Ecodefense and social defense

This article was written in 1988 to raise awareness about social defence in the Earth First! movement. Earth First! magazine initially expressed interest but did not publish the article.

Brian Martin

Direct action against operations that threaten or harm ecosystems can be classified into two types. First is direct action carried out publicly, such as rallies and people chaining themselves to trees. Second is sabotage of tractors, billboards, surveying stakes and so forth. This sabotage is against property and is carried out covertly. As spelled out in the book Ecodefense, harm to humans is to be avoided at all costs, both for moral and political reasons.

One problem facing ecodefense is that sabotage is widely seen as morally reprehensible. In capitalist societies -- and especially the United States -- property is considered sacred. Many people get more upset about violence against property than they do about violence against people. It is important to challenge the sacredness of property but those who do so often must sacrifice support.

A more fundamental problem with much ecodefense is that it is inherently negative. It is almost always against the actions of someone else. Protest and sabotage can be a powerful tools, especially by small activist groups against powerful forces, but by themselves they don't lay the basis for a positive program.

The provocative journal Processed World has had a number of contributions favouring sabotage of computers, office equipment and so forth as a challenge against soul-destroying work. The trouble is that the line between principled attacks on oppressive technology and mindless vandalism is often a thin one for outside observers, and perhaps even for the saboteurs.

Some help towards overcoming these problems may be gained from the concept of 'social defense'. Social defense is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defense, using methods such as strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and parallel government. Rather than defending territorial boundaries, social defense aims first and foremost to defend the social fabric, hence the name social defense. It depends on widespread participation in all sorts of nonviolent actions to resist and deter aggressors. Social defense has also been called nonviolent defense, civilian defense and civilian-based defense.

There are quite a few historical examples that show the potential of nonviolent resistance to oppose foreign invasions or military coups. In 1920 the right-wing Kapp Putsch in Germany collapsed after four days in the face of a general strike and widespread refusals to obey the new rulers. In 1923 the German government promoted nonviolent resistance to the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr. During World War Two there was effective nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in several occupied countries, especially Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. In 1961 a military revolt by French generals in Algeria collapsed in the face of massive popular opposition in France and noncooperation by many French soldiers in Algeria. In 1968 the Czechoslovak people mounted an effective nonviolent resistance to the Soviet invasion; their fraternization with Soviet troops was so effective that Soviet soldiers had to be rotated out of the country in a matter of days as their reliability became suspect. In 1986 massive demonstrations in the Philippines showed support for rebels against the Marcos regime and led to its collapse without major military struggle.

These and other examples of nonviolent resistance to external or internal aggression happened with little or no preparation. The idea of social defense is to develop in advance the potential of a society to wage nonviolent resistance. This has wide-reaching ramifications.

People would be trained in methods of nonviolent resistance, including large-scale simulations analogous to present military exercises. Factories would be designed so that workers could put them out of commission quickly and easily, perhaps by destroying hard-to-replace pieces of equipment, copies of which could be stored in a safe place such as another country: torture would then not help in getting production going again. With a cheap and simple short-wave radio in every house, non-government communications with the outside world could not be cut off as they were in 1975 in East Timor after the Indonesian invasion, in 1981 in Poland after the military takeover or in 1986 in South Africa while black resistance was repressed.

Communities would need to be as self-reliant as possible so they would not be as vulnerable to blockades, boycotts or sabotage. This would mean greater local production of food, more promotion of healthy lifestyles and less dependence on specialized medical expertise, energy efficiency and small-scale renewable energy systems, and town planning to reduce dependence on automobiles.

The commonalities between ecodefense and social defense should be clear already. Preparation for social defense implies widespread training in techniques of nonviolent action (potentially including sabotage) which are already used by ecodefenders. More fundamentally, building a self-reliant society would mean stopping many of the capital-intensive, energy-intensive and resource-intensive projects that are the target of ecodefense, and replacing them with green-style social and economic development.

Finally, ecodefense and social defense would be organized similarly: in a decentralized and locally autonomous way. Social defense is not likely to be effective if organized with hierarchical decision-making structures, since the leaders of the resistance would be subject to coercion or cooption.

What is the state of play with the development and promotion of social defense? The developed idea of social defense as a full-scale alternative to military defense only dates from the 1950s, and since then it has mainly been studied by a few scholars. With in the peace movements in some countries, especially in Europe, social defense has been a major topic of discussion for quite a few years. It is part of the platform of the Green Party in Germany. By contrast, in the United States awareness of social defense is quite limited, in spite of the efforts of Gene Sharp and his group at Harvard and of the Association for Transarmament Studies in Omaha. A few governments, including Sweden and the Netherlands, have commissioned studies of social defense, and it plays a small part in Swedish defense planning.

If social defense is ever to be implemented, it is less likely to be through large-scale planning and government implementation than by the efforts of various local groups taking initiatives that help develop the skills of nonviolent action. Yet it is only in the past several years that local action groups have started working on social defense as something to be promoted at the grassroots level. In Austria, activists have caused the introduction of a social defense component to the required training of those who refuse military service. In the Netherlands there is a whole network of social defense groups. In Australia, the group Schweik Action Wollongong has studied the use of communications systems in a nonviolent resistance to an invasion or coup.

Ecodefense and social defense provide support for each other. The practice of ecodefense develops and exercises skills that would be valuable to a social defense system. Of special importance is the skill and sensitivity to carry out sabotage without any threat to human life.

Social defense provides a wide framework for nonviolent action to defend values that masses of people hold sacred. The scope of nonviolent action in social defense is broad. It would include telephonists intercepting messages and relaying them to the resistance, householders removing street signs and house numbers to confuse invaders and make it difficult to track down dissidents, people working in community resource centers to produce leaflets and newspapers, and computer programmers putting bugs into programs and wiping computer tapes. It would include workers going on strike or occupying factories to produce products they decided upon, communities boycotting goods, and soldiers refusing to carry out orders.

All of these and many other activities have already been used in various social struggles around the world. The aim of a program of social defense would be to coordinate, systematize and pre-plan these sorts of methods as an alternative to military defense. It is a project that would involve every sector of the population.

A community even partially organized for social defense would have a great capacity for resisting assaults on the environment. Since a much wider fraction of the population would be alert to the possibilities for direct action, companies or government undertaking environmentally damaging activities would have more employees aware of how to offer resistance. They could provide information to resisters in the field, could directly subvert equipment or plans within the organization, or could organize strikes or work-to-rule campaigns.

On a wider front, social defense provides a positive program for social reorganisation -- with the ultimate aim of providing an alternative to the military -- including moves towards self-reliance that are incompatible with the type of industrial development that is the cause of much environmental destruction.

The use of nonviolent action within the environmental and peace movements has provided much mutual reinforcement in theory and practice, and is a key feature of what is called green politics. One difficulty in both cases is that nonviolent action has been reactive: used against initiatives taken by developers and militaries. Of the various 'alternative defense strategies', social defense is the one that includes a positive program that involves mass participation using nonviolent action. As such, it has the most in common with positive programs for the development of an environmentally sound society -- such as the bioregional movement -- which incorporate nonviolent action to promote and sustain them. Accordingly, I think there is much to be gained by closer interaction between those involved with ecodefense and social defense.

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