There are times where what may seems like small, bad theoretical idiosyncrasies can lead to huge mistakes. And there are times when a group takes what are really bad political ideas and they just run with it. And then there are times when a groups has both, and it leads them to such an unmitigated disaster of a move that the resulting controversy and scandal is liable to destroy that organization. For the British Socialist Workers Party it was a combination of a degraded internal democratic culture and an absolutely terrible and reductionistic view on feminism, led the leadership into actively covering up the rape scandal of a senior leader, and has now left the SWP totally discredited, with the majority of the members still worth a damn going either going off to form a new organization or fighting like hell against the leadership from within. For Deep Green Resistance it was something as seemingly minor and not directly related to its normal environmental work as a theoretical layover from the 1970s (thanks to Maoism, a decade that produced a lot in terms of revolutionary ideas and not so much in terms of good ones) called ‘Radical Feminism’ leading it to take an outright and disgusting transphobic positions.
But lets first step back for a bit.
Deep Green Resistance (DGR) is a radical environmentalist group inspired by the book of the same name and the other works of Derrick Jensen. I have often used Jensen as a shorthand way to refer to that element within radical environmentalism sometimes called ‘anarcho-primitivism,’ for at least until the last year or so he was one of its main theoreticians. But this milieu is far from homogenous. At times I’ve refereed to this strata within the broader Green Anarchist movement (other elements of which I have total respect for, Social Ecologists being top of that list) disparengly as “The Derrick Jensen Crowd,” but for the purposes here I’ll refer to them as the “EndCivs.” This is a simplification of course, but it is also apt, for that is was what they believe.
The various shades of EndCivs believe that ‘industrial civilization’ or even civilization itself is at fault for the current state of ecological destruction and degradation. That the ecological systems that support human life have been exploited and degraded to the max and that all of the destructive processes of modern industry are doomed to imminent collapse. Civilization itself is unsustainable.
These ideas are very problematic. But the tricky thing for me is, and why I have in the past spent so much of my time arguing with EndCivs over these issues, is that they are somewhat right. If you were to replace the word “civilization” with the word “capitalism” in the above statement, it would actually be very close to my own opinion on these issues. Capitalism is destroying the planet. Capitalism is totally environmentally unsustainable. Capitalism is a destructive death machine that has put humanity on the path to total collapse and possible extinction.
As someone studying and working in the environmental and sustainability field, I know in part the Derrick Jensens and other EndCivs are right. We are looking at the same data, the same evidence of ecological annihilation, and we see largely seeing the same long-term outcome, total system collapse. But where me and the EndCivs differ is for one, they see all civilizations as a whole as fundamentally unsustainable – from the Babylonians to the present day – not just capitalism as at fault. And secondly they think there is effectively nothing we can do about it. And that is why EndCiv ideas are so dangerous in the environmental movement, because it is the politics of abject despair. Where I see the possibility of an ecosocialist revolution, of moving away from unsustainable practices by doing away with the profit motive and class society, the EndCivs see no such possibility. Between the old choices for humanity laid out by Rosa Luxemburg, of “Socialism or Barbarism,” the EndCivs have chosen to embrace barbarism.
A number of interconnected tactical programs emerge from this politics of despair, all terrible.
Firstly there is the “raging against the dying of the light” attitude of making a number of great, last symbolic stands against ‘industrial civilization.’ A number of eco-terrorist farcical adventures comes form this ‘last stand for the planet’ notion, destroying damns, pipelines, power stations (though in reality all it has ever really meant is some non-violent direct actions) all doomed to failure. These are the ideas that Derrick Jensen has been irresponsibly foisting on young, radical environmentalists through DGR, ideas of which as far as I know he himself has never followed through with.
If you are not down with being part of the select, enlightened elite (“vanguard” if you will) bent not so much on saving the planet, but at least taking revenge for it, then there is always the option of running away. Why try to save the world (or even destroy industrial civilization) when you can just run off to the hills and start living off the land and growing your own food. The assumptions behind this sort of craven escapism is that those who are knowledgeable in primitive skills, permaculture methods of farming and so forth (things that I am actually very much for, including for the generalization of premaculture farming methods, and also pro teaching more people about, especially kids, I’m just against it being viewed as a solution in and of itself in these ways) will be more likely to survive the coming civilizational collapse.
See imbedded in all of the strains of EndCiv thought is the idea of post-collapse. That after the apocalypse, those select will be able to live – sustainably and in spiritual communion with nature of course – in gatherer-hunter bands or simple horticultural societies in the ruins of the old world. If this hyper-romanticized and naive apocalyptical daydream – which belongs more in a sci-fi dystopian movie then in real political discourse – may involve the deaths of potentially billions of people due to the collapse of the industrial, technological and agricultural systems needed to sustain our population, then so be it, there are too many people anyway they say. If the majority of those who’ll become displaced and possibly die due to things like global warming in the coming century live in the Global South, and those privileged to be living in ‘developed’ countries (where coincidentally, effectively all EndCivs are from) will have more resources to weather the coming storms, then so be it. The implied racism is not dealt with.
If you find many of these ideas troubling, if not outright abhorrent, then good, cause they are. It is a rather odd program to march through the streets with on your banner, “we want you’re lives to be materially worst, we want you to starve, give up all technology that makes your lives better.” Can’t imagine its too easy to win people over to that program. But it is interesting how it is usually predominantly white middle-class kids – ie people who grew up with plenty – who are the one’s preaching scarcity. It is often only someone who has never lived on foodstamps can say others are living well beyond their means.
There is even tied into this notion in EndCiv circles the idea of the “hard crash.” That is that it might be preferable to help increase the rate of environmental degradation cause it’ll expedite the process of civilization’s collapse. These are actual ideas that are talked about and are nothing short of comic book villain levels of evil.
In all of this are the ideas of outright elitists. Some have even admitted as much to me openly. They view themselves as better then other people. That they will survive, they have the knowledge and purified moral high-ground, and the rest of humanity they can care less for. It is truly reactionary in the sense that it wants to turn back the civilizational time-line 10,000 years to before settled cities, and then somehow consider that an improvement. There is nothing liberating about starvation, or the lost of medical science, or the loss of thousands of years of literature and written thought.
A further aspect to this ridiculous post-apocalyptic fantasy of EndCivs is an implied ableism and transphobia. What is going to happen to those people who relay on modern medical technology, from wheelchairs to dialysis machines, in order to live their lives? You can’t build a wheelchair out of bark and kale. As far the EndCivs are concerned they’ll likely be one of the many untold victims of collapse. Callous ableism at its finest here, as these individuals with various impairments clearly don’t fit the rugged noble savage image that EndCivs so often fantasize about. As for the transgendered, what is going to happen to those people wishing to reassign their sex through surgery, hormone therapy or other means after collapse? Again, callous transphobia, these individuals clearly don’t fit into EndCivs’ vision of living purely off the land and exactly as nature supposedly intended them to.
And that was it I thought. Up until recently I assumed EndCivs’ transphobia was merely implied as an unintended side-effect due to the naivety and short-sightedness of their ideas. Boy howdy was I wrong.
So the current controversy with Deep Green Resistance broke out into the open when an altercation occurred at the Law and Disorder conference in Portland. What seems to have happened is that a number of trans-woman and their allies confronted DGR members tabling at the conference, attempted to deface some of DGR’s material with markers and ended up writing on some of the woman tabling in the process (an act that DGR has hyperbolically refereed to as a ‘misogynistic attack and assault,’ something to me sounds like bit of a stretch). Later on another DGR member had a burrito thrown at their head. The Law and Disorder conference organizers have since stated that DGR will no longer be welcome at their conference, and many other radical events and anarchist bookstores have followed suite. It has even reached the point where the Earth First! Journal Collective, another group in the broader EndCiv community, has full on denounced DGR and said they will no longer be printing anymore DGR material (on a side note, this does illustrates that EndCivs are not all homogenous with the same ideas, its more of a tendency and shade of opinion, I fully acknowledge that my descriptions here are just a mere necessary simplification). So what is this all about.
To be frank, the underlying issue is really bad. Deep Green Resistance has some of the most transphobic ideas I have ever seen on the far-left. So much so I’m actually somewhat uncomfortable with repeating them here. So consider this TRIGGER WARNING for Transphobia from here on out.
Deep Green Resistance and its leaders and writers, have adopted a number of incredibly essentialistic ideas. So for instance, there is an absolute and essentialistic value of “nature” with humanity posed as totally outside and opposed to it. Now I am all for viewing nature having intrinsic value of its own, but there are a number of dangers when we start to have such a “purity” fetish when it comes to nature, and DGR seems to have run into just about all of them. For, as I said early, they have also adopted certain aspects of Radical Feminist ideology for their understanding of woman and gender oppression. To grossly simplify, RadFem, among other issues, has an incredibly essentialistic view on female and male genders, that is if you are born a certain gender in society’s eyes, that’s what you are. Nevermind biological facts such as intersex individuals, or any other issues of identity, if you have “natural woman” parts then you are a woman. Trans-women to them are anything but.
So Derrick Jensen has said things like, “why is being trans woman acceptable when deciding I am trans black is not,” and, “I liked what I said to Julia or whatever his name was who wanted to join DGR: You are not a woman. You are a man who believes he is a woman.” Lierre Keith, a DGR leader and long-time RadFem writer has said when talking about trans individuals that gender, “is a class condition created by a brutal arrangement of power. I can’t fathom how mutilating people’s bodies to fit an oppressive power arrangement is frankly anything but a human rights violation. And men insisting that they are women is insulting and absurd.” And Cathy Brennan, another person tied to DGR, has openly claimed that transwoman “oppress” cis-gendered woman and lesbians, and has been insistent to the claim that, “penis = male.” These thoughts are so inbedded in Deep Green Resistance that when they posted their statement of their views on the Portland events, they repeatedly went out of their way to missgender those who “attacked” their tablers as “male”, when by all other reports the “attackers” were trans-women.
And to all of that, to all of them, all I can say is; Holy Flying Fuck You People Are Insane Bigoted Scum! To deny the horrifyingly real oppression faced every day by transwoman, transmen and other queer folk is disgusting, and so are you. I am not going to necessarily condone the “attack” on the DGR tablers obviously, but then again I wasn’t the one being so harshly insulted as a human being by having my identity totally discounted in such a way. Seriously, fuck you transphobes!
I make no claims whatsoever to being an expert or even sufficiently knowledgeable about the areas of queer theory, gender politics and the politics of identity. Usually when these subjects come up in conversation I patiently stay quiet and respectively listen to others thoughts and feelings on the matter. But even I know the basic thing that when a person identifies a certain way and has a preferred pronoun (whether she, he, they or otherwise) you fucking respect that. You do not have the right to be the ‘gender police’ and impose what your particular view of their identity is onto them. That is just the bare minimum basics of common decency and solidarity.
There are some bare minimums that are to be expected from all those on the far-left, and trans-inclusivity is top of that list. If you can’t pull that off, or worse, you come up with pathetically flimsy theoretical justifications for your transphobia, then you’re not welcome. The British Socialist Workers Party has been largely segregated off as pariahs due to their failure to confront rape culture in their ranks. The SWP has come up with some lackluster theoretical excuses related to what they miss-characterize as “democratic centralism” but no one cares. A similar fate likely awaits Deep Green Resistance unless they severely alter their ways, and those honest elements within DGR I sincerely implore to fight like hell to do just that. I do honestly believe that there are scores of good environmentalists and fighters in DGR who aren’t down with their leadership’s positions, and despite all of our other disagreements, I think these people who have done so much work for the movement deserves a place within it. There is always a difference between the leadership and the rank and file, that has to be remembered. But no one is going to buy the DGR leadership’s transphobic ideas, not one bit. Those pieces of RadFem theory have been thoroughly discredited for 30 years. They are wrong. I echo the views of Aric McBay, former DGR leader and co-writer with Jensen and Keith of Deep Green Resistance the book, who left DGR due to their transphobia, when he said:
For me, trans rights and trans inclusion are fundamental to building effective movements and to building a world worth living in. Speaking as the main author of the book that inspired [DGR] in the first place: they are most definitely my core values.
And transphobia–like racism and sexism and classism and homophobia–is a poison that those in power use to destroy movements and ruin lives. When faced with such poisons, who needs COINTELPRO?
Solidarity between movements is the only hope we have… I want to make it clear to people that I, and the vast majority of radical environmentalists, fully support trans rights and trans inclusion.
It is uncertain what the future will bring through all of this. There is a very real process of regroupment occurring amongst radical and anti-capitalist environmentalists. But the future belongs to those who want to fight for it, and fight for one that is inclusive of all. Environmental justice has to be combined with a deep and thoroughgoing social justice. Inclusivity is a must, intersectionality is a must, but most of all hope is a must. The environmental movement we need will be able to unit all the poor, exploited, marginalized and oppressed of the world in a fight to save our species and save all other life on this planet. It will not be built with the politics of despair.