In recent years a set of related movements, sometimes referred to as “radical environmentalism,” has appeared on the global stage. Despite precursors in history, what is new about these movements is the confrontational nature of the tactics they often employ, including blockades, tree spiking, forest occupations, and property destruction. Sometimes referred to as “eco-warriors,” or more pejoratively by authorities as “ecoterrorists,” the individuals in these movements directly confront the social problem of environmental degradation, yet also at times generate new social problems through their choice of tactics and strategies.
Some observers suggest the radical environmental movement found its initial inspiration in Edward Abbey’s writings, which popularized the term monkeywrenching. Despite the linguistic logic to this, more philosophical discourses such as “deep ecology” have had an equally profound impact on modern eco-warriors. Indeed, the radical environmental movement appears to be a product of equal parts wide-ranging ecological thought and explicit calls to action. Combining theory and practice, eco-warriors call attention to serious issues such as pollution, species extinction, nuclear waste, and deforestation through the use of dramatic actions aimed at simultaneously educating the public and preventing further environmental harm.
Rik Scarce characterizes an eco-warrior as someone who generally believes in “direct action” instead of incremental or legislative change, strongly embraces the values of biological diversity, disdains bureaucratic hierarchy in favor of self-organization, works tirelessly to save the environment despite long odds and great personal risk, and maintains an ecological consciousness that often includes a spiritual component. Eco-warriors also generally adhere to a philosophy of nonviolence toward all living entities; nonetheless, highly confrontational tactics are part of the movement’s identity. Eco-warriors have, for instance, vandalized animal testing laboratories, chained themselves together to block logging roads, damaged bulldozers and other machinery, picketed outside the homes of animal researchers, and disrupted power lines to mining operations. Still, experts generally agree that these environmentalists have not caused serious physical harm to any humans during their campaigns, except perhaps to themselves on rare occasions.
Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the radical environmental entity Earth First!, asserts that monkeywrenching—the direct resistance to the destruction of the earth and its life forms—is nonviolent, in that it never aims to harm any living being, with care taken to minimize any possible physical threat to people. He further argues that monkeywrenching itself is diverse, as anyone can do it and a wide range of movements on both the left and the right actively use it. Movement activists themselves also accept direct action strategies such as monkeywrenching as part of a “diversity of tactics” to employ, depending upon the situation, and that sometimes radical actions can help more mainstream activists accomplish their stated aims and goals. However, this remains a controversial point in environmental circles and in movement literature.
In addition to Earth First!, eco-warriors also include groups such as Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherds, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Redwood Alliance, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, and Friends of the Earth. While at times employing strategies like boycotts and blockades, these entities also utilize less-controversial tactics, such as media campaigns, legislative lobbying, and mobilizing around environmental issues ranging from animal exploitation to ocean health to nuclear power. Whereas some view these groups as radical extremists, others see them as an institutionalization of environmental concerns and a more viable alternative to movement radicalism.
In the 1990s, more directly confrontational animal rights and environmental movement groups appeared, sometimes under the rubrics of the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. These entities claimed credit for numerous acts of strategic property destruction, including the sabotage of development projects that threatened endangered species, the destruction of laboratories experimenting with genetically modified organisms, and arsons at dealerships that sold sport-utility vehicles. These activists appear to take more literally the notion that protecting the environment is a matter of war and that nature needs dedicated defenders if it is to survive. These sentiments, sometimes accepted as doctrinal in the radical environmental movement, justify the construction of eco-warriors as a specific class of activists and partly explain the increasing frequency of acts of ecological sabotage (also known as “ecotage”).
These more confrontational tactics have brought an increased interest on the part of law enforcement. Numerous legislative acts and federal interdiction efforts focus on eradicating “ecoterrorists,” resulting in the dramatic increase in criminal penalties for acts of ecotage against commercial enterprises. Also, anti-terrorist laws passed after 9/11 have, at times, been used against radical environmentalists. This led some activists to speak of a “Green Scare,” drawing an analogy to the anti-Communist Red Scare of the 1950s in the United States. Despite the many arrests made, authorities acknowledge the difficulty of curtailing these activities entirely, as there are no formal group structures involved and it is difficult to intervene in actions of autonomous individuals. This view is consistent with the characterization of an eco-warrior as someone who disdains organizational hierarchy in favor of self-defined actions, yet it can also leave practitioners open to allegations of terrorism in its apparent randomness. Nonetheless, eco-warriors generally hold to their stated principle of avoiding physical harm to human life, which for some has made the invocation of the terrorist label problematic.
Eco-warriors are thus a diverse and complicated part of the modern environmental movement. Whereas many admire their motivations and goals, others criticize their tactics as dangerous and divisive. As befits such contradictions, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of eco-warriors in promoting the values of ecology and sustainability. And as with many social problems, this one evidences a great deal of ambiguity and consternation, bringing to mind the aphorism that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.
- Abbey, Edward. 1975. The Monkey Wrench Gang. New York: Avon Books.
- Amster, Randall. 2006. “Perspectives on Ecoterrorism: Catalysts, Conflations, and Casualties.” Contemporary Justice Review 9(3):287-301.
- Devall, Bill and George Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith.
- Foreman, Dave and Bill Haywood, eds. 1993. Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. Chico, CA: Abbzug.
- Scarce, Rik. 1990. Eco-warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement. Chicago: Noble.
- Shevory, Thomas C. 1996. “Monkeywrenching: Practice in Search of a Theory.” Pp. 183-204 in Environmental Crime and Criminality: Theoretical and Practical Issues, edited by S. M. Edwards, T. D. Edwards, and C. B. Fields. New York: Garland.
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