Eco-terrorism: reflections on the efficacy of political violence
It is hard to overstate the severity of the environmental crisis. Human impacts on the planet are so severe that some scientists suggest that we have caused the earth to enter into a new geological epoch. They argue that sometime around the beginning of the industrial revolution the planet left the Holocene and entered a new era: the Anthropocene
Eco-terrorism: reflections on the efficacy of political violence
It is hard to overstate the severity of the environmental crisis. Human impacts on the planet are so severe that some scientists suggest that we have caused the earth to enter into a new geological epoch. They argue that sometime around the beginning of the industrial revolution the planet left the Holocene and entered a new era: the Anthropocene ("Welcome to the Anthropocene"). The revelation that humans have become a geological force due to our changing of the climate, earthquakes caused from fracking, etc might be startling, but it doesn't stop there. We are also in the middle of the earth's sixth mass extinction event, where as many as 200 species may be going extinct per day (Pearson). Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that certain 'positive feedback' mechanisms in the earth's climate system have been triggered and it is likely that catastrophic climate change in now unstoppable. Knowledge of this caused renowned climate scientist James Lovelock to remark "Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable" ("Revenge of Gaia" xiv). Precious little is being done to address or resolve these issues, beyond platitudes about 'green energy' and sustainable development. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement between nation-states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 29%, has been sabotaged by some of the world's worst polluters (such as the USA and Canada). Furthermore, the Kyoto Protocol goals for emissions reductions fall far short of 80% cut in emissions that is the scientific consensus.(Jowit) In the face of this knowledge is it perhaps unsurprising that some people turn to violence in an attempt to redress these grievances.
A personal story
My own interest in issues of environment and political conflict stem from an early age. I was imbued with a love of nature by my mother. I recall as a child going on many long walks in the local nature preserve and being taught to identify many of the plants there. I also remember watching urban sprawl slowly consume the countryside around our peaceful village. My political awakening occurred in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the beginning of the second Iraq War. Around the age of 13 I began to pay attention to the news and read everything about current affairs I could get my hands on. My parents encouraged my interest and introduced me to political commentators such as the famed linguist Noam Chomsky. One day while searching the web for information about the political philosophy of anarchism, I happened upon an article about a man from Eugene, Oregon who had been sentenced to 22 years in prison for burning a few SUVs. His stated intention was to bring awareness about climate change. Although I was shocked by the violent act I had to admit that I sympathized to some degree with his concerns. My sympathy was not so much based in that I thought the action would have a substantial impact, rather it was motivated by a feeling of relief that at least one person was treating the situation with the appropriate gravity. So began a lifetime of studying the realm of political conflict.
The term terrorism is notoriously difficult to define. Nobody seems to agree on what the proper definition is and many have sought to twist the word to their own advantage. The federal government has broadly defined terrorism as an act that "is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion" (FBI). Some officials in the Oregon house of Representatives have gone so far as to call nonviolent protest and civil disobedience acts of terrorism (George). In fact the term 'eco-terrorism' has very political origins in that it was coined by Ron Arnold, father of the 'wise-use' movement and Executive director of Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, an industry think tank (Komp).
Beyond the politicking and opportunism that characterize this debate, there is an accurate definition of the term. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that terrorism is characterized by 3 factors that distinguish it from other forms of political violence, namely fear, criminality, and target choice:
1) Fear - the purpose of terrorist activity is to cause panic in the population, ostensibly in order to move forward some political goal
2) Criminality- terrorism is carried out by non-state actors, without legal sanction although some States do fund terrorist organizations to forward their own interests.
3) Targets- terrorism is often characterized by the indiscriminant slaughter of innocent noncombatants. (650-651)
In a paper co-authored by a member of the Eugene Police Department, they argue:
"Terrorism is tactic, or another way of fighting. It is distinguished from other forms of violence not only by its motive, but by how it defines a legitimate target (i.e., civilian non-combatants)." (Borum and Tilby 202)
This definition may be more accurate on a philosophical level, but much of the discourse in the media over the last 15 or so years have simply defined terrorism as political violence carried out by non-state actors. It seems totally pointless to try to directly counter this barrage of propaganda with a more accurate definition of the term. There is no way small groups of grassroots activists can compete with the amount of money and airtime that special interests have poured into this debate.
Perhaps a more successful method of countering this kind of branding is suggest by Abbie Hoffman in his autobiography. Hoffman and his alleged co-conspirators had all been rounded up after the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot. What followed was one of the most famous political trials in American history. During the course of the trial the defendants (called 'the Chicago 7') used ridicule to undermine the credibility of the judge and the authorities. Hoffman stated:
"Rather than try to deny the conspiracy outright, we attempted to diffuse its menacing image by point out its derivative meaning "to breath together." A good thing. " (195)
In addition to these hijinks the defendants produced a line of trading cards featuring the 'Chicago Conspiracy vs the Washington Kangaroos' and were known to greet callers to the phone of their legal support line by saying "Hello, Conspiracy... ". In essence they rendered harmless the authorities attempts to demonize them through the use of humor.
Given the abuse perpetuated in in the name of the 'war on terror' (such as the slandering of nonviolent protestors as terrorists), perhaps the same sort of diffusion ought to be attempted for the brand of 'terrorist'.
For the purposes of this paper, when I use the term 'terrorism', it only refers to people using violence to achieve a political goal. Under this definition many people, including America's founding fathers could be classified as terrorists. Some people may recoil at embracing this overbroad definition, however I see no benefit in expending energy on a debate that has been deliberately framed in such a way that it diverts us from an examination of the issues as George Lakoff noted in his book Don't Think Like an Elephant.
The use of militant action to protect the earth in North America first began in earnest in the late 70s following the publication of Edward Abbey's infamous novel 'The Monkeywrench Gang' in 1975. A fictional novel that depicted a group of saboteurs who ran around the southwest damaging equipment and generally causing mayhem in the hope of preventing further development of the West's few remaining wild places. Life sometimes imitates art, and in 1979 the radical environmental group Earth First was born. Along with their 'no compromise' ethos and grassroots organizing style, members of this organization often participated in environmental sabotage (although the network itself neither condoned nor condemned such actions). The organization caught on like wildfire eventually having as many as 75 chapters in 25 states. By the early 90s times were changing however and, following the injury of a mill worker in California from treespiking, most of the network renounced violent methods. This incident, combined with the arrest of a number of Earth First!ers in Arizona on charges of monkeywrenching., As well as the substantial sentences a number of these defendants received resulted in a brief decline in militant actions in the early 90s. It wouldn't be until the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) emerged in the 1995 that eco-terrorism would take center stage yet again. (Roselle, Tree Spiker)
The ELF was active in North America for period of about 12 years from 1995 to 2008. The most famous action they took a part in that made them a household name was the arson a ski resort in Vail, Colorado which was encroaching on lynx habitat. This action caused 11 million dollars' worth of damage and was featured on an episode of 'The West Wing'. In its decade long rampage the ELF took part in hundreds of actions and caused millions of dollar worth of damage. All this was brought to a screeching halt at the end of 2005 when the FBI launched 'Operation Backfire', a nationwide series of raids that ended up capturing over 20 activists. Although ELF died down in the United States in recent years, ELF activity has been recorded in as many as over 17 countries worldwide. (Anonymous)
More recently, there has been an upsurge in activity on the east coast with many explosives being found at fracking sights, possibly due to the fact that the locals are upset that their drinking water has been contaminated and their families are dying of cancer. (Ross)
When reflecting on the efficacy of a particular action or strategy, it is also critical to ponder the moral implications of that choice. It is important to consider all the potential consequences as well. When thinking on the use of political violence some people respond simply by argue that violence is immoral and therefore not a just or efficient tool. For the purposes of this paper we will be assuming a moral relativist position, that this that the morality of something is largely dictated by each person's unique perspective. In the words of one famous adage "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter". Others such as Abbie Hoffman have argued that the use of violence is a tactical and not moral matter. However Noam Chomsky responds:
I'm of course opposed to terror, any rational person is, but I think that if we are serious about the question of terror, if we are serious about the question of violence we have to recognize that it is a tactical and hence moral matter, incidentally tactical issues are basically moral issues they have to do with human consequences, and if we are interested in let's say diminishing the amount of violence in the world. It's at least arguable, and perhaps even sometimes true, that a terroristic act does diminish the amount of violence in the world, hence a person who is opposed to violence will not be opposed to that terroristic act. (qtd in Propagandhi 7:29-8:01)
Morality is also of course a matter of efficacy. History is written by the victors after all.
The social sciences are inexact in nature. In many ways they are hardly deserving of the term science. It is extremely difficult to gage the impact of an event empirically, because there are just too many variables at play in the social sphere to efficiently predict an outcome. In my view to accurately judge the results of an action, it must be viewed not only in its historical context, but also using a framework which weighs the costs and benefits of the action, rather than seeking a blanket, black and white, 'effective' or 'infective' label.
It then follows from this logic that in order to understand what drive someone to violence, one must first understand why they would begin to consider it a viable option in the first place. So why would somebody choose to take such an extreme stance rather choose to work through established legal channels or apply extra-parliamentary pressure in the manner of traditional social movements? From the perspective of the authorities:
First, people with unusual attitudes, behaviors, and views of the world frequently
(and disproportionately) are drawn to counterculture movements and extremist group... It is not difficult to imagine, though, how people who have antisocial attitudes and those who might otherwise be predisposed to interpersonal violence and conflict may find elements of anarchist rhetoric and propaganda to be particularly attractive... These individuals would likely be engaging in criminal or violent behavior, regardless of their circumstances. Affiliating with a movement or ideal, however, gives them a reason and adds some sense of legitimacy. Robert Fein and Bryan Vossekuil refer to these as "murderers in search of a cause." Similarly, the idea of gathering together for the explicit purpose of creating disorder and causing destruction may draw certain kinds of (violence-prone) people to an event, regardless of whether they support its underlying cause. In essence, they are not engaging in violence because they are anarchists; rather, they are drawn to anarchist activities because of the potential to engage in violence. (Borum and Tilby 205-206)
In other words the authorities seem to view terrorist activity as being, at least in part, due to the individual's psychological state, as much as it is motivated by political beliefs. This may contain an element of truth to it, however it seems dishonest at best to attempt to separate a person's state of mind from the socio-political conditions in which they are immersed.
Let's now turn to look at the efficacy of the use of legal channels from an activist perspective. Certainly it must be admitted that today's ruling institutions (government, etc.) monopolize resources and therefore in order to make meaningful, material changes in the status quo it is often necessary to go through them. The issue occurs in the lack of flexibility and responsiveness in our ostensibly democratic government. That is to say it is immensely difficult to get meaningful reforms passed through the federal government. This is no coincidence, in fact one of the framers of the constitution James Madison argued that government, "ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority". (Yates) In other words our cherished American 'democracy' was designed to stifle the popular will. Likewise the courts are similarly intransigent. So much so that Thomas Linzey, of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), stated that after a while all he felt he was accomplishing was helping polluters improve their project's permits. (PIELC Keynote)
What about traditional social movements? Certainly there is no lack of opportunity to engage in grassroots activism and civil disobedience. Over the past half-century environmental activism has exploded across the US and indeed the world. In spite it ability to turn out record numbers of people in the streets, from the first Earth Day in 1970, the probably the largest of all the 60s demonstrations (Sale 24) to the 350 protest which was the largest day of political action in the planets history (McKibben), many eco-activists are left with the feeling that they are still losing. The data seems to indicate that they are correct. For instance, the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that we will easily reach 6 degrees global average temperature rise by the end of the century, with catastrophic results for life on earth and human civilization (Clark). Things have gotten worse over the last fifty years, not better. The biosphere suffers more and the means of extracting natural resources have become more brutal not less. As evidence of this one need only examine the spread of the tar sands and the rise of hydraulic fracturing. These two methods of resource extraction have become very prominent in recent years as the supply of easily accessible, cheap energy dwindles. The tar sands have a very low return on investment and poison the land and communities around them. Likewise fracking renders the groundwater undrinkable and spreads over the landscape like a cancer.
Moreover, there are a few things that make environmentalism unique from past social movements that make the rise of a movement with the political will to achieve its goals unlikely. First of all there is the global nature of the ecological crisis, organizing on a global level is a challenge for many reasons, not the least of which are the language barrier between different peoples and the logistical challenges of working on such an enormous scale. The second major challenge is the lack of time. We are living at a time of unparalleled urgency in human history. We face a threat to the very survival of our species. It would really not be an exaggeration to say that all complex life on the plant is under the knife. Many people who study social movements suggest that the average person will only join in a movement if they are directly impacted by the issue. In the case of environmentalism however, waiting for others to step up to the plate is suicide. The army's counter-insurgency manual note that most people will only become involved in a political movement once that movement has shown that it has a chance of victory. In both of these examples it is clear that the impetus for action lies squarely on the shoulders of concerned individuals. This brings us to the third major distinction which is that, unlike the major social movements of the past, an honest analysis of the situation reveals that it is not in the material interests of the population to participate in this struggle. In the words of one famous environmental author "There isn't going to be a bright, new, beautiful tomorrow." (Jensen) It seems clear that the implications of a thorough analysis of the ramifications of an ecological way of life would result in a much reduced standard of living, particularly in the industrialized nations where the worst offenders reside. Quite simply it is against the rational, self-interest of the majority of the population in the west to attempt any kind of sustainable lifestyle. This is not to say that living a simpler lifestyle that is more sustainable does not carry certain benefits (such as being less expensive, healthier, etc) but these changes still fall far short of what is necessary. If it is true as noted above that the majority of the population will only be won over when victory is in sight. Then it follows that this will never occur for environmentalism, because there is no winning in this crisis. From the climate system spinning wildly out of control, to the drawdown of every single natural resource human society depends on for survival (soil, water, forests, metals, fossil fuels) we are fucked beyond repair. I would love to be wrong about this, and for many years I was in denial about it, even though the facts were staring me right in the face. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is a reality.
Getting the meat of the issue of efficacy, the ability to achieve a desired result, what has been the impact of past eco-terrorist action? Patently, they have not been any more successful than legal means or nonviolent protest in completely ending unsustainable practices. However, that is a rather high standard to put on any mechanism of change and may not be a completely fair way of framing the issue. One rhetorical method that I am aware of that allows for a holistic look at a given project or organization is to list out its strengths and weaknesses. It's kind of a systematic way of weighing out what is going on.
Some strengths of militant action in the past have been the physical stopping of ecologically destructive projects, media attention, the education of the public on environmental issues, and the inspiration of other parts of the population to begin disobeying the status quo by shattering the myth of invulnerability and omnipotence that surround the state and its security forces. A few weaknesses were the lacked of a capacity for sustained, simultaneous action, poor choice of targets, the polarizing effects of militant action, and the repression visited not just on the militants themselves but also on nonviolent activists and other people who had nothing to do with the actions.
A many of the things that resulted from these militant actions had mixed results (both positive and negative), for instance take the tremendous polarizing impact on the community. Some might argue this is negative because it makes it more difficult to achieve some kind of reconciliation between the different factions, others such as in infamous community organizer Saul Alinsky argue that polarization is the heart of political struggle. Another result with mixed impacts was the amount of police repression that came down on the activist community had pretty significant chilling effect even on legal, peaceful activism. For instance the forest defense movement in the northwest more or less withered on the vine and from around the start of operation backfire in 2005 all the way up till the summer of 2009 there were virtually no protests, sit-ins, or other nonviolent activity that had characterized the Pacific Northwest for the
last three decades. The other side of this coin is that overkill on the part of the authorities can also serve to inspire more people to rebellion rather than quelling the unrest. If fact some organizations groups deliberately design their actions such that the reaction of the state ultimately ends up undermining the state itself. I can think of two historical examples of this off the top of my head: First, the Yippie strategy at the Chicago DNC protests in 1968. In an exchange with another activist Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman stated:
Abbie: Essentially what we are going to do is throw a lot of banana peels around Chicago, and make the machine stumble, and when it stumbles it gets into a policy of overkill and starts to devour itself.
Hippie: So the cops are going to turn on themselves?
Abbie: They will be fighting other people in power (Yippie Tactics)
Hoffman's predictions proved to be prophetic. The brutality of the Chicago police served to further drive a wedge between Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson and his base, already wavering in their enthusiasm because of the war in Vietnam. Rather than defeat the state outright, they succeeded in getting the powerful to turn on each other.
The other example of this effect that I can think of is Wikileaks. In one of its founding documents "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" Julian Assange states "An authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces". (5) Between this document and another one ('Conspiracy as Governance') the gist that I got was that the purpose of the leaks of classified material is not just to bring corrupt or unjust practices to light, but also that the security measures that the agencies effected put into place to prevent against future incidents result in calcifying those structures and reducing their ability to communicate effectively, as well as lowering their operational abilities. The basic strategy seems to be not to fight those in power directly, but to get them to fight each other. In other words the overwhelming force the authorities can bring to bear against a popular movement is not necessarily a death knell.
The last thing I want to talk about in this section is the potential for future eco-terrorism actions. While much of the activity of the later 90s/early 2000s was brought to a screeching halt by the arrest of over 20 ELF activists. I think the state will find themselves sorely disappointed if they think they have put any significant damper on the radical environmental movement. Perhaps more what they succeeded in doing was further polarizing the situation by pushing people into either the legalistic camp, or the camp of more extreme action. The latter is perhaps personified in the book 'Deep Green Resistance' in this book the authors call for eco-activists to begin targeting critical infrastructure in a sustained manner. The books also serves as an instruction manual for the recruitment and training of an underground guerrilla army. Words have a way of becoming action and it would not be at all surprising if a few people eventually heeded their call and took action.
Environmentalism is perhaps one if the more quixotic movements out there. Given that the last time we had a similar release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere the result was the Permian Extinction, at the end of which the earth had lost 95% of it biodiversity. It seem quite likely that it is all out of our hands. Even a revolution cannot change the laws of physics. Legendary climate scientist James Lovelock notes:
"You can't use a flashlight to see your way in the dark and expect also to have the batteries last forever. It is the running down of the universe that made the Earth possible, and the sun, and it is the running down of the sun that has made life and us possible. It has to end sometime." (Gaia: A way of knowing)
Some people such as psychologist James Levine argue that we should not be swayed by the overwhelming empirical evidence that we probably aren't going to make it:
"If you want to sort of work out objectively what's the chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably not very high. But I mean, what's the point? . . . First of all, those predictions don't mean anything -- they're more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that assumption, then you're guaranteeing that'll happen. If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism."
While I am not unsympathetic to this perspective, and it is certainly true that to some degree perception shapes reality (and vice versa). It seems to me to be madness to ignore the facts and continue on as if nothing has changed. The human psyche may rebel at the thought of its own end, (Scranton), but this does nothing to change the reality on the ground. Rather than going berserk in a futile campaign of violence we would do well to heed the words of James Lovelock:
"Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan." (Aitkenhead)
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