, Mark (2001). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press. Berkeley: CA

Kaczynski, Theodore J. (2008) Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. ‘The Unabomber’. Feral House. Port Townsend: WA

Kamieniecki, Sheldon, S. Dulaine Coleman, and Robert O. Vos (1995) “The Effectiveness of Radical Environmentalists.” In Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism.  ed. Bron Raymond Taylor. State University of New York Press: NY

Luther, Linda and Paul Parfomak, Neelesh Nerurkar, and Adam Vann. (2012) “Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Key Issues.” Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 11/1/12 from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41668.pdf

McGowan, Elizabeth (2011) “U.S. Climate Protests Shift to Block Keystone XL Pipeline Approval.” In Reuters. Retrieved 11/3/12 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/27/idUS323166223820110627

Smith, Rebecca K. (2008) “Eco-Terrorism? A critical analysis of the vilififcation of radical environmental activists as terrorists.” Originally published in Environmental Law, Vol. 28, Issue 2. Retrievable at http://www.supportdaniel.org/files/Ecoterrorism_critical_analysis.pdf

Taylor, Bron, (1998) “Religion, Violence and Radical Environmentalism: From Earth First! to the Unabomber to the Earth Liberation Front,” in Terrorism and Political Violence, 10 (4), 1-42:  Winter 1998 Retrieved 11/1/12 from http://www.brontaylor.com/environmental_articles/pdf/Taylor–ReligionViolenceandRE.pdf

Taylor, Bron Raymond (2010). Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA

Sanders, Robert. (2012) “Scientists uncover evidence of impending tipping point for Earth.” UC Berkeley News Center. Retrieved 11/1/12 from http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/


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