My friend Jennifer Thomson wrote this piece for Policy Innovations on the history of radical environmentalism. She imagines a moment in the future when it will dawn on mainstream organizations that stronger tactics will be needed to protect the Earth.
December 31, 2020
Dear Colleagues, Supporters, and Friends,
I hereby resign as president of the Reputable Mainstream Environmental Lobbying Organization. The global political will necessary to thwart catastrophic climate change has not materialized. I hold myself partially responsible.
When I assumed the helm at RMELO in July 2009 the prospects for tackling climate change through consensus-based policy seemed bright. The U.S. House of Representatives had just passed the Waxman-Markey Bill, a comprehensive attempt to tackle many facets of the climate problem. Although the Senate went on to significantly weaken the bill, it was nonetheless an auspicious precedent leading into the Copenhagen negotiations. I was proud to head an organization centrally involved in charting a successful policy course.
I kept a positive outlook even when Copenhagen failed to produce an international solution. Few could have predicted how severely the global North would retreat from the global framework toward national regulation, unwilling to stunt their own economic growth in order to offset the emissions of developing countries. Later the colliding impacts of peak oil, ecosystem collapse, and crop failure put Washington under intensified pressure from the food, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In response, my country loosened its standards for fuel efficiency, industrial emissions, wildlife protection, and waste disposal under the Palin administration.
Despite our savviest lobbying efforts, including the successful 2015 consumer boycott of Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, our message of conservation and sustainability could push only so far. Our task was to muster the political capital necessary to generate the changes demanded by the evidence of the scientific community. This policy gamble has failed.
With deep ecological regrets,
After abandoning the mainstream environmental policy agenda, what options would remain for X in her pursuit of environmental justice and protection? Today we can discern an upward trend in radical, non-discursive, and often illegal interventions against the activities of polluting industries and the inertia of governments and citizens. From the anti-whaling campaigns of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to the tree-sitting of Earth First!, from Greenpeace unfurling a global warming banner on Mt. Rushmore to James Hansen getting arrested for protesting mountaintop removal mining: The momentum of direct action in defense of the Earth is mounting.
For those such as X, desperate in the face of glacial policy change, direct action embodies a clear ethical imperative: to defend our Earth and its inhabitants. This article explores the emergence and transformation of direct action in the United States, and calls for a reevaluation of the current legal and ethical interpretations.
The Emergence of Radical Environmentalism
The first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) heralded the emergence of popular environmentalism in the United States. On that day, 20 million Americans participated in rallies across the country, protesting oil spills, air and water pollution, the loss of wilderness to construction and logging, the extinction of wildlife, urban sprawl and unchecked consumerism.
The environmentalism of that period differed from the centuries-long tradition of American conservationism in two respects: in its concern for the destruction of the Earth as a whole, and in its solicitation of widespread public support. Growing dissatisfaction with the legalistic, compromise-based tactics of mainstream natural-protection organizations laid the groundwork for an environmentalism of defense. Conceiving of the Earth as a "closed system," this new movement voiced concerns about population growth and pollution, and explicitly targeted corporate and government offenders.
Direct action was the most radical child of Earth Day 1970. Environmental Action, a key organizer, published Ecotage! one year later. Defining ecotage as "tactics which can be executed without injury to life systems," the guide offered a cornucopia of practical direct actions, from cutting billboards to "liberating" the earth from pavement to crashing corporate social events.
The ramifications of Earth Day for American environmentalism were far from coherent. On the one hand, its rhetoric revealed a commitment to the revolutionary politics of 1968, affirmed even by a mainstream organization such as the Sierra Club:
A revolution is truly needed—in our values, outlook and economic organization… the crisis of our environment stems from a legacy of economic and technical premises which have been pursued in the absence of ecological knowledge. That other revolution, the industrial one that is turning sour, needs to be replaced by a revolution of new attitudes toward growth, goods, space, and living things.
Yet disagreement abounded as to the extent and means of such revolution. Should industrial capitalism be dismantled? Was exploitation of labor separate from destruction of the environment? Was a complete alteration in human values and attitudes toward nature necessary? By the end of the 1970s, as environmental activists of all stripes abandoned revolutionary rhetoric in favor of either social ecology or anti-humanism, it was clear that American environmentalism was a movement fractured along ideological and tactical lines.
Thereafter most environmental activists pursued either a reformist agenda or direct action interventions. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Audubon Society negotiated with legislators and corporations, while Greenpeace and others pursued whaling ships, tampered with billboards, and sabotaged construction sites. Mainstream environmentalists focused on the interdependence of living systems, banning toxic chemicals, caps on industrial pollution, and preservation of wilderness from development. Radical environmentalists sought the defense of nature for its own sake, advocating an immediate and drastic decrease in human population, the cessation of human interference in the natural world, and the immediate transition to a zero-growth economy.
Radical environmentalists initially embraced this split from mainstream organizations. Howie Wolke, a founding member of Earth First! (EF!), stated that the group was intended as the "sacrificial lamb of the environmental movement." EF! would "make the Sierra Club look moderate by taking positions that most people would consider ridiculous." These ridiculous positions would help to radicalize the public environmental consciousness.
In its 1981 manifesto, EF! described its prima facie commitment to wilderness:
In a true Earth-radical group, concern for wilderness preservation must be the keystone. The idea of wilderness, after all, is the most radical in human thought—more radical than Paine, than Marx, than Mao. Wilderness says: Human beings are not dominant, Earth is not for Homo sapiens alone, human life is but one life form on the planet and has no right to take exclusive possession. Yes, wilderness for its own sake, without any need to justify it for human benefit. Wilderness for wilderness. For grizzlies and whales and rattlesnakes and stink bugs. And… wilderness for human beings.
By asserting the value of the wild for its own sake, EF! contextualized human life within the planetary ecosphere. Human social and political life would center on wilderness preservation and restoration in their conception. This singular elevation of nature stood in stark contrast to the issues of labor exploitation and environmental justice that were central to the agendas of more mainstream groups.
EF!'s primary target was the U.S. Forest Service, which was directly responsible for the sale to timber companies of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. EF! published its repertoire of direct actions in Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching (1985). Like the ecotage of Environmental Action, monkeywrenching is nonviolent direct action. Intended to disrupt the alliance between government and industry, it includes spiking trees, tree-sits, uprooting survey stakes, disabling heavy equipment, defacing or felling billboards, liberating animals from laboratories and federal facilities, placing smoke bombs in corporate boardrooms, destroying construction sites, and jamming locks.
Monkeywrenching is neither organized nor revolutionary. However, it is always deliberate, ethical, and concerned with maintaining public support. As Ecodefense explains:
… [monkey-wrenching] does not aim to overthrow any social political or economic system. It is merely non-violent self defense of the wild. It is aimed at keeping industrial "civilization" out of natural areas and causing its retreat from areas that should be wild. It is not major industrial sabotage. Explosives, firearms, and other dangerous tools are usually avoided. They invite greater scrutiny from law enforcement agencies, repression, and loss of public support. Even Republicans monkey-wrench.
Countless monkeywrenching interventions throughout the 1980s and 1990s did not harm a single human. Forest Service estimates placed yearly damages between $20 million and $25 million, and the Association of Oregon Loggers estimated that an average ecotage incident cost the industry $60,000 to $100,000. Monkeywrenching succeeded in adding a significant externality to the extraction of natural resources. Yet for a select minority of the radical environmental movement, monkeywrenching did not go far enough in defense of the Earth.
"The Elves are Watching"
Welcome to the struggle of all species to be free. We are the burning rage of this dying planet… ELF works to speed up the collapse of industry, to scare the rich, and to undermine the foundations of the state. Together we have teeth and claws to match our dreams. Our greatest weapons are imagination and the ability to strike when least expected…
The 1997 "Beltane Communiqué" was the first public statement by the Earth Liberation Front. ELF has claimed responsibility in the subsequent 12 years for well over 100 acts of arson, destruction of heavy machinery and construction sites, tree spiking, and animal liberation, concentrated initially in the Pacific Northwest and then spread throughout the Midwest and the eastern United States.
The direct action of ELF is based on the principle of inflicting maximum economic damage upon those who profit from destruction and exploitation of the natural environment. ELF takes absolute precaution against harming any animal—human or nonhuman.
Increasingly, the ELF incorporated arson into its actions—a tactic that had been explicitly proscribed by EF! due to its tendency to "invite attention." Among its most damaging actions, ELF claimed responsibility for destroying two U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control Buildings in Olympia, Washington (1997); burning down five buildings and four ski lifts at the Vail ski resort in Colorado (1998); burning down the main office of the Boise Cascade logging company in Monmouth, Oregon, and the office of genetic modification researcher Catherine Ives at Michigan State University (1999); and destroying 10 separate housing development projects on Long Island (2000–2001). Estimates of the damages to private corporations and the federal government exceed $100 million. Yet despite the scale of property damage, no human has ever been injured by ELF actions.
The ecotage and monkeywrenching of Environmental Action and EF! assert that a revolution in human consciousness can be achieved through disabling the technological and epistemological implements of environmental destruction. By introducing arson into the repertoire of direct action, the ELF has significantly increased the risk attached to logging, mining, and development enterprises. Unlike its direct action predecessors, it is major industrial sabotage.
Time to Reconsider
The time has come to reassess the nature and goals of "eco-terrorism." The actions that have been labeled "eco-terrorism" lack a constitutive aspect of terrorism: violence. Direct action is deliberate in its targeting of machinery and buildings; it does not seek to harm organic life or to sow confusion and chaos. Just how different are the goals of direct action from those of the mainstream environmental consensus? If their common goal truly is the cessation of greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of sustainable food systems, and the ecological re-institution of society, then it is time to reevaluate the usefulness of direct action to this agenda.
Mainstream environmentalism rests upon the gamble that the reformist legislative agenda will work. If this gamble fails, its consciousness-raising will only have been in service of the latest transformation in the self-reproduction of capitalism. The risk facing reformist environmentalism is that it will become the preeminent lobbyist for greenwashing the economy. Indeed, as can be seen in the recent proliferation of energy commercials, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil are quite diligent in painting a thin coat of green over business as usual.
By contrast, direct action represents a position of no compromise. Its principal strength rests in the inability of corporate consumer capitalism to co-opt it. Direct action is considered criminal: After all, it deliberately destroys property and seeks to halt the growth of exploitative industries. Yet given how the United States enshrines the right to private property, often regardless of the damage it wreaks on communities and ecosystems, is it reasonable to expect a policy-based moratorium on the industries responsible for exploiting the Earth? Indeed, the current discussion around the climate bill in the Senate—specifically, the consideration being given to subsidies for coal and nuclear plants—suggests the susceptibility of the legislative process to those very industries we most need to regulate.
The recent history of American environmentalism suggests that the split between "technocratic" and "terrorist" solutions is a misleading stereotype. Mainstream organizations once spoke of revolutionizing our relationship to the Earth. Direct action is rooted in this same ethic of care for all living creatures, now and into the future. Now is the time to embrace the dialectical connection between mainstream efforts and direct action. Both contribute via different means to the same end: making coal-fired power, mountaintop removal, and old-growth deforestation unprofitable in the present and unthinkable in the future.
Jennifer Thomson is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Harvard University.
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This article carries a Creative Commons copyright. Photo: Julia Butterfly Hill tree-sitting in 2006, by Mark Dixon (CC).