Ecology of Spirit

Cultivating an Essential Sensitivity

Collapse Criminology: Terror, Ecology, and the Biosemiotics of Extremism

British Society for Criminology:

Green Criminology in the Anthropocene


Collapse Criminology:

Terror, Ecology, and the Biosemiotics of Extremism

In this somewhat speculative paper I want to reconsider criminal violence, extremism, and terrorism as a biosemiotic process whereby individuals and communities are faced with the existential threat of energy deprivation, interpret this ecological process in religious terms, and respond in kind through evolutionary pathways that, though criminalized, function as adaptive strategies. I do this by 1) linking crime to collapse, 2) attributing this collapse to the infrastructure and economic mode undergirding the state-corporate nexus, 3) drawing from traditional ecological knowledge and evolutionary cosmology to 4) give an interpretation of political violence, before 5) suggesting peacebuilding strategies.

By integrating new methods into traditional criminology and linking crime semiotically to collapse, implicating the infrastructure underlying the state-corporate nexus, I hope to suggest two main points:

  1. that we can’t understand criminal behavior without understanding the ecological context;


  1. and this might come off as controversial, but we need to begin to incorporate insurrectionary perspectives within criminological theories, building on the critical turn in security and terrorism studies.

To do so I argue facilitates peacemaking strategies to better address violent extremism and perhaps crime in general.

Collapse Criminology 

I begin with Lisa Schirch[1] nested model of violent extremism, situating act of terror within a violent extremist belief system, itself stemming from a wider social context that integrates individual identity, community grievances, national ideologies, and global exchange. In a sense the criminal act is rooted in a deeper and largely unconscious exchange between psycho-social and ecological processes as well as propensities and exposures to crime that together inform one’s perception and the choice to act in criminal(ized) ways, along with strategies for intervention.

We can see this in the evolution of criminological theory: In the Salem Witch trials for example, witches were assumed to have entered into contract with the devil, with prosecutors pointing to scripture and eye-witnesses to justify capital punishments. Yet a shift toward the size of farmland, decreasing over decades, and recognizing it is largely village farmers accusing merchants and townspeople of witchcraft – those they are paying taxes to – we better understand the role of social pressures and environmental scarcity in contributing to any contagion of structural violence.[2]

If the causes of crime are largely attributable to the wider ecology one exists within, crime provides an indicator of socioeconomic and psychic health. Law enforcement and criminal justice groups have already developed predictive algorithms and assessment tools to score the risk of defendants according to a range of psychological, social, and economic factors.[3] Greater risk factors and exposures at earlier ages are found to contribute to chronic criminality; meanwhile reducing crime and recidivism requires certain conditions being met: housing, employment, programs and services, healthcare, substance abuse supports, responsive parole systems, and close-knit family and friends.

Here, effective preventative intervention requires “the coordinated delivery of services from numerous agencies, yet these agencies were severely fragmented, resulting in ineffective preventative intervention.”[4]

Meanwhile, criminological models like those of Thomas Homer-Dixon and Robert Agnew’s, where demographics, climate, and environmental scarcity exacerbate criminogenic mechanisms leading to harm and violence, it seems increasingly likely these services and agencies will only continue to fragment in an increasingly chaotic context, driving higher levels of crime, leading to what Agnew anticipates as a “breakdown in social order.”[5]

Theories focused on the Treadmill of Production understand this well: ecological crimes are produced by the structural composition of the forces of production, with nature and capital in inherent contradiction: to maintain standards of living requires increasing wages and demand, necessitating further exploitation of ecosystems for profits to be reinvested, accelerating this degradation.[6] To maintain profits, wages are suppressed with laws protecting and promoting extraction, neither deterring nor addressing ecological harm, which is in fact a necessary condition for the global economy to function.

What’s especially worthwhile to consider is the drive for profit seemingly requires the exploitation of labor and nature, both found independently capable of collapsing a society. One study on Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY), mathematically models irreversible social collapse based on 23 case studies, finding these two drivers (economic stratification and ecological strain) push civilizations out of carrying capacity toward collapse.[7] Social Scientist Kevin Mackay, integrating this model with others from Tainter, Diamond, Homer-Dixon, etc. explains:

“Oligarchic states tend to be politically unstable, environmentally destructive, and prone to collapse. The oligarchic imperative for increasing power and wealth leads to two contradictions – one social, the other ecological – that put unsustainable pressures on the social, economic, political, and ecological foundations of civilization. These same contradictions are driving modern industrial capitalism to collapse, a prediction supported by numerous historical examples…In my analysis it is the relations of domination themselves, rather than the individual agents who enact them, that are the locus of systemic dysfunction.”[8]

More than anything, we see in social collapse those same cosmic dynamics mirrored in all dissipative structures that necessarily disintegrate when energy flows stop, whether we are referring to stars, plants, ecosystems, communities, businesses, economies, or civilizations. Astrophysicist Eric Chaisson puts it succinctly: “operationally, those systems capable of utilizing optimum amounts of energy tend to survive, and those that cannot are nonrandomly eliminated…energy is the cause, complexity is the effect.”[9]

Energy is a principal facilitator of the rising complexity of ordered systems and as such, its depletion leads to collapse. Oligarchy deprives certain components (communities) within civilization’s complex structure of energy through inadequate resource management, undermining the conditions necessary to maintain its own structure and legitimacy.

Criminality, I suggest, indicates the deterioration of the thermoeconomic flow structure, characteristic of the collapse of complex systems, with political violence signaling an increased willingness to confront social structures and relations whose legitimacy declines as alternative pathways competing for legitimacy emerge

Cosmotheanthropic Biosemiotics

To understand how the deprivation of energy encourages violent extremism I first draw from anthropologist Marvin Harris’ cultural materialist perspective, central to which is Marx’s idea that,

“the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”[10]

To visualize this, we see how the technologies and economic mode harness energy from the environment, a process that is bureaucratized by social structures and rationalized by the worldview. The infrastructural restraints are thus passed on to a culture’s structural and mental components, or as Harris states regarding what he terms “probabilistic infrastructural determinism,” infrastructure – the principal interface between culture and nature – determines the energy restraints shaping cultural evolution.[11]

It should be emphasized this approach does not deny the possibility that mental and structural components can achieve a degree of autonomy from the behavioral infrastructure, just that these infrastructural variables are primary factors for inquiry.

One can look to traditional ecological knowledge to see how this process plays out, for instance in Fikret Berkes’ case study of the Cree worldview and land management practices, which signals the evolutionary benefits of certain adaptive relationships, predicts how to respond to complex environments, communicates these principles in sacred narratives and ritualized organizational processes, and transmutes experience into long-lasting survival imprints to ensure a culture remains resilient, able to withstand external stressors. This proves a kind of “mythobiology” aimed at

“re-establishing social rules to avoid over-hunting, the depletion of certain plant resources, and unchecked population increase,” with cultural and spiritual leaders providing “a truly powerful force in the control and management of resources.”

To quote at length,

“The ‘manager,’ in the Cree system, is the senior hunter, called the tallyman. The senior hunter is the observer of nature, the interpreter of observations, the decision-maker in resource management, and the enforcer of rules of proper hunting conduct. He is also the political leader, ensuring for example that no one goes hungry in the group. There is little doubt that in the old days, the steward was often a spiritual leader as well…it is the steward’s obligation to follow up on the activities of a group that had violated the rules of proper hunting behavior by engaging in unrestrained exploitation…as the enforcer of community norms, it becomes the steward’s obligation to expose ‘doing wrong to the game.’ In the process, the steward can initiate social sanction on the guilty parties, shaming them publicly (usually done by the use of humor) and using the example to remind everyone else of the rules.”[12]

Indeed, in the Tukano culture and others, social controls possess marked adaptive implications and must be enforced for survival: The shaman’s role then is not so much to heal disease at an individual level, but at the level of

“supra-individual structures that have been disturbed by the person. Tto be effective, he has to apply his treatment to the disturbed part of the ecosystem…a Tukano shaman does not have individual patients; his task is to cure a social malfunctioning…what really counts is the re-establishment of the rules that will avoid over-hunting, the depletion of certain plant resources, and unchecked population increase. The shaman becomes thus a truly powerful force in the control and management of resources.”[13]

These sacred narratives are organized around homeostatic survival functions used as the template for neural organization and cultural continuity. They offer a “cosmotheanthropic biosemiotic,” whereby in making sense of the environment, symbols are generated to situate the human community within a cosmic context, establishing and perpetuating an ideal socio-ecological order through an appeal to the sacred.

As adaptive responses to complex ecological signals are institutionalized, experience, informed by mind and matter, is conveyed symbolically in a narrative meant to facilitate “cooperative social behavior aimed at the conservation of ecological balance as the ultimate desirable quality.”[14]

Following philosophers like David Chalmers and Gregory Bateson, consciousness arises in the ecological circuitry of the landscape, so we can perhaps consider ideologically motivated violence as the mental correlate of a physically degraded environment pushed out of its psychological carrying capacity. If thoughts are, in this sense, complex elaborations of what we do and how we feel, then I would like to suggest terrorism, violent extremism, and ideologically motivated criminality may be better understood as a trauma-based reaction to socioecological degradation generated by a maladaptive economic mode that produces what has been termed “solastalgia,” the existential distress caused by environmental disorganization. The land, in a sense, acts through the individual agent situated in a deteriorating ecological context.

In this regard, we might understand why terrorism has been called by philosopher Jacques Derrida a

“symptom of autoimmune disorder that threatens the life of participatory democracy…the spontaneous suicide of the defense mechanism supposed to protect the organism from external aggression…itself working to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its own immunity.”

To quickly summarize this section, energy flow mediated by a culture’s infrastructure drives complex adaptive systems, with a cosmotheanthropic biosemiotic providing meaningful ways to generate and control a socioecological order and drive new evolutionary pathways.

In our case, one can see how the fossil fuel culture characterizes the Anthropocene: free market fundamentalism is bureaucratized and enforced by the corporate driven agenda of the national security state and the politics of the armed lifeboat, with the counter-climate change movement whose denialism is weaponized against those challenging structural relationships contributing to grievances, injustice, and intolerable conditions that motivate religious justifications of political violence.

Feral Insurgents

Ultimately, the acceleration of environmental degradation required by open-ended economic growth models increasingly produces examples of terror and insurrectionary violence driven by these same underlying forces.

Pointing briefly to what is becoming known as “accelerationist” terrorism, groups like Atomwaffen Division or Individualists Tending Toward the Wild aim to engage in terrorist attacks on infrastructure to hasten the fall of civilization so that a new social order will follow. In each case, “the system” becomes the target for attack, while nature, whether for anarcho-primitivist groups (which recently claimed credit for setting fire to markets, causing a blackout, and murder two tech workers in the Bay Area) or eco-fascists committing mass shootings against immigrants and out-groups, become the new sacred ideal as evidenced in manifestos like the Christ Church, El Paso, or websites like maldicion ecoextremista. Both groups were influenced in part by Kaczynski, increasingly popular in memes shared on social media through groups like Pine Tree Gang and others.

As infrastructure and social behaviors, formerly institutionalized to maintain cultural resilience, are interpreted to be maladaptive – the economic mode alienating individuals and communities – the system loses its legitimacy as attempts to attack power structures thought to dominate and degrade landscapes by depriving communities of energy flows, articulates a system-level critique, leading to anti-system movements and criminal elements that erode the social order in a context of collapse, even working to accelerate this collapse.

Sympathizers read the landscape and communicate in near-religious terms their interpretations of threats to livelihoods, receive and redistribute these interpretations in information hubs, and create new attacks and critiques as knowledge of the environment flows throughout a network, feeding back in a self-reinforcing loop.

We are presented with a problem then, namely that the killing and destruction of terrorist does not address the root causes of terrorism, extremism, or insurgent violence, and therefore will not prevent it. It should be noted for instance that “empirical evidence at both the international and domestic levels seriously undermine the rational deterrence thesis.” As Michael Tonry suggests, “there is little credible evidence that changes in sanctions affect crime rates.”[15] Instead deterrence arguments are “generally normative arguments in disguise. Disagreements based on deeply held moral intuition are seldom resolvable by resort to argument.”[16] Counter-terror, counter-insurgency, and heavy-handed policing tactics are, in this perspective, not so much conducted because they are effective, but are rather strategies that reinforce and reify structures of power, suppressing opposition with violence.

Manifestos, communiqués, even the deterrence policies pushed by free market fundamentalists, those promoting policies of the armed lifeboat, and the counter-climate change movement, are thus not so much making rational arguments, but are rather engaged in what for them amounts to sacred narratives of spiritual warfare to preserve their ideals and competitive advantage in an economic and political landscape.

Whether we are looking at far left or far right terror, and less obvious white collar state-corporate crimes, in each case they may be ideologically motivated (for nature, race, or profit), that ideology stemming from the infrastructure, economic mode, and techniques by which energy can be harnessed and distributed in unequitable ways – ways I have tried to suggest are inherently predisposed towards collapse.

On the other hand, violent extremism, terror campaigns, and insurrectionary action seeks to eliminate those structures. Such crimes indicate unjust and alienating social conditions, grievances contingent upon the infrastructure and mode of production that produces scarcity, solastalgia, and the context for extremist belief systems and terrorist acts to proliferate.

Thus, a biosemiotics of terror, extremist violence, and insurrection articulates a system-wide critique which rejects engaging in political representation, abhors domination, and seeks autonomy and liberation from “the system.” As such, to reject and suppress this critique is to maintain an obsolete paradigmatic approach to criminology, unable to resolve or address the conditions that generates criminality.

Pathways into the Ecozoic Era

Since I have tried to root crime in the context of socioecological collapse, I will end by hypothesizing crime reduction can occur by preventing that collapse. There tend to be three ways complex systems avoid collapse and increase power density[17]:

The first increases energy flows into the system, or increases its efficiency. The second decreases the mass of the system. The third compresses the timescale for energy to flow through the system. These three strategies together achieve a sustainable power density: for instance, aboriginal cultures, whose material culture (clothes, tools, housing, artifacts) is sustained through immediate-return hunting and gathering subsistence techniques actually reach a higher power density that average U.S. citizens, manipulating enormous energy flows through land burns that attracted large grazers.[18]

To apply these principles to our own society we might focus on investing in renewable energies while ensuring equitable access to vulnerable communities, reducing redundant structures requiring excess energy to perpetuate themselves, while decentralizing power and ensuring direct access to land, goods, and services.  To do so would assist in reducing economic inequality, improving political participation, decreasing environmental degradation, promoting socioecological and psychological resilience, and establishing post-hegemonic, autonomous, self-sufficient communities, through restoration projects and education programs focused on reskilling for subsistence living.

Specific projects, targeting those communities or individuals determined most at-risk, might include greenbelt tree plantings, permaculture projects, urban ecology projects carried out through civic action groups, or prisoner permaculture programs that may offer life-skills, therapeutic services. Further, environmental movements can also offer a kind of prefigurative politics, creating new conditions rather than protesting old ones, rooting themselves into the land in order to grow a life-place politics. (Occupy the Farm).

In any case, this requires challenging extractive infrastructures and the social structures promoting colonial settlerism, refusing to settle for capitalist market-based so-called “solutions,” establishing solidarity in those places facing violent repression. Ultimately all of these projects are aimed at reconfiguring economic relationships to reform the thermo-economic flow structure, with ecological density and biodiversity reducing criminality by increasing ecological and psychological carrying capacity, and developing and restoring necessary infrastructures for a new era. Research has begun to focus on this relationship, suggesting visibility-preserving vegetation as a negative predictor for violence and crimes reported, due to psychological stabilization, strengthened territoriality, lowered incivilities and levels of aggression, improvement of regional image, and increased informal surveillance with greater use, offering directions for further study in green criminology, and offering.[19] As one study reports: “the more vegetation, the less crime.”[20]


My attempt in this presentation has been to look at violent extremism as a response, perhaps unconscious though perhaps decreasingly so, to social and environmental collapse, indicating a desire for systemic change. To stop crime, violent or otherwise, I suggest, requires non-criminal, non-violent pathways focused on systemic and structural change, a political ecological therapy of sorts specifically geared towards modifying the economic infrastructure and mode of production, which will otherwise accelerate the degradation of socioecological relations and with it, inaugural accelerationist terroristic responses. As the HANDY study I mentioned earlier makes clear,

“Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.”

Currently free market fundamentalists, national security states, and the counter climate movement resist all such change, their survival and short-term and immediate prosperity directly tied to the infrastructure and economic mode they protect. Yet it seems civil society similarly cannot yet transform the economic conditions, largely habituated to these same modes of production. The conflict between these two groups seems destined towards scapegoating the other, with environmental activists or corporations each targeted according to their own reigning moral paradigm. This in turn may lead to an escalating violence, temporarily thought resolved in each arrest or prosecution maybe, yet merely temporarily invisibilizing the potential for surging violence by competing factions within the context of a fossil fuel industry that accelerates the conditions for conflict.

My suggestion has been that this conflict is largely due to the infrastructure and the economic mode itself we depend on, that has shaped our way of life, that we have grown increasingly dependent on until we largely cannot imagine other lifeways beyond this maladaptive mode. We are then required to demystify and deconstruct this relationship, while introducing and instituting new symbolic narratives that are ecologically informed, around which new modes and social forms can constellate.


[1] Schirch, Lisa (2018) The Ecology of Violent Extremism. (Ed) Rowman and Littlefield: New York, NY.

[2] See Stanford History Education Group

[3] CJ 2017

[4] See CJ 2017, pg. 317

[5] Cranks, John P. and Linda S. Jacoby (2015) Crime, Violence, and Global Warming. Routledge: New York, NY

[6] Lynch, Long, Stretesky, and Barrett (2017) Green Criminology: Crime, Justice, and the Environment. University of California Press

[7] Motesharrei, et al. (2014) “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” In Ecological Economics V. 101, 90-102

[8] Mackay, Kevin (2017) Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization. Between the Lines: Toronto, Ontario.

[9] Chaisson, Eric (2014) “The Natural Science Underlying Big History,” in The Scientific World Journal. V. 2014

[10] Marx, Karl (1859) “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.”

[11] Harris, Marvin (1980). Cultural Materialism

[12] Berkes, Fikret (2018) Sacred Ecology. Fourth Edition. Routledge: New York, NY. Pg. 122

[13] Ibid, 78

[14] Ibid

[15] Tonry, Michael (2008) “Learning from the Limitations of Deterrence Research,” in Crime and Justice V. 37.1

[16] Ibid

[17] Grassie, William (2018) Applied Big History: A Guide for Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Other Living Things. Metanexus Imprints: New York, NY

[18] Spier, Fred (2011) Complexity in Big History. In Cliodynamics: Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History Vol. 2.1

[19] Cho, Min-gun et al. (2018) “The Effects of Urban Park and Vegetation on Crime in Seoul and Its Planning Implication to CPTED. In Journal of the Korean Institute of Landscape Architecture Vol. 46 (3)

[20] Kuo, Frances E. (2001) “Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” In Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33 No. 3

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