Reviews of Dr. Best's Books
Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy Volume 4, No. 1
(2008) ISSN 1941-0948 doi: 10.3903/gtp.2008.1.7 113
Book Review Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth Edited by Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, 2006, AK Press, ISBN 1904859569, 450 pages
Deric Shannon Sometimes a book falls into the reader's lap at just the right time. Such was the case with Best and Nocella's excellent volume, Igniting a Revolution, an impressive anthology of writers/activists within the contemporary revolutionary environmental movement. I began reading this anthology shortly before my radical reading group met and discussed selected writings on animal liberation (kindly supplemented with some suggestions from Best himself). This volume provided a backdrop for some enlightening (and, in some cases, personally disturbing) changes in my political ideas. I began my political activism from a classical anarchist perspective – that is, fighting against "hierarchy" meant combating the State and capitalism. A libertarian socialism would set the material bases for addressing "peripheral" issues like women's subordination, "white" supremacy, and queer oppression. Along with my embarrassing privileging of the class struggle over other forms of oppression, like many of my comrades, animal and Earth liberation were rarely even considered or discussed. Luckily, before reading this volume, the stage was already set for my internalization of many of the criticisms contained in Igniting a Revolution of anthropocentrism and human supremacy. Readings in critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theories had already convinced me of the need for an intersectional analysis of oppression. I recognized my errors in previous radical praxis and adjusted my politics to fit this new understanding. But, like many radicals, issues regarding non-human animals and the Earth remained somewhere beneath the surface in my thought and activist practice. Nevertheless, as a movement against all forms of structured inequalities, I recognized anarchism as a theoretical space that was capable of explaining multiple forms of oppression without the need to see any one form as "primary" and others as "peripheral." Through a slew of readings done with my reading group and things I dug up on my own (including Igniting a Revolution), I began the slow process of recognizing that all of these struggles are interconnected – and not limited to the human world. The radical slogan that "None of us are free while others are oppressed" began to take on new meaning for me as I began to recognize the social construction of "personhood" and the unethical and arrogant ways that we humans deal with non-human animals and the Earth that we share with many other inhabitants. Deric Shannon received his B.A. and M.A. in Sociology from Ball State University. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the entry for "Anarchism, Communism, and Socialism" in the Encyclopedia of Modern Revolutions (James Defronzo, ed.) and is co-editor of the forthcoming book by Routledge, Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Reader of Anarchy in the Academy. Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy Volume 4, No. 1 (2008) ISSN 1941-0948 doi: 10.3903/gtp.2008.1.7 114 As one of the books that I poured over in this time period, Igniting a Revolution set itself apart in three main ways that immediately impressed me (and went a long way to convincing me of the applicability of animal and Earth liberation to my own political praxis). First and foremost, this book pays close attention to the intersections of oppressions and draws connections between humanity's domination of nature with our domination of each other. Secondly, this book engages in a topic near and dear to my heart without the all-too-common sensationalist discourses typically associated with it – namely, anarchism. Finally, Igniting a Revolution is not a book written by and for academics. Rather, it contains a diverse range of activists, scholars, and prisoners (former and present) who contributed to this ecumenical volume of radical political thought. Intersectionality Best and Nocella prepare the reader for their intersectional approach from the outset, as they write in their introduction to the volume that “an important task of this book – and of revolutionary environmentalism as well – is to decouple environmentalism from white, male, privileged positions; diversify it along class, gender, racial, ethnic, and other lines; and remove it from its single-issue pedestal” (p. 23). Indeed, radical environmentalism has been criticized for its largely white, male, and middle-class (public) face, and in many cases, rightfully so. Best and Nocella set about (quite successfully) in rectifying this situation by organizing the volume “according to the principles of radical feminist and anarchist philosophy, in order to give voice to oppressed peoples rather than present yet another selection from the privileged few” (p. 23). This is readily apparent by a brief perusal of the authors contained in this volume and becomes a staple of the various authorial approaches in their contributions. For example, homefries (pp. 387-393) uses poststructuralist feminist theory to root women’s solidarity with the Earth and non-human animals in shared experiences of domination. Doing so, she avoids the creation of a monolithic “womanhood” that suggests that women are somehow essentially closer to “nature” (also avoiding the binary conception of nature/humanity that sees humans as separate from the natural world). Likewise, patrice jones (pp. 319-333) draws connections between how we break wild animals and domesticate them and the methods abusive husbands use to control their wives. To jones, the problems come from the same place – the way that men are taught that they “have the right and the duty to subdue the earth, the animals, their own families, and the men of other faiths” (pp. 321-322). Watakpe and Ostrovsky (pp. 170-177) connect indigenous struggles with Earth liberation by noting that indigenous “lives and struggles are always connected to the land. Our creation stories take place in our land, we are from it, we ARE it” (p. 170). And Ashanti Alston (pp. 224-231) makes links between Black liberation, animal liberation, the struggles of the indigenous, and those suffering from state repression in his chapter, ending with an admonition that “WE NEED TO FREE ALL OUR POLITICAL PRISONERS!” (p. 231). This is just a small sampling of the ecumenical and intersectional approach of this impressive collection. After finishing the book, the reader is implicitly asked to link her own struggles against oppression with those of the Earth and non-human animals, as well as the myriad ways that humans systematically dominate one another. This opens up the idea of intersectionality beyond its roots in humanist radicalism, making the reader aware that revolutionary change cannot be reduced to single issues, identities, or the “class struggle” (though they all would be a part of a consistent radical praxis). Further, this approach serves as a Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy Volume 4, No. 1 (2008) ISSN 1941-0948 doi: 10.3903/gtp.2008.1.7 115 warning against reductionism – a reminder that “freedom” means nothing as long as any institutionalized system of domination, coercion, and control exists, whether this domination is directed at humans, non-human animals, or the Earth that we all share with each other. Further, it demonstrates that nearly all of us have simultaneously occupied positions as the oppressed and the oppressor and that any one of us who has been robbed of our dignity living under insane systems like capitalism, patriarchy, “white” supremacy, and the State have cause to fight back for a more sane and compassionate future. Anarchism All too often, collections of radical political thought just ignore anarchism altogether – like a naughty stepchild put in a “time-out” for repeated recalcitrance. When it is mentioned (in texts typically assembled without any input from anarchists), it is often vilified – using images of bearded bomb-throwers, chaotic riots, or anti-organizational zealots to mystify an already massively misunderstood political philosophy (or rather, a methodology, if you prefer). Not so in Best and Nocella’s volume, and not surprisingly, being that both editors identify with the anarchist tradition. Not only was the book assembled using anarchist principles; it also includes a number of anarchist authors, including a look into a variety of “isms” within the contemporary anarchist milieu (most notably, anarcha-feminism, ontological anarchism, and anarchoprimitivism). My own favorite example is Hansen’s (pp. 340-347) piece on direct action tactics in the context of her experiences in an urban guerilla group in Canada. Hansen outlines her group’s thought-processes as it decided on how the social movement context of the time guided their tactical decisions – perhaps the most exciting of which was their action as the “Wimmin’s Fire Brigade,” firebombing pornography distributors in Canada. Becker (pp. 71-91) revives the ghost of Heidegger in his piece on ontological anarchism, arguing that “Heidegger’s philosophy allows for multiple modes of engagement with others and nature as equals, all of them rooted in a relationship of solidarity, respect, and concern” (p. 84). He continues in his piece, relating Heidegger’s philosophy to Native American spirituality, the praxis of the Earth Liberation Front, and anarchism as a theory of Being. And no collection on radical environmentalism would be complete without a piece on anarcho-primitivism. Best and Nocella’s book contains an entire section, critiquing and questioning the nature of civilization itself and how it is often complicit in the creation and maintenance of hierarchical constraints and the modes of domination and control that we currently (allow ourselves to) live under. My only criticism of the book’s anarchism is that, despite its ecumenical approach, socialist anarchism is notably absent. While a number of socialist anarchists are rooted in a humanist tradition that fails to account for the domination of the Earth and non-human animals, such is not the case across the board. If we are to relate the concerns of working people to radical environmental practice, that means a commitment to socialism (broadly defined), freeing working people from wage-slavery and refashioning our competitive economic system into a cooperative one (or a plurality of cooperative systems!). To the authors’ credit, however, little is written from the socialist anarchist perspective that gives inherent value to the Earth or nonhuman animals. This omission might speak more about the poverty of socialist anarchist analyses of humanity’s systematic domination of the Earth and its sundry inhabitants than any lack of ecumenicism in the book. Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy Volume 4, No. 1 (2008) ISSN 1941-0948 doi: 10.3903/gtp.2008.1.7 116 Activists, Scholars, and Prisoners Most of the collections of radical political writing I’ve encountered have either been curious displays of intellectual posturing, written in a privileged language to a privileged audience of scholars (of course, all the while decrying how privilege manifests itself in our lives) or they have focused on radicalism outside of the Academy. This creates a false binary between activists and scholars, some of whom are both (myself included). This book avoids that binary thinking by including a variety of contributors from inside and outside of the insulated walls of academia as well as voices who are currently, or have been, incarcerated in our prison-industrial complex. Steven Best, for example, is the author of an impressive number of books and publications on postmodern theory and animal rights, and is a founder of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (an Institute that I am a supporter and member of as well). Nocella is a scholar/activist based at Syracuse University, which is also home to Lauren Eastwood, another of the book’s contributor, an assistant professor in the department of Sociology. Many radicals and animal/Earth liberationists will recognize the included contribution of Richard Kahn, one of the folks who help to run the Green Theory & Praxis journal. Another very notable scholar in the book is Robert Jensen, an activist professor at the University of Texas who generated great controversy after 9/11 for his articles citing America’s guilt and complicity in the attacks, and who has published widely criticizing the pornography industry and its routine degradation of women. The book also includes pieces by former and current political prisoners such as Ashanti Alston, Marilyn Buck, Fred Hampton, Jr., Ann Hansen, Jeffrey “Free” Luers, Craig “Critter” Marshall, Noel Molland, Jalil A. Muntaqim, Rob Los Ricos, and Kazi Toure. This inclusion provides an important connection between State domination and other forms of control. While criticisms of patriarchy, “white” supremacy, and capitalism seem fairly common in radical discourse, many radicals see the State as some neutral institution that we can use to see to our own political needs. This book effectively dispels that notion, reminding us all what the state does to people who act militantly in the name of justice – it puts them in cages – making yet another connection between how we humans treat each other and how we treat non-human animals. A Call for Action! Igniting a Revolution is not just a collection of writing on revolutionary environmentalism – it is also a call to action. This book provides radicals with important tools for drawing connections between various systems of domination and control as well as some suggestions for bringing about a future world without these kinds of hierarchical constraints. Considering the variety of voices and positions in the book, there is much I came across that I either disagreed with or made me uncomfortable. In my opinion, this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. All too often, radicals of all stripes spend pages of writing criticizing each other in sectarian infights or arguing over theoretical nuances. If we are going to make the world a decent place to live in for humans and non-humans, we require a variety of voices working together in spite of our disagreements – recognizing strength in our plurality and exchanging our utopian impulses for a political polytopia. If we cannot create that kind of movement, we might not have much worth liberating, as we live in a world of nuclear armaments, large-scale environmental destruction, and in a culture that teaches us that competition, consumerist individualism, and domination are all social goods. Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy Volume 4, No. 1 (2008) ISSN 1941-0948 doi: 10.3903/gtp.2008.1.7 117 Igniting a Revolution is a call to end this state of affairs and it could not have come to us at a timelier juncture in human social organization.