Suprabha Seshan 07.29.18




(Sound of thunder and rain)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Suprabha Seshan. She has lived and worked for twenty-five years at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghat mountains of India. The Sanctuary is a centre for plant conservation, habitat restoration and environmental education and also a community. In 2006, on behalf of the Sanctuary she won the Whitley Award, UK’s top prize for nature conservation. She is an Ashoka Fellow. Her new book, available next year, is called Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad.

So first, thank you for all of your great work in the world, and second, thank you for being on the program.

SS: Derrick, thank you so much for having me. 

DJ: I would like to start by reading a paragraph from one of your essays, and then you just go from there. 

“It is a sad truth that most humans today fear the night, which is really a fear of the dark. We’re told this is primal, an instinct we inherited from our savage ancestors huddling against predators after sunset. From this we conclude that the night is dangerous, that it heralds death and contains demons. Yet it is the night which is in danger, as the rest of life is.”

So can you talk about that a little bit? 

SS: I wrote that some years ago because I spend a lot of time awake and in the dark, at dusk and before dawn, listening to animals and the wind and rain. And I believe, I’ve always believed, that this is a deeply restorative period. I’m a creature of the day, but as it goes into the night I just love it so much. And as you feel the night creatures waking up and hear them, something really important happens, which is that your eyes kind of shut down and your other senses wake up and you start to feel, and hear, and sense things that are just different from – we know that we’re visual creatures. But it’s the dominance of the eye that really bothers me. Maybe I’m not such a visual person.

So I start to think about that. I’ve lived nine years of my adult life without electricity, and that was perhaps the most beautiful time of my life. And when the community decided to have solar power and then take a connection to the main line electrical grid, I would go up to a high point on our sanctuary’s land, and I’d seen nights for years where there were no electric lights. There were lantern lights and moonlight and starlight, and we would have conversations under the stars. And this is gone now, or going. It’s still dark compared to other places in the world, other places in India, but the loss of this deep quiet is really hurting our bodies, and what about the rest of the natural world? Bats and birds, night birds, crickets, frogs. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. And that’s what the essay was about, the loss of the night. The death, the killing of the night is also one of patriarchy’s great achievements. 

DJ: I agree with you and I’m with you 100%. Can you help me understand your last sentence? Can you bring patriarchy in explicitly? I’m not following that connection. 

SS: Well, I’m thinking of all the machines, the big toys that require these enormous power grids, and the hunting out of shy creatures, and just the flooding – I’m thinking of prisons and these lights that are on all night and nobody can rest and it just drives you crazy. So that’s the image in my mind when I say patriarchy’s hunting out the night, it’s destroying the night. It’s men with huge machines, or cultures with power grids and thermoelectric power stations, and the hunt.

DJ: Here’s something you wrote about it. “The night is a hindrance to this patriarchal enterprise called ‘civilization.’ The fact that we can willfully turn the night off and on at the flick of a switch adds to our delusion of having conquered the universe. The longest night of extinction, a metaphor for things today, includes within it the extinction of the night. There has never been so little night till now. The extinction of the night is a necessary objective of human supremacists. They hunt darkness out, for they know that it’s actually life-bearing. With the floodlights of civilization depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide.”


That’s you.

SS: (laughing) Yes.

DJ: So do you want to say anything more about that? 

SS: Well, I’m also thinking of photographers who want to go out at night with their big high-beam torches, and they are waking up creatures or prying on creatures who want to be in the dark. And you can do anything with that switch. And so this precious part of the natural world, I’m seeing it as a discotheque right now with lights everywhere and turning it off and on. It’s an invasion of something of great beauty.

DJ: Everything you’re saying there really reminds me of both zoos and pornography. What I’m trying to get at is that there is this – zoos, because they force these creatures to be on display for us at our desire, our whim, creatures who – I was going to say almost undoubtedly don’t want to be there, but the truth is they undoubtedly don’t want to be there or there wouldn’t need to be cages, would there? And then pornography really is the same thing in that it is putting these others on display for your consumption. So the whole enterprise seems very pornographic and domineering to me. And I love your line about turning night on and off with a flick of a switch. 

SS: Yeah. And that’s complete control.

DJ: So is that going to be one of the essays in the new book? 

SS: I’m sure it will feature. The new book is going to be a series of new essays and I will probably bring the night, and other things I’ve written about already; I will probably bring them into the book.

DJ: So let’s talk about another essay, which is called “The Music of Everything.” What do you mean by that?

SS: Well, the world is full of song. It’s full of sounds, and with people living in cities, they’re mostly hearing mechanical sounds. But when you’re living in the forest, the whole world is singing. And from a very young age, I’ve had this habit. I just go in somewhere and I try to pick out the note that I can resonate with, with my voice. It’s different when you do it in the natural world, in the forest, and it’s very different when you do it in, say, a room. So I grew up doing that kind of singing, or humming, or vocalizing with motors, and fridges, and trains. And as I started to spend more and more time, and then my life became one in the forest, with natural sounds, I would find myself doing the same thing. I would just go out and I would be, like, cawing like the hornbill, or try to find a pitch that I could sing from. It’s so evident that everybody’s speaking, everybody’s singing, and that singing and speech are really just two different ways of saying something. It’s this full-hearted communication and participation in this beautiful world, which is a sounded world. So that’s what that essay was about. 

DJ: And in that essay you use the word “sing” deliberately and not the word “call.” And you know you hear about people calling birds all the time. What is the difference for you? 

SS: Well, I’m hesitant to say that I’m calling a bird and that’s a deliberate act of, an intentional invitation to the bird and, you know the responsibility then is on the bird to respond or not. I go and, when the elephants are there I do various songs of my own, or vocalizations. And it’s like an incantation and a contribution to that musical, to that space. And maybe they want to join in. Maybe they want to listen. Maybe they will just ignore me and walk away. 

So there’s a difference between calling to someone and then you expect a response, whereas singing is a solicitation of a different kind. It’s an offering, actually. 

DJ: It seems to me that both of these, those two essays, are … well, instead of me telling you, why don’t you tell me? What ties those two essays together? And your other work together, too? 

It seems to me … now that I’ve said that, I’ll go ahead and tell you that one of the things that ties those together has to do with accepting nature as it is, as opposed to inflicting one’s … like, the people I’ve known who have, for example, called owls; what they’re attempting to do is to do a survey. They will call an owl in hopes that an owl of that species will respond, so they can then mark it down on a chart that there is that sort of owl here. 

SS: Right. Yes. 

DJ: As opposed to, you know, just entering into the conversation, or the symphony, that is the forest, on its own terms. 

SS: Absolutely. And so much of what I’ve heard of other people when they talk to animals, they have to have proof. And I don’t want to have proof. I don’t want to go that way. I’m not proving to another human anything about my gentle solicitation of the others. I don’t want to prove it. I might describe it, and I might want to share it. And I have to be quite specific about what happens and accurate about what happens or doesn’t happen. But it’s not about proof. It’s not about evidence. The writing itself is an invocation of that kind of thing, of going out into the forest and listening to the drongos, or the hill mynas, and the scimitar babblers. Not even, at some point – it’s like to even let go of “this is this species, and that species, that’s the alarm call.” To kind of just stop that for a little while. So not to pick out and exercise discernment. I don’t want to pick names and say “Oh that’s that, and that’s that.” But when you go out, and you’re listening to all these sounds, is that how you listen to a symphony? “Oh, there comes the oboe, and there’s the drums, and there’s a clarinet.” I think to enjoy, or deeply enter the music, I think you have to stop with the mind that wants to identify everything. And that’s when the great music happens, is when you take in the whole. And you’re also listening to every little detail, but you’re not writing down lists or proving anything or showing off your virtuosity and “Look, I called the elephants and the elephants came when I called.” Well, that was not the point of that. The point was that I sang to the elephants and they didn’t go away, so what happened there? Were they listening? Of course they were listening. Their ears, their sensibilities were so much more powerful than mine. Of course. They didn’t go away.

There were these gentle sounds. So were the elephants singing with me? I don’t know. But I like to leave it open that perhaps they were. 

DJ: This takes me to another essay of yours, a recent one. It’s not published yet, I believe. You wrote in there “We are the people of this land. We are nature, human and nonhuman. These are our bodies. Together we are one body. We are creation and always will be.”

I’ll read a little bit more. “We matter. Humus, seed, fruit, tooth, organ, blood and bone. We are root, water, mud, algae and stone. We are the snap of bladderwort. We are buttress-rooted trees. Orchid, fern, dragonfly, elephant, monkey. We are larva, worm, cocoon, creeper, liana and honey bee. We are this forest.”

So can you tie that to the other essays? 

SS: There’s a young woman in my neighborhood. She’s of the banyan people, so the line “We are this forest” is something that she has said. We are the people of this land, we are the children of this forest, we are this forest. So I had that very much in my mind. Every day I have this question: here’s this body, this human body, this mammal walking by this stream, and there is this profound exchange between this mammal and stones and buttress-rooted trees, and the air and the water and so on. And what’s going on there – there is no separation there. I’m 100% sure that bodies connect. That’s ecology. 

I’ve had these dreams where every cell – there’s one specific dream where I can see the skin of my body and every cell is standing up and has got a head and two arms and each cell is waving and calling out to say “I’m here” and “I remember.” So there is this profound knowledge and awareness in every aspect of the natural world, and you cannot separate it. You cannot separate the awareness of the tree, the awareness of the elephant, and the awareness of me. There’s a level at which it is so interconnected and intertwined. And so we are not the same, but in that moment of feeling part of the forest, we are this forest. 

DJ: And in that same essay, you also write “What I know about the rainforest can be penned onto a sticky note. But what I’ve experienced and understand through what I’ve experienced, that’s another matter.” And that, again, seems to be tying into everything you’re saying. 

SS: Yes. I did do my bit in – towards understanding through science, some aspects of the rainforest. And the longer I’ve lived in this place, and the more I’ve been in conversation with people around me, the language of science and the means of perception, using transects and quadrants and machines and lists and so on; that sort of falls away. I am sure there are people who put all that to good use, but I do believe that’s not my way. I don’t want to make a list of species of the land anymore.  I have done it, and if somebody else wants to do it, that’s fine. But experience is something else. And also all that knowledge that I worked towards building up is not at the forefront of my consciousness now. If you would ask me about the type of forest that I live in, I would be able to tell you that these are the dominant species, these are the common species, these are the rare species and so on.

DJ: And you could give their Latin names. I just need to point that out. I know you well enough to know that you could. You could do nomenclature from now until eternity and you would still be doing nomenclature. So you can do it. It’s like the cliché that Picasso was also a really good draftsperson. You have to know the craft before you give it up. 

SS: That sounds good to me. I don’t know if that’s how I did it. It just fell away. And yes, I have used Latin names and I have enjoyed using them.

DJ: Oh! Somebody I just interviewed yesterday, one of the things he said to me was that people will talk about getting all enlightened and losing your sense of self, and he says it just makes him laugh because you actually have to have a sense of self before you can get rid of your sense of self, in terms of enlightenment. So it’s the same sort of thing here. 

Sorry to interrupt with this, but I think it’s really important to see that you are not just somebody who is not emphasizing the nomenclature simply because you’re too lazy to do it. 

SS: Not at all. And I think nomenclature – so I have this, in the same essay, where – I’ve actually used Latin names in most of my essays. I encourage people to find out what, find out more about the natural world using any means whatsoever. So this is a paragraph in the same essay, where I just say “it’s clear that this is a land where everyone is known, the vayanavu by the eerullam kuzhi on the kallampuzha upstream from the koodal, is a recognition-from-the-heart of a lovely being of immeasurable value. Translated: the Ironwood tree by the Dark Hollow pool on the Stone River, upstream from the Confluence. This is the obeisance I strive for. The diktat of the heart, with its own nomenclature, and ways of attuning, in this vast, glittering zillion-beinged forest, my home.”

I live with people who can put at least 2000 Latin names on the plants, so they know about 2000 different species of plants, and they know the Latin names and many of the indigenous names. So I am not at all against it. 

DJ: I agree with you on this, but I want you to tell me what’s your deal? What’s your problem with the word “ecosystem”? You say “I choose the words ‘biome’ and ‘community’ instead of ‘ecosystem.’” I completely agree with you, by the way. 

SS: Well, I dunno. Isn’t “ecosystem” somewhat to do with – systems really make me think of machines and parts, whereas “biome” and “community” just make me think of a whole bunch of people living together, different sorts of people living together. So one you can only tear apart, and the other one, you can sort of pull it apart and put it back together and you can do all these things to it and reassemble it. But you can’t really do that with biomes and communities.

DJ: You know, one of the ways I think about this is that I can take apart a chair. I can unscrew the various pieces of wood from each other, and I can leave them on the ground for a year, and then I can screw them back together and the chair will still be there. And in fact I can swap out parts and it doesn’t matter. But if I take off your arm and take off your leg, and take off your stomach, and I put them on the ground and leave them there for a year, and then I reassemble you – a chair is not really more than the sum of its parts.

SS: Yeah. These biomes and communities have interdependent individuals, beings, who need each other in every moment of their existence. 

DJ: So we’ve talked a little bit about your writing, and I guess there are two directions I would like to go with the rest of the interview. One of them is: can you talk – I know we did an interview about this before, but can you talk again about the importance of the sanctuary? Can you talk about the sanctuary’s work and about its importance? And then after that, let’s talk about the murder of the planet. 

SS: Okay. So, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a place where we are focused  on the natural world through the plant members. 93% or some crazy figure like that of the Western Ghats has been destroyed, converted to industrial plantations and different aspects of organization, dams and so on. So it’s pretty dire, and how do you work with that if you know that? The people I live with, a number of them are absolutely incredible gardeners. And when I say “gardeners” I mean they use the tools of gardening, which is this love and sensibility for plants, and cuttings, and seed collections and transplantation and growing, in a number of ways, all these endangered species from across the mountains. And so the Western Ghats are 1200 kilometers long, and there are still beautiful forests and habitats and these remaining refuges of great biological diversity. And one way to work with that is to go to these places that are in the process of being destroyed, and just like if you were going to a place that had been bombed, and then you bring back whoever is alive back to a refuge. So that is the Sanctuary’s first role, to be a refuge for refugees under holocaust. The great fire that is just eating up the mountains where we live. And it’s known that the rainforest and all its beings pull the rain in and contributes to the water cycle, to the rain and to rivers and so on. From what I know, mosses contribute a huge percentage, like 30% or something, to the tropical rainforest hydrological cycle, the bryophytes alone. And so in our sanctuary we have 150 species of bryophytes and 300 species of ferns and 600 species of orchids. It just goes on and on. Impatiens. 100 different families of plants under conservation because the recognition is there that every single one of these is important for its own sake, but together they are doing something incredibly important. 

Many people elsewhere, they’re working on trees, and I think that’s fantastic, because I love trees, and what would the forest be without its trees? But somehow trees are easier to grow from seed. But these little plants are really incredibly difficult, because they like really special environments. So the work of the sanctuary is to explore what would be the best way to give them this extra chance to survive, that little bit of extra toehold really. And one very important reason for this is that as climate changes, many of the low-elevation species are moving up towards higher elevations, and many of the higher-elevation species are disappearing; dying or just being dried out. 

So this is incredibly important work of caring for the immense diversity of this biome, to its plant members. And with the plants come the animals, and we’ve seen such vibrant recovery of frogs and insects within the little place that we have. Most of it was destroyed. We’ve seen how barren land can recover into an incredible diversity of plants. So in a way you can call us plant supremacists because we believe that plants are the – without the plants, nothing else will happen. But that’s just a way of saying we love plants. And someone else might work with fungi, or someone else might work with the whole, and those are all fine and valid ways of doing something for the natural world. 

DJ: You mentioned monsoon earlier, I believe. And I want to read something that you’ve written.

“Most Indians believe that the monsoon is unassailable: a wind system 18 million years old, which has breathed life into the subcontinent since the rise of the Himalayas, whose formidable heights block it from traveling to Central Asia, condensing it instead into long hard rain. Its intensity varies from year to year, but we believe it will blow. But ever since I have been here, for about 24 years now (when you wrote that) , I have heard people talking about how the monsoon has gone awry, that it is no longer what it used to be. We also know this from scientific data, but crucially for us, we know this from the behaviour of the plants and animals in our sanctuary.” 

The monsoon is changing in fundamental ways, but what if the monsoon fails? So for people living in the United States, many of us may not even know what a monsoon is. So can you talk about the monsoon and the changes you’ve witnessed and the changes you’ve read about?

SS: Anecdotally, the monsoon – people who’ve lived in these monsoon-enriched or monsoon-fed lands would talk about the day that the monsoon would arrive. Typically schools in Kerala would start the day the monsoon arrived. It was known that it would be around the first of June that you could expect the monsoon. But in the last 25 years that I’ve been there, it’s no longer clear at all when it’s going to arrive. And if it does arrive, like this year they said 29th of May, and on the 29th of May the monsoon was there. I woke up in the morning and it was that very typical monsoon quiet intensity, but steady rain, and the winds, the clouds were moving in the southwest or the northeast directions. And I was like “Wow! The monsoon is here!” But a week later there was sunshine and it’s just like “Where is the monsoon?” And then a few days later it’s just pouring. 

What’s happened is that almost every year, the monsoon has actually shifted. It seems to be coming a little bit later. July, six weeks later, and then it sort of lasts a little bit longer. And there can be long dry spells in between. There can also be monsoon-level rainfall in other months. You cannot predict it anymore. You cannot say “Oh, in that month, in August, we’re going to have ten days of,” that’s when the festivals would be organized. There would be that period of a dry couple of weeks and then some festivals would be organized then. 

DJ: So why is this important to plants, and why is this important to frogs and everybody else? 

SS: I can speak more about plants. A lot of plants seem to – before the monsoon; March, April, May; you have these very powerful electrical thunderstorms and these short evening thundershowers. The lightning is really fierce and the thunderstorms are magnificent, so you know that in this period it’s sort of building up. But what happens is if there is a monsoon type of rainfall, which is day-long rain, and sustained over many days, the plants start to think “Oh, the monsoon is here.” And then what they do is to start to put all their energy into growth. And then what happens is: it’s not the monsoon, so it dries up. And the monsoon is still a couple of months away. All this energy into new growth cannot be sustained. So plants like tuberous plants for instance; they put out a little new tuber and they’re expecting the rain to come. And they withdraw the energy from the old tuber. But if the monsoon hasn’t arrived, then they become weakened. 

So that’s an example of what happens with this. You cannot predict what is going to happen. Similarly with trees. The period of flowering is before the monsoon, and then you put your energy into making the fruit and the seed and there is going to be three months of day-long rain and it’s dark, so that’s the period of slow growth. If that doesn’t happen, if you have drought happening in the middle of the monsoon, like it’s also really hot in June or July, instead of cloud cover, if you have ten days of what we locally call a drought, that’s really bad for plants. They’re not used to that degree of sunshine and heat. 

So if you’re really small, that’s going to really affect you. If you’re large, like a tree, and it happens over two or three years, then of course there’s a buildup and tree deaths happen when there’s a sustained messing up of these seasons. 

DJ: One of the things I love about your work is that your loyalty is unabashedly with the plants, and with the land. I was just talking with someone today about how few writers there are whose loyalty to the land is clear with every word they write. Even with most environmentalists, their primary loyalty is still to this culture. Can you talk about the destructiveness of the belief that humans are fundamentally superior and that we have the right to destroy everything from the night, to silence, to the monsoon, to, what? Already 93% of the Western Ghats? Can you talk about that for a minute? 

SS: Thank you, first, for seeing, or hearing, the loyalty to the plants and to the land, because that’s true. The second is that I don’t judge the average human being, the person I meet on the street. I don’t look at them and say “Look, there goes a human supremacist.” I don’t do that kind of thing, because I do believe that there’s been a brainwashing happening over millennia in this land, with the caste system, followed by capitalism and empire and modern civilization. This systematic removal, or the breaking of connection between human beings and everyone else has been a long campaign and a long process. And so I do see that if I come into the city; I’m seeing these large mammals walking around needing water and sunshine and love and trees and this convivial life with human beings as well, and other creatures. But there is something that is driving them to get into that bus or that car, and drive across that incredibly polluted city to this work that is inside this lifeless, soulless place. They’re victims, their bodies are surely victim to this enterprise of civilization, this technological supremacist total destruction of everything that truly matters. 

When I come into the city, I see skins filtering the pollution. I see eyes tearing up with the dust. I see people coughing, and I think “Well, the best air filter ever invented in Bangalore City is the human lung, and look at the service we all are doing for the automobile industry.” Because they haven’t invented such a good air filter yet. Our skins, our livers, taking up all these toxins out of the water and out of the air and out of the soil. So such a great organ has not been invented yet, and so what makes anyone think that we, the modern humans, are capable of inventing this incredible cleanup operation called “life”? It’s not been done yet. So if anybody’s doing it, my organs are doing it. The trees are doing it. Rats and cockroaches are doing it. Invasive species are doing it, in the sense of cleaning and combating desertification. And so we want to come up with the absolute solution of how this big problem can be fixed, and there’s no fix that we can think of yet, because it’s just not there. The only thing that’s there is life itself, that’s doing what it’s done for billions of years. 

So when I see all these journals and conferences for green solutions, I think they’re completely messed up. The only thing that’s working in that conference hall is the human body. It’s the only living thing in there. Do you see what I mean? It’s life itself that’s cleaning up. It’s not a technological solution that’s cleaning up. 

DJ: Yes, I see it. And I agree with everything you’re saying, and I think you’ll agree with this too, that when we talk about things not being solutions, I think one step in the right direction would be to stop making more toxins. 

SS: Yes. Absolutely. This fish back in our river, the fish populations in our little stream, that feeds into a major river across South India; the fish population has gone up in the last year just from preventing toxins from getting into the water. From patrolling and preventing. From making sure banana stems are not clogging up the flow, from, you know, these pesticide and chemically intensive agriculture operations, they cut these annual banana stems and chuck them into the water and that completely messes it up. And they put in dynamite and all kinds of poisons. They destroy the entire ecosystem to get a few fish. So all we did was to stop that, and we educated people. And the group that’s doing that, they went to 100 different families and said “Look, this is everybody’s river. You have no right to do this. Don’t you want to eat fish next year?” 

And that’s what they’re able to do. Fish populations are much higher this year than last year. A lot of the solutions would come from not doing those things. 

DJ: We only have a few minutes left, and I’m going to ask you a really unfair question. I know that your book is not completed yet, but at least so far, if you could have readers of that book, when it comes out, take away one thing that they know in their heart, what do you think it would be? Again, you haven’t finished the book, so I know this is completely unfair. But what comes to you? 

SS: Well, the whole world is alive and talking to us and showing us the way, and how to live and behave and educate us about behavior. So the wild world is showing us every possible thing that we can do for a beautiful life together. And what not to do. So that’s the behavior part. So can behavior shift? Yes, if you listen to the natural world deeply enough. 

DJ: Well, that sounds really wonderful. So thank you for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Suprabha Seshan. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.



Max Wilbert 09.09.18




(Sound of gray whales)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Max Wilbert. He is a third-generation organizer who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is a co-founder of the group Deep Green Resistance and longtime board member of a small, grassroots environmental non-profit with no employees and no corporate funding. His first book, a collection of pro-feminist and environmentalist essays, was recently released. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book “Bright Green Lies” (with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith) which looks at the problems with mainstream so-called “solutions” such as solar panels, electric cars, recycling, and green cities. The book makes the case that these approaches fail to protect the planet and aim at protecting empire from the effects of peak oil and ecological collapse.

So first, thank you for your decades of good work, and also, thank you for being on the program. 

MW: Thank you so much, Derrick. It’s really great to be here.

DJ: So tell me about your new book, which is called “Voices of Resistance.” Tell me about it.

MW: Sure. About five or six months ago my friend Boris Forkel, whom you know as well, who lives in Germany and does some organizing work there with Deep Green Resistance, contacted me and said “I’m interested in putting together a collection of your essays into a book form.” I was very flattered, and he wanted to take the idea and run with it. So he’s now done so, and it’s published. I have some copies here at home and have been giving a few to friends and family and selling a few to people who are interested in buying them. So, it’s now published, and this essay collection is about 200 pages long and includes essays written over a five or six year period between 2013 and this year. I’m only 30 years old so 2013 was quite awhile ago for me. So this spans a period and one thing that’s kind of interesting, I think, about the collection is you can start to see my political evolution over time as my ideas become more solid. 

One thing that you said years ago, Derrick, that I still remember is “I don’t agree with everything I’ve ever written.” I thought that was so great, because in the era of social media and books, and where everything is recorded, oftentimes people are really taken to task for things that they wrote or believed in the past. And I don’t necessarily agree with everything I have ever written that’s in this collection, but I think it’s really interesting to look at these over that span of time and see how they’ve changed. 

DJ: You know the person who really is my hero for changing his mind is Lewis Mumford. He was very pro-technology in the 1930’s, and then along came World War II and he realized, huh, maybe there are some problems with the modern machine-based society. So I have gained great courage from watching him do it. 

MW: Wow. He had quite a flip there. Yeah. I think that’s interesting. I was actually talking to somebody the other day who was at a booth promoting solar power, and one of the things I said was I used to be a big believer in solar energy. When I was a teenager, global warming was becoming a much bigger issue in the news and I was reading a lot about it, and I could see that none of the older people, none of the political leaders were doing anything about it, and so that was one of the few solutions that was presented to me that was out there in the press, and so I grabbed onto that as a lifeline. And now I’ve flipped 180°. 

DJ: So let’s talk about what’s wrong with solar in a little while. But I would like to talk more about your book first. What would you say is the overarching – if you had to condense the book into two sentences, what would they be? What is your book about? 

MW: Well, I would say, if I had to condense it down … the real points that I am trying to hammer home are first that industrial global society is destroying the planet. That’s unimpeachable fact. Nobody can avoid that reality anymore. And the second part of that sentence is that nothing that has been done thus far to address that problem is working. So whether you’re looking at political solutions, or petitions, or technological solutions, efficiency and so on, activism in general – none of it’s working because in the big picture, everything’s still getting worse. And so, given that, how do we address these problems? How do we stop the destruction of the planet, which I think is intimately tied in with racism, with patriarchy, with white supremacy, with capitalism, with all these other systems of power. So that’s what the book is about, is exploring how we address these issues.

My background – you said in my bio in the intro that I grew up in Seattle in the post-WTO era and began to gain political consciousness during that period. And it was a good time to get that education, because there was sort of a ferment of radical and revolutionary political ideas circulating in the community there. So I would say that I have been a revolutionary person for a long time. And so this book is trying to explore some of those ideas in more depth, and look at a variety of ways that they can be addressed. 

If you’d like, maybe we could dive in now and speak about some of the individual essays. 

DJ: Sure. Would you like to start with the essay “We Choose To Speak” or would you rather start with “Everyday Violence of Modern Culture”?

MW: Let’s start with “Everyday Violence of Modern Culture.” That’s a “fun” one for me. This essay, I wrote in I think 2014, 2015. And it picked up a lot of steam. Basically my goal was to tell a story of an everyday life in this culture and how we’re always surrounded by violence. So maybe I can read a little section here from it. 

DJ: Great.

MW: “First you wake up on top of a foam mattress, offgassing toxic VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) that will not biodegrade in 10,000 years. You sit up and put on your clothes, all with tags reading “Bangladesh” and “Puerto Rico” and “Dominican Republic.” These clothes were made by virtual slaves. 

You walk downstairs and fill a glass with water from a tap. The water comes from a local river that was dammed 127 years ago. Ever since, native species in the watershed have been in decline. 

You drink the water. You pour yourself a bowl of cereal. The cereal is made of wheat and corn, grown in what was once the tall grass prairie of the eastern Great Plains. 99% of that habitat, millions of acres, was plowed and utterly destroyed to grow these crops. The soil is often gone now. Your meal is only possible through fossil fuel fertilizers. 

You add milk. It comes from a factory farm nearby, where cattle are packed next to each other in squalor, and pumped full of antibiotics and rGBH, genetically modified growth hormone, to increase production. 

The cows are in pain. Their imprisonment is fouling the land around them. The cereal tastes good. 

It’s almost time for work, so you walk down to your car. You’re somewhat environmentally conscious, so you’ve bought an electric car. It makes you feel a lot better. The car has 1000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries under the hood. The lithium for those batteries was strip-mined in the Peruvian desert; the pollution and land destroyed by the mine has devastated local people’s traditional livelihoods. You get inside the car and start the engine. It’s a push-button startup system; there is a fancy LCD screen inside. It’s modern and sleek; you pull away from the curb.

You drive on paved streets to your destination. Under those streets are indigenous burial grounds. There used to be thick old-growth forest here; now it’s a trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood. There are a few run-down houses here and there; the poor people who used to live in this neighborhood and are being forced to move, many after generations here; they’re just the latest set of refugees that have walked through this place.”

And so, to skip on to towards the end of this article, I write:

“This was a very partial description of the violence in modern society. Make no mistake: this is a war. 

When we are honest about the level of violence in this culture, not resisting becomes a sickening thought.”

And so, in the essay, after the section that I just read, I continue. The person drives to their work, which is at a hospital, and the hospital was built on a meadow, which was destroyed to build this massive building. And I talk about the oil that’s used to make the paints, the pesticides that are used all around the building, the native habitat that was destroyed to make the parking garage. I talk about the old growth forests that were cut down to make the chipboard and particle board furniture in the waiting room, the materials in the computers and where those came from. And so the idea is just to help people understand the amount of violence that we’re surrounded by all the time in this culture. If you look at the origin of basically any artifact of this civilization, you’ll find a trail of devastation in its wake.

DJ: It seems that what you’re talking about is recognizing context. Recognizing chains of supply.  In some ways, you have just described much of our book Bright Green Lies, because that book – you know, it’s great! I’ve got groovy solar panels here! This is wonderful! I’ve got a groovy electric car! But then when you follow back the chain of supply, you find that it’s intimately associated with, and necessarily associated with, destruction in Mongolia, destruction in South America like you were saying, and that’s inherent in all of these processes. 

MW: Right. And I think the important thing for me, too, is to think about it systematically, because people like to isolate these individual things. You know, I was talking to that solar panel person I mentioned a minute ago, and he was saying the biggest benefit that he feels from having solar panels on his house in the woods in southern Oregon is that he feels really independent and separated from the grid. And I said “Well okay, that’s fine but what about the solar panel production facility? What about the global supply chain that exists to mine the silicon and smelt it and fabricate that into solar panels and assemble it and deliver it to your location?” You can’t just say “I feel independent” and completely ignore that part of the equation. Nonetheless, that’s what the mainstream environmental movement, and really most people in this culture, are doing on a day-to-day basis. So I think once you start to trace those supply chains, then you start to get a sense that no, these aren’t sort of unnecessary byproducts of the modern way of life. This is really fundamental to the structure of this civilization. And it’s not even really dependent on technology. You can go back to Ancient Rome, for example, and look at their food supply, and they were largely getting their grain from North Africa, with agricultural practices that completely destroyed the northern coastline and the northern plains of Africa. This very extractive model of agriculture. And that was what fed the empire. That was what kept the armies marching. 

So obviously there are plenty of examples of cultures that haven’t lived in that extractive, destructive way. But I need to think about it systematically in order to see that the problems aren’t isolated. They’re not technical problems. They’re broad, structural problems. 

DJ: You know, have you noticed that oftentimes if you say solar panels are destructive, or choose whatever example you want. Have you noticed that oftentimes people respond by saying “Well, why don’t you just kill yourself?” 

MW: Yeah.

DJ: This huge jump from pointing out that something required slavery, to suggesting you kill yourself. I’m sure that’s happened to you, right? 

MW: Yeah, and a similar one, again, to continue the story of this guy I was talking to about solar just this past weekend. We were chatting for awhile and I was trying to pick out the root of his beliefs, and he said something like “Growth is going to continue and accelerate, and get faster. We’re going to have population growth. We’re going to have expansion of the society. So given that, let’s use solar to reduce the amount of harm.” And my response was “Whoah whoah whoah. Given that, if you give up that point, then you’ve lost everything.” I mean, there is no use fighting at that point. So that’s what these people are thinking, is because they’re not willing to grapple with these fundamental issues of growth and the sort of death culture imperative that this empire, this global civilization is running on, or has at its core. Because they’re not willing to grapple with that core idea in a serious way, then their only options are either kill yourself or work on these “harm reduction” approaches that are really tepid and end up often, almost always supporting the system rather than reducing impacts. 

DJ: So, given all this, what do you propose? Or would you rather – maybe this is what you propose. Do you want to talk about your next essay? 

MW: Sure. So I’ll jump through two here real quick. There’s an essay in here called “Utah: The Next Energy Colony.” I wrote this in 2013. At the time, I was living in Utah and I was involved in resistance to a tar sands extraction project in northeastern Utah in what’s called the Uinta Basin, which is a region of a massive amount of oil extraction and fracking. The air quality in the Uinta Basin, which is this very rural county – I’d be surprised if the population is over 15-20 thousand in a large one or two county area – the air quality is worse than in Los Angeles and the infant mortality is off the charts. And it’s because of these types of operations, especially the fracking. They’ve got a tar sands project in there that companies have been trying to figure out how to extract in a profitable way for a long time, and just recently news broke about a new project by the company Enefit, which is an Estonian company, to do 13,000 acres of strip mining in this region, northeastern Utah. And this one project would produce 200 million tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants per year. It’s one of the most carbon-intensive fuels on earth.

So given that the oil companies are moving towards these sort of last dregs of the oil that they can find on the planet, it’s no surprise to me that solar and wind are increasingly popular, because they’re just looking for any sort of power to fuel their empire. 

DJ: Can you stop for a second? Can you do like two paragraphs on that right there? Because that’s a hugely important point. 

MW: Sure. One of the things that I always like to say about this is that Barack Obama had an energy policy that was called “The All of the Above Energy Policy.” And by that he meant that his government was going to facilitate and work to promote oil extraction, fracking, coal, natural gas of all sorts, as well as hydro, wind energy, solar energy. They wanted it all. And I actually think this is the most rational policy for empire to have. When you contrast that with the Republicans, for example Trump; one of the first things he did was slash some of the subsidies for solar manufacturing in this country. And that’s not a very rational policy. It’s an ideological position that the Republicans are taking because that’s sort of the culture that they’ve created, this intentionally “anti-environmental” culture.

But in reality, I think the Obama policy is actually worse in a lot of ways, because empires are powered by energy. There’s a professor out at the University of Utah, a climate scientist named Tim Garrett who created a climate model that basically looks at industrial civilization as a heat engine. And the more energy you put into it, the more pollution and destruction it creates. And that model has actually been more accurate than a lot of the other climate models that are being used in the climate science realm. So, again, I think the All of the Above energy policy is the most rational policy if you’re trying to grow the economy, expand population, expand consumption and increase the power of your empire. So to me it’s no surprise that as oil supplies become increasingly stretched, and as oil companies are forced to move further and further to the fringes in search of deepwater drilling in the oceans and tar sands and oil shale and fracking; all these things are very expensive, they have low margins; it’s no surprise that wind and solar and other so-called renewable energy sources are booming, because it’s highly profitable and this society needs energy to run everything. Data centers – the U.S. military is actually a big promoter of so-called “green energy” because it allows military bases to be more self-sufficient and not as dependent on fuel convoys, which have been a major target in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. So any time the U.S. military is on board with technological “solutions,” then I think we need to be really wary of that. 

DJ: So what you’re suggesting is that the rise in subsidies for wind and solar is not, propaganda aside, so much a response to global warming as it is a response to ever-increasing energy demands, along with the peak production of easily accessible oil. 

MW: Yeah, absolutely. And if you look at – there’s a professor here at the University of Oregon – I live near Eugene in western Oregon – there’s a professor here, Richard York, who’s done a lot of research on this. And most people assume that if you bring online a solar generation facility, that  allows you to turn off a fossil fuel power plant, for example. Because that’s the goal after all, right? That’s what people assume is the goal.

DJ: That’s the stated goal. 

MW: Right. But the reality is that there is essentially very little to no displacement. That’s what this effect is called. So in practice, in order to turn off, say, a fossil fuel power plant, you have to bring on 11 times that amount of power in so-called “green energy,” wind and solar and so on. And what that means in practice is that the fossil fuels aren’t getting turned off at all. The new so-called “green” energies are just being added on top of what was already there. So, once again, it’s all about escalation and growing the system. It’s not about trying to protect the planet in any way. 

DJ: Thank you for that. And I interrupted you a long time ago when you were talking about the Uinta Basin. 

MW: Yeah. So I can just read a quick excerpt from that article.

“Looking out across a landscape that might soon be a wasteland, my gaze wanders across the juniper, scrub oak, and sagebrush that wrap gently over the hillsides and drop into the valleys. The setting sun casts waning light on the treetops, and a small herd of elk climbs a ridge in the distance and disappears into the brush. Overhead, the few clouds in the broad sky fade from red to deep purple, then to darkness.

The last birds of the day sing their goodnight songs, and the stars begin to appear, thousands of them, lighting up the night sky and casting a dull glow across the countryside. I take a deep breath, tasting the cool night air spiced with the scents of the land.

 The bats are out, flitting about snatching tasty morsels out of midair. I can hear their voices. They are calling to me. Tiny voices carrying across miles to whisper in your ear like the tickle of a warm breeze. ‘Fight back,’ they say. ‘Please, fight back. This is our home. We need you to do what it takes to stop this. Whatever it takes to stop this.’”

So when I wrote that article, the place that I wrote about was actually right next to the mine, which at the time was only about three acres. It was a test mine. Since then, it has expanded to I believe over a hundred acres, and has destroyed all the locations I was writing about in that article. So like I said, things are getting worse. 

DJ: You know, a question I ask all the time is: if delta smelt could take on human manifestation, how long would the pumps on the Sacramento River last? Or if sea turtles could take on human manifestation, how long would the factories producing plastic last? It seems that so much of our response to the murder of the planet is so disconnected. 

You know, I see, a lot – for the longest time, people were sort of denying the analysis that you make here, the analysis that seems so obvious, that this culture is inherently destructive. I mean, there are people who have seen it, all the way back to Tertullian and before. And it seems that so often, when people get to the stage of actually doing what’s necessary to protect that, or the Colorado River, or delta smelt or sea turtles; there is at the last moment a failure of connection. 

MW: Yeah. And that’s actually in some ways what the next article is about. This is an article I wrote this past winter called “Lost in Pocatello,” and the article is basically about unpleasant work. This past winter I went up to the Buffalo Field Campaign base camp in Montana on the border of Yellowstone National Park, where they work to protect the last remaining migratory buffalo from destruction, which is largely being perpetrated by the National Park Service. And as part of getting up there – I didn’t have access to a car, flights were incredibly expensive, there was no bus option or any public transit option. So I rented a car to Pocatello, a one-way car, and I drove it up there and arrived early in the morning, and then my friends who were also going up to the camp were going to pick me up. So I dropped the car at the rental place, and this article sort of tells the story of what happened next, which is that I had eight hours or so to kill in Pocatello, which, if you’ve been in Pocatello in February, it’s not the most happening place. And I had a big backpack and a second backpack and a big box of food that I was bringing up there. So I got lost walking around the city and I ended up walking for miles and miles, and getting exhausted and hungry, and the wind was just whipping through there. I kept dropping my box. 

Long story short: it was just really uncomfortable. It wasn’t really that big a deal in the end. I was totally fine, but the theme of the article, or the reason I wrote it, was to impress on people that a lot of the work in organizing and resistance is not that exciting. It’s not that glamorous. A lot of it is just really hard and tedious. Sometimes it’s traveling and not sleeping, sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s meetings, or moderating conflicts. Sometimes it’s training. And the point of this essay is to prepare people to put in that real hard work, without glamorizing things. And you know we live in such a culture of self-gratification and short-term thinking that most people aren’t willing to make sacrifices. I think most people are just so traumatized, too. It’s hard to even think about resisting. I think a lot of people just want to be at home in their beds, in their safe places, and not get out there and do anything. 

DJ: You know, decades ago now, I saw, I think it was Michael Parenti – gosh, this was like 1991 or something. He was talking about the stuff Mike Parenti talks about, and he did this aside where he just started, he goes off on comic books. His complaint was that he thought that superheroes are basically a neoliberal model of problem solving. 

MW: Oh, yeah.

DJ: In that it’s one individual – most of us don’t do anything. Most of the people in Gotham – is Gotham the one with Batman? 

MW: Yup.

DJ: So most of the people in Gotham don’t do anything, and they leave Batman to create all these sort of technical fixes and to solve all the problems. 

MW: Yeah, absolutely. I think you could look at Iron Man as another great example of that. It’s this sort of neoliberal libertarian fantasy of the ultra-rich misogynist asshole CEO saves the whole world with his money, basically.

DJ: Wait! Did you just say “Atlas Shrugged”?

MW: (laughing) No. I’m not sure what you misheard there. But I was talking about Iron Man.

DJ: No, I think what I heard correctly was a rich libertarian saving the world.

MW: Oh yeah. I’m glad to say I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, so that’s why it went over my head. 

DJ: So this reminds me of – there’s a great line by Kathleen Dean Moore where she – if you ask her what can one person do, in terms of stopping the murder of the planet, she always responds “Don’t be one person.” And what she means by that is organizing. So can you talk about organizing a little bit? 

MW: Sure. So one quick point on that, that I’ll make, and then I’ll jump ahead to a whole essay that’s about it. One of the essays in this collection is sort of a book reflection on a book called “I Write What I Like,” which is about Steve Biko and the anti-apartheid struggle. Biko was the anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa who was killed at age 30 after being beaten severely by the police while he was in custody. 

So this is the quote. “A number of organizations now currently ‘fighting against apartheid’ are working on an oversimplified premise. They have taken a brief look at what is, and have diagnosed the problem incorrectly. They have almost completely forgotten about the side effects and have not even considered the root cause. Hence whatever is improved as a remedy will hardly cure the condition.”

And I think that that’s a great quote to throw out whenever we talk about organizing, because from the beginning, if we’re organizing around those false premises, if we have not considered the root cause, then our organizing is not even going to lead us in the right direction. 

So I have a whole essay in here about organizing. This essay is called fifteen points on organizing. And I can just share a few of the points. Like I say in this article, I’m by no means an expert but I have gained some experience. So this list is not to be considered definitive or faultless by any means, but these are a few things I feel like I’ve learned. 

So: point one. Reliable, self-motivated people are irreplaceable. One solid person is worth a dozen who don’t follow through on commitments or who never act with initiative. Two: beware of abusive and toxic people, as well as those who have nothing to bring but drama and distraction. Set boundaries.

DJ: Okay, hold on a second. Years ago I had two surgeries done at Scripps Green Clinic just north of San Diego. And one of the things that blew me away is every single person, from janitor to surgeon, to everybody else, was remarkably kind. And when I go into the local hospital, sometimes the technicians are pretty nice, but a lot of times a lot of the people there just aren’t very nice. 

MW: Right. 

DJ: So I’ve thought a lot about institutional personality. And you know we’ve all experienced this, where you go to one store and everybody’s always really nice, and you go to another store and quite often people are not so nice. And I happened to be at a board meeting (this is going to have a point) I was asked to be at a board meeting for Patagonia. And everybody there seemed really nice, and I had a chance to talk to their human resource manager about this exact question. And he was saying that basically it’s really crucial that you choose the right people in the first place. That for them, creating a culture – sure, it starts with people being nice to each other in general, but also, when you recruit new members, one of your criteria, one of your goals has to be to make sure that the people who come in are going to fulfill numbers one and two. This is a long way of saying that I think that what you’re saying is absolutely crucial. I think that’s more important than technical skills. 

MW: Yeah.

DJ: Sorry. That was a long distraction. 

MW: No, thanks for that. So, just to – I can throw out a few more of these and then maybe we can move on. But number three is social skills are profoundly important for organizing. Cultivate these skills, avoid stereotyping or dismissing people based on their lifestyle, job, or any first impression you may have. Number seven is humility, respect, and appreciation for others are the foundation of relationships. Shared hardships, struggle and joy are the mortar that cements these bonds. Build friendships and caring relationships with the people you organize with. Number eight is do what you say you will do, follow up on commitments and responsibilities, and don’t give your word lightly. Number twelve is sometimes you have to take risks. Number thirteen is never stop learning. Deepen your wisdom and plan to become an elder and mentor as you age. And then number fifteen, the last one, is be so stubborn they’ll never stop you. Never give up. 

So those are a few of the points, but with that article I was just aiming to give people some really concrete recommendations for how to approach organizing, a mental attitude to bring to it, and a few practical pieces of advice as well. 

DJ: You know, I was thinking about number seven, the one about build friendships and caring relationships with the people you organize with? That reminded me of something that Vince Emanuele says. He says somebody will call up and say “Hey, do you want to go to a protest?” And he’ll respond “We haven’t been to lunch.” The point is he wants to know who you are before  he goes to a protest with you. I think there’s something to that.

MW: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s about trust. When you’re talking about engaging in serious political work you really need to have a high level of trust for people. That’s a huge barrier in today’s atomized society. Everyone spends more time with their machines than they actually do with each other, and that’s not our individual fault really, of course. That’s what the society is set up to do. Alienate us all and get us all addicted to the screens and so on, and break down the social relationships. People buy more when they’re unhappy, so it strengthens the system. 

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left. Do you want to talk about one or two more essays and then we’ll start to give conclusions? 

MW: Sure. Let’s see. So the next essay that I’ll talk about here is a quick one, which is the importance of skills and equipment for resistance movements. One of the things that’s interesting to me about this essay collection is; there’s a saying in military strategy that something like “Those without experience talk about strategy, those with a little bit of experience talk about tactics, and those with a lot of experience talk about logistics.” And the basic idea is that it’s easy to talk about how something might happen, but once you’re getting down to the actual boots on the ground logistics of how exactly we’re going to carry it out, steps a b c d, how’s everyone going to eat? How are they going to get to where they’re going to be? Where’s everyone going to sleep? What sorts of supplies and skills do we need? Then you’re really getting to the meat of what you’re trying to do. And so one thing that’s interesting to me about this essay collection is over time I can see my work shifting from the more theoretical, sort of big picture stuff to more focused logistical work. And that’s what this essay is about.

This essay starts with looking at, for example, Standing Rock. So many people were watching the news at Standing Rock, and what you saw was giant crowds of protesters and resistance figures, and the police and the National Guard, or the BIA, and all the other federal agencies on the other side. And the difference in the amount of training and skills and equipment is stunning in those situations. The cops have their communications systems, their radios. They have their weapons, their armor. They have vehicles, they have command and control networks. They have crowd control. They have StingRay devices. They have helicopters. They have SWAT teams. And meanwhile, most of the protesters have pants and a t-shirt, basically. Maybe a cellphone. So this essay is all about how we need to work to even the playing field by gaining real skills and acquiring and practicing with equipment that’s necessary to be more effective in conflict situations, especially when you’re talking about an asymmetric conflict where one side has much more power than the others, which is pretty much every situation that we’re going to find ourselves in. We really need to be prepared, and that’s something that we haven’t really seen from resistance movements thus far. And I think if we’re starting to talk about moving from protest and making our voice heard to actual resistance and revolution, then we need to start talking about supplies and equipment and skills. 

DJ: I’m thinking about a couple of quotes, having to do with the quartermaster question. Three quotes. Maybe four. One of them is the classic “An army fights on its stomach.” Two by Rommel. I believe he said something like “Most battles are won by the quartermaster.” And then another by Rommel is “When two soldiers are fighting, the one who put the extra cartridge in his rifle is the one who wins.” I can’t remember the last one now, but they’re all saying the same thing. Everything we’re talking about is leading to the question of moving towards a serious resistance movement. To use a cliché: moving out of our comfort zones and into a serious resistance. It seems to me that that’s much of what your essays are about. 

MW: Yeah. And, just to highlight that, probably the most discomfiting article in this collection is the one called “Ecological Special Forces.” This article is about the need for people to operate in a professional, even military-like fashion, for effective resistance, and especially similar to how Special Forces commandos operate, given that these groups are usually operating in a situation where at least locally it’s an asymmetric situation. They’re outnumbered and they don’t control the area. 

So the first official commando units were created in the 1940’s by the British military, but they were just emulating people who had been doing it for a long time. They drew a lot of direct inspiration from Palestinian fighters who were able to tie down these large, much more powerful Imperial British Army units in the 1930’s. And so this article looks at; what are the characteristics of Special Forces units? And it’s things like physical fitness, training with infantry weapons, focus on stealth, being comfortable operating in darkness and all kinds of weather, capability to operate on the water, flexibility and self-direction, operating in small units. I think that’s a really interesting case study when you look at something like Standing Rock, where you have thousands and thousands of people coming from all over the country to participate in this resistance, and many of the most effective direct actions that were taken against the pipeline were run by groups of five to ten people, or even fewer in many cases. So oftentimes smaller is better. 

And, again, the commandos or Special Forces units; they really focused on things like target selection and intelligence; having the right information at the right time to make the critical decisions. 

So I think we need to start thinking more like revolutionaries, and one of my favorite quotes in regards to this is from Michael McFaul, who was a Rhodes Scholar and a professor at Stanford, and he was on the National Security Council. And the quote is: “Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible. In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable.” And I love that quote because when it seems impossible, which it often does to me, I go back to that quote and I hope that in a year or in five years or ten years or fifty years, people will be looking back and saying “It was inevitable that some people were going to take things into their own hands and dismantle this global industrial empire, because it was murdering the planet and that was the only option people had for survival. So some people were brave enough and smart enough to organize and make it happen.”

DJ: So thank you so much for that. Two things before we close. One of them is how can people get this book? And the second is how can people join you in this struggle? 

MW: If people want to learn more about the book and order a copy, my website is So people can connect with me there. And the other way people can support or get involved is look up the group Deep Green Resistance. I would really recommend people do that. I want people to give moral support, but I want people to go beyond that. I want people to take responsibility for learning the skills themselves that are necessary for carrying out effective resistance, to normalize those skills in our communities, and to really build a true revolutionary sentiment and to take action. 

DJ: Well thank you so much for all that. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Max Wilbert. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Chris Hedges 08.25.18




(Sound of a storm)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Chris Hedges. He is a New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning war correspondent who for two decades covered conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He returned to the United States to become a powerful social critic and critic of capitalism, and is the author of a dozen books, including War is a Force that Gives us Meaning; Death of the Liberal Class; and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He is a columnist for Truthdig and the host of the Emmy-nominated show On Contact on RT America.

So first, thank you, as always, for all of your great work, and second, thank you for being on the program. 

CH: Sure.

DJ: So what does life look like at the end of empire?

CH: Well, that is a very interesting question, because it is exactly the question I asked two years ago when I set out to write my new book, America: The Farewell Tour, which will be out in August. What life looks like in a decayed society is expressed through various pathologies that we see all around us. Suicide, opioid addictions and of course overdoses. The false idea that we can build an economy and rescue ourselves from debt peonage through gambling. And the industry has become quite adept at feeding the addiction of gambling. In fact, I found, in the book, that gamblers, as an addicted group, have the highest rates of suicide. Hate crimes, sexual sadism, which you have spoken out against, and which very few people on the left have had the courage to emulate, or critique. Morbid obesity. These are all examples of a society in deep distress. And those problems are not solved by more rehabilitation clinics, or more Gamblers Anonymous meetings. They are solved by restoring the moral health of the society. Which of course are the things, those pathologies and the decay, that are getting worse under the Trump administration and the kleptocrats that he has put into power.

So the end of empire looks – and the end of all empire is really defined by both moral decadence  and physical decay and despair, and is expressed through aberrant behavior. I mean, we see almost every other day in this country a mass shooting, this nihilistic violence. I was looking at Émile Durkheim’s brilliant work at the end of the 19th century on suicide, where he made that argument, that suicide is the product, he called it “anomie,” of people who became disconnected from their communities, lost control of their lives, and fell into deep despondency or despair. Just look around us. The physical decay, the moral decay, and the way it’s expressed is embraced by this very sick and frightening culture, which is manifested in a figure like Trump. I always say Trump is not the disease. Trump is the symptom. 

DJ: Okay, I’m going to read a quote, which you knew I was going to get to at some point. I’m going to read a quote by Edward Gibbon, and then, after that, the question I’m going to ask you is why does this happen at the end of empire? Why are there these commonalities of, sort of, macrosociology becoming micropsychology? Or something? Here’s the quote. This is Gibbon writing in the 1780’s about the end of the Roman empire. 

“The five marks of the decaying Roman culture: Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth. Obsessions with sex and perversions of sex. Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original. Widening disparity between very rich and very poor. Increased demand to live off the state.”

And I just find that so remarkably, I want to say “prescient” but it wasn’t prescient because he was writing history. And so how does this happen, that there are these commonalities through the end of empire? Why is this? 

CH: Because you build, and this was true in the decline of the Roman Empire – you build an elite and a bureaucracy that will serve that elite, that is diverted from the common good towards the empowerment and enrichment of a tiny cabal. In the case of ancient Rome it was the ruling families who, like the Bushes and the Clintons, would just trade positions. You had, after the rise of Augustus, traditional – I don’t know that Rome ever achieved the democracy of ancient Athens, but you had a senate that became a kind of parody of what it had been. The form of the senate remained, but it was stripped of any real democratic power.

Essentially what happens is that any time a cabal, whether it’s oligarchic or corporate or fascist or communist, seizes power, you create a system of paralysis, which is of course what we’ve created. Because all institutions that once made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, i.e. gave a voice to the grievances and protected, to a certain extent – I don’t want to be too utopian about America, but to a certain extent protected the civil liberties of the populace. Everything is now directed toward this tiny cabal and their particular desires and lusts. And everybody else is ignored. They don’t count anymore. 

And so once you reach that point, then these totalitarian systems, while they are different in terms of some of the details, function essentially in the same manner. And because there is a kind of disemboweling of the state, all of these systems look for scapegoats to blame for the kind of precipitous decline. Totalitarian systems, autocratic systems also do spectacle and entertainment very well. Cicero writes about how in ancient Rome, as the democracy decayed and the oligarchic class seized complete control, it staged more and more elaborate spectacles in the arena, so that people’s emotional and intellectual life were invested in the absurd, in the trivial and the banal, in the salacious. We forget that there was a huge sexual component to the kind of entertainment industry at the end of ancient Rome. There are marked characteristics, and I would call them pathologies, that express themselves in a dying culture. And of course one of them is what anthropologists call the “crisis cult.” Crisis cults are where you retreat into magical thinking when you can’t cope with the onslaught of reality. So we saw, for instance, at the end of the genocidal campaigns in the late 19th century, in 1890, 1889, the rise of the Ghost Dance, where if you put on a particular shirt you could stop the bullets. You threw the Ghost Dance and the white Americans, Euro-Americans would disappear, all the dead warriors would rise up from the ground, the herds of buffalo would come back. But that takes place in all decayed societies. I think that that’s how we have to look at the Christian right, as a crisis cult. The Rapture. The end times. 

So we’re very far advanced. And what we’re really waiting for, which isn’t going to be that long in coming, is another economic collapse. And this time around, the oligarchs don’t have a plan B. They already have reduced rates to zero. There were actually moments in Europe when they were below zero. They were paying people to borrow money. Banks were paying businesses to borrow money. And what have they done? We’ve subsidized the financial industry, Wall Street, Citibank, etc., to the tune of trillions of dollars. That money has to be paid back, even though it’s lent at virtually 0% interest, and instead of investing in the country, as China by the way did after the 2008 crisis, and building New Deal-type infrastructure projects, all they’ve done is what Marx called “fictitious capital,” use money to make money, primarily through debt peonage. So they borrow money at 0% interest and then shove these student loans down the throats of college students, if you’re late on your credit card it’s 28% interest, all sorts of hidden fees in medical bills, even if you have insurance. But that’s not a sustainable system. The housing bubble is now back, the stock market is highly inflated. What did the oligarchs do with these huge tax cuts? Well, they didn’t invest in workers, they didn’t raise wages, they didn’t hire more workers. They bought back their stock. So the value of the stock increases artificially and then the managers or the CEO’s of these companies, because their compensation is tied to the value of stock, get huge bonuses. But it’s completely cannibalistic, and one of the things given mention in that quote, which is true, is that you – and also, by the way, Karl Marx wrote about this, although Marx was steeped in the classics, so he knew Gibbon – was that then these entities begin to consume the government, consume the bureaucracy, consume the system that actually makes, in this case, capitalist democracy possible. So, for instance, we’re watching the destruction of public, the privatization of public education into these charter schools, these vocational schools. We’re watching private companies; Booz Allen Hamilton, 99% of its budget comes from the government. The rise of mercenary forces. They are extracting – and of course they want to privatize Social Security. They are extracting the very marrow from the structures of power that sustains the system itself. 

So all of this is kind of swirling around us and is really waiting for a crisis to trigger what I think will be a very frightening period in American history.

DJ: There’s another question I want to ask, but before I get there, can you talk for a moment about the relationship between end of empire and death squads? It seems as economic systems collapse – I believe you used the word “scapegoat” earlier. I think about the relationship between the economic collapse of the twenties and the rise of fascism, the rise of the KKK in the United States in the teens and twenties. And then you’ve written about this in an entirely different context with Chaco Canyon and death squads there at the end of empire. Can you talk about either state or non-state violence – let’s call it reactionary violence at the end of empire?

CH: Right. What sustains empire is a fictitious ideology. In the case of the United States it’s a respect for democracy – and I’m saying this is fictitious, but it’s a respect for democracy, for human rights, for the ability of everybody to get a fair chance. And when that ideology collapses and is exposed as a lie, and of course the ruling economic ideology is neoliberalism, which no longer has any credibility across the political spectrum. That’s how Trump got elected, that’s why Bernie Sanders was able to run such a powerful insurgency within the Democratic Party, although the Democratic Party made sure he didn’t get the nomination. I mean, they rigged the primary, sewing up the nomination. 

So when that ruling ideology no longer has any credibility, then the elites only have violence left in order to maintain control. So they’re punishing the population more and more, to maintain the opulence of their lifestyles. I mean, you have CEO salaries that are 5000 times what their workers are making. The Walmart family I think makes $11,000 an hour for doing nothing but being part of the Walmart family. So you need coercion and force because the ideology, the ruling ideology is no longer effective. All we have to do is look at marginal communities in this country, primarily populated by people of color, to see exactly the forms of social control that are going to become even more widespread. So you deindustrialize cities and you redline them to leave behind primarily people of color, African-Americans in particular, and then you need a form of social control because there’s no work unless they go into the illegal economy. And so you create this massive prison system. We imprison 25% of the world’s prison population though we are only 5% of the world’s population. Half of the people in our prison complexes didn’t even commit a violent crime. All of this, by the way, was put into place largely by the Clinton administration and by Joe Biden, who is going to run for president in 2020.

And then you create, I would call them death squads. Militarized police forces that kill in these communities indiscriminately, with utter impunity. You take away people’s due process, and virtually nobody in these marginal communities has the right to a jury trial. They’re forced to plea out. 94% or something within our system never had a jury trial. They essentially have their rights as citizens removed. And Hannah Arendt wrote about this in The Origins of Totalitarianism when she’s talking about the stateless within Europe. Under the rise of fascism, she herself was stateless after being held for three weeks by the Gestapo and was expelled to France. So you’re stripped of your citizenship, the French don’t give you citizenship, and she said once you live in a society where rights become privileges, you create both legal and in effect physical mechanisms to strip a segment of that, demonize a segment of that society (in our case, people of color, primarily African-Americans) of their rights. But in a time of distress, or unrest, or social or financial collapse, everyone can be stripped of their rights with the flick of a switch, because you already have both the legal and the physical mechanisms in place. And I would include ICE, of course, as part of that.

So that is why societies, at the end, become so brutal. And it was fascinating when I was visiting Chaco Canyon and reading the work of the anthropologists who studied the late culture of the Chaco Empire, perhaps the biggest indigenous empire in North America, that it again replicated the way societies in terminal decline always seem to play out.

DJ: So part of what I’m hearing you say is that there is a sense in which rights, for those who at least  are somewhat on the inside of the gated community, but not at the very center, are in a sense luxuries, from the perspective of the system. Luxuries that the system can afford so long as it is still able to steal enough from the colonies, really. And then when that becomes endangered, we, those at the center, get down to business and sort of drop off all these rights that we can no longer afford. Is that kind of what this is talking about?

CH: Well, yes, in the sense that as long as, let’s call it the middle class, is not restive. As long as most of the society is passive in the face of this kleptocracy, which always characterizes late empire, then you don’t need brutal forms of coercion to keep them under control. But if you have, say, economic collapse, which we’re headed towards, and of course the most dire aspect of financial collapse will be the decision on the part of the rest of the world to no longer make the dollar the reserve currency – and we know what that looks like. All you have to do is look at Britain in the 1950’s when the pound sterling was dropped as the world’s reserve currency – then the value of the dollar plunges. Exports become exponentially more expensive and you can’t maintain empire. U.S. treasury bonds become worthless, people won’t want to buy them.

So at that point, then, the ruling oligarchs, corporate oligarchs in this case, will need these harsher forms of control in order to continue to prey upon the population to extract obscene profit and to keep people in line. You never want to build a society where a segment of your society, as we have done, in essence is stripped of their rights. That’s not a particularly sophisticated concept. Because ruling elites as rapacious as ours will never stop there, and history has borne that out over and over and over.

DJ: And one of the reasons that collapse of empire leads to increased racism, xenophobia, etc., it seems to me, is that, you know, I can get along fine with people of all colors and religions and everything else, but if I just lost my job, and I have been trained not to see capitalism as the problem, or the ruling elites as the problem, instead, I can come to perceive this as “I lost my job because of those damned people from Mexico.” Or because of African-Americans, or because of – I can come up with all sorts of, there can be – when I’m trained, again, to identify with the system itself, pledged my allegiance to the system, then I can look for scapegoats anywhere else to – when I have very real – you know, the farm crisis has been very real. The independent farmers have been driven out of business and driven off their land. And we can talk about the takeover of small farms by Big Ag, and that’s true, but – here’s the point. I interviewed a long time ago Joel Dyer, who wrote a book called “Harvest of Rage,” about how a lot of these farmers were ending up far right. And he said part of the problem was that, in this case, they’re very desperate, because the land that’s been in their family for four generations is being foreclosed on, and he said at that point that the left was doing a really terrible job of reaching out to them, and the right, the far right, the racist right, was doing a wonderful job of reaching out to them. And he said basically if you’re sitting there ready to kill yourself, your family’s gone, your land’s gone, and somebody knocks on your door; if they’re Mormons reaching out to you, you’re going to become a Mormon. And if they’re far right, you’re going to become far right. And if they were far left, if the lefties would have done a job of reaching out, they might have gone left. And I think there’s some truth to that.

I’m throwing a whole mishmash at you. Take anything you want and run with it. 

CH: So what happened with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, as Stuart Hall has written, is that there was a conscious effort on the part of corporate power to dismantle the New Deal. And so they had to shift the whole perception of government. And that’s where you get Reagan’s thing, you know, government’s not part of the solution, government’s part of the problem. And to replace that idea of government as one that fosters community and makes sure everyone has a chance, and protects the vulnerable, etc., the ruling elites built this ideology of “Your national identity is under attack from these forces.” From these foreign forces. Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans. And if you look at the commercial media, they never talk about capitalism. That’s a word you’re never going to hear, even on MSNBC. And so any imperialist, any capitalist critics – you know this as well as anyone – have already been pushed to the margins of society. And what we’re seeing, because these people no longer have a counterargument to the ruling ideology, is that they are creating mechanisms to shut even our voices down, because they can’t answer these criticisms. Not in a rational way.

So you see the rise of this anonymous group prop or not, propaganda or not, where they take left wing websites, including the ones that I write for, that republish my stuff, and accuse them of being in the service of Russia – of a foreign power. And then they get Google and Facebook and Twitter to impose algorithms, which they have done, to essentially divert traffic away from left wing sites like TruthDig, where I have a column every Monday. And we have seen impressions. Impressions are: if you were to type “imperialism” into Google and I had written a recent article on imperialism, it would appear. Now you will be diverted to the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, but you won’t be directed to TruthDig, or any other left wing site. 

And so, impressions on TruthDig have gone down in the last year, and that is traffic referred to TruthDig has gone down from over 700,000 to below 200,000. The World Socialist Website has seen its traffic drop by 80-something percent. Alternet by 63%. And then coupled with this is the revoking of Net Neutrality that allows them to create tiers within the system to slow down access to these sites. This is why I have a show on RT America, because I don’t have anywhere else to go. I can’t even go on public broadcasting, unsurprisingly given the fact that the Koch brothers fund the news hour and are huge contributors to public broadcasting, along with all sorts of other corporate entities.

So you are creating a society, by intent, and this is again going back to the destruction of public education, where people don’t even have to ask the questions because they’re not even given enough information to ask the questions. And then they’re easily manipulated – we saw Trump do this – to blame the outsider for the social and political and financial and cultural decay. And the worse it gets, the more the state, the despotic state, sanctions violence against the outsider as a kind of safety valve to direct that anger away from the cabal that has seized power. That’s just classic despotic rule and that’s something that we are rapidly approaching.

DJ: So one thing that terrifies me is that we have what seems to me a very bad confluence here. You have, at the end of empire – Chaco Canyon is really interesting, that you had the death squads there and you had the other problems there, you had these same – and the same with the Roman Empire, because we can talk about the end of empire, and we can also talk about the iron cages that Max Weber talked about, and we can talk about technology just hemming us in. We can talk about television as the world’s best propagandistic tool of the time, and now the Internet, the same way. And with the control of flow of information, combine that with – I’ve done interviews about, and have read about, and have thought about lot; the decline of long-form thinking that has been taking place over the last, especially the last 40 years. If you get these dreadful symptoms at the end of empire anyway, and then, when I interviewed Robert Jay Lifton decades ago, I asked him if technology exacerbates psychic numbing, that he talks about in his work, and he laughed and said “Technology exacerbates everything.” 

And it seems to me that this is a confluence that makes the end of this empire much more fraught than – and we haven’t even talked about ecological collapse yet. But leaving that aside, this still makes this end of empire, it seems to me, far more dangerous than many previous empires.

CH: Well, because the systems of indoctrination are so much more sophisticated, along with the systems of surveillance and control. So you’re right. We’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, the Stasi state in East Germany was child’s play compared to what the United States has set up.

You’ve called them; it’s a term you use that I steal from you all the time; you call these things “electronic hallucinations.” They are designed to destroy thought. That’s why you gotta stay off them. I’m not on any social media. I don’t own a television. And yet you can’t escape it. Even I know who Stormy Daniels is, and Roseanne’s meltdown. But you don’t want them both seizing control of your time and also conditioning you for these constant adrenaline hits that destroy your capacity to sit down and actually think.

As you know, I wrote a book called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” that talked about the danger of severing ourselves from a print-based culture and embracing spectacle and illusion. What’s happening now to the commercial news media is that it is a full partner in the reality show presidency. They largely created Trump. I mean, NBC created the fictional personality of Trump on The Apprentice, which he then used to sell to the American public. It’s all burlesque all the time. I find it just terrifying. I was at the gym the other day and saw CNN, and it was a long segment on something new from Stormy Daniels, and then a round table discussion about Roseanne Barr’s show. This isn’t news. I come out of news. I’m an old newspaper guy. 

So I think when you look at the decay of society, everything becomes salacious, everything becomes gossip, and that was certainly true at the end of the Roman Empire, at the end of the Habsburg Empire, any empire. Look at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In a way it becomes an effective mechanism, again, to divert attention away from the collapse, and you mentioned environmental collapse. The polar ice caps are melting at a rate that even the most pessimistic climate scientists a few years ago would never have predicted, large trees are dying, communities in the north are sinking because the permafrost is melting. And what are we doing?  We are doing what all societies do at the end, which is engaging in emotional and psychological retreat into the embrace of depravity. And we haven’t even mentioned pornography. We’re a completely pornified society. 

Because of you, actually, the fourth chapter in my book, which is called “Sadism,” is set at kink dot com, which I’d never heard of until you told me about it. And I went out there and sat through “classes” of torture, literally how to torture people. And as Wilhelm Reich writes in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and I’ll just read you that sentence: he says “Fascism countenances that religiosity which stems from sexual perversion, and it transforms the masochistic character of the old patriarchal religion of suffering into a sadistic religion; in short, it transposes religion from the otherworldliness of the philosophy of suffering to the this-worldliness of sadistic murder.” And we have to, and you have been very outspoken about this, one of the few; we have to also recognize that accompanying all of these pathologies is the loss of the capacity for intimacy, the objectification of women as essentially tools to be abused physically. I mean, I interviewed women on these kink sets, and boy, this pain is not simulated. These women are beaten. They are black and blue. When they finish they take painkillers. Everyone I’ve interviewed who’s left it is dealing with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. And these films are, there’s just no other word for it. They’re just sick. They’re just sickening. And that is a huge element within the culture. We are a completely pornified culture, which is why the stills that were released from Abu Ghraib look like stills from porn. That’s not accidental.

DJ: Yeah. It’s completely mainstreamed and horrifying. And, again, predictable. We have Edward Gibbon saying this in the 1780’s. 

We have – this is not quite time to wind down yet. We still have about 13-14 minutes. But I’m going to ask you what would normally be a wind-down question.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve interviewed some people who’ve been working on these issues for a long time, working on environmental issues especially, back all the way from the 60’s and the 70’s. And three of the people I talked to recently have all said that the momentum is just so fierce, so strong, that they feel like their work has been like throwing a tiny pebble against the incoming tide or something. 

I’m not countenancing quitting. I’m in this until my last breath. But that doesn’t alter the fact that when I read sort of macrosociological accounts, when I read your wonderful book that’s coming out in August, the fact that these are macrosociological larger social trends… Decades ago, when I read Overshoot by William Catton, one of the things he talked about in there is he said that if you have a certain number of people acting in a certain way, you can almost call that a fate because it is so hard to change an entire culture.

So what do we do, given that we care, you and I, and others; care about decency, care about justice, care about sanity? What do we do in the face of this momentum that is not only technological and modern, but also is a common pattern from the collapse of empire? A predictable result of the collapse of empire. 

CH: Well, we have to create in essence walled communities where we nurture and protect those values that the wider society is attempting to destroy. As much as possible, we have to create parallel institutions to sustain ourselves and empower ourselves. And all of that will be done locally. Because when collapse comes, the elites will retreat into their gated compounds, where they will have access to services and health care and goods and security that the rest of us won’t. They’re not going to be out there taking care of us. We’ll have to take care of ourselves. That’s why food, local food markets, sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy; all of this becomes, in moments of distress, becomes political acts. Local currencies. The more that we can dis-unplug ourselves, disconnect ourselves from the corporate monolith, the safer and the better we’ll be. 

So that really means attempting to take power locally. We can’t be naive. If you go back a couple years ago in Denton, Texas, the community rose up against the fracking industry and what did the state legislature do? It essentially overrode. The fracking sites around the city were making people sick and poisoning the drinking water, and the state legislature essentially outlawed the efforts by the local community to control their own environment. We also have seen this with fracking in Pennsylvania. These will be the forces we have to contend with. But we are going to have to begin to rebuild community and rebuild local power structures to pit power against power.

Will we succeed? I just don’t think it’s helpful to be Pollyanna-ish or naive. For me, what resistance is about, and ultimately what hope is about, is facing the bleakness of what’s out there rather than lying to ourselves about it. And it’s difficult, especially given what’s happening to the climate, but we have to remain rooted in reality. I would say that if you don’t resist, you can’t use the word “hope.” We have a kind of moral imperative to fight, without being overly dramatic, for systems of life, especially those of us who are older. And I have kids, and what kind of a world are they going to inherit? I at least want them to look back and say that their father tried. That he wasn’t complicit and he wasn’t passive. 

DJ: One of the many things I love about your work is that you unabashedly – that you’re not afraid of using the word “moral” or talking about moral imperatives. And I think this is a huge problem on the left specifically, that it seems like for the most part the left has ceded morality to the right. Ceded any claim of morality, I should say, to the right, and so there are – I mean, there are lefty screeds about, against all forms of morality. I find that both tactically absurd and also, to use the same word, morally repugnant. So I appreciate that very much about your work. 

CH: Well thank you. I mean, I think that this is – you know, Freud called these forces of death – well, actually they were called that later by post-Freudians, but it’s thanatos. That there are two forces in life. Eros: that force to nurture, preserve, protect. Forces of love, forces of reverence. But it’s always pitted against forces of death. As Freud wrote, these forces are in eternal conflict, both within the individual and within society. And the forces of thanatos are ascendant around us. And it’s imperative upon us to embrace those forces of life and fight for them. 

You know Kant has a great quote where he says that if justice perishes on earth, life has lost its meaning. As you know, I come out of divinity school. But I think that resistance, fighting on behalf of the oppressed, standing up against the lies of the corporate state, these give meaning to life. And I would even go beyond that. As Tolstoy said at one point; the only true happiness is living for others. And you see that with parents with children, and I have four of them. You know, it can be a headache, and sometimes that happiness is very bittersweet. But it is real happiness as opposed to the emotional and hedonistic highs that are defined as happiness by the consumer culture, with of course money being the primary route, they will tell you, to happiness. 

I went, at the age of ten, to an elite boarding school, as a scholarship student, one of 16, and lived around the über rich, and I can tell you they are immensely unhappy human beings, who, no matter how rich they are, never have enough. And you can see it in the lust by these billionaires, from Bezos to the Koch brothers to everyone else who has insane amounts of money and just want more and more and more. And of course it distorts their own relationships. Most of the relationships they have are built around a kind of mendacity and obsequiousness. So I think that on every level it’s incumbent on us to stand up against these forces and I think that standing up and resisting against these forces, even if we lose. It allows us at least to be complete and whole human beings. 

DJ: Yeah. I think a lot about a line by R.D. Laing: how do you plug a void plugging a void? And I think when you talk about the misery of the rich, they’re attempting to plug an existential hole with money. And that’s one reason for the insatiability. It’s one reason for the insatiability of pornography, because it’s not meeting the need that it’s purporting to meet. 

CH: It meets the need temporarily and then it becomes blasé. It’s why porn gets more and more and more violent, because you need to keep pushing it further and further in order to get that momentary high. Yeah, it’s the same with money. The same with the acquisition of goods and services. But it’s ultimately not only futile but self-destructive. 

DJ: A person I think about fairly often is Henning von Tresckow. He was one of the German resisters in World War II on the eastern front, and on D-Day, or after D-Day, a lot of the resisters said “Why are we even trying? We’re risking our lives for nothing because the war is essentially over.” And he responded that first off, there were people dying every day, civilians dying every day the war lasted, so the sooner they got the war over, and if this included stopping Hitler, doing their coup, then they should do it. And the other thing he talked about was he said “I want to show to history that there were at least some decent people in Germany. I don’t want history to say that every German went along with that.” And I always find that incredibly inspiring, that as this culture is wreaking havoc on so much – you know, it’s the story, in some ways, and it’s a dreadful story in other ways, but it’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many good people are there here? And I want the frogs to know, and I want the humans who come after to know, that there were some of us who were still decent people at the end. 

CH: Well, and go to Germany today. Who do they hold up? They hold up the White Rose. They hold up Niemöller. They hold up von Stauffenberg. They hold up these figures who actually did resist, to give themselves another narrative, to create moral signposts for the society that comes after them. So I don’t think resistance is ever futile. Justice or injustice is going to outlive us all. It’s a perpetual fight. You know, what Max Weber is saying in his essay Politics as a Vocation, it never ends. We must always be vigilant. But it is that kind of ironic point of light that guides future generations and inspires future generations to do the right thing. And if everyone is silent, those lights aren’t there.

DJ: Well I think that’s a good note to end on. And I always appreciate not only your analysis itself, but the eloquence that you – that you manifest this process that we’re talking about, of the importance of long-form thinking, by making clear the importance of people doing the work of reading other writers, metabolizing their thoughts, and then making them your own. That’s something people need to do with your work, is we read your work, we metabolize it, and then we – you know, one writer once said to me that all of those writers who are working in the right direction were all standing through time holding hands. You are reaching back to the people before, and reaching forward to the ones who came after. And I just want you to know that your work’s appreciated. 

CH: Well thank you, Derrick. Thank you very much. 

DJ: And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Chris Hedges. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Thomas Linzey 05.20.18


(Sound of mountain lion)



Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Thomas Linzey. He is the executive director and an attorney for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has assisted close to 200 communities across the country in eight states to adopt binding local laws that elevate community rights to sustainability over corporate rights and powers. 

So first, thank you for all of your great work, and second, thank you for being on the program again. 

TL: Thanks for having us back, Derrick.

DJ: So let’s start by talking about a recent press release put out by – let’s actually back up and talk about the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund for a moment, and then talk about the press release. Can you give us, like, the three minute skinny on that? 

TL: Sure. So, Legal Defense Fund launched in 1995. We’ve been around for over 20 years, and we started work by doing conventional environmental law. So we began by enforcing things like the Clean Water Act, or the Clean Air Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act. It took us about ten years to understand that the environmental laws weren’t really about stopping anything. They were more about carving the rough edges off of some corporate projects coming into communities. And so we switched gears back in 2002, to do a different kind of work, which was working with municipalities and citizen groups so elected officials, and also community organizations, could actually begin to birth the new area of the law in which people in their own communities would have the power, the legal authority to say “no” to things like factory hog, corporate factory farms coming into their community, or toxic waste incinerators, or land-applied sewage sludge, or fracking. All these different projects that today a lot of people think that their community has the authority to ban, or to prohibit, but unfortunately when they run up into the existing structure of law, they begin to understand that they have almost no power to stop those projects from coming into the communities. 

So that was the first piece of the work that we began doing, was this concept of people having a constitutional right to govern their own communities. And that that constitutional right would override state preemption, the state’s ability to overturn or declare local ordinances illegal under the state’s exclusive control of certain things like oil and gas extraction and agricultural issues. And understanding that that constitutional right would elevate above the ability of the state to adopt those laws, as well as corporations claiming certain rights to overturn those communities. 

And then along the way, we began doing this area of work back in 2005 dealing with the rights of nature and ecosystems. So today nature doesn’t have any rights under the US Constitution or under our system of law, and we think that’s a big reason why things have gotten worse over the past 50 years, even after the nation’s preeminent environmental laws were adopted. So we work towards creating law that recognizes ecosystems as having legally enforceable rights that can be enforced by the people in the communities that care about the rivers and the forests and the ecosystems within their community, and then essentially making that binding constitutional law in the United States. That is the direction that we’re headed. 

DJ: So before we talk more about that, there’s a quote that I’ve recently come across, that I wanted to read to you and then just get your response to. This is by Jane Anne Morris. 

“Corporate persons have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, don’t have. For non-corporate human citizens, there’s a Democracy Theme Park where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry. They’re not connected to anything and nobody’s listening except for us. What regulatory law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior.” 

TL: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite pieces. We have used it in our two-day trainings that we do for lawyers and community activists and municipal officials. And she hits the nail on the head, which is that, you know, when you show up at a public hearing and they give you three minutes to comment on something, generally the agency couldn’t care less what you have to say, because their only mission is to issue the permit to the applicant that has asked to put in a factory farm or toxic waste incinerator or whatever in that community. So unless you were a neighboring property owner or someone that has legal standing, in other words someone that’s been injured or will be injured by the issuance of the permit, the agency couldn’t care less what you have to say. And when she draws the parallel to this Democracy Theme Park, that the microphones aren’t even connected when you go to testify, I think she really nails it right on the head. 

There’s also another section that she wrote where she talks about whack-a-mole, that work of environmental groups has been about whack-a-mole; you know, you try to stop a project over here, but nine others get through over there. It should be no surprise that we’re in worse shape now than we’ve ever been, in many ways. 

DJ: There are two stories I want to tell you, but before you go on, we should let listeners know that we’ve known each other for, 28 years now? 29, somewhere in there? 

TL: Yup. Even before the Legal Defense Fund was formed.

DJ: Yeah. So there are a couple of stories that I don’t know, in all that time, if I’ve ever told you. So I’m going to tell you first one story and then the other. And one story is: in my very early activist career, one of my proudest moments was when I was giving some testimony about salmon and James McClure was in the room, a horrible anti-environmental senator from Idaho, and I was able to say to him in public that I expect to someday see him in the dock for crimes against the environment. This made me feel really good, it made James McClure call security on me, and, to get to the point, it made me feel good and it made absolutely no difference in the real world. That’s what so much of this public input seems to be about. A chance for me to go vent my spleen and then let’s get back to business. 

TL: Yeah, I had my own similar experience back in law school, when one of the big, he was very well known, I think he was a majority leader at that time in the Pennsylvania Senate, came to speak at the law school. They had a little reception, and I was a member of the environmental law group, the student group at the time, and I went to hear him at the reception and got some time with him and started asking him some really difficult questions, because he had authored and was pushing a bill to eliminate the categories of people that could challenge permits for environmental pollution purposes. And it turned out one of his major donors lived in an area where he had a number of these categories of people challenging a permit. So it felt really good to go after him, and he threw his hors d’oeuvres at me during the thing, and I felt really good about it afterwards because I had gotten to him, but it didn’t do anything else, it didn’t stop the bill, the bill kept running, I think it got passed. It was all the same, business as usual. 

DJ: And then the other story is; remember the Rio Summit decades ago? That was going to save the Earth? They had meetings in communities all over the country and they had a meeting in Spokane, Washington, where I lived at the time, and there was a person there representing the United States government, who was going to take our input to then deliver to, to help form United States positions at the Rio Earth Summit. And it was quite an interesting experience, because there were probably 40 of us who gave testimony, and basically, everybody who gave testimony said the same thing, which is “sustainable development” is a lie. “Sustainable development” is nothing but the same old neocolonialism. It is not sustainable, and “development” actually means destruction. Basically every single person said the same thing.

So he gets up afterwards, and he thanks us for supporting the United States position that sustainable development is the way to go, as though he’d not heard a word we said. And the point of this whole story is that I was later talking to the person who had organized his visit and who had driven him around, and it ends up that even before the event started, he was so drunk that he had to be helped to his seat. And that’s just a perfect metaphor for just about everything. 

TL: Yeah, the anecdotes all add up. But also, the most effective thing I’ve ever seen at agency meetings is when folks just turned their back to the front. They turned their back to the agency officials that are sitting there and actually speak to the audience and say “Look, these guys aren’t going to do what you want them to do. We need to organize ourselves to do something different.” I think that’s the take. But a lot of people aren’t in that boat. A lot of people that we run into are convinced that if they get enough people to turn out, and they use the right dry erase markers and have the right flip charts and the right diagrams and do enough phone calls that it’s going to change something. And that’s still got a real hold on people. They can’t face the reality that it doesn’t matter. And they cling really really hard to that, you know, “this is what we’re told we can do and now it’s just a question of participation.” That’s got a real hold on people’s brains, unfortunately. 

DJ: So before we go to the Amazon, which I do want to get to, a question that that raises is that; something I get all the time and I’m guessing you get all the time too, is that when you say something like you just said, that public input like that doesn’t matter; so often, and this pisses me off no end; so often people will then say “Oh. Are you then suggesting we do nothing?” They’ll say “Oh, you’re just a defeatist who wants us to sit on our hands.” And I know that’s not true. I know it’s not true for me and it’s not true for you. So: A. Do you get that as well? And B. If so, how do you respond? 

TL: Yes, we get it all the time. In fact, there’s an anger that comes with it because you’re seen as taking away energy and resources that could be used for other things. So in other words, by saying we should be doing something else, you’re taking away the energy and resources that, like, not to pick on them, but the Sierra Club would use to generate comments to the agency in hopes that it might discourage the agency from doing something. We’ve been talking about anecdotes today, but my favorite is when I went to a meeting in Spokane, which is where we live now, and the meeting was about the fossil fuel trains coming through the city. And at that time, one of the commissioners of the state has the power to say “no” to one of the permits. And he eventually did, as a matter of fact. But not for the reasons the people in the room wanted him to. But the people in the room – the Sierra Club was organizing it then, so they passed out these comment cards at the end, you know, the pre-filled in comment things where you write a short thing and then sign your name, and you accumulate them all and then deliver them to the state government. 

And they actually gave out prizes at the end of the night for those who filled out the most (laughing). You know, because they were sending them to a variety of people, not just the commissioner. But they actually were giving out prizes, and I was like “Oh my God, where have we arrived at?” Citizen activism is defined as sitting in a chair and penciling out a sentence and signing your name and then getting prizes for the folks that do it the best. 

DJ: Getting a kewpie doll. 

TL: It’s become like a game at this point. So anyway, when people come to us and say “what will we do otherwise?” the first thing to do is really show them how, using real data, how pointless and fruitless it is to engage with these folks. Like FERC. FERC has never turned down a pipeline permit. They’ve delayed some, they’ve suspended some temporarily. But they’ve never denied one in the United States. So are you going to turn to an agency and beg them, plead for them to do something they’ve never ever ever done before, on any other occasion? I mean, that’s just nuts. And the histories of these other agencies bear that out as well. In fact, we did a study one year – I’m digressing here – we did a study one year about The Environmental Hearing Board in Pennsylvania. So in Pennsylvania, like other states, you have a special court that’s set up to hear permit appeals. So if a permit’s issued and you appeal it, you end up in front of this thing called the Environmental Hearing Board, which is populated by administrative law judges. You would think that Environmental Hearing Board, that 90% of what they hear is citizen appeals of permits. From an environmental activist standpoint, you would think that would be the case, because it’s about the environment and it’s about appeals. But when you look at the data about what cases they hear, something like 85% of the cases were all brought by corporations to force the agency to issue the permit. So these were cases in which the agency said “Well wait a minute, we’re not sure if we want to issue this, or we’re going to deny it.” And then the corporations, not the environmental activists, the corporations came in to use the Environmental Hearing Board to force the issuance of the permit. 

And so I think all of this, specific data aside, is really about a mindset about whether you believe that we live in a democratic system or not. Because if you believe that we live in a democratic system then it makes sense to do those things that the democratic system allows you to do, or in some ways programs you to do and then sets up the apparatus for you to do. But if you don’t believe that we live in a democratic system where these agencies are actually going to become involved or advocate on the side of the communities or nature, then I think it leads you to a much different form of activism. And for us, when we get asked the question, people say “Well what else will we do?” We say “Well, we’re glad you asked, because 200-250 other communities in the United States are doing things differently.” And what they’re doing is saying “Look, we live in this community. It’s not in the authority of the state agency to decide what happens here. They don’t have the authority to do that, we do. And because of that, we’re going to seize,” or hijack, choose your verb, “our municipal governing authority here, to turn it upwards against the state, against the federal government, against the corporations trying to put this thing in. We know that that fracking project that’s coming in is going to not only diminish our quality of life within the community but also degrade the climate in an era in which climate change is now a global emergency and crisis. That we are going to take steps to stop this. And we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, and we’re going to literally seize our municipal apparatus.” That could be the City Council, the township commissioners, the Board itself. Whatever the entity is, they’re going to seize it and they’re going to hotkey it, find the ways to make it active, and make a stand. 

And that’s a much different kind of activism than signing your name to a card and getting a prize because you submitted the most things to the state agencies. But it takes a certain kind of people to do that. It takes self-assured courageous folks like the folks you had in the beginning days of the civil rights movement, and the beginning years of the abolitionist movement, and the last quarter-century of the suffragist movement. It takes those kinds of people. So, for 20 years, we’ve looked for those kinds of people, and tried to nurture them and bring them along, and educate others about how the system actually operates. But outside of the regulatory system, that’s pretty established; there’s a vast amount of activism out there that we don’t even think of engaging in, because we think it’s off limits to us. 

And the other night I gave a talk to a group, and they said “Well, we have a pipeline coming through. How do we stop it?” And I said “Shoot, it’s a matter of what’s in our heads. It’s not the companies, it’s not the agencies, it’s not the regulators, it’s not the state. None of those things matter. If we had 50,000 people who actually understood that the agencies weren’t gonna do shinola for them, and we put those 50,000 people out in the field, to stop the pipeline physically, by doing civil disobedience, we could stop the pipeline. We would have the power to stop the pipeline. If there were numbers, we could stop the pipeline. We could stop any project. But the problem is that our brains have been colonized. That ‘someone else is going to do that.’ That we have the tools to make someone else do that, but it’s not going to be us. That it’s not our responsibility or our authority, that we don’t have the power.”

So it’s the self-doubt, it’s the colonization of our brain, it’s the punishment of the law when you operate outside of those pre-existing apparatus. So all those things converge to basically make us, you know, bags of plasma, just going through a daily routine, instructed by a higher authority as to what we can and can’t do. We can continue to follow that path, which means we’re going to get the pipelines and the frack jobs, and the climate’s going to crash and everything else is going to happen. Or we can take a step back and understand that we’re about much more than being just bags of plasma. We are the legitimate inheritors of a legacy in which the government’s supposed to be us and the government’s supposed to be protecting our rights, and if it’s not, then we need to readjust the system so that it does. 

DJ: This reminds me of something that so many indigenous people have said to me, which is that the first and most important thing we have to do is decolonize our hearts and minds. And there’s a lot in there to unpack, but one part has to do with destroying your loyalty to the system and recognizing that … you know, when I used to give the Endgame talk, I would ask people “Do you believe that governments take better care of individuals, or communities, or corporations?” And everybody would laugh. There wasn’t a single person out of literally tens of thousands who ever said it takes better care of individuals or communities. Everybody knows it takes better care of corporations. And yet we still continue to act as if – and so it seems that some of your work, and some of my work is about attempting to sort of jar people out of that perspective. 

And there’s another thing I want to say about this, which is, is it the Interstate Commerce Commission? Is that right, the ICC?

TL: Yup.

DJ: So that was formed, I believe, under Theodore Roosevelt? Is that correct? Or about that time? 

TL: Right around the same time.

DJ: So whatever president was in at the time, there was one of his buddies in the railroad industry who wrote to him and said, you know; “How dare you create this commission? You’re basically being disloyal to all your friends.” And either the president or vice president or one of those high-up people wrote back and said basically “Chill out. Don’t you know that the purpose of this thing is to make it so, is to put a buffer in between you and the outrage of the people, because right now people hate the railroads and they want to kill you. And we’re making this thing that they think is going to actually accomplish something, but the real point is to just make this little buffer.”

It was a beautifully honest little note.

TL: Yeah. It was penned by the United States Attorney General at the time, and we use that quote in Democracy School as well. The first part of these two-day trainings that we do is to talk about what regulatory law is. And so we draw a triangle. At the top of the triangle, the top line is all the things that communities are concerned about. So when a factory farm wants to come in, there are economic concerns, there are environmental concerns, there are noise, odor, animal welfare, you name it, there is a huge number of concerns at the local level. And what the system does is, just like that upside down triangle, is take them from that very broad problem statement and then drive them down like cattle into a chute, down to this, we call it the regulatory point, at the bottom. So the point of the triangle is at the bottom. And it drives them down to a place where all they can do is complain over the height of the fences around the factory farms, or whatever the state has determined to be the only acceptable items to complain about or to appeal. So it’s kind of an automaton thing. You’re driven from being real living breathing thinking human beings, concerned about a number of different problems, a multi-faceted problem, down to this point of the triangle in which the state has predefined what your allowable concerns are going to be. 

So, moving from the abstract to the practical, in Pennsylvania for example, the only thing you can complain about is the amount of liquid manure produced by a factory farm, and where it’s going. That’s it. That’s the only place where the state gets involved to issue a permit, so it predefines that as the only issue that you can raise. So if you go into the agency proceedings and you try to, say, raise arguments about animal welfare, or about the economics of the fact that we’ve lost 400,000 farmers over the last ten years because they’ve been driven out of business by this agribusiness, you know, vertically integrated agricultural model. That your comments are not relevant, because they’re not keyed into that one issue that the state has determined should be your allowable issue. 

And so talk about a great way to just, not only colonize people, but get rid of any activist impulses whatsoever. Is to say “Yeah, it’s okay that you’re worried about this, but that’s not relevant. It’s not going to fit into this permit appeal process at the bottom.” And people are encouraged to travel down that chute, like cattle, by not only the state agency, because people pick up the phone and say “Well, we have this factory farm coming in and I’d like to get involved because I don’t think it’s a good idea.” And the state agency says “We’re so glad you called. We have this permit application now, and if you want to submit comments about nutrient spreading and nutrient production, we’d be happy to hear those comments.” And the corporation, some people go to the hearing and go up to the corporate representatives and they say “Hey, we’d like to become involved because we don’t think this is a good idea” and the corporation says “Well, we’re so glad you asked. We have a permit application here and you’re more than welcome to submit comments on the manure management plan that we’ve submitted to the state.”

 And it’s bad enough that the corporation does it, it’s bad enough that the state does it. These are entities that people turn to for authority. But the environmental groups do it. So if you pick up the phone and call the Sierra Club, the Sierra Club lawyer says to you “Well, we’re so happy you called. We’d love to help you out. You can appeal this permit on manure management grounds.” And then they steer you into this expert, you know, manure person, who can give testimony. And they slide people right down into that regulatory chute as well.

And at the bottom of course is where we all lose, because you can’t win it on those issues. That’s why the state’s chosen them to be the issues. And so we take all this energy, this massive amount of caring and energy and investment and resources, all that kind of stuff, and we smash it all down into that regulatory chute, just like cows headed to slaughter with the bolt shot through their heads. And at the bottom is where everybody loses. And even if you win, you don’t win much of anything at all, because the state then comes back and closes the loophole that you found when you did the challenge to the regulations. So it’s no wonder that things are worse now than they were 50 years ago, because that’s a perfect machine for activist burnout. 

DJ: I don’t think you’re being fair, because I think that there are huge victories, like you can get the wall to be 6’2” tall instead of 6’ tall. I don’t know what you’re complaining about.

TL: Right. (laughing) Some guy just scaled it in two minutes a couple days ago. The wall between the US and Mexico. 

DJ: I was talking about the wall around a pig factory. 

TL: Right, right. Or my favorite was a case that challenged paint. You know, what color paint you  could apply to the wall around the frack well. It was a frack well challenge. It’s just crazy.

DJ: That’s a huge victory! 

TL: Yes! A huge victory, yes. 

DJ: We’ll probably get to Amazon with like three seconds left. But anyway, one of the ways I always think about this is that if space aliens had come down to earth and they were doing to this planet what capitalism is doing to the planet, we would not merely be going down to the alien permitting office to complain about their permits. We would actually be resisting in a serious way. I mean, for God’s sake, there are stolid scientists talking about the oceans being devoid of fish in another 30 years. This is not trivial and it’s also not local. We’re talking about life on this water planet. And our responses are just so …

TL: Yeah, it’s like saying the American colonists should have gone to the British Board of Trade to make their arguments about independence. But it’s also important to recognize that there is real punishment in the system. The State of Florida passed these gun preemption laws to preempt municipalities from adopting firearms law, gun control laws at the local level. And not only do they just prohibit passage of those laws, but now they’re threatening local officials with civil fines of $5000 apiece, and removal from office by the governor of the state. And so it’s not just environmental issues. It’s social issues. Paid family leave and all these other things as well. 

And when you step in to actually say “Well maybe people within their own community should have the right to make laws and have a right of local self-government, and actually have a constitutional right of self-government that outweighs the corporation’s right to put the project in the community,” you get slapped and you get slapped hard. In January we got hit with a $52,000 fine, from a federal judge, in a case where we were arguing that a community should have the right to say yes or no to a frack wastewater injection well being sited within the community. And in response to making that argument, we got hit with a sanction by the federal court, which granted a motion by the oil and gas company to fine us $52,000. And then she referred the matter to the disciplinary board of the state, in which I could be disbarred, or have something happen with my license. 

And so the minute you stand up and say “I’m not going to play in that sandbox,” of the regulatory stuff, and you move outside to do something different, this system smashes your nose in. That’s what it’s intended to do. And so, like Pavlov’s dog, people are hesitant to step off the sidewalk because as soon as you do you get that punishment, that voltage that gets driven into you. 

DJ: Well first off, I want to thank you for your courage, and for your steadfastness over these decades. I just want to acknowledge that. And I also want to point out to people how horrible it is, what you just said. That for making the unacceptable argument, for making the argument, forget “unacceptable,” that the community should be allowed to make decisions, the courts came after your organization and possibly you. And that’s just extraordinary.

It’s not extraordinary. It’s ordinary. It’s horrible.

TL: Yes. And it’s ordinary. I mean, this is how it works. And with the lawyers dealing with the early civil rights movement, they got sanctioned as well, and jailed sometimes. I mean, it’s just how the system responds. And here the basis of the sanction against us – I mean, purely, this case was about a community saying “no” to a frack wastewater injection well that was scheduled to inject 151 million gallons of toxic wastewater from fracking operations into the community. And the community passed a law that said “no, we don’t want that.” The entire community is on well water. They said “We know what these things do, and we don’t want it and we’re going to say ‘no.’” 

And then coming up with a legal doctrine, a legal theory, which we have been perfecting now for 15 years, that people in a community have a right to say no. People in the community coming together collectively have a right to say no to those things that are going to harm them, in the community. And because we had made that argument in two other federal courts prior to this, and lost, because the courts have not been embracing this concept. And that’s how law changes, you know. You have to keep knocking at the door. You do so somewhat politely, and sometimes not so politely. And in this case the judge said “Well, you made the argument a couple of times before and you’ve lost, so the only intent, the only reason you have to raise it now is to harass the oil and gas company.” And because of that, she issued a sanctions order of $52,000, against the two lawyers, one of which is myself, in this case. 

But like you said, it’s not unusual. This is the way the system works. So if in your camp, if you think we live in a democracy and we do have power at the local level to say no under the current system, that leads your activism in one direction. But if you’ve come to the conclusion that the system is so broken in many ways, or precisely operating the way it’s supposed to operate, and not broken at all but perfectly, working very well for some, that you follow a different kind of activism. It’s the same thing as with the suffragists and the abolitionists, everybody that’s come before, is that some activists chose to write letters to the President, asking him to grant women the right to vote. Other women went to labor camps. Got arrested, went to labor camps, did picketing, ran into ballot boxes and stuffed them before the police could arrest them. Went to trial, did civil disobedience and all that kind of stuff. So either you’re in the system and you think the system’s going to work for you and you try to press the pressure points, or you’re outside of the system and you understand those pressure points are just not going to accomplish anything, and you set your sights on something else. 

DJ: So I’ve yet another subject before the Amazon, which is an anecdote first. My sister is fairly right-wing, and she was for a time on the city council of a small community in Virginia. And she and I would have some interesting conversations about it, because there were many things that we disagreed about and then some things we agreed on. One example was that somebody wanted to put in a shopping mall in this community. And were I on the City Council, I would have voted no because shopping malls are evil and because it would destroy the environment. It would be for environmental reasons. But she, on the other hand, voted no because the owner was not local, but instead some outsider trying to impose – the person was from Washington, DC. So it was an outsider trying to impose stuff on their community.

And this all brings me to the question of – and I don’t think this is a question you and I have ever talked about, or if we have, I’ve forgotten. So do you work – in terms of this community self-determination, do you find yourself working mostly with lefties? Do you find yourself working some with some right-wing people? Is it across the board? Because there are strong community self-determination groups in the right as well. And I’m just wondering how you navigate that.

TL: So first off, that conversation with your sister probably makes for interesting Thanksgiving conversations, I would imagine. 

DJ: Oh, we usually end up talking about football. 

TL: So your question about where does this land in the political spectrum? The answer is: “all over the place.” Which is that; in the communities where we work, sometimes the only thing people have in common is that they don’t want the factory farm coming in, or they don’t want the toxic waste incinerator. You get people from both wings coming together in the same room. They may not be able to talk about anything else. Can’t talk about gay marriage, can’t talk about abortion, can’t talk about anything else, but on the local control issue they have common ground. And I think that’s the kind of political constituency that’s emerging.

And there are always concerns about local control being used for bad things. You know, like banning African-Americans from coming into a community. Or banning gay marriage on a local level, or whatever those concerns might be, but the local – the community rights movement, which has emerged in the United States, which is, you know, what we support, and have deepened with the legal arguments, is essentially about an understanding that communities; local communities, municipalities, cities or towns, villages, counties; should be able to expand and broaden out civil and political rights at the local level, above the floor established by the state and federal government. So much in the way that state constitutions and state governments can broaden out federal constitutional rights by recognizing additional rights, or broadening out existing rights, that local governments should have the same relationship with the state and federal government as the state government has currently with the federal government, in terms of broadening out rights.

So we’re not talking about local governments or communities adopting laws that drop below those federal or state civil right floors, but building on top of those. So, you know, rights of nature, right to clean air, right to clean water, right to a sustainable energy future, basically things that have not been spoken to by state or federal constitutions, that can be seen as broadening out or expanding above the floor of those state and federal constitutional rights.

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left, and at long last; you recently put out a press release. “Colombia Supreme Court rules that Amazon region is ‘subject of rights.’” Can you talk about that, please?

TL: Yeah. So the rights of nature stuff has been gaining some traction over the last six months. First there was Colombian and Indian courts ruling that glaciers and rivers would be treated as persons under the law; i.e. as separate entities. So, up until now, basically the legal systems of everywhere except for indigenous communities basically have been about nature being property. So if you own a piece of property, that carries with it the right to destroy that property. If  I own a ten acre piece of ground, there’s nothing that stops me in the law as long as it’s not a protected wildland or there are endangered species or some other protection like that; from simply asphalting the whole thing into one giant airfield and destroying the ecosystems on that piece of property. So this rights of nature concept that ecosystems and nature have independently enforceable rights of their own, that they are separate entities that have interests of their own, should be able to enforce rights of their own; that concept is what began in a little town, or borough, of Tamaqua, just north of Philadelphia, way back in 2006, which was the first Rights of Nature law to be passed in the United States. That then became part of the Ecuadorian Constitution, so we traveled to Ecuador and served as an advisor to the Ecuadorian national government who then took the Rights of Nature concept and drove it into the national constitution for the country of Ecuador. We now have a couple of enforcement cases in Ecuador  in which a river is a plaintiff. So it kind of bends our brains I think sometimes, but thinking about non-homocentric or anthropomorphic uses of the court system, so a river appearing as a plaintiff  represented by the people of the community who have an interest in protecting the river. 

And so just six months ago courts in India and Colombia ruled that glaciers and rivers were persons under the law, in other words that they were separate entities that had standing in the courts and could get into the courts and could be represented by other interests and other entities. And just recently last week the Colombian court spoke again, and this time not just on a single river or a single glacier but on the Amazon region, in a case brought by 25 youth plaintiffs who had filed suit against the national government of Colombia to secure their rights to a healthy environment and food and water. It was a very broad complaint. The Colombian court ruled in response that the Amazon itself has certain rights, so the Amazon region has certain rights and was recognized as a person and independent entity that had rights of its own that the national government was forced to respect. And so as part of that ruling, down to the practical aspects of it, the Colombian court ruled that municipalities, as well as the national government, needed to come up with a plan for zero deforestation, to actually halt deforestation in the Amazon region, because the court found the rights of the plaintiffs to a healthy environment and right of future generations required that the rights of the Amazon be respected, and that the rights of the Amazon could only be respected if the government followed a zero deforestation rule. 

And so what’s very interesting is that in some places this concept of the rights of nature, concept of some personhood attributes being recognized on behalf of natural systems and ecosystems. That some of it has stemmed from written law, so like when the people of Ecuador voted in their new constitution, actually wrote rights of nature into their new constitution, saying that nature has the right to exist and persist and maintain and regenerate and all those things; versus courts, which are now operating outside of that written law and are using Ecuador, New Zealand, and a couple of other places as examples, to actually write their own law. So you have courts writing their own law. There is no law in Colombia. There’s no Rights of Nature law, legislative law, on the books, and so the courts are beginning to invent. And they’re beginning to extend and expand. And they’re beginning to hook the rights of nature into this right to a healthy environment concept, saying that the right to a healthy environment is not possible unless nature has rights, which I find to be fascinating. I mean, we all know it to be true, but it’s the first time, really, that courts have based rulings on it. 

So I think it’s an indicator of things to come, that the courts are becoming more and more activist on these issues in using this Rights of Nature concept to expand out to these other areas. I think it’s a very interesting development. 

DJ: Okay, so the rulings have been made, and that’s wonderful. And have these rulings, in some cases, led to tangible protection on the ground, such as a mine not going in, or a river not being dammed? Have they actually protected land yet? 

TL: They have in Ecuador. The first enforcement case was brought by the Vilcabamba River, and it was against a local government that was pouring road debris from a road-widening project into the river. It was altering the river’s course, and the courts ruled in favor of the river and ordered the local government to restore the river’s original course. So that was the first Rights of Nature case in the world, that was brought in Ecuador. Since then, it’s been used to stop illegal gold mining in some areas of Ecuador. Other cases of that sort in the Colombian courts and Indian courts have basically been used to force new plans to be drafted by the state government, to eliminate point source discharges into rivers, and to do some climate stuff around the glaciers. And then here, in the Colombian court decision, that just recently came out last week, they were very clear that the government had an obligation to come to zero deforestation. 

So it wasn’t just “Hey, you have a responsibility to maintain the forests in the country.” It was “You must come up with a plan that is zero deforestation for these areas.” And so I think we’re getting to a point where people are getting fed up. I mean the Colombian judges are fed up that after all these years, there’s still environmental degradation happening in the Amazon. And I think this was the last straw. And the other thing that’s interesting is that the first Colombian court to make a decision was the Colombian Constitutional Court, which is the final arbiter in the country of what constitutional law means. So it can’t be appealed. There’s no changing that decision. It’s done. It’s in the law. And I think especially in South America you’re going to see more and more courts extending the law in similar ways to what the Colombian courts have done. 

DJ: Because a lot of listeners don’t know me, I need to make explicit that this is sarcastic before I say it. 

How come in those sort of phony little democracies around the world, they do this, but in the greatest and most wonderful democracy in the world, in fact the only real democracy in the world, the United States, we’re number one! How come in other countries, it may be enshrined into the Constitution, and in the United States, people who make the argument get sanctioned? 

TL: (laughing) I’m not sure that requires an answer. We’re kind of in the belly of the beast in the United States. This is the place where property and commerce protections have been elevated above everything else, and it’s constitutionally structured. The Constitution was written in the 1780’s, and back then the question was “How do we write a form of governance that allows us to exploit as quickly as possible the natural resources across the land?” Because that was, in the eyes of the founders, how you became a rich and prosperous nation. So they wrote that constitution. That’s the constitution we have today. It’s a 1780’s constitution. 

Meanwhile, in Ecuador they have a 1990’s or 2000’s constitution, because they’ve rewritten theirs. In the U.S. the Constitution is a sacred cow. But the sacred cow is killing us. It’s a 1780’s plan of governance that is rooted in 1780’s values. And until it gets redone, the DNA of this country is opposed to either local control, because local control acts to stop economic development of some kind or the other; and the rights of nature, which recognizes that ecosystems and nature have some kind of rights to stop that which is going to harm them. So we’re in a place, I think, that is the belly of the beast. And it is an uphill climb here to change this stuff. 

DJ: So here’s a concern I have, and I’m sure you do too. Let’s say that tomorrow a Constitutional Convention was called, whatever this means. What would stop that new Constitution emerging in the United States from being even worse, given the political climate, and given, also, especially, the power of corporations to control things in the United States? 

TL: Yeah. It would be a mess. And that’s why, generally, when people ask that question, I say “We have no business rewriting the Constitution until we create a movement that becomes powerful enough to control that process.” And until that happens; you open it up and it turns over to the forces that are currently transcendent, which are the ones opposite to the values you’re trying to drive. So, for the past 15 years we’ve tried to support the growth of a movement that is based on local self-government as well as the rights of nature work. And until that becomes powerful enough to control changes. 

I have to tell you I’m a cynic about most of this stuff, especially on the national level. But a bill was introduced to amend the New Hampshire Constitution this past year, that we helped with. And it would recognize the authority of municipalities to adopt Rights of Nature laws within the State of New Hampshire. And one third of the New Hampshire House voted for that bill, one third of the legislators in the New Hampshire House, which is huge. That’s 400 some people actually voted to adopt that bill, which would have put the constitutional amendment in front of the people of New Hampshire, to decide whether to grant the authority to communities to protect the rights of nature. 

So I think amending state constitutions probably comes first. And that only happens when people are powerful enough in different communities to drive that change. And I think that’s starting to happen in Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire. And then eventually, down the road, folks become powerful enough to tinker with the Federal Constitution. 

DJ: One of the things I have always loved about you and loved about your work is that you kind of remind me of the fight scene in Cool Hand Luke, and all good activists do. All good revolutionaries do. Where, you know, you get up and you get knocked down, and you just get up and go at it again and get knocked down, and you recognize that’s part of the struggle. I really have so much respect for your ability to persevere and to continue to resist, and to not give in. And I just want to thank you for that. 

TL: Thank you.

DJ: So I guess the last question is: if people want to learn more about the work you’re doing, or to help out or to attend one of your Democracy Schools, or to do anything else good, what should they do?

TL: Best thing is to go to our web page at, and that’s the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and all kinds of stuff is up on our web page. Information about the Democracy Schools. And then folks who want to read more about the Colombian Supreme Court decision, that’s on the front page right now.

DJ: Well thank you so much. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Thomas Linzey. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. 

Polly Higgins 05.06.18




(Sound of dolphins)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Polly Higgins. She is an international lawyer, UK based barrister, award-winning author and lead Ecocide law expert. Her proposal to expand the remit of the International Criminal Court to include Ecocide as an international crime (to stand alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression) will ensure global governance and protection against some of the most egregious crimes, namely State and corporate crime that causes or fails to prevent climate disasters as well as other ecological catastrophes. Polly has been hailed as one of the World’s Top 10 Visionary Thinkers by the Ecologist and celebrated as The Planet’s Lawyer by the 2010 Change Awards. Founder of the Earth Law Alliance, she has garnered a number of awards for her work advocating for a law of Ecocide.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

PH: Well thank you! It’s a delight to be on it. 

DJ: So let’s just start off with a definition of “ecocide.” What is ecocide?

PH: What I’ve done is I’ve given legal definition to the word. The word itself has actually been around since the 1970’s. The definition I’ve given in law is ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory. What I’ve actually done by giving it legal definition is also framing it to become an international crime. Because at the moment it’s not a crime to cause mass damage and destruction to the earth. So we’re missing law here, right? To criminalize the serious crime being inflicted through essentially state-sanctioned industrial activity. At the moment, what is happening is, in effect is state-sanctioned industrial immunity. Immunity from prosecution, which means that business, and not just the corporate world but also governments, are able and capable of continuing this ecocide without being accountable within the criminal courts system itself. So you have this kind of upside down scenario where activists who are standing up to protect their patch of the planet are the ones who end up criminalized and being taken to court for preventing the dangerous industrial activity that has the state’s approval to move forward, regardless of how serious the harm is that’s occurring.

This of course has huge implications for climate change, climate change being driven by dangerous industrial activity such as fossil fuel extraction, amongst others. But also it has huge implications for holding the state to account for failing to take action to seriously abate climate change. So climate ecocide is part of this equation, how we bring climate change not so much to a standstill but significantly abate the most serious excesses of what is emerging here as a result of climate change that’s driven by human, specifically industrial activity. 

DJ: So if we step away from the eco part of this, and step toward the legal part for a moment, what are some of your, the precedent movements that you look toward? Do you look primarily to the slavery abolition movement? Do you look primarily to the Nuremberg trials?

PH: Actually this is really interesting. And you’re someone who’s really investigated in America, you know, those kind of resistance movements that have really brought about seismic change. In Europe, the starting point, in fact it was Britain, was the abolition of slavery. I really do believe that we’re looking at something on the scale of the abolition of slavery when we’re dealing with ecocide. But also it’s just not the parallels with then, and indeed what was very interesting with slavery was big industry saying you can’t stop slavery, it’s a necessity, stopping it will lead to economic collapse, and in any event the public demands it. Those three key propaganda statements were proven to be wrong, of course, with the abolition of slavery. Once it’s criminalized things actually change very very fast.

But also I’m very much informed by the likes of Rafael Lemkin. He was the lawyer who got on a  soapbox and advocated that genocide should be an international crime. And indeed, after World War II it was codified as an international crime. That was when we codified international crimes. And the journey that he took was very similar to the one that I’m taking, not least of all because when he first did start getting out there and kind of banging his drum, he was told he was absolutely crazy and that it would never happen, and indeed when I first started advocating that ecocide should be a crime I had many lawyers and non-lawyers around me saying that as well. And many of them now are coming on board to say that actually this is precisely what’s required, to unlock justice for the Earth and all who protect her. 

DJ: So can you tell me about the process – I guess first, very briefly, on your own thought processes and how you came to the realizations that you needed to do this work, as opposed to somebody else. How did you get activated? And the second part of the question will be; you’ve talked a little bit about some of the prior examples but can you also talk about some of the challenges and successes that you have encountered as you have carried this movement forward? 

PH: Yeah. What activated me into engaging with this to start with was as a practicing advocate, barrister we call it here, a court advocate, I was representing big transnational corporations in court and I was finding myself becoming increasingly concerned and uncomfortable with the fact that here were people I got on with perfectly well, but our values were so misaligned. There was this normative that it was perfectly acceptable to make huge profit out of industrial practices that were enormously destructive. And as I was beginning to engage with environmental issues more and more, and that had really started in my childhood, I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with this narrative that I was hearing from others that culture will kind of magically work it out. For me, that was hugely unsatisfactory, and I still see it with some of my friends who are quite spiritually engaged, that if we just kind of hope and pray we’ll get there. I don’t agree with that. It’s maybe just the way I’m wired, but actually this is really strategic for me. Unless we fundamentally realign law – the law, at the moment, is prioritizing profit over the interests and health and well-being of people and planet – then we will continue on with that normative.

So I’m very interested in how we disrupt that normative through realigning law. And for me this is realigning human law ultimately with a higher law that starts with the premise of “first do no harm.” Now that might seem absolutely naive and wide-eyed and stupid, but in truth there’s something far more important here, the recognition that in law we draw a line where we say “we can’t cross here, this is fundamentally unacceptable.” And that’s what criminal law is all about. It’s about justice. What is it that’s going to cause serious harm? And if so, we have to stop that. We got to a certain point where we recognized that actually, enslaving blacks was wrong, was inherently wrong. And there is a phrase in law that we have, when malum in se becomes malum prohibitum, when something is so wrong in and of itself. And so this is a fundamental recognition that it’s so wrong, in itself, to keep on destroying the earth, whether or not it’s for profit. The fact of destruction per se is inherently wrong. 

So my starting point was really coming from a place of a deeply embedded intrinsic value within me of, actually, the interconnectedness of life. If we destroy Earth, we destroy our own health and wellbeing. If we destroy Earth we destroy the health and wellbeing of all Earth. By destroying Earth we destroy the health and wellbeing of human as well as nonhuman life. And that cannot be right. It’s a recipe for disaster. Valuing being life-destroying over life-affirming is never going to serve people and planet to our highest purpose. So it seems to me common sense ultimately at the end of the day that we should have a law put in place that criminalizes the destruction of our ecosystems and holds industry, not just corporations but also governments to account at the very highest level for the decisions that they make, and also for the failure to take action where it is recognized that indeed harm is occurring. 

DJ: Before we go to the second question, I just want to be clear. So are you saying that you would want to prohibit hurting or harming or in fact destroying life on the only planet that we know of in the universe that has life? That seems kind of crazy to me. 

PH: (laughing) What I’m dealing with here is serious harm.

DJ: I was totally joking.

PH: (laughing)

DJ: It appalls and amazes me that you even have to make the argument. That’s the sort of sarcastic point I was making. “Oh wow. It should be wrong to actually harm life, do significant harm to life on the only planet we know of that has life in the universe.” What a novel idea!

PH: You would think.

Very interestingly, I’ve actually just read, literally today, that Chevron has agreed in court – this is a case in San Francisco that’s happening at the moment – they have agreed that human activity is changing the climate and that it warrants action. This is actually a seismic step in a courtroom for that to be admitted by one of the most destructive industries we have in the world. And how remarkable it is that that’s actually coming from within the destruction itself. When governments have only gotten as good as voluntary agreements such as the Paris Agreement, to agree that dangerous industrial activities are causing climate change. 

If you like, law is having to play catch-up here. We’re way behind on where the majority of the world understands this to be. And it’s not really rocket science. We don’t have to go deep into science to understand the cause and effect that’s occurring here. And yet we still are in this situation where there’s a certain element of giving conflicting, confusing information going on, and propaganda, on what is harmful and what is not. Here in the U.K. we have a fracking industry that’s pushing as hard as it can, and a government that’s removed laws and paved the way to make it as simple as possible for the fracking industry to move forward, and hundreds and hundreds of activists being arrested and charged and taken to court for standing up and trying to protect that patch of the earth. This is something I and my team are addressing through our campaign. 

But I’m really jumping ahead here. Derrick, here’s the thing. Yes, you have an audience that understands this. But actually the remarkable thing is that there’s still a world out there that is burying its head in the sand on all of this. 

DJ: Oh, I completely agree. I’m sure it’s the same for you. Three quarters of my neighbors, or half of my neighbors, are the same. 

PH: Well, I live on in an exceptional patch of the planet. I live in an incredibly ecologically oriented town called Stroud, which is really the heart of all ecological activity in the U.K. But yes, there’s a lot of the world out there that just refuses to engage on these issues, for whatever reason, whether it’s fear or lack of understanding. 

But then again, there’s this other side to it. It’s those who do engage in it that do effect change, and they’re the ones whom I’m interested in. And that applies to, whether or not it’s ministers or state or grassroots activists, those who stand up and take action and perceive themselves as Earth protectors, or the ones who fundamentally are helping change this narrative, and helping pave the way for a new law to be put in place to protect the Earth and hold governments and big business to account on this. 

DJ: I feel the same way. When I do a talk, say there are 100 people in the audience. I’m really talking to about three or four people, and everybody else, I’m just giving them “let’s have a nice night.” 

In any case, the second part of the question was –

PH: And actually Derrick, they’re the ones – there can be just one or two people in the audience who can effect great change.

DJ: Yes. I don’t disagree at all.

So the second part of the question was: What are some of the, both challenges you’ve faced and successes you’ve had in – just a little bit of history in the actual movement to do this. 

PH: Yeah. When I first started advocating this, which was about eight years ago, my biggest challenge really was that I was taking people on a narrative that hadn’t been heard before. And actually, to this day there still exists to some extent, where yes, there are hundreds of thousands of organizations out there, protecting the planet in one way or another. Save the whale here, stop this over there, the Amazon dam, what have you. Which is all good and well. Yet not one of them is saying “This is a crime, this has to stop, and this should be a crime.” So what I was doing was I was taking people on a kind of journey of demystifying how law operates. And often there’s a lot of fear as well, and cynicism as to how law operates, especially when we’ve dealt with 24 years worth of climate negotiations that are going nowhere. So even explaining to people how climate negotiations work, who finances climate negotiations; well that’s big business. It’s done on the basis of how many negotiators can you bring to the table? So inevitably you have this arm-wrestling that happens, political arm-wrestling at the lowest common denominator. When you have maybe a couple of thousand negotiators turning up, for instance, for the U.S., and smaller developing states may have one negotiator for five states, five countries. 

Inevitably, when you have working group meetings at the interim climate negotiations running 34, maybe, interim working group meetings running in tandem, it’s absolutely impossible to have enough representatives attending the right meetings, and inevitably the ones that suffer the most are those front-line countries, those nations that are, you know, those little equatorial belts, tiny dots on the oceans that have rising sea levels and floods and what have you. So there’s an an enormous amount of cynicism that I’m having to counter, while I’m actually dealing with a completely different process here. With international criminal law it’s just one vote per member state. And when America isn’t even a signatory to their own statute and therefore has no say on this, this can be quite beneficial, especially under your political regime at the moment. Indeed, the small guys could take this law forward and tip the balance in a very big way, especially when you’re looking at 56 small island developing nations. That’s a huge amount of leverage, in essence, for something that is a kind of epic David and Goliath rebel alliance against the empire of greed scenario.

So that’s been a huge challenge, taking people on a journey of how this law can operate and why it operates in a very different way. Criminal law is a different level of government from soft law, international agreements such as the Paris Agreement. And indeed it’s very different from civil litigation, where individuals or communities are suing big business or suing governments. We’re dealing with what’s known as top tier governance where it’s about justice. When you criminalize something, when you outlaw it, then you’re holding individuals to account in a criminal court of law and they can be sent to prison for their actions, and companies can be closed down. That’s very different from civil litigation where at best a corporation ends up with a fine but can continue with business as usual, which often is too little, too late for the community that’s being severely adversely impacted ten years past, or hence, the case actually being brought.

It’s inherently unsatisfactory, the system we have at the moment, and my challenge is, of course, to take that law forward. And not just me. I have a team of fantastic progressive lawyers as part of my team, who offer their services pro bono. But actually, in truth the largest challenge I have is lack of political will. And the lack of political will from the countries that are most important in this, which are the small island developing states, is in part because of misinformation. I’m having to come on the back of legal advice being given to these small island developing nations where they are told that if they speak out against big countries, then they will lose their financing, and they mustn’t do that. And this is legal advice that’s being given to them, with the threat of litigation against these small islands. So I’m having to deal with a culture of misinformation and a lack of political will that’s born of fear of losing either their financial assistance that they already gained from various other countries, or the fear that they will be in some respect taken to court over it themselves if they dare to challenge the existing system. 

So, it’s going in there and demystifying that, explaining that actually that’s illegal, for a country to threaten another country in that way, and indeed that the power lies within these small islands to take this law forward. My biggest challenge there is of course to finance that, because for most of these small islands, to attend meetings is just financially out, with their wherewithal. It costs on average, to bring a team of delegates from any given country to the annual Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court, around 50 to 60 thousand euros, and that’s often way out of the reach of these small island developing states, especially if they’ve just had rising sea levels or a tsunami or a typhoon kicking in that has wiped out the equivalent of 1/5 of their GDP and they want to put that money into rehousing the very people who require the law to protect them. So that’s why we’ve put in place now an international campaign, Mission Life Force, where we’re inviting existing earth protectors, those who are already out there helping protect the earth, to become an earth protector in law and sign up to the Earth Protectors Trust Fund, to finance those small countries.

And I guess part of that success is that we finally got that campaign off the ground in November last year, and on the back of it, within three weeks we were able to take a team of seven people to the United Nations for the annual Assembly of States Parties in New York in December, which was fantastic, to make representations. And this year we want to do it in a far bigger way, and that’s really about rolling out our campaign. We want to take it up a quantum leap. We want to get ourselves onto a bigger and better platform. It needs to be more secure. It needs a bit of backing, it needs a bit of help to really take this forward in a big way and accelerate what we’re doing. Because this is the thing: law is largely made now by the person who can pay for it. And that tends to be big transnational corporations. They have the funding, the finance to lobby the governments to get the laws in place, or to have the laws removed that they want, to move forward. That’s very much, from the mid-20th century, how laws end up being created.  

There have been smaller wins by communities pushing forward, but never before has it been essentially crowdfunded to take a law forward into the International Criminal Court. And that’s what we’re doing with our campaign. We’re essentially crowdfunding it. We’ve put it on a legal platform, so it’s a trust fund document, and that’s to provide security and safety for those small islands taking it forward, so that they can never be legally challenged. It’s just a crowdfunder. That makes it more complex as well, inevitably. But we want to create a safeguard and safety for those countries that wish to take this forward and will be, in due course, committed to taking it forward. And I believe we can do that through civil society and in that way bypass corrupt governments who have vested interests in preventing this law from being moved forward.

DJ: As you were talking, I was thinking about, when you talked about how laws are made by the big players, I was thinking; this has to do with the absolute necessity of your work. I was thinking of a couple of jokes that I’ve told for years, that are not funny at all.

The first one is – they’re two riddles. The first one is: what do you get when you cross a long drug habit, a quick temper, and a gun? And the answer is: Two life terms for murder, earliest release date 2026. And the second one is: What do you get when you cross two nation-states, a large corporation, 40 tons of poison and at least 8000 dead human beings? The answer is: retirement with full pay and benefits. 

PH: Absolutely! I’m completely there with you, especially if it’s two western states, yeah. Yeah yeah yeah.

DJ: And that was Bhopal and the CEO of Union Carbide. 

PH. Yeah yeah yeah! Absolutely! And indeed there are many, many other examples as well. This is it: the law is upside down. This is a ridiculous scenario. This is exactly what’s occurring today  and is a normative. 

DJ: We can bring this up to date by saying: What do you get when you kill, I think it was eight workers on your oil platform on the Gulf of Mexico? You get, I think it was a $36 million severance package. 

PH: Yeah. Which of course doesn’t help anyone. It’s a payoff to continue with business as normal. And it will happen again, and indeed has happened again in many other places around the world. 

We held a mock ecocide trial. We road tested this as if it had already become an international crime, in our Supreme Court here in the U.K. back in 2011. And we used some of the brightest legal eagles that we have, top human rights specialists, Michael Mansfield QC and Chris Parker QC.  They headed up the prosecution and defense teams. It was a real judge and a real jury, and we used as part of it, one of the counts on the indictment was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to examine whether or not that was an ecocide. And we were also looking at the Athabasca tar sands for two other counts.

And that was hugely instructive, because the evidence we used was evidence that was out in the public domain. And what we discovered was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the environmental impact assessment for that particular well was a generic environmental impact assessment that had been used to sign off on 500 wells. 

DJ: Oh, if I recall correctly, they mentioned the impact on walruses. 

PH: (laughing) Yes. But it didn’t actually address – in fact, one of the things it said three times in this environmental impact assessment was that the risk of anything going wrong was so small as to be de minimus, which means, in essence, “not worthwhile looking at.” So it didn’t have to be addressed. And on the back of that, billions of dollars were financing that project. So, of course, when something did go wrong, it took three months to do anything about it, which is an incredible scenario to have. Environmental impact assessments are meant to create some form of protection, but at the moment, because it’s not a crime to commit ecocide, you don’t have to ask certain questions in an EIA, one of them being what will be the consequences if something goes wrong? So it’s not a risk analysis that happens. When ecocide becomes a crime, it becomes a consequence analysis; and indeed, the person who’s signing off on the environmental impact assessment can be held to account in a criminal court of law if they haven’t investigated that. Which means then you have a completely different scenario playing out, where those who are hired to write the EIA’s make absolutely sure that they do address those issues, and certainly won’t sign off on them themselves, and you’ll have banks and investors not wanting to touch anything that could give rise to the consequence of a potential ecocide. So what you find is unconventional oil extraction just won’t survive under a different regime with ecocide as an international crime in place. 

One of the challenges I discovered that predates my involvement was that ecocide was going to become an international crime back when the Rome Statute, which is the governing document for the International Criminal Court, was being drafted up. From 1985 to 1996 when it was being drafted, ecocide was to be included, alongside genocide and war crimes and crimes against humanity. But what we discovered after some credible research that was undertaken by the University of London, where they sent students into literally the basement of the United Nations to track records, was that at the eleventh hour ecocide was removed as an international crime. And in fact, we discovered just a couple of years ago that at the same time there were crimes of responsibility being drafted that were to do with holding governments to account for certain criminal actions, and ecocide was going to be included within that as well. Within six months of it being removed as an international crime, it also was removed from crimes of responsibility, state crime. 

So there seems to have been a very concerted effort to have ecocide removed, and indeed we found records of the then-U.N rapporteurs who were so appalled at this being removed without any debate on it, without any discussion; it was just announced that it’s being removed – that they lodged into the U.N. basement their own opinion as to what had happened. And in their opinion, back in 1996, this was a result of corporate lobbying behind the scenes. We know that it was four countries that had wanted it removed, and that was the U.S., unsurprisingly; the U.K., my country; and also the Netherlands and France. 

And in their opinion this was corporate lobbying from fossil fuel industry, the nuclear industry, and the genetic modification one as well. Because they were all industries that were going to be under serious threat of having to fundamentally rethink how they operate and in fact what they considered to be acceptable, and this would fundamentally change their industries overnight. 

DJ: You know, that last story reminds me of a question I’ve been going to bring up, which has to do with part of Hermann Goering’s attempted defense at the Nuremberg Trials, which was that he tried to say, you know, “this whole trial is a sham because if Germany would have won, then we would not be on trial.” And in fact Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt – “you could all be in the dock if you’d applied the same standards to yourselves.” And basically his argument, which the Nuremberg trial did not allow him to make, was that the victors declared the terms.

And so that’s one of the many, many reasons that I admire your work so much, is that you are going up against that power, as you work on the law. 

PH: Yeah. In a way I am, and in a way I’m not. It still doesn’t get him off the hook. Yes, the victors did write it in their terms, but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean that he can slide on committing genocide. He can say “You did it too” and that’s a whole bigger discourse, of course. The interesting thing is, and in fact this was also what he put as a defense, and indeed many of them did, was that “I was just following orders.” 

And that is actually very interesting, because yes, they were following orders. But it depends on what your state of mind was. Did you actually know what was happening and were you recklessly turning a blind eye? What was the intent behind this wanting to kill? The interesting thing of course with genocide is that it’s very specific in intent. Yes, you are, you’re wanting to kill a race, by dint of their beliefs. What we’re dealing with, with ecocide, is slightly different in that it’s not necessarily – it can be a crime of intent, but the starting point is recklessness, that you knew it was going to cause harm. And this is why it’s so exciting to read that Chevron just agreed in court that humans cause climate change. Because actually that’s a recognition of their own complicity in the harm. And that’s very intriguing. 

I’m not sure whether or not Chevron have recognized just how important that statement is. From their own lawyer, in court. Because one of the things that, actually what’s happening here, and this – much as I’m very cynical about climate negotiations, what is very important to come out of that is that governments have signed off in recognition that climate change is human-driven by dangerous industrial activity. “Dangerous” is my word, but industrial activity drives instability in the atmosphere through excess greenhouse gas emissions. So for legal purposes, what we’re dealing with is the causality, the link and the knowledge behind it. So for instance Donald Trump may argue that because he’s pulled out of the Paris Agreement that he’s not hidebound by that. However, that doesn’t get him off the hook, because he has the knowledge. Whether or not he agrees with it is irrelevant, but he does have the knowledge, and you can say that objectively speaking, even if he claims he didn’t have the knowledge that climate change was occurring and that has arisen as a result of dangerous industrial activity, then he ought to have known, given how much it’s out in the public domain. 

So this is really about how you bring a criminal court case. What are the elements of your crime that you have to establish? And the Chevron case – this interim announcement that’s just come out on this case is very interesting because actually it’s paving the way for criminal prosecutions further down the line. 

DJ: So we have about five minutes left. Can you talk a little bit about how people, you know, somebody listening to this in Kentucky, or in Cambridge, can push these ideas forward? And then also what are your next steps? 

PH: My next steps are actually fundamentally determined by civil society, if you like. What we’re wanting to do next is really bring together not just civil society but those kind of small associations and organizations that are fighting in their patches of the planet to protect them. And saying “Here’s the law that unlocks justice for all the work that you’re doing.” It unlocks it actually for the earth and all who are protecting her. I’m very interested in how we kind of weave together a kind of rebel alliance of those who are engaging with protecting the earth, and bring this forward and create that platform of support to take this law forward. And that’s what our campaign Mission Lifeforce is really about. Our challenge is actually a financial one, in truth. To really take this to a slightly higher level. But, you know, this is the really interesting thing. We actually did a kind of number-crunching exercise. We worked out that we’re probably looking at a $10 million campaign, which is tiny in the scheme of things. How much does it cost to make a Hollywood film these days? So we’re really interested in how we kind of bring those rogue funders to the fore, but also we’d like civil society to even engage with this for as little as five dollars, to put it into the pot. We want to map it, as well, because that creates its own safeguard, a safe space for these small islands to operate in. And start truth-telling about the situation. We’re going to go back into the Assembly of State Parties in December. We’re going to be more resourced and we’re going to tell stories about the pushback that happens from the states that don’t want this. And by doing that kind of truth-telling about the situation, it can act as a safeguard for those countries to know that actually they can operate here, they can take this law forward because civil society is with them on it. And I think this is going to be really important. 

I mean, ultimately actually I’d like to see it go really big in America. I think it could be really, really exciting. There’s some amazing stuff happening in America at a grassroots level. And also there’s some really interesting cases happening. I just heard the other day; for the very first time activists fighting against the pipeline were successful in court in raising the defense of necessity. And that was accepted by the criminal court judge. That’s about being conscientious  objectors. Here we’ve got activists whom we’re working with that are going to be bringing to court their right to freedom of conscience, just as the conscientious objectors used it during the first and second world wars, where they were imprisoned for this and some of them were shot. And how eventually then that became lawful to be a conscientious objector, and was enshrined in our Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That now, in the 21st century, our 21st century crime, instead of being genocide it’s ecocide, and instead of it being conscientious objectors, it’s conscientious protectors. 

So there’s a kind of progressiveness happening, a progression in law where, you know, the most progressive lawyers and judges are beginning to recognize that it’s really important to stand up and speak out. And we really want to engage with those who are prepared to do that, in a big way. It’s not time to start another international negotiation. The Earth is not up for negotiation. This is time to draw the line in the sand and say “Enough. No more.” And make it a crime.

DJ: Well thank you so much for that. And thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Polly Higgins. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. 

(Sound of a tawny owl)

Tierra Curry 04.15.18




Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Tierra Curry. She is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity where she focuses on gaining protections for imperiled species and their habitats. Today we talk about freshwater mussels.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program. 

TC: I am so excited to talk about freshwater mussels. It’s like a biologist’s dream come true.

DJ: That’s good!

My first question was going to be “What are mussels?” and, as well as their being wonderful for their own sake, what do they do for their habitat? But instead, because of what you just said, I want my first question to be “Why is this a biologist’s dream come true?” 

TC: They’re so cool, and they’re so imperiled and almost no one knows that they exist. When I started working at the Center for Biological Diversity ten years ago, I was really obsessed with amphibians and reptiles. I was so worried about the frogs and the salamanders and that’s what I wanted to work on. And these projects kept coming up about mollusks, about snails and slugs and mussels. At first I was “I don’t want to work on that. I want to save the salamanders.” And then as I started to learn about these organisms, they just fascinated me and I was so excited to be on your show and do this interview. I spent all weekend reading about them. Even though I’ve been working to protect them for the last ten years, I continue to learn new things about them all the time. 

DJ: So…

TC: So what is a freshwater mussel?

DJ: Yeah…

TC: Back to the basics. So a lot of people, if they saw one, wouldn’t even know that it wasn’t a rock. They’re mollusks, so they’re cousins to octopus and squid, in the phylum Mollusca, and to the snails and slugs that people are more familiar with. A lot of people are familiar with marine mussels because they’re food, and so a lot of people enjoy eating those. The freshwater ones don’t taste good, but they look the same. They’re bivalves, so they have this symmetrical shell that folds over, kind of like, you know, there are a lot of cartoons and statues of the marine ones because they’re pretty. Sometimes there’s like a mermaid popping out if them. And so the freshwater ones only live in creeks and rivers and streams. Some of them live in lakes. And they have two valves. So it’s like a shell that folds over and a soft body that’s mostly foot for walking around and then two valves that stick up. And so through those valves, one of them intakes water and the other one expels the water, and by doing that they filter water constantly. And so one of the most important things that they do for humans is they improve the water quality, because to breathe and feed, by sucking in the water all the time, they consume algae and bacteria and pull pollutants out of the water. Unfortunately, they store those pollutants in their bodies. That’s why they’re so endangered. 70% of freshwater mussels are endangered. And 35 species from North America have already gone extinct. Probably more than that, actually. But they just haven’t been declared extinct yet. 

DJ: The primary causes of the – the primary threats to them would be, then, pollution, and is sedimentation also a problem? And also are dams a problem? 

TC: Absolutely. It sounds like you did some homework about freshwater mussels. Dams are a huge problem. The largest extinction event in modern times in North America was when they dammed the Coosa River in the southeast, and damming that river caused about 40 species of mollusks to go extinct, mostly snails but also five or six mussel species. Dams harm mussels in several different ways. One way is they change the water quality, so they change the temperature and the flow both upstream and downstream of the dam. Another way – freshwater mollusk reproduction is incredibly cool. We’ll talk about that more in a minute. They are dependent on host fish to be able to reproduce. The host fish carry the mussel larvae in their gills. So if we separate the mussels from their host fish then the mussels can’t reproduce anymore. So anything that harms the host fish for the mussels, also harms the mussels. So here in the Pacific Northwest we have a mussel called the western pearlshell, and its host fish are salmon and trout. Anything that harms the salmon also harms the mussels, because the mussels are dependent on the salmon to reproduce.

DJ: So can you tell me a little bit more about how that works? Let’s go through mussel reproduction from early courtship to teenage years, or to adulthood. Let’s go through their whole life cycle. 

TC: Great! I would love to. There are three ways that freshwater mussels reproduce. Some of them just leave it to chance and they release their sperm into the water by the million and the females downstream while they’re breathing in the water also just breathe in the sperm, and then they make little mussel babies, and then again leaving it to chance they exhale those little mussel babies and hope that they land on a fish’s gill. And then once they’re on the fish’s gill the baby mussels grow. They’re called glochidia and the glochidia develop on the fish’s gills into perfectly shaped little baby mussels. They’re so cute. They look just like an adult mussel but they’re teeny tiny. And then when they’re ready, they drop off the fish’s gill and whether or not they survive depends on where they land. And so the ones that land on good substrate and in good habitat grow up into adult mussels. 

So that’s kind of the most boring way.

DJ: And are they parasitic? Or do they just sort of sit there and filter feed? 

TC: They’re parasitic, yeah. 

So now we get into the really cool part. Some mussels produce lures to try to trick fish into swimming up to them. The lures are pieces of the mussel’s flesh that they stick out of their shell  and wave around in the water column. And these lures are beautiful. Everyone should Google “freshwater mussel lure.” They can look like baby fish, they can look like insects, they can look like crawdads, they can look like worms. They’re very elaborate. And that’s just amazing. The mussels can’t see, right? They don’t know what the fish look like, but over time, the ones who have successfully reproduced have come to mimic juvenile fish really effectively. 

DJ: How big are these mussels? How big is this whole thing that’s happening here? 

TC: Some mussels get to be about eight inches.

DJ: Oh my God. So some can be big. Great. Thanks. 

TC: Yeah, they can be big. Some can be even bigger than that, and some are just a couple of inches. They produce these lures and then the fish swim up to them thinking they’re going to eat a juvenile fish. And the mussels release their glochidia when the fish is close to them. Some of them will actually jump up and clamp onto the fish’s face and hold the fish and release the baby mussels, and then they let the fish go. And the fish swims away having no idea what has happened to it and hosts their babies for them. 

And so then the other one – I think those are the coolest ones, the ones that jump and grab the fish. But there are other mussels that produce – they kind of package all their fertilized eggs into a little mucus-covered conglutinates. And then with some of them the conglutinate can be on a stream that they make that’s like ten feet long. So the mussel can be ten feet away from this lure, and then the fish swims up to it and when the fish tries to eat it it explodes and the baby mussels get on the fish’s gills. 

And so some mussels have a relationship with only one host fish. They’re dependent on that particular fish. But some mussels can use a bunch of different fish. And one, the salamander mussel, can only use freshwater salamanders. They use a big salamander called a mudpuppy. 

Isn’t that coolest thing you’ve ever heard?

DJ: Yeah. The whole time you’re talking I just keep thinking about how in love I am with speciation and with the real world, and how just extraordinary and beautiful and complex it all is. If I were going to set up and create a world, and I was going to make it, I would never think of those things. That’s the word I’m looking for, just how incredibly creative evolution is. I just want to stop for a second, stop talking about mussels for a moment and just mention the absolute wonderful creativity of evolution. 

TC: Yeah, nature is so cool. That’s why I love it too. When I was trying to decide if I wanted to be an environmental attorney or a biologist I decided to become a biologist because there were so many really absolutely amazing things to learn about. I feel like law is all these layers of stuff that humans make up and rules built on rules. With biology and science you finally get to a truth. It’s so beautiful and captivating.

DJ: So let’s back up a second. The baby mussels are attached to fish – do all mussels require either fish or salamanders or do some just send out babies hither and yon? Or do they all require fish? Sorry, I don’t remember. 

TC: They all require fish, yeah. The babies that are just expelled into the water column have to end up on a fish’s gills on their own. 

DJ: Does that partially explain how mussels can inhabit areas that are further upstream, is that they get on the fish and the fish swims upstream for them and they’re a mode of transportation?

TC: Exactly. 

DJ: Hmm. Okay. So were there freshwater mussels in all biomes of this continent? Are they in the Everglades and also up in the Arctic or are there some places where they’re not? Naturally not present, as opposed to having been extirpated by this culture. 

TC: Globally there are 890 known species and 302 of those are in North America. So North America is a global hotspot for freshwater mussel diversity. But most of that diversity is in the southeastern United States. Alabama alone has 180 species. Of the 302 known from North America, here in the Pacific Northwest there are only 4 species. And that’s because of, you know, glaciation. Out here we haven’t had as much time to develop cool things, but the South didn’t glaciate, and then the Continental Divide is a barrier to mussels, and in all of the environments in the west, because the rivers out here are so young and fast, the substrate just hasn’t been right. So we only have 4 species here, and most of the others are in the Southeast. 

DJ: So I recognize that we’re talking about hundreds of species, but what would be some ideal substrate for typical mussels? Do they like rocks or do they like mud, or sand? What do they like? 

TC: Different species have different preferences, but they all need clean water. They need clean flowing water. Earlier you asked about sediment or silt, and that’s a huge problem. Because they breathe all the time, if they’re breathing in silt it can cut their siphons and cause them to just clam up and stop breathing. And then if they keep breathing they have to get rid of it, so they have to package it in mucus and then expel it again. That has an energetic cost. The more silt they have to deal with, the more calories they’re burning, the longer they have to remain closed. Eventually they’ll just die. Some species are tolerant but most species will just die in super silty environments. 

And the other problem with silt is that if it makes the water clouded it reduces visibility and then the fish can’t see the lures and the mussels don’t get to reproduce if the fish don’t swim up to their lures. 

DJ: So there is a stream, a creek about 20 yards from where I’m sitting right now. And this stream has a natural sand substrate because I live about five miles from the coast. Yes, this area was logged, but it’s not that it used to be cobblestone and now it’s sand. The stream has salmon in it, it has lampreys. I’ve seen all those. It has all sorts of fish. Are there probably some sort of mussels in it or do they not live on sandy beds? 

TC: Some mussels specialize in sand, especially in the southeast. I’m not sure whether there would be mussels where you are, but you could certainly take a look. The species out here are the western pearlshell and the western ridged mussel, and then there’s a group called “floaters.” Scientists are still trying to figure out the species in the floaters but one of them; there used to be a California floater but then they decided it was actually the winged floater. So you could have those. You should definitely go take a look around. 

DJ: And how would I do that? How would I – like, when I found out there are lampreys here, what I did was – I don’t know why I was doing this but I started just messing around in the sand, like scooping up some shovelfuls of sand from the bottom, and I don’t know what I was looking for but I saw these little itty-bitty black wormlike things. I didn’t take them out. I was just looking at them. And then I called up some stream people and they said “Oh my God! Those are Pacific lamprey babies!”

So what would I look for if I were looking for – and I’m not just asking for me. But if anybody wants to go to a stream and find out if there are mussels in there, what do they look for? 

TC: Mussels have to breathe, so they hang out in the substrate but with part of their shell and their siphons showing. Most scientists snorkel. If the water’s clear you could walk along the bank and look in. You have to study them because they kind of look like rocks. They can have algae and other stuff growing on their shell. But they have to breathe eventually, so they hold their shells open a little bit and they have two siphons sticking out. So in clear water you’ll see that at the bottom. And the pearlshell and the western ridged mussel both grow to be about five inches big. 

DJ: When I think of mussels, not freshwater mussels but mussels in general, since I live near the ocean I think of sort of huge clam beds, or I think of, hanging onto the rocks, you see 300 of them in ten square feet or something. Are freshwater mussels, are they communal like that? Or do they generally live by themselves? 

TC: They are communal like that because the areas of good habitat are where they grow. They’re called mussel beds, places where there are a ton of mussels on the stream bottom. The western pearlshell in particular – they say that, you know, when the rivers were so clean and undammed that they completely covered the stream bottoms in places, that there were more pearlshells than there were rocks. 

DJ: Wow.

And so, again, every being is its own beautiful being itself, but in addition they serve the larger community, and … Oh, I just learned this last week. It has nothing to do with mussels but I’m just so excited that I want to share this. I went to lunch with a friend of mine who works for the forest service, he’s a biologist. And something I’ve wondered for the longest time is what function does it serve in a natural community for bears to kill trees? Because bears kill lots of, like, Douglas firs. And he said “I’m glad you asked that,” because where he lives is a mixed Douglas fir/tan oak community. And the Douglas firs reproduce more, reproduce faster, grow faster, so they have every advantage over tan oak. So how is the forest going to let tan oaks survive in this mixed community? And one of the things is the bears really like to eat the inner bark of the Doulas fir. So basically the advantage that the tan oak have over the firs is that the bears will kill some of the firs.

I loved it. So having said all this, what are some of the functions that are played? You said clean water. What other functions are played? How else do mussels serve the river? Are they food for somebody? 

TC: I’m so glad you asked that. Yes, they’re food for just about everybody. Muskrats, river otters, sturgeon, birds, raccoons, crayfish, large fish, all of those animals eat freshwater mussels. Because the mussels are eating algae and bacteria and diatoms and little particles in the water, they’re a really important link in the food web because they take all the nutrients and then convert them into a food source for the likes of river otters and great blue herons. 

The other cool thing is their bodies support biodiversity because other life lives on and in their shells. So in the Southeast there are these beautiful little rainbow fish called darters, and the darters will hang out in empty mussel shells. And then caddis flies will make their home on mussels shells.

They also play an important role in stabilizing the river bottom. They can actually change the flow dynamics in the substrate of the river when their populations are big, because they stabilize the bottom. 

And then they’re kind of like earthworms. They don’t just sit there. They can move around. If the creek starts to dry up they try to move to deeper places, they can climb up small waterfalls with their powerful foot. Because they move around on the river bottom so much, they aerate the substrate and make it healthier. Kind of like earthworms do in healthy soil. 

DJ: And how fast do they move? 

TC: About as fast as a snail. Pretty slowly. Unless they’re jumping up to grab a fish. Otherwise pretty slowly. 

Drought is a big threat to them in the Southeast, so scientists went out to a creek and got all the mussels and put them in a line, the different species, to study which ones could move fastest and furthest and how they would do as the water was declining in the creek. And so it varies by species, how fast they move and how long they can be out of the water. 

DJ: How long can they be out of the water? 

TC: Some of the mussels that these scientists studied survived out of the water for a couple of days, and some of them died immediately. It varies with species. 

DJ: I don’t think we can talk about mussels without mentioning zebra mussels.

TC: Oh, yeah.

DJ: So can you introduce people to those and talk a little bit about them? 

TC: Yes. So there are three invasive species of bivalves that threaten freshwater mussels: the Asian clam, the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel are all species that are native to Asia. They’re here now and they kill freshwater mussels because they grow on their shells. So they just colonize the mussels and compete with them for nutrients and they smother them.

These invasive species actually improve the water quality. The Great Lakes got cleaner when all the invasive mussels showed up, but it was terrible for the native mussels. 

DJ: What is your work about mussels? And more largely, what can be done about the various threats to mussels? 

Oh, first: Before we go there, one more question, which is what is the threat of global warming to mussels? 

TC: Oh, gosh. It’s awful. Mussels have a pretty low tolerance for warmed up water, especially the western pearlshell and other species that use salmon as a host. The USGS did a big study a couple of years ago and found that if water temperature gets too warm it kills the juvenile mussels. So climate change is a large and growing threat to them. 

In my work, I try to get Endangered Species Act protection for them, for mussels that aren’t protected yet. And then I try to get more recovery money so that actions can be taken to help specific endangered species. I fight projects that are going to pollute the water and hurt areas with endangered freshwater mussels. And then I talk to every person I can about them, because I think they’re so cool. I try to raise public awareness. Even some biologists aren’t aware of them. I wasn’t aware of them when I was obsessed with saving the frogs. I didn’t know that freshwater mussels were more endangered. So I do a lot of advocacy and education.

I love them so much. I’ll tell you a personal story. For my birthday party a couple of years ago, my friend had a surprise party for me, and it was a freshwater mussel pageant. I’m from Kentucky and they had the “endangered but not extinct freshwater mussels of Kentucky” pageant, where they all dressed up as a different freshwater mussel, and I had to guess which freshwater mussel they were. It was the best surprise birthday party ever. The species of the Southeast have really interesting names, like the orangefoot pimplebacked pearly mussel, and the Cumberland elktoe mussel, the spectacle case. So that was really fun. That’s how much I love mussels – I had a mussel-themed surprise birthday party.

DJ: That is the coolest birthday party I’ve ever heard of.

TC: Right.

DJ: When you mentioned the different names, that reminded me of something I read like three weeks ago or a month ago, that I didn’t know about before, was a certain species of mussel was either driven extinct or driven nearly extinct in the 19th century when it was discovered that the shell was really good for buttons. 

TC: Yeah. I wanted to talk about that. So after dams, a really big threat to mussels was overharvest. Before plastics, buttons were made of mussel shells. This man named Johann Boepple started the freshwater mussel button industry in the United States, and after that mussels were harvested everywhere, because they were a way for people to make money, just by going down to a river and harvesting tons and tons of mussels. So you see these photos with huge piles of mussel shells that look like they’ve been punched with a perfectly round paper punch. And they’re like, some of these piles are 30 feet high of mussel shells. And so that decimated a lot of populations. But after they were harvested, the harvesters would go to a different area and then they could recover. So as they began to recover, we came along and put in the dams and that ended up being a bigger threat, and now there is pollution and other terrible threats but for awhile buttons were the biggest threat. 

And culturally – that’s another reason mussels are cool, is just like with the cultural history of the button industry, Native American tribes made jewelry out of them, and they were, during lean times, a food source. Freshwater mussels don’t taste very good but they are edible. So during times when other food wasn’t available, they were harvested as a food source by Native Americans.

DJ: I know this is off subject, and I also don’t know why anybody would know the answer to this, but why do they taste bad when saltwater mussels can actually taste pretty good? 

TC: I think because they live so long. That’s probably one factor. They can live to be up to 200 years old. 

DJ: Oh my God. 

TC: Yeah. So they’re going to be kind of old, and probably chewy. And also they’re always filtering bacteria and algae. Whatever’s in the water they’re filtering out and accumulating it in their bodies. So I bet because they filter so much in areas that aren’t clean, that’s the reason they don’t taste good. 

DJ: So if they can live 200 years, tell me how long these different life periods last. Like how long are they attached to the gill? And then when they drop off, how long does it take for them to become sexually mature? And then how many babies could one realistically make in a year and what’s the mortality of those? Like tadpoles, of course, I’m guessing – I’m making this up but I’m guessing that 99% of tadpoles don’t make it their first year. 

TC: That’s a good guess. I actually did my grad work on tadpole reproductive success. 95% of tadpoles don’t make it. But 5% make it. So that was a close guess.

DJ: Thank you. 

TC: With mussels it varies by species. They’re only on the fish’s gills for a couple weeks. And then some species grow really fast and some grow more slowly. Some reach reproductive age at two or three and some species take longer. 

DJ: Usually when I think of tiny creatures I think of a faster turnover. You know, shrews; living really fast and then dying pretty quickly. But these are obviously not like that.

TC: Yeah. A lot of species are in what’s called “extinction debt.” They’re not extinct yet but they’re going to go extinct, because the old ones are still alive, even though they can’t reproduce anymore. So say humans come along and put up a dam and separate the mussels from their host fish. They can live another 100-150 years but they can’t reproduce. It’s really sad. 

DJ: So in those cases it seems that the only solutions would be – I mean, the solution I would prefer, of course, would be removing the dams. But the only other solution would be to translocate some fish above the dam. Without the fish, they’re gone, so somehow or another you have to get the mussels and the fish back together. 

TC: Right. And for a lot of mussels the host fish isn’t known. You wouldn’t even know what fish.  That’s actually something scientists try to figure out. When mussels are declining and aren’t reproducing in specific rivers, scientists look at the fish that were observed above and below the dam. And sometimes they actually figure it out. “The mooneye fish used to make it above this dam and it doesn’t anymore. Let’s see if that’s the host fish for this mussel.”

And it turns out that it is. So that’s really cool when scientists can figure that out. 

For a long time when the host fish wasn’t known, the mussel was pretty much doomed to extinction, but now they’ve figured out how to grow the baby mussels on a medium in the lab. So they can incubate them like they would incubate on the fish gills, but they do it on mediums. This is amazing because it means hope for a lot of species that were doomed to extinction. We can save them now. Scientists go out and dive – they hire divers to go down to areas where the mussels were last seen, where the populations are known to be. And they haul up the mussels and if they’re lucky they’ll find a female that has fertilized eggs and they’ll take her to the lab, or if they find a female and a male they’ll take them to the lab. And then they harvest the glochidia and grow them on substrate until they’re big enough and then take them back out into the field. So this is a new lifeline for a lot of species that were just doomed before. 

But it’s really expensive, so that’s one of the campaigns that I work on, trying to get the US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate more recovery money to go get those rare mussels and propagate them and get them back out. It’s really frustrating because as a country we aren’t prioritizing saving the freshwater mussels. Now that the technology exists to do it without knowing the host fish, it’s just a question of getting enough money to the people who are working on their recovery. 

DJ: This is again off topic, but this is one of the things that kills me about this whole culture is that the amount of money that that would take is expensive but it’s completely trivial compared to a new aircraft carrier. We could take the money they spend on toilets for the military and do a lot of good work.

TC: Yeah, we could take the money Zinke has spent on fancy doors and airplane rides and save the freshwater mussels. It’s incredibly frustrating. 

DJ: I’m always a bit mixed – I mean, I’m not mixed at all on captive breeding programs. It’s like, anything. In my work I say let’s use any means necessary to protect the natural world, and some people think that’s code language for violence. That’s just nonsense, because what it means is anything, including captive breeding if necessary. And on the other hand it’s all – yes, that’s a given that anything to save the species is great. But then it’s also so frustrating because, you know, nature did all this for free. It did it all just naturally. And now, because we’ve messed up so many other things, we have to do these crazy things like growing the babies on an artificial substrate in order to save them. Once again, I want to be really clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m saying it’s also frustrating. The other fish should be there. That’s all. 

TC: Yeah. I get criticized a lot for fighting extinction of really obscure species like freshwater mussels. One of the most common arguments that is thrown at me is “Survival of the fittest.” If the mussels were fit, they would just survive. The reality is that you could have the fittest mussel ever, and if you put up a dam and separate it from its host fish then it doesn’t matter how fit it is. It’s going to go extinct unless we intervene and do something to save it. 

DJ: I completely agree and I hope you don’t think I was criticizing you with that. 

TC: Oh no, not you! 

Being from Kentucky I worked on – Mitch McConnell a couple years ago earmarked this money to build a boat dock for recreation. And the place he wanted to put this boat dock was on top of one of the most important mussel beds left. I love orangefoot pimplebacked pearly mussels in particular and the boat dock was going to go right on top of one of their beds. So I started protesting that project and the local paper was so furious about it. They wanted the boat dock, they’d never heard of freshwater mussels, they didn’t care about them. They didn’t care if they went extinct. They ran this editorial saying that some people believed in species. And they believed that the mussels in the river were different from each other. That’s the level of public awareness and education in some places about the plight of freshwater species. 

DJ: Wait a second here. Are you saying that you believe in species? 

TC: (laughing)

DJ: I don’t know if I can continue this conversation with you.

TC: I just got called a “biological sensationalist” by a politician in Florida who wants to develop the habitat of a crayfish. He said that I was a biological sensationalist and that because there were supposedly eight different kinds of crayfish there, it was impossible to tell the different kinds of crayfish apart and therefore we shouldn’t try to save this one that I’m interested in, the Panama City crayfish.

DJ: Well you know, that’s a real problem. I have noticed that there are multiple species of trees, and I don’t think I can tell the difference between an alder and a pine tree. A tree is a tree. 

TC: And the fit ones will survive. 

DJ: The fit ones will survive. Yeah. 

So on that note … we have about ten minutes left, and let’s start making a curve toward what can be done. One of the questions I want to ask before we get to what can be done on a social level is that I heard years ago about this project in the San Francisco Bay area, where a school was concerned about an endangered shrimp, I believe a fairy shrimp, and the school took it on to rehabilitate a stream, and the endangered fairy shrimp is doing much much better in that stream now because of the school project. So before we talk about larger social questions, can you say what somebody in Kentucky or Alabama, or the Pacific Northwest for that matter, or Nova Scotia, what they can do if they care about a stream and they care about mussels.

TC: Sure. There are mussels in the Willamette. Oregon Field Guides just did this great program on western pearlshell mussels in the Willamette River. That population that they found is a big population but all the mussels are really old and they’re not successfully reproducing. So individuals can get involved by getting involved in things like improved water quality, tree plantings alongside streams, working to reduce pollutants, not using pesticide. Anything that’s going to help out with water quality, anything that’s helpful for salmon populations is also going to help the mussels. 

DJ: And then on a larger social scale, what can society do, presuming – I think I asked you this. We talked before about monarch butterflies, right? 

TC: Yes. 

DJ: One of the questions I asked you is if they made you queen of all things monarch butterfly, what you would do. So if they made you queen of all things mussel, freshwater mussel North America – sorry, you can’t touch saltwater mussels, got nothing to do with you – what policies would you implement? And just as with the monarch butterfly, you can’t get rid of civilization, you can’t get rid of capitalism. Sorry.

So within the current system, what would you do to improve habitat? To improve mussels. 

TC: Take out the dams. Can I do that?

DJ: Yeah you can do that.

TC: Okay. Take out the dams, enforce the Clean Water Act, reduce pesticide use, make the Environmental Protection Agency actually consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over all the pesticides and chemicals they approve and how those affect sensitive freshwater species, and increase fines for polluting the rivers. All of the things that would benefit humans in terms of improving water quality are also going to benefit the freshwater species. Freshwater species in North America are going extinct at 1000 times the rate of terrestrial species because of all the insults to our waterways. 

And then I would get money, recovery money to the Fish and Wildlife Service. We have the technology to save these mussels now by propagating them in the lab, and so if we cleaned up the rivers and got the recovery money that’s needed to raise millions and millions of baby mussels, we could prevent these species from going extinct. And if we don’t do that, they’re going to go extinct. It’s going to be on our hands and it’s really sad.

DJ: So, apart from doing interviews like this, how would you increase awareness of the problems with mussels? They’re not really charismatic megafauna. Apart from doing what you just did, how can you help people to, and how can other people help to increase awareness of this – I’m sorry, I’m not a biologist. Is it a class? Are mollusks a class?

TC: Mollusks are a phylum. 

DJ: So what can people do to increase awareness of what is happening to this phylum?

TC: We have a really creative social media guy at the Center, and he did a video about the sex lives of freshwater mussels that we shared on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. So there are resources out there for public education. I personally think you’ll be very popular at the next party you go to if you start talking about freshwater mussel reproduction and all of the different species and, like, getting that information to school kids. 

In December a freshwater snail from Georgia was declared extinct, the beaverpond marstonia, and I did an interview with a reporter who writes for a children’s newspaper, like an online app. He did this story about the extinction of the beaverpond marstonia and the kids were amazing. They drew pictures of it and wrote little stories about it, and I was so touched by the emotional response that kids around the country had to the extinction of a little freshwater snail. So I think anything we can do to teach kids about these cool species, and about all the other cool species, crawdads and snails and things we don’t normally think about. It’s going to be a game-changer for the next generation.

DJ: And can you talk a little bit about your process of being in love with reptiles and amphibians and then falling in love with mollusks. What was it that triggered your affection? How did that process occur in you? 

TC: It was just learning about them. They – like you said earlier, if you were creating the world, you wouldn’t know how to make this stuff up, it’s so fantastic. Just learning about their life cycles and then going to Youtube and Googling videos of them and watching them grab the fish and watching them make their lure. That stuff is really fascinating. I think that most people would react to it if they learned more about it.

DJ: I guess the last big question is: Is there anything you’ve wanted to say about mollusks that I haven’t given you the opportunity for? 

TC: I want to tell you what happened to Johann Boepple, the man who started the button industry. He stepped on a mussel called the pink heelsplitter and cut his heel and died of an infection from the cut he got from the freshwater mussel. And I just think that that is fascinating, from a karmic standpoint. 

DJ: Yeah, that is karma at work. 

Well, thank you so much for your incredible work, and thank you for the interview today, and for telling us about mollusks. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Tierra Curry. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Charles Hall 01.19.14




Hi, this is Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Charles Hall. He is a systems ecologist with strong interests in biophysical economics, and the relation of energy to society. Central to his work is an understanding that the survival of all living creatures is limited by the concept of energy return on investment (EROEI): that any living being or living society can survive only so long as they are capable of getting more net energy from any activity than they expend during the performance of that activity. He is the author or co-author of, among others, Energy and the Wealth of Nations.

So I was wondering if we could start, if you could talk about EROEI, and start on a physical level, on the level of plants and animals, and then move to the social level. 

CH: Okay. I’ll start by saying that I’m – first, I’m an ecologist by training, a systems ecologist. I was trained by an incredible guy named Howard Odum and his ideas have shaped my whole life. When I was working with him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 1960’s he was just beginning to transition from thinking strictly about the ecology of, let’s call it nature, although I think man is part of nature, but for the purposes of this interview we’re going to talk about humans and nature. 

He was focused mostly on the natural environment but was just beginning a transition with his book Environment, Power and Society, into attempting to apply the concepts to human civilization as well. I at that time strictly wanted to be an ecologist, and I came up with the concept of EROI – and incidentally, you used “EROEI” and that’s perfectly fine, but the way I use it is “energy return on investment” because although we principally look at energy return on energy invested, we sometimes analyze energy return on money invested, or energy return on environment invested, and other such things. 

So what I did for my Ph.D. work, in several small streams in North Carolina, mostly the beautiful New Hope Creek, was to look at the patterns of fish migration in the stream and attempt to figure out how much it cost for them to get from point A to B and how much they would gain in their whole life history cycle by either they or their progeny being in areas of higher available energy at the critical times of the year. And at the time I was also thinking about salmon migrations and spent some time working on salmon migration in the Pacific Ocean as well. 

So I figured out from my thesis work that the fish that were migrating in New Hope Creek, and there were 20-odd species that appeared to be doing it, were getting back at least four or five calories for every calorie they invested in the migration process itself. So it seemed to be of evolutionary advantage, and I went on, and although I didn’t always do the calculations, you know, you can think about bird seasonal migrations where they invest a whole lot of energy into the process of moving from the Caribbean or South America or Central America in moving up to the temperate or Arctic regions to breed, where there is, for that time of the year, tremendous surplus energy, in part because organisms that might be their competitors can’t overwinter there. It’s too cold. 

So this was the original origin – as an ecologist and thinking about the process of animal migration, being totally fascinated by everything from various antelopes in the Serengeti in Africa and other organisms there. But mostly fish. I was very focused on fish. 

DJ: Just to clarify: So if you have a salmon who runs up the Columbia and up the Snake for 800 miles or something, what that is suggesting is that their progeny, or the community, the salmon run itself – because obviously that particular salmon who runs up is going to die.

CH: Right.

DJ: But via their progeny, will then gain enough energy by the food sources and other sources at the spawning grounds, and as it comes down the Columbia, to make the trip worthwhile for the salmon run. Is that what you’re saying?

CH: Let me modify that a little bit. Basically yes, but the specifics are a little bit different, because I would – you can tell that the migration is worthwhile, and I got this idea originally by actually going up to Babine Lake in northern British Columbia and looking at the salmon runs there. The sockeye salmon that went to the ocean came back and they were ten pounds or so, pretty big fish. But some of their brothers and sisters had not made the migration to the Pacific Ocean. And those were about 12 inches long, half a pound at most, were much much smaller even though they were the same age. And so it was clear that the salmon that made the migration were selected to be larger, and the larger salmon females had many more eggs, and the survival of these fish and their contribution to the next generation’s gene pool was much larger. So apparently, just by looking in a pool of salmon waiting to spawn, and looking at the great big sockeye salmon in there, all brilliant red and green, and the little kokanee that had not made the same migration, even though they were presumably brothers and sisters of the other salmon, you could see that there was a tremendous advantage from migration in generating more offspring. 

Now in this case, the migration is out in the Pacific Ocean. In other words, the migration is downstream –

DJ: Right…

CH: Some 800 miles or something to the Pacific Ocean and then they turn and go up along the coast, following the plankton blooms up to Alaska. So they’re off the Aleutians by August. 

DJ: I was looking at it backwards. I was looking at it that the migration is upstream but the truth is that the migration that happens for salmon – I’ve worked on salmon issues for 20 years …

CH: Oh really?

DJ: Yeah. I’ve been working on them – I lived in Spokane, Washington, and I’ve worked on issues of taking dams out on the Columbia –

CH: Oh yeah?

DJ: Yeah. So I’ve been working on that a long time, but the whole time – this is great – the whole time, I’ve been perceiving the migration as upstream and then like living in the ocean and then coming up just to spawn and die. But the truth is that they were living – the migration – I understand what you’re saying. This is a complete shift in my perception of how salmon live. 

CH: (laughing)

DJ: That they were actually – I live right next to a salmon stream in Crescent City, California. And the fish actually migrate out to the ocean. They don’t migrate up to spawn. This is great. Thank you. 

CH: Well great! I’m glad that I can talk to you as a biologist and we can share some thoughts about that. According to the physiologist William Hoar, whom I was reading when I was back in graduate school, you can tell that the salmon almost certainly evolved originally in fresh water. Essentially they’re a rainbow trout.

DJ: Right.

CH: Because they have a kidney that’s most appropriate for a freshwater fish. And during the periods of glacial advance and retreat, there presumably was a large evolutionary advantage for those organisms that could migrate and go to new streams. But they have very stringent requirements for spawning. I was always interested that when they lost the upper Adams River sockeye, for example, when they lost that particular genetic strain of fish, and then they took the dam out that had caused the loss of the fish, they had tried to take lower Adams River sockeye salmon and reinstall them into the upper Adams River, and they never took, because they never had the right genes. And you can go on Vancouver Island and you can go to Little Qualicum River, and you can go to, I think it’s called Black Creek, just north of it. And they’re completely different environments, and the salmon that live – in this case, silver salmon, that live in these two environments are completely different creatures. In Little Qualicum, they have to do well in cold, oligotrophic waters, and the Black Creek salmon have to do well in warm, very nutrient-rich  and plant and animal-rich environments, and yet they both do fine in their particular environments, and they are very specially adapted to their environments. And so when they put in the big hatchery at Qualicum River and a lot of these salmon drifted into small creeks, there was a great deal of concern about diluting the beautifully fine-tuned genetic stocks of the individual creek salmon. 

DJ: Right.

CH: (laughing) We could talk about salmon all this time. But let’s get on.

DJ: You mentioned the EROI, and this reminds me of something that I just read not very long ago, and it makes sense, but it still was what I thought very interesting. I was reading some work on plants, and plants can – we can argue about the word “predict,” I like the word “predict” but if you don’t like it then we can just ignore that.

CH: I’m okay with it. I sometimes predict. 

DJ: Plants predict is the point. I was reading that plants can tell – plants in the understory grow branches by how the overstory is going to look by the time the branch gets out to where it will be able to be fully functional at receiving energy through photosynthesis. 

CH: Sure.

DJ: I thought that was really interesting because we normally, well, a lot of – the point is that plants are working on the EROI as well. 

CH: Absolutely. I live out on – I’m living on the Shore/Flathead Lake in Montana and I’m looking out to a pine forest and I can see, on one side of a pine tree, branches that go all the way down to the bottom, and on the other side, where it’s growing next to another pine tree, the branches are not there in the lower part of the pine tree. And if you go there you can find the dead branches or the little holes where the branches once were, but the tree – now I don’t know whether the tree makes a decision or whether the branch just deals with that but it’s expensive to have a branch, and a tree will maintain that branch only if it has a positive energy return on investment, the investment being investing in the leaves and the needles of branches and all the incredible chemistry and biochemistry and stuff that the branch does. 

But if the branch is not carrying its weight, and a branch, like an animal, at night and during the daytime too uses energy. It takes energy to maintain its structure, to maintain itself. This is called “maintenance metabolism.” If a branch can’t pay for its maintenance metabolism because it doesn’t get enough light then it’s goodbye branch. 

Now whether they can anticipate or not, I’m not – I don’t know about that. That’s a new one for me. But I wouldn’t be surprised. 

DJ: If you want I can send you the source later. But anyway, how does this apply then to a society, this concept?

CH: I’d just like to make one point, that if anybody wants to Google my name, Charles Hall, and then Tyee, all of this stuff was written up particularly well by that magazine in British Columbia.

DJ: Okay, great.

CH: Okay, so how did I get involved with applying this to oil and uranium and other sorts of things? Well, as I said, my advisor Howard Odum had got me thinking that way, and I had this really good undergraduate student at the time I was a professor at Cornell University. I had a really promising undergraduate named Cutler Cleveland, who’s now made quite a name for himself in the energy world. He came to me and said that he wanted to do a project with me, and we talked about various things, and so we decided we – he told me he thought he was really more interested in energy than simply environment, or ecology, and at that time I was an ecology professor. And so I said “Well, let’s re-look at the Hubbert curve.” And that led to us doing a paper that’s called Petroleum drilling and production in the United States: yield per effort and net energy analysis.

And what we did – we went back and looked at the Hubbert data –

DJ: People might not know what that means.

CH: Oh, the Hubbert data means how many barrels of oil you gain in the United States from drilling a foot in looking for it. This guy Marion King Hubbert was the originator of all of this kind of work. I’m old enough to have known him reasonably well at one time. He famously predicted in 1955 that the United States would have a peak in oil production in 1970, and everybody shunned him and called him bad names and said he was a terrible scientist and so forth, but in fact, the United States did in 1970, we have never produced as much oil even now, with a little uptick recently, we have never produced or extracted as much oil as we did in 1970. 

So we took the Hubbert idea of yield per effort and how many barrels you get per foot drilled and updated his data, and we found a very strange pattern, that it declined, as Hubbert had observed. We were getting less oil for each foot we drilled looking for it, but then it went up, and then it went back down, over a period of about ten years. And this was very confusing to us. And then I remember Cutler plotting the data and I’d just come back from giving my fisheries lecture in ecology, and Cutler said “Look, this data, it just doesn’t make any sense, but it’s very clear.” And I looked at it, and I scratched my head, I didn’t know what – and then all of a sudden, I thought about my lecture. At the time, Cutler was a great big muscular fellow, a great athlete, and I got so excited I pounded on his shoulder with such force that I left black and blue marks, I was so excited. And I said “Look at this, look at this Cutler! It’s just like for fisheries! The harder you fish, that is, the more feet you drill for oil, the less you get per foot. Your yield per effort is lower at greater effort.”

You know, this is, in economics, though economists don’t talk about it much, decreasing marginal return. David Ricardo wrote about this 200 years ago. Basically what it means is those people who say “Drill, drill, drill,” the data doesn’t support what they say, at least so far, because the more you drill, the less efficiently you drill and the lower your return per effort. And that’s what we found. So we started analyzing things, instead of the feet you use for drilling, the energy you use for drilling, and ultimately applied this energy return on investment concept to getting oil out of the ground. 

DJ: So they were … basically measuring it by feet as opposed to measuring it by energy invested is sort of like measuring what miles you get per amount of time you drive vs. the amount of distance you drive. My point is they were kind of measuring the wrong input. 

CH: Well, it wasn’t wrong, exactly, but I think it’s more meaningful – all kinds of things are more meaningful when you start looking at the energy investment.

Well, I see what you mean. Like, for the salmon you might talk about how many miles did the salmon swim, but of greater interest, I think, biologically, is how much energy did it use for the salmon to swim from point A to point B? 

DJ: Right. Because if they’re going straight uphill the whole time, that takes a lot more energy than if it’s fairly flat. 

CH: Yes, of course. 

DJ: So what are the implications of what you’re saying, of the last bit you’re saying, what are the implications of that for the oil economy? 

CH: Well, if you plot the growth of the world economy it’s almost exactly the same curve as the growth of our use of fossil fuels. I remember hearing the mayor of Denver once say that the Sioux Indians who used to live there were completely dependent upon the bison for everything they ate, everything they lived in, everything they wore, their tools, their weapons and so forth were all based on the bison. And they celebrated it, and did dances and had special feasts and so forth in terms of the bison. And he said today Denver is completely dependent upon oil, and not only do we not celebrate it, but people don’t even pay any attention to it. They think it’s technology.

I mean, it drives me nuts. People talk all the time about all this wondrous technology but almost all of that technology is dependent directly or indirectly upon having cheap energy. And how long will we have cheap energy? Well, if you plot from the end of the Great Depression to today, you’ll find that the growth of the US economy has declined essentially every decade from five percent to three percent to two percent to one percent to less than one percent today. That’s the growth of the US economy and in fact of most OECD, or western, economies, it’s the same thing. We’ve basically stopped growing. Europe has basically stopped growing. Japan has basically stopped growing. The US: we can argue about it, but it certainly doesn’t grow like it used to. And probably not in real terms, or inflation-corrected terms, as much as one percent a year. 

And that’s the same curve as you get from plotting the global production of oil. We used to grow, I think we grew, could grow, very much because we had a lot of energy. Economic production is a work process and any work process requires energy. Oil is the best form of energy in all kinds of ways, and it’s becoming less abundant and I think it’s happening right now. You look around and our great universities are broke, often. Most of our states are either broke or have cut back the services they offer enormously. Many pension plans are broke. Everybody’s broke except the one percent, I guess.

So what’s happening is we have, I think, the impact of a restriction in the amount of oil and other energy – it’s a little bit more complex talking about coal and gas, but I would say the same declining EROI on these means that there’s less and less net energy available to run our economic processes, and we’re seeing that occur in the world now and it’s likely to become increasingly important. 

DJ: But I read something in Forbes, I think it was in Forbes, might have been in some other sort of over the top pro-capitalist magazine, that was saying that the peak oil myth – and I disagree with this, I’m just throwing it out as a softball – 

CH: Can I use “bullshit” on your radio show?

DJ: (laughing) I don’t know if you can or not. 

CH: That’s bullshit.

DJ: Okay, go ahead. Tell me why Forbes was wrong, or whomever it was.

CH: Well first of all, I’m not going to say I know everything and those guys know nothing. Every scientist, we’re trained to be cautious and so forth. But I can tell you right now that if you took all of the oil en bloc, and you took it out of the ground, all the oil that we can get out of the ground, that we’re capable of extracting, it would run the US for about a year. And we’re likely not to get it out that fast. What the new oil technologies are doing is to some degree compensating for the decline in conventional oil. And it’s doing a good job. Now whether it’s going to be enough to turn the US again into a net oil exporter; I look at the data and I say just no way in hell. It’s not gonna happen. And we can be excited about what’s going on in the Bakken but I’ve been analyzing this with one of my graduate students and when we look at it carefully, we find that almost all of the oil comes out of sweet spots. “Sweet spots” means areas where the oil is especially thick in the substrate. But most of the Bakken and most of the Eagle Ford is not a sweet spot. So what we find is that we’re moving – we know a little bit more about this with gas than with oil – we’re moving from the original areas that we started developing only 10 or 12 years ago, such as the Haynesville in Louisiana and Arkansas and the Barnett in Texas. Those areas have already peaked. We’ve taken the best – we’ve taken the gas and in some cases oil out of the very best spots. Geologists aren’t fools. They don’t drill at random. They drill where there is the greatest concentration of oil and if you look at the maps of where these wells are, there’s a map spaced about as far as lateral extensions. In other words, the map is completely saturated with wells in the sweet spots and there are very very few wells in the non-sweet spots. We have to move out of the sweet spots, which we’re going to have to do soon, and then it’s a whole different story because you’re going to be exploiting lower quality resources. 

So in all of this, what we’re looking at, what we’re doing is getting the oil out of the sweet spots and it’s marvelous technology. I’m not going to say that it isn’t. I think most of the environmental impact is above ground because it takes something like usually 1000 giant trucks worth of stuff to do a frack job, and enormous amounts of horsepower and energy to pressurize the fields, and then the fields run for really only basically a couple of years. They decline sharply in just one to two years and then you’re left with a trickle. So you have to keep drilling. It’s called the Red Queen hypothesis. In Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the Red Queen had to run faster and faster to stay in the same place. So if we want to maintain, or we want to increase the shale oil production, we have to drill more and more each year and we’re already drilling like crazy. 

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is that my first degree was in physics, from the Colorado School of Mines, and I took some mineral economics when I was there. Of course you know the School of Mines is an entire energy school. And I remember that one of the first things they taught us in the mineral economics class was the difference between regular economics and mineral economics, and basically mineral economics is based on: you have a finite resource and what you do is you take the easy stuff first. That’s mineral economics in a nutshell. 

CH: Mineral economics 101. Yup. 

DJ: And so far as EROI, one of the things I think about with this is the Beverly Hillbillies. At first, some of the first oil wells were just, they were almost seeps where, like in the Beverly Hillbillies movie they shoot a gun and oil pops up. There was very little energy invested. I’m just saying that in terms of people who might not be so familiar with the concept. You don’t have to invest very much energy to get it out. And nowadays you have to frack, you gotta do tar sands, you gotta expend all this energy. 

CH: All the Gulf of Mexico. There are somewhere between five and six thousand of these platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. And there isn’t any steel any closer to the Gulf of Mexico than I guess Birmingham, Alabama or Duluth, Minnesota. How did all that steel get into the platforms? That was an enormously energy-intensive process. 

DJ: You mentioned the universities running out of money, and of course pensions running out of money is very much in the news right now. Can you be more explicit about what you think the implications are for declining EROI? And there’s a quote you have that I just want to mention, which is if real day-to-day economics is about stuff; food on the table, a roof over our heads, this we buy; why on earth is economics taught and undertaken today as a social science rather than a biophysical science? And so: what is the relationship between declining EROI and that question?

CH: Gee, that’s a beautiful quote. Did I say that? 

DJ: Well, it’s on your website with quote marks around it. 

CH: (laughing) That’s pretty good. Well, sure. I can’t believe what they teach people in economics. It’s fairy tales. You take any honest, good economist and you talk to him, and he’ll say “You gotta have all these assumptions to make the neoclassical model work.” This assumption and that assumption and we gotta be selfish or self-regarding, and then you do behavioral experiments on people and they’re not. They tend to be vindictive or altruistic because we’re social animals. It’s very complicated and the assumptions you have to make, especially relating to resources in conventional economics is just out to lunch. And so we’ve attempted to construct a new economics that we call biophysical economics. I and my colleague Kent Klitgaard, who’s very much a fully-fledged economist, who believes essentially everything I did, and we wrote a book together that’s available from Springer, called Energy and the Wealth of Nations, which is a pun on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and I would like to see that used in every high school and every college that teaches economics. Stop teaching fairy tales to our young people. What does that mean? It means that as the energy return on investment for our most important fuels declines, then it means almost inevitably that our ability to generate wealth in society also declines. As I stated, I think we’re seeing just the beginnings of it, the first ripples on the shore for the coming storm of what’s going to happen as we have less and less cheap oil available. I think we will have not only less and less cheap oil, but less oil altogether, something called “peak oil.” 

I just got a paper accepted that looks at that in great detail and all I can say is that if there’s anybody listening to this who doesn’t believe in the Hubbert Curve, send me an email at and I’ll change you in your tracks. With an analysis of some 46 oil-producing countries, almost all of them are showing peak and decline. Production that increased, reached a peak, and declined. And that’s where we are, and that’s essentially where we have to go for the world. And the question is: can our alternative forms of energy take up the slack? And I see no way. Of course we can do many things with solar and wind and so forth, but, especially if you include what we have to do to compensate for the fact that the wind blows only 30% of the time and the sun shines only half the time, if you’re lucky, then the energy return on investment on these things is much lower than we’ve been used to. And it requires high energy return on investment fuels for us to grow. 

Now I don’t think this has to be a terrible thing at all. I had a fantastic boyhood in coastal Massachusetts when we were running on about 15-20% of the energy we use now. It depends on how we adapt to that. But if we try to fight it, if we try to say “this isn’t real,” then apparently, and all the data I have indicates that this is real, then we’re just going to screw things up worse. 

Don’t forget: Mother Nature bats last. 

DJ: So can we throw some numbers out for some of this? Like what might have been the EROI on an oil well, average or whatever, 50 years ago or 100 years ago? What is it now? What is the EROI on, say, solar photovoltaics? Can you give ballpark numbers for any of those, just so we can get a feel for how things have changed?

CH: Sure. I’ve written several reviews recently. A lot of these are approximate. We do the best we can. We’re dependent on the United States government, the Bureau of Census maintaining good data. There’s a lot of evidence that they are not maintaining the data as well as they used to, etc. etc., but still all of the information is consistent and that is shown in the review papers. So the first data point we have is in 1919. That’s the first year that the United States got this kind of data. And at that time the energy return on investment for finding energy – this is going out and finding a new barrel of oil – was over 1000 to 1. 

DJ: You burn one barrel of oil to get 1000 back. 

CH: You don’t get it back above the ground, but you find 1000.

DJ: Okay.

CH: Back in those days. And this is published in a paper by Guilford, Hall, O’Conner and Cleveland that was in the Journal of Sustainability.

(Guilford, M., C.A.S., Hall, P. O’Conner, and C.J., Cleveland. 2011. A new long term assessment of EROI for U.S. oil and gas: Sustainability: Special Issue on EROI. Pages 1866-1887.)

 It’s open access, like we try to do with all of our papers. You can go to my website. All your readers have to do is search for “Charles Hall Energy” and they’ll get more crap than they can possibly deal with.

So what we found is they got 1000 to 1 finding oil, and it had declined by 2000-something to 5 to 1. To find oil. Now, the more important one is to get oil, and that was actually somewhere around 15 to 1 back in 1919 and we actually got better up until about 1970. Depending on whose analysis you look at, we got somewhere between 25 and 30 to 1 to get oil out of the ground, which means you only have to use 3% of the energy you get, to get that energy. But now it’s declined back down to about, well, it looks like it’s not as much as 10 to 1 anymore. But let’s say in the last year it’s around 10 to 1. All countries that we’ve examined show that same basic kind of hump-shaped pattern. Initially the EROI is a bit lower and then it reaches some peak, almost like a Hubbert peak, and then declines over time. And if the decline rates continue, then we’re screwed because it’ll take a barrel of oil to find a barrel of oil within a couple of decades. I don’t know whether it’s going to be a linear decline or an exponential decline, or maybe something else. And I have to say that the oil from a sweet spot looks to be not too bad. Our guess at the moment is somewhere around 12 to 1. This is shale oil in North Dakota from a sweet spot. But if you get off the sweet spot then it goes way down very fast. 

DJ: 12 to 1 you just said is good, when 40 years ago that would have been terrible. 

CH: 12 to 1 is not as good as it used to be, but, y’know, it’s decent. You can run a society on it. You don’t need just 1.1 to 1 to run a society. We’ve done a lot of analysis of that. Just to drive a truck on a road takes 3 to 1, including all the infrastructure of the truck and roads and bridges. And then if you start including the infrastructure of supporting the driver and his family and health care and education and all of that, we figure that you need somewhere around 12 or 15 to 1 to have anything like the civilization we have come to expect. 

DJ: So it sounds like one of the things you’re asking for with the biophysical economics is for economics to take reality into account. 

CH: Well, yeah. They’re out to lunch. But they wrote the rules. They can write the rules and they print the money and they dump all the money from the fed system into the banks and you know, they didn’t bail out the homeowners, they bailed out the banks. And so the astonishing thing is that we don’t have inflation. At some point it’ll probably catch up to us. You know, it’s like these old pictures in Germany when people would go to the store with wheelbarrows full of German marks to buy a loaf of bread. We’re almost doing that electronically, because people want to have dollars – when the world is unstable, people want to own dollars because it’s the most stable currency. This and some other aspects are propping up the value of the dollar, and we’re not having inflation. We may even be having deflation. It’s quite amazing. It could flip-flop any day, I suppose. 

You listen to people like Nicole Foss and she’ll scare the crap out of you in relation to how unstable our financial system is. And it may be, I’m not an over-the-cliff kind of guy but it might be that we’re in much greater danger of some kind of large societal problem from the financial angle of things than from the energy angle of things, which is bad enough to begin with. A couple of my people whose analysis I respect a lot, Nicole Foss and Gail Tverberg and they both are really concerned – even though they’re both concerned about energy, they’re even more concerned about the instability of our financial situation. 

DJ: One of the things that seems really central to your, not biological, but economic work, is that energy and finances are pretty inextricably linked.

CH: Of course. The dollar has no meaning without energy to back it. Gold doesn’t back it, because when the Spaniards came back in the 1500’s from the New World to the Old, they doubled the amount of gold in Europe and halved its value. It’s like printing more money. What gave money value back then was solar light that was intercepted by the fields and the forests and the people who harvested the trees and grew the crops, and the artisans and the housewives who did all this work. Work is what causes wealth and money is a means we’ve been conditioned to use to keep track of it, but really what a dollar is, is a lien on energy. So if you have a dollar in your pocket, that means society is willing to use about seven megajoules somewhere to get whatever you’ve got for that dollar. So if you buy a bagel for a dollar, then somebody has used about seven megajoules of energy, on average, in this case, to take natural gas and make fertilizer in Louisiana and ship it up to Nebraska by the Mississippi River and use a tractor to spread it on the field, and then drive a harvester to harvest it and then grind up the wheat into making – oh, I’m sorry, you gotta plant the seeds, plant the wheat and then harvest it and grind it up and put it on the train and send it to, I guess you’re in California, and use some more electricity to mix the batter. Have you ever seen them make bagels? And then boil the water – all of that’s using energy. And then you pay them a dollar and you get your nice bagel. But if you had no money in society you could still trade whatever you do for bagels. You could go back to some kind of awkward trade system. Money facilitates it but what money really is, is a lien on energy. And that’s what our Energy and the Wealth of Nations book is and that’s why we want to use it for teaching. It’s not that complex. You can teach high school kids this. They get it. And of course once the kids see this, they go into their conventional economics class and say “What is this crap you’re teaching me? What is this?” Why should economics be only a social science? Where’s the biophysical reality behind what actually has to happen for an economy to exist and for goods and services to be produced and distributed? 

DJ: So I would like to thank Charles Hall for being on the program, and I would also like to thank all the listeners for listening. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.