Strategic Resistance

Excerpted from Chapter 6 of the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save The Planet

Now, when I talk about a resistance, I am talking about an organized political resistance. I'm not just talking about something that comes and something that goes. I'm not talking about a feeling. I'm not talking about having in your heart the way things should be and going through a regular day having good, decent, wonderful ideas in your heart. I'm talking about when you put your body and your mind on the line and commit yourself to years of struggle in order to change the society in which you live. This does not mean just changing the men whom you know so that their manners will get better–although that wouldn't be bad either... But that's not what a political resistance is. A political resistance goes on day and night, under cover and over ground, where people can see it and where people can't. It is passed from generation to gen­eration. It is taught. It is encouraged. It is celebrated. It is smart. It is savvy. It is committed. And someday it will win. It will win.
—Andrea Dworkin

The strategies and tactics we choose must be part of a grander strategy. This is not the same as movement-building; taking down civilization does not require a majority or a single coherent movement. A grand strategy is necessarily diverse and decentralized, and will include many kinds of actionists. If those in power seek Full-Spectrum Dominance,then we need Full-Spectrum Resistance.[1]

Effective action often requires a high degree of risk or personal sac­rifice, so the absence of a plausible grand strategy discourages many genuinely radical people from acting. Why should I take risks with my own safety for symbolic or useless acts? One purpose of this book is to identify plausible strategies for winning.

If we want to win, we must learn the lessons of history. Let's take a closer look at what has made past resistance movements effective. Are there general criteria to judge effectiveness? Can we tell whether tac­tics or strategies from historical examples will work for us? Is there a general model—a kind of catalog or taxonomy of action—from which resistance groups can pick and choose?

The answer to each of these questions is yes.

To learn from historical groups we need four specific types of infor­mation: their goals, strategies, tactics, and organization.

Goals can tell us what a certain movement aimed to accomplish and whether it was ultimately successful on its own terms. Did they do what they said they wanted to?

Strategies and tactics are two different things. Strategies are long-term, large-scale plans to reach goals. Historian Liddell Hart called military strategy "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy."[2] The Allied bombing of German infra­structure during WWI I is an example of one successful strategy. Others include the civil rights boycotts of pro segregation businesses and suf­fragist strategies of petitioning and pressuring political candidates directly and indirectly through acts that included property destruction and arson.

Tactics, on the other hand, are short-term, smaller-scale actions; they are particular acts which put strategies into effect. If the strategy is sys­tematic bombing, the tactic might be an Allied bombing flight to target a particular factory. The civil rights boycott strategy employed tactics such as pickets and protests at particular stores. The suffragists met their strategic goal by planning small-scale arson attacks on particular buildings. Successful tactics are tailored to fit particular situations, and they match the people and resources available.

Organization is the way in which a group composes itself to carry out acts of resistance. Resistance movements can vary in size from atomized individuals to large, centrally run bureaucracies, and how a group organizes itself determines what strategies and tactics it is capable of undertaking. Is the group centralized or decentralized? Does it have rank and hierarchy or is it explicitly anarchist in nature? Is the group heavily organized with codes of conduct and policies or is it an improvisational "ad hocracy?" Who is a member, and how are mem­bers recruited? And so on.


We've all seen biological taxonomies, which categorize living organ­isms by kingdom and phylum down to genus and species. Though there are tens of millions of living species of vastly different shapes,sizes, and habitats, we can use a taxonomy to quickly zero in on a tiny group.

When we seek effective strategies and tactics, we have to sort through millions of past and potential actions, most of which are either historical failures or dead ends. We can save ourselves a lot of time and a lot of anguish with a quick and dirty resistance taxonomy. By looking over whole branches of action at once we can quickly judge which tac­tics are actually appropriate and effective for saving the planet (and for many specific kinds of social and ecological justice activism). A tax­onomy of action can also suggest tactics we might otherwise overlook.

Broadly speaking, we can divide all of our tactics and projects either into acts of omission or acts of commission.

Of course, sometimes these categories overlap. A protest can be a means to lobby a government, a way of raising public awareness, a targeted tactic of economic disruption, or all three, depending on the intent and organ­ization. And sometimes one tactic can support another; an act of omission like a labor strike is much more likely to be effective when combined with propagandizing and protest.

In a moment we'll do a quick tour of our taxonomic options for resistance. But first, a warning. Learning the lessons of history will offer us many gifts, but these gifts aren't free. They come with a burden. Yes, the stories of those who fight back are full of courage, brilliance, and drama. And yes, we can find insight and inspiration in both their tri­umphs and their tragedies. But the burden of history is this: there is no easy way out.

In Star Trek, every problem can be solved in the final scene by reversing the polarity of the deflector array. But that isn't reality, and that isn't our future. Every resistance victory has been won by blood and tears, with anguish and sacrifice. Our burden is the knowledge that there are only so many ways to resist, that these ways have already been invented, and they all involve profound and dangerous struggle. When resisters win, it is because they fight harder than they thought possible.

And this is the second part of our burden. Once we learn the stories of those who fight back–once we really learn them, once we cry over them, once we inscribe them in our hearts, once we carry them in our bodies like a war veteran carries aching shrapnel–we have no choice but to fight back ourselves. Only by doing that can we hope to live up to their example. People have fought back under the most adverse and awful conditions imaginable; those people are our kin in the struggle for justice and for a livable future. And we find those people–our courageous–not just in history, but now. We find them among not just humans, but all those who fight back.

We must fight back because if we don't we will die. This is certainly true in the physical sense, but it is also true on another level. Once youreally know the self-sacrifice and tirelessness and bravery that our kin have shown in the darkest times, you must either act or die as a person.We must fight back not only to win, but to show that we are both alive and worthy of that life.

Further resources


[1] And there's no need to say "if." Full-Spectrum Dominance is appallingly. yet unsurpris­ingly. a stated goal of the US government, through military and other means.

[2] Hart, Strategy, 2nd ed, p. 335.

FaLang translation system by Faboba

Collapse Scenarios "At this point in history, there are no good short-term outcomes for global human society. Some are better and some are worse, and in the long term some are very good, but in the short term we’re in a bind. I’m not going to lie to you—the hour is too late for cheermongering. The only way to find the best outcome is to confront our dire situation head on, and not to be diverted by false hopes."

Collapse Scenarios No resistance "The poor will see their own condition worsen. The millions of refugees created by economic and energy collapse will be on the move, but no one will want them. Desperate people will be the only candidates for the dangerous and dirty manual labor required to keep industrial manufacturing going once the energy supply dwindles. Hence, those in power will consider autonomous and self-sustaining communities a threat to their labor supply, and suppress or destroy them."

Collapse Scenarios No resistance "The authoritarian governments—those that will continue ruthlessly exploiting people and resources regardless of the consequences—will have more sway and more muscle, and will take resources from their neighbors and failed states as they please. There will be no one to stop them. It won’t matter if you are the most sustainable eco-village on the planet if you live next door to an eternally resource-hungry fascist state."

Collapse Scenarios No resistance "As intense climate change takes over, ecological remediation through perennial polycultures and forest replanting will become impossible. The heat and drought will turn forests into net carbon emitters, as northern forests die from heat, pests, and disease, and then burn in continent-wide fires that will make early twenty-first century conflagrations look minor. Even intact pastures won’t survive the temperature extremes as carbon is literally baked out of remaining agricultural soils."

Collapse Scenarios No resistance "Global warming will continue to worsen long after fossil fuels are exhausted. For the planet, the time to ecological recovery is measured in tens of millions of years, if ever. A major warming event could push the planet into a different equilibrium, much warmer than the current one. Large plants and animals might only survive near the poles. The entire planet could become uninhabitable to large plants and animals, with a climate more like Venus than Earth."

Collapse Scenarios Limited Resistance "Surgical attacks on energy infrastructure limit new fossil fuel extraction (focusing on nastier practices like mountain-top removal and tar sands). Some attacks would be conducted by existing resistance groups (like MEND) and some by new groups. The increasing shortage of oil would make pipeline and infrastructure attacks more popular with militant groups of all stripes. Militant groups would organize, practice, and learn. These attacks would not be symbolic."

Collapse Scenarios Limited Resistance "These attacks [on energy infrastructure] would not be symbolic. They would mostly constitute forms of sabotage. They would be intended to cut fossil fuel consumption by some 30 percent within the first few years, and more after that. There would be similar attacks on energy infrastructure like power transmission lines. This would set in motion a process of political and infrastructural decentralization."

Collapse Scenarios Limited Resistance "In some areas, increasingly abandoned suburbs (unlivable without cheap gas) would be taken over, as empty houses would become farmhouses, community centers, and clinics, or would be simply dismantled and salvaged for material. Garages would be turned into barns—most people couldn’t afford gasoline anyway—and goats would be grazed in parks. Many roads would be torn up and returned to pasture or forest."

Collapse Scenarios Limited Resistance "Attacks on energy infrastructure would become more common as oil supplies diminish, and steepen the energy slide. This would turn the tide on population growth, making world population peak sooner and at a lower level than in the “no resistance” scenario. Because a sharp collapse would happen earlier than it otherwise would have, there would be more intact land in the world per person, and more people who still know how to do subsistence farming."

Collapse Scenarios Militant rationale in all-out infrastructure attacks "Humans aren’t going to do anything in time to prevent the planet's wholesale destruction. Poor people are too preoccupied by primary emergencies, rich people benefit from the status quo, and the middle class are too obsessed with their own entitlement and the technological spectacle. The risk of runaway global warming is immediate. A drop in the human population is inevitable, and fewer people will die if collapse happens sooner."

Collapse Scenarios Militant rationale in all-out infrastructure attacks "We are in overshoot as a species. A significant portion of the people now alive may have to die before we are back under carrying capacity, and that disparity is growing. Every day carrying capacity is driven down by hundreds of thousands of humans, and every day the human population increases by more than 200,000. The people added to the overshoot each day are needless, pointless deaths. Delaying collapse, they argue, is itself a form of mass murder."

Collapse Scenarios Militant rationale in all-out infrastructure attacks "Humans are only one species of millions. To kill millions of species for the benefit of one is insane, just as killing millions of people for the benefit of one person would be insane. And since unimpeded ecological collapse would kill off humans anyway, those species will ultimately have died for nothing, and the planet will take millions of years to recover. Rapid collapse is ultimately good for humans because at least some people survive."

Collapse Scenarios Militant rationale in all-out infrastructure attacks "Well-organized underground militants make coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world. Militants would take action against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries, perhaps using EMPs to do damage. No attempt would be made to keep pace with aboveground activists. The attacks would be as persistent as the militants could manage. Fossil fuel energy availability would decline by 90 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would plummet."

Collapse Scenarios All-out infrastructure attacks "With a 90 percent reduction in fossil fuels, there would still be enough to aid basic survival activities like growing food, heating, and cooking. Governments could still attempt a rapid shift to subsistence activities for their populations, but militaries and the very wealthy would attempt to suck up remaining supplies of energy. In some places, they would succeed and widespread hunger would result. In others, people would refuse the authority of those in power."

Collapse Scenarios All-out infrastructure attacks "In most areas, reorganizing an energy-intense industrial civilization would be impossible. Even where existing political organizations persist, consumption would drop. Those in power would be unable to project force over long distances, limiting their activities to nearby areas. Tropical biofuel plantations would not be feasible, nor tar sands or mountain-top removal coal mining. The construction of new large-scale infrastructure would simply not be possible."

Collapse Scenarios All-out infrastructure attacks "Though the human population would decline, things would look good for virtually every other species. The oceans would begin to recover rapidly, as would damaged wilderness areas. Greenhouse emissions would have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their previous levels, likely averting runaway global warming. Returning forests and grasslands would sequester carbon, helping to maintain a livable climate."

Collapse Scenarios Decisive Ecological Warfare Strategy "Many different mechanisms drive collapse, not all equally desirable. Some are intentionally accelerated and encouraged, while others are slowed or reduced. Energy decline by decreasing consumption of fossil fuels is a mechanism of collapse highly beneficial to the planet and humans, and that mechanism is encouraged. Ecological collapse through habitat destruction and biodiversity crash is also a mechanism of collapse, but is slowed or stopped whenever possible."

Collapse Scenarios Decisive Ecological Warfare Strategy "Each negative aspect of the civilization's collapse has a reciprocal trend encouraged by the resistance movement. The collapse of large authoritarian political structures allows small-scale participatory structures. The collapse of global industrial capitalism allows local systems of exchange, cooperation, and mutual aid. A small number of underground people bring down the big bad structures, and a large number of aboveground people cultivate the little good structures."

Collapse Scenarios Decisive Ecological Warfare Strategy "Protracted popular warfare doesn’t apply; the people will never have the numbers required. They also face a different kind of adversary, for which different tactics are applicable. So they will take the essential idea of protracted popular warfare and apply it to their own situation—saving their planet, bringing down industrial civilization and keeping it down. They will devise a new grand strategy based on a simple continuum of steps that flow logically one after the other."

Four Phases of DEW Networking & Mobilization "Resisters organize themselves into networks and build cultures of resistance to sustain those networks. Sympathizers and potential recruits are educated on serious resistance strategy and action. Key in this phase is actually forming the above- and underground organizations that will carry out organizational recruitment and decisive action. Security culture and resistance culture are not very well developed at this point, so extra efforts are made to avoid sloppy mistakes."

Four Phases of DEW Networking & Mobilization "Training of activists is key, especially through low risk (but effective) actions. New recruits will become the combatants, cadres, and leaders of later phases. New activists are enculturated into the resistance ethos, and existing activists drop bad or counterproductive habits. This is a time when the resistance movement gets organized and gets serious. People are putting their individual needs and conflicts aside in order to form a movement that can fight to win."

Four Phases of DEW Networking & Mobilization "Isolated people come together to form a vision and strategy for the future, and to establish the nuclei of future organizations. Networking occurs with resistance-oriented organizations that already exist, but most mainstream organizations are not willing to adopt positions of militancy. If possible, they should be encouraged to take positions more in line with the scale of the problems at hand."

Four Phases of DEW Sabotage & Asymmetric Action "Resisters might attempt to disrupt or disable particular targets on an opportunistic basis. For the most part, the required underground networks and skills do not yet exist to take on multiple larger targets. Resisters may go after particularly egregious targets—coal-fired power plants or exploitative banks. At this phase, the resistance focus is on practice, probing enemy networks and security, and increasing support while building organizational networks."

Four Phases of DEW Sabotage & Asymmetric Action "The resistance movement understands the importance of decisive action. Their emphasis in the first two phases has not been on direct action, but not because they are holding back. They know that the planet (and the future) need their action, but understand that it won’t benefit from foolish and hasty action, or from creating problems for which they are not yet prepared. They act as seriously and swiftly and decisively as they can, but lay the foundation to be truly effective."

Four Phases of DEW Sabotage & Asymmetric Action "Aboveground activists take on several important tasks. They push for acceptance and normalization of more militant and radical tactics, and vocally support sabotage when it occurs. More moderate advocacy groups use the occurrence of sabotage to criticize those in power for failing to take action on critical issues like climate change. They do not side with those in power against the saboteurs, but argue that the situation is serious enough to make such action legitimate."

Four Phases of DEW Sabotage & Asymmetric Action "More radical and grassroots groups continue to establish a community of resistance, but also establish discrete organizations and parallel institutions to make community connections and found relationships outside of the activist bubble. These institutions focus on disaster preparedness and helping people cope with impending collapse.

Simultaneously, aboveground activists organize people for civil disobedience, mass confrontation, and other forms of direct action."

Four Phases of DEW Sabotage & Asymmetric Action "Aboveground organizations establish coalitions, confederations, and regional networks, knowing that there will be greater obstacles to these later on. These confederations maximize the potential of aboveground organizing by sharing materials, knowledge, skills, learning curricula, and so on. They also plan strategically themselves, engaging in persistent planned campaigns instead of reactive or crisis-to-crisis organizing."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "Resisters step up from individual targets to address entire industrial, political, and economic systems. Industrial systems disruption requires underground networks organized in a hierarchical or paramilitary fashion. These larger networks emerge out of the previous phases with the ability to carry out multiple simultaneous actions."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "Systems disruption identifies key points and bottlenecks in the adversary’s systems (electrical, transport, financial, and so on) and collapses those systems or reduces their functionality. This is not a one-shot deal. Industrial systems are big and can be fragile, but they are sprawling rather than monolithic. Repairs are attempted. Resistance members understand that. Effective systems disruption requires planning for continued and coordinated actions over time."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "The aboveground doesn’t truly gain traction as long as there is business-as-usual. On the other hand, as global industrial and economic systems are increasingly disrupted (because of capitalist-induced economic collapse, global climate disasters, peak oil, peak soil, peak water, or for other reasons) support for resilient local communities increases. Failures in the delivery of electricity and manufactured goods increases interest in local food, energy, and the like."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "Aboveground activists use the disrupted systems as an opportunity to strengthen local communities and parallel institutions. Mainstream people are encouraged to swing their support to participatory local alternatives in the economic, political, and social spheres. When economic turmoil causes unemployment and hyperinflation, people are employed locally for the benefit of their community and the land."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "Whenever those in power try to increase exploitation or authoritarianism, aboveground resisters call for people to withdraw support from those in power, and divert it to local, democratic political bodies. Those parallel institutions can do a better job than those in power. The cross-demographic relationships established in previous phases help to keep those local political structures accountable, and to rally support from many communities."

Four Phases of DEW Systems Disruption "Strategic efforts are made to augment existing stresses on economic and industrial systems caused by peak oil, financial instability, and related factors. The resisters think of themselves as pushing on a rickety building that’s already starting to lean. Indeed, in this scenario many systems disruptions come from within the system itself, rather than from resisters."

Four Phases of DEW Decisive Dismantling of Infrastructure "Resisters go beyond systems disruption, permanently dismantling as much of the industrial infrastructure as possible. In the most optimistic projection, this phase would not be necessary, as converging crises and infrastructure disruption would combine with vigorous aboveground movements to force those in power to accept social, political, and economic change. Reductions in consumption would combine with a genuine attempt to transition to a sustainable culture."

Implementing DEW "Resistance to civilization is inherently decentralized. That goes double for underground groups which have minimal contact with others. To compensate for the lack of command structure, a general grand strategy in this scenario becomes widely known and accepted. Furthermore, loosely allied groups are ready to take action whenever the strategic situation called for it. These groups are prepared to take advantage of crises like economic collapses."

Implementing DEW "Autonomous cells maintain readiness to engage in opportunistic action by identifying in advance a selection of appropriate local targets and tactics. Then once a larger simultaneous action happened (causing, say, a blackout), autonomous cells take advantage of the opportunity to undertake their own actions, within a few hours. In this way unrelated cells engage in something close to simultaneous attacks, maximizing their effectiveness."

Implementing DEW "Historians now believe that Allied reluctance to attack early in the war may have cost many millions of civilian lives. By failing to stop Germany early, they made a prolonged and bloody conflict inevitable. General Alfred Jodl, the German Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command, said as much during his war crimes trial at Nuremburg."

Implementing DEW "Resisters aimed to reduce consumption and industrial activity, so it didn't matter to them that some facilities had backup generators or that states engaged in conservation and rationing. They celebrated nationwide oil conservation and factories running on reduced power. They remembered that in the whole of its history, the mainstream environmental movement never even stopped the growth of fossil fuel consumption. To actually reduce it was unprecedented."

Implementing DEW "Targeting energy networks was a high priority to resisters. Many electrical grids were already operating near capacity, and were expensive to expand. They became more important as highly portable forms of energy like fossil fuels were partially replaced by less portable forms of energy. Resisters recognized that energy networks often depend on a few major continent-spanning trunks, which were very vulnerable to disruption."

Implementing DEW "Resisters recognized that sporadic sabotage would sacrifice the element of surprise and allow their enemy to develop ways of coping with future actions. Some reactions would be desirable (a shift toward less intensive, local supplies of energy) and others undesirable (deployment of rapid repair teams, martial law.) Resisters compensated for exposing some of their tactics by carrying out a series of decisive surprise operations within a larger struggle."

Implementing DEW "Resisters understand that DEW depended on relatively simple "appropriate technology" tactics (both aboveground and underground). It depended on small groups and was relatively simple rather than complex. There was not a lot of secret tactical information to give away. In fact, escalating actions with straightforward tactics were beneficial to their resistance movement."

Implementing DEW "It's clear that a small group of intelligent, dedicated, and daring people can be extremely effective, even if they number one in 1,000, or one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000. But they are effective in large part through an ability to mobilize larger forces, whether social movements or industrial bottlenecks.

Furthermore, if that core group can be maintained, it's possible for it to eventually enlarge itself and become victorious."

Implementing DEW "Future historians will comment that DEW was designed to make maximum use of small numbers, rather than assuming that large numbers of people would materialize for timely action. If more people had been available, the strategy would have become even more effective. The strategy attempted to mobilize people from a wide variety of backgrounds in ways that were feasible for them; it didn't rely solely on either militancy or symbolic approaches."

Implementing DEW "The tactics required for DEW were relatively simple and accessible, and many of them were low risk. They were appropriate to the scale and seriousness of the objective and the problem. Before this, the required tactics were not being implemented because of a lack of overall strategy and of organizational development.

However, that strategy and organization were not technically difficult to develop—the main obstacles were ideological."

Implementing DEW "In evaluating risk, members of the resistance considered both the risks of acting and of not acting. The failure to carry out an effective strategy would have resulted in a destroyed planet, the loss of centuries of social justice efforts, and billions of humans and countless nonhumans killed. There were substantial risks for taking decisive action, risks that caused most people to stick to safer symbolic forms of action. But the risks of inaction were far greater and more permanent."

Implementing DEW "Decisive Ecological Warfare was able to accomplish its objective within a suitable time frame, and in a reasonable sequence. Under DEW, decisive action was scaled up as rapidly as it could be based on the underlying support infrastructure. The exact point of no return for catastrophic climate change was unclear, but DEW and other measures were able to head it off. Most other proposed measures in the beginning weren't even trying to do so."

Implementing DEW "Although a fair amount of context and knowledge was required to carry out this strategy, at its core it was very simple and consistent. It was robust enough to deal with unexpected events, and it could be explained in a simple and clear manner without jargon. The strategy was adaptable enough to be employed in many different local contexts."

Implementing DEW "Action and inaction both have serious consequences. A serious collapse—which could involve large-scale human suffering—was frightening to many. Resisters in this alternate future believed first and foremost that a terrible outcome was not inevitable, and that they could make real changes to the way the future unfolded."

DEW Overview