In 1993 Michael Carter was arrested and indicted for underground environmental activism. Since then he’s worked aboveground, fighting timber sales and oil and gas leasing, protecting endangered species, and more. Today, he’s a member of Deep Green Resistance Colorado Plateau, and author of the memoir Kingfishers’ Song: Memories Against Civilization.
Time is Short spoke with him about his actions, underground resistance, and the prospects and problems facing the environmental movement. The first part of this interview is available here, and Part III here.
Time is Short: Your actions weren’t linked to other issues or framed in a greater perspective. How important do you think having well-framed analysis is in regards to sabotage and other such actions?
Michael Carter: It is the most important thing. Issue framing is one of the ways that dissent gets defeated, as with abortion rights, where the issue is framed as murder versus convenience. Hunger is framed as a technical difficulty—how to get food to poor people—not as an inevitable consequence of agriculture and capitalism. Media consumers want tight little packages like that.
In the early ‘90s, wilderness and biodiversity preservation were framed as aesthetic issues, or as user-group and special interests conflict; between fishermen and loggers, say, or backpackers and ORVers. That’s how policy decisions and compromises were justified, especially legislatively. My biggest aboveground campaign of that time was against a Montana wilderness bill, because of the “release language” that allowed industrial development of roadless federal lands. Yet most of the public debate revolved around an oversimplified comparison of protected versus non-protected acreage numbers. It appeared reasonable—moderate—because the issue was trivialized from the start.
That sort of situation persists to this day, where compromises between industry, government, and corporate environmentalists are based on political framing rather than biological or physical reality—a protected area that industry or motorized recreationists would agree to might have no capacity for sustaining a threatened species, however reasonable the acreage numbers might look. Activists feel obliged to argue in a human-centered context—that the natural world is our possession, whether for amusement or industry—which is a weak psychological and political position to be in, especially for underground fighters.
When I was one of them, I never felt I had a clear stance to work from. Was I risking a decade in prison for a backpacking trail? No. Well then what was I risking it for? I chose not to think that deeply, just to rampage onward. That was my next worst mistake after bad security. Without clear intentions and a solid understanding of the situation, actions can become uncoordinated, and potentially meaningless. No conscientious aboveground movement will support them. You can get entangled in your own uncertainty.
Read the full article: Interview With An Eco-Saboteur, Part II.