Earth First! activist Nathan Coe: radical cultural shifts required to stave off ecological collapse

By Ryan King, special to mongabay.com
February 21, 2012

Many ideals, actions, and movements considered as fringe or radical by the standards of mainstream culture have gained prominence as global biodiversity withers and the biogeochemical cycles of the entire Earth System are upset by human activities. As endangered species and ecosystems are increasingly threatened, direct confrontation between activists and the entities that drive environmental damage seems also to be increasing. At the same time, concern that present global governance and distribution systems are unable to provide security, clean water, affordable food and a stable future to most of society, is spurring some to move toward new models, including sustainable, autonomous communities and decentralized production.

Mongabay recently had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with activist and writer Nathan Coe.

Earth First! activist Nathan Coe.
Earth First! activist Nathan Coe
A life-long resident of Southwest Colorado and a lover of all things wild and free, Nathan has been involved in the formation of a local chapter of Earth First!, taking direct action to protect local and regional wilderness, as well as initiating a Transition movement in his community in preparation for life after gridcrash. Nathan is also part of the organizers' collective for Wild Roots Feral Futures, an annual rewinding & eco-defense gathering in Southwest Colorado. Nathan’s writing and philosophy frequents various independent media projects, including Indymedia, subMedia.tv, and the now-defunct Guerrilla News Network. He is the creator of several blogs, including Unsettling America, which focuses on radical decolonization. When he's not working to dismantle industrial civilization, Nathan enjoys spending time in the forest, growing and foraging food, and re-learning the knowledge and skills that will assist the emergence of a resilient Earth-based culture.

Ryan King: What is your educational background in environment and social/political studies?

Nathan Coe: I graduated Summa Cum Laude in December of 2008 from Fort Lewis College, a small liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado, with a degree in Humanities. During my time there, I engaged in a wide range of environmental, political, sociological studies and activism. The departments I worked with had, and still have, many very radical professors, even if they have been successfully relegated to the confines of the university, and all the ineffectiveness that comes with that. Regardless, they had a significant impact on my education through the material they chose (often from the likes of Paul Shepard, Derrick Jensen, etc.), and many have become long-time friends and allies.

But most importantly, after getting the dry academic background out of the way, my real environmental, social, and political education came not from campuses and classrooms, but from life itself, and more specifically time spent in the wild or on the road and streets of America. I really think that everything I was able to glean from the collegiate environment, I would have ended up learning from the world at large anyways, and perhaps even much quicker had I not been distracted by the memorization of useless information to be regurgitated on tests and then banished and forgotten. For nearly a decade I maintained sporadic houselessness and unemployment, hitch-hiking and otherwise traveling the vast distances of this continent, visiting many different bioregions and communities. This was by far my most important education. There are far too many ways in which the educational system, even at the non-compulsory level of "higher" education, is simply meant to stifle truly creative and free spirits and instead to mold and manufacture obedient workers and managers who can take their place in the maintenance of the social order and status quo. For these reasons school was always a painful experience for me, as it is for so many others, though admittedly the collegiate environment was minimally less so (because a managerial class requires a bit more autonomy than those they are being trained to manage).

 Sprawl in the desert
Sprawl in the desert: suburbs of Las Vegas.

Ryan King: Many radical environmental movements emerge from communities that have been directly devastated by logging, mining, contamination, and resource theft. What has inspired your interest in radical ideology and action?

Nathan Coe: Again I would simply say that living my life has led me to where I find myself today. It's difficult to pinpoint any one event or moment or influence that inspired me. I can say with assurance, however, that I always felt and knew there was something very wrong with mainstream culture. Despite my time in the compulsory indoctrination camps of this culture, and my heavy exposure to television and other mass media, I can never remember having truly bought into its façade. There were of course times, particularly my adolescent and teenage years, when I attempted to fully immerse myself in mainstream culture and what it expected of me as a consumer, but I also rebelled against the impositions of authority (in other words, I was a delinquent), and always with the burning feeling inside of me that all of this is very, very wrong. It was with this internal, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious knowledge and feeling within me that I was able to, through the course of my life, absorb the information, knowledge, and experiences that formed who I am today. Thinking about how it happened leads me full circle to wondering how it could not have happened, considering the world we live in. The only answer I can come up with is that I would have had to have been extremely dense and willfully blind to the world to not have been inspired to fight to defend the world which provides me life, and indeed provides us all with life, human and non-human alike. The destructive forces of this culture are overwhelming, which is perhaps why some choose to close their eyes, ears, and hearts. I was, alas, simply unable to do so.

Ryan King: There seems to be a frequent thread of wholesale rejection of science within radical environmental thought. Why do you think this is, and do you believe this is conducive to the goal of ecological restoration?

Nathan Coe: Science, dogmatically rendered into the religion of modern industrial civilization, is easy to scapegoat in this context. It is very clear how the reductive orientation of classic science has assisted the drive to conquer and control the Earth. While much of quantum physics has thrown the certainty of the knowable into question, it is regardless quite clear that the "scientific process" is not an inherently illegitimate or useless model of inquiry. It does, however, have some serious flaws that need to be addressed, such as the decontextualization inherent in the laboratory experiment (all phenomena in the natural world occur within a vast matrix of interconnectivity and interrelatedness with the environment, and the laboratory experiment presuppose doing as much as possible to remove the subject of study from those interrelationships). Much could, and has, been said about all of this, and is likely a topic beyond the scope of this interview. To answer the second part of your question, no, I do not think a wholesale rejection of science is conductive to ecological restoration, but I'm also not sure I see such a rejection as anything close to a common thread, even in the radical environmental circles (though anti-civ/primitivists often reject modern science, they probably don't reject the "science" of herbalism, even if they define it differently), and most radical environmentalists I read these days rely heavily on scientific data. Also encouraging is the emergence of integrative, ecocentric disciples such as Systems science.

Ryan King: Researchers at NASA recently announced that climate change is likely to shift almost half of the Earth’s biomes into completely different states within the century. What direction does the radical environmental movement seem to be taking as we adjust to the realizations that virtually every ecosystem on Earth will be subjected to such massive shifts to cause unprecedented migrations and relocations of both human and non-human life?

Nathan Coe: That's a large question, and one perhaps rendered moot by the sheer unpredictability of climate change. I live in the Southwestern United States, and one thing I wonder about is whether it's going to get drier around here, or somehow wetter (it would be helpful to be able to guess, insofar as building community resilience goes, as water is a big part of that sort of planning). I am very attached to this land base and have no intention on leaving for moister climes, but if I were to desire such a thing, it would be hard to guess where to go, because even the currently wettest places could become dry, and the dry places wetter. Or the opposite could happen, or something totally different altogether. My response to this unpredictability has been to remain rooted in my land base, get to know it as best as I can, defend it as voraciously as I can, work towards community resilience, and hope for the best. This may not be the best response for everyone, given their skills, talents, abilities, and proclivities, but it is the path I have chosen for myself. As we defend and restore our land bases, however, we must also actively dismantle industrial civilization (which at this point we are not doing), because the sooner we do, the less severe these changes will be. They're already going to be severe, and unpredictably so, but the longer we refuse to stop civilization, the more severe and unpredictable they will be. The best time to bring down civilization was a long time ago. The second best time is right now. Because right now is all we have.

Ryan King: In November of 2009, Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute stated that the policy making procedures of international governance "take too long," and a "swift mobilization not seen since World War II" was immediately required if we hoped to "save civilization" from climate change. This sentiment was previously implored in the “The Climate Code Red" case for emergency action. Do you see any progress in political or mainstream societal shifts along the lines suggested by these pleas?

Nathan Coe: Absolutely not. Of course I would first reject the idea of saving civilization. Civilization is the very threat to the Earth and every human culture the Earth sustains. People equate civilization with human culture, which is a semantic mistake, in my opinion. Perhaps, if pressed on the issue, Brown would concede to substituting "human culture" for civilization.

That said, the only thing even close to a concerted effort at such a mobilization (and one that also took it as a given that a massive mobilization isn't going to happen in time so we must do what it takes now regardless of our fantasies of a mass uprising, for which they were summarily accused of vanguardism) has thus far achieved nothing of its lofty (and completely rational, appropriate, and necessary) goals of depriving the rich of "their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet". While their ideas are potent, the actual manifestation of their proposed resistance has thus far been extremely minimal. I am of course referring to Deep Green Resistance and their proposed model of "Decisive Ecological Warfare." Groups taking direct action against the destruction of the earth, such as the Earth Liberation Front, are far too limited in scale to be truly effective in bringing down civilization. While their efforts are necessary and laudable, they amount to a nibble at the toes of the Goliath of civilization. Nothing less that cutting off its head and cutting out its heart will stop it. This time a mere sling and stone will not do.

Ryan King: In your view, what are some of the most influential radical environmental movements internationally?

Nathan Coe: Earth First!, the ELF, and others of their ilk, most definitely. They are utilizing effective tactics. But their effectiveness has been minimal due to the limitations, again, of their scale and scope. While we fight and are imprisoned attempting to defend what remains of the wild Earth, the destruction proceeds around us and our localized struggles, seemingly without notice. The scale of direct action employed by EF! and the ELF will not stop civilization from destroying a habitable planet. But to be clear, this is not to say that their efforts are not essential and heroic, for they are. Regardless, we need much, much more.

It is also important to acknowledge that by far the most effective resistance against global ecocide has come from the indigenous themselves, who defend their land bases and cultures from the onslaught of civilization around the world. Compared to them, the resistance of the civilized is infinitesimal.

Ryan King: Environmental activism and direct action seem to be enjoying a resurgence of late; the recent postponing of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a great example. Protests, sabotage, and direct interference with industries, however, do not halt the cultural momentum for consumption and profit at the expense of environmental destruction. I know you have been very involved with developing transition culture – could you elaborate on the details of what you feel might be the most appropriate steps for individuals seeking to live and promote wholly “uncivilized" communities?

Nathan Coe: We're all stuck in a very difficult situation here. This is a difficult question and I'm not going to be able to provide an optimistic answer or paint a pretty picture for your readers. I wish I found more sources of optimism, but at this point I don't think anything is going to stop this culture until it's too late, if it's not too late already. We find ourselves in a place of powerlessness, or at least the feeling of being powerless, against the lumbering behemoth of civilization.

It is too vast, too powerful, and too complex. Where to begin? There is so much to do.

I'd like to say that I believe a mass uprising will bring down civilization and create a new world, and I'd even like to say that, barring a mass uprising, that some other human force will emerge that is capable of doing the job. At this point, I think the tipping point for this culture's real transition will only come either when our sources of energy run out (which they are), or we consume enough of them to render the Earth uninhabitable for us anyhow. In this scenario, the sudden arrival of peak oil, which amounts to peak everything in our culture, is my greatest source of optimism. At this point our only hope might be to simply run out of power.

Gold mining in Peru
Overhead view of the Río Huepetuhue gold mine in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
One of the challenges I consistently come up against in working towards transition away from the fossil fuel economy in my community is that by far, the vast majority of people I interact with are either willfully in denial about our situation, or recognize it but don't seem to have internalized the reality of it yet. Very few I encounter are actually serious about it, or understand that economic growth really is over, plain and simple (let alone that "economic growth" is a euphemism for ecocide). Very few are prepared to seriously start taking the necessary steps. And they may never be, until it is imposed upon them not by human authority but by the sheer force of ecological circumstance. Others, even more frustratingly, seek solutions to allow business as usual, as if we just need to find a replacement energy source and then everything will be fine.

Alternative energy sources, particularly the "free energy" claims that crop up now and then (which I challenge on the premise that even if some device appears to be giving you "free" energy" it's undoubtedly being taken from somewhere), are actually extremely terrifying to me. Why would we want to perpetuate, even with alternative energy sources, a system that will only use that energy to further deforest, poison, and pave the planet? To be clear, we need to power down, not seek alternatives to match current energy demands (which is likely impossible anyways, if you do the math).

Here is how I see the tasks currently at hand: To the greatest degree possible, we must actively dismantle industrial civilization to ensure the least damage to land bases, because land bases are all we really have, in the long run, to sustain us; We must build resilient, autonomous communities, with the primary foci of relocalizing and horizontalizing both food production/distribution systems and decision-making structures (communal self-governance, where the decisions that affect a community are made by the community itself, rather than centralized governments operating elsewhere); And because the former are not likely to emerge organically in this culture, and will thus be achieved in spite of it and perhaps forced by ecological circumstance (I almost wrote economic circumstance, but economics is really just the human conversion of the ecological into dead objects for consumption and disposal, so they're really one and the same because the economy is torn violently from the Earth), our primary task to aid both other tasks is to find one another, and in the process defend, preserve, and restore the living Earth to the greatest degree possible.

With all this said, we must recognize that what must be destroyed is more than just civilization, but in fact, the worldview that spawned, and was in turn further spawned by, civilization itself. Fundamental to this is the idea that human beings are somehow different from our fellow Earthlings, somehow above them and better than them. We must abolish the idea that the Earth is ours, and land and life can be owned, and that the Earth and its myriad inhabitants are here for us to exploit as we desire. We must return to our rightful place as one among countless responsible members of the Earth's living community. We must learn to hear the voices of the non-humans again, and recognize the sentience and autonomy of all things. Without this shift in consciousness (which may, again, look more like a force of ecological circumstance than some mass awakening on the part of civilized humanity), our defense of the Earth and emergence of resilient communities will not only fail, it probably won't emerge in the first place. One cannot exist without the other. They are one and the same.

The good news, I suppose, when confronted with such monumental tasks, is the fact that it is not humanity that needs to change, or that needs to accomplish these things. To think such a thing is part and parcel of the very worldview that needs to be abolished, which informs us that our culture is equivalent to humanity. The truth is that, although this dominator culture has risen to global ascendance and become universalized amongst the civilized, it is still very much an aberration for our species, rather than the norm. Humanity does not need changing, saving, or fixing. Humanity is just fine, and always has been. We just need to rid ourselves of the culture of civilization. The bad news is that might not happen until we're forced to, which will not be fun.

Related articles

By Ryan King, special to mongabay.com (February 21, 2012).

Earth First! activist Nathan Coe: radical cultural shifts required to stave off ecological collapse.