Arson About Face

At Climate Resistance, we are quite often to be found making connections between environmentalism and the War on Terror. So we were a little surprised to find an environmentalist (and it’s probably fairly safe to assume that an environment correspondent at the Guardian is an environmentalist) apparently doing the same today.

The line that Suzanne Goldenberg draws between the respective wars on terror and CO2 is, however, rather different from our own. The story’s headline gives it away:

Serving 22 years: the environmentalist who fell victim to US anti-terror laws

In fact, it gave away so much that the paper replaced the headline in the online edition with:

Activist or terrorist? Mild-mannered eco-militant serving 22 years for arson

The Guardian’s moral compass points only to melting ice caps. The title may have changed, but it is still clear that they can’t tell the difference between an ‘activist or terrorist’, or seem to think that being an ‘activist’ qualifies an arsonist for special treatment.

The explosive fire Mason and Ambrose set at Michigan State University on 31 December 1999 caused nearly $1m (£680,000) of damage to buildings and equipment, but no death or injuries. The target was the office of the director of a genetically modified crop research programme into moth-resistant food crops for Africa, funded by the US Agency for International Development and the biotechnology company Monsanto.

Marie Mason is clearly an activist, and probably a terrorist. The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that one can be both. It is is as though sympathy for the ends, if not the means, is enough to transform violence into mere protest.

The story hinges on the claim that the sentence is too stiff:

However, Mason’s lawyer, John Minock, who filed an appeal against the sentence last week, argues that 22 years is excessively harsh. Mason got a much longer sentence than several militants recently convicted of setting fire to logging camps and vehicles in Oregon and Washington states – including Stanislas Meyerhoff who received 13 years for setting 11 fires and causing $30m in damage.

And that the reason it is too stiff is that ‘the courts have used domestic terrorism laws to stiffen the punishment for politically inspired violence’.

Mason is a prime example. “We are definitely seeing more severe sentences post-9/11, no doubt about it,” said Heidi Boghosian, the director of the National Lawyers Guild. “We have seen a trend of using the terrorist label and federalising a lot of criminal activities that would have gotten a far less stringent sentence before.”

Lauren Regan, an Oregon lawyer who defends environmental militants, calls it the “green scare”.

We find it hard to find sympathy for Mason, however. And her complaints that her sentence is harsh need to be seen in the context, not of sentences passed on other ‘activists’, or ‘terrorists’, but to other people convicted of arson.

It was only last Thursday that the Guardian was reporting on a Californian jury’s recommendation of the death penalty for a man who started a series of wildfires that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters:

Of course, Mason didn’t cause any deaths, but that is owed to luck, not design. She may claim that she didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but the arsonist loses the right to make that claim when they strike their matches against the matchbox. Mason complains that the harsh sentence is owed to the fact that ‘the government is trying to send a message’. But isn’t that what she was trying to do when she was, harshly, trying to assert her message by burning stuff to the ground, and risking lives? Harsh messages are answered with harsh messages.

If this were any other violent criminal, Goldenburg would not have a story. It is because Goldenburg and her employers are sympathetic to the aims that these perpetrators of this mundane act of destruction claimed to have in mind. But what did they really have in mind?

No sooner was Mason’s partner, Ambrose, caught, than he confessed, and allowed the authorities to pursue her. Some kind of solidarity. Contrast that with perpetrators of political violence, or even just political prisoners elsewhere in the world. That such a lack of honour exists between these arsonists surely indicates the hollowness of their cause. Ambrose acts in his self interest, to reduce his sentence, and Mason appeals that the sentence was too harsh. Clearly, neither of them really have the courage of their convictions that political prisoners in the past have possessed. They don’t bravely face their sentences. They apologise, and ask to be treated nicely.

Such a lack of conviction surely emphasises the nihilism of deep ecologists. Behind bars, such nihilism loses all its potency. Apart from those hurt by their actions, few on the outside will remember them. There are no movements on the outside, waiting for their return, to rejoin the struggle for liberation. Mason and her ilk have not campaigned for liberation. The conflagrations they caused were nothing more than the selfish acts of people lost in the world, who have comprehensively failed to touch other people with their message, and to establish a movement. This is the philosophy that the Guardian believes muddies the distinction between an ‘activist’ and a ‘terrorist’.

Perhaps Mason is neither an activist or a terrorist. She is like any other sad criminal, whose confusion about the world is expressed as a desire to destroy it. Like Raymond Lee Oyler, her acts are hard to explain. It is bizarre then, that the Guardian thinks that it’s the harsh sentence that needs explaining.

To those in Mason’s home city of Detroit who know her, her elevation to the ranks of America’s most dangerous criminals came as a shock. A fixture in activist circles, she was bright and charming, but unfocused – a woman who had an advanced degree in chemistry but lived near the poverty line.

The Guardian’s reporting on this issue is, as ever, informed not by an understanding of why it is wrong to set fire to things to get your message heard, nor by coherent ideas about jurisprudence… It’s not ‘fair’, because Mason was ‘nice’. It is informed by the same nihilistic and disorientated philosophy that afflicts Ambrose and Mason.

We have argued previously that environmentalism is an ideology. Indeed it is, in the sense that it wants to reorganise the world around its principles, by force and coercion if necessary. But those principles are confused and arbitrary because at its heart, there exists a void.

CR commenter Robert Wood commented on our recent post about James Hansen’s understanding of ‘democracy’ that Hansen ‘thinks he is one of Plato’s philosopher kings’. But the strangest thing about Hansen’s rise is that he has been crowned by nihilists. The argument for the philosopher king is being made by ignorant philistines. It is their own empty outlook they are evincing, not their commitment to a particular philosophy, or even the supremacy of the philosophical method. They want to be told what to do, how the world should be organised, and what ‘science’ says is right. This is because they cannot work it out for themselves. Environmentalism, whether it is setting fire to laboratories (so much for science then) or campaigning for laws to restrict human freedom, is a desperate search for meaning, in the same way that setting fire to things is a desperate attempt to assert control over a confusing world.

So environmentalism, in both its extreme expression of igniting fires, and it’s more mundane expression of elevating climate scientists to moral and political heroes and saviours, and its downright banal defence of criminal insanity in the press, shares just one thing: nothing.

Bishop of Stafford Sillier Than Chief Scientific Advisor?

Given that climate sceptics are as bad as the tobacco lobby and holocaust deniers, and that climate change is worse than international terrorism, which is worse than obesity, which is worse than climate change, and that the church is as desperate to connect with the masses as are all the other bad politicians out there, this was kind of inevitable:

Gordon Mursell, the Bishop of Stafford in England, is a man of the cloth. He is also a member of a posse of disoriented clerics, who have become so estranged from morally literate theology that they have embraced a new brand of demonology. 

At a time when moralisers cannot give any real meaning to classical ideas about right and wrong, they try instead to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment. So instead of targeting those traditional demons – Satan, say, or witchcraft – Gordon Mursell attacks climate change deniers.

In a parish newsletter, the bishop said that people who refuse to join the fight against global warming are like Josef Fritzl, the insane criminal in Austria who locked his daughter and her children in a cellar for 24 years. For Mursell, being sceptical about the conventional wisdom on climate change is akin to the monstrous crime committed by Fritzl. He says: ‘You could argue that, by our refusal to face the truth about climate change, we are as guilty as he is.’

Mursell has not called for climate change deniers to be burned at the stake – yet. But the idea that they should be punished is implicit in his message…

Read the rest here.

Left, Right and Wrong

When we were wondering why Environmentalism is often assumed to go hand in hand with the political Left, we suggested that Environmentalism and the War on Terror had similar roots in the politics of crisis and fear. A commenter named Harry made an interesting point that we missed at the time, but which certainly needs addressing:

The editors here say that they would define the Global War on Terror as one based solely on fear. If so, (and I certainly dont buy into that), it’s a fear based on actual evidence or occurrence of global terrorism.

Balance that against the current global warming evidence and tell me which one is more likely.

Well, that’s not quite what we said, but, hey. Harry is right that there is evidence for global terrorism – the World Trade Centre was attacked, and so on.

But there is evidence that the world has been warming up a bit recently; there is evidence that human activities have something do with some of that. The problem is with the political response to that evidence. The point is that to argue that ‘there is no such thing as global terrorism’, or that ‘there is no such thing as global warming’ is to fail to take issue with the idea that evidence of global terrorism or anthropogenic global warming is sufficient argument for the execution of the ‘War on Terror’, or for ‘drastic action’ to mitigate climate change.

We don’t buy into that.

Of course, there is a reasonable expectation that those responsible for terrorist attacks will be brought to justice, and similar attacks to be prevented. But what passes for justice and prevention often has the consequence of the precise opposite. The images of a world ravaged by terrorism and global warming are both used to reign in liberties, and to limit political imaginations. Proponents of these causes use the promise of a secure future to hide the fact that they lack any idea about how to deliver a better one.

We do not think that AGW is the result of a conspiracy of communists to raise taxes, or whatever. Likewise, we don’t think the Iraq war is “all about oil”. No UK party would have stopped us going to war in Iraq. And you’ve got to wonder where John “The climate debate is over” McCain fits into a Leftist conspiracy to tax people on the pretext of saving us from Gaia’s Revenge. Rather, the War on Terror and Environmentalism are two peculiar responses to a crisis of politics in which it fails to resonate with the public. This crisis is expressed variously as moral panics, urgency for ‘drastic action’, and the conviction that a failure to respond will undoubtedly spell the end of civilisation as we know it. In other words, where you see politicians responding to a ‘crisis’, it is invariably nothing more than their inability to make sense of the world. The irony is that the politics generated by fears about terrorism and eco-catastrophe is dictated by the readings of thermometers, or by the will of terrorists, rather than by the purposeful actions of world leaders.

Black Stuff Turns Grayling Green

On Commentisfree, A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosphy at Birkbeck College London, writes in “An antidote to the black poison

Over-determination is a particularly interesting phenomenon as it besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences. […] And yet: in the heaving crowd of causes one can pick out a few tall malefactors, ubiquitous and malevolent, diffusing noxious, maddening, riot-provoking odours as they dart about to spread their evil. One is mentioned so often here by me and others that the curse of its name can be given momentary rest. Another is mentioned far too infrequently, though frequently still. It is the black, toxic, planet-sickening ooze on which the world is so utterly drunk that it has become insane – lusting for the ghastly poison because burning it belches out wealth, and wealth means power and influence.

In other words: oil is the evil which explains the evil of Middle Eastern human rights atrocities, that nasty man, Putin, that nasty man, Bush, and his nasty father, and that nasty man Osama bin Laden.

In defence of oil – and nasty men aside for a moment – we can think of a number of positives which would struggle to survive without the energy and convenience that the ‘ghastly poison’ provides:

Central heating
Cheap, abundant food
Freedom and means to travel
The Department of philosophy, Birkbeck College London

In spite of his lyrical prowess, Grayling doesn’t offer us a very detailed account of the mechanism by which oil makes men evil, other than to say that oil creates wealth, which creates power, which creates corruption. Give the professor of philosophy a Nobel prize for something.

Finally, Grayling wonders…

…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?

The question here seems to suppose that, if only people didn’t ‘lust’ for oil, we would have an alternative. It is as though the oil itself were a narcotic that interfered in the process of rational judgement. Naturally, we would agree with Grayling if he were simply suggesting that the budget for the Iraq war were better spent on developing alternatives such as atomic or fusion energy. But what Grayling is saying is that the Iraq war was about oil, because of oil, and commissioned by junkies in search of another fix.

In this shallow view, Grayling mystifies oil. He turns it into a monster, a devil, an evil, malign spirit which possesses men. He himself ‘besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences’ rather than explains carefully why oil is a thing which adequately accounts for the current state of geopolitics, all by itself. He imagines that were there simply an alternative to oil, it would entail world peace. It’s as if politics, the desire for power, and the influence of powerful interests would each suddenly disappear were only we to spend enough dollars on wind technology as a ‘white’ alternative to the black magic of oil. In doing so, he looks for external reasons to explain human conflicts. (This environmental orthodoxy is just the sort of determinism Grayling seeks to avoid.) But arguably, fuel such as oil has given people the means to escape the mundane existence of subsistence living and to confront tyranny. The reason that it hasn’t in all cases is because such determinism as inherent in ‘oil = political freedom’ is equally wrong.

If wars can be fought for oil, wars can be fought for territories that provide better conditions for wind, solar, biomass, or tidal power generation. As green commentators have pointed out recently, the push for bio-fuels has caused problems for poor people as fertile land is given over to fuel crops, rather than food. Depriving the world of the means to create wealth does not remove from the world people with an advantage inclined to seek a greater share of it. On the contrary, it is poorer populations who are less able to resist powerful interests. And in a world where the production of fuel is limited to what ‘nature’ can provide on a moment-by-moment basis – such are the limits and demands of environmentalism – so the potential for conflict between tyrannies might escalate. But of course, that’s not going to happen, because oil offers an alternative way of life which is better than bondage to the land and feudal landlords. Environmentalism’s proximity to the anti-wealth, anti-development agenda should offend Grayling’s humanist perspective. It’s a real pity that it doesn’t. The result is an anti-human determinism: environmentalist orthodoxy, taken for granted, masquerading as humanism.